When we think weight loss, we often assume the key is to spend hours on the treadmill. But is cardio always the best answer for burning calories? We delve into the science to find out the real answer:

Cardio burns more calories per session

Results from scientific studies allow us to estimate the number of calories we will burn per session based on our body weight and the type of exercise we’re engaging in. For most activities, the more you weigh, the more calories you will burn.

For example, if you weigh 160 pounds (73 kg), you will burn:

  • 250 calories per 30 minutes of jogging at a moderate pace
  • But if you run at a faster pace of 6mph, you would burn approx 365 calories in 30 mins
  • On the flip-side, if you weight trained for the same amount of time, you may burn only 130–220 calories.

In general, you’ll burn more calories per session of cardio than weight training for about the same amount of effort. In fact, longer cardio sessions can burn somewhere in the region of 500-800 calories depending on the length and intensity level!

Weight-training increases long-term calorie burn

Although weight-training doesn’t tend to burn as many calories as a cardio workout, it has other important benefits which make it incredibly beneficial for fat loss. Studies have shown that you burn more calories in the hours following weight training than following a cardio session. In fact, you can benefit from a boosted metabolism for up to 38 hours post weight training (no increase in metabolism has been reported following a cardio session).

To put this into perspective, say you burn only an additional 10 calories per hour following your workout. While an extra 10 calories per hour doesn’t sound like a big deal, when you multiply that number by 38 hours, the numbers start to add up and you can see what a big difference it can make on the number of calories you burn. This means that the calorie-burning benefits of weights aren’t limited to when you are exercising and instead you can keep reaping the benefits for hours or days afterwards.

Another factor to consider when you’re trying to lose weight is the long-term metabolic increases of your training session. While it’s great to be burning more calories for 38 hours post-workout, you won’t continue to benefit from this unless you are consistent with your training. By regularly weight training you will continue to build lean muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories at rest than any other tissue meaning the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism may be and therefore the better the calorie-burning potential of your body. It’s also important to note that muscle tissue is fairy stable i.e. providing there is some stimulus and you are consuming enough protein, it won’t be lost. This further demonstrates support for building muscle as a great long-term solution for losing body fat.

Weight training and body shaping

Before deciding on whether to opt for regular cardio or weight training it’s important to decide on your body shape goals.

While cardio will generally help you lose weight, this weight loss is normally a combination of fat and muscle. This can cause a somewhat “soft” look as losing weight this way may not tone your muscles at the same time.

On the other hand, weight training combined with a calorie-restricted diet can allow you to lose only body fat and so you can enhance the natural curves of your body while losing weight.

The conclusion

It’s not uncommon to believe that cardio is the only or best way to lose weight and that weight training will only lead to building muscle and weight gain. But it’s not as simple as that. Yes, cardio will result in weight loss however weight training can result in more long-term benefits in the form of increased calorie burn and also enables you to tone your body alongside your weight loss. Basically, if your aim is to lose weight, you will get the best and most effective results by incorporating regular weight training into your training schedule!

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ZiMian, Wang et al. (2010). Specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues across adulthood: evaluation by mechanistic model of resting energy expenditure. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 92 (6), 1369–1377.