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Fitness: Resistance vs. Cardio

Many fitness buffs and those that want to slim down are under the impression that the best way to lose fat is through cardio workouts. But nothing could be further from the truth. By Gavin Watterson

Cardiovascular exercise is not the most effective way to lose or burn fat! Why? CV, or steady-state cardio, primarily uses the “oxygen system” where the workload is maintained for the duration through sub-maximal effort.

The body burns fuel “aerobically,” in other words economically via the oxygen system. It boils down to the fact that you simply can’t stimulate the body anywhere near as much with cardio as you can with an effective resistance-training regime.

Looking at total energy expenditure as a pie chart, you do burn a higher percentage of fat, as opposed glucose, during ultra-long cardio training sessions (like a three-hour run or swim).

However, that which is burned is much lower in terms of energy expenditure compared to resistance training. Resistance training burns less fat as a total percentage, but when you take into account the post-exercise (EPOC) effect, resistance training is far superior, especially when you consider that a resistance workout may take a quarter of the time.

You may burn a lower amount of fats as energy during resistance training, but overall, many more calories are burned.

Consider this example: In a typical one-hour cardio workout on a bike will burn, for the average male, around 400 total calories. Seventy percent of those calories come from fat and 30 percent come from glucose. And that’s it. When the workout is done, is the calorie burning.

On the other hand, a hard, resistance-training workout of 30 minutes will mean at least 300 calories burned during the workout itself (70 percent Glucose; 30 percent fat), in addition to the EPOC effect, which is, on average, some 200 extra calories burned; due to a temporary elevation of the metabolism.

Ninety percent of these latter calories will come from your fat cells because of the increase in your metabolism, or basal metabolic rate (BMR). So, for a 30-minute workout, 500 calories will be burned.

To sum up those two examples, resistance training provides a higher total number of calories burned, but a lower percentage of total fats burned. However, it still burns more of your fat, overall, due to the higher total number of calories expended from the stimulus. And it means much less time working out, too.

Cardiovascular training using the “oxygen energy system” is based on fuel efficiency, not fuel inefficiency. For anyone to lose weight and fat quickly, it is best to be inefficient at burning fuel. The latter allows the body’s maximal force generation for shorter periods of time. Due to several reasons, relating to different types of “fuel” (ATP-CP and Lactic acid—discussed in previous issues of this column), there is an increased amount of motor-unit recruitment, faster contraction speed and fast-twitch fiber usage. This has a direct stimulatory effect on the nervous system, as well as hormonal and cellular systems.

To produce the knock-on EPOC effect, or excessive post-oxygen consumption, means more oxygen (thus calories) getting burned for many hours after the workout is over as explained above. Cardio training does have a lot of health benefits ranging from an improved cardiopulmonary system, lower blood pressure, lower blood lipids and lower hear rate to reducing stress levels.

This helps reduce the risk of heart attacks and coronary heart disease. Cardio training is enjoyed by millions of people every day around the world and can certainly help, on some levels, for weight loss/fat loss, if done correctly and systematically. It is not, however, the most effective way of burning fat.

Don’t get me wrong, cardio is a nice way to keep you fit and healthy, but, truth be told, there are better, faster and more efficient ways of burning fat and losing weight.

When you perform cardiovascular exercise, your body becomes very efficient at doing the exercise. This means you have to gradually and regularly increase the duration of your cardio workouts, increase the intensity and increase the speed/pace.

For cardio work to be effective, it needs to continually make gains, much like a strictly capitalist society that needs greater and greater growth each year just to maintain a certain level. But how long can you continue increasing (particularly, in terms of duration as most only have a few hours a day allotted for workouts)?

Eventually, with cardio, you reach a point of diminished returns, which leads to low motivation, which leads to weak or missed workouts. So, is that the best way to benefit from your fitness regime in the long term?

Yes, your aerobic fitness, endurance levels and lung capacity will all increase while you are doing regular cardio workouts, but what about when you get to a point where you just can’t spare three or four hours a day working out? But there are other factors that limit your fat loss and general fitness, when it comes to serious cardio work.

If you do lots of CV training on a regular basis, your body produces chemicals called gluco-corticoids. These are produced as a stress response, making your body conserve more energy. That may sound good, but it actually prevents your body from burning fats effectively.

This is why you must continue to make the exercise harder and harder in order to keep getting the results you achieved at the beginning of a CV regime.

Sure, CV training does burn fat, but it is actually a smaller percentage of the total fats, as shown above, as opposed to when you are performing intense resistance exercise or weight training. Why is this so? After stopping your cardio workout, as soon as you stop, your heart rate and breathing will return to normal.

You have basically lost anymore physiological adaptations or benefits (apart from CV strength and stamina). This is when your metabolism returns to it pre-exercise rate.

This is not the same when you perform resistance training. Let’s be very clear here for a moment. There is a vast difference doing free weight squats and deadlifts as opposed to lifting little weights doing concentration curls, tricep pushdowns or machine training!

We are talking real resistance training that has a big stimulatory effect—not the so-called “vanity pumping,” where guys just build certain parts to look good. We need loads that are sufficient to produce a high neural demand for cellular growth and added hormonal surges. You must train hard and heavy, incorporating big movements or little rest in your workouts for this to happen.

Training this way, your body continues burning energy afterward due to this temporary elevation in metabolism before the physiological rate returns to normal, pre-exercise levels.

It is for this reason that after a particularly hard or draining workout, the metabolism can stay elevated for many hours, if not days, afterward! Think of all those extra post-workout calories getting burned.

Our bodies operate mainly in the “oxygen system” while we sleep or do menial tasks that require little energy. We use this system to maintain BMR, breathing, brain activity, heartbeat, etc. We fluctuate within the different energy systems, depending on the activity or task in hand.

Therefore, if you can keep the demand for energy higher in the body (metabolism) for longer, you can drop fat without having to perform any CV at all.

A clear example of this would be to look at how lean sprinters are compared to other distance runners. Sprinters perform explosive workouts with resistance training without the need for CV training, yet they still remain much leaner, on the whole, than distance runners who spend hours pounding the road doing cardiovascular training.

What I have been referring to above is plain weight training verses steady-state CV exercise. You can gain even more of a fat-burning response by incorporating Lactate training into workouts (either CV or resistance). These are maximal bursts of energy anyway between 10 to 60 seconds.

This specific time-frame allows the body to pass through the “ATP-CP” energy system getting you to use the “Lactate system.” When you do this type of training, your body’s production of natural growth hormone goes up significantly due to a surge from this type of training. This helps build lean muscle tissue as well as promoting fat loss. There are many terms for this type of training: intervals, lactate, fartlek, metabolic.

Another benefit from this type of training is that it makes you fit in a short period of time. Partly due to the intensity and maximal heart rates produced during the intervals, but also due to the higher demand placed on the body, as opposed to steady-state CV. It delivers less of a stimulatory effect on neural and cellular systems than resistance training.

Effective “resistance” or weight training, to coin a phrase, gives you “a bigger bang for your buck,” therefore, you must be calculative and strategic when it comes to losing weight, especially body fat. You can get incredibly lean in a matter of a few weeks by manipulating your diet along with much shorter, but higher-density resistance workouts followed by interval/lactate training.

Go on then, get ripped and drop the hours of endless pavement pounding.

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Gavin Watterson is a “Lifestyle Consultant,” a new breed of advanced personal trainer. Look for his highly anticipated new book entitled Reboot Your Bod, which will be available on his website at Ultimate Fitness Singapore.

Photo Bottom: US Army

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