April 5, 2022
After decades of personal training, coaching, consulting, speaking, and basically just “putting out” health and fitness-related content, there's one question I've been asked over and over throughout the years, and there's a good chance you've wondered it yourself: which is better, cardio or resistance training?
Now, this question is pretty controversial and admittedly quite dogmatic, and practically everyone with any inkling of a “fitness background” has a different (often conflicting) opinion on the matter. In fact, spend enough time searching #fitspo on Instagram, and you'll see everything from:
“Fasted cardio is the best way to lose weight”…
…to “doing cardio is a waste of time”…
…and even “resistance training only makes you bulky and causes injuries.”
Now, it's not like I've never covered the topics of cardio or resistance training in the past. In fact, I have no shortage of materials on each, including but not limited to:
- Ben Greenfield's Entire Muscle Building Program Unveiled: Top 6 Muscle Building Workouts, Diet For Building Muscle Without Gaining Fat & The Best Supplements For Muscle Mass.
- What Is The Perfect Workout Plan For 2017?
- Biohack Your Body For Muscle Gain & Fat Loss: Part 1 – Ben Greenfield’s Top Recommended Science, Gear & Tools For Building The Ultimate Human.
- Biohack Your Body For Muscle Gain & Fat Loss: Part 2 – Ben Greenfield’s Top Recommended Science, Gear & Tools For Building The Ultimate Human.
- Advanced Muscle Building With Science: How To Biohack Body Composition With Stem Cells, NAD & One Workout Per Week.
- The 19 Best Full-Body Workouts Ben Greenfield Uses For His Year-Round Exercise Routine.
- Inside Isometrics: The Performance-Enhancing, Muscle-Boosting, Long-Forgotten Exercise Modality That You Can Do Anywhere.
- Biohacking Muscle Growth: How To Maximize Anabolism & Muscle Hypertrophy Using Targeted Delivery Of Nutrients To Muscl Tissue During Exercise, With Professional Bodybuilder Milos Sarcev.
- Nerdy Ways To Lose Fat, Build Muscle & Maintain A Nice Body As You Age.
- Is This The World’s Most Efficient, Biohacked Workout? The New Full-Body Electro Muscle Stimulation Science by Katalyst (& How To Build Muscle In 20 Minutes) With Bjoern Woltermann.
- 6 Steps To Achieving The Ideal Combination Of Fitness, Longevity, And Looking Good Naked (A Hybrid Training Approach For Anti-Aging & Performance)
- The Best Workouts, Biohacks & Supplements For Muscle Gain, Muscle Recovery, Muscle Maintenance & More!
- Sexy Forever: How To Build Functional, Good-Looking Muscle For Life.
- 23 Epic Workouts To Build Strength, Stamina, Character & A Hefty Appetite For The Forthcoming Holiday Feasts.
- Advanced Muscle Building With Science: How To Biohack Body Composition With Stem Cells, NAD & One Workout Per Week.
- Bigger’s Not Better – Your Ultimate Guide To Brain Training For The 1-2-3 Combo Of Power, Speed & Longevity.
- 5 Unconventional, Woo-Woo Workouts Every Fitness Enthusiast Should Add To Their Repertoire.
Whew! Despite this plethora of resources, I have yet to dedicate an entire article to the cardio vs. resistance training debate.
So, if you've been looking for a definitive answer to the question of “should I do cardio or resistance training?” look no further, as I'm finally tackling it once and for all in this article (hint: the answer is not as black-and-white as many fitness experts make it out to be).
The Key to Success: Evaluate Your Goals
One of the key first steps when deciding which exercise modality is best for you is to step back and look at your own personal goals and intentions. This is the important step that most people miss when attempting to answer any question about health and fitness.
In fact, before making any lifestyle modification you should first look at your “why” under a microscope and really consider specifically what you want to accomplish, why you want to accomplish that, and how you are going to get there in the most efficient and effective way possible–and this will look different for each and every person.
Here are a few examples of how different goals require a completely different training approach.
Many people that I work with will tell me that they want to “lose weight.” However, usually what they really mean is that they want to lose fat AND gain or maintain muscle mass. Basic weight loss with no focus on body composition can be achieved through simply burning off more energy than you consume (being in a caloric deficit) via diet, exercise, or both. However, weight loss in combination with losing fat and gaining muscle requires a careful balance of energy-burning with stimulation of the muscles in order to remain in a caloric deficit, while also sending the correct signal to your muscles to grow. So, if your goal is the latter, the type of exercise you choose matters greatly!
