Cardio vs Weight Lifting: Which Type Of Exercise Is Best For Weight Loss?

When weight loss is your goal, there are two things you’re probably going to start doing:

  1. Eating better.
  2. Exercising.

Now, when it comes to the “exercising” part of that equation, there are two main options to choose from: cardio and weight lifting.

The question is… which one should you do?

This is something people ask me about all the time. They want to know what the benefits of each are, which type of exercise is best for weight loss, and whether they should only do cardio, only do weight lifting… or if they need to do both?

Let’s figure all of that out right now.

Do You Need Cardio Or Weight Lifting To Lose Weight?

Before we compare the pros and cons of each and determine which one(s) you should be doing, let’s make something clear first.

You do not need to do any form of exercise in order to lose weight.

Weight loss happens solely as a result of being in a consistent caloric deficit, and that can happen very easily through diet alone. This is a topic I cover in detail here: What Is The Best Way To Lose Weight?

Which means, for the specific purpose of making weight loss happen, both cardio and weight lifting are optional.

Why does this matter, you ask? For two reasons:

  • First, because it’s a fact, and facts matter.
  • Second, because it’s an overlooked fact. I know this, because I frequently hear people complain that the reason they can’t lose weight is because they “don’t have time to work out” or they “can’t get to a gym” or they “don’t have the money or space to buy a treadmill” or some similar excuse built around the incorrect idea that weight loss can’t happen unless cardio and/or weight lifting are being done. But that’s not true, because it very easily can. Excuses like these are simply not valid. (Details here: How To Lose Weight Without Exercise)

With me so far? Cool.

Because despite all of the above being true, some form of exercise SHOULD still be done anyway.

Why? Because, aside from the countless health benefits, it’s still a hugely beneficial part of successful weight loss in both the short and long term.

In fact, studies comparing the results of people who attempted to lose weight with and without exercise consistently show a higher success rate when some form of exercise is included along with a proper diet (sources here, here, and here).

Now let’s figure out which type of exercise is best for you.

Cardio vs Weight Lifting: PROS And CONS

Since this is an article looking at exercise specifically from the perspective of losing weight, we’re going to ignore the pros and cons that relate to other areas (i.e. overall health, athletic performance, etc.) and look at cardio and weights strictly in terms of their effects on weight loss and body composition.

Let’s start with cardio…

The Pros Of Cardio

1. It burns some calories.

This is the main benefit of cardio in this context. It burns calories, which means it can help create the required deficit you need to be in for weight loss to occur.

This is true of all forms of exercise, of course, as ALL activity burns some amount of calories. Cardio just tends to be better suited for this calorie-burning purpose, as low/moderate intensity forms of it can be done more often and for longer amounts of time compared to something like weight lifting.

2. It can allow you to eat a little more.

Again, you need to be in a consistent caloric deficit in order to lose weight, and you can do this by eating less, burning more, or doing some combination of the two.

So if your maintenance level is 2500 calories and you want to be in a 500-calorie deficit each day (just an example), you could either eat 2000 calories, eat 2500 but burn 500 more, or eat 2250 and burn 250 more (or something similar).

In each case, the same 500-calorie deficit would exist and your results would be the same. After all, studies show that a deficit is a deficit, so with all else being equal, it doesn’t matter how you create it (source).

However, each approach does come with its own pros and cons, and one of the pros of “burning more” via cardio is that it allows you to eat more calories.

3. It’s ideal when you don’t want to eat any less.

This is part of the previous point, but it deserves its own mention.

Depending on how much weight you need to lose and/or how lean you’re looking to get, some people may eventually reach a point where lowering their calorie intake any further would be too difficult and/or problematic, which is when burning more calories via cardio may become the better option.

The Cons Of Cardio

1. It doesn’t burn as many calories as you think.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no more overrated aspect of losing weight than cardio.

Because, while it does burn some calories, it burns surprisingly little compared to what most people incorrectly assume/hope it does.

