Lift hard, run fast: Which exercise is better

Illustration by Amelia Madarang

The value of cardio is a hotly debated topic in exercise-related circles. Some bodybuilders assert that it is unnecessary to build lean physique, while others, particularly competitive bodybuilders, swear by it. However, tacking on 300 pounds of muscle is not the ultimate goal for most people, and the question stands: What value does cardio hold for the average person attempting to build muscle? How does this compare to other strength based activities?

Cardio has many benefits. Regularly engaging in cardiovascular activity can improve heart, sleep, bone and brain health, as well as boost metabolism and improve endurance. Cardio also burns more calories than weight training.

Though cardio workouts typically burn more calories than weight training workouts, weight training workouts will increase your resting metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories during daily activity. A study measuring effect on resting metabolism before and after weight training found that resting metabolism was increased for men by about 9% and for women about 4%. The calorie burning benefits of weight training also extend beyond this.

Research has shown that you burn more calories in the hours following a weight training session compared to a cardio workout. There are reports of resting metabolism staying elevated for up to 38 hours after weight training. No similar increase following cardio workouts has been reported. Though studies have shown that weight training on its own does not usually lead to weight loss, it does lead to body recomposition. While your weight may often stay the same, you will gain a higher proportion of muscle to fat. You may also notice that you look leaner, feel better and have more expendable energy.

Catabolic workouts, such as long durations of running, biking or swimming, are those that make you lose mass, be it fat or muscle. Anabolic workouts, such as strength training, are those that make you gain muscle mass. If you are trying to build muscle mass, you should steer away from catabolic activity; however, this does not mean you should swear off cardio altogether. HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, is a catabolic form of cardio. By combining short periods of hard activity with short periods of rest, you can preserve your muscle mass while still reaping the benefits of cardio.

For most people, a combination of cardio and weight training will be the most effective at helping you look and feel your best. However, at the end of the day, you should center in your routine whatever exercises you like to do the most. You will have more success sticking to a workout routine and progressing in your fitness if you practice movement in a way you can consistently enjoy.

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