Cardio or weightlifting: What's best for your fitness goals?


As pandemic restrictions lift, many people are trying to find their way back into a fitness regimen, and they may well be asking the common question: ‘Where do I start?”

Those who have made it back to the gym are trying to prioritize their workout plans. Others are struggling to determine what workouts are best for them: Should they take a cardio approach to lose weight or lift weights to build muscle?

Evan Williams, CSCS*D, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with UCLA Health Sports Performance Powered by Exos, has some answers.

“You need both, so it is hard to choose one over the other,” said Williams. “However, when a potential client comes to me, we need to see how they move to establish a baseline before recommending any workouts. If they’re not moving well you can’t prescribe anything except a baseline of ‘you need to move.’ After that, it comes down to what the person is trying to achieve.”

Workouts are going to vary depending on a person’s physical condition and place in his or her fitness journey, but Williams said a training schedule has to have balance. “If a person only lifts once a week but runs the rest of the week, that will adversely affect his or her muscle growth,” he said. “There has to be a balance of strength training and cardio.”

Williams noted that a higher percentage of people right now want to lose weight, especially because many have developed bad eating and exercise habits during the pandemic. However, the desire to lose weight should also be accompanied by a desire to gain muscle.

“You can lose weight, but still have bad body fat percentage,” Williams said. “Body fat percentage is attached to your body composition, which is how you look. You want to look fit, but many people lose weight and fail to put on muscle when training. That happens because they are losing weight but not turning the fat into lean muscle mass.”

2 types of cardio

Williams said the two most effective ways to lose weight are weight training and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). HIIT workouts involve fast cardio and explosive movements such as sprinting and jumping, which also help with muscle growth. It’s the reason sprinters and long-distance runners have contrasting physiques.

Sprinters have more lean muscle mass because they train moving fast over short distances and incorporate weight training into their programs; distance runners are generally slim because they don’t typically incorporate weight training and they train at longer distances at a much slower pace.

Williams points out that lifting weights can be a cardiovascular workout in itself. He says doing explosive exercises with weights can increase your heart rate to the point where you’re burning fat cells while putting on muscle. Running a three-mile stretch on a consistent basis, on the other hand, will help you burn fat, but you’re going to lose muscle in the process if there is no strength training involved.

However, Williams said he is most concerned with people just becoming more active as society slowly reopens after more than a year of the pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic, so many people are in a deconditioned state. They’ve been sitting around the house, not getting out to walk or exercise. So now, we have to get back to basics; low weight (exercises), moderate to high reps of movement just to get the body going again. That’s the biggest key.”

If you’re thinking about starting a new journey into fitness, want tips on nutrition and meal plans, or need help getting back into shape, visit UCLA Health Sports Performance Powered by Exos. Check with your doctor before starting a new routine.