What is the best type of exercise out there?
I honestly love answering this question because of how open-ended it is. Especially in the ongoing debate about if cardio or resistance training is superior to the other.
And my rebuttal in answering this question is usually “best for…what?”
A better question I think is important to ask yourself as a pre-requisite to answering what the best way for you to exercise is “what is my actual goal?”
If your goal is to be able to run a marathon or do triathlons or swim long distances, then running, swimming, & biking should be the predominant focus of your training. Granted, endurance athletes can benefit from strength training, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus.
If your goal is to look lean, be strong AF & you don’t care if you’re huffing & puffing after scaling a flight of stairs then you don’t need to include (as much or maybe just LISS) cardio in your training routine.
And if your goal is to be a well-rounded athlete, then you might look to incorporate both cardio & resistance training into your training regime.
Moreover, the best type of exercise for YOU is going to be specific to your goals, your lifestyle, your current fitness level, & your preferences. There isn’t a universal “best” type of exercise out there that everyone should be doing to reach all of their fitness endeavors.
Alright, so now that you’ve pinpointed your fitness goals & where you want to go, today's blog is going to dive deeper into what exactly the pros & cons of resistance training & cardio are & what specific goals each tailor to.
A very basic definition of cardio is anything that elevates your heart rate for an extended period of time.
Cardiovascular training is a great training modality for those that want to improve their cardiovascular health, increase their aerobic capacity, increase their work capacity over time, or increase their performance in activities outside the gym without getting winded (i.e. chasing after kids, hiking, climbing stairs, playing sports, etc.).
One of the two main appeals to doing cardio is you can see improvements in your performance/stats very quickly as long as you’re doing cardio consistently. For example, if you set the goal to run a mile every day for a month, the first few days might feel challenging. You might feel tired & winded heading into that last half mile. However, by the end of week two or three, you might even feel like you could do MORE without hitting a wall. Your time might increase, your speed might increase, & your recovery might increase. This is all, in part, due to our bodies ability to adapt to exercise & our training to elicit a response.
Conversely, if you were to stop running a mile every day for the following month, you would lose the effects of that initial month of running very quickly. This doesn’t mean all your fitness gains will be completely lost, but it is harder to maintain aerobic endurance without consistent efforts.
Another appeal to doing cardio is that you expend more energy in a given amount of time than when doing resistance training. HOWEVER, the amount of energy we “burn” during exercise only accounts for 5% of our total daily energy expenditure. Meaning the hour, you spend in the gym or doing cardio doesn’t affect fat loss as much as how you spend the other 23 hours of the day. More on this to come below!
Now, there are multiple types of cardiovascular training that we can dive into since cardio is such a broad umbrella of activities, but we’re going to narrow this down into two of the most popular forms of cardio. The two we’ll discuss today include high-intensity interval training, or HIIT & low-intensity steady state, or LISS cardio.
HIIT cardio, or high-intensity interval training, by basic definition, usually entails work periods of intense efforts followed by periods of complete rest or periods of lower exertion to essentially recharge & go full speed ahead once more. Some popular forms of HIIT training include CrossFit, Orange Theory, F45, & Peloton HIIT.
High-intensity interval training is great for those that want to increase their anaerobic & aerobic capacity when resistance or weight training is used. Also, HIIT training can be seen as more time-effective since you can expend more calories in a shorter amount of time when compared to LISS cardio.
However, from a fat loss perspective, studies have shown that HIIT training isn’t more effective than LISS cardio for eliciting results. Avid HIIT promoters like to claim that HIIT training is superior to LISS cardio because HIIT “burns” more calories for a period of time after your workout is complete. This phenomenon is called EPOC or Excessive Post Oxygen Consumption.
But let’s learn what science says…
Based on this study done on the Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, participants performing HIIT produced a higher percentage of calories burned from their workout in a shorter time domain, BUT total daily energy expenditure was greater in participants with a slightly longer time investment in LISS cardio.
This study also found that despite HIIT eliciting a higher percentage of EPOC than LISS, it turns out that EPOC is pretty insignificant when it comes to total calories expended for the day. Moreover, your total daily energy expenditure is more significant as well as the cumulative effect of energy “burned” during the actual exercise for generating fat loss than EPOC.
With that said, HIIT training is pretty stressful on the body given its “high-intensity” nature & can cause the body to produce large amounts of cortisol. Although we want some stress on the body when training to help drive the adaptations we want to get stronger, fitter, etc., if you already live a high-stress lifestyle & are trying to achieve fat loss (another stress on the body), it might be more advantageous for you to reduce your high-intensity training during the week & focus more on LISS cardio &/or pure resistance training.
There’s nothing wrong with HIIT training when dosed & used appropriately to elicit a response, but it shouldn’t be what we rely on to create a calorie deficit & achieve fat loss. But if you truly love CrossFit, Orange Theory, or another form of HIIT, do it! Again, there’s nothing wrong with moving your body in that way if that’s what you enjoy, but your ability to assess your stressors for the day (i.e. How did I sleep last night? How is my recovery today? How am I feeling?) will be important for you if you’re trying to achieve body composition goals. If you’re feeling extra fatigued & have had a stressful day at work, you might need to pull back from training that day & not go balls to the wall in your workout to help decrease your body’s cortisol response thus preventing weight retention, sleep disturbances, etc.
