lKey Takeaways

  1. Both weightlifting and cardio offer many of the same health benefits, but cardio offers some benefits you can’t get from lifting weights alone.
  2. Cardio burns more calories than weightlifting per minute of time and combining cardio and weightlifting improves cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity more than either kind of exercise in isolation.
  3. Keep reading to learn how many calories cardio actually burns, why doing both cardio and strength training is best for your health, and more!

It’s no secret most weightlifters don’t like cardio. 

Most avoid it because it’s uncomfortable.

Others are worried it’ll interfere with their ability to gain strength and muscle.

And others just find it boring and pointless.

After all, if you’re already lifting weights several times per week, how much can you really benefit by adding a bit of cardio to your weekly routine? 

Sure, you’ve heard about the health benefits of cardio. Things like lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol, and improving blood flow and arterial health, but can’t you get most of those benefits from lifting weights, too? 

And what if you modify your weightlifting to more closely resemble cardio by resting less between sets, lifting weights faster, doing more reps with lighter weight, and so forth? Could this give you the benefits of weightlifting and cardio? 

The short answer? 

Sort of. 

Weightlifting does offer many of the same health benefits as cardio, including improved heart health, insulin sensitivity, and more, but cardio also offers some health benefits you can’t get from weightlifting.

Keep reading to learn what these benefits are, and how to get the benefits of both weightlifting and cardio.

 

The 3 Main Scientifically Proven Benefits of “Cardio”


does lifting weights burn fat


Whether you like it or not, cardio has its upsides.

As the name suggests, most of these have to do with improving your cardiovascular health, but it can also improve your health and longevity in a number of other ways.

By “cardio,” I mean any kind of exercise that involves maintaining an elevated heart rate for more than a few minutes at a time. A more accurate term would be “endurance training,” or “aerobic exercise,” but I’ll call it cardio in this article for the sake of simplicity. Running, swimming, cycling, rowing, basketball, soccer, and even brisk walking or hiking all qualify. 

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s start with one main benefits of cardio that you’re probably familiar with . . . 















Cardio Burns More Calories than Weightlifting

The reason most people do cardio is to lose weight, and for good reason—it works.

As you probably know, weight loss boils down to expending more calories than you take in. Yes, it comes down to calories in versus calories out.

Thus, anything that helps you burn more calories can be helpful for weight loss (so long as you don’t make the mistake of eating more to compensate). 

While it’s become trendy to say that “exercise doesn’t help you lose weight,” this is just contrarian clickbait that doctors, journalists, and fitness gurus spout to get pageviews and press.

They’re correct in that using exercise to lose weight without also managing your calorie intake is a fool’s errand. They throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, by saying that exercise is useless for weight loss under all circumstances. If you exercise and manage your calorie intake properly, you can lose fat much faster and, more importantly, maintain or even gain muscle while losing fat.

Cardio won’t do much to help you maintain your muscle mass (unless you’re a completely new to exercise), but it allows you to create a larger calorie deficit without restricting your food intake. That is, instead of reducing your calorie intake by 500 per day to lose weight, you could burn 250 calories through cardio and eat 250 fewer calories per day to achieve the same result (and reap the other benefits of cardio you’ll learn about in a moment).

Some people counter this idea by claiming that cardio doesn’t really burn that many calories, implying it’s more or less a waste of time when it comes to weight loss. For example, you’ll often hear that cardio “only burns 200 calories per hour” or some other disheartening number, or that “exercise accounts for a small portion of daily calorie burn.”

Is that really true, though? 

It’s no surprise that very light cardio, like walking your dog, burns hardly any calories, but what if you’re willing to work a bit harder? How many calories do you really burn on, say, a moderately hard bike ride, run, or hike? 

Well, a lot more than most people realize (and many weight loss gurus want to admit).

Before we get into the specific numbers, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how scientists calculate how many calories people burn while working out. One of the most accurate methods is known as indirect calorimetry, which involves capturing and analyzing the gasses people breathe out to estimate how many calories they burn during different activities.

