Cardio vs. Strength Training for Fat Loss

by Aaron Hornstra, CSCS

It’s a common belief that if you want to lose fat, you need to do extensive cardio

sessions, and if you want to build muscle mass you should lift heavy weights. It’s not that simple.  Let’s take time to discuss a few key components that should be considered when starting a fat loss program.

Fact: The majority of calories you burn in a day are not through activity, but instead through your resting metabolic rate (RMR).  Let that sink in for a moment.  For those of you who may not know, resting metabolic rate is the total amount or calories your body burns in a 24 hour period at rest.  For women, the average RMR in the U.S. is 1493 calories and for men is 1662 calories.  There are a number of varying factors including age, weight, and height. Most importantly, that number is highly dependent on the amount of lean muscle your body carries. That leads us to the question, “When trying to lose body fat, is it better to focus on strength training or cardio”?

Most people envision starting a weight loss program by spending hours pounding the pavement or daily bouts on the treadmill. Cardio training has many benefits including strengthening your heart and lungs, reducing stress levels, and general weight loss.  However, if your goal is dropping a few extra pounds of body fat, I would argue that prioritizing strength training is more important and here is why.


The primary goal of weight training is to build lean muscle which in turn works to preserve and increase your RMR, or the number of calories you burn at rest. Post- resistance training, the body uses energy to repair the damaged muscle tissue. For approximately every 3lbs of lean muscle gained the body burns an additional 120 calories per day.  Whereas during a cardio session, the caloric deficit is primarily limited to the number of calories burned during that specific workout. So per minute of training, cardio is the clear winner for calorie deficit.  However, aerobic training doesn’t do much in terms of muscle gain.  In fact, extensive bouts of cardio can actually lead to muscle LOSS.

Research supports this idea and has shown exactly why strength training is superior and should be a top priority for fat loss plans.   West Virginia University conducted a 12 week study using obese female subjects to compare resistance vs aerobic training on lean body mass and RMR.   The subjects were on a very restrictive 800 calorie liquid diet.  The results were impressive to say the least!  The resistance trained group had no significant loss in lean muscle (thus RMR), while the cardio group lost a surprising 2kg of lean muscle which is equal to almost 10lbs!  Losing that much muscle led to the aerobic group to experience a 13.4 percent drop in RMR, while the resistance trained group actually INCREASED their RMR by 4 percent. Even more astounding is the resistance-trained group lost significantly more body fat (4.4lbs)!


In a perfect world the goal would be a combination of strength training, high intensity interval training (HIIT), AND slower steady-state training on different days to create an ideal fat burning environment.  However, for most of us that is a pipe dream due to time constraints and schedules.  My recommendation would be to prioritize your training for max efficiency by starting with strength training then HIIT, and adding steady-state if possible.

If you need help coming up with the best plan specifically tailored for you, consider contacting the team at Core Results.  We will work together towards your unique goals and come up with the best strategy to maximize your training.

Categories: Cardio Endurance Training Strength Training Weight Loss