Cardio vs. Weight Training: Finding the Right Balance

A set of two dumbells that can be used for cardio and weight training

Introduction: The Cardio vs. Weight Training Debate

An age-old debate that often has people prioritising one over the other. We probably all know someone who is really into cardio, and someone else who swears by weight training. But is one better than the other? How do you choose which to take up? Read on to find out…

Understanding Cardiovascular Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise (Cardio) is any form of movement that strengthens the heart and lungs by significantly increasing your breathing and heart rate, due to an increased oxygen requirement. The faster you move and the more muscles you employ, increases the intensity of the cardio session.

For example, running instead of jogging increases the intensity, as it requires the heart and lungs to work faster. Other examples of cardio include – swimming, cycling, dancing, organised sport, skipping, rowing and trampolining. But even a brisk walk or taking the stairs can be intense enough, particularly if you are currently quite sedentary.

Exploring the Benefits of Cardio Workouts

Cardio is incredibly good for you as it’s essentially strength training for your heart. By strengthening your heart, it can pump blood around your body more efficiently, which has numerous benefits such as lowering your blood pressure. Cardio also increases levels of ‘good’ cholesterol and lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in blood, which lowers blood pressure. This reduces risk of heart attacks and strokes which is a huge killer in the UK.

Cardio can also help manage diabetes, as it regulates blood sugar and insulin levels. It can also as well as reduce asthma symptoms and strengthen the immune system, so whether you have one of these conditions or not, everyone can benefit from that. More immediate benefits of cardio include better sleep quality and duration, improved mood and increased cognitive performance, with a slower rate of cognitive decline as we age. Another key benefit of cardio is that it supports weight loss and maintenance, which is essential for many of us in the UK, as obesity is now considered the biggest cause of preventable death.

For many of us, the word ‘cardio’ brings up images of running. For some, running can be an incredibly peaceful, mind-clearing experience that leaves them feeling rejuvenated and positive. And for others, every minute running feels like ten, and it’s uncomfortable, boring and drop-dead exhausting. But the good news is, whether you enjoy running or not, there are actually sooo many other forms of cardio that you can partake in.

Types of Cardio: High-Intensity vs. Low-Impact Options

High Intensity

High intensity training is generally performed using intervals, as otherwise we would reach fatigue incredibly quickly. The format is therefore intervals of between a few seconds to a few minutes, interspersed by periods of rest lasting up to a few minutes at a time. Due to the intensity, this form of cardio is not suited to beginners or sedentary individuals.

There are many benefits to high intensity interval training (HIIT) however, including the fact that you can fit more work into a shorter period of time, as sessions generally last between ten to thirty minutes. More muscle mass is generally gained from this form of cardio over Moderate Intensity Continuous Training (MICT) and post exercise energy consumption (calories burned) typically increases with intensity of exercise.

This basically means that even after you have finished your session, your body burns more calories for anywhere up to 24 hours, compared with continuous cardio sessions. The potential for increased muscle mass and higher energy consumption post exercise, means that this is a useful tool in weight loss. On top of this, HIIT can improve the body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise, the main indicator of fitness. Similar results can be achieved from continuous cardio, but in around double the amount of time, contributing to many studies concluding that HIIT is more effective in developing oxygen consumption.

You can perform HIIT with many different types of movement, for example sprint intervals, cycling, rowing or bodyweight/weighted routines with exercises such as high knees, burpees, dumbbell thrusters and squats.

Low Impact

So far it may sound like MICT can’t possibly have any merits over HIIT. However, depending on your fitness levels and goals, it absolutely does! Firstly, if you are sedentary and looking to start some form of exercise, or if you are getting back into it after a long break, MICT is a great place to start, to build up your fitness.

Secondly, if you’re exercising purely to improve your health and fitness, and you actually prefer longer, moderate intensity sessions, then that’s exactly what you should be doing. The main benefits of HIIT are down to the reduced time it takes to achieve very similar benefits. So if you have the time for longer sessions, and prefer them, then that’s what you should do. Whatever your goals, if you don’t particularly enjoy cardio, but want to enjoy the benefits, you should choose whichever mode you enjoy, as you’re more likely to stick to it.

Weight Training Demystified

Weight training used to be seen as an activity for manly men who wanted to look big and strong to bolster their masculinity. However, our way of life has evolved to sitting down for big portions of the day, and not hunting, carrying and building things as people previously did for hundreds of thousands of years.