While this is very accurate, it’s also cumbersome, expensive, and impractical to do outside of a laboratory setting without the supervision of trained practitioners. 

Luckily, some clever researchers came up with a system based on data from indirect calorimetry studies that lets you estimate how many calories you burn during various physical activities. This system, known as the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET), allows you to estimate how many calories you burn based on your body weight and the intensity and duration of your activities. 

One MET represents how much energy you burn per kilogram of body weight per minute at rest.

Once you know how many METs you burn during an activity, you can plug in your body weight and the duration (in hours) to see how many total calories you burn during the activity. You can find the MET scores of a wide variety of physical activities in The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide.

Here are the MET values for a few activities: 

Sleeping: 0.9

Typing at your desk: 1.8

Walking at a slow pace across flat terrain: 2.0

Bicycling at a leisurely pace (~10 mph): 4.0

Intense weightlifting (powerlifting or bodybuilding): 6

You can use these numbers to figure out how many calories you burn during each activity using this formula: 

MET value x Your Weight in Kilograms x Hours of Activity = Calories Burned

With that in mind, let’s figure out how many calories I burn during, say, an intense weightlifting workout.

Weightlifting has a MET value of 6, I weigh 175 pounds (~79 kilograms), and most of my weightlifting workouts last about an hour. 

The math looks like this: 

6 METs x 79 kilograms x 1 hour = 474 calories

Thus, for every hour of weightlifting I do, I burn around 500 calories. 

So long as you don’t overestimate how hard you’re working in your workouts, the MET system is pretty accurate. 

For example, when scientists at the University of Mississippi used indirect calorimetry to measure the calorie expenditure of weightlifters, they found that doing four sets of eight reps of deadlifts with 386 pounds burned about 100 calories. Assuming you rest around 3 to 4 minutes between each set, that’ll take you around 12 to 15 minutes, meaning you’d burn around 400 to 500 calories if you continued this for an hour—right in line with what the MET formula predicted. 

Those numbers are probably similar for the squat, a little lower for the bench and military press (which involve less muscle mass), and are probably much lower for isolation exercises like curls, side raises, and the like. Thus, a weightlifting workout with a combination of compound exercises (like the squat, bench press, and deadlift) and isolation exercises (like curls and side raises) will burn even fewer calories on average—probably more like 300 to 400 per hour. 

So, assuming intense weightlifting burns around 6 METs, how do common forms of cardio compare? 

Well, here are some MET values for a few kinds of cardio: 

  • Bicycling at a leisurely pace (<10 mph): 4.0
  • Running at a moderate pace (10 min/mile): 9.8
  • Running at a fast pace (7 min/mile): 12.3
  • Cycling at a fast pace (16 to 19 mph): 12
  • Basketball at a moderate intensity (drills, scrimmaging, etc.): 6.5
  • Stairmaster at an intense pace: ~9

Using myself as an example again, here’s how many calories I’d burn per hour of each of these activities: 

  • Bicycling at a leisurely pace (<10 mph): 333
  • Running at a moderate pace (10 min/mile): 817
  • Running at a fast pace (7 min/mile): 1,025
  • Cycling at a fast pace (16 to 19 mph): 1,000
  • Basketball at a moderate intensity (drills, scrimmaging, etc.): 542
  • Stairmaster at an intense pace: 750

So, according to these numbers, if I’m willing to do cardio at a moderate to fairly difficult intensity, I can burn 50 to 100% more calories per minute than I can weightlifting. 

Here’s another way to look at it, just to drive the point home: 

I’d have to deadlift 40 sets of 8 reps with 386 pounds for an hour . . . to burn as many calories as I could running or cycling at a moderately difficult pace for an hour. 

Even a light cardio workout that causes almost no muscle damage, like an easy bike ride, burns as many calories as an hour-long, 40-set deadlift workout.

