The Ultimate Showdown: Strength vs. Cardio Training

What’s Better: Strength Training Or Cardio?

A common question we hear as trainers/coaches is, “I already run/bike/workout on the elliptical (insert your favorite cardio exercise), do I really even need to strength train? On the flip side, we get avid weight-lifters who wonder if they should also be doing any type of cardio exercise. So if we were to pit Weight Training against Cardio in the ultimate exercise showdown, which one would come out on top as the best training protocol? Well, I would say that it simply depends on your goals. While there are many great benefits to both types of exercises, you really have to look at what you want to accomplish through your exercise program and design your workouts based on those ever important goals.

General Conditioning

For those of you who may simply be looking for a general conditioning program that keeps body fat to a minimum and allows your body to maintain some muscle mass, you’ll want to focus on a program that balances both a strength training component as well as a cardio component. The key with that is to make sure they compliment each other to help you get the results you’re looking for. In this case, a program that includes 3-4 lifting days and 2-3 cardio days should help get you the results you’re looking for.

Cardio Training

If you’re more focused on the cardio-respiratory benefits of exercise (maybe you’re an avid runner, biker or cross country skier), your training program should obviously emphasize more steady state cardio training. But here’s the catch: performing too much steady state cardio training can actually result in a loss of muscle. Cardio-focused training should still include a strength component, but one that is geared more toward muscle endurance rather than muscle size. Muscle endurance can be trained in the weight room by utilizing a higher rep range during your weight training workouts. A good gauge is anything over 10 reps per set is probably more focused on muscular endurance as opposed to building strength/size. Another way for cardio athletes to add a strength component is to include things like sprints, hill sprints and intervals into your training.  

Strength and Size

This one is a little more clear-cut in that you’ll want to spend a majority of your workout time in the weight room. Again, the type of weight training you do will depend on your particular goals. For those with more of a bodybuilding goal, your routine will primarily focus on training individual muscle groups, something along the lines of chest & triceps on one day, back & biceps on another day, and legs & abs on another. If strength is more of a goal, bigger compound movements like Olympic lifts (squats, cleans, deadlifts) will make up a majority of your training program. Regardless of your goals, both of the above can be complimented by some light cardio to help flush out the lactate that builds up in muscles and can help reduce muscle soreness after a strenuous lift.

Which is Better For Weight Loss?

With weight loss being the number one goal for most recreational exercisers, it’s important to know how the various training protocols help reach that goal.

So, Which is Better Overall?

While the overall number of calories burned during a weight training workout is normally less than that of a cardio workout, the body continues to burn calories well after you finish up a weight room workout. When you regularly jog, bike or hit the elliptical, your body actually becomes pretty comfortable with it and adapts quickly. But strength training has a totally different effect on the muscles which makes it tougher for the body to recover.

Which Should You Do First, Cardio or Strength?

This one is more personal preference. Cardio can make a great warm-up prior to a strength training workout, but it can also be a great cool-down after a tough strength workout. Mix it up a bit and see what works best for you. The exception to this is for those who might be training for an endurance event like a 10K, triathlon or a long bike race, you’ll want to focus on getting that type of training in first, when your body is fresh.

What If You Only Have Time To Do One?

I would personally opt for the strength training simply because you can add a cardio component into your strength training by keeping the rest between sets minimal and/or by adding exercises that work both your cardiovascular system and strengthen your muscles. Things like squat jumps, skaters, battling ropes, sled pushes, and kettlebell swings are great options to work both cardio and strength. Studies even show that you can get better results (both cardiovascular and strength) from three 20 minute strength circuits a week than you can from 60 minutes of steady state cardio performed five days per week. That saves you 4 hours and gets you in better shape!

Does Your Program Need a Shake-Up?

Say you run three miles three times per week. Try this instead: perform three days of strength-training exercises with a moderate resistance for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, focusing on the bigger muscle groups like your chest, back and legs. This should only take about 30 minutes. Follow it up with a 1-1.5 mile run to still get your cardio in and benefit from the blood flushing some lactate out of your muscles. Say you lift three times per week using a machine circuit format. Try this instead: learn how to lift with free-weights and make them the cornerstone of your strength program. Learn how to properly perform key lifts such as squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, rows, push-ups, bench presses and overhead presses. Say you lift 4-5 times per week but do not do any cardio. Try this instead: balance out your routine by cutting your strength workouts to 3-4 times per week and then finish off with some type of cardio exercise. If running isn’t for you, consider other great options like rowing, battling ropes, sled pushes, hill sprints or bike intervals. The bottom line is don’t ignore other types of training that can get you great results. Experiment and find not only what works for you, but also what you enjoy doing. Now get after it!
About the writer: Ken Grall is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and owns and operates an Edge Fitness in Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Ken.