I preach a lot about using resistance training rather than steady state cardiovascular exercise when it comes to getting in shape. Before going any further, let’s briefly describe the two training methods so I don’t confuse anyone.

Resistance training is a training method where you lift either an external load (a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell etc.) or your bodyweight to condition, sculpt, strengthen and build your body.

Cardio (or cardiovascular exercise) is typically slow steady state exercise that keeps your heart rate at a low to moderate level. It is often performed for a minimum of 30 minutes and typical forms of cardio are running, cycling, walking and swimming.

So, why is lifting weights so beneficial to helping us lose body fat when compared to cardiovascular exercise?

This all comes down to the signalling that you get from lifting weights. Whenever you perform a resistance training session you will send a signal to the body that it needs to get stronger and preserve or build muscle. During the training session, you will break down muscle fibre through performing the various resistance based exercises. After the training session, your body will begin to repair these damaged fibres and build new muscle – this is known as protein synthesis. This process of protein synthesis will be aided through ingesting adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and essential fatty acids in your diet. As long as your nutrition and recovery matches your training you supply the body with all of the tools it needs in order to build muscle and burn body fat.

One thing to remember here is that muscle is an extremely expensive tissue and it requires a lot of work and energy (calories) from the body to build it. The body will often take a lot of time to build a significant amount of muscle as it has to ensure it has enough energy to keep your vital organs and bodily functions working sufficiently. If you are eating a surplus of calories (ingesting more calories than you are burning), then you are at a heightened position to build muscle. You are also going to be at a heightened chance of putting on additional body fat. This is because once your body has distributed enough calories to keeping your vital organs working optimally, building/repairing enough muscle tissue and providing energy for daily tasks it will store the excess energy (calories) as body fat. This is why eating enough calories to build muscle whilst keeping body fat gain at a minimum is interpersonal. Some individuals will be able to eat a large number of calories and keep body fat stores low whilst others won’t have that luxury. Typically, the more you move each day and the higher your muscle mass the more calories you will be able to eat without gaining much body fat. Read my previous blog to get more information on this: https://www.awpthub.com/when-why-how-do-i-change-my-macros/

So, in order to burn body fat, you must be burning more calories than you are ingesting. This is known as a being in a calorie deficit. Once you are in a calorie deficit the body will start to strip tissue for energy. Send the right signal through your training to preserve muscle mass and your body will use fat as its fuel source. This is how you can preserve muscle mass whilst burning body fat. As long as your calorie deficit isn’t too harsh you should be able to slowly chip away at your excess body fat and preserve muscle mass. You will increase the chances of this happening through resistance training. As I have said before, everyone is different when it comes to how much of a calorie deficit is needed to start seeing the desired results. Take the time to work this out by GRADUALLY dropping your calories until you start to see the desired results.

Cardiovascular exercise does not send this signal to preserve muscle mass as you are not telling the body that it needs muscle to lift heavy things on a regular basis. Instead you are just burning calories and telling the body to fuel your performance (or movement) however it can. As already stated; muscle is a more expensive fuel than fat and so the body, being a very clever machine, uses your muscle to fuel your long-distance cardio workouts. It saves your body fat to ensure it has enough fuel to maintain the running of your vital organs and bodily functions. This is not good. Your body will now start ‘eating itself’ to fuel your workouts. There is no signal telling your body to maintain or build muscle and so it gets rid of this expensive calorie burning tissue. No long-distance runner has a large amount of muscle mass. They also don’t have a large amount of body fat but this is down to the number of calories they burn week in week out with their training and not eating sufficiently to fuel this process.

Does doing any cardio hamper your chances of gaining muscle and losing body fat?

Obviously if you enjoy running, cycling and/or swimming then by all means include it as a training modality. Just use it intelligently in your training program. If you are eating in a surplus or maintenance level of calories, then the work that you do won’t negatively affect your muscle mass. But remember that if you are wanting to lose body fat then you need to be in a calorie deficit. When in a calorie deficit your body isn’t in an optimal position to build muscle BUT you will be able to maintain what muscle you have already built as long as you lift weights and send the right signals to the body!

Another thing to note here is that the body is clever in how it keeps enough energy to maintain homeostasis. This means that it can down regulate the number of calories you burn if the same signal is always being sent. If you go out and run, cycle or swim for an hour each day for a year, then you won’t be burning the same number of calories a year down the line as when you first started. The body has down regulated the number of calories needed to perform this task as it HAS GOT USED TO THE STIMULUS. Now you will need to do MORE than before to get better results.

When it comes to weight lifting the body never gets used to the stimulus being thrown at it. You should be performing a variety of exercises every week and looking to lift more weight or perform more repetitions of these exercises over time. The body never gets used to the stimulus that it is being sent and so will always be thinking that it needs to be building muscle in case it needs to lift something heavier each day. Having a larger amount of muscle burns more calories than fat, and so performing this type of training over a long period of time means you burn more calories, which in turn puts you in the best position to burn more body fat.

To conclude everything from above; lift weights to send the correct signal to build or maintain muscle which in turn puts the body in a better fat burning state. Use cardio to burn more calories if you are needing to drop weight quickly but be very aware of how your strength is when you are training with weights. If your strength is being negatively affected, then you will be losing muscle or not eating enough quality nutrients to train hard enough. Perform cardio if you enjoy it but don’t make it the backbone of your weight loss program. Instead look to get progressively stronger over time and use your nutrition as the main tool to help reduce body fat.

As always if anyone has any questions on anything that I have covered in this article then please don’t hesitate to ask me. Thanks for reading and if you think this has benefitted you then please share this article on your social medias so I can help educate others too.

Written by: Adam Wakefield

I have been working as a personal trainer for over 9 years. I began my career in the fitness industry after completing a degree in Sport Science where I graduated with Upper Class Honours. I have always had a thirst for all things related to health, fitness and nutrition and it wasn’t before long that I owned my own gym.

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