Aerobic or resistance training?

You’ve got the gym contract, you have the gear... but do you have a plan? Should you do more aerobic exercises or resistance training? We spoke to professional personal trainer and director of Body Excel Gym Dave Giloi to get the low-down on the basics of both forms of exercise and the benefits that each offers.

What is an aerobic exercise?

First let’s go back to basics. Dave describes aerobic exercises, also referred to as ‘cardio’ as ones which satisfy specific criteria that depends on your goals. For example, if you need to get aerobically fit to run a marathon, then running would be your best aerobic exercise, but if you have poor biomechanics that lead you to “shin splints”, then perhaps another form of aerobic exercise is better, such as cycling or swimming.

The benefits of aerobic exercises are many, although Dave says that on the whole “any exercise that elevates the heart rate for a prolonged period of time, without causing injury is good exercise”.

“Swimming, boxing, the elliptical trainer and running are all examples that involve lots of large muscles, and are good examples of aerobic exercise. If your goal is weight-loss and reduced risk of certain illness, then it is sometimes a good idea to vary your aerobic, or cardio, to avoid training monotony and to challenge varied movement patterns,” he says.

Three times a week for best results

If you’re starting out at the gym, the generally accepted ‘rule’ is that doing aerobic exercise or cardio three times a week for between 40 minutes and an hour at a time is considered a minimum to see cardio vascular improvements.

Dave points out though that rest is important to see improvements in your fitness, but if your intensity is low, then 24 hours should be enough time for most people to recover for the next session.

“When your fitness levels start to improve you can build up to four, five, and even six sessions per week. But varying your exercise modality also means less chance of over-training working muscles. If your sessions are of a higher intensity, you may need up to 72 hours to recover fully. If your aim is to gain the maximum health benefits and aerobic fitness, your intensity level need not be extremely high,” he says.

What is resistance training?

However, a gym programme comprised purely of aerobic training may be effective in many ways, but f you’re looking for results, it’s not ideal.

This is where resistance training comes in. But what is resistance training? Dave says it can be defined as  “any exercise where you are overcoming a resistance for a set duration or number of repetitions with the goal of improving and increasing some of the following:  

  • Strength: maximum amount of weight pushed
  • Endurance : duration of the set / number of repetitions in the set
  • Power: a combination of speed and load of the weight pushed.

 Examples of resistance training exercises include: 

  • Pull ups / Lat pull-downs
  • Dumbbell presses
  • Upright pows
  • Dumbbell bicep curls
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Dead lift movements
  • Cable pulls (pulley-rows )

This is where it gets ‘tricky’ and if you hang out at the gym long enough you’ll hear the trainers talking about ‘compound exercises’. Don’t be intimidated though, this is just a term which explains the combining of these movements into exercises.


“Compound exercises are a good idea to include in your training programme and can be very beneficial for a number of reasons, such as learning sequential movement patterns and higher metabolic demand,” he says.

Examples of compound exercises include push presses, a lunge into a bicep curl, an upright row into a calf raise and cable squat pulls.

Why you need to do resistance training

 No matter what your goal is at the gym – whether it’s to lose weight, tone or just improve your general health and ward of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and other heavies like this – resistance training needs to be a part of your regular regime.


Here are just a few of the benefits: 

  • Increased muscle strength and/or endurance
  • Increased tendon and ligament stability and strength
  • Slightly increased metabolic rate
  • Improved body composition and aesthetics
  • Posture strengthening
  • Injury prevention through a stronger “core” or stabilising function
  • Improved sporting performance through strength and power gains.

Aerobic + resistance training = results

“Combining strength training with aerobic training has many benefits including  more total gym time which means more of an energy demand on your body, a positive effect on resting metabolic rate, through increased muscle mass, less monotony in training, improved confidence through positive self image and it can also be used to correct postural imbalances and prevent injury,” says Dave.  

And the research backs him up on this one. A recent study has shown that a combination of weight training and aerobic exercise might be the best prescription for overweight people at risk for diabetes and heart disease.

The study showed that although people doing only aerobic exercise dropped weight and inches, "aerobic plus resistance exercise is clearly the optimal programme," said Dr Timothy Church, who studies exercise and disease at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

The findings, he told Reuters Health, are in line with other recent research and physical activity guidelines that suggest mixing in some resistance training with regular aerobic exercise.

The evidence speaks for itself

Researchers led by Lori Bateman of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina randomly assigned 196 overweight, sedentary adults to three different exercise programmes.

One group did resistance training three days a week, working out on eight different weight machines to target upper and lower body muscles. A second group did two hours of aerobic training per week on gym machines - the equivalent of about 20km of walking or jogging over the course of the week. The third group was assigned to do both the weight-training and aerobic-exercise programmes.

More than one quarter of the exercisers dropped out of the study during the eight-month exercise programmes and some others didn't have complete before-and-after health readings for researchers to compare.

In the end, Bateman and her colleagues analysed the pre-exercise and post-exercise status of 86 participants, according to a paper in the American Journal of Cardiology.

On average, people in the weight-training group who completed the exercise programme gained about 1.5 pounds and added a smidgen to their waistline, without changing any of their other heart or diabetes risk factors.  Those in the aerobic group lost an average of 3 pounds and half an inch from their waists.

Study participants who did both weight and aerobic training dropped about 4 pounds and one waistline inch. That group also saw a decrease in diastolic blood pressure and in a metabolic syndrome score.

Both the aerobic-only group and the combined-exercise group also lowered their levels of triglycerides.

So regardless of your goal – if it’s to lose weight or keep healthy, the overall message is that the more you move, the healthier you will be.

Visit our Fitness Zone for more aerobic and resistance exercises and post any fitness-related questions you have to our FitnessDoc here.

 Sources: Reuters Health, Dave Giloi of Body Excel Gym.

(Amy Froneman, Health24, July 2011) 

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