Strength training, Cardio and Weight Loss

by | Jul 10, 2022 | Nutrition

Losing weight is simple in principle. It’s just about creating a caloric deficit. When we exercise, we use energy (calories), but if you want to not only lose weight, but also look good and feel good while doing it, it will also depend on what exercise you choose.

Ivana is dissatisfied with herself and therefore decides to lose 10 kg. Since running is an easily accessible activity, she starts running even though she has never liked it.

In the first month, she works up to half an hour of running 5 times a week. At the same time, she eliminates sweetened beverages and stops eating white pastry. She is full of motivation and the weight comes off almost effortlessly. She loses 5 kg in the first month, and her colleagues and friends immediately notice and start giving her compliments.

This motivates her to run even more. After two months, she is 7 kg lighter. Her weight is still dropping, but more slowly. However, she can already run a little more and runs 45-60 minutes 5 times a week.

After three months, she notices that despite running for an hour a day, her weight is no longer moving. She decides to remove pasta, rice and potatoes from her diet. Her weight moves down again and she manages to lose another 1-2 kg. She already feels weaker during runs and is generally more tired during the day. Moreover, now she likes running even less than when she started. She loses the last kilo by avoiding a glass of wine during weekends and eating only home-prepared meals, mainly salads.

After four months, Ivana managed to lose 10 kg. When she looks in the mirror, she looks smaller, but she thought that by losing weight her body would look more toned.

Why does she still look soft?

And how will she maintain the new weight she fought for so hard?

In this article you will find out:

  • How endurance training and strength training affect how your body looks.
  • When should you skip cardio in favor of strength training.
  • What effect strength and cardio training have on weight loss and body composition.
  • How to exercise if you want to reduce fat, gain muscle and look your best if you are not an athlete.
  • How to exercise, reduce fat, build muscle if you are an athlete

Weight and appearance are not the same thing

My experience shows that if someone is trying to lose weight, they are usually not only concerned with the number on the scale, but also with improving their health, how they feel physically and mentally, they want to be more attractive, and last but not least, look better.

For these goals, it is important to think about the type of physical activity.
If you want to have a “tight” body, you don’t need to have a very low percentage of fat, but you mainly need enough muscle mass. This was one of the first mistakes I made. I’ve never had a lot of muscle and in an effort to look better I focused on losing weight when I needed to do the exact opposite – gain more muscle mass.

Muscle mass is not only important for appearance, but also for overall health. Muscle mass decreases with age, and one of the best indicators of quality of life and health, especially in advanced age, is the amount of muscle mass. It’s not just about muscles, but it’s also related to be able to do normal activities.

Going back to the choice of physical activity for fat reduction, we have two main directions:

  • Cardio activities such as walking, running, dancing, swimming, cycling…
  • Strength activities – exercise with your own weight, with dumbbells, resistance bands…

These activities can be performed in different intensities. I’m not going to go into details because I want to show you the big picture.

The value of training is not in how many calories you burn during it!

For athletes, it is essential to look at training goals such as speed, strength, jump height, or endurance. Burning calories is just a side effect of training.

Exercise can also help create a caloric deficit. However, this does not mean that cardio is the best way to create this deficit. You can hardly outrun a bad diet.

The value of training is in the health benefits such as strengthening immunity, improving self-confidence, and creating good habits. [1] We can observe obese who are healthy thanks to being highly active – sumo wrestlers.

So let’s stop looking at exercise as a way to burn calories.

You may know that cardio training burns much more energy per unit of time:

  • In strength training, it is approx. 6kcal/minute (including rest between sets).
  • When running, a 70 kg, a 30-year-old man will use approx. 14kcal/minute. With higher intensity, it will be a little more (at a speed of 16.1 km/h it would be 17kcal, i.e. 90s for 400m)

It seems like cardio is the clear winner for weight loss because it burns more calories, right?

This is not quite the case. If you’ve tried to lose weight by running in the past, you may have noticed that it goes relatively easy at first, but after a short time, you get stuck.

The body adapts, it no longer needs as much energy to run as it did at the beginning, and you are also a little lighter.

In addition, it is almost impossible to accurately quantify energy expenditure during activity. That’s why it happens that the watch shows that you burned 800 kcal while running, but in reality, it is often much less.

Physical activities – exercise – give the body a signal

Endurance Training

Cardio activities give the body a signal to learn how to manage energy better and thus improve endurance. We can observe how the body adapts, e.g. by reducing energy expenditure during activity.

In addition, it will compensate for the energy deficit by reducing activity outside of exercise. In practice, this means that you run a half marathon, but for the rest of the day you also compensate by not moving much and feeling more hungry.

This effect is nicely described in studies of indigenous tribes who live a very active lifestyle, but their energy expenditure is not much higher than that of a person who works in an office.

How is it possible?

Adaptation.

During an energy deficit, the signal for building muscle mass is suppressed and an increased loss of muscle mass occurs, especially in combination with endurance training.

In the attached graphic below you can see the daily physical activity of different populations. The Hadza and the Tsimane are the tribes that best reflect the life of a person living by hunting and gathering. As you can see, a higher level of physical activity does not correspond to the total daily energy expenditure. Their physical activity during the day consists of hunting and gathering, which are light forms of cardio.

