Strength, Cardio and Body Composition

We look at the various effects that strength and cardio training have on your body and see if they are able to coexist in a fitness plan or if you must decide on a path and stick with it.

Every single one of us is unique and so too are our fitness goals. The person sitting next to you might want to slim down a pants size while you may want to bulk up your arms and shoulders. The point is–we each have our own goal. While you want to reach these goals as quickly as possible there is no point in comparing yourself to your neighbour at the gym or even the person sitting next to you on the bus.

In this post, we’re going to examine different body types. We’re also going to examine whether or not strength training and cardio are independent to each other whether they can coexist in a blissful symbiotic relationship that will give you the body that you’ve always wanted.

The benefits of strength training

Let’s talk about strength training and you body type. So, what is strength training?

Strength training uses resistance to stimulate your muscles

Strength training is when we use resistance to stimulate the muscles resulting in the increase the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of your skeletal muscles. It is commonly viewed as an exercise that makes use of weights but it can also be done using a person’s own bodyweight. The way your body is composed will be determined by the type of strength training that you do.

For instance, someone who does callisthenics will have a very different physique from someone who trains to be a bodybuilder. Bodybuilders aim to get good proportional muscle growth throughout their entire body. Where as someone who’s focusing on calisthenics will rely on body weight exercises and the ability to manipulate their own body for a variety of exercises.

A number of studies have shown how beneficial resistance training is for weight loss and preventing negative changes in body composition. Even at a relatively low intensity, resistance training is effective in increasing muscle mass and strength and reducing total fat mass without change of insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetic patients.

Another study focused on your goals and states that if increasing muscle mass and strength is the goal, a program including resistance training is required. However, balancing time commitments against health benefits accrued, it appears that aerobic training alone is the optimal mode of exercise for reducing fat mass and total body mass.

This is interesting as we will focus on cardiovascular training shortly because your body composition is also closely linked to personal preference and your own fitness goals. Some people want to have that ripped, big physique and do appropriate strength training to achieve them, while others want to be lean and toned but not too big. It all comes down to what you want to achieve and how you go about achieving it. Focusing your training plan according to building a physique that you will be pleased with is crucial.  

The benefits of cardio workouts

Aerobic training or cardio is any workout that varies from low to high intensity while pumping oxygenated blood into the muscles. It stimulates your heart rate and increases your breathing and can be performed in a number of ways including running, swimming, cycling, spinning, and rowing. Of course, not all of us were built like Usain Bolt, but we can all benefit from including cardio in our training programme.

Usain Bolt

Your body composition will obviously vary depending on the type of cardio workout that you choose to do. For instance, long distance runners are often slender with little to no muscle or body fat, while sprinters are bulkier and more muscular. Of course, there are still tall and slender people who prefer not to run at all–so we can't generalise saying that just because you're built a certain way, you should enjoy or would be good at specific exercises.

The same goes for swimmers who normally have what is determined as an ideal physique with broad shoulders and a strong upper body, as well as a toned lower body. Cyclists find that their legs do most of the work and although they are slender, their legs are built for power.

There is no one physique that defines a person who does cardio workouts because it is critically dependent on the exercise performed or sport you compete in. 

Strength training vs. cardio–is it one or the other?

Cardio has long been the go-to workout for people looking to lose weight–with many people feeling nervous to add strength training into the mix for fear of bulking up too quickly and looking like a body builder. The truth is, that is highly unlikely to happen when you're doing the right exercises.

A 2012 study of 234 overweight and obese adults performed at Duke University found that the equivalent of 12 miles of walking or running per week was highly effective in reducing subjects' body fat, compared to resistance training without cardio. Clearly, results will vary depending on if you run, swim, or cycle but all are effective forms of weight loss.

Excessive cardio, however, is associated with muscle loss as well as fat loss, which may not be attractive to people who want to maintain a muscular physique–while also cutting excess weight. Yes, many people exercise because they want to lose weight–but this isn’t an issue for people who are already exercising. These people want to do exercises that will build muscle and get them washboard abs. So, how do you balance the two?

A great way to get a lean, sculpted and muscular physique is to do HIIT - or high-intensity interval training. A HIIT workout requires you to alternate between exercises at a low intensity and high intensity. And, it’s less likely to reduce muscle mass because it is similar to strength training. An example of how to do this is to jog lightly on a treadmill for 30 seconds, then sprint full tilt for a minute and go back to jogging lightly for another 30 seconds. Continue this for 10 minutes and you will have done your first HIIT session. The same can be applied to all types of cardio disciplines.  

A study from 1999 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition put two groups on a calorie restricted diet, with one doing ‘only cardio’ and the other doing ‘only resistance training.’ Both groups lost weight but:

  • The ‘only cardio’ participants lost 9lbs of muscle and decreased their RMR by 210 calories/day
  • The ‘only resistance’ group lost 1.8lbs of muscle (because of the deficit), and managed to increase their RMR by 63 calories/day

Your body type and strength training are not enemies–especially not in the long term. But, even in the short term, strength training makes sense; otherwise, the body reaches a plateau all too soon. You need to keep pushing your body to the next level because continuing to train the same way forever is not conducive to you reaching your goals and going further.

The role of diet and genetics in body composition

In terms of diet, you need to remember that what you put into your body will also determine what you get out. It would be impossible, forexample, to build a very muscular physique if you were only eating three small meals a day–unless you made use of other sources of nutrients such as supplements. Bodybuilders are religious about their diets, and normally eat clean, having many meals per day (such as three big meals and small snacks throughout).

The main takeaway is that your body uses this food as fuel. If you are training hard then you won’t put gain fat mass if you eat multiple times a day–your body is using this nourishment to build muscles and burn as energy. However, if you're only training lightly a few times per week, you'll need to limit your calorie intake simultaneously to ensure weight loss.

Remember–it’s not a good idea to look at the scale to determine whether your body composition is where you’d like it to be. Rather visit a professional and get them to do a body composition test if you’re wanting to find out if you’ve reached your desired fat percentage. Because your body is using this nourishment to build muscles and burn it as energy.

Lastly, there is are genetic factors at play. Briefly, power responders are normally recommended to train with heavier weights at a lower repetition and endurance responders with lighter weights at higher repetitions for the best results. Those with an even spread can afford to split up their routine between the two. You will discover more about this when you take your DNAfit test–where you'll learn which types of exercises will help you achieve your goals the fastest.

In order to achieve your goal (whether that's to loose some weight or build muscle) you’ll need to commit to it–there are no quick fixes. You’ll need hard work and dedication. The good news is that we’re always on hand with some helpful advice or a nutritious and delicious recipe ideas, so you don’t have to compromise your dream.

Download our guide, Fitness Hacks for Beginnersto find out how you can optimise your workout to reach your fitness goals.

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