Low-intensity steady state or LISS cardio, in short, is any aerobic activity that you can perform & sustain for an extended period of time at a relatively low heart rate. Examples include walking, biking, hiking, swimming, jogging, & cycling.
As stated above, LISS cardio is a just as effective way to move your body as HIIT training, but can sometimes get a bad rap due to its monotonous nature. One of the biggest pros to LISS cardio is that you can do a decent amount of walking, swimming, hiking, etc. without adding a ton of stress or strain to your body, nervous system, joints, or compromising your recovery.
From an overall health perspective, everyone should be performing some type of LISS cardio regularly. Especially, if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for the majority of the day.
Also, many people find walking, hiking, & other forms of LISS to be a way for them to mentally destress & relieve anxiety. Due to its low-intensity nature, LISS cardio can be done for extended periods of time & can help with mental health.
LISS cardio a great tool for increasing energy expenditure in a very low-key, stress-free manner for those seeking fat loss & those already in a stressed state. However, at the end of the day, the addition of LISS or any other form of cardio, for that matter, isn’t necessary for fat loss. As long as you’re in a caloric deficit, moving a reasonable amount outside the gym, &/or strength training consistently, you can achieve better body composition results than by just adding cardio alone.
By definition, resistance training is a form of exercise that uses resistance (bands, weights, bodyweight, machines, etc.) to create muscular contractions to build strength & anaerobic endurance.
Resistance training has numerous benefits including increased bone density, muscle mass, speed, power, agility, hormone production (specifically testosterone, yes, in ladies too), & improved posture. Resistance training does induce a cortisol response in the body, but, when dosed & managed appropriately, drives the adaptation we want in achieving body composition or strength goals.
Resistance training appeals to many for a few main reasons. One is the fact that resistance training improves our ability to perform day-to-day tasks like lifting children, moving furniture, carrying groceries, etc.
Another reason being resistance training increases our bodies' ability to put on lean body mass. This can, in turn, increase our BMR (basal metabolic rate) & increase our metabolic function. With that said, lifting weights burns fewer calories in a given amount of time than cardio, but muscle burns more calories. Meaning, the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn at rest than someone who doesn't lift weights with little to no muscle mass.
Also, important to note for those seeking to gain muscle: if your ultimate goal is to put on muscle, you need to lift weights! When people say they want to "tone up," that means they want to see muscle definition & should also lift weights.
Those seeking to gain muscle should avoid doing their cardio & strength sessions on the same day, or space their sessions far apart. Another great option is to look to get most of your cardio in from LISS since it doesn't induce a stress response in the body & it's harder for your body to adapt to this stimulus. However, you can also mix up your training splits. Having heavier low rep days, lighter higher rep days, & moderate mid-rep range days is a great way to keep things varied as well as adding tempos, slowing down, & increasing your rest periods between sets.
From a nutrition standpoint, you should be eating at maintenance or in a slight surplus & be eating at least 1g/lb of your body weight in protein to give your body the energy it needs to put towards building muscle. Eating enough & sometimes more than enough food alongside a quality resistance training program is KEY when it comes to building muscle.
So what are some conclusions we can draw from all the information given above in today’s blog?
Again, there is not a universal form of exercise that’s best for everyone. The “best” type of exercise for you will be the type of exercise you enjoy & can sustain long-term.
If your goal is to achieve lean body mass, resistance training should be the foundation of your training regime.
If your goal is fat loss, using excess cardio alone shouldn’t be what you rely on to put yourself in a deficit. Utilizing a moderate calorie deficit, resistance training (if you enjoy it), & using cardio (ideally, LISS cardio) as a tool to help with fat loss according to liking, lifestyle, & sustainability is typically a better approach than just killing yourself with hours & hours of cardio.
If you already live a high-stress lifestyle, are deep into a cut, & HIIT is your main training modality, it may be more advantageous for you to reduce the amount of time you spend doing HIIT training per week & allot that time towards LISS cardio &/or resistance training.
At the end of the day, there doesn’t have to be a line drawn between cardiovascular training & resistance training. When you decide what you’re looking to get out of your training, you can let your goals determine which of the two, cardiovascular or resistance training, you focus more on at any given time.
There isn’t a one-size-fits all, black & white approach to training & exercise so…
Why not do both?
When cardio & resistance training are done in conjunction (in a smart & feasible way), they can promote numerous health benefits. The two are not mutually exclusive, but, remember, adding the minimal effective dose to evoke the response you want should ALWAYS be the goal.
Train smarter, not harder, folks!
Most importantly, exercise should be something we enjoy! It shouldn’t feel like a chore all the time or something we have to do, so find the training modality that is most enjoyable for you & works well for you.
We look forward to the day when exercise isn’t seen as a way to burn calories & instead is seen as a way to live a happier, healthier lifestyle.
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LaForgia J, Withers RT, Gore CJ. Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. J Sports Sci. 2006 Dec;24(12):1247-64. doi: 10.1080/02640410600552064. PMID: 17101527.