The Visible Difference between Cardio and Strength Training


Yes, there is a visible difference between cardio and strength training.

“I just want to tone up”

“I don’t want to get bulky”

“I don’t want to get bigger arms, I just want them to be muscular”

“I just want to weight 140lbs”

These are all things people tell me on a regular basis. They want to weight a certain amount, or they want to tone up, but what they really want is to look like a specific image in their head. And most people assume that any kind of exercise will get you the same results, but that is not the case. There is a very distinct visible difference between cardio and strength training. We assume that toning up means we just do 500 bicep curls to get Cameron Diaz arms. Or we want to weight 140lbs because that is probably how much it is to look like that girl you saw on Instagram. Well, everyone is different. We could all do the exact same program and eat the exact same foods…and still look completely different. We weren’t meant to fit into a cookie cutter, and 140lb on me looks way different than 140lbs looks on the girl next to me. You need a better goal than that, better yet, you need to know what your training routine is going to get you…physically! Thats why I want to share the visible difference between cardio and strength training!

runners body

These two people could weight exactly the same. Muscle does NOT weight more than fat, it is smaller/more dense. So you will be SMALLER in size, but weight the same.

Results with Excessive Cardio

I am going to come right out and say…most people think cardio is going to give them the results they are looking for. I have been asked “So is running the best way to tone your legs?” My initial response..definitely not. People think running/cardio is going to burn all the body fat and give them that that nice “toned” look they are after. Well, this is usually not the case. Running, and excess cardio, can sometimes make you hold onto weight or gain weight. Why?

It could be a number of things. The first one being, whenever you start a new program or lifestyle, you can actually hold onto weight at the beginning. This is your bodies way of saying “hold up, what is going on here.” Most of the weight is going to be water, and once your body understands that this exercise is the new normal, it will start to release it.

It can also be because running doesn’t actually burn that many calories. And if you do want to burn a lot of calories, you would have to run a lot of miles, which most people don’t have the capacity to do.

You could also be overeating to compensate for the new training program. But running, you are going to be burning through a lot of your glycogen stores (carbs) and you are going to get hungrier. So if you don’t get your nutrition in check first, you aren’t going to be successful.

When people do cardio, most often than not they are not in the right “zone.” People either are running a lot, or they are just slowly moving along and not paying attention to their heart rate. Fat burning happens in the moderate zone, meaning you should be able to hold a conversation, but you should have an elevated heart rate!

There are people out there that are able to stay lean with just cardio, but they are the ones who get up at 5am before work and run 10 miles. You might see that they are super toned, but usually they are just super skinny because they are losing BOTH fat, and muscle. Not many runners are able to hold onto strength, unless they are really fueling themselves and running speed or endurance is what their goal is, not fat loss.

Adding in some cardio to your routine is going to be beneficial, because…heart health. We know getting your heart rate up is good, because your heart is a muscle that needs to be worked! But, you can do it in ways that doesn’t include running, ellipticalling (yes, new verb) or climbing the stair master.

Now, this is in no way meant to bash runners. Marathon runners are intense, and you will NEVER see this girl run more than 5 miles. But, people love it. And if running is your thing, by all means, enjoy! But, just remember that if you are new to this exercise thing and you want to lose body fat and get that toned body, running/excessive cardio might not be the answer.

visible difference between cardio and strength training

