• Missy Porteous

Cardio Vs Strength Training for Fat Loss

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

My fitness tracker said I burnt 900 calories in my HIIT class, is that true?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your fitness tracker is a big fat liar.

Firstly, if burning calories is your purpose for training, then I urge you to do a bit of investigation on the subject. During the actual ‘act’ of training, calorie burning is minimal. Fitness trackers, rowing machines and certain HIIT gyms that state a specific ‘calorie burn’ are simply providing a possible outcome. It is unlikely this will become the actual outcome due to the plethora of individual considerations needed for an accurate calculation.

Furthermore, possible ‘calorie burn’ for the day is irrelevant if tomorrow or the next day or the rest of the week, month, year is not consistent with intake and output.

If you have a fitness tracker or use apps such as My Fitness Pal please do not take any notice of 'the Calorie burn' or energy expenditure calculations, it’s best to turn them off if possible.

Does calorie burn equal fat loss?

Fat breakdown does not equal fat loss so the notion of ‘burning calories’ does not mean you have achieved fat loss; it simply means that fat has been used as fuel during that particular time. Sadly, that does not mean you end the day with less body fat than when you started.

Is there a difference between Weight Loss & Fat Loss?

Weight loss refers to a reduction in scale weight, this can be caused by a reduction of muscle mass, bone mineral deposits, tendon, and other connective tissue, adipose (fat) tissue and fluids.

For the purpose of this blog, I'm using the term Fat Loss which refers to the loss of adipose tissue only, it's very important that whilst trying to reduce fat we hold onto our lean muscle mass.

Why Strength Training is best for fat loss?

Muscle mass is costly for the body to maintain from a calorie perspective, it uses more energy than fat. The less muscle mass we have means less use of our calories which makes fat loss itself harder. In short, you want to keep or increase your muscle, and you need a weight training stimulus (and protein) to do so.

Furthermore, strength training has what is known as high EPOC or "Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption." This is how long your metabolism is elevated post exercise. Strength training has been shown to elevate metabolism for up to 38 hours after the workout, this is not the same post cardio workout.

Why Cardio is not the best training option for fat loss?

While you can obtain 'weight' loss by way of cardio based training, you will also lose your precious muscle mass and therefore reduce your need for as much intake. This is what people are referring to when they say their metabolic rate has slowed, while that’s not exactly correct, it does mean that their body does not require as much intake to survive. If you get the balance consistently right, your intake will be used for energy rather than be stored for later.

Am I recommending you ditch cardio training, no way, you need it for general health, loss of visceral fat and of course enjoyment but as you can see, it shouldn’t be your go to option for fat loss or muscle growth or maintenance for that matter. So, to maintain a healthy body, should cardio be your number one option…the evidence would suggest the answer is no.

What about muscle toning?

Along with motivation, tone is probably my least favourite word. Tone does not exist. Muscles shrink and grow but they do not tone. The notion of toning is actually a combination of muscle growth and fat loss. So, if after reading through to here, you are concerned that you need big bulky muscles to lose your body fat, that is not the case at all. With the right nutrition and training stimulus, you will achieve ‘muscle tone’ i.e. muscle growth and fat loss.

If I hit the weights regularly, I should be good to lose body fat, right?


The truth is that training shouldn’t actually be our focus for fat loss or maintenance. Why many of us are struggling to maintain our physique is because of our sedentary lifestyle paired with the excess of high calorie food and drink.

If you want to lose body fat, then your focus should be on your food and drink intake along with becoming more generally active. Unfortunately, one hour in the gym a few times a week means peanuts if your intake is high and you sit on your arse all day.

While your training regime can be a contributing factor to your physique it’s not the reason you should train. Training and movement is imperative for your general health. Joint mobility, muscle flexibility, stability, strength, agility, co-ordination etc will make us more able as we get older and therefore contribute to a more enjoyable life free from illness and injury. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want some young upstart helping me off the toilet when I’m 80. I’ll be doing it myself with my strong legs and mobile joints, I hope you will be to.

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