Generally speaking, all forms of exercise can be divided into one of two categories: cardio or strength training. Both come with their own distinct set of pros and cons, targeting various aspects of health and fitness, making it seem logical to use both cardio and strength training to create a well-rounded routine. In fact, this is exactly what the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and most other health and fitness organizations recommend.

The reality is that the fitness world has long been divided by the persistent cardio vs. weight training debate. Sometimes the arguments presented for one side or the other are based on some pretty solid science. However, more often, people simply tend to prefer one over the other. Maybe you hate to run, or maybe you absolutely adore running and hate lifting. On the other hand, you might just have some misunderstandings about what exactly these workout routines can do for you.

To clear things up, let's examine both cardio and strength training to see which one is actually better.

What Is Cardio?

In more clinical circles, cardio is descriptively called cardiovascular exercise. As its full name suggests, cardio is all about working your heart and circulatory system. Although people tend to forget, the heart is really just a highly specialized muscle. With each contraction, it generates pressure that pushes blood through your veins and arteries. By challenging the heart, and the attached blood vessels, you can strengthen the muscle and train it to function more efficiently.

Technically, just about anything that elevates your heart rate for an extended period can be called "cardio." More traditional cardio workouts include running, cycling, and swimming. It is important to point out that not all cardio is the same. Most of the time, when people mention "cardio," they're referring to steady-state (SS) cardio such as a long run that's performed at a constant (generally slow) pace. Over the past couple of years, however, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which is characterized by shorter, more intense workouts, has rapidly gained popularity.

Pros and Cons of Cardio

Here's a brief list of some pros that cardio offers:

  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Decreased body weight
  • Increased endurance
  • Improved athletic performance
  • Increased speed (especially with HIIT)
  • Requires little-to-no equipment

Just like anything else, cardio also has some cons, including:

  • SS cardio requires long workouts
  • HIIT is extremely challenging
  • SS cardio decreases muscle mass

What Is Strength Training?

Also called resistance training, this approach requires you to pit your muscles against a set level of resistance. Although it might sound a little alarming at first, the truth is that strength training actually creates small tears in your muscle fibers. As a result, your brain starts a complex collection of processes that are designed to make your muscles bigger, faster, stronger, and better prepared to deal with the next challenge. Interestingly, your bones also undergo a similar process, and get stronger and more dense.

Pros and Cons of Strength Training

To sum things up, here's a list of the benefits associated with resistance training:

  • Increased strength
  • Improved bone density
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Increased metabolism

But strength training also has a couple downsides, like the fact that it requires training to learn proper form and burns fewer calories than cardio workouts.

The Verdict

Ultimately, there really isn't a clear winner when it comes to the classic cardio vs. weight training argument. Cardio focuses on your heart and is absolutely vital for endurance sports. It also burns a lot of calories, which can help you lose weight. However, along with the fat lost from cardio, SS cardio can also take some hard-earned muscle mass with it, and HIIT, which doesn't offer the same endurance-enhancing benefits, will protect your muscles and burn the same amount of calories in less time.

For building muscle and strength, strength training is the way to go. While it won't burn as many calories, resistance training will develop your muscles and contribute to an overall faster metabolism. It can also help to strengthen your bones and joints, protecting you from injury. In the end, both cardio and strength training have their pros and cons. To be well-rounded, use these tips and try to rotate your routine throughout the week.