Others may have goals of gaining muscle mass, also known as muscle hypertrophy, without a specific focus on body fat percentage. Hypertrophy is accomplished through “progressive overload” training, which continually increases the signal to your muscles telling them to grow consistently. Unlike the goal of losing fat and gaining muscle, purely increasing muscle often requires you to be in a caloric surplus to maintain an anabolic (muscle-building) state.
Another example is Olympic lifters and powerlifters who are specifically seeking an increase in the strength of their muscles. This increase in muscular strength (which often comes with an increase in size) is going to require a different training approach than the previous example of those simply looking for the appearance of larger muscles.
I have also worked with many endurance athletes, such as distance runners, Ironman competitors, and professional athletes. These folks typically have a goal of improving endurance, which requires a different approach focused on creating an increase in cardiovascular capacity. Optimizing endurance typically requires a gradual increase in exposure to training that challenges the cardiovascular system. This gradual increase will condition the cardiovascular system to better tolerate long endurance events and allow someone to perform better.
And finally, some people, such as figure competitors or those that just want to look good naked may be seeking a very specific body composition, often referred to as “toned” or “sculpted.” Achieving this goal can be different depending on what each person is looking for or what type of competition they are involved in, and the methods are just as variable!
So as you can see, just based on taking a step back to assess one's goals, answering the question of whether cardio or resistance training is “better” becomes quite complicated! But there are even more factors to consider, which I'll cover below.
Cardio vs. Resistance Training Energy Systems
Another important factor to understand when looking at how cardiovascular and resistance training differ is the energy systems that they use within our bodies: namely aerobic or anaerobic.
Aerobic Energy System
“Aerobic” means requiring or in the presence of oxygen. Most cardiovascular exercises fall under the “aerobic” category (except for sprinting), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines it specifically as “any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature.”
For example, common aerobic exercise includes cycling, hiking, dancing, jogging/long-distance running, swimming, and walking. During aerobic exercise, slow-twitch muscle groups are activated that rely on aerobic metabolism to convert energy in the form of ATP from amino acids, carbs, and fatty acids. These aerobic exercises use more ATP and burn through more fuel in the form of protein, carbs, and fat–but *only for the duration of the exercise session.*
Aerobic activity is assessed via the capacity of the cardiorespiratory system to supply oxygen and the capacity of the skeletal muscle to utilize that oxygen. Measurements like peak VO2 are most commonly used to study aerobic capacity.
Anaerobic Energy System
Most resistance training, on the other hand, falls under the “anaerobic” category. Anaerobic means “without oxygen,” and thus the ACSM defines this type of exercise as “intensive physical activity of a short duration, fueled by energy sources within the contracting muscles and independent of the use of inhaled oxygen as an energy source.”
“Fast-twitch” muscles are activated during aerobic exercises such as sprinting, high-intensity interval training, and powerlifting. Without oxygen present, these modalities can only use glucose/ATP stores as fuel. ATP is formulated through glycolysis and fermentation, which use significantly less energy and create lactic acid as a byproduct.
While that all seems very theoretical, it's important to be aware of the different energy systems used during cardiovascular and resistance training, as they factor into the benefits provided by each. Depending on what your goals are and what specific benefits you're looking for, this will help you decide which exercise modality is right for you.
The Health Benefits of Cardio vs. Resistance Training
The truth is, any exercise is better than no exercise, and there are plenty of benefits to both cardiovascular and resistance training.
However, the elephant in the room still remains: which offers more benefit?
As you can probably guess by this point, it depends on exactly which benefits you, personally, are looking for. Here are some of the science-backed benefits of both cardio and resistance training (as well as some little-known downsides) to help guide you in the right direction.
The Benefits of Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise, such as running, cycling, walking, hiking, etc. has been shown to have a number of health benefits, including:
- Burns more calories during a workout
- Improves cardiovascular and heart health
- Decreases body fat percentage
- Increases VO2 peak
- Improves both short- and long-term memory
- Boosts mood and produces stress-relieving endorphins (aka the “runner's high”)
- Improves sleep
Now, despite all those profound benefits, there is one major cardio caveat you should be aware of.
As I covered quite extensively in my best-selling book Beyond Training, as well as my articles and podcasts “Why You’re Wasting Your Time Doing Only Long, Slow Aerobic Workouts,” “The Two Best Ways To Build Endurance As Fast As Possible (Without Destroying Your Body),” “Primal Endurance: How To Escape Chronic Cardio & Carbohydrate Dependency & Become A Fat Burning Beast,” and many others…
…there is definitely a “point of diminishing returns” where more cardio is not better, and excess amounts–whether in frequency or duration–can actually do some damage.
