Common sense would suggest that cardio is best for burning fat whereas strength training is best for muscle development. Well, apparently it's not quite as simple.
New research has set out to test the age-old exercise theory that to burn fat, you need to amp up your cardio. But if you hate running and don’t want to spend hours spinning on one of our picks for the best exercise bike, we’ve got good news. Researchers at the University of New South Wales found that you can get similar fat loss benefits from strength training alone.
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The study, which was published in Sports Medicine via Science Daily, found that we can lose around 1.4 per cent of our entire body fat through strength training alone, which is similar to how much weight we might lose through a cardio training program.
"A lot of people think that if you want to lose weight, you need to go out and run," says senior author of the study Dr. Mandy Hagstrom, exercise physiologist and senior lecturer at UNSW Medicine & Health.
"But our findings show that even when strength training is done on its own, it still causes a favorable loss of body fat without having to consciously diet or go running."
Dr. Hagstrom pulled together findings from 58 different research papers, that used accurate forms of body fat measurements (for example, body scans) to look at the effects of strength training on the body. The studies included a total of 3000 participants, none of which had previous weight training experience.
The participants performed strength training exercises for around 45-60 minutes for an average of 2.7 times per week. The programs latest for around five months and, on average, the participants lost 1.4 per cent of their total body fat, which was roughly half a kilo in fat mass for most.
While these findings are positive for people who love heading to the weight room in the gym, Dr. Hagstrom is keen to point out that the best approach for those looking for long term fat loss is to eat healthily and stick to an exercise routine that includes both cardio and strength training.
Of course, cardio doesn’t have to involve running. We tried this viral TikTok treadmill workout that involved walking at an incline and these cardio exercises have been proven to burn more calories than running.
Does muscle weigh more than fat?
The researchers behind the study were quick to point out that one reason why strength training has, until now, not been considered a good fat loss tool, is because the number on the scales might not drop. Dr Hagstorm was keen to point out that the number on the scale is your total body mass, and is not a reflection on body fat percentage.
"More often than not, we don't gain any muscle mass when we do aerobic training," says Dr Hagstrom. "We improve our cardiorespiratory fitness, gain other health and functional benefits, and can lose body fat.
"But when we strength train, we gain muscle mass and lose body fat, so the number on the scales won't look as low as it would after aerobics training, especially as muscle weighs more than fat."
One of the best ways to keep check on your body fat percentage is to invest in a smart scale for your home, which will give you a better idea of your muscle mass, water mass, bone density and body fat. We’ve hand-picked some of the best smart scales on the market here.
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Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.