Cardio vs Strength Training: Which Is Better for You?

Sport & Activity

Employing both aerobic and anaerobic exercises into your fitness routine is key for optimal health, but what are the differences between these two types of training?

Last updated: 14 January 2022
7 min read
Cardio vs Strength Training: Benefits and Differences

Cardio and strength training are both important components of a fitness routine. But what are the differences between these two types of training? And more importantly, is one more beneficial than the other?

While an optimal training routine should incorporate both, let's take a look at the pros and cons of each. That way, if you can only prioritise one, you'll know which one is better for you.

What Is Cardio?

Cardiovascular exercise (aka cardio) is a type of aerobic exercise, meaning it requires oxygen to perform. This kind of workout includes walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing and more.

When your heart rate increases, your heart circulates more blood and oxygen around your body to fuel activity. How well you use oxygen is referred to as your aerobic capacity, which can be improved with consistent cardio workouts.

One type of cardio, low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS), is usually performed at a low to moderate intensity—between 60 and 80 percent of your heart rate max. It can be performed for long durations since your heart, lungs and muscles are under less stress. There's also less need for recovery, so you can do it daily.

But not all cardio is aerobic. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a unique type of anaerobic cardio that involves short bursts of all-out effort followed by rest periods. Due to its intensity, it's not recommended for daily workouts but is most effective when performed two to three times a week.

What Are the Benefits of Cardio?

  1. 1.Strengthens Your Heart and Reduces Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

    Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart, helping it pump blood through the body more efficiently and resulting in a lower resting heart rate. This means that your heart is working more effectively with less effort.

    Cardio can also help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. By lowering your blood pressure and strengthening your heart, you're also reducing your risk of blood clots, stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease, according to a December 2013 meta-analysis in Blood Pressure.

  2. 2.Lowers Risk of Metabolic Conditions

    Those who do cardio regularly have lower insulin and blood sugar levels and body weight, reducing their risk of developing metabolic diseases. Plus, a December 2013 study in Sports Medicine found that even if you are currently overweight, aerobic exercise has a similar effect on your level of risk as an individual at a lower body weight.

  3. 3.Helps Maintain a Healthy Weight

    During a cardio workout, you burn calories, which—when paired with a reduced-calorie, nutrient-dense diet—helps create a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume) to accelerate weight loss.

    According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 70kg person burns 324 calories in 30 minutes of elliptical training, 360 calories doing aerobics and 316 for cross-country running. These popular forms of cardio are great calorie burners and can contribute to a daily calorie deficit.

  4. 4.Can Help Relieve Stress

    Steady-state cardio is one of the best forms of exercise to fight stress, as it's been linked to reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels, according to a 2013 article in ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal. The biochemical changes that happen in your brain as a result of aerobic exercise help you combat stress and improve your mood.

  5. 5.Builds Endurance

    When you improve your aerobic capacity, oxygen consumption and lung capacity through consistent cardio, you're building cardiorespiratory endurance and stamina, according to an August 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Thus, your body is better equipped to sustain a given activity.

What Are the Downsides of Cardio?

The issues associated with cardio occur when an individual:

  • Does high-impact cardio—like treadmill running—too frequently, which may have negative effects on your joints
  • Does cardio too frequently or doesn't recover properly between sessions, resulting in burnout and overtraining
  • Performs cardio with poor form/technique, raising the risk of injury
  • Doesn't wear the correct footwear, also increasing the risk of injury
  • Doesn't fully recover from an injury, further exacerbating the injury

One of the biggest potential downsides is overtraining. This occurs when you train too intensely or frequently without allowing your body the full recovery it needs to repair muscle damage and replenish glycogen stores. Without sufficient recovery, your progress and performance suffer and you may even cause lasting damage, according to a 2012 study in Sports Health.

What Is Strength Training?

Strength training involves working against force or resistance to build strength and muscle. Typically, the resistance used is free weights or weight machines, but you can also use resistance bands and your body weight.

Unlike cardio, strength training is done at a moderate-to-high intensity, anaerobically (without oxygen). In aerobic activity, oxygen is used to burn fat and carbohydrates to produce ATP. In anaerobic exercise, glycogen converts into ATP to use as fuel in a process known as glycolysis. Lactic acid is produced as a by-product.

Due to the build up of lactic acid, it's harder to sustain anaerobic exercise. That's why strength training involves short bursts of activity.

Think of performing barbell back squats. You wouldn't be able to do them for an hour straight, like you would cardio. Instead, you take about 5 seconds to complete the move, depending on your tempo, and repeat for 2 to 15 reps, depending on how heavy the weight is, before taking a break.

What Are the Benefits of Strength Training?

  1. 1.Burns Calories During and After the Workout

    Strength training requires using multiple muscle groups at the same time, which means you're burning a lot of calories. According to Harvard Health Publishing, if you're a 70kg person, you'll burn between 108 and 216 calories lifting weights for 30 minutes.

    But the calorie-burning benefits don't end there. Due to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) or the after-burn effect that occurs with anaerobic exercise, you'll continue burning calories at a higher rate for up to 24 hours as your body returns to baseline levels, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

  2. 2.Helps Counter Age-Related Muscle Loss

    Weightlifting helps you build lean muscle mass, improve bone density and show fewer signs of ageing, according to a 2016 study in Biogerontology.

    This is particularly important since you lose 3 to 5% of your muscle mass every decade after 30. And women, in particular, lose an average of 4% bone mass every 5 years after 45, according to a 2008 study in CMAJ.

  3. 3.Boosts Your Metabolism

    Lifting weights elevates your metabolic rate immediately post-workout. But regular strength training has lasting effects on your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

    A 2001 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that after 24 weeks of weight training, participants increased their BMR by 9%. Since muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat, it burns through more energy (i.e. calories) at rest.

  4. 4.Improves Body Composition

    Increasing muscle mass and metabolic rate helps regulate energy balance, according to a 2013 study in Adipocyte. As a result, you're more easily able to maintain a healthy body weight.

    Additionally, muscle gain and fat loss—two established outcomes of strength training—improve your body composition (ratio of muscle to fat). And a healthy body fat percentage is associated with better health outcomes, according to a 2014 study in Aging Cell.

  5. 5.Translates to Sports Performance

    Whether you're a tennis player, bodybuilder or runner, strength training can help improve your performance, according to a 2016 study found in the journal Sports Medicine.

    Weight training strengthens muscles and fixes muscle imbalances or weaknesses that may be affecting your performance. You'll also increase your functional strength and mobility, which helps stabilise your joints and enhance movement.

What Are the Downsides of Strength Training?

The issues associated with strength training occur when an individual:

  • Practises with poor form or technique, potentially resulting in injury
  • Lifts too regularly without proper recovery between sets or sessions, resulting in burnout and overtraining
  • Does too many reps or sets per session (too high volume), which can cause significant muscle damage and requires extended recovery time, which may eventually lead to overtraining
  • Lifts too heavy weights for their current strength level, causing muscle and joint strain
  • Doesn't recovery properly from an injury, exacerbating it and delaying healing
Cardio vs Strength Training: Benefits and Differences

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Originally published: 27 December 2021

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