- Incorporating both cardio and weight lifting into your workouts makes for a well-rounded, healthy exercise regimen.
- Cardio improves heart health and burns more calories than weight lifting alone.
- Lifting weights boosts your metabolism, builds muscle, and reduces your risk of injury.
Cardio and weight training are both incredibly popular and useful tools in a broad array of athletic training. It can be difficult, especially for those just starting out, to decide which may be most useful for them.
While the best training regimens tend to include forms of both, knowing the varying benefits and general recommendations for each can give people a great starting point for their fitness journey.
Benefits of cardio
Cardio exercises primarily work the cardiovascular system, which is made up of our heart and blood vessels. There are multiple forms of cardio, each with its own unique benefits – from steady-state like running or biking, to high-intensity bursts like sprints or plyometrics.
Regardless of which form you choose, cardio provides a host of health benefits:
1. Cardio improves heart health and endurance
Cardio exercises are meant to get your heart rate up, which trains your body to use oxygen more efficiently. Regular cardio workouts can:
- Improve blood flow
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower resting heart rate
- Strengthen heart and blood vessels
Over time, this can reduce your risk of diabetes and mortality from a wide array of cardiovascular conditions, including:
- Heart attacks
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart disease
“If I could put all the beneficial effects of cardio into a pill, it would be the most highly prescribed drug in the world,” says Tim Werner, a professor of exercise science at Salisbury University.
Cardio is relatively low-risk, even for people with heart disease. However, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends people with cardiovascular conditions tailor the intensity of their workouts to their fitness level, and it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.
2. Cardio burns more calories than weight training
Here’s how many calories a 185-pound person would burn doing common forms of cardio for an hour:
- Running: between 600 to 1,100 calories
- Cycling: between 650 to 1000 calories
- Swimming: between 500-840 calories
If you’re crunched for time, you may opt for high-intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT. HIIT alternates between short bursts of high-intensity activity – like sprinting – with equally short breaks.
3. Cardio is budget-friendly
Most aerobic exercise only requires a pair of running shoes and free time. Almost anyone can walk or run without a gym membership or fancy equipment.
Not everyone may enjoy the intensity of HIIT, or the time commitment of steady-state cardio, but there is a form of aerobic training for everyone. Ultimately, any form of cardio requires little equipment and boasts numerous health benefits.
That’s why the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends people get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio a week, or 75 minutes for those working out at a higher intensity. Whether one should sprint quarter miles or jog through the forest preserve comes down to which they enjoy more – and are more likely to stick with.
Benefits of lifting weights
Weight training offers health benefits just as important as cardio. However, weight training uses external weights, such as barbells or resistance bands, to target specific muscle groups with a particular form and range of motion to enhance muscle size and strength.
There are, broadly, two types of weight training:
- High-intensity training emphasizes low rep sets (about two to six reps) with long three to five-minute rest periods.
- High volume training typically calls for eight to 12 rep sets, and one to three minute rest periods.
Both types of strength training offer the following health benefits:
1. Lifting weights can increase your metabolism
Weight training may not burn as many calories as cardio, but it can increase participants’ metabolism for three days after training, sometimes burning up to 50% more calories per pound of muscle.
According to Werner, high volume weight training may be more efficient at increasing metabolism.
2. Lifting weights helps build muscle
Weight training is extremely effective for increasing muscle mass. It can also prevent muscle loss associated with age, dieting, and cardio-centric workout routines, says Werner. The ACSM generally recommends high volume sets, with moderate or slow repetitions, and short rests, for muscle growth.
Under optimal conditions, people can expect to add one to two pounds of muscle per month. New lifters occasionally see faster growth, while sleep deprivation and calorie-restrictive diets can detract from growth.
3. Lifting weights can increase strength
Weight training can be extremely effective for improving strength, though high intensity, low-volume training tends to be more effective, especially in fit participants.
This improves strength by training a person’s nervous system to efficiently and effectively move heavier loads – unlike high-volume training, which just maximizes the time during which muscles move a load to stimulate muscle growth.
4. Lifting weights may help you avoid future injuries
Wescott says weight training can help you avoid injuries, especially for athletes. Weaknesses in areas such as the rotator cuff, lower back, hip abductors, and the posterior chain – a whole suite of muscles including the hamstrings, glutes, hips, and spinal erector muscles, that aid in pulling movements and mobility – can contribute to injuries and pain. Weight training can strengthen such supporting muscles, shoring up weak links before problems occur.
How often one should lift weights depends on the intensity and duration of their workouts, and how long they need to recover, but the ACSM recommends that people do strength training two to three times a week.
The best workout routine combines both cardio and weights
Most people will benefit more from cross-training with weights and cardio. Regardless of which one you prioritize, cross-training can reduce muscle loss associated with solely steady-state cardio, and can enable many people to see greater fat loss.
Cross-training has also been shown to lower risk factors for cardiovascular diseases more than weight or cardio training alone – and can reduce chances of injury.
Overall, the ACSM recommends people program their weight training primarily around compound movements like pull-ups or squats, which involve multiple joints and several muscle groups, instead of isolation movements such as bicep curls and leg extensions. It also advises hitting every major muscle group.
For those focused on improving strength or size, it may be best to do cardio and lifting on separate days, or at least after lifting. Performing HIIT or cardio on the same day as weight training, especially doing them before, has been shown to compromise strength and mass gains.
Werner recommends that people looking to get into weight training or cross-training consult educational strength and conditioning books, such as those published by the ACSM.
But the most important thing, says Werner, is for people to know why they’re training, and to have concrete, non-aesthetic goals. Coming up with performance-oriented goals, such as running a certain speed or lifting a certain amount of weight, can enable people to tailor their workouts towards achieving a specific objective, see more progress more easily, and feel more motivated on an off day than they can by just resolving to “look better.”