Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Cardio and strength training are both two very popular forms of exercise that be used to great effectiveness towards several different goals in fitness.
However, while they are both great, each one has its own benefits that it offers and its purposes, and this is the beginner's guide to learning the difference between the two and determining which one is best for you to be doing.
Keep reading to learn more!
Cardio vs. Strength Training
What is Cardio?
Cardio is a term short for cardiovascular exercise, which is a type of exercise that's generally done to increase aerobic fitness and improve muscular endurance.
Cardio usually involves exercises such as running, cycling, swimming and skipping.
As you can probably see, cardio exercises are usually very good at raising the heart rate and getting us into our target work zones.
You can choose to do your cardio at either a low intensity and steady state, or higher intensity and more high intensity interval training (HIIT) style workouts.
Both of these types of cardio are going to help you burn lots of calories and can contribute greatly to a weight loss program, and will also help you develop an athletic looking physique, whether you're a man or a woman.
Benefits of Doing Cardio
Cardio has several benefits to offer that can greatly help increase a person's health and well being.
We'll list them below and give you a quick breakdown of each one.
Burns Calories and Can Help Burn More Fat
Contrary to popular belief, cardio burns calories. Not fat.
And those extra calories that you burn are going to help you burn some fat off your body fi you're able to maintain a calorie deficit for long enough.
Learn more: Does cardio really burn fat?
Most of the time, doing cardio is going to help you burn more calories for the time that you put in than any other exercise type (including strength training).
For example, an hour of running at a moderate pace generally burns upwards of 700-750 calories in a 200lb (90kg) individual.
However, an hour of intense weight training would burn about 650 calories in a person of the same bodyweight.
And that's not taking into account factors such as rest periods, exercise choices (such as compound lifts vs. isolation movements) and more.
Cardio Expands Your Lung Capacity
When you do cardio, you're forcing your body to take in a lot of oxygen in order to keep functioning properly and finish your workout.
If you push hard enough, you're going to train your lungs to get better at holding oxygen, and expand in size for more total capacity.
This is a great health benefit that comes with doing cardio exercise.
Who doesn't want stronger and healthier lungs?
Cardio Improves Sleep Quality
By expending more energy throughout the day from exercising, you're going force your body to need more sleep to recuperate and restore its energy levels.
This is naturally going to force your body to want to get more quality sleep time, which can help with several other areas of life such as work, your mood, decision making and so on.
This study conducted by Sebastien F. M. Chastin found that moderate-intense cardio could help effectively help to enhance sleep quality.
Cardio Strengthens Your Heart
When we get fitter, our resting heart rates drop. This is because our hearts are growing stronger and stronger, and are able to pump more blood with each beat than less developed cardiovascular systems can.
Instead of beating 80 times a minute to pump the necessary amount of blood, fitter hearts could do it in 60 per minute.
And for some world class athletes, sometimes even dipping below 40.
Again, this is a very important health benefit of cardio that should not be overlooked.
Cardio Reduces Risk of Chronic Diseases
According to this study conducted by Frank W. Booth: "Conclusive and overwhelming scientific evidence, largely ignored and prioritized as low, exists for physical inactivity as a primary and actual cause of most chronic diseases."
We have more on this in our blog article: The top 11 benefits of regular exercise.
There are several more benefits to cardio that we could list out, but we think those ones that we've listed are going to be the most important and the most relevant to the majority of people reading this.
As you can see there are lots of benefits to doing cardio that could come in useful in our lives, and it's definitely a good idea to consider doing some cardio if you haven't done so before.
What is Strength Training?
Strength training is another popular form of exercise that's mainly done to increase muscle mass, improve muscular strength and further help enhance athletic capabilities.
By the term 'strength training', most people are referring to weight training in a gym.
This means doing exercises such as the bench press, squat and deadlift to build strength and muscle mass across the body.
However, strength training is not just limited to weights in the gym.
Strength training can be done with calisthenics (bodyweight training) as well, resistance bands, and many cardio exercises such as swimming and rowing that will have overlaps into strength training too.
All strength training has you actively moving against some kind of weight, whether that's a barbell, your own bodyweight, the resistance of the water in water sports and so on.
Strength training has some huge benefits that almost everyone on the planet would be able to take away from, and we'll now get into that below.
Benefits of Strength Training
Increase Strength and Muscle Mass
Since strength training has us actively moving against some kind of resistance, we're bound to gradually increase our strength and muscle mass on the body to adapt and get better at what we do.
Our bodies grow in the most basic terms by adapting to the stress that we put it under, and getting stronger over time so that the next time we are to perform that given exercise at that intensity, it's not as difficult.
By repeatedly performing strength training and applying some form of progressive overload, out bodies are going to be able to gradually build up a lot of strength and a lot of muscle mass to adapt.
