Cardio Vs. Weightlifting: Which is Better?

It's a long-debated — and might we add, heated — conversation in the fitness world. Cardio vs. weightlifting: Which one should you be focusing on? Is one better than the other? Are those people lined up on the treadmills onto something, or should they be joining all the sweaty people grunting over in the weights section of the gym? 

Readers, rejoice! Because we have the answer. And the answer is...

There is no one answer. 

Let us explain. 

Cardio and Weightlifting Are *Both* Good for You

Both types of training offer their own benefits, but here's the thing: They're unique enough that to compare them apples to apples isn't a fair debate. 

The Benefits of Cardio

Aside from the caloric burn, which is what draws many people to cardio in the first, it's also excellent for: 

  • Making your heart stronger so it doesn't have to work as hard to pump blood. 
  • Improving your lung capacity.
  • Encouraging better sleep.
  • Reducing the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Improving bone health.
  • Boosting muscle strength. 
  • Reducing joint pain and stiffness.
  • Helping to better manage (and even prevent) high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

The Benefits of Weightlifting

 Weightlifting also offers a number of pros, including:

  • Improved bone health.
  • Fighting diseases like diabetes.
  • Boosting your metabolism. 
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Better flexibility and mobility.
  • Improving strength, endurance, and explosiveness.
  • Encouraging better sleep and emotional health.
  • Targeting muscle imbalances. 
  • Better posture.
  • Reducing the risk of falls.

woman doing dumbbell bicep curls

Knowing all of the benefits that both cardio and weightlifting offer, it's now easier to see why it's not as simple as asking which one is better. 

Rather, we're going to ask you this.

What Are Your Fitness Goals? 

If you're clear on what you want to achieve, then this is the first step to designing a workout program that will move you closer toward your goals. 

For example, if your number one priority is to build muscle mass, get stronger, or lean out, then you might be better suited focusing on weightlifting. Lifting heavy weights is what causes microtears in your muscle, which eventually leads to muscle growth. This is why weightlifting is the better option to build muscle mass and get stronger. 

Furthermore, weightlifting trains your body to burn more calories even at rest. And the more muscle you have, the more you burn throughout the entire day, and the harder it is for your body to store fat. Thus, weightlifting is excellent for maintaining a lean physique (despite the belief that cardio is what burns fat — it does, but not nearly as well). 

man doing bench press

On the other hand, if you're trying to improve your endurance, lung capacity, or heart health, cardio might be a better option. While weightlifting typically requires shorter bursts of effort followed by rest, cardio often demands long periods of sustained effort. 

Therefore, it's a good option to improve the three aforementioned factors.

Keep in mind, though, that you're not required to choose a side and stay there. Very likely, it'll be in your best interest to find a way to incorporate both in some capacity.

Training Both Cardio and Weightlifting

We're not going to tell you to split your time between both equally. If you're a powerlifter trying to improve your one-rep-max deadlift, then running five miles a day probably isn't the direction you want to go in. 

Likewise, if you're training for a marathon, adding 10 pounds of muscle to your frame probably isn't high on your list of priorities. 

This doesn't mean that you should exclude one form of training, but rather that you should tailor your programming to meet your needs. 

man working with kettlebell in gym

Training Cardio as a Weightlifter

Ever asked a lifter what they do for cardio? "Lift weights faster." It might sound silly, but it's actually true.

Weightlifters need cardio too! Cardio isn't just running on a treadmill. Still itching to use weights? Here are a few ideas.

  • At a lower weight, 20 seconds of front squats, 10 seconds of rest x 10 rounds.
  • At a moderate weight, 2 power snatches every minute, on the minute.
  • At a moderate-heavy weight, death by back squats (minute 1 - 1 squat, minute 2 - 2 squats, minute 3 - 3 squats, and so on, until failure).

It's cardio disguised as weightlifting! Try this and see how hard your heart is thumping a few minutes in.

Any type of explosive exercise is also a good option for weightlifters because it kills two birds with one stone. This is a vital trait for weightlifters to have, and it also makes for a great cardio workout. Think movements like:

  • Burpees (Ex: 6 burpees every minute for 10 minutes).
  • Box jumps (Ex: 20 seconds of box jumps followed by 10 seconds of rest x 10 rounds).
  • Tuck jumps (Ex: 5 tuck jumps every minute for 5 minutes).
  • Sprints (10 seconds of sprinting, 50 seconds of rest x 10 rounds).

Incorporating Weightlifting Into Your Cardio Training

man running outside on dirt road

Yes, weightlifting is still important for these athletes. For example, if you're a runner, would you rather be a weak runner or a strong one? 

Because cardio tends to place demands on your entire body, you'll greatly benefit from compound exercises like: 

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench presses
  • Strict presses

The goal isn't necessarily to max out or find a new one-rep-max but to instead support muscle and bone health. Pick a moderate weight and tackle these movements for a rep scheme such as 5 x 5, 3 x 8, or 4 x 6.  

Kettlebell swings are another good option since they build endurance, strength, and explosiveness — all important aspects of cardio.

If you still need convincing, remember that a weak body isn't prepared to fight and manage the wear and tear that cardio (particularly endurance cardio, like running) brings. Because you want to consistently improve your joint and bone health — not to mention keep your muscles strong — weightlifting isn't just beneficial for cardio. It's crucial. 

Even if your training does center around one style — such as weightlifting or cardio — it'll still behoove you to make a point of being a well-rounded athlete. By tackling both types of training on a regular basis, you not only set yourself up for fitness success in the short-term but also put in the work to create a strong and healthy foundation for the long-term.