Resistance Training vs. Cardio

Fitness trends seem to come and go with the wind. One day the “experts” are saying cardio or aerobic training is the singular path to fitness, next it is high intensity interval training. The water becomes increasingly muddied as brands attempt to capitalize on whatever the latest fitness craze is. You are seeing this currently with the ever-expanding selection of interval-style group training classes popping up in a town near you. This is just the way that the fitness industry works. People often become tired and overwhelmed with the seemingly never ending search for the secret new workout, supplement, or piece of equipment that holds the key to all of their fitness dreams. (Un)fortunately, the surest path to sustained fitness success (be it losing weight, building muscle, or both) lies with the consistent and appropriate application of resistance training. Resistance training, also referred to as simply “lifting weights”, isn’t the only thing that will take you from point A to point B along your fitness journey, but it will absolutely move you in that direction more so than any other training modality. This is because resistance training is able to be individualized so incredibly well – everyone can begin making progress, here and now. More and more research is emerging with regards to just how beneficial lifting weights can be. There truly are profound health benefits to be gained from lifting weights that go so much further than just building muscle and getting stronger – as you will find out very soon. No single blog or article will likely convince anyone to change their training or exercise habits, but today we hope to simply introduce you to the potential benefits that can result from lifting weights appropriately, what the benefits of aerobic/cardio style exercise are, as well as what some of the shortcomings of both of those styles of training are.

Resistance Training: Well-Known Secret

If you have been paying attention to the scientific research revolving around boosting lifespan and living healthier all along the way, you have no doubt heard of the emerging evidence solidifying what many already knew – lifting weights is amazing for human health. The process of building lean body mass through weight training requires a lot more effort, resources, and focus than simply striding along on the treadmill. This increased investment into the training process that is demanded from weight training is well worth the time and energy it costs. In fact, weight training is likely to become a go-to for the treatment and prevention of conditions like depression, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, osteoporosis, insomnia, diabetes, and so much more. The beneficial effects that appropriately applied resistance training can have on the human body cannot be overemphasized. Admittedly, there are some potential downfalls to resistance training that often revolve around the misapplication of this amazing training modality, which we will cover more in depth later on. Next, it is time to give cardio training its due. 

Cardio, the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Aerobic exercise, or what is more commonly referred to in the fitness space as “cardio”, is an incredibly popular, and reasonably effective form of exercise. In fact, this is almost always the default form of exercise that people just starting out on their fitness journey begin with. This is likely because it doesn’t take much practice or skill whatsoever to get a “killer” workout by simply going for a jog or hopping on one of the million ellipticals planted in front of a TV at your local big box gym. Another alluring aspect of cardio is that you burn significantly more calories per exercise session than you do during most other forms of training – including lifting weights. This can lead to quicker results, provided your primary goal is to burn calories and lose weight. Unfortunately, this weight loss resulting from cardio is fleeting and your progress will likely stall extremely quickly – our body’s are incredibly good at adapting to whatever training stimulus you place upon it and before long, you will be burning substantially fewer calories during each workout. Another major downfall of cardio style exercise is that it is simply far less scalable and personalizable than lifting weights can be. Unlike weight training where you have an essentially unlimited number of cards in your hand to play to achieve and sustain progress, in order to continue seeing results from cardio you only have a few: do longer cardio, do cardio more often, or do more difficult cardio. At some point, this well will likely run dry- whether it is due to time constraints, injuries, lack of energy, or all of the above. Running like a hamster on a wheel may allow you to burn a decent amount of calories and improve your cardiovascular fitness, but are those your only goals for exercise? Perhaps we must consider the long-term benefits and effects of exercise more closely when deciding upon a style of exercise to adhere to. 

Benefits of Resistance Training

As we have already mentioned, the benefits of lifting weights go so much further than just building muscle and getting stronger. More specifically, lifting weights has been shown to improve sleep, increase libido, modulate hormones, improve posture, decrease risk of developing osteoporosis and degenerative joint diseases, and increase functional capacity. Lifting weights has also been shown to help prevent or control diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, back pain, depression, and obesity. These effects are likely the result of an increased ratio of lean body mass to fat mass – creating a more resilient organism overall, as well as due to the ability that lifting weights has to increase levels of non-exercise activity throughout the day. It seems that the stronger or more capable and individual is, the more they will move throughout the day. This effect that lifting weights has on daily activity is especially important to note because non-exercise physical activity (NEPA) is such a major contributing factor to sustainable weight loss success. One final nail in the coffin of using cardio for weight loss specifically comes courtesy of an 18 month study completed by Wake Forest University and published in the journal Obesity. This study illuminated just how important resistance training is to a successful and sustainable weight loss process by comparing the effects of performing either weight training and dieting (for weight loss), just dieting, or dieting and walking (cardio). Each of the groups ate in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight and the results were extremely clear: lifting weights preserves muscle mass while dieting. Individuals assigned to the walking group sacrificed 20% of their total weight loss from lean body mass. The group that performed resistance training lost a similar amount of total weight, while only sacrificing 10% of their total from lean body mass. This effect is especially important for older individuals who are at quite a disadvantage for building and preserving muscle

Improving the ability to lose weight and keep it off is far from the only health-boosting aspect of weight training however. Way back in 2007, the journal Diabetes Care published a study showing that resistance training improved muscle strength, quality of life, and the ability to perform daily tasks in individuals that had some degree of metabolic risk factors. This report mirrors an article from Harvard Health claiming that strength training is critical for preserving the ability to perform daily tasks as you age. These are just a few examples of scientific research corroborating what many people have known for quite some time: lifting weights makes you a more resilient human being overall. 

Bottom Line

Overall, exercise of any kind is better than none at all. However, appropriately applied weight training and a consistent amount of daily activity (which may include cardio if you so choose) is going to be your best bet for sustained health and fitness success for years to come. Don’t get caught up in the latest fitness fads and flashy classes that will disappear as quickly as they came, and avoid doing too much, too quickly. If you are entirely new to lifting, start with the least amount of work possible and progress from there. Finding an experienced and knowledgeable trainer can be an invaluable tool for you to ensure you are on the right path for you as an individual. At Ikon Fitness, we take pride in being able to work with an extremely diverse array of clients to help them achieve success. This is because we fully understand just how individual your needs and limitations are, as well as how to apply weight training and physical activity appropriately. Lifting weights can be a saving-grace for those who have faced setback after setback along their fitness journey, and all the potential benefits are there waiting for you to find them.

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