What’s your go-to exercise? Many women think that to burn fat they must commit to hours of cardio every week. But this isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to train when it comes to losing weight.
Steve Chambers, Ultimate Performance Manchester Personal Trainer, explains the debate of weights vs cardio, to help you decide the right routine for you and your body.
The problem with cardio for weight loss
First things first – cardio is a great way to exercise, and doing long-duration cardio – which we call Low-Intensity Steady State Cardio (LISS) - does burn fat very well. Things like walking, cycling, swimming, running – anything you can do for a long period of time will burn fat.
But we know how busy everyone is, so it’s often not a time-efficient way to exercise. Furthermore, your body adapts to it very quickly. You might go out and run for 20 minutes for a week but when you stop making progress, you have to start running for longer and longer. Before you know it, you’re running an hour, seven days a week just to keep on top of things.
Anyone can lose weight initially when they start running because their output has increased. But the rate at which the body adapts to the running or LISS is very quick – a lot quicker than it does for weight training.
So, why weights?
One of the main points for women who have never lifted weights before is it is incredibly effective for fat loss and overall body composition. This is because it's often a new stimulus so your body is going to respond to it very well; it’s almost the ‘beginners’ gains’ idea.
There’s still this misconception that cardio is for women and weight training is for men, but women can train hard and heavy just like men can. Women can make the same kind of progress as men – but they will never end up looking like men, ‘bulky’ as some might say – because they don’t have the same hormonal profile as men.
Women usually use the word ‘tone up’ – which isn’t a very useful term and which describes the high-rep, low weight style of training which is often characterised by doing light 3kg pink dumbbells for hundreds of reps.
For many people, regardless of gender, they go to the gym to improve their body composition. But if you’re just doing cardio and not training the right muscles it’s very difficult to make this happen.
One of the main reasons we always prioritise weight training over cardio in any client’s programme – including Gemma Atkinson who has been training with Steve recently – is something called EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption)
This means that after training with weights you get a ‘calorie afterburn’ effect which you don’t get with steady-state cardio like running.
Once you’ve finished your run, you will essentially stop burning calories, but once you’ve finished a weight training session you will continue to burn calories after the session has finished. It can be up to 24 hours afterwards that you have an accelerated rate of calorie burn off – increased metabolism.
Weight training and how it will change your body
You’re also training the muscles which not only promotes fat loss but actually leads to better body composition. So, for any women looking to get a better figure; whether that’s improving their glutes or their shoulders, weight training will enhance body composition.
Weight training is much better at increasing metabolism compared to things like running and will also give you improved insulin sensitivity – how your body is able to handle carbohydrates.
Weight training is also a lot more time-efficient than this kind of cardio, you can spend just 30-45 minutes doing it three/four times a week and still see results in body composition.
Gemma’s sessions last between 40-45 minutes and she only does five exercises in that time with around 150 reps, but every one of those reps is performed for maximum effect.
It’s not as taxing on the joints as running; the toll that an hour of running a day will take on the hips, knees, ankles and back over time will lead to injuries, whereas weight training when done safely and properly will avoid this.
There are different loading parameters and ways you can progress a session without having to increase gym time. With weight training, you can get more load on the bar, dumbbell or machine which we call ‘progressive overload’. Then there are also other forms of progression such as decreased rest between sets, increasing the amount of sets, or simply changing the angle of the exercise is a progression in itself.
So basically you can do more sets, more reps, reduce the rest time or make the exercise more advanced.
Gemma’s Training plan
Gemma is following a German Body Composition Training protocol that utilises lower and upper body ‘supersets’, and trains four days a week with three rest days.
During a typical session, she will perform a lower body lift immediately followed by an upper body lift - and they’re largely multi-joint ‘compound’ movements.
It has lots of benefits. One of the biggest is that it reduces fatigue during the session in that particular area of the body, and prevents the build-up of lactic acid so she can train the muscles more frequently.
If Gemma wants her legs to look good, just training them once a week isn’t going to get results over a 12-week programme.
Cardio that does help
That’s not to say we can’t use cardio efficiently and effectively to help fat loss and body composition goals.
We generally use what’s called ‘metabolic conditioning’ at the end of the weight training sessions with Gemma and a large portion of other clients.
That might mean some interval training on the Watt Bike or Ski Erg. Or some strongman-based training like farmer’s walks or med ball slams.
Two of Gemma’s sessions a week will include some short element of metabolic conditioning or strongman.
The strongman-type training is a medley or circuit. It could be farmer’s walk for distance or time. The distance isn’t far because we want Gemma to be lifting heavy and working her core – at the end of the day it is still weight training but it’s the little bit of cardio that gets her heart rate up.
Then med ball slams; the ball is weighted and it also gets the heart rate up and they are done in intervals. So it might be 50ft farmer’s walk then maybe 6-8 med ball slams, then rest 30 seconds. This could be repeated over a 5-10 minute time-frame and it’s how many rounds she can complete in that time and then increase that and progress over time.
Interval training (HIIT) and steady-state (LISS) are both shown to be very beneficial in research. But at the end of the weight training session, that little burst at the end helps compliment Gemma’s training.
Top training tips
For women, our main tips are to train with weights, train hard and train heavy. The high reps low weight thing is such an out-dated way of thinking.
Train efficiently and with intensity; you don’t want to be in the gym longer than 45 minutes after you’ve warmed up.
If you can last much longer than that, it’s a good indicator that you’re not training hard enough.
You should do at least 3 weights sessions a week.
Then whichever areas you want to see visual progress in, train those areas as often as possible.
Training a body part once a week is another old way of thinking, try and incorporate different areas in one session.
If you have the opportunity to fit a couple of cardio sessions on top of weight training, by all means go for it, but it should be there to compliment the weight training.