Summary: Very light cardio burns as many calories as intense weightlifting, moderate intensity cardio burns about 50% more calories, and intense cardio burns about 100% more calories per minute. 

“Cardio” vs. Weightlifting for Cardiovascular Health

 


lifting weights benefits


As the name suggests, cardio workouts can drastically improve cardiovascular health. 

That said, so can weightlifting, and recent research indicates that you can get many of the same cardiovascular health benefits of cardio by lifting weights. So, which one should you do? 

Both. Here’s why: 

  1. A combination of cardio and weightlifting is better at lowering blood pressure than cardio or weightlifting alone.
  2. A combination of cardio and weightlifting is better at improving cholesterol levels than cardio or weightlifting alone.
  3. Cardio lowers “bad” cholesterol levels and increases “good” cholesterol levels more than weightlifting.
  4. Cardio increases capillary density and blood flow more than weightlifting.
  5. Cardio increases arterial flexibility and responsiveness more than weightlifting.

Let’s look at each of these benefits separately. 

A combination of cardio and weightlifting is better at lowering blood pressure than cardio or weightlifting alone.

High blood pressure—or hypertension—significantly increases the risk of a whole host of diseases.

Luckily, the blood pressure-lowering ability of cardio is well-established, with data from as far back as the 1960s showing men who do cardio regularly are less likely to develop hypertension.

Pretty much every major meta-analysis since then has found the same thing: when you do cardio consistently, your blood pressure drops significantly. This is true of both lower intensity, longer duration cardio as well as HIIT-style workouts.

And what about weightlifting? 

Well, studies have also shown that it tends to reduce blood pressure substantially, in some cases about as much as cardio. That said, recent research has shown that the best way to lower high blood pressure seems to be a combination of weightlifting and cardio.

A good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Illinois. The researchers divided 69 overweight, sedentary, middle-aged and elderly men and women with high blood pressure into four groups: 

  1. Group one lifted weights for an hour three days per week.
  2. Group two did cardio for an hour three days per week.
  3. Group three did 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weightlifting three days per week.
  4. Group four did no exercise of any kind (the control group).

The researchers took a variety of measurements including blood pressure, resting heart rate, body mass index (BMI), body composition, VO2max (a proxy of aerobic fitness), and bench and leg press one-rep max (1RM) before and after the study.

The researchers also coached all of the participants on healthy eating habits, and had them track their food intake for three days at the beginning and end of the study.

After eight weeks, the only group that experienced a significant decrease in blood pressure was group three—the one doing both cardio and weightlifting. The weightlifting-only group didn’t experience any drop in average blood pressure, and the cardio-only group experienced just a small drop in blood pressure.

The group that did cardio and weightlifting also lost more fat than the other three groups, gained almost the same amount of strength as the weightlifting-only group, and improved their cardiovascular fitness almost as much as the cardio-only group. 

The researchers also acknowledged that looking at a single measure like blood pressure doesn’t tell you the whole story when it comes to your cardiovascular health. So, they used an algorithm to estimate the overall “cumulative benefit” of each exercise protocol.

When they analyzed the data, they found that “ . . .the combined group [cardio + weightlifting] experienced more cumulative benefits across all cardiovascular outcomes as indicated by the composite score.”

In other words, combining cardio and weightlifting improved blood pressure and the overall cardiovascular health of these participants more than weightlifting or cardio alone. (I’d also note that while the people in this study did cardio and weightlifting in the same workout, it’s probably better to separate your cardio and weightlifting workouts if possible. I’ll expand on this more in another article).

These findings were bolstered by a meta-analysis conducted in 2016 by scientists at the University of Connecticut, which analyzed the results of 68 different studies that looked at how combining cardio and weightlifting affected blood pressure. Once again, they concluded that, “The potential BP [blood pressure] lowering effects from CET [cardio + weightlifting] are equal to or greater than aerobic exercise among adults with hypertension.”

Summary: Most research shows doing both cardio and weightlifting throughout the week is better at reducing blood pressure than doing only cardio or weightlifting.

