Most people in the gym are not even trying

cardio versus weight training

Cardio: pretty ineffective for weight loss

Cardio versus weight training

In my years in the gym I’ve noticed a correlation. This correlation has not been subject to rigorous scientific study and has no p value, it’s just my own observation. The correlation, a negative one, is between a person’s apparent degree of fitness, as evidenced by his (or her) leanness and muscularity, and the amount of time he spends on treadmills, stairsteppers, and other cardio machines.

By contrast, most of the really fit-looking people are lifting weights, whether using barbells and dumbbells or on machines.

Is this mere correlation or is there causation involved? It’s possible that it’s just correlation: people who are overweight or otherwise out-of-shape find weightlifting too hard, and stick to the cardio.

Besides that, the belief that cardio (aerobics, endurance exercise) is necessary for both fat loss and cardiovascular health is widespread. However, at least in the case of weight loss, exercise just isn’t going to help much.

But maybe the purported link between spending lots of time doing cardio and apparent lack of fitness is causation.

Weightlifting requires heavy exertion

Lifting weights is difficult. At least that’s how most people find it. If you’re not used to it, picking up even a 25-pound dumbbell feels awfully heavy, much less attempting bench presses or squats. Deadlifts? Forget about it.

In comparison, some of those cardio machines can even be done sitting down.

It’s my belief that both correlation and causation are at play here: people find weghtlifting too difficult, and as a consequence condemn themselves to cardio, as a consequence of which they never get into very good shape; they never lose any fat, which, face it, is the reason most of them are in the gym.

Weight training has been shown to have a dose-response relationship with change in waist size over several years, about twice as high as that for moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. Results like this one can explain my observations concerning doing cardio and being out-of-shape and overweight. The authors of this study conclude, “Substituting 20 min/day of weight training for any other discretionary activity had the strongest inverse association with WC [waist circumference] change… Among various activities, weight training had the strongest association with less WC increase.”

Waist circumference is strongly correlated with percent body fat and insulin resistance.

The lesson here is, if you want to get or stay lean, weightlifting is your best bet.

You can’t outrun a bad diet

Some people in my gym have been going at it on the cardio machines the entire time I’ve belonged to this gym, that is, for over 5 years, and their level of body fat doesn’t appear to have changed at all. The cause of the lack of change is not merely due to the type of exercise that they do, weights versus cardio. It’s also because you can’t outrun a bad diet.

People have been brainwashed into believing that exercise is as or even much more important for fat loss as is diet. It’s easy to see why: both the fitness and food industries depend on it. Most people get involved with the multi-billion dollar fitness industry – think gym memberships, supplements, clothes and shoes – because they want to lose fat, and the fitness industry certainly doesn’t want to disabuse anyone of the notion that their products and services will help people lose weight.

The food industry doesn’t want anyone to blame them for their overweight and obesity. Profits depend on it. The food industry’s blaming obesity on lack of exercise instead of their own products has been termed leanwashing.

The fact is, the consensus, one that I agree with, is that diet is a far bigger determinant of body fat than is exercise.

Three doctors who are prominent in the study and treatment of obesity recently wrote an editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine: It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. They note that science has shown little effect of exercise on weight loss, and conclude:

It is time to wind back the harms caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery. Let us bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity. You cannot outrun a bad diet.

So all these people in my gym that have seen no change or become even fatter despite years of cardio have probably been victims of the food and fitness industries’ disinformation campaign. Or, of course, they don’t know how to go about dieting. (Low-fat diets are a disaster, but that’s a story for another time.) Or, another possibility, is that they lack the discipline to be on any type of diet.

Weights aren’t a foolproof solution either

The correlation that I’ve observed between cardio and being out-of-shape isn’t cut and dried, to be sure. Plenty of men – and they are mostly men who lift weights – haven’t shown a lot of change in their body types either. That’s because they’re going about it the wrong way.

Too many people who lift weights focus on isolation exercises, that is, those exercises that revolve around one joint only and that isolate one muscle for exercise. Biceps curls and triceps pull-downs are examples of isolation exercise. While these exercises will help those isolated muscles to grow, they won’t increase your cardiovascular fitness nor will they help you lose fat or really increase muscle overall.

To get in shape with weights, you should do compound exercises, which are those that revolve around two or more joints. Examples are bench or chest press, pull-downs or pull-ups, rows, squats, shoulder press, and deadlifts. These exercises will leave you breathing hard and with a fast heart rate, and will actually lead to better body composition – more muscle, less fat. (Machines are perfectly fine for doing these, but that’s for another post.)