This is going to help with everyday life, whether it's picking things up, carrying things or simply walking around and feeling more confident.
Definitely a huge bonus that comes with strength training.
Increased Bone Health
By constantly placing your bones under (reasonable) stress, they're going to adapt just like your muscles and the rest of your body over time.
They're going to increase in density and grow stronger over time, reducing chances of breakage during accidents like falls and the chances of developing osteoporosis.
This is especially beneficial for younger athletes looking to grow through weightlifting, and it's been scientifically proven that strength training has major health benefits younger athletes can benefit hugely from.
You never know when this is going to come in handy, and it's always a good thing to have if you've got stronger and healthier bones.
Boosts Your Metabolism
It's also been proven by several studies that building more muscle is a surefire way to increase your metabolism and naturally have your body burn more calories throughout the day.
Learn more: Does weightlifting help you burn fat?
This means that strength training may actually be the BETTER long term option for fat loss if that's your primary goal.
It's still going to burn calories, but will help you naturally burn more in the long run without any extra work
Reduce Chronic Conditions
Cardio has the same benefit, so we won't go into too much detail here. Really, several of the benefits that cardio has to offer will be offered by strength training as well. Some jsut to different extents and degrees.
It's just important for you to note that weightlifting does also do wonders for you when it comes to your overall health and well-being.
Since you're constantly handling weights and need to move them through space, you're naturally going to develop some great hand-eye coordination.
You'll gradually gain control over your actions and be able to apply this into your everyday life as well.
Strength Training Improves Balance
Again, since you're having to lift and control weight (usually), you're going to develop great balance and reduce the chances of you falling over.
This might sound a little strange to some people, but it's a very real problem as we grow older and falls become increasingly dangerous the older we get.
A fall in our later stages of life can break our bones and leave us paralyzed, completely taking away our independence and ability to enjoy life to its fullest.
Strength training is going to help to improve our balancing capabilities and help keep us safe as we progress in life.
Again as with cardio, there are several more benefits to strength training that we could continue to list out.
But we've just listed the ones that we believe are going to be the most important and the most relevant to the majority of readers reading through this post.
Which One Should You Be Doing?
Picking the right exercise type is a very important decision that you'll have to make.
It's going to have a BIG impact on your ability to make progress towards your goals, and it's important that you sit down and take the time to really weigh everything and make an informed choice.
I've personally made this mistake in the past.
I rowed competitively for college during my teenage years, thinking that it would make me muscular and strong.
However, after two years of consistent and dedicated rowing, I realized that rowing itself simply wasn't a great exercise choice when it came to achieving my goals.
Rowing was never going to make me strong and muscular in the first place.
I switched to weightlifting in the gym once my second season ended and I saw much bigger changes, much quicker.
Of course, every now and then I like to hop on the rowing machine and rip the handle for a while.
And I do still keep up with my cardio every couple of days. But it was weight training that allowed me to reach my goals and help me set new ones.
Now, when you come to decide on the exercise type that you're going to perform, you need to pick something that not only aligns with your goals, but you enjoy doing as well. This is going to allow you to stay as consistent as possible and make the best possible progress.
Because ultimately, the best workout program for you is going to be the one that you enjoy doing and can stay committed to.
That's going to be the one that can provide you with the best results.
So take a look at your goals.
Whether you're trying to lose fat, build muscle, you want to get stronger or you want to improve your performance on a specific sport, you need to make the right decision on the exercise type that you're going to perform.
You should look to do some cardio if any of the following apply to you:
You want to be fit (cardiovascular fitness)
You need to be in a calorie deficit
You want to lose weight as fast as possible
You want the health benefits that come with doing cardio
You care more about being healthy and fit than looking fit
You enjoy doing cardio
Likewise, you should look to include strength training in your program if any of the following apply to you:
You want to get be strong
You want to build muscle
You want to maintain your gains long term
You want to be physically tough and durable
You want to look impressive
You enjoy doing strength training
And of course, if you want some of the benefits from both lists, then it's absolutely fine to include both cardio and weightlifting in your program.
In fact, this is recommended for most people wanting to be healthy and fit.
Training with both strength workouts and cardio might not be the most optimal for an individual goal, but collectively are going to help you round out your training program and be as healthy as you possibly can be.
Pick something that you enjoy doing, make sure it aligns with your goals and stick to your program. That's really the most basic way to put it.
Cardio and strength training are both excellent exercise types that can be used individually to great effectiveness, or in conjunction to one another for a very well rounded workout program.
There is a clear difference between the two and it's important that you make the right decision when picking the ones you're going to go with, as this is going to allow you to make the most progress and see the quickest results!
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