Strength Training vs. HIIT vs. Cardio: Which Is Better?  

The Swiss Army knife has been canonized as the symbol of the country from which it originated. Besides its sleek design and storied past, its broad utility cements its reputation. In fact, even dictionaries pay homage to the product's name by making a reference to it — one that means something that can be used for any situation.  

When it comes to fitness, many novices look for their Swiss Army knife. In other words, they seek that silver bullet that will take care of all their fitness goals. They want strength, some form of catharsis, and a way to burn fat fast. The single activity that bring all of these effects is the holy grail of fitness.  

Many fitness trends have come and go. Each has billed itself as the answer to all fitness quandaries. In a way, every trend that has surfaced gains a following in the same way religions have for hundreds of years. Many become purists to a single exercise discipline.  

Fitness trends or modalities (if you will) are as numerous as the world's religions. However, like religion, the vast majority of followers seem to gravitate towards a handful that seems to stand the test of time.  

Often, people nowadays would claim to practice one of these types of exercise protocols: 

 strength training 



Some will tell you they hit the weights. Others, the pavement. Those who are pressed for time will adamantly tout the efficiency of Tabatas, AMRAPs, and EMOMs.  

Reading this, you either already subscribed to one of these protocols or you, like many others, are in search of your Swiss Army knife that cuts through all things fitness-related.  

In this article, we go deeper into strength training, cardio, and HIIT. Who knows? You might find your solution in one of these training programs.  

What Do You Want Out of Exercise or Training?

To understand why we narrowed the list down to these three protocols, one question is worth revisiting.  

Before getting into the "what" of exercise selection and programming, an important question to ask is "why?". In other words, determining your purpose for training will affect your exercise programming and workouts.  Often, these are the most common results people want out of their training:

Weight Loss

Let's be clear about what most people mean when they use the term "weight loss". After all, your body weight is a combination of tissues and fluids. Most of the time, the latter contributes significantly to the numbers on the scale.  

So, to lose weight, anyone can deprive themselves of water for a day, throw themselves in a sauna, and watch the numbers on the scale go down by as much as five to ten pounds. 

The numbers do not lie, as they say. However, ask yourself: did the person really lose weight in the conventional sense?  

The answer is no. When people say that they would like to lose weight, they are really talking about fat loss. In fact, a survey in 2016 discovered nearly half of the people who went to the gym trained to lose fat. 

You don't need statistics to see people's intentions towards training. Ask any person, and many would respond that they train with the express intent of shedding fat.  

We can put this down to how six-pack abs are glamorized in the movies and social media, but that is a subject best elucidated elsewhere. For now, all you need to know is that some people train to lose fat. Plain and simple.

Muscle Mass

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Gyms recognize that another common reason to train is to gain strength and muscle mass. How else would anyone explain the ubiquity of dumbbells, barbells, plates, and machines?  

Gaining weight is easy nowadays, especially with the popularity of the so-called "Standard American Diet". However, gaining it in the right places is anything but. People these days, under the influence of social media and the media, in general, tend to be more selective about where they want their bulk to be found.

Most of the time, novice trainees want muscles in the arms, chest, shoulders, and legs. For the solution, many have been brought up on the bodybuilding tradition. This is why you would see trainees of varying skill levels bench, curl, press, and row using the canonized three-sets-of-eight
rep scheme. It's all about the "pump" for this group of trainees.


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Though different in goal, training for mass and training for strength share the same paradigm: 

Lifting against resistance paves the way to strength development. 

Not every denizen of the weight room sees training as an opportunity to sculpt muscle. Some view the benefits of strength and size to go beyond the aesthetic. Some want to live longer and move unimpeded by weakness and pain. 

For those with serious athletic aspirations, training must develop the ability to efficiently produce force against resistance — whatever form resistance takes.

Many people want to get stronger. In one survey, more than a third of the respondents disclosed that they went to the gym to gain or maintain strength. For this group of people, weights are the primary means to introduce the stimulus necessary for strength development. 

Cardiovascular fitness, endurance, and aesthetics are secondary or non-consequential for this group of trainees. Moving weight (and lots of it) is what training is all about for those who train for strength.


Eventually, you'll run into someone who claims to exercise for health purposes. A vast, overwhelming majority of trainees mention health as their sole purpose for getting into any exercise program.  

Indeed, exercise has been linked to better immunity, recovery, and metabolic rates. One study even linked regular exercise to longevity and injury prevention. In short, exercising is healthy. And, the healthier a person is, the less likely he is to have to buy medicine, buy health insurance, and "buy the farm" (so to speak).

Why Strength Training?

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Force production is at the root of any physical activity. When you think about it, exercises rely mainly on your ability to push, pull, hinge, squat, and lift. The more force your skeletons, nervous
system, and muscles can produce, the better you will be with these activities. 