A couple of other points about effective weightlifting that the masses don’t seem to understand. One is that jerking the weights around is very ineffective; weights should be lifted with good form. This is a very common mistake.

Another is that  lifting weights is almost necessarily difficult. Women – and it seems to be mostly women doing this – think they will get in shape by doing triceps extensions with a 5-pound dumbbell. Ain’t gonna happen. And every set should be done to failure; that is, the last rep in a set should be the last rep you can possibly do. If you’re not grunting and groaning – or at least actively stifling your desire to do so – you’re not lifting hard enough.

Sprint cycling

There is one category of non-weightlifting exercise in which I see some pretty in-shape folks, and that is the sprint cycling class. Now, this could be mere correlation too. It’s a tough exercise regimen, so maybe only lean and fit people do it.

On the other hand, sprint cycling is not a form of cardio – it’s high-intensity training (HIT), which has a much better basis both in theory and in practice for improving cardiovascular fitness and causing fat loss.


Exercise of all kinds promotes health. It’s been said that if exercise were a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed one in the world.

Yet some forms of exercise are far better than others when it comes to maintaining a decent waist size or getting into good cardiovascular shape.

And diet is a necessary component of weight loss, despite what the fitness and food industries tell you. For fat loss, the most important muscles to exercise are the ones that push you away from the dining-room table.

Most people in the gym are not even trying.


Leave a Comment:

@Joe_E_O says June 14, 2015

Man – I took off 5 days due to a stomach bug. I was like I had never lifted – I can’t imagine what it must be like for some who hasn’t lifted in a couple decades

Here are the biggest time wasters
1) Curls
2) Lower back extension machine
3) Bench Press (especially if you stay supine between sets)
4) tri-ext
5) db flys

Kindke says June 14, 2015

Agree whenever I was feeling “lazy” at the gym I would default to the cardio equipment. Any slight feeling of “I cba today” and I wouldnt do much weights.

Im not sure how much I would blame the “people” though, I mean is it *your* fault how you feel? Squats are by far the most intense exercise you can do in the gym. And you need to be feeling pretty energetic to be in the mood for them. Feeling energetic is basically norepinephrine signal transduction, something you cant really control.

This is where I think the correlation of being out of shape and doing cardio comes from, people who are out of shape lack beta-adrenergeic signalling, making them feel too lazy to do weights.

Weight lifting is also alot more painful than cardio.

    Joshua says June 16, 2015

    “Squats are by far the most intense exercise you can do in the gym.”

    Don’t forget about deadlifts! I daresay they’re just as hard….maybe a tad more intense even. More fun, too! (Though maybe that’s just me.)

The Man says June 14, 2015

Should you lift to failure on every set though? While it is something i seem to gravitate to Naturally, I’ve been struggling these past few weeks to not lift to failure, leave a rep or two in the barrel, if you will. Because whenever i go to failure on too many sets i Inevitably burn out and need 14 to 21 days off until i can lift reasonable loads again..

    P. D. Mangan says June 14, 2015

    Good question. Seems to me that if you have trouble with burning out or overtraining, then doing fewer sets might be better rather than not going to failure. That’s speculation though, and others may have different experiences. Standard advice for hypertrophy though is to go to failure. If your goal is metabolic conditioning, then that wouldn’t be necessary.

      Joshua says June 16, 2015

      There’s room for debate on this. Generally, though, there’s a trade-off. You can do low volume (few sets, as little as just 1 even) with high effort — i.e. going to failure or nearly. Or you can do do higher volumes (more sets), but if you do that, you’ll need to stay farther from failure on those sets to prevent overtraining and burnout. My take is that you should pick whichever approach you like more and can do sustainably long-term. Me, I get bored to death doing high volume with (relatively) less effort, so most of my sets are close to failure…but I don’t do many sets. Your approach may differ. Bret Contreras and Chris Beardsley have done lots of great analysis on this (and related topics) at their Strength and Conditioning Research site.

