It’s an age-old fitness question. Which one’s “better” for me—cardio vs. strength training? Both workout types come with impressive (and distinct) benefits, but there’s often a misguided divide between the two. The truth is that you need both forms to supercharge your health.
Yes, it’s perfectly natural to prefer one form of movement to the other—but to exclude or overtrain any one type may do more harm than good. Here, we turned to fitness expert Melody D., obé’s Senior Manager of Programming, to clear up the cardio vs. strength training debate (plus common misconceptions). If you’re looking for a guide to strike the perfect balance of strength and cardio in your routine, this is it.
The Purpose and Benefits of Cardio Exercise
First, we need to unlearn that cardio = weight loss. Yes, doing cardio will help you expend calories, but you’ll also expend calories sleeping, working, and moving about the world. Being active and on your feet is always a good thing, but leaning exclusively (or primarily) into cardio to drive your fitness routine will not deliver the dramatic weight loss results you’ve been promised. (More on that in the misconceptions section below.)
The main superpower of cardio is its ability to radically improve your heart and lung health. Most of us don’t prioritize training for a healthy cardiovascular system until we run into a problem—but the earlier you start working on your cardio game, the more benefits you’ll experience later in life. Some of these include reduced risk of high blood pressure, plus diseases like cancer and diabetes.
“Cardio is about training your cardiovascular system so you can optimize how your body uses fuel and oxygen to support internal processes,” explains Melody. “It keeps your heart muscles strong—which is super important if you want to have a long health span or sustain a high quality of life as you age. But it won’t help you drastically lose weight or change your body composition.” Pro tip: Check out obé’s Cardio class category filter to see what classes fit the bill (Boxing, Walks, Dance Cardio, Endurance, and more are on the lineup).
The Purpose and Benefits of Strength Training
The primary driver of strength training is maintaining or building muscle mass. Whether you’re leveraging bodyweight, lighter weights, heavier weights, or resistance bands, resistance training will protect the muscles you already have—and strengthen them.
A healthy muscle mass isn’t just about looking good or feeling strong. It can also improve your metabolism, helping your body better process food. “Muscle is metabolically active, meaning that it burns calories,” explains Melody. “The more muscle you have, the more energy it needs. As we maintain or build muscle, we’ll expend more calories, even at rest, making us more metabolically active and healthy.” If changing body composition or losing weight is one of your goals, this is where your fitness routine can make way more of an impact.
Strong, healthy muscles also improve your quality of movement and slow down bone mass loss, keeping your bones strong to enable a better quality of life, particularly as you age. “You want to be able to sit in a chair and get back up, play with your kids, go on that challenging hike,” says Melody. “We work on things like power because we want to move with agility and speed at every age. My dream is for people to internalize that the reason we strength train is to enjoy our lives.”
Cardio vs. Strength Training: Finding the Right Balance
As a baseline, everyone should aim to include 3 days of strength training and ~150 minutes of cardio a week, recommends Melody. These numbers may look intimidating at first, but they’re a lot easier to achieve than you may think.
Let’s talk strength first. This is your foundation. While most people picture strength training as lifting heavy weights in the gym, it comes in many more forms. Modalities like Sculpt, Barre, Pilates, Yoga, and Yoga Sculpt all use your body weight or light weights for resistance to build your strength. That gives you plenty of options to explore in addition to traditional classes like Strength and Power. Browse through obé’s Strength Training class category filter, then experiment and play to find what excites you most!
On the cardio front, the 150-minute weekly recommendation (made by the American Heart Association) doesn’t mean you have to complete that many minutes of, say, a HIIT workout. This guideline is designed for steady-state, Zone 2 aerobic cardio, covering activities like power walking, jogging, cycling, and hiking. In other words, a brisk, 20-minute walk after dinner counts toward this goal—you don’t have to rely solely on cardio-based fitness classes. If you do the math, it translates to about 21 minutes of daily cardio.
“For some people, it helps to have intentional, designated cardio times—like a Dance Cardio class they love—because life is chaotic, and it’s not always easy to squeeze in a walk,” says Melody. “But know that doing anything where you’re a little breathy with an elevated heart rate counts.” You can knock out your cardio on your strength-training days or on your days off from it—it’s a lot more fluid, she adds.