A combination of cardio and weightlifting is better at improving cholesterol levels than cardio or weightlifting alone.


is weight training cardio


 

When doctors look at your cholesterol levels, what they’re really looking at are your total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol levels.

While you generally want your total cholesterol levels below about 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), doctors will also look at your ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol and sometimes your total to HDL cholesterol ratio, which some studies indicate may be even more important than your total cholesterol levels.

When doctors talk of “bad” cholesterol, they’re referring to low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and when they talk about “good” cholesterol, they’re referring to high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

On the one hand, high levels of LDL in your blood are associated with heart disease, which is why most discussions on cholesterol circle back to lowering LDL levels. On the other hand, high levels of HDL aren’t associated with heart disease the way LDL is, and higher levels of HDL are generally considered protective against heart disease.

If you want to learn more about what science says about how to optimize your cholesterol levels and improve your heart health, check out this article: 

How to Lower Your Cholesterol (Quickly, Safely, and Naturally)

Research shows that both cardio and weightlifting can help raise your HDL and lower your total and LDL cholesterol levels, but combining both forms of exercise tends to be most effective.

More specifically, moderate intensity cardio tends to boost HDL, and high-intensity cardio seems to be more effective at lowering LDL.

The evidence is more mixed when it comes to weightlifting. Some studies show modest improvements in cholesterol levels, others show that low intensity weightlifting can reduce total and LDL cholesterol but high intensity weightlifting is best for raising HDL cholesterol. One study conducted by scientists at the Federal University of Mato Grosso found that the intensity of weightlifting didn’t seem to matter all that much—it was the total amount of time spent weightlifting that was most correlated with improved cholesterol levels.

When scientists from the University of Greenwich examined 13 other studies on the best kind of exercise for reducing cholesterol, they concluded that a combination of cardio and weightlifting was probably optimal, with higher intensities of both generally being more effective at lowering total and LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol.

In another study, scientists from Duke University Medical Center found a dose-response relationship between HDL cholesterol levels and overall activity levels. That is, the more people exercised, the higher their HDL cholesterol levels were.

What’s more, other research has shown that people who burn the most calories through high-intensity exercise tend to experience the largest increase in lipoprotein lipase activity—an enzyme responsible for breaking down cholesterol molecules. 

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, and elsewhere have found the same thing: if you want to improve your cholesterol levels as much as possible, you want to move as much as possible. Now, you could argue that you could get these benefits from simply weightlifting more, and that’s probably true. That said, you can only lift weights so much (especially when it comes to high intensity weightlifting) each week before your body cries uncle. 

A simple way to avoid this problem is to do some cardio in addition to your weightlifting, boosting your overall activity levels and thus further improving your cholesterol levels. 

Summary: One of the single best ways to improve your cholesterol levels is to move as much as possible, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is to lift weights and do cardio each week.

Cardio increases capillary density more than weightlifting.

Capillaries are microscopic blood vessels that deliver oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and other compounds to cells throughout the body.

Capillary health and density are strong indicators of overall health and fitness, and a decrease in capillary health and density is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and a decline in brain function.

There’s very little research on how weightlifting affects capillary density, but scientists have known for decades that cardio can benefit us significantly in this regard. For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of Birmingham, the researchers divided sixteen 21-year sedentary men into two groups: 

  1. Group one did 40 to 60 minutes of continuous moderate intensity cycling five times per week.
  2. Group two did four to six 30-second all-out sprints with 4.5 minutes of easy cycling in between each.

After six weeks, group one increased their capillary density 32% and group two increased their capillary density 27%—a major improvement over such a short period of time.  

Many other studies have found the same thing.

There’s very little research on how weightlifting affects capillary density, but what little we have isn’t all that impressive. For example, scientists at Liverpool John Moores University found that lifting weights three times per week for six weeks didn’t improve capillary density at all in eight, 20-year old sedentary men. 