Our bodies have not evolved to this new normal and still require us to partake in certain activities like resistance training to keep our muscles and bones strong, which primarily reduce our risk of injury. There are of course many other benefits to weight training, but this is the main physiological reason why our bodies require us to move ourselves, or something else, against some form of resistance. 

Benefits of Resistance and Weight Training

Usually the benefit that first springs to mind, is the role of resistance training in building muscle, which is why it was so keenly taken up by all those manly men in the first place. I say this ironically, because I have very little time for hypermasculine individuals, and I’m sorry but muscle looks damn good on everyone (sorry lads but you can’t monopolise the look forever).

Similar to cardio, weight training also improves heart and brain health, as well as helping to manage blood sugar levels. As mentioned above, you lower your risk of injury by improving your muscle, bone and joint strength and increasing your mobility and flexibility too. Your mood and mental health can also benefit greatly, both from the release of happy hormones but also from using weight lifting as a mindful practice. Check out my blog for more on using weight training to improve your mental health.

Myths and Misconceptions: Busting Common Stereotypes

You might be thinking that although those benefits all sound pretty dandy, you’ve never particularly wanted to be able to body double for Dwayne Johnson. A common misconception is that if you do any form of resistance training, you’ll ‘bulk up’ and look more masculine than you’d like.

Putting on serious muscle is something that doesn’t happen accidentally. You need to be training and eating in a certain way to achieve this, and nine times out of ten, this needs a very deliberate approach. If your biological sex is male and you weight train regularly, push yourself and eat a good amount, it is likely you’ll put on a decent amount of muscle, even if that’s not your goal – so this is a case in which it could happen accidentally. But generally, it doesn’t just happen. For most people, you’ll simply gain a bit of definition, or ‘tone’ as it’s commonly termed.

Another misconception is that you can’t weight train because you don’t know what you are doing. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m not saying watch one youtube video and then go and rack up a 50kg barbell to Deadlift straight off the bat, but machines at the gym and resistance bands are safer, beginner friendly options that can be a less intimidating introduction. They both count as resistance and provide all the same benefits.

The Role of Weight Training in Weight Loss and Metabolism

The word ‘metabolism’ has been a buzzword in dieting and fitness culture for the past decade. Everyone wanting to boost or improve or speed up their own, and being jealous of how others seem to have been gifted with a superior one, in a cruel twist of fate.

Your genes have very little to do with your metabolic rate (except for those with certain medical conditions). A big factor, and one you can actually influence, is the amount of muscle you have. The more muscle you have, the more energy your body needs to function (increasing your metabolism) and so, if you are consuming less calories than your body needs each day (known as being in a calorie deficit), your body will use your stored body fat instead. Your metabolism is basically how much energy your body needs to function and so a big part of weight loss is looking at sustainable ways in which you can increase that need – gaining muscle being a great one.

Balancing Cardio and Weight Training: Hybrid training for targeted goals

You may have heard the term ‘hybrid training’ floating around recently. Another buzzword that simply means combining cardio and resistance training into your routine. This can be in the same session, or you can split them up throughout your week. For physical health, a mixture of both cardio and weight training is ideal. Your heart and lungs benefit the most from cardio and your joints, bones and muscles benefit most from weight training. Both will help with cognitive performance, as well as things like agility, coordination and proprioception.

For your mental health, I would suggest doing more of whatever form of exercise you enjoy. Regardless of studies showing variance in the levels of different happy hormones released from one form of exercise or the other, your mood will benefit most from actually enjoying the activity.  If you’re also focussing on aesthetic goals which are usually to lose some body fat and build some muscle for definition, a combination is also a good idea. Cardio is useful short-term as it can help with getting your overall movement up, contributing to a calorie deficit, while weight training and building muscle increases your metabolism long-term which helps to lose and maintain body fat. If you are looking to bulk up and build as much muscle as possible, cardio shouldn’t be overdone, to avoid ruining your calorie surplus. If that’s your goal, consider reading my muscle building blog.

The Combination of Cardio and Weight Training

Hopefully this blog has encouraged you to explore both cardio and weight training going forward, and that you can think out of the box to come up with a routine that suits both your goals and enjoyment. A 10k run and a couple of weight training sessions could become a dance class, a weighted HIIT workout and a strength focussed weight training session. Or, three weight sessions with a run/cycle home. My biggest advice is always find what you enjoy.

 If you’re in the Manchester area and want to discuss how I can help you get started, feel free to pop me a message and we can discuss what might work for you.

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Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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