And of course: This balance can become a lot more variable-specific if you’re training for a certain outcome (like an endurance-based cardio or strength-training goal).
What Happens When There’s a Cardio vs. Strength Training Imbalance
Overdoing either type of training can come with potential risks, Melody explains. As with anything in life, finding the right balance is key—which is why fitness experts recommend a routine that checks off both boxes, especially if you’re looking to boost longevity. Pairing cardio with strength training was associated with a reduced mortality risk compared to cardio alone, according to a 2022 study.
The downside of too much strength training? For starters, you can overtrain and overtax a specific muscle group (or all your muscles), impeding any results you may have worked hard to achieve. Without proper repair and recovery time (more on the vital role of active recovery here), you’re setting yourself up for failure.
And while strength training can elevate your heart rate to some capacity (especially if you’re going for Power or lifting heavy), it’s not enough to induce the cardio-respiratory gains you’re looking for to optimize your health. “Your muscles will be strong, but you might not necessarily have a strong heart,” explains Melody.
On the other hand, too much cardio and too little strength can lead to muscle mass loss, which often sparks negative health benefits. “You may have a super strong heart, with lungs that are great at inhaling and exhaling, but mechanically, the structure of your body isn’t as strong,” says Melody.
Beyond strength, your muscles are engaged in several metabolic processes that power both metabolic and hormone health (here’s a 101 on that from a doctor). “That’s a big reason why resistance training is especially critical for women going through perimenopause and menopause,” adds Melody. “We’re naturally losing certain hormones and seeing a shift. If we’re not counter-balancing with strength training, the negative symptoms can be magnified.”
Cardio vs. Strength Training: Common Misconceptions
Instead of considering cardio and strength training as two distinct categories, treat them more like partners working together to power your strongest self. Here, we clear up 3 common misconceptions people have related to both cardio and strength training.
- Fitness alone won’t drive weight loss.
If you’re transitioning from a radically sedentary lifestyle to one that incorporates consistent exercise, you may notice some weight loss (especially at first). However, “fitness in general will not lead to weight loss,” explains Melody.
“It’s a necessary component of health and healthy metabolic function, aka how we use the nutrients we fuel our body with. And it’s key to an overall holistic wellness routine. But if you want to change your body composition, lose weight, gain muscle, or gain weight, it won’t come purely from fitness or even primarily from fitness.” That’s where nutrition and caloric deficits (or surplus)—as well as sleep and lifestyle factors—shine.
- Not sweating doesn’t mean it’s a bad workout.
Ever thought that if you’re not sweating super hard or feeling your heart pound, you’re not getting a good workout? Most of us have. But there’s an important qualifier to consider. Yes, you want to feel an elevated heart rate if you’re doing cardio. “But that doesn’t mean every single workout needs to leave you soaked with sweat and a fast-beating heart,” says Melody.
As we’ve learned, Zone 2 aerobic cardio is sufficient to meet your cardio needs. Plus, as your body gets more efficient at cardio exercise, your heart rate will naturally level out unless you’re pushing it (thanks to conditioning!). “Eventually, what once made you feel out of breath and completely taxed won’t feel so unmanageable,” explains Melody. On the strength front, we know that strength workouts deliver crucial benefits without always spiking your heart rate or leaving you sweaty.
- Strength training won’t make you ‘bulky.’
Say it with us: lifting weights (even heavy weights) won’t make you bulky. To bulk up, you’d have to commit to a vigorous training program paired with a specific nutrition plan—and lots of time. For a list of 5 expert-backed benefits strength training can bring (especially for women), read this.
FYI, there’s also no such thing as spot-training or toning, Melody explains. “You can build muscle mass, and then you can use nutrition to show that muscle. If you want stronger abs—or to see your abs—you’ll have to make everything else stronger.”
Bottom line: a well-rounded fitness routine includes both strength and cardio training. Strength is full-body and functional, training to improve your movement quality and quality of life. Cardio is for training our hearts, and the Zone 2 aerobic lane is sufficient for the majority of the recommended weekly volume.
Bringing these two together empowers us to improve our internal health and live longer, healthier lives. Put simply, it’s good for you.