Stressing the same aerobic energy system repeatedly, day after day, results in very high amounts of negative energy balance. Studies have shown that this negative energy balance results in hormonal disruptions such as testosterone deficiency and low drive in males, estrogen deficiency and low bone density in females, a wildly out-of-balance secretion of appetite disrupting hormones (meaning you get way hungrier and aren't satiated as easily), and a host of other endocrine and chronic disease-related health issues.
In other words, I almost never recommend doing only cardiovascular training (yes, even for the elite endurance athlete), as eventually, it will tend to do more harm than good. Instead, if you're going to do some form of cardio, it's best paired with a healthy balance of resistance training to maintain muscle mass, healthy hormones, sex drive, metabolism, bone mass, and overall longevity.
The Benefits of Resistance Training
Resistance training includes many of the same benefits as cardiovascular training, including more that are unique to strength training, such as:
- Burn more calories post-workout (higher EPOC)
- Increases strength and skeletal muscle mass
- Improves physical and psychological health, especially in older adults
- Decreases risk of sarcopenia and loss in bone mineral density
- Mental health benefits such as reduced anxiety and improved self-esteem
- Reverses aging in skeletal muscle (by up to 40 years!)
- Provides protective effects to DNA
Additionally, thanks to recent research, we're now becoming aware of a few more interesting, lesser-known benefits of resistance training–some of which were originally thought to only apply to cardiovascular exercise.
Resistance training and the “biological clock” in men
Cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure and LDL cholesterol are statistically higher in men, which puts them at greater risk for health events such as heart attack and heart failure. While this issue has been studied for quite some time, the effects of adropin and nitric oxide (NO) on these risk factors are new kids on the block.
Adropin is considered the “biological clock hormone,” as its expression is regulated by core elements of the biological clock (light and feeding times, for example). In the body, it acts as a signaling peptide that regulates glucose and lipid metabolism, the circulatory system, and endothelial function. Studies also show it's inversely correlated with LDL cholesterol in men. and is believed to may function to preserve the circulatory system, regulating endothelial function and activity of endothelial nitric oxide synthase. In fact, analyses of male mice that are administered pharmacological doses of synthetic adropin suggest it can suppress fat oxidation and enhance oxidative glucose disposal and glucose tolerance.
Additionally, NO is a potent vasodilator that has preventative properties for cardiovascular disease. It improves blood flow, suppresses cellular inflammation, and promotes new vessel formation, a process called “angiogenesis.” I talk more about NO and its benefits (including sexual health) in my podcasts here and here.
Now, back to resistance training…A recent study showed exciting potential for strength training, specifically, to be able to increase plasma levels of both adropin and NO in men. In other words, by increasing the expression of these two signaling molecules, resistance training can also have positive impacts on blood pressure, cardiovascular function, cardiorespiratory capacity, and other metabolic health factors.
Resistance training and cardiovascular health
As you learned previously, cardio has been thought to be the best exercise for improving cardiovascular health. In fact, when someone experiences a heart attack or stroke, the traditional method of rehabilitation is a graded program that focuses almost solely on cardiovascular activities. Resistance training has never been included in the initial stages of cardiac rehab, and only rarely is included in later stages if sought out by the individual themselves.
However, studies are now being done that show adding resistance training to cardiac rehab programs results in improvements in both cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular effects for coronary artery disease patients, including:
- Increased VO2 peak
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased skeletal muscle mass
- Increased endurance
- Improved body composition
- Improved sleep quality
- Decreased incidence of depression
This research has implications for the benefits of resistance training on the cardiovascular health of the general population as well. As resistance training is studied more, the benefits far exceed the original assumptions made that resistance training only increases muscular strength. Isometric resistance training (IRT) has even been shown to be an effective non-pharmacological treatment for hypertension. As research continues, the benefits of resistance training for overall health and wellness are sure to continue to be brought to light.
Resistance training and metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high serum triglycerides, and low serum HDL cholesterol.
Proper diet and increased movement are well-studied tactics to decrease the burden of metabolic syndrome. However, new research is being done into how resistance training specifically impacts these health conditions.
In a recent study from 2022, Diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol levels were all shown to significantly improve with high levels of resistance training. Furthermore, combining resistance AND aerobic training made the greatest improvements in plasma glucose, lipid metabolism, and sleep quality compared to aerobic training alone. (And interestingly, the largest improvements in BMI occurred with higher levels of resistance training.)