The truth is, most people doing typical forms of cardio at a typical intensity will end up burning about 5-10 calories per minute. Possibly a little more with a higher intensity activity and/or if the person weighs more than average (a bigger body burns more calories than a smaller body).

But, generally speaking, most people are only going to burn 5-10 calories per minute.

So… 30 minutes on a treadmill? You’ll probably burn 150-300 calories.

An hour on the bike? Maybe 300-600 calories.

Sure, this is still certainly something, but it’s really not that much… especially given the amount of time and effort it takes. And yes, even the “afterburn effect” (aka EPOC) causes significantly less calorie-burn than most people think (source).

2. It’s an inefficient way to create a deficit.

Now that you know how many calories cardio actually burns, you can see that you’d need to do a lot of it (often) and/or very high intensity forms of it (often) for it to truly have the significant calorie-burning, weight-loss-causing effect most people would like it to.

The problem with this – besides the fact that excessive amounts of cardio can cause problems of its own (more about that in a minute) – is that it makes cardio an inefficient method for creating your deficit.

Think about it.

To create a daily 500-calorie deficit, you could either A) go to the gym and spend 60 minutes on a treadmill every single day (or however many days per week you plan to use exercise to create your deficit), or B) simply not eat those 500 calories in the first place… a task that literally takes zero seconds to accomplish and can be done anywhere, anytime.

See my point?

And sure, something like HIIT will burn more calories in less time than a lower intensity activity, but A) it can’t be done for as long, so the total calories burned will often be similar in the end, B) it’s much harder and requires a lot more physical and mental effort, and C) it’s still way less efficient than just eating a little less.

3. It can lead to overeating.

Here’s a scenario that happens all the time.

A person will do some cardio and assume they burned a lot of calories. In reality, they actually burned much less than they think they did.

But they don’t know this.

So what will often happen at some point later is that a reward mentality will kick in and the person will think “I jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes today, surely I can now afford to eat this additional 1000-calorie meal.”

And they do that, never realizing they actually only burned 200-300 calories. Which means they unknowingly cancel out whatever deficit they may have created via cardio, and possibly put themselves into a surplus in the process.

This is one of the many reasons you hear people saying stuff like “I’ve been working out all the time but I’m still not losing weight!” or “I exercise a ton but I’m somehow gaining weight!” (More about this here: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?)

4. It’s boring.

I realize this is a subjective thing, and I also realize that different forms of activity are more or less boring than others.

But, the typical way most people do their cardio is by getting on a treadmill, elliptical, or bike and staring at a wall, a TV, their phone, or the back of someone else’s head for the next 30-120 minutes.

And most people find this boring as hell.

This matters because if you’re using cardio to create your deficit, consistency is crucial. You need to be there, doing that cardio for the amount of time you need to, every single day that you need to.

And if you’re not? A deficit won’t exist, and you’re not going to lose weight.

The problem is, if the thing you consistently need to be doing to succeed is something you’d describe as “boring as hell,” the probability of you actually doing it (and doing it consistently) drops considerably.

5. Too much of it is detrimental.

Too much of any form of exercise will cause problems, and in my experience, cardio tends to be the type of exercise people overdo the most… probably as a result of trying to burn a useful amount of calories, or lose weight faster, or make up for a poor diet (yeah, good luck with that).

Now what kind of problems are we talking about here?

The first three that come to mind are:

  1. Overuse injuries, which cardio is a common cause of due to the repetitive movement and impact stress on the knees/ankles.
  2. Recovery related issues, not just in terms of the body parts being used the most, but also the central nervous system (CNS)… which affects everything and increases the risk of muscle loss.
  3. Worsening many of the hormonal and metabolic issues that occur while in a prolonged deficit (e.g. increased cortisol levels, metabolic slowdown, water retention, etc.).

Exactly how much cardio is “too much” depends on the duration, frequency and intensity of the activity being done.

