Aerobic vs. Resistance Training: Which is the Real Champion of Fat Loss? Summary
- Researchers examined whether it was best to do cardio or resistance training for weight loss/fat loss. They found that weight training alone resulted in greater fat loss than aerobic exercise or a combined aerobic and weight training group over 9 months.
- Strength training alone was more effective than aerobic training at reducing HbA1c levels (i.e., blood glucose levels) in normal-weight individuals with type 2 diabetes. Combination training had an intermediate effect. Therefore, for those pondering cardio vs weights for weight loss study results, individuals with type 2 diabetes might lean towards incorporating strength training exercises into their exercise routine to help manage their blood sugar levels.
Introduction: Cardio or Resistance Training for Weight Loss
For decades, the go-to advice for weight loss and fat loss has been clear: cardiovascular exercise. Whether running on a treadmill, taking a jog outside, or engaging in HIIT sessions, aerobic activities have long been championed as the best way to burn body fat. However, most people don’t get that much exercise. Just over half of American adults, or 53 percent, get enough aerobic physical activity, and only 23 percent meet the aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This discovery has significant health benefits, especially when considering the impact on heart rate and blood pressure during different forms of exercise. However, recent research, titled “Strength training is more effective than aerobic exercise for improving glycaemic control and body composition in people with normal-weight type 2 diabetes: a randomised controlled trial”, suggests that resistance training, often overlooked in the cardio or resistance training for weight loss conversation, might be the unsung hero.(Kobayashi et al., 2023) This brings to light the question: what burns more fat, cardio or strength training?
Understanding Fat Loss
Fat loss, especially when considering what burns more fat, cardio or strength training, is crucial to overall health and well-being. Excess body fat has been linked to various chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. (Rankin, 2013) Our bodies burn fat through a complex process that involves breaking down fat cells to produce energy. In addition, strength training helps you lose weight and keep it off by building muscle tissue. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate tends to be. More muscle also helps your body burn more fat than muscle, which is important if you want to lose weight and keep your strength.
While aerobic exercises like running primarily use oxygen to produce energy (hence the term ‘aerobic’), resistance training, like weight lifting, relies more on anaerobic processes. This distinction is crucial because, although aerobic exercises burn more calories during the activity, resistance training, which is anaerobic, can lead to increased calorie burn long after the exercise. (Armamento-Villareal et al., 2019; Melanson et al., 2009) This might answer many questions: what burns more fat, cardio or strength training?
The Benefits of Weight Training for Fat Loss
Firstly, When discussing cardio vs resistance training for fat loss, it’s essential to note that resistance exercise can increase muscle mass and metabolism. When we engage in resistance exercise, our muscles adapt, becoming stronger and increasing lean muscle, which typically does not occur with aerobic exercise. (Shaw et al., 2015)
This increase in muscle mass leads to an increase in basal metabolic rate, which is the number of calories our bodies burn at rest. In fact, research has shown that for every pound of muscle gained, our bodies burn an additional 6-10 calories per day. (Short et al., 2003) This means incorporating resistance exercise into our routine increases our calorie burn even when not exercising actively and is particularly effective for building muscle. This is important because muscle burns more calories at rest than some other tissues, such as fat.
What burns more fat cardio or strength training?
Secondly, resistance exercise has been found to enhance fat oxidation during and after exercise. Fat oxidation refers to the process by which our bodies break down stored fat to use as fuel. Studies have shown that resistance exercise can increase the utilization of fat as an energy source during exercise. (Lee et al., 2012) Additionally, research has demonstrated that resistance exercise can elevate post-exercise fat oxidation, meaning that our bodies continue to burn fat at an increased rate even after the workout is over. (Slentz et al., 2011) This prolonged fat-burning effect is particularly beneficial for fat loss.
Lastly, resistance exercise helps to maintain lean muscle mass during weight loss. When we lose weight, we often lose a combination of fat and muscle. However, preserving lean muscle mass is important for maintaining a healthy metabolism and preventing weight regain. (Hunter et al., 2010) Resistance exercise effectively preserves lean muscle mass during periods of calorie restriction (Willis et al., 2012). Maintaining muscle mass ensures that our bodies continue to burn calories efficiently, even as we lose weight.
Adding Resistance Exercise to Cardio Enhances Fat Loss
Enter resistance training. A study titled “Effect of Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, on Intermuscular and Visceral Fat and Physical and Metabolic Function in Older Adults with Obesity, While Dieting” found that combining aerobic and resistance exercise was more effective than aerobic exercise in reducing body fat and improving physical and metabolic function in older adults with obesity. This study supports the idea that incorporating resistance training into an exercise routine can be beneficial for obese adults in their weight loss journey (Waters et al., 2022).
Several studies have demonstrated that resistance exercise alone can lead to greater fat loss than aerobic exercise. For example, a cardio vs weights for weight loss study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that resistance exercise was more effective than aerobic exercise in reducing body weight and fat mass in obese older adults. (Villareal et al., 2017)
Another study published in Diabetes showed that resistance exercise was more effective than aerobic exercise in reducing abdominal fat and improving insulin sensitivity in obese adolescent boys (Lee et al., 2012). These findings suggest that resistance exercise may be a more efficient strategy for fat loss, especially when considering the debate of cardio vs resistance training for fat loss.
