Not all exercises are created equal and you should know that by know. Regardless of your personal preferences, there are objectively lousy exercises and highly effective exercises; while the majority of moves belongs somewhere in the middle. But can the same be said for training regimes?
Today we’re going to take up the rather challenging task of comparing resistance training against running and cycling and finally deciding who rules them all. Why is that necessary, when both weightlifting and cardio training seem to offer unique health, fat loss and muscle-building benefits? Because first, it will help us debunk some ugly myths about both lifting and cardio routines and set the record straight, and second, we’ll get to describe in detail why resistance training is the second greatest idea in the world after the invention of the wheel.
Yeah, we’re pretty confident about the winner because we’ve done our research – to resolve the strength training vs. cardio conundrum, we’ve dig out tons of scientific evidence and consulted many experts on the subject. In fact, some athletes and training gurus have been recently arguing that the fitness world is ready to ditch cardio altogether. Ouch!
We hope that won’t really happen, though. You can’t get everything from one type of training and running and cycling have an integral place in a well-rounded fitness program. That’s a solid fact and this article is based on utmost respect for these forms of exercise.
However, whenever any truth-lover attempts isolate the benefits from both strength training and running/cycling and stack them up against each other, strength training emerges as the superior choice. And if you don’t have time to have that well-rounded fitness program we mentioned, it’s much better to grab a barbell than hit the pavement.
Here are 10 bullet-proof reasons why.
#1. Running Only Builds Muscle in the Lower Legs
We all know that runners have amazing calves and quads, but that’s usually the end of the story with the exception of runners with freakish genetics. There’s really no surprise here – running primarily stresses the ankle joints and the cardiovascular system and it doesn’t require a big enough range of motion to stimulate significant muscle growth elsewhere. On a side note, have you noticed that sprinters often rely on strength training to increase their speed and power?
That’s because running by itself doesn’t allow them to apply the greatest training stimulus required for maximizing their results – after the beginner phase, the main benefits come in the form of cardiovascular conditioning. But do you know which form of training will help you build (and keep on building!) whole-body muscle strength and mass? That’s right.
#2. Cycling Promotes Bad Posture
Here’s the problem: cycling does nothing to develop the hips or the upper body, which is why many cyclists who have the bragging rights for monster quads suffer from an embarrassing absence of gluteal development. Also, the cycling position is not natural, since our spine is designed to have three balanced curves that make up its S-shape. When you’re on a bike, your spine rounds forward from the tailbone to the shoulders and your spine loses its natural shape. Over time, this can easily lead to a network of health issues and dysfunctionalities, such as lower back disorders, terrible posture and a “pancake butt” comprised of mostly inactive glutes.
#3. It’s All About Strength – and Strength Training Does It Better
Regardless of which physical attribute you worship the most – agility, speed, size, strength, balance, etc. – you have to admit that strength is the quality to rule them all. Stronger muscles can do everything better! Orchestrating more powerful jumps? Check. Protecting your joints and connective tissues? Yep. Lifting ridiculous amounts of weight? Absolutely. And as you may already know, nothing builds muscle strength like the progressive overload implemented in strength training.
#4. Strength Training Boosts Metabolism More Powerfully
When you increase your muscle mass, you boost your resting metabolism, which makes your body burn more calories. Lean muscle mass requires more fuel for everyday functioning than fat, so the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you can burn just by living and breathing.
Then, weightlifting creates a lot of muscle damage that increases post-workout metabolism because it takes energy to repair the muscle fibers you’ve destroyed while training, which equals to even more calories burned. Of course, intensive periods of running or cycling also create muscle damage (mostly to the legs!) and spark up your metabolism, but this is dramatically less than what you’d get from a regular resistance training routine.
One recent study from North Dakota State University found that you can burn 346 calories in just 13 minutes of performing a 6-exercise resistance circuit, while running at a 10-minute mile pace for the same amount of time will only burn 146 calories. Another study showed that 12 minutes of kettlebell swings had the same metabolic impact as running for 12 minutes, but with the added benefits of strengthening many muscles that are neglected when running.
To burn more calories, you need to up both your anaerobic and aerobic energy expenditures, which is best done with high-intensity total-body resistance training (according to science, it’s even better than HIIT cardio). So if you want to rev up your metabolism and lean out as fast as possible, resistance training should be the cornerstone of your program, period.
5. Strength Training Does Wonders for Mobility
Remember how all strength training articles stress the importance of completing a full range of motion? This is how resistance exercises are correctly performed. A greater range of motion brings many benefits, one of which is improving joint mobility. Neither running nor cycling offer this potential – in fact, it’s generally terrible for people with mobility issues.
You can see the difference by comparing a simple exercise like the lunge with running – lunges will strengthen your hips and thighs, improve hip mobility and fix existing muscle imbalances, while running will only strengthen your leg muscles, especially the calves. Try to compare any classic strength-building exercise with running and you’ll get the same result.
#6. Strength Training Will Reduce Your Risk of Injury
And yet the opposite is not true. As it turns out, running can be a rather dangerous sport – recent research has shown that as many as 79% of runners get injured at least once during the year. Physiotherapists have claimed for ages now that excessive running and cycling can create a multitude of inherent imbalances within the organism, mainly because of the limited range of motion and endless, repetitive movement patterns, which is basically a recipe for overuse injuries.