With that in mind, you can think of strength training as a way to develop your general physical capabilities before you consider any other subsequent goal like aesthetics or athletic performance. 

Planning your workouts around the goal of efficient force production can benefit you in several ways.  

Better Adaptability

Whether you're training to be better at your sport or to be ready to help with the groceries, physical strength is a useful trait to have.  

As mentioned earlier, it can be challenging to think of a single physical activity that does not require force production. Perhaps, the necessity to generate force is what athletes and the common working man share.  

A decent level of strength translates into your ability to play your sport. On top of that, it directly contributes to your ability to go about your daily activities.


Time is money. We all want to get the most out of our workouts. By "most," we mean the most number of by-products possible.  

Yes, strength is the goal of strength training. But, with the development of this adaptation comes other physical and neurological ones that occur as by-products of training. The most common one is hypertrophy or an increase in muscular size.  

Many beginners on a strength program grow after the first few weeks of training. The increase in muscle mass is a physiologic adaptation that occurs with the introduction of physical stress — one that comes in the form of weight.  

In short, lift heavy and repeatedly if you want more muscle on your frame.  

Injury Prevention and Recovery

Other than hypertrophy, other tissues develop with increasing intensity or training volume. 

Bones, ligaments, and tendons are vital connective tissues for physical integrity. Often, weakness in any of these tissues foreshadows a risk of injury. Also, the health of these tissues pre-injury determines how well and how quickly you can recover.  

On top of proper hydration, nutrition, and mobility exercises, strength training elicits the right kind of stress necessary for bones and joints to grow more resilient.  

Improved Long-Term Metabolic Health 

Having and building muscle can burn a lot of calories. Hence, the more muscle you have, the higher your calorie intake needs to be.  

A larger concentration of muscle tissue is an indicator of metabolic health. This means that to enjoy the benefits of great metabolism, strength training can be the right training style for you.  

The Case for Cardio

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You can have the strongest muscles in the world. However, poor cardiovascular fitness on a muscular frame is like a Ferrari with a moped engine.  

If strength is developed with strength training, cardiovascular fitness can only be the product of cardiovascular training.  

Many have played fast and loose with the use of the word "cardio". Some have called it conditioning. Others have used the term "endurance". While these are incorrect, cardio training in
the conventional sense refers to low-intensity steady-state cardio.  

Low-intensity steady-state cardio or LISS cardio involves performing repetitive movements with submaximal force. Examples of aerobic exercises that can be done in this fashion are running, cycling, brisk walking, and leisurely rowing.  

Other than the submaximal force output required for the movements, time is also a determining factor for LISS workouts. 

While LISS cardio may not help your numbers in the weight room, having a long cardio workout has its place for these reasons:

Better Recovery

Steady-state cardio aids recovery in two ways.  

First, the increased heart rate from steady-state cardio workouts allows blood to circulate faster. As blood makes its way to the different muscles and tissues, more nutrients, water, and oxygen
are delivered. 

These contribute to the recovery of a muscle, especially after you piled on the weights.  

Second, since the intensity is relatively lower than a heavy weight training session and HIIT, your muscles and nervous system will not be too drained after a workout. 


Many people who got into fitness either started bodybuilding or running. The popularity of running speaks volumes of the activity's simplicity and accessibility.  

Steady-state cardio exercises will only require you to do the following: 

 Pick an exercise you can easily repeat for at least 30 minutes. 

 Do it for at least 30 minutes. 

Examples of exercises that can be done for this amount of time are jogging, walking, and cycling.

Easy to Monitor

For strength training, lifters measure the difficulty of a lift using percentages of their one-rep max. Others use RPE or rate of perceived exertion.  

When it comes to steady-state cardio, we have the "talk test".  

You will know that your exercise intensity is sustainable for a cardio training session if you can perform it and complete a sentence simultaneously.  

Improved Cardiovascular Health

Programmed correctly with a healthy diet, steady-state training can improve your heart's work capacity. Aerobic exercise trains the heart's ventricle to stretch and contract to accommodate and pump blood fully.

The more adapted the heart becomes to aerobic training, the more efficient it can become. An efficient heart is not only a sign of heart health. It is a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system can adapt to stress better.

Conducive to Weight Loss Goals

Steady-state cardio's ability to burn calories has been well-established. However, its contributions to fat loss go beyond calories burned in a workout. 

Any weight loss specialist worth his or her salt knows that consistency is essential to success. For many beginners, high-intensity interval training or heavy weight training sessions may be too
much too soon.  

To establish consistency, a good place to start is somewhere simple and accessible. It may also be advisable to start with types of training that won't "beat someone up". Often, this is
steady-state training. It is challenging enough for beginners but simple enough to be sustained.  