For example, 3 cardio sessions per week will have less of an impact than 5-7 sessions. 30 minutes of cardio will have less of an impact than 60-120 minutes. A low intensity activity – like brisk walking – would have little to no impact compared to a more moderate intensity activity… such as jogging.

And neither would have nearly as much of an impact as something with a high intensity – like HIIT – which can almost be like adding an extra weight lifting session in terms of the stress it places on your body and how recovery-intensive it is.

Now let’s take a look at the pros and cons and weight lifting…

The Pros Of Weight Lifting

1. It’s a requirement for building or maintaining muscle while losing fat.

And here’s the biggest benefit of weight lifting in this context.

If you want to build muscle while losing fatweight lifting is required.

If you want to maintain the muscle you currently have while losing fat, so that most (if not all) of the weight you lose is body fat rather than muscle… weight lifting is required.

If you want to look “lean” or “fit” or “toned” or “ripped” (or whatever adjective you prefer) after losing weight rather than just looking “thin” and “skinny,” weight lifting is required.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Cardio is always optional when it comes to losing weight or improving your body composition. Weight lifting, on the other hand, is different. It is required for certain body composition goals.

2. It burns some calories, too.

Just like cardio, weight lifting also burns some calories.

Granted, traditional weight training workouts (i.e. something designed to build muscle rather than something designed to maximize calorie-burn… like metabolic workouts) won’t burn tons of calories. Cardio usually burns more.

But honestly? The difference really isn’t THAT big.

As an added benefit, since muscle is more metabolically active than fat, the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories your body will naturally burn each day. And since weight lifting is crucial for building/maintaining muscle, this is a second way it contributes to how many calories you’re burning.

(Note: this extra calorie burn, while always useful, is actually smaller than most people think… details here: 7 Proven Ways To Speed Up Your Metabolism)

The Cons Of Weight Lifting

1. Too much of it is detrimental.

This is the same thing we covered earlier with cardio. Too much of any form of exercise is going to be a problem. This is just as true for weight lifting, and for similar reasons.

How much is too much, you ask?

That’s a bit too complicated to cover here, but if you’re interested, feel free to check out chapter 15 in Superior Fat Loss. It covers everything… the exact workouts I use and recommend, my guidelines for how to adjust your own workout for this purpose, and much more.

So, Which Type Of Exercise Is Best For You?

Now you know the pros and cons of each. All that’s left to figure out is which form of activity is going to be best for you, your needs, and your goals.

So, let’s make this simple.

Weight Lifting Is For You If…

If you want to build muscle while you lose weight, maintain muscle while you lose weight, or improve the way your body looks so that you end up looking lean and fit rather than just thin and skinny… then weight lifting is a form of exercise you need to be doing.

It’s something I’d recommend to every single person reading this.

Cardio Is For You If…

Deciding if you need to do cardio is a little trickier, as it depends mostly on personal needs and preferences. I’d break it down like this…

If you hate cardio, don’t want to do it, have no interest in doing it, have no time to do it, have no need for doing it, have no problem creating your deficit through diet alone and would prefer to do it that way… then you don’t need to do any cardio.

If, however, you need/want to use cardio to help you create your deficit from the very beginning, or find that you need/want to use it at some point in the middle, or you’ve kept it in your toolbox till the end waiting to see if you’d ever reach the point of needing/wanting to use it (and that point eventually comes)… then guess what? You should do cardio.

Additional details here: How Much Cardio Should I Do?

My Recommendations

So, here’s how I’d sum it all up…

  1. Use your diet to create your deficit and cause fat loss. (Here’s how: How Many Calories Should I Eat A Day To Lose Weight?)
  2. Use weight lifting to build or maintain muscle while that fat is being lost.
  3. Use cardio as an optional secondary tool if it happens to suit your personal needs, preferences, or other goals you may have, or a point is ever reached when you’d rather start burning additional calories via exercise instead of eating any less.

That’s how we do it in my Superior Fat Loss program, and the results speak for themselves.

What’s Next?

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About Jay
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.