When you think of exercise geared specifically toward weight loss, you likely imagine spending long hours on the treadmill or elliptical. And while it's true that doing steady state cardio probably will help with weight loss, experts say it's totally unnecessary if your main goal is fat loss. In fact, you can lose weight just by lifting weights. (Yes, really. Just peep these weight lifting body transformations.)
However, that doesn't mean you should never do cardio. Here's why you might want to prioritize strength training if shedding pounds is on your to-do list—but you can't forgo breathing heavy forever.
Why You Don't Need Dedicated Cardio Sessions to Lose Weight
"Cardio is one of the least effective fitness modalities for weight loss," explains Jillian Michaels, health and fitness expert and creator of My Fitness by Jillian Michaels app. That's because you lose weight by burning more calories than you eat, and to many people's surprise, strength training is actually better at doing that than steady state cardio.
The reasons for this are pretty simple. First, strength training changes your body composition. "Resistance training will help you build more muscle, which will spike your metabolism and help you burn more calories," explains Betina Gozo, a Nike Master Trainer who focuses on strength training. The more calories your body burns on its own, the easier it is to lose weight. In other words, if you want to lose weight, building muscle is a good thing. (Here's all the science on building muscle and burning fat.)
Second, resistance training done in a circuit often burns more calories than plain old cardio, particularly when done with compound movements like squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, cleans, push presses, and more, according to Jennifer Novak, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and owner of PEAK Symmetry Performance Strategies. "When more joints are involved in a movement, more muscles have to be recruited to execute them," she explains. That means—yep—more calories burned.
Plus, there's the "afterburn" effect that comes along with higher-intensity resistance training. "When you're just doing straight-up cardio, you're working at an aerobic pace and only burning calories for the amount of time that you're working out," says Gozo. With a high-intensity resistance training circuit session, you continue burning calories for the rest of the day, she adds. Of course, you can absolutely get this afterburn benefit from HIIT, but for the muscle-building benefits, you'll want to incorporate resistance in the form of weights, kettlebells, or body weight leverage.
"That said, all of this is irrelevant if you don't also watch what you are eating," adds Michaels. Remember that saying: "abs are made in the kitchen?" Well, it's true. With a dialed-in nutrition plan and strength-based workout routine, you're most likely to see the weight loss changes you're looking for.
The No-Cardio Catch
Now, while cardio isn't necessary for weight loss, that doesn't mean cardio is unnecessary ~in general~. The American Heart Association currently recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise per week (spread over five days) OR 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise per week (spread over three days) plus two strength training sessions for optimal heart health. (Only about 23 percent of Americans are meeting those requirements, though.) That's because getting your heart rate up is still crucial for keeping your heart healthy.
The thing is: Strength training, when done strategically, can definitely get your heart rate high enough to count as vigorous cardiovascular exercise. (Here's a primer on how to use heart rate zones to train for max exercise benefits.) "Compound movements are a great way to get your heart rate up while doing strength training," explains Gozo. Because you're working several muscles at once, your heart rate is going to climb. (If you've ever heard your heartbeat in your ears after doing a few heavy deadlifts, you know exactly what she's talking about.) Plus, by minimizing the rest you take between sets, adding heavier weights, and/or stepping up your pace, you can boost your heart rate.
Get the Best of Both Worlds
So how do fitness pros recommend balancing strength and cardio training if you're trying to lose weight? "I would recommend cardio only on your off days," says Michaels. "For example, if you lift four times a week and you want to get one or two more sweat sessions in—but still allow your muscles the proper recovery time—this is when cardio would be fine."
Want to ensure you're hitting the recommended amount of cardio without ever setting foot on the treadmill? Weight train in circuits, she explains. "Move from one exercise to the next in swift succession to keep your heart rate up. I personally add a HIIT interval into every circuit as well to get the extra intensity."
It's also a good idea to choose your weights strategically. "Try to incorporate weights and resistance that actually challenge you for your last few reps, or else you may not be getting full benefits," says Gozo. "You never want the weights to be easy to move for 15+ reps. You want the 'resistance' to be there to make change happen."
The only cardio caveat? If you're training for something sport-specific (such as a half-marathon or triathlon) then you will need to do dedicated cardio workouts, says Michaels.
Still, Michaels is fully behind the idea of focusing most of your effort on shorter resistance-based workouts over long bouts of cardio. "Study after study has shown us the higher intensity, shorter duration workouts are the most effective for overall fitness, cardiovascular health, bone density, muscle maintenance, metabolism and more." Want to give this kind of workout a try? Check out this kettlebell cardio workout.