There’s one question that trainers get more often than any other: “Should I be focusing more on strength training or cardio?” (second to “How long does it take to get abs?”) While some of us love binge-watching old episodes of The Bachelor on the treadmill, others prefer to work on building up our bench press max of five reps. But if dramatic reality TV has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes what we want isn’t exactly what we need. Ultimately, what you should focus on is entirely dependent on your goals, preferences (remember: the best workout is one you’ll actually do!), and the equipment that’s available to you. Since we all have different goals and circumstances, here’s exactly what you should prioritize, based on what you want out of your workouts.
1. If you’re training for a marathon (or any kind of race)…
Simply put, the best way to become a better runner is to run. If you’re training for any kind of race, you’re going to want to put 75 percent of your time and effort into running. However, that doesn’t mean you should just always be on the treadmill. By incorporating speed workouts, tempo runs, and long jogs, you’ll keep the running spark alive and improve your skills for the marathon. Also, switch up between running on the track, along different routes, or at the gym to change up your scenery. The other 25 percent of the time, work on increasing your strength with heavy weights. Runners need strong leg muscles, a strong core, and arms that can swing all day long, so don’t skip out on your squats, deadlifts, planks, and rows (also to prevent injury!).
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2. If you’re trying to change your body composition…
If you’re interested in increasing your muscle mass and/or changing your body fat, you’re going to need a healthy mix of both cardio and strength training. Changing the way our bodies look takes both cardio and strength training to be our healthiest self. If your goal is to lose fat, cardio affects fat loss, while weight training helps strengthen muscles to burn more calories at rest. If your goal is to feel more toned and gain more muscle mass, weight training will help you get stronger (more on that below), but cardio is also important for muscle circulation and increases oxygen supply so muscles can work harder. Bottom line is that if you’re looking to change your body composition, get a combo of both. Most importantly, remember that rest, nutritious food, and a balanced lifestyle are also necessary for body composition changes, so be sure to incorporate those things too.
3. If you want to get stronger…
It probably goes without saying that if you want to get stronger, you’ve got to head straight to the weight room. Muscles get stronger after they’re damaged from use (training), and then they repair themselves to come back stronger (recovery)—Voldemort style. By using the principle of progressive overload, or periodically increasing the stress on the muscles by using heavier weights, you will see #gainz in both strength (how much you can lift) and hypertrophy (how big your muscles are). Focus on strength training (with some cardio!) and make sure that you’re increasing your resistance by approximately 10 percent every few weeks or when your current weights begin to feel less challenging.
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4. If you want to improve your overall health…
What’s better than feeling your absolute best? If you’re interested in living a healthy, long life and reducing risk for injuries (or if you’re just tired of the couch-fridge-couch lifestyle most of us have had since 2020), you’ll want a good mix of both strength training and cardio. Strengthening your muscles is important for making daily living easier (like walking up the stairs, carrying groceries, etc.), and cardio will give you the endorphin rush we all know and love. By focusing your efforts 50/50, you’ll improve your health as well as your physical and emotional wellbeing.
5. If you like the social aspect of working out…
As an adult, a workout can be one of the few opportunities to meet new people and make new friends. While friendships have been formed over a love of SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp, this trainer believes that strength training is where the true bonding happens. Picture it: You’re clipped into your bike, breathlessly pedaling as fast as you can to your favorite Rihanna song. It’s too dark and loud to say “hello” to the person a few bikes down (even if you could catch your breath enough to try), and before you know it, you’re going your separate, sweaty ways. Now imagine that you’re at a strength training facility with a handful of other people. As you’re casually chatting about your weekends while doing squats and bicep lifts, you find out that the person in the squat rack next to you was also at that same Rihanna concert on Saturday night. Soon enough, you’re grabbing a smoothie after your workout.
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6. If you’re looking for those feel-good endorphins…
If you’re going through a particularly stressful time, need a little mood boost, or simply want to develop healthier happiness habits, check out the magic of cardio for yourself and elevate your heart rate too. Whether you prefer to go for a run, take a bike ride, hop into a boutique fitness class, or take a long walk, cardio is the ultimate mood-booster. And while a dance cardio class is a much more upbeat way to achieve the mood-boosting rush, weightlifting can have a similar effect (especially because lower weight and higher rep count can increase your heart rate too), so the most important part is doing the workout that you enjoy most.
Your goals, equipment, budget, weather, and location are going to dictate what you should be focusing on when it comes to exercise, but no matter what, you’re much more likely to stick with a routine you actually enjoy. I may not learn much about long-term commitment from those Bachelor reruns, but I have learned a lot about it from my LTR with my favorite workouts.
How to Actually Get the Most out of Your Workout
according to a fitness trainer