A common question I get asked by my clients is whether they should prioritize lifting weights or doing more cardio. The “CHOOSE ONE” answer is lifting. The real answer is both. Ultimately there are pro’s and con’s to each.
You can’t build a good aerobic capacity without some cardio thrown in. You will definitely want a good aerobic capacity if you are seeking not just health and fitness, but longevity with your life. Cardio is going to be great for increasing lung capacity, strengthening the heart, and helping blood flow. Between lifting weights and doing some form of cardio, cardio will also burn more calories within the same allotted time. This is great if your short term goal is to lose some body fat.
You also don’t need much or any equipment for cardio and there's tons of variety. You can do anything from running on a treadmill, going on a rower, to playing basketball with friends or any other sport you enjoy. It’s why I figure many of my clients gravitate towards cardio vs weight training - they can implement it immediately and anywhere. There is no skill set involved in just going for a jog, or intimidation being in a metal clanging room with a bunch of testosterone.
You also have different forms of cardio. HIIT cardio is great when you are short on time or want to burn a ton of calories in a shorter time frame. Steady state cardio is great if you want an easier time preserving muscle mass, and not taxing the heart as much.
It’s great for the short term but bad for the long term. Sure, it burns more calories in the same time span as a normal lifting session, but that's where it stops. Long term, your body is built for survival. It learns to adapt (especially if you are doing cardio to lose weight and are in a deficit of calories). It’s better for your body to make you more efficient at burning less and less calories each week that you keep doing cardio on a diet, so that you don’t burn through all your muscle and fat. It doesn’t know you want to look good at the beach, it just senses you are in starvation mode and need to stay alive.
The other issue is with certain forms like HIIT cardio, a lot of people tend to overdo it. With OrangeTheory, Soul Cycle, etc. it tends to attract a certain type of personality who likes intensity. That’s all fine and dandy, but if you are doing HIIT 4-6 times a week AND eating a low amount of calories because your girlfriends told you it was the quickest way to lose fat, you are burning yourself into the ground. It simply isn’t sustainable, which is why I get so many clients end up coming to me, who complain they aren’t losing any more weight even though they workout so much and eat so little.
On the other hand, resistance training creates positive, long term metabolic effects on the body. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at REST. Every time you lift weights you send a signal to your body that it needs to GROW in order to keep up with this stress you keep giving it. Again, your body is built for survival so it will adapt according to the signal placed on its body.
Lifting weights also allows you to get stronger in a functional way. Functional meaning loading strength through a fuller range of motion. All those knee issues, and aches you might get from running can be worked out through a proper lifting program. This is due usually to imbalances and muscle weakness on the body. Cardio can’t provide enough of a stimulus to continually grow your muscles.
The downside to lifting is if that’s ALL you do, you are completely negating taking care of your heart health. Just look at those heavy powerlifters. Strong as hell, but if they don’t throw in cardio they can barely make it up a flight of stairs without having to take a breath. Resistance training doesn’t provide enough stimulus to increase your aerobic capacity and challenge your endurance.
You need both! By throwing in cardio you can build up that endurance that will translate into your weight training days. If you create a bigger metabolic capacity you’ll be able to perform longer in the gym and in life. You can even combine the two, and do movements like supersets, or circuits, that give some of the weight training stress coupled with the stamina earned doing these movements in succession of each other with little to no break. Just be careful not to go overboard.
3 Full Body Workout days - 1 exercise per muscle group - 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions (choose a weight where you can hit that rep range and only have 1-2 reps left in the tank).
2 days - these can be done after a workout or on their own day - 30 minute steady state cardio (could be jogging on treadmill, playing basketball, swimming, etc. Enough to get your heart rate up but you can still carry on a conversation just a little bit)
1 day - HIIT Cardio - on a non-workout day - For those just starting out focus more on doing HIIT cardio in the form of sprints on a bike, rower, or even outside on the track. 5 minute warmup, 4-6 30 second sprints with 1-1.5 minute break in between, then cooldown for 5-10 minutes.