What’s Best for Weight Loss: Cardio or Strength Training?

woman exercising outdoors on a bridge
Here’s what the research says about cardio and strength training for weight loss and how to best spend your time.

Anyone on a weight-loss journey knows that both diet and exercise play important roles in attaining a healthier weight—but figuring out what type of exercise is best for weight-loss has been a source of confusion for decades.

Many people think that aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise is the fastest path to fat reduction because it burns the most calories per session. While that has been the prevailing thinking for ages, research is beginning to shift. Plus, there are some undeniable benefits of combining aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) training to reach your goals faster.

Here’s what the research says about cardio and strength training for weight loss and how to best spend your time.

Cardio Has Long Been the King of Calorie Burning

While it is true that cardio exercise is a form of exercise that can contribute to weight loss, scientists have long deduced that cardio exercise burns more calories per session when compared to strength training. However, we have ample evidence today to show that cardio is not the only or best way to lose weight.

It’s easy to see where this belief stems from, though. If consistently being in a calorie deficit is the key to weight loss and scientists have long said that cardio burns more calories per workout session than weight-training, it’s no wonder weight-loss hopefuls think they need to run weekly marathons in order to drop fat fast. But resistance training has also been found to be effective for weight loss—in new and different ways.

strength training

Now, Weight Training May Burn As Many Calories Per Session

It was historically believed that strength training couldn’t measure up to cardio for burning maximum calories per training session but a recent meta-analysis of 58 studies paints a different picture.

Of the 3000 plus participants across these studies that followed a weight training program for five months, participants lost 1.4% of body fat per week on average, which experts say is about the same body fat reduction that’s been associated with cardio exercise. This is a revolutionary discovery after decades of research saying that cardio reigned supreme for calories burned per session.

But whether you favor epic running sessions or repping it out in the weight room, the study author of this meta analysis says that a combination of both cardio and strength training—along with a nutritious diet— is still the best approach for weight loss (more on that in a minute).

Weight Training Burns Calories Long After Exercise

Now that we know that cardio and weight training come pretty close in calories burned per workout, let’s look at another appealing aspect of strength training that should encourage you to include resistance training in your routine—even if it’s not your first choice. Unlike cardio exercise, the effects of weight training last long after the workout is over.

That’s right. For an impressive 72 hours after a strength-training session, your metabolic rate remains high, meaning that you’re still zapping calories even at rest (think sitting down or even sleeping).

If that’s not enough to convince you to prioritize strength days, another key benefit is that pumping iron helps you to maintain muscle mass over time, which keeps your metabolism humming along efficiently and supports weight loss.

female athlete running the stairs

How Much Cardio and Strength Training Should You Do?

While the cardio-to-strength split will depend (and vary) largely based on the individual and the individual’s exercise prescription from a qualified personal trainer, a popular programming breakdown includes approximately two to three days of strength training and about five 30-minute cardio sessions per week. You can either do full-body resistance days using compound (multi-joint) exercises to make the most of each session, or you can break it up and do a leg day, a push day and a pull day.

The general exercise recommendation according to the World Health Organization is 150 to 300 minutes of activity a week, which is about 21 to 43 minutes a day. But if you’re condensing your training days into five days (instead of seven), you’re looking at five one-hour sessions a week.

You can either separate your cardio and strength days or combine them depending on your preference. Here’s what each option could look like:

Cardio & Strength Combined:

Monday: 30 minutes cardio + 30-min leg workout

Tuesday: 1-hour cardio

Wednesday: 30 min cardio + 30-min pull workout

Thursday: 1-hour cardio

Friday: 30 min cardio + 30-min push workout

Cardio & Strength Separate:

Monday: 1-hour leg workout OR 1-hour full body workout

Tuesday: 1-hour cardio

Wednesday: 1-hour pull workout OR 1-hour full body workout

Thursday: 1-hour cardio

Friday: 1-hour push workout OR 1-hour full body workout

Bottom line

Whether you’re a cardio fanatic or you prefer weight-training, experts agree that a blend of both cardio and resistance training is the best recipe for reaching peak fitness and weight loss.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t monitor the full scope of your progress by stepping on the scale alone. Consider a comprehensive body composition scan to see a detailed breakdown of your fat, muscle and bone mass and how you are progressing over time. Find one near you here.