High-Intensity Interval Training: The Burn Minus the Time

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Conventional fitness wisdom has long touted the health benefits of "doing cardio". As a result, for a long time, cardio sessions meant steady-state cardio training sessions.  

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) may seem like a recently-developed counter-movement to LISS. 

However, the earliest iteration of this form of training dates back to pre-World War 2 times. Between the early 1920s and the 1970s, HIIT was solely a way to prepare athletes to
perform at peak exertion for short bursts of time.  

Fast-forward to the time of writing (2021), and you will see HIIT done pretty much the same way — short bursts of maximum effort for short periods of time with short rest periods in between sets.  

So, what are the best things about HIIT?

Time Efficiency

What adds to the appeal of HIIT is the short amount of time required for a good workout. In fact, even 10 minutes can be enough to send your heart rate through the ceiling. 

That is the goal. Workouts are intense, and this is why they do not last long. Many can walk or jog for 20 minutes. The same cannot be said for circuit training sessions or burpees.  

The Afterburn Effect: Calorie Burn for a Long Period of Time 

HIIT prides itself as being an efficient way to get a fat-burning workout in. However, when you consider that an HIIT workout does not last long, you may be skeptical about how it burns a ton of calories.  

HIIT workouts trigger a response known as EPOC. EPOC stands for "exercise post oxygen consumption". It is the amount of oxygen your body tries to use and absorb after strenuous physical activities. Oxygen consumption after exercise occurs as a response to bring the body back to its normal state.  

The body's attempt to re-establish homeostasis requires oxygen and the cooperation of the central nervous system. All in all, calories are burned not from the workout itself but the recovery process.  

Lifting weights triggers EPOC. To a small extent, so does steady-state cardio. However, of the three types of training in this article, none triggers EPOC more than HIIT. 

Room for Variety

With strength training, you move from one exercise to the next only after completing your set.  

When it comes to steady-state cardio, you engage in one activity for a long period of time.  

In the case of HIIT, you have room to mix and match. Sure, you can do AMRAP sets of one movement. If you need an example, look up "Open Workout 12.1". However, you can also pair different movements if you want. 

Here is an example of what chaining different movements for an HIIT looks like with the Unity Trainer. 


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Leeway for That Cheesecake You Just Had

Far be it from us to support unhealthy eating habits. But it happens. We go to parties. Have a slice of cake and pizza. Go home. Then regret it the next day. Or not.  

HIIT can help.  

The body has three energy systems. Steady-state training taps into the aerobic lipolytic system that uses fat as its ideal fuel source. Strength training uses the ATP-CP energy system for force production in the muscles.  

HIIT uses the glycolytic system. The glycolytic energy system uses glucose as fuel for muscular contractions. The by-product of burned glucose is lactic acid. Activities that call upon the glycolytic energy system include burpees, battle rope training, high-rep kettlebell work, and
max-rep callisthenics.  

What do these movements sound like to you? That's right — the elements of an HIIT workout.  

Perform HIIT regularly, and you will be burning through the carbs stored in your muscles and liver. HIIT may not be a license to eat dirty. But it does give you some room for error if you are trying to
lose fat.  

Muscle Retention

Bodybuilders and strength athletes will agree on one thing: long-duration cardio can hurt gains.  

This has something to do with the activation of the aerobic lipolytic system during steady-state cardio. Since metabolism gets set to fat-burning mode during steady-state cardio, the muscles do not absorb sugar or carbs.  

The reabsorption of carbs is vital if you want to gain or maintain muscle mass. So, if hypertrophy is a priority, you may be sabotaging your gains by engaging in too much steady-state cardio.  

However, for health, resistance training and cardiovascular training need to co-exist somehow.  

With HIIT, a strength athlete or a bodybuilder can have a tool for cardiovascular training and metabolic conditioning without sacrificing hard-earned muscle.  

In short, HIIT can help maintain heart health and body composition at the same time.  

Final Verdict: Which Style of Training Is Better?  

In this article, we narrowed down the possible reasons why you (like many others) train. You also read the benefits that each style of training has to offer.  

Ultimately, the best training style is the one that can offer you the most benefit. This can depend on your current fitness goals and needs.  

Strength training can be the best way to train if you are trying to get bigger and stronger. It may also be the way to go if you have plans of improving your sport-specific performance or your ability to help your neighbor with his couch.  

When heart health is on your top list of priorities, steady-state cardio is the best option. Training at a pace you can sustain, you allow your heart to improve its cardiac efficiency. If you already lift, steady-state cardio may also be a form of active recovery.  

If you are pressed for time and want to maintain lean body mass, HIIT trumps the aforementioned. HIIT is a great way to train your cardiovascular health without risking muscle or strength loss. It is also a great training style for metabolic conditioning.  

All in all, it is always a good idea to be clear about what you want out of your training. Knowing this can help you determine the best style of training for you.