Cardio vs Weights: Which is best?

When should I do cardio and when should I hit the weights?

For many people, cardio is their default exercise. That’s why there are limited vacancies in the treadmill line at 5:30 p.m. Treadmills are accessible and they have TVs!

Popularity aside, is cardio the best way to become fit? Well, that all depends on your definition of fit.

Too many exercisers adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, telling themselves “as long as I show up and jump on the elliptical trainer I’m building muscle, burning fat and increasing my I.Q.” Sure, being active far outweighs sitting on the couch. But once you passed the nervous-beginner phase, you may want to invest in solutions that support your goals.

When working with clients I often use a sliding scale metaphor to help identify outcomes and build exercise plans. Specific goals are achieved through specific exercise.

At one end of the scale, activities range between walking and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Both make demands on your cardiovascular system; both burn calories. Chances are, the scarier sounding the activity, the greater the number of calories being burned.

When working at the cardio end, don’t become fooled into thinking you’re building muscle or eliminating more fat than you would have by simply skipping that so-called “healthy muffin.” Simply put, cardio is really good at cardio.

As we slide to the other end of the scale, we find weight training. To keep matters simple, I’m going to focus on training for the purposes of shaping and toning as opposed to power or pure strength.

To build muscle, an appropriate workload should challenge the lifter until they can’t perform the exercise with good mechanical form. This is also known as training to failure. In this case, muscle adapts by growing stronger and bigger.

Can cardio ever generate the outcomes promised by the muscle end of the scale and vice versa? For cardio to build muscle, the duration would have to be quite short and very intense. Think of a sprinter’s legs versus an endurance runner’s legs.

Boot camp, for example, is often labeled a muscle,builder as it incorporates resistance in its execution. By design, however, it falls into the cardio box as participants fail not due to the weight being lifted, but due to cardiovascular fatigue over time. Simply put, the formula is short a few ingredients to be considered an effective muscle builder.

For this to happen, instructors would need to dramatically reduce the number of exercises and increase the resistance. Using muscle? Absolutely. Building muscle and strength? Not so much. There are some exceptions but most standard boot camp classes are cardio focused.

On the other hand, cardiovascular fitness isn’t the goal or the primary outcome when lifting weights — although it can be. In fact, short-rest, high-intensity weight training is becoming very popular with fitness enthusiasts looking to combine fat reduction, cardio and muscle growth.

Here are the necessary ingredients.

First, make sure that you are lifting weights that challenge your muscle. A general rule is 8 to 12 reps. As mentioned above, the load should stop the exercise. Again, failure promotes growth. Your cardio should be taxed but it shouldn’t stop the exercise prior to muscular fatigue.

Feel free to pair two exercises, also known as a superset, but don’t lose focus or form. Make sure you fatigue on both. More isn’t better.

Second, make sure that your rest intervals are relatively short. The actual length is somewhat debatable as some lifters claim that five deep breathes constitutes an adequate rest while others suggest 90 seconds. With this type of training, I like to keep rest periods down to 30 seconds. This allows enough time for muscle to rebound but not so much that you fully catch your breath. When in doubt adjust your rest period every six to eight weeks.

Short-rest, high-intensity, metabolic weight training combines the best of cardio and muscle. In addition, exercisers fire their metabolism long after the exercise has finished — something that doesn’t happen after a treadmill run.

Back to the original question. Cardio or weights?

Perform cardio when you want to work your heart and lungs and burn calories. Remember, that 30-minute run may only burn off the donut you didn’t skip at lunch. Lift weights when you want to build shape, strengthen muscle and enhance your metabolism. To add cardio, keep your rests short.

Finally, cardio or weight training compliment a healthy diet, but neither will beat it.

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