Daily moderate and vigorous physical activity (MVPA) (measured via heart rate or accelerometry), total energy expenditure (TEE) (kcal d−1), activity energy expenditure (AEE) (kcal d−1) and physical activity level (PAL) (TEE/BMR) for the Hadza, Tsimane and seven industrialized populations. TEE and AEE are adjusted to Hadza fat free mass; see text. Error bars for TEE and AEE are standard deviations, calculated from reported coefficients of variation in TEE.

As the authors write: “The similarity in TEE, AEE and PAL suggests that the body adjusts to variation in physical activity to maintain TEE within a narrow physiological range. This ‘Constrained TEE’ hypothesis is consistent with other studies showing no correspondence between activity levels and TEE, AEE and PAL among human populations, similar TEE in captive and wild mammal populations, and limited or no effect of increased activity on TEE in controlled laboratory studies of birds and rodents.” 

The main ways how the body adapts to high energy expenditure are:

  • Body gets more efficient using energy during the activity.
  • Body downregulates energy expenditure outside of exercise, so you move less, you get sluggish, and slower to ‘conserve’ the energy. It is estimated that there is a threshold at 500kcal of Active Energy Expenditure that your body can compensate for by reducing your energy expenditure outside of exercise.
  • Appetite increases so you eat more.

Cardio training has its benefits: [1]

  • it improves physical condition
  • it lowers blood pressure
  • it improves the ability to tolerate the total workload
  • cardio helps some people clear their head

Resistance Training

Resistance training gives the body a signal to maintain and build muscle, which is an energy-intense process.

So despite the fact that during strength training itself you only use a relatively small amount of energy compared to cardio, to build 1 kg of muscle you need approx. 6000 kcal!

This is one of the reasons why some have trouble gaining muscle. They eat too little to supply the body with enough energy to effectively build muscle mass.

Extreme examples of these body adaptations are on the one hand endurance athletes and on the other hand bodybuilders/crossfiters.
Don’t worry, you won’t easily look like either of them🙂, you will be somewhere in the spectrum between them. But generally speaking, emphasis on endurance exercise produces a ‘soft’ look because of the adaptations it drives.
 
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Summary

  • Body weight is the result of energy balance = the ratio between energy intake and energy expenditure.
  • Appearance and performance are the result of exercise and macronutrients.
  • Health and energy is the result of activity, quality and quantity of energy intake.

If your goal is to improve your appearance and body composition and lifestyle

If you enjoy cardio like running, keep doing it. However, if cardio is a pain for you, you may lose weight with it, but you won’t keep the weight off for a long time. From a long-term perspective, it is most important to have activities that you enjoy.

If your current goal is to lose weight and improve your muscle-to-fat ratio to look better, it’s a good idea to prioritize strength training. In that case, the ratio of cardio to strength training should not exceed 1:1. This is especially true if you have a problem with gaining muscle mass.

  • Cardio can help you create a caloric deficit.
  • Cardiovascular training helps promote a healthy heart.
  • It is simple to implement.
  • Cardio combined with strength training is suitable mainly for people with a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Strength training will help you build muscle so you look ‘tighter’ and prevent muscle wasting during a fat-loss phase.

The best all-round exercise is high-volume strength training with short rest (10-30 reps per set), supersets, with shorter rest <60s – but it is not better than a well-put-together workout plan consisiting of different repetition ranges, weights, and cardio intensities.

If your goal is to improve body composition and you have a lot of cardio as a part of your sport

It will still be possible for you to build muscle mass and reduce your fat percentage, although perhaps not optimally. You will have to pay more attention to nutrition and give your body energy when it needs it most, ie. before, during, and after training.

Ensure a sufficient supply of proteins and carbohydrates and create a deficit by reducing fat intake. Your caloric deficit should also not be less than 500kcal/day.

Ideally, the ratio of cardio to strength training should not exceed 1:1. If you do sports, you have to consider when in the season is a good time to gain muscle mass/lose weight, how it affects your sports performance, and periodize your goals accordingly.

  • Cardio can help you create a caloric deficit.
  • Cardio can help minimize fat gain during bulking.
  • Cardio helps build more muscle indirectly through better fatigue tolerance and faster recovery.
  • Strength training will help you build muscle so you look ‘tighter’ and prevent muscle wasting during a fat-loss phase, and a good resistance training will enhance your sports performance in any sports, even endurance.

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Resources

Ken-ichi IwasakiRong ZhangJulie H. Zuckerman, and Benjamin D. Levine

Journal of Applied Physiology 2003 95:41575-1583

[2] Pontzer, H.Wood, B. M., and Raichlen, D. A. (2018Hunter-gatherers as models in public healthObesity Reviews1924– 35https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12785.

[3] Steele J, Plotkin D, Van Every D, et al. Slow and Steady, or Hard and Fast? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Comparing Body Composition Changes between Interval Training and Moderate Intensity Continuous Training. Sports (Basel). 2021;9(11):155. Published 2021 Nov 18. doi:10.3390/sports9110155