Strength Training vs. Cardio for Weight Loss: Which Is Better?

Strength training vs. cardio: in this article, we pit the 2 exercise types against each other to determine which is better for weight loss.

Strength Training vs. Cardio for Weight Loss: Which Is Better?

Trying to lose weight? Then you probably already know 2 things. 

First, you need to create a calorie deficit — i.e., eat fewer calories than your body burns. Second, exercise makes maintaining a calorie deficit easier by increasing your energy expenditure.

But here’s something you’re less sure about.

The specific type of exercise you should do for weight loss.

Because strength training vs. cardio: which comes out on top? Let’s see.

Strength training vs. cardio: calories burned

If we look at things solely from a calorie-burn POV, cardio wins. Hands-down. 

How are we so certain? 

Answer: the Compendium of Physical Activities

This massively helpful resource quantifies the energy cost (in terms of Metabolic Equivalent of Task or MET values) of specific physical activities, from gardening to bicycling to weightlifting to *ahem* sexual activities.

A MET is a ratio of your working metabolic rate relative to your resting metabolic rate. 

And 1 MET is the energy you spend at rest, otherwise known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). So, an activity with an MET value of 3.3, means you’re burning 3.3 times the calories you would if you were standing still. 

To help you grasp the chasm between strength training’s and cardio’s calorie-burning capacities, look at the following strength training vs. cardio MET values:

  • Running, 6 mph or 9.66 kmph: 9.8 MET
  • Bicycling, general: 7.5 MET
  • Aerobic dancing, general: 7.3 MET
  • Basketball, drills, practice: 9.3 MET
Strength training
  • Resistance training, squats, slow or explosive effort: 5.0 MET
  • Resistance training, multiple exercises, 8-15 reps: 3.5 MET

Now, let’s assume that your BMR is 1,400.

Doing some quick math, that’ll mean 1 hour or running will help you burn 571.7 calories while spending the same amount of time on squats would only amount to a calorie burn of 291.7 calories. The difference?

A whopping 280 calories.

Of course, your exact numbers for strength training vs cardio calorie burn will depend on your BMR value, which you could get an estimate of by using the following formulas:

Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) - (5,677 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) - (4.330 x age in years)

Cardio alone isn’t all that effective for weight loss

Given the massive difference in calorie-burning capacities, you’d think that the debate for, “Strength training vs. cardio: which is better for weight loss?” is settled. 

Cardio is better. Obviously.

Um, unfortunately, research begs to differ.

While cardio is indeed great at burning calories, studies show that it doesn’t translate all that well to actual weight lost. 

We’ll explain why in a bit, but first, look at these:

  • 2021 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Most people tend to only see 20% to 50% of expected weight loss when implementing cardio for weight loss without also managing their calorie consumption. In other words, the energy deficit they’ve created is actually smaller than expected (e.g., they did 500 calories’ worth of cardio, and would have expected to burn 500 more calories, but the reality is they didn’t). 
  • 2021 meta-analysis published in Sports: 8 weeks of cardio (regardless of intensity; 30 minutes of high-intensity or 120 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly) resulted in negligible weight loss effects. We’re talking to the measly tune of 0.25 kg or 0.5 lb.

So, what’s with the discrepancy between the calories burned from cardio and weight loss results?

It comes down to something called the constrained total energy expenditure model, where the body tries to offset the additional calories burned by:

Decreasing non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) levels

NEAT refers to the energy your body burns for things like fidgeting and moving from point A to point B.
Increasing calorie consumption

You may tend to (subconsciously) eat more after doing cardio either because you feel like you “deserve it” or you’re just hungrier.

In fact, according to a 2023 meta-analysis published in Advances in Nutrition, which ranked several fat loss protocols based on weight loss effectiveness, resistance training alone (-1.74) came out on top of cardio alone (-1.41) when compared to no intervention (0.00). 

The benefit of resistance training for weight loss

Hmm. But that doesn’t seem to make sense?

If strength training quite literally burns fewer calories per session (assuming the same duration), why would it do better than cardio at eliciting weight loss results?

That’s because, when you lose weight from cardio, your body tends to lose both muscle and fat mass relatively indiscriminately

And that’s a bad, bad thing because research shows that the loss of muscle mass is a key driver of excess hunger after weight loss. 

In other words: the more weight you lose from cardio, the hungrier you get — potentially even driving you to the point where you eat back all the calories burned from cardio. 

On the flip side: yes, strength training burns fewer calories. But it has an important advantage.

Strength training gives your body a reason to hang on to more of its muscle mass even as it’s losing weight (i.e., a larger percentage of your weight loss will come from fat instead of lean body mass).

This reduces the impact of increased hunger and appetite during weight loss, helping you better manage your calorie consumption.

It’s not a matter of strength training vs. cardio


So, strength training vs. cardio for weight loss: turns out, strength training is better, after all? Well … not exactly (Please don’t get frustrated and throw things at us).

The truth is that you shouldn’t only do strength training or cardio. 

In the best case scenario, you should ideally do both.

Reason? Take another look at the 2023 meta-analysis (published in Advances in Nutrition) ranking the effectiveness of different weight loss protocols.

Reminder: compared to no intervention (0.00), resistance training alone came in at -1.74, while cardio came in at -1.41 (the more negative, the greater the weight loss). Now, looking further up the chart:

  • Energy restriction + high protein + exercise (strength training and cardio): -3.99
  • Energy restriction + strength training: -3.67
  • Energy restriction + cardio: -3.52

Meaning? You’d see the best chances of achieving — and maintaining — weight loss through a combination of: 

  1. Calorie restriction (i.e., ensuring you’re actually eating in a deficit) with 
  2. Enough protein to maintain and build muscle mass, plus help with appetite regulation (protein is the most satiating macronutrient)
  3. Exercise that includes a mix of strength training and cardio

Where do you go from here?

Now that you understand the futility of pitting strength training vs. cardio, here are a few actionable tips that’ll help you get off to a good start on your weight loss journey:

  • Get a good sense of how many calories you should be eating (here’s a calorie calculator you could use)
  • Prioritize high-protein, whole food sources; top up with a suitable protein powder if you struggle to hit your daily protein intake recommendations
  • Find a cardio activity (or activities) you enjoy — remember that consistency is key 
  • Follow a well-structured strength training routine