Cardio vs Weights for Weight Loss study: The STRONG-D Study
A recent study took a different approach; most studies have examined aerobic exercise vs combining aerobic and resistance exercise, the study divided the participants into three groups: weight training alone, aerobic exercise alone, or a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise on blood sugar control. Furthermore, they also looked at changes in lean muscle and body fat.
The primary result of this study was that strength training alone was more effective than aerobic training in reducing blood glucose levels in normal-weight individuals with type 2 diabetes. The strength training-only group had the greatest increases in muscle mass and the losses in body fat. (Kobayashi et al., 2023) Given that 80% of glucose uptake occurs in muscle (lean mass), increasing lean mass is crucial for improving glycemic control in this population. (Vanhees et al., 2012) This suggests that weight training alone can be effective for losing fat.
The cardio or resistance training for weight loss debate is fairly complex, but the myth that aerobic exercise is the only way to fat loss needs busting. The study showed that strength training alone was effective and superior to aerobic training alone in reducing HbA1c levels in individuals with normal-weight type 2 diabetes, with weight training being the best option for increasing muscle mass and losing fat.
Cardio or resistance training for weight loss has emerged as a powerful tool in the fat loss arsenal. As with all fitness advice, finding what works best for you and your body is essential. But next time you think about fat loss, remember it’s not just about how much you sweat but also how much you lift, and consider the findings of cardio vs weights for weight loss studies.
Armamento-Villareal, R., Aguirre, L., Waters, D. L., Napoli, N., Qualls, C., & Villareal, D. T. (2019). Effect of Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, on Bone Mineral Density and Bone Metabolism in Obese Older Adults While Dieting: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. https://doi.org/10.1002/jbmr.3905
Hunter, G. R., Brock, D. W., Byrne, N. M., Chandler‐Laney, P., Corral, P. D., & Gower, B. A. (2010). Exercise Training Prevents Regain of Visceral Fat for 1 Year Following Weight Loss. Obesity. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2009.316
Kobayashi, Y., Long, J., Dan, S., Johannsen, N. M., Talamoa, R., Raghuram, S., Chung, S., Kent, K., Basina, M., Lamendola, C., Haddad, F., Leonard, M. B., Church, T. S., & Palaniappan, L. (2023). Strength training is more effective than aerobic exercise for improving glycaemic control and body composition in people with normal-weight type 2 diabetes: a randomised controlled trial. Diabetologia, 66(10), 1897-1907. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00125-023-05958-9
Lee, S. J., Bacha, F., Hannon, T. S., Kuk, J. L., Boesch, C., & Arslanian, S. (2012). Effects of Aerobic Versus Resistance Exercise Without Caloric Restriction on Abdominal Fat, Intrahepatic Lipid, and Insulin Sensitivity in Obese Adolescent Boys. Diabetes. https://doi.org/10.2337/db12-0214
Melanson, E. L., MacLean, P. S., & Hill, J. O. (2009). Exercise Improves Fat Metabolism in Muscle but Does Not Increase 24-H Fat Oxidation. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1097/jes.0b013e31819c2f0b
Rankin, J. W. (2013). Effective Diet and Exercise Interventions to Improve Body Composition in Obese Individuals. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827613507879
Shaw, B. S., Shaw, I., & Brown, G. A. (2015). Resistance Exercise Is Medicine: Strength Training in Health Promotion and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation. https://doi.org/10.12968/ijtr.2015.22.8.385
Short, K. R., Vittone, J. L., Bigelow, M. L., Proctor, D. N., Rizza, R. A., Coenen-Schimke, J. M., & Nair, K. S. (2003). Impact of Aerobic Exercise Training on Age-Related Changes in Insulin Sensitivity and Muscle Oxidative Capacity. Diabetes. https://doi.org/10.2337/diabetes.52.8.1888
Slentz, C. A., Bateman, L. A., Willis, L. H., Shields, A. T., Tanner, C. J., Piner, L. W., Hawk, V., Muehlbauer, M. J., Samsa, G. P., Nelson, R. C., Huffman, K. M., Bales, C. W., Houmard, J. A., & Kraus, W. E. (2011). Effects of Aerobic vs. Resistance Training on Visceral and Liver Fat Stores, Liver Enzymes, and Insulin Resistance by HOMA in Overweight Adults From STRRIDE AT/RT. Ajp Endocrinology and Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00291.2011
Vanhees, L., Geladas, N., Hansen, D., Kouidi, E., Niebauer, J., Reiner, Ž., Cornelissen, V., Adamopoulos, S., Prescott, E., & Börjesson, M. (2012). Importance of characteristics and modalities of physical activity and exercise in the management of cardiovascular health in individuals with cardiovascular risk factors: recommendations from the EACPR (Part II). European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 19(5), 1005-1033. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741826711430926
Villareal, D. T., Aguirre, L., Gurney, A. B., Waters, D. L., Sinacore, D. R., Colombo, E., Armamento-Villareal, R., & Qualls, C. (2017). Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, in Dieting Obese Older Adults. New England Journal of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa1616338
Waters, D. L., Aguirre, L., Gurney, B., Sinacore, D. R., Fowler, K., Gregori, G., Armamento-Villareal, R., Qualls, C., & Villareal, D. T. (2022). Effect of Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, on Intermuscular and Visceral Fat and Physical and Metabolic Function in Older Adults With Obesity While Dieting. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 77(1), 131-139. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glab111