Cardio or Strength: Which is better for fat burning?
In one corner: Dumbbells. In the other: A jump rope. We’re slicing and dicing the research to determine whether strength or cardio rules.
To resolve the strength vs. cardio conundrum, we culled research and chatted up experts to find out how each would fare in a head-to-head matchup. Now, let’s get ready to rumble…
To KO fat — and keep it off…: Winner: Strength
Cardio’s edge Calorie for calorie, cardio has a slight advantage. You’ll burn 8 to 10 calories a minute hoisting weights, compared with 10 to 12 calories a minute running or cycling, says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., director of research at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Strength’s edge Lifting weights gives you a metabolic spike for an hour after a workout because your body is trying hard to help your muscles recover. That means you’ll fry an additional 25 percent of the calories you just scorched during your strength session, Westcott says. “So if you burned 200 calories lifting weights, it’s really closer to 250 overall.” And if you lift heavier weights or rest no more than 30 seconds between sets, you can annihilate even more.
And there’s more good news when it comes to iron’s fat-socking power. “For every 3 pounds of muscle you build, you’ll burn an extra 120 calories a day — just vegging — because muscle takes more energy to sustain,” Westcott says. Over the course of a year, that’s about 10 pounds of fat — without even changing your diet. Yes, please.
To squash stress…: Winner: Cardio
Cardio’s edge The head-clearing effects of, say, swimming or playing tennis show up faster than it takes to get a brow wax. Just 15 minutes of aerobic activity two to three times a week can reduce anxiety significantly, according to a 2005 study in the European Journal of Sports Science. Go at it 3 to 5 days a week and you can cut fatigue by nearly 50 percent. “Cardio elevates serotonin levels in the brain, a key neurotransmitter involved in improving symptoms of depression,” says Madhukar Trivedi, M.D., director of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Mood Disorders Research Program and Clinic.
Strength’s edge A big question mark. Scientists note promising results on the mood-altering effects of pumping iron. But more research is needed to nail the intensity and duration necessary to match cardio’s benefits. So, for now
To love standing naked in front of the mirror…: Winner: Strength
Cardio’s edge Sports psychologists have been studying the effect of aerobic activity on self-confidence for decades. And they keep coming to the same conclusion: Runners, cyclists, swimmers, and other athletes have high confidence levels because of the sense of accomplishment they feel each time they cross the finish line — even when they bring up the rear.
Strength’s edge Think you look hot immediately after a workout? It’s not your imagination. Blood has rushed to your muscles, making them swell and appear more toned. Beyond vanity, you feel confident because you just pressed some major poundage. In 2006, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario tested subjects’ body image — how they felt about others checking them out, and how satisfied they were with their own appearance before and after 12 weeks of strength training. The women made significant improvements, and they were particularly influenced by the physical results of increasing the amount lifted. So try this: Keep a log of how many sets and reps you complete and how much weight you’re hoisting for each move. Every 4 weeks, go back and review your first workout. Feel the rush of pride, then strut your stuff.
To stay off the sideline: Winner: Strength
Cardio’s edge [radio silence] The repetitive nature of cardio puts serious pressure on your joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons — and the cartilage in between. If you’ve got a weak link, you’re screaming to be benched. That is, unless you hit the weight room.
Strength’s edge In a 2006 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that a balance-training program — think single-leg squats and anything on a wobble board — reduced the risk of ankle sprains in athletes. “Functional strength training teaches your brain to allow muscle contractions that are quick enough to prevent or minimize injuries,” says lead study author Tim McGuine, Ph.D., senior athletic trainer and research coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Your best bet: Choose moves that work your core, improve your balance, and force you to bend at multiple joints — so lunges, rows, squats, and presses are all fair game.
To add years to your life: Winner: Cardio
Cardio’s edge There are more health perks in cardio’s corner than Kabbalah bracelets in Hollywood. “Nothing compares with cardio for optimizing longevity,” says Mike Meyers, Ph.D., an American College of Sports Medicine — certified trainer and director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at West Texas A&M University. “It reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, and even certain types of cancer.” The ticker-strengthening benefits are especially sweet: A stronger heart pumps more blood with each beat, circulating oxygen more efficiently throughout your body; aerobic activity prevents inflammation around your thumper; and lacing up your sneaks can increase the “good” cholesterol in your blood by up to 8 percent in just 8 weeks, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
Strength’s edge A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health found that lifting weights just twice a week can prevent you from gaining intra-abdominal fat — the kind that wraps around organs and constricts blood vessels.
To reach the finish line faster: Winner: Draw
Cardio’s edge If you want to smoke your frenemy at your next 5-K, put in the miles. “The best way to train for an endurance event is by practicing it,” Meyers says. “Swimmers, for example, need to learn how to breathe properly, and cyclists need to hone cadence.”
Strength’s edge For a speed boost, strength training is essential — especially for your core and legs. “Plyometrics will improve your stride power, or the force you pedal with,” says Diane Vives, C.S.C.S., owner of Vives Training Systems in Austin, Texas. For explosive power, she recommends the standing triple jump: Swing your arms back, then forward as you leap, landing on your right foot. Quickly hop forward onto your left foot, then hop back and land on both feet. Continue for 4 to 6 reps. Do 3 sets, resting 60 to 90 seconds in between.
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