George says June 14, 2015

I am curious if you have an (educated) opinion on using body-weight exercise as a substitute for weight lifting. For financial reasons, I had to choose between paying for my MMA training and a gym membership — I could not afford both — and I stopped lifting weights. Martial arts, when done right, provides plenty of high-intensity cardio, but nothing analogous to weight lifting. To supplement the workouts I pay for, I spend a lot of time doing pushups (several hundred over a course of 20 minutes or so), pull-ups (at least 120 over the same amount of time), and a few other movements that rely on just my own weight. I’ve certainly lost some muscle mass, and now cannot bench what I could when I lifted three times a week, but I feel fit and healthy for the most part — aesthetically, I actually look better. Are body-weight exercises sufficient to maintain health and fitness for the long term, or is pumping iron absolutely essential?

    P. D. Mangan says June 14, 2015

    George, my opinion is that bodyweight workouts can give you excellent fitness, and if done right, even quite a bit of muscle hypertrophy. Essentially it’s a form of high-intensity training.

Sam says June 15, 2015

This might amuse you. The Golden Age of Iron Men.

Allan Folz says June 15, 2015

I totally agree and figured this out for myself by my senior year in high school, some 20 and counting years ago. IMHO power cleans are the only thing that matter. ~30 of those, intense enough to leave one in a good sweat, makes for a complete work-out in about as many minutes. Anything else is just wasting time.

A bunch of years ago, before kids, my wife and I went go to the gym together for a while. I forbid her doing cardio. 4 minutes on the jog machine to warm-up was the max I allowed. After that it was power-cleans until you started to feel a little dizzy. After that, I don’t care what you do, but I’m goin’ home. 🙂

I do have my fun gym story, though. One year in high school I had a gym membership. To cut weight I’d go in in the mornings after doing my paper route (how’s that for old-skool) and get on the stair-climbers for 20 minutes. The machines had all these different pre-programmed routines and a bar chart graphing the intensity. All these out-of-shape middle-agers would be slavishly following one of about 10 or 20 pre-set routines trying to get themselves into shape. I’d jump on the machine, put it at about 50% for one, one-minute bar, then 80% for one more one-minute bar, then run it at 100% for the remaining 18. I’d then hop off, catch my breath for a couple minutes, and go hit the shower. All wearing a plastic suit, two sweat shirts and sweat pants. I always wondered to myself if any of the other people noticed and got the hint. I suspect they figured “youth is wasted on the young” etc. But they’d be on the machines long before me and long after and it was clear the job wasn’t getting done for them. Why not think to yourself, “Hey, if this kid in a plastic suit and two seat shirts can run the machine 100% for 20 minutes, maybe I should try that too.

sabril says June 17, 2015

Probably part of it is selection: OF people who are serious about weight training, probably well over 90% go to the gym a few times a week.

Of people who are serious about cardio, most are out running or biking much of the time. So you don’t see them at the gym as much.

Dom says June 19, 2015

Thanks again for a useful post !

Perhaps you could do a post on weighlifting and varicose veins ?

Kind regards


gregor says June 21, 2015

I think the “cardio” people tend to be women (who tend to be fatter) and the less athletic guys (i.e., never played sports). The serious runners aren’t usually on the treadmill. They are out pounding the pavement and often are pretty fit (though sometimes thin and under-muscled compared with my ideals). Treadmill people just want something easy that they can do while watching TV. When I first started exercising a year or two ago, I did straight strength training I was scared to do any cardio because I’d heard it was “catabolic,” etc. But I just added in some running a couple of months ago and I have to say it’s great. I now do an outdoor run on my off days and I like getting up my heart rate and working up an intense sweat. As long as the mileage is reasonable, I haven’t noticed it interfering with strength training. Strength training is great and am glad to see it emphasized, but I wouldn’t overstate the cardio hate.

ProudDaddy says July 27, 2015

I once ran long distances. I now conclude that I was basically eating my own muscle (and reducing insulin sensitivity). My guess would be that most of the poor souls “slogging” along on treadmills and ellipticals simply don’t know any better. Shame on the personal trainers. I have yet to see one prescribing HIIT.

Just discovered your blog and will be spending the next few days getting caught up. Congratulations on the superb quality of your research and observations. I’m 74 with a 2-year-old son. Living to 90 is devoutly to be wished!

    P. D. Mangan says July 27, 2015

    Thanks, Proud Daddy! I guess you’ve got your hands full, and I agree with your observations.

Tuba says November 23, 2015

What I find telling at a gym, and unfortunate, is how everyone tries to park as close to the front door as possible. Walking across a parking lot to get to the gym is unacceptable to these health-conscious, exercising individuals.

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