What Are the Benefits of Resistance Training vs. Cardio?

By Daniel Heller, MSc, CSCS, RSCC

Regular physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle. For some a structured exercise routine is the best way to ensure that their body is getting what it needs physically to maintain health. This brings us to our first point of discussion: physical activity versus exercise. Physical activity is anything that elevates the heart rate above resting, whereas exercise is a form of structured physical activity with the intention of affecting a specific aspect of function or performance. For the purposes of this discussion, consider the body as two systems: the musculoskeletal system, a strong structure that is responsible for movement, and the cardiorespiratory system, which is responsible for delivering energy to the first system so that it can function. Physical activity and/or exercise is not possible without both of these systems functioning, and with intention we can enhance the performance and function of both systems.

Now let’s discuss how to improve these systems via resistance training and cardiorespiratory training. Always work with a healthcare practitioner prior to starting a new exercise program.

Resistance training

Think strength, power, and confidence. Resistance training targets the musculoskeletal system by requiring movement against a resistance (body weight or external resistance). The more times we move against a resistance, the stronger we get, which means we can gradually increase the load. This load can come from anything from our body weight to a log we find at the beach. More traditional forms of resistance come from barbells, dumbbells, and cable machines, but more recently suspension trainers and kettle bells have become popular. A few of the key notable benefits of resistance training are an increase in lean body mass, a decrease in body weight from fat, and improvement in movement ability and self-esteem.1,2 These are just a few of the extensive list of benefits provided in Table 1.

Cardiorespiratory training (cardio)

Recall back to exercise versus physical activity, where exercise has an intention of improving a system and physical activity is something that elevates your heart rate above its resting rate. Here’s where the line between the two gets fuzzy. Let’s say you’re at the gym. You get on a treadmill for 30 minutes and set the pace for 4 miles per hour. Your intention is to walk 2 miles to get your cardio in for the day. Over a month you may increase the duration, the speed, or inclination of the treadmill.

Now transfer that into a walk around your neighborhood. What’s your intention? A conversation with a friend, taking some pictures, smelling the fresh air. You’re still going to yield similar benefits because you’re moving. Benefits highlighted from Table 1 are a decrease in resting heart rate, increase in movement efficiency, and burning fat as a fuel more efficiently.4

Resistance training vs. cardio

Our musculoskeletal system and cardiorespiratory system are both required to go about our day, but what are the real physiological differences that occur when we participate in resistance or cardio training? Table 1 outlines the specific physiological effects of each.

Consider a few of the shared and different benefits and how these might be noticeable as your exercise or physical activity habits increase in intensity and duration. Both resistance training and cardio have significant effects on body composition as separate ways of training and when combined.3 Resistance training helps increase lean body mass,2 and cardio helps improve your body’s ability to use stored fat as a substrate as an aerobic fuel source.4

A positive impact on cognition and confidence has been observed after participation in resistance training.2 Resistance and cardio training have both shown an increase in movement control1 and efficiency.4 Some things you might notice as your cardiorespiratory system improves with cardio or regular participation in physical activity are that you are able to participate for longer periods of time, and when you’re at rest, your heart rate is lower.4 Review Table 1 for the full list of effects of both resistance training and cardio.

Resistance Training vs. Cardiorespiratory Training

Resistance Training Cardiorespiratory Training
↑ Lean body mass1 and muscle mass2 ↓ Type II muscle fibers if chronically trained4
­↑ Resting metabolic rate1, 2 ­↑ Aerobic power (VO2-max)4
↓ Body weight from fat1,2 and intra-abdominal fat2 ­↑ Mitochondrial and capillary density4
­↑ Bone mineral density (BMD)1 and specifically pre- and postmenopausal women2 ↓ Resting heart rate (RHR) 4
↓ Reverses common physiological effects of aging1 ­↑ Bone mineral density (BMD) via aerobic exercise that stresses long bones (example: running)4
­↑ Functional movement control abilities and self-esteem1 ­↑ Metabolic energy stores (ATP, creatine, glycogen, triglycerides) 4
↓ Risk of type 2 diabetes1 ↑ Improves insulin sensitivity and glucose control after aerobic exercise5
­↑ Cardiovascular health1 ­↑ Movement efficiency4
↓ Resting blood pressure1,2 ­↑ Ligament and tendon length4
↓ Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and triglycerides1 ↓ Lactic acid production4
­↑ High-density lipoproteins1 ­↑ Lactic acid removal4
↑ Positive impact on cognition and mood components2 ­↑ Fat stores as substrates for aerobic fuel4
­↑ Muscular endurance4
­↑ Enzymatic activity (creatine phosphokinase and myokinase)4



First, always consult your primary care provider before participating in any new exercise routine or physical activity. If you’re not familiar with methods of resistance training, find a personal trainer who will be able to introduce you to resistance training methods that are right for you. On the cardio side, find a physical activity that really speaks to you, gets your heart pumping, and excites you. Short on time? Try exercise snacking!

Until next time, live well and live active.


  1. Westcott WL. Build Muscle, improve health: benefits associated with resistance exercise. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2015;19(4):22-27.
  2. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11.
  3. Kang J et al. Which comes first? Resistance before aerobic exercise or vice versa? ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2014;18(1):9-14.
  4. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th Edition. In. Vol 3. Beaverton: Ringgold Inc; 2016.
  5. Kilpatrick et al. High-intensity interval training: a review of physiological and psychological responses. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2014;18(5):11-16.
Daniel Heller, MSc, CSCS, RSCC:

Holistic strength and conditioning coach, Daniel Heller, MSc, CSCS, RSCC earned his Bachelor’s of Science in exercise science and wellness from Bastyr University in 2009 on a direct path to having a positive impact in the world of exercise and sport science. Since graduating from Bastyr, Heller has gone onto coaching youth athletes in ice hockey, figure skating, and mountain biking. As well as developing postural alignment and compression garments with Oakley Inc. and was the primary author of the exercise chapter for the Metagenics FirstLine Therapy Patient Guidebook. In 2016, he received his Master’s of Science degree in Strength and Conditioning from the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland. Heller is continuing to coach and actively participates in the field of strength and conditioning. Daniel Heller is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.

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