Summary: Capillary density is a marker of your overall cardiovascular health. Cardio can significantly improve capillary density in just a few weeks, whereas weightlifting doesn’t seem to have any significant affect on capillary density.

Cardio increases arterial health more than weightlifting.


cardio for weight loss


The 17th-century English physician Thomas Sydenham said, “A man is as old as his arteries.”

He wasn’t wrong—arterial health is regarded as one of the best barometers of our overall cardiovascular health, and a blocked artery (a heart attack) is still the most common cause of death among American men.

One of the main signs of a healthy artery is its ability to expand and contract as blood flow increases and decreases, respectively. That is, when the heart is pumping more blood throughout the body, the arteries should widen to allow the blood to pass through faster. Likewise, when the heart pumps less blood, the arteries should constrict. 

If the arteries become too stiff, though, which occurs due to a sedentary lifestyle, poor dietary choices, aging, and disease, then it places excess strain on the heart, increasing the chances of a heart attack.

This is why arterial stiffness is associated with a host of cardiovascular problems, like hypertension, left ventricular hypertrophy, ischemic heart disease, and congestive heart failure, and can be used to reliably predict heart attacks in otherwise healthy adults.

And what’s the best way to decrease arterial stiffness? 

Cardio.

An excellent example of this comes from a review study conducted by scientists at Newcastle University, where researchers parsed through 42 studies that looked at the effects of resistance training and cardio on markers of arterial stiffness. Across the board, cardio significantly reduced markers of arterial stiffness, with higher intensity cardio associated with greater benefits. Resistance training had “no effect” on any markers of arterial stiffness. 

Some studies have even found that weightlifting can increase arterial stiffness, leading researchers to believe that it could worsen heart health. More recent research has shown these concerns are probably overblown if not completely wrong, though. 

In a review study conducted by scientists at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, the researchers pointed out that although weightlifting may worsen some markers of arterial health, it improves others, and still tends to improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure over time.

In other words, weightlifting probably creates a kind of “false positive” on tests of arterial stiffness, where the test results look “bad” but the overall effect on your cardiovascular system is still good. Moreover, other studies have found that resistance training doesn’t negatively affect arterial stiffness. 

Either way, research also shows that any potential negative effects of weightlifting on arterial stiffness are eliminated if you also do cardio. For example, a study conducted by scientists at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan found that adding cardio to a weightlifting program completely wiped out the increase in arterial stiffness that occured in the people lifting weights.

Summary: Cardio reduces arterial stiffness—a major risk factor for heart attacks—significantly more than weightlifting. Some research even shows weightlifting may increase arterial stiffness, but adding cardio to your routine seems to wipe out any negative effects of weightlifting.

A Combination of Cardio and Weightlifting Improves Insulin Sensitivity More Than Either Kind of Exercise Alone

Becoming less sensitive to the hormone insulin—or insulin resistant—can increase the risk of many life-threatening conditions, like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and more.

Weight loss is one of the most effective ways to improve insulin sensitivity, but adding exercise to the mix provides additional benefits. 

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, people who lost weight with diet alone improved their insulin sensitivity 44% over 12 months. 

When a similar group of people used a combination of diet, weightlifting, and cardio to lose weight, though, their insulin sensitivity improved 71% over the same period of time. 

You can see the results for yourself in this graph: 


lifting weights to lose weight


The blue line with triangles is the group that used a combination of cardio, weightlifting, and diet to lose weight. 

Although any kind of exercise will improve your insulin sensitivity, research shows that a combination of weightlifting and cardio may be the most effective method. 

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Vermont provides an illustrative example. In this case, the researchers divided 51 young (age 18 to 35), sedentary, healthy women into three groups: 

  1. An endurance training group that followed a periodized running program involving three runs per week, increasing in duration and/or intensity each week.
  2. A strength training group that followed a full-body workout split three times per week using weights that were about 80% of their 1RM, and increasing the weights throughout the study.
  3. A control group that didn’t exercise.

