What Burns More Calories?

weight lifting wallpaperConsidering that I’m (probably) going to shift my resistance training to more of a strength training style in a few weeks, I naturally am interested in that switch being effective. If I, even temporarily, give up isolation exercises (dumbbell curls, triceps extensions, and so on), will I be building strength and mass in my larger muscle groups while sacrificing the smaller ones?

Not according to Flex Magazine. They ask the question, “Do you need to do compound and isolation exercises for maximum gains?”

To find the answer, article writer Bryan Haycock, M.S. turned to some research:

Untrained subjects were divided into two groups: one performing compound exercises only (C), and the other performing compound exercises plus isolation exercises (C+I). The compound-exercise group performed only the bench press and lat pulldown. The C+I group performed the bench press, lat pulldown, triceps extension, and curl.

And what were the findings and conclusion?

There were no differences in gains between the two groups. Although the C+I group trained biceps and triceps in addition to the compound exercise, arm size and strength changed an equal amount for both groups.

The addition of isolation exercises will not significantly increase your gains.

That’s certainly reassuring but it’s not the whole story. For mere mortals like me and (presumably) thee, the results are most likely correct. But remember, Flex caters to the amateur and professional bodybuilder, In the case of advanced lifters, adding isolation exercises does contribute to gains, not because the underlying principle of the above-quoted research is incorrect, but because. “experienced lifters require more volume to get the same response” we less experienced lifters see.

So my take away from all this is that moving from a combination of compound and isolation lifts to mostly compound lifts will not cause a loss of strength or size in smaller muscles such as biceps, triceps, and calves.

But then there’s something else to consider. Not having given the 5×5 plan even a basic shake down, I don’t really know how long each session will take. Will I have time for a basic 25 minute cardio session or run out of time before my alloted 60 minute morning workout is over?

Of course, I’ll only be lifting three days a week, probably Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so that gives me Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to do cardio and gut work. But since I don’t like to do cardio anymore than 35 minutes in a single session, I still might find myself coming up short of total number of cardio minutes by the end of the week.

I don’t want to compromise cardio because a strong heart generally means a longer and healthier life, but since I’m also trying to lose (fat) weight, I don’t want to give up the advantage doing cardio gives me in that area.

I’ve mentioned before that MyFitnessPal.com, the app I use to track my calorie intake, only counts endurance exercise in terms of burning calories, not resistance training.

elliptical machinesSo if I end up reducing total time doing cardio each week, but turn up the intensity by turning up the weight doing compound lifts, will my progress in losing fat slow or even stop? Doesn’t weight lifting burn any calories?

Common sense tells us that it should and indeed, the research backs this up. But how does lifting compare to cardio in total calories burned over time? Which one is better?

There are tons of websites (assuming websites weigh anything) that “weigh in” (pun intended) on this topic.

For instance, livestrong.com states:

Most strength-training workouts burn only a modest amount of calories compared to aerobic activities. Half an hour of moderate weightlifting burns 112 calories if you weigh 155 pounds and 133 calories if you’re 185 pounds, according to the Harvard Medical School. Vigorous weightlifting burns 223 calories for a 155-pound person and 266 calories for a 185-pound person. Half an hour of body-weight exercises like pushups and pullups burn 167 calories if you weigh 155 pounds and 200 calories if you weigh 185 pounds. Perform these at a more vigorous intensity and you can burn 298 calories at 155 pounds and 355 calories at 185 pounds.

So how many calories burned during weight training not only depends on how much you weigh but on how intense the weight training session.


Lifting weights just 5 to 10 percent heavier than the ones you currently use may help you burn 500 to 600 more calories per strength training session. Heavier weights with which you can perform only 6 to 8 repetitions are a better option than light weights with which you can perform 12 to 15 repetitions. Using heavier weights boosts your metabolism more post-workout than using light weights.


Compound exercises, which involve multiple joints, burn more calories than isolation exercises involving just one joint, such as biceps curls. Compound exercise options include pushups, pullups, barbell squats, lunges, bench presses, military presses and deadlifts. Ideally, aim to involve as many muscles as you can in each exercise. For example, you might perform a body-weight squat with a bicep curl.

So using heavier weights at fewer reps and employing compound as opposed to isolation lifts burn the most calories in weight/strength training, but cardio is still the king of the calorie burn. This is confirmed by other sources including shape.com.

But that’s not all there is to it. In a separate livestrong.com article, it states:

The most important indicator of your calorie expenditure during weight lifting is your heart rate. Heart rate has the closest relationship with your calorie expenditure rate when your heart rate is within the range of 90 to 150 beats per minute. You should therefore keep your heart rate above the minimum of 90 beats per minute during your weight lifting session.

barbell hack squat
Photo credit: workoutplan.com

So even though I would be resting about 60 to 90 seconds between sets, as long as my heart rate didn’t fall below 90 beats per minute (bpm), I still wouldn’t lose my calorie burning advantage. No promises about my heart rate not climbing above 150 bpm as the amount of weight I’m living continues to climb at a 5 rep max.

But I haven’t mentioned another important aspect to weight loss: how diet affects overall weight loss when combined with exercise.

nerdfitness.com cites an article called “Heirarchy of Weight Loss” at the Alwyn Cosgrove website (the web page is no longer available) stating:

Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks).

The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.

Thirty-six sessions of up to 50 minutes is a lot of work for one additional pound of fat loss. However, the addition of resistance training greatly accelerated fat loss results.

So for overweight people who want to achieve the best results, the ideal program should include aerobics and weight training and diet.

The interesting thing to note is that in comparing diet alone with diet plus aerobics, aerobics didn’t make that much difference. Naturally, the benefits of cardio in strengthening the heart and promoting longevity must be factored in, and as I said, the best result for weight loss is combining all three methods.

The nerdfitness writer isn’t so cut and dry about there being only one best way to lose weight. It really depends on what you like to do and, depending on your preferences, you can choose cardio, HIIT (which I wouldn’t recommend for seniors), or weight training.

Answering my own question though, a combination of diet, cardio, and strength training using heavier weights and compound lifts should work just fine in the continuation toward my goals of losing fat weight, gaining lean muscle mass, and promoting general health.

Seems like I’m on the right track.

Oh, I’m tossing in a “funny” just because.

mother goose and grimm

Believe you can and you’re halfway there.

Theodore Roosevelt


5 thoughts on “What Burns More Calories?

  1. , James, FWIW, Jim and I were discussing your (general, overall) blog this morning. He’s 62, a Tae Kwon Do world champ in his age class, and has approximately the same body he had when I married him. One of his good friends is a former champion in HIS age class in bench press. Mike used to tell Jim (and this was corroborated by my trainer, Bryan) that you only need to do 20 minutes of cardio – on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. After that, you’re burning muscle.

    I almost sent you that cartoon yesterday. Did you see the attached from my FB post?



    1. I’ve heard different figures about cardio, Michele. 20 minutes is news to me, and a number of authorities based on recent research say 25 to 35 minutes is optimal cardio. That said, with so many different professional opinions available, it’s not always easy to decide which one to listen to.

      No, didn’t see the cartoon on Facebook.


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