Is It Better to Run or Pump Iron for Weight Loss?

A common dilemma for any rank beginner who wants to lose weight in conjunction with an exercise program is knowing what kind of exercise to embark upon. Although the choices are virtually endless, for the purposes of this article we will be focusing on the differences between two of the most common choices – running and weight training – and how they both purport to the process of weight reduction.

Cardio training

Running is a form of exercise that falls into the ‘cardio’ category – i.e. continuous activity, performed without rest, for a pre-determined period of time. This is the most obvious way of losing weight (through the burning of calories) for most people, but the amount of calories (hence fat, or bodyweight) burned are likely to be determined by factors such as current weight, along with speed, duration, and intensity when running in relation to intake of calories.

Studies have shown, for instance, that an average weighing man (70-75kg) is likely to burn somewhere between 250-350 calories when running at moderate, and faster-paced speeds for around 30 minutes. This is a significantly higher amount of calories burned than if weight-training is undertaken for the same duration, where the ratio is more likely to be between 150 and 250. So basically, if burning calories is the main priority of a session of physical training, then running would seem to be the more logical option. 

However, there are other important factors to be considered when looking at the best ways to reduce weight in terms of exercise.

The benefits of weight-training

Weight-training may be less about burning calories than running, but it is certainly more effective at building muscle, an often overlooked crucial factor when considering weight loss. This is due in no small part to the fact that muscle utilises more calories than other, less-dense tissues such as fat, and is often considered as the main factor involved in an increase in resting metabolism (another primary determiner of weight loss).

What this means in terms of overall weight loss is that an increased resting metabolic rate is burning more calories. And while a weight-training workout in itself is unlikely to burn calories in the way that a session of running might, research has shown that its effects tend to be longer-lasting, meaning that in the period of time following a workout, calories are being burned for longer due to the duration of the elevated metabolic rate. This is apparently related to intensity, which is far more inherent in the practice of resistance training, and particularly with weights, than simply cardio-based training alone.

Types of training

Of course there are many different approaches to lifting weights, and if weight reduction is the main goal then it would be beneficial to know some of the key differences in approach.

Aside from bodybuilding, powerlifting and Olympic lifting (which mainly focus on strength gains, often related to increases in size) one of the proven ways of adding intensity to a weights session is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), involving short, intense exercise periods of activity interspersed with low-intensity rest periods in between. A HIIT workout commonly entails a duration of around 30 minutes, and comprises sets of different exercises and circuits. This type of training is largely considered to burn way more calories than other types of resistance training, with one study showing an increase of more than 25% in burned calories when compared to other forms of exercise such as cycling, which places it close to cardio training in terms of calorie burning (but again this may depend to some extent on intensity).

Frequency and type of exercise in terms of weight loss

Research has reported that infrequent (150 minutes or less) cardio or resistance training is probably insufficient in contributing to weight loss. This means that a higher level of general physical activity needs to be adapted, in conjunction with planned dietary requirements conducive to a reduction in weight.

The types of exercise chosen to aid the weight loss plan need to be realistic and in line with goals, such as alterations in body weight v body shape. Weight training, for instance, may bring about changes in body shape whilst not necessarily being conducive to a reduction in body weight, whilst cardio is more likely to bring about a measured reduction in body fat.

Weight loss and diet

Of course it also needs to be noted that any attempt at weight loss should realistically consider adaptations in both physical and dietary habits. Much research has indicated the need for an exercise program alongside a moderate reduction in calorific intake to ensure adequate progress, and also make weight loss more sustainable in the long term.

The bottom line

In terms of exercise plans related to weight reduction, both cardio and weight-training are useful if used in the right proportion and in conjunction with a well thought out dietary plan. Although cardio per set seems more efficient when it comes to burning calories, the long-term (i.e. progressive) implications need to be considered when embarking on any program of exercise in order to lose weight. It may even be worth considering that utilizing both forms of exercise might be the logical best approach in terms of keeping things interesting and maintaining progression

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