The researchers measured everyone’s VO2max, leg press, bench press, military press, and seated row 1RM, body composition, body weight, and insulin sensitivity before and after the study.

After six months, both the cardio and weightlifting groups had improved their insulin sensitivity, but the cardio group improved more. Here’s what the results looked like: 


does weightlifting help you lose weight


The first chart (A) shows the absolute insulin sensitivity of both groups—how many mg of glucose their body was able to gobble up per minute. As you can see, both the cardio and weightlifting groups improved their insulin sensitivity about 50% from where they started. 

The second chart (B) shows the relative insulin sensitivity of both groups—how many mg of glucose their body was able to process per minute per kilogram of muscle mass. This gives you a better indication of how efficient their muscles were at utilizing glucose. In this regard, the cardio group still improved significantly, whereas the weightlifting group only experienced a slight (nonsignificant) improvement. 

This is an important point, so it’s worth explaining in more detail. 

One of the ways your body processes glucose (blood sugar) is by pulling it out of the bloodstream, packaging it into molecules of glycogen, and storing it in your muscles. The more muscle you have, the more glycogen you’re able to store, and the more glucose you can pull out of your blood (thus helping you maintain healthy blood glucose levels). 

In this study, the weightlifting group gained about four pounds of muscle whereas the cardio group gained none, which gave them a larger “bank” in which to store glucose.

On the one hand, that’s great, and it’s part of why they experienced an improvement in insulin sensitivity. On the other hand, the researchers found that the muscles of the people who were lifting weights didn’t become any more efficient at processing glucose, whereas the muscles of the people who did cardio became much more efficient at processing glucose. 

Think of it this way: 

Insulin sensitivity is kind of like gas mileage for a car—you want to get as much “mileage” (glucose storing ability) out of every drop of insulin that you can. In this study, weightlifting gave the participants a bigger “gas tank” (more muscle mass in which to store glucose), whereas cardio improved their “mileage” (made their muscles more efficient at sucking up glucose with less insulin).  

Most interestingly, the researchers found that both groups (and especially the cardio group) improved their insulin sensitivity despite not losing weight or a significant amount of body fat. Losing fat definitely improves insulin sensitivity, but exercise (and especially cardio) is so powerful in this regard that it can improve insulin sensitivity even without fat loss.

Other research confirms that you don’t even have to be in a calorie deficit for cardio to drastically improve your insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. 

A salient example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, which had 9 active men and women aged 30 years old on average complete a strange but illuminating diet and exercise regimen. 

First, the researchers told the participants to cease their normal cardio workouts (they averaged about 5 hours of physical activity per week before the study). Next, they had them overeat by about 500 calories per day for three days, which reduced their insulin sensitivity about 25 to 30% from what it was before the study. They did this to mimic the effects of overeating and being sedentary.

After everyone was nice and insulin insensitive, they completed a cardio workout that involved cycling or running (depending on their preference) for about 60 minutes at a moderately difficult pace, followed by ten 30-second sprints with 30-seconds rest between each sprint. The workouts were designed to thoroughly deplete their glycogen stores and burn around 700 calories.

Then, immediately after the workout, they were fed a meal that provided all of the calories and carbs they burned during the workout: ~700 calories, 139 grams of carbs, 14 grams of protein, and 13 grams of fat. 

Everyone returned to the lab on different days and repeated the process three more times, with a slight twist each time:

  1. On one occasion, they ate their meal right before the workout.
  2. On another occasion, they ate their meal three hours after the workout.
  3. And on another occasion, they ate the meal but didn’t work out. 

The researchers also took a variety of blood tests throughout the study to measure everyone’s insulin sensitivity—or how much insulin their bodies needed to produce to process the carbs they ate. 

The result? 

Despite eating more carbs in a single post-workout meal than many people eat in an entire day, the difficult cardio workout improved insulin sensitivity by 44% when the participants ate it right after the workout. And when people ate the meal 3 hours after the workout, their insulin sensitivity was still 19% higher. The scientists also found that virtually all of the carbs were taken up and stored in muscle tissue, not stored as body fat.

