What's better for fat loss: weight lifting or cardio work?

What's better for fat loss: weight lifting or cardio work?

November 10, 2017

Once upon a time, if you asked a fitness professional how to lose weight, they'd reply with four simple words: get on a treadmill.

Cardiovascular work – long, slow, and (for some) boring – was the go-to option for anyone who needed to lose weight. Whether it was running, cycling, rowing or even walking, any exercise that tested your stamina over a long duration, rather than your strength over a short one, was seen as the fat person's friend.

Ask that same professional today, however, and the answer might not be so cut and dry.

There's a raging debate in the fitness world about whether resistance training (weightlifting, to you and me) isn't actually more effective at bringing about fat loss than cardio work. Annoyingly, as with many debates in my profession, there isn't a clear answer – we deal with too many personal variables and differing training regimes to ever settle on one option. Still, that doesn't stop me from having an opinion on the subject!

Before we get into which I prefer, it's important to understand the context of the question. Normally, people talk about wanting to achieve weight loss – but what they really mean is fat loss. They don't want to lose lean muscle, which would slow their metabolism and make them look less athletic; instead, they want to drop the blubber.

To always keep this context in mind, abide by the rule that ...

The maintenance of muscle mass should take precedence over the loss of bodyfat

Any training regime you embark on to lose fat and get lean should have been built with maintaining your lean muscle mass in mind.

Applying this to the cardio vs weightlifting issue, here's how the two compare:




  • Very high calorie burn during session (falls off shortly after) 
  • Low barrier to entry, many different activities can be incorporated
  • Excellent low intensity options for fat loss i.e walking
  • Little need for rest in comparison to weight training





  • Most people will use running as default cardio, but over running is a common problem, resulting in injuries and strains 
  • Difficult for very unfit people to get into, excepting at very low intensity 
  • Moderate to intense sustained cardio is not ideal for hormone balance, especially for those with high cortisol levels (a sign of tiredness and/or stress)
  • Extremely difficult to create a balanced physique through cardio alone

Weight Training


  • Increases muscle mass quickly
  • Causes a sustained spike in metablism, which means you burn calories long after the exercise is over
  • Low barrier to entry for the very unfit 
  • Offers the ability to grow muscle and loss fat simultaneously 


  • Higher barrier to recovery (e.g a four hour walk is great whereas a four hour weight session would be counter productive) 
  • Lower caloric burn in comparison to cardio (minute by minute, not over time) 
  • Lots of bad information on the market, leading to poor results
  • Can increase hunger significantly, so discipline with diet becomes a factor in success

So, which would I choose? Easy: weight training

Weight training simply offers most of the health benefits of cardio, while most of the fat loss benefits of cardio can be achieved simply through reducing caloric intake.

However ... that does not mean I would suggest you design a fat loss program around weight training instead of cardio. It sounds obvious, but the question at the heart of the debate is false: no one has to do one or the other.

Instead, when my clients ask me to suggest a fat loss regime, I normally offer one of two programmes. The first is a heavy resistance focused approach to weights, with supplementary low intensity cardio work; the other is a hybrid training phase which incorporates high intensity resistance training and cardio into the same workout.

My best recommendation? Cycle between these approaches in six week phases until you are as lean and muscular as you desire. 


Phase one: heavy weights

Focus on heavy weights, progressive load, high output cardio in the form of sprints and active recovery (LISS) between workouts. 

Monday: Heavy Resistance training i.e 5 x5 or 4 sets of 6. 

Tuesday: LISS - e.g. walking 30-90 minutes

Wednesday: Heavy Resistance training i.e 5 x5 or 4 sets of 6. 
Military Press 
Upright Row 

Thursday: LISS - e.g. walking 30-90 minutes

Friday: Sprint Training Session (outdoor track or hill session) 

Saturday: Rest / Lifestyle activity 

Sunday: Rest / Lifestyle activity 

Nutrition: as a general rule, go for break even TDEE calories on your resistance training days and -10% on resting and LISS days. 


Phase Two: hybrid training

Focus on short, highly intensive resistance based hybrid training sessions with adequate recovery between  training sessions. 

Monday: Kettlebell Complex 
6 x One Arm Swing, Clean, Snatch, Jerk, Clean + Press
Then change arms. 
Perform complex three times with one minute rest between complexes.

Tuesday: Rest 

Wednesday: Escalating Density Training Workout 
12 Minute timer countdown:
 12  x Clean + Press 
12 x Double Hand Kettlebell Swing 
6 x  Burpee

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Tabata Training  (20 seconds work vs 10 seconds rest x 8)

1. Shadow Boxing
2. Shuttle Run
3. Box Jump 
4. Bent to straight arm plank w/push up. 

Saturday: Lifestyle Activity (e.g. walk, cycling)

Sunday: Lifestyle Activity

Nutrition: As a general rule go for break even TDEE on training days and -20% on rest days. 

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