Again, while this study specifically focused on the implications of resistance training on individuals experiencing metabolic syndrome, the benefits can be translated to a healthier population as well. Resistance training has the potential to aid in regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels, leading to overall cardiovascular health. It can also help to maintain a healthy BMI and even increase sleep quality, all important to a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
In summary, while there are definite benefits to both cardio and resistance training, I've found that there's a “law of diminishing returns” when it comes to aerobic exercise specifically (especially low and slow “steady state” cardio), and therefore, don't recommend using cardio as the sole source of your exercise. What's more, resistance training appears to have similar health benefits once thought to only apply to cardiovascular exercise, plus more that cardio alone can't offer. Therefore, a good balance of both types of training is probably going to give you the best bang for your buck…but more on that next.
Cardio, Resistance Training, or Both? How to Choose the Right Training Program for You
You're now clear on your personal health and fitness goals, and you have a good idea of the unique benefits of each type of exercise. So what's the best, most efficient way to train to achieve those goals?
I'll cover a few common examples below depending on your goals along with specific training regimens, recovery tips, and other hacks that can help you expedite your progress!
Endurance and Cardiovascular Health
If you're looking to increase endurance and optimize your cardiovascular health, rather than running on a treadmill for hours a day, take a more efficient approach by incorporating HIIT training, which has been shown to be just as effective as longer bouts of cardio. I'd recommend incorporating one of the following interval sets, about 3x per week:
- VO2 Max Sets: Five 4 minute hard efforts with full recoveries (2-4 minute recoveries)
- Muscular Endurance Sets: 1-2 Tabata sets (Four total minutes of 20 seconds extremely hard, 10 seconds easy)
- Mitochondrial Density Sets: 4-6 thirty second sprints with full 2-4 minutes recovery after each
You can also try polarized training, in which you train at a low to moderate level 80% of the time, and at maximal effort for 20% of the time–a strategy now used by most of the best endurance athletes out there. (In fact, you may already be familiar with this 80/20 concept as the relatively famous “pareto principle“, which states that, for many events, approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.) By training at a maximal effort a portion of the time, you a) avoid spending all your time in “black hole training” which I discuss the problems with here, and b) if you are performing this 20% as HIIT intervals, for example, you will activate the AMP-K pathway, which can provide benefits such as enhanced mitochondrial biogenesis (increase in mitochondria) and an increased capacity for glucose and fatty acid oxidation–all of which have positive effects on endurance and cardiovascular health!
Additionally, I'd suggest including regular bouts of hot/cold therapy as a powerful tool to your endurance training regimen. I wrote about the plethora of benefits of each, specifically for endurance, in this article here, but here's a quick recap as to why heat and cold are so beneficial to endurance and recovery.
Cold thermogenesis can:
- Enhance the immune system by increasing levels of immune cells and glutathione
- Boost nitric oxide and blood flow, which aids in tissue recovery and regeneration
- Activate adiponectin, a hormone that breaks down fat and shuttles glucose into muscles, helping to repair and enhance muscular recovery
Heat therapy has similar benefits:
- Results in more efficient cardiovascular function
- Enhances blood flow distribution and volume for better recovery
- Improves heat transfer from core to skin, which can boost your heat tolerance during exercise events
You can simply take hot/cold showers for many of these benefits, or check out this podcast for more tips on how to incorporate it into your routine.
Fat Loss and Improved Physique
If fat loss and improved physique are at the top of your priority list, resistance training has shown itself to be superior as a training modality to cardiovascular exercise alone.
Studies have shown that 10 weeks of resistance training may increase lean weight by 3 lbs., increase resting metabolic rate by 7%, and reduce fat mass by 4 pounds. You can learn more about some of my recommended tactics for building sexy, lean muscle in my article here.
In addition to a consistent resistance training routine, light and easy cardio in a fasted state can contribute to fat loss by keeping you in an aerobic energy state. I recommend the “strike, stroll, shiver” routine to many of my clients first thing in the morning and it seems to work wonders. It simply involves a) consuming coffee or green tea in a fasted state, b) doing 10-40 minutes of light aerobic cardio, and c) following it all up with a few minutes of cold therapy, such as a shower.