This is particularly impressive considering that these people were eating around 3,000 calories per day on average—enough to maintain their body weight.  

Scientists at the University of Montreal found similar results in another study, where people who ate almost two pounds of cooked pasta containing 297 grams of carbs immediately after a 90-minute, moderate intensity bike ride, didn’t store any body fat from the meal. In fact, they burned an additional 34 grams of fat over the 8 hours after their meal, despite not being in a calorie deficit. These weren’t elite athletes, either, but guys who were completely sedentary before the study.

Of course, you would have to regularly engage in these kinds of workouts to continue getting the benefits, which brings up another important point: 

Although doing lots of cardio is an effective way to improve your insulin sensitivity even without weight loss, losing weight is still the most effective way to permanently improve your insulin sensitivity. And if you can do both, that’s even better.

So, how much should you exercise to improve your insulin sensitivity? I’ll quote the conclusion of several scientists from the University of Pittsburgh, who looked at how much exercise was required to improve insulin sensitivity in healthy but sedentary men and women:

“It appears that, in terms of improving insulin sensitivity, more is likely better than a little, and a little is better than nothing.”

In other words, move as much as your schedule allows.

Summary: The single best way to permanently improve your insulin sensitivity is to lose weight, but doing cardio and lifting weights can improve your insulin sensitivity (and thus your overall metabolic health) even further.

The Bottom Line on Whether or Not Weightlifting Can Replace Cardio


is cardio bad for weight loss


Both weightlifting and cardio offer many of the same health benefits. 

They both reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, boost insulin sensitivity, and burn calories, which can help with weight loss. 

That said, there are some benefits you can only get from one kind of exercise or the other.

On the one hand, weightlifting is far superior to cardio for gaining muscle and strength. What’s more, it also allows you to maintain your muscle mass and strength while losing fat much better than cardio.

On the other hand, cardio improves capillary density and reduces arterial stiffness (which weightlifting doesn’t), and improves insulin sensitivity more than weightlifting. It also burns anywhere from 50 to 100% more calories per unit of time than weightlifting, which can significantly speed up fat loss when combined with a proper weight loss diet.

So, how do you get the benefits of both cardio and weightlifting? 

Do both!

Although large amounts of cardio can interfere with your ability to gain strength and muscle, a few short cardio workouts per week won’t make any difference. Here are some guidelines to get you started: 

Follow a well-designed strength training program.

If you aren’t currently lifting weights, start now before you worry about adding cardio to the mix. 

Check out this article to find a good weightlifting program for you: 

The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

I recommend you start out with a 3- or 4- day per week training plan, and make sure you can stick to that for 4 to 6 weeks before you add any cardio to your routine.

Use a combination of very easy cardio and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). 

If you do HIIT, do it on an exercise bike or elliptical (which research shows is unlikely to interfere with muscle growth). You don’t have to do HIIT, but it does burn more calories in less time, making it a time efficient option for cardio. Do no more than one HIIT workout per week to start until you get used to this kind of training.

I also recommend you put your HIIT workouts on days you either don’t lift weights or don’t do any lower body weightlifting.

Do at least two easy cardio workouts per week of 20 to 40 minutes each. 

Research shows even this small amount is enough to provide significant health benefits, but more is likely better. You can also do more or less endless amounts of this kind of cardio without ever running into muscle soreness or fatigue, meaning it’s unlikely to interfere with your weightlifting.

This can include walking, cycling, rowing, hiking, or whatever you like. I typically recommend walking, as it doesn’t require any special equipment or skills and you can do it anywhere.

A few easy ways to work this cardio into your schedule include . . . 

  • Walking while talking on the phone (in other words, schedule your calls to coincide with a daily walk). 
  • Walking with a loved one as a way to decompress and chat about your day.
  • Walking or cycling to work at an easy pace.

Do that, and you’ll be getting the benefits of both weightlifting and cardio with few to none of the downsides. 

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