The fitness pendulum regularly swings from cardio being more important than strength training to strength training being more important than cardio. Recently, however, a consensus has emerged: Both types of exercise are necessary for optimal health. Strength training and cardio are the Yin and Yang of human fitness.
People usually decide whether to do more strength training or more cardio based on their goals. If they want to lose weight, they do cardio; if they want to build muscle, they do strength training. While this is a reasonable approach, it’s a bit oversimplified.
Conversely, those who do cardio often avoid weight lifting because they fear it will make them look too “bulky,” while those trying to put on size often skip the cardio in fear of losing muscle. Both of these are common fitness myths.
Myth 1: Lifting weights will make you ‘too bulky’
Many of those who do cardio often avoid weight lifting because they fear it will make them look too “bulky.” This is not necessarily the case, however.
The thing to understand is that muscle growth is a gradual process. Trust that your biceps are not suddenly going to rip through your shirt after just a few curls. What weightlifting and strength training will do, though, is work to improve your overall endurance, mobility, strength, and metabolism.
Contrary to popular belief, strength training is actually one of the most effective ways to lose weight. Why? Because muscle burns more calories than fat when a person is at rest. A muscular person, in other words, burns more calories at rest than the average body type.
Aside from burning extra calories, strength training is also beneficial for the following reasons:
- It reduces superficial and visceral fat around your abdominal. A study by Harvard University found that men who did 20-minutes of weightlifting actually burned more long-term fat than those who did the same amount of cardio.
- It’s good for your heart. Everyone knows that running, swimming, and other aerobic exercises are good for your heart, but it turns out that strength training is as well. Strength training is especially effective at reducing (bad) LDL-cholesterol.
- It aids in injury reduction. This one is obvious, but strong muscles make you far less likely to injure yourself.
- It contributes to longer life expectancy. Weight and strength training, it turns out, may also help you live longer.
Myth 2: Cardio will make you ‘too lean’
Just as runners may be afraid of getting “bulky,” weightlifters sometimes avoid doing cardio because they fear losing muscle. This perception, too, is misguided.
While it’s true that in some extreme cases, doing incredible amounts of cardio can lead to muscle loss, it’s almost never the case. The first thing your body burns (that is, uses for fuel) is the food you eat. Next comes fat and only then will your body resort to burning muscle. So, unless you have zero percent body fat and are working out on an empty stomach—losing muscle by doing cardio is not something you need to worry about.
Cardio beats out strength training in the following areas:
- Boosting your metabolism: Running, specifically, stimulates the production of the hormone FGF21, which increases metabolic rate.
- Improving your brain function: Cardio exercises like running and swimming have been shown to improve mental function and overall sense of well-being.
- Improving sleep: Cardio helps you get to sleep longer, enter REM quicker, and wake feeling more rested.
Balancing Strength Training with Cardio
There are three basic ways to balance strength training with cardio: You can do a switch-off routine, a same day/independent routine, or a same day/same time routine.
This routine takes into account a 5-day workout schedule, with the focus alternating between cardio and strength every other day.
- Sunday: Start off with a simple jog. Go as far as you can comfortably go. In the beginning, this may only be a mile or maybe even less. As time goes on and your abilities improve, you should try and work up to doing at least 3-5 miles every Sunday.
- Monday: Take a rest day.
- Tuesday: Do a full-body weightlifting routine. This should include one to three chest exercises (4-sets), one to three back exercises (4-sets), one to three shoulder exercises (4-sets), two to four leg exercises (4-sets), one to two bicep exercises (4-sets), and one to two triceps exercises (4-sets).
- Wednesday: Either jog again or do some other kind of cardio exercise like swimming, stairs, or using the elliptical. Regardless of which cardio exercise you choose, it should be for no less than 20-minutes.
- Thursday: Repeat the same (or a similar) full-body weightlifting routine you did on Tuesday.
- Friday: Do a final day of cardio. Again, this can be either jogging, swimming, using the elliptical machine, running on the treadmill, going to a spin class, or whatever else gets your heart rate up and your body sweating for at least 20 minutes.
Same Day/Independent Routine
This involves combining your cardio and strength routine on the same day, one after the other. It’s wise to begin with weight training first to warm your muscles up, as beginning with cardio can fatigue your muscles too quickly before you’ve even started lifting.
Same Day/Same Time Routine
The same day/same time routine is best embodied in high-intensity boot camp classes like CrossFit and Orange Theory. These kinds of workout classes aptly combine cardio and strength with short, alternating bursts of each in one workout.
About the author: Ellie Batchiyska is a health and wellness writer for Stethoscope.com, where she covers heart-healthy fitness tips, dietary recommendations, and overall lifestyle choices.