Additionally, stress reduction is an often-overlooked factor for improving fat loss. Stress releases cortisol which raises blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose–all of which can contribute to metabolic dysfunction as well as shut down important bodily functions like fertility. So be sure to also add stress-relieving tactics such as meditation, breathwork, proper nutrition, and supplementation to reap the most results for your waistline.
And, if all of this doesn't work for you, I suggest reading this article to learn about 13 other hidden reasons you may not be losing weight.
Increased Strength and Muscle Mass
When increasing strength and gaining muscle are the name of the game, sometimes it helps to implement novel tactics in your routine in order to continue to challenge your central nervous system.
While there's no shortage of methods and training regiments for building muscle, I'll fill you in on a few of my favorite regimens and hacks to get the most “bang-for-your-buck”:
- Unstable load training uses resistance that is shifted to different sides of the body to hit hard-to-get stabilizer muscles.
- Balance training is integral to increasing core strength and back health, further reducing injury.
- Isometric resistance training for targeting the growth of specific muscles.
- Try the “Easier strength” formula for lifting that uses low weights and a “rule of 10“ for the big 5 lifts.
- Incorporate resistance bands (such as KAATSU bands or the X3 bar) to add an increased level of resistance to your normal weight lifts.
- Utilize kettlebells for more functional strength.
If all else fails, simply do a full-body strength training session two to three times per week, pushing the muscles as close to failure as you can with good form, either with heavy loads (preferred) or many reps (e.g. if you must do bodyweight training, for example).
Furthermore, combining your resistance training program with electrical muscle stimulation, or EMS (I personally like the Katalyst), as well as heat stress (such as doing your workout inside a sauna) can significantly improve your muscle mass and strength gains.
You can learn more about my favorite workouts, hacks, and supplements for gaining muscle here.
Overall Health and Longevity
At the end of the day, most of us are training to live long and live well. Well, it just so happens that there's one common theme among some of the longest living, most hard-charging folks around: they all lift heavy things.
So yes, resistance training is going to be pivotal for those that want to maintain muscle as they age. When it comes to longevity, however, bigger muscles aren’t necessarily better. You ideally want lean, wiry, explosive muscles capable of exerting enormous amounts of force relative to their size.
Luckily, you can achieve this type of muscle with as little as two strength workouts per week: one super-slow lifting workout, and one explosive 7-minute bodyweight workout.
These two workouts together provide the maximum amount of strength you can muster in one tightly-packed group of muscle fibers–in other words, hard, wiry strength–in the minimum amount of time and effort.
This super-slow lifting protocol is similar to what Dr. Doug McGuff describes in his book Body by Science. Simply complete 12-20 minutes of a few choice multi-joint exercises with extremely slow, controlled lifts (30 to 60 seconds per rep) at relatively high weights:
- Upper-body push (e.g., overhead press)
- Upper-body pull (e.g., pull-up)
- Lower-body push (e.g., squat)
- Lower-body pull (e.g., deadlift)
For “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout” simply perform each exercise for 30 seconds with 10 seconds of rest in between exercises. Aside from the wall sits, you should do these exercises at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10:
- Jumping jacks (or burpees)
- Wall sits
- Push-ups (or clapping push-ups)
- Crunches (or knee-ups)
- Step-ups (or lunge jumps)
- Squats (or squat jumps)
- Running in place with high knees (or jump rope or stair sprints)
- Lunges (or lunge jumps)
- Push-ups with rotation (at the top of the push-up, alternately raise your arms and point them straight up)
- Side planks
That's it! For more longevity-enhancing workouts and hacks, check out my article “6 Steps To Achieving The Ideal Combination Of Fitness, Longevity, And Looking Good Naked (A Hybrid Training Approach For Anti-Aging & Performance).”
While there is no black-and-white answer to the hotly debated question of cardio vs. resistance training, you're hopefully now a bit better equipped to choose the right one, or ideally, a mixture of both, for your personal goals.
The truth is, the best approach is often to choose a training program that incorporates a mix of cardiovascular and resistance modalities, as well as balance, variable resistance training, hot/cold therapy, mindfulness and stress reduction, and metabolic conditioning.
To recap all of the above points on the cardio vs. resistance training debate:
- Begin by identifying and programming according to your goals.
- Determine if your goals align most with aerobic or anaerobic exercise.
- Consider some of the unique benefits of resistance training specifically.
- Program your workouts according to the most beneficial methods for you.
- Reap the rewards of a balanced exercise program.
So, which kind of training best suits you? Cardio or resistance training? What are your personal fitness goals for 2022? Leave a comment or question below: I read them all and do my best to reply.