So how can runners, or anyone else for that matter, protect the health of their joints and connective tissues? By incorporating an adequate amount of strength work into their fitness regime, of course. Besides its ability to strengthen your muscles and tendons, strength training also enables you to fix strength imbalances, improve muscle coordination and prioritize natural, functional movements of the body that can’t be trained with running and cycling.
By the way, research on the subject has shown that lack of hip strength and poor development of the core muscles are one of the most frequent causes of common running injuries, and recommended that runners perform strength training to identify and improve their weak areas.
#7. Strength Training Builds a Better-looking Physique
Kind of a no-brainer here. Unless your idea of physical aesthetics is radically different from the one endorsed by most people, you have to agree that, if done properly, strength training can help you build a spectacular physique by maximally developing every muscle in your body, while cycling and running will mostly affect your calves and quads (and possibly weaken your posture).
A high degree of aesthetics is all about the optimal balance between size, proportion, symmetry, and body fat percentage. There are many people with greatly-built bodies out there that haven’t gone through a lot of running, but almost all of them have done strength training for longer periods of time.
#8. Strength Training Offers Immense Exercise Variety
“Novelty or training variety are important for stimulating further strength development”, claims a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and we couldn’t agree more. Varity is the key for breaking or even avoiding the vicious cycle of monotony and loss of motivation, and in combination with progressive overload, it’s what helps lifters keep on making strength and mass gains.
As you have probably experienced by yourself, cycling and running don’t offer a whole lot in this department – the choice between uphill or downhill running/cycling isn’t exactly what we’d call a wide range of options. On the other hand, there are dozens of ways to do squats and all of them pack unique benefits! The same can be said for a great number of major upper body and lower body exercises.
You can always easily up the challenge and keep your workout interesting by modifying familiar movements and adding little twists to exercises you’ve properly mastered, or you can choose a completely different set of exercises which train the same muscles in a different way. And that’s how you build a complete, healthy and well-defined physique.
#9. Strength Training Helps Slow Down Aging
One recent study showed that strength training in people aged 40 and above can reverse oxidative stress and return no less than 179 genes to their youthful status, and the same cannot be said for cycling/running. Furthermore, this exercise form has been found to directly impact 10 biomarkers of aging in a positive way.
According to S. Melov and M. A. Tarnopolsky, the authors of a 2007 study named “Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle”: “Quite literally, the resistance training was not only slowing, but also reversing the aging process at the gene level. The gene expressions of the resistance trained older subjects demonstrated characteristics similar to those of the younger group. The researchers also noted that mitochondrial impairment, normally seen with inactivity, was reversing with the 6 months of resistance training.”
And what about muscle mass los and reduced bone density, which are one of the most common negative attributes of aging? Countless of studies have shown that resistance training is the best way to preserve muscle mass and bone density and prevent osteoporosis, which is why this type of training is most commonly recommended to older people.
By preserving muscle mass, they can maintain a high metabolic rate and avoid a series of health issues such as metabolic disorder, diabetes, hypertension, etc., associated with fat gain which is known side-effect of both aging-associated muscle loss and muscle loss in younger people.
#10. Strength Training Will Extend Your Lifespan
By now, it’s clear that strength training does a lot more than increasing muscle size and strength. Some researchers have actually claimed that it is the most healthful form of exercise there is, because it protects bran health, prevents sarcopenia, lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and actually substantially lowers the death rate of cancer survivors, just to mention a few.
It can also improve hormonal balance and prevent mood disorders, depression and anxiety, as well as enhance cognitive skills in both older and younger people. And by adding up the health-boosting, disease-preventing and anti-aging benefits of strength training, it’s easy to conclude that this type of exercise can increase your longevity. But there’s more.
Some new studies have found that weightlifting can directly increase your lifespan. How? By lowering the level of myostatin in your body. Miostatin (also known as growth differentiation factor 8 or GDF-8), is a myokine produced and released by myocytes that inhibits myogenesis, i.e. growth and differentiation in muscle cells. The way in which weightlifting increases the size and strength of your muscles is lowering the level of myostatin. According to these studies, less myostatin also means about 15% longer life.
On top of that, if there’s one thing that could keep your self-confidence stable and body image positive during your golden years, it’s having a high-degree of strength and mobility, both of which can be maximized and maintained with the help of strength training and weightlifting. Among other things, this will lower your risk of bone fractures, back pain, osteoarthritis and atherosclerosis.
On the other hand, running is a pretty high-impact exercise that isn’t recommendable for most seniors, although some studies have yielded interesting contra-arguments to this. Still, besides improving cardiovascular health, strengthening segments of the lower body and eliminating stress, running can’t do all that much for anyone. Cycling could be done forever, but… for what purpose?
Just like running, it won’t do anything to develop your upper body and core muscles or improve your posture, stability or balance. It can’t even help you reverse the effects of excess sedentary activity and it’s unable to stimulate effective and dramatic fat loss as strength training can. Running and cycling simply cannot be compared with strength training in any terms, including short-term and long-term health benefits.
Do you want to be able to move with ease and vitality, keep your mind sharp and quick, and feel energized and balanced until your very last day? Then make strength training the cornerstone of your fitness program. Period.
And if you have the time and desire to do it, add some running and cycling sessions to boost your gains even further. Good luck!