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Cardio vs. Strength Training: The Ultimate Showdown

Let’s face it: The best workout is the one you enjoy. Am I right? 

We all want to be the strongest, best version of ourselves, but we need a mix of cardio and strength training to do that.

So when choosing between cardio or strength training, which should you do?

This article will address this particular topic and give you some facts about cardio versus strength training, the critical differences between them, and my recommendation on whether to focus on cardio training, strength training, or a combination of both.

What’s Your Fitness Goal?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of these two types of training methods, I want to ask an important question.

What will success FEEL like for you in the long run?

I’m not talking about months from now but rather years down the road. Imagine that you have implemented a routine that fits your lifestyle, and you’ve maintained that routine for a few years. 

Now, ask yourself, “What will success feel and look like for ME?”

Remember, it will be different for everyone, and it should be personalized to you (not what others have told you it should be/feel like). 

Below are examples of three common fitness goals and our recommendations for effectively pursuing these goals. 

I Want to Gain Muscle

Gaining more muscle is very simple in theory but for most, it can be difficult in practice. 

In my experience, there are truly two factors that have the biggest impact on whether or not you’ll be able to build muscle effectively. 

muscle growth chart

Our top tips for building new muscle:

  1. Following structured strength training for a minimum of 1 year
  2. Consuming adequate protein (1.8-2.4g/kg of lean body mass)
  3. Getting into a calorie surplus, aka consuming more calories than you burn
  4. Applying the progressive overload principle to your training

I Want to Get Stronger

If you’re like me, you are training to have the world-renown #DadStrength (or #MomStrength!).

Note from Ant: #DadStrength is when you can seemingly lift anything (or anyone) with ease showcasing the grip strength of a gorilla. 

In the past decade, I’ve learned that getting stronger isn’t about trying to hit a new PR every session or constantly going to failure every day.

Building real strength is about methodically structuring your workouts, training consistently, and being patient.

Simply put – progress takes time.  

progressive overload chart

Our top tips for increasing your strength:

  1. Applying the progressive overload principle to your workouts
  2. Incorporating the foundational compound exercises
  3. Consuming a maintenance level of calories (avoiding calorie deficits)
  4. Eating adequate carbohydrates to fuel your training

I Want to Lose Weight 

If your main fitness goal is to lose weight, then a sustainable dietary restriction is the best way to do so.

weight loss chart

Our top tips for losing weight, aka fat loss:

  1. Getting into a (sustainable) calorie deficit, aka consuming fewer calories than you burn
  2. Consuming adequate protein (1.8-2.4g/kg of LBM) to preserve muscle
  3. Start & maintain a strength training routine to stimulate new muscle growth

We’ve reviewed some common fitness goals and how to appropriately start tackling them. Now, let’s take a look below at the major difference between cardio and strength training. 

 Strength TrainingCardio Training
Getting StartedMore involved and requires basic equipment to get startedEasy to get started and requires no equipment
Required KnowledgeLittle to moderate knowledge is required to perform basic exercises correctlyLittle to no knowledge is needed to start cardio exercises
Impact On Muscle GrowthIdeal for increasing functional strength, muscle size, and overall well beingLimited impact on muscle hypertrophy (growth) 
Impact On Muscle EnduranceIdeal for increasing muscular endurance from head to toeImpact on increased muscular endurance localized to lower body

Cardio vs. Strength Training: Getting Started

This training method does require some basic equipment for more effective workout routines. 

Keep in mind that there are plenty of bodyweight strength training routines (requiring no equipment) you could also start with. 

On the other hand, Cardio Training doesn’t require any equipment to get started. 

You could easily step outside and start doing various cardio exercises like walking, jogging, or running down the street.

With that being said, you can find an excuse for delaying the start of either type of training.

Bottom Line: Ultimately, it comes down to starting with whatever equipment and resources you currently have access to. More importantly, choosing a mode of exercise that A) interests you B) will have the lowest barrier to entrance. 

Removing barriers (and excuses) from you getting started makes it easier for you to do so.  

Cardio vs. Strength Training: Required Knowledge

Effective strength training routines require you to have (or a willingness to learn) a basic understanding of how to perform the foundational exercises correctly.

  • Deadlift
  • Squat
  • Pull-up
  • Row
  • Overhead Press
  • Bench Press

On the other hand, you can implement many different cardio training routines, such as (HIIT), high-intensity interval training (LISS), low-intensity steady-state, and plyometric training.

There is essentially no knowledge needed to start a cardio training routine. You’ll just need space and a willingness to move your body. 

Bottom Line: Cardio training doesn’t require much knowledge for you to kickstart your exercise routine. Strength training, on the other hand, requires a bit of effort to learn the proper technique of a few foundational exercises (squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press).  

Cardio vs. Strength Training: Impact On Muscle Growth

Muscle growth (aka muscle hypertrophy) occurs when you place consistent tension on a muscle group over time, causing micro muscle damage (which is good muscle damage) (Src). 

Don’t panic. The damaged muscle is repaired while you sleep as long as you supply your body with proper nutrition (explicitly being in a calorie surplus with adequate protein). 

Strength training aka weight training, is the #1 way to build new muscle tissue and it can be accomplished through multiple styles of strength training (Bodyweight, TRX, Free Weight Training, etc). 

You might be ready to jump into a workout so you can start making gains there is another question we should address.

How long does it take to build muscle? 

The average rate of muscle growth will differ based on a few select factors with the determining factors being:

  1. Years of previous strength training experience
  2. Your nutrition/diet (calorie surplus & adequate protein (1.8-2.4g/kg of lean body mass))
  3. Your genetic makeup. 

With that being said, numerous studies found individuals (men specifically) with little to no strength training experience have a larger potential for muscle growth compared to more seasoned trainees (Src). 

If you’re a beginner, then this is excellent news for you! 

On the other hand, cardio training (at least most traditional forms of cardio) doesn’t utilize resistance outside of your body weight. 

So, it’s unlikely to see any direct, measurable muscle growth if you solely do cardio as your only training method. 

However, research suggests incorporating a balanced amount of cardio on top of an established strength training routine can further stimulate muscle growth and increase your workout stamina (Src). 

Bottom Line: A structured strength training routine and proper nutrition are the key components you should focus on to maximize your muscle growth potential. Additionally, adding a balanced amount of cardio can further promote muscle growth and overall stamina which is important to building a strong, functional body. 

Try adding 20-30 minute sessions just 3 times per week. If you’re feeling overwhelmed from decision fatigue, keep it simple, start with walking and grow from there. 

Cardio vs Strength Training: Impact On Muscle Endurance

Muscle endurance is defined as the ability of a specific muscle(s) to repeatability contract and exerts a force against a form of resistance over some time. 

Below are (exaggerated) examples to help visualize when you are effectively training muscle endurance vs muscle strength vs muscle power.

Muscle EnduranceComplete Bodyweight Squats 50+ times without being overly fatigued
Muscle StrengthBack Squat 1.5x your body weight for multiple reps without much difficulty
Muscle PowerExecuting an Olympic clean explosively 

Strength training allows you to target specific muscle groups through various compound (or isolation) exercises. Therefore, you can increase muscle endurance across your entire body with a well-designed strength training routine.

Whereas cardio training, more or less, will only increase muscular endurance in your lower body muscles by the nature of most cardio exercises (walking, running, HIIT, and LISS). 

All in all, muscle endurance can be an ancillary result of a structured strength training routine, in addition to, muscle growth and muscle strength. 

Avoid adding in additional exercises because they look cool or simply because you saw a social media influencer who is “fit” doing it. 

Instead, ask yourself (or a fitness professional), “Will this exercise help me progress toward my fitness goals?” 

Overall, keep your goals in mind while you set out to start a new routine, and be certain to include exercises that actually help you achieve those goals.

Bottom Line: Strength training is the clear winner due to the versatility of exercises and the ability to increase muscle endurance across the entire body. However, cardio training can be helpful by impacting your muscle endurance through a variety of other mechanisms. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Cardio vs. Strength Training 

Below are some of the most common questions we’ve compiled and answered for you when deciding between cardio and strength training. 

Is Strength Training or Cardio Better for Mental Health?

Strength training and cardio both have benefits for mental health. A 2010 study found that cardio had a similar effect on depression to the antidepressant sertraline after 4 months (Src). It also showed that exercise could enhance the benefits of using antidepressants. A balanced routine combining both strength and cardio is recommended.

Is Strength Training or Cardio Training Better for Fat Loss?

Both strength training and cardio can help with fat loss, but it’s important to have a nutrition-first approach. Strength training increases metabolism by building muscle, while cardio burns calories during exercise. The most effective way to lose weight is through sustainable nutrition and caloric restriction that can be maintained for a long period. The best way to impact body composition is through being in a calorie deficit.

Read our definitive guide to learn how flexible dieting can help with weight loss.

Should I Lift Weights or Do Cardio First?

It is recommended to do strength training before cardio. Strength training primarily uses carbohydrates in the blood for energy, and completing it first ensures that these stores are utilized before they are depleted by cardio (Src). Cardio can use both carbohydrates and body fat as fuel, and saving it after strength training can maximize the benefits of both types of exercise.

energy metabolism between cardio vs strength training

Photo Attribution: Source

Final Thoughts

If your goal is to build a stronger, well-rounded, and functional body, then starting (and maintaining) a strength training routine is the way to go.

We’ve covered in detail all of its great benefits and how it impacts muscle growth and strength. 

With that being said, including cardio in your training routine is also advantageous to augmenting your strength training, strengthening your heart, and improving mental health. 

When it comes to cardio vs strength training, both forms of exercise offer many health benefits you won’t want to miss out on.

author avatar
Ant Mancini Founder, BS, CPT
I'm Ant, and I've worked in the health and fitness industry since 2010. I've successfully trained & helped hundreds of people get stronger, feel & move better. I love coaching others to their strongest self, and I'm pumped you're here.
Strength Daily does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.