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Cardio vs Strength Training: Which burns more fat?

Updated on March 1, 2007

I'll be the first to tell you I love strength training, I love feeling strong and I love the look of sleek muscles. Strength training is important, it builds muscles which prevent injury and keep our bodies healthy. The problem is, strength training has been vastly oversold as a metabolism-boosting calorie burner. It's time for a reality check.

Metabolism 101

Our metabolism is the key to burning fat. To lose weight we need to increase our total calorie burn. To increase our total calorie burn we need to increase one (or more) of the following:

Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which is essentially the calories you burn at rest. Your BMR is important because it makes up a large percentage of total calorie burn, but unfortunately you can't do much to increase (or decrease) it. Your BMR is mostly determined by your genetic makeup and body weight. The only way to really boost your BMR is to gain a large amount of weight (quite counter productive for our reasons).

Your physical-activity energy expenditure, which is all the activity you do in a day. This not only includes all of your workouts, but also walking your dog, doing the dishes, climbing the stairs, even brushing your teeth- any time your body is active it is adding to your physical-activity energy expenditure. Your physical-activity energy expenditure is the most important part of your total calorie burn because it is the part you can do the most about, all you have to do to increase it is to get up and move!

Your thermic effect of feeding, which is the energy your body expends while digesting food. Your thermis effect of feeding is generally about 10 percent of your daily calorie burn. However this number can be increased by eating small meals several times a day rather than just a few large meals. Stimulating foods such as green tea and chili peppers can also speed your thermic effect of feeding.

Your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, which is the extra calories you burn after exercise. Your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption is also known as the "afterburn". The amount of calories you burn post-workout will depend on the type of your workout, if you heart rate is increased during your workout and stay increased your will burn more.

Why Strength Training doesn't burn

The theory behind strength training burning more than cardio comes from the idea that one pound of muscle uses more calories per day than one pound fat does, while this is true, it is not enough to trim you down. Take a look at the numbers:

  • 182 calories are burned per day for each pound of kidney your body houses.
  • 110 calories are burned per day for each pound of brain that your body houses.
  • 6 calories are burned per day for each pound of muscle that your body houses.
  • 2 calories are burned per day for each pound of fat that your body houses.

During strength training you burn less calories, and the additional calories you burn due to the gain in muscle in your body is barely enough to make a difference, your time would be much better spend doing cardio where you would burn more calories during the workout (and less after).

Why Cardio does burn

If you're interested in boosting your metabolism to lose weight, aerobic training such as running and walking is a better investment than strength training. All you need to do is look at the numbers to see why:

40 minutes of moderate cardio (running 8:30 pace) vs. 40 minutes of moderate strength training-

Cardio: 522 calories burned during the activity, 30 calories burned in afterburn, 0 calories burned from gained muscle

Strength Training: approximately 136 calories burned during the activity, 20 calories burned in afterburn, 30 calories burned from gained muscle

Cardio leads by 366 calories.

So there it is, if you want to burn more fat do more cardio, the numbers are simple. However, I won't necessarily replace all strength training with cardio, it is good to have a mix of both-this way you will burn fat and build muscle which will keep you strong and healthy and prevent against injury, not to mention provide you with sleek and sexy muscles. It is also important to keep diet in mind, exercise alone won't do it (and neither will diet alone). You need to focus on creating a diet and exercise plan and sticking to it!

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    James D 10 years ago

    Putting the numbers down and calculating the calories burned makes it sound like it works but where are the numbers coming from?

    I know from my own experiences that after a good strength building work out of about 30-45 minutes coupled with about 15 minutes of basketball that my muscles are in repair/build mode for at least a good couple of days. Which to me means more than "30 calories burned from gained muscle".

    On face value, without a study cited or a book (with studies cited)... cited this article is retardulous.

    When I miss a week or so from my workouts my whole body will ache for two to three days after I start back up. And at night I can feel my metabolism working over time my body gets really warm... I mean way more warm than usual. I'll wake up hot when usually I don't. That's just what I've experienced, though what the hell do I know.

    My point here is that I need proof and that comes from A. scientific studies (not anecdotal ones, which my experiences are by the way) or B. physical proof... meaning the person who wrote this article has gotten others to lose fat as easily as they could (assuming that the author has little fat).

    Whatever you think of what I wrote about this article, it does conclude well: "You need to focus on creating a diet and exercise plan and sticking to it!"

    .... that says it all.

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    Spree 10 years ago

    My program 4 times a week is 30minutes cardio then an hour or so of strenght training. After lifting some weights, i will finish the program with a 5minute walk on the thread then staying in the sauna for around 10minutes before taking a bath. Thanks for this information.

  • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

    Stacie Naczelnik 10 years ago from Seattle

    I like this Hub. I once had a roommate who told me, quite matter of factly, that if you only have time for one kind of exercise, do strength training because it will burn more calories in the long run than cardio. I have since learned that isn't true, so kudos for spreading the word. I definitely do more cardio than strength training, but know that strength training is also very important for overall health.