When it comes to burning calories and losing fat, many people choose to go with cardio.
Walk into any gym these days, and you’ll see various people who are looking to get summer-ready on the treadmill or stationary bike.
The consensus is clear - we should do cardio if we want to burn a considerable amount of calories.
But is this shared understanding true?
Cardio: An Overrated Fat Loss Solution
Let’s take, for example, the most popular cardio modality:
Low-intensity running on a treadmill for 30+ minutes.
Based on what we’ve seen in studies and what certain calculators suggest, a 160-pound person running on a treadmill non-stop for 30 minutes at a speed of 6.2 mph will burn about 400 calories. Not too shabby.
But the impact of this type of cardio work won’t be very significant. You’ll likely experience a bit of fatigue in your calves and a bit of glycogen depletion in your lower body. In other words, you won’t burn many calories after the workout is complete.
Plus, we need to factor in another essential thing: movement efficiency.
You see, when you start running on a treadmill, you might burn a lot of calories in the first few workouts because your movements won’t be very efficient – after all, it’s a new movement pattern that takes time to master.
But with enough repetition, your body will become more and more efficient at the movements that make up jogging. You’ll move your arms and legs more efficiently without even realizing it. Meaning, as your running technique improves, your body will burn fewer calories to perform the same volume of work.
That’s good for someone aspiring to run a marathon, where every bit of energy matters. But it’s not very good for someone who does cardio with the sole purpose of burning calories.
Compound Lifts: An Overlooked Calorie-Burner
When most people hear the terms ‘deadlifts’ or ‘barbell squats,’ they imagine someone training to build muscle and get stronger. And while the primary job of compound lifts like those is to get you jacked, there’s more to them.
Research has found that doing 4 sets of 8 reps on the deadlift with 90 kilos (~200 pounds) burns about 50-55 calories. That might not sound like much, but consider these points:
1) That’s the caloric burn of a single exercise and with a relatively low load. Most people can clear this weight with a couple of months of serious training, and many can deadlift two even three times more weight. Meaning, two to three times the caloric burn.
Also, it’s rare for someone to do one exercise and call it a workout. No, most people would do several more exercises, some compound, some isolation. That’s even more of a caloric burn that can potentially lead to superior fat loss.
2) Compound lifts like the deadlift are highly-demanding. Not only do they consume a big chunk of our muscle glycogen stores, but they also damage a range of major muscle groups in the body.
After a hard workout that includes one or more compound lifts, your body needs hundreds of calories, lots of protein and carbs to repair itself, replenish the lost glycogen, and adapt positively.
So, What’s The Bottom Line Here?
A low-intensity cardio session burns some calories (but you’d have to do it non-stop for at least half an hour to burn a significant amount), depletes a small percentage of your glycogen stores, and does minimal damage to your muscles (jogging mainly fatigues your calves – a small muscle group).
Compound lifts burn slightly fewer calories during the workout, but the body then needs several hundred extra calories to bring itself back to a recovered state.
So, we shouldn’t look at things in a vacuum, but we should instead consider all the factors and how each can contribute to tipping the scale in favor of one thing. In this case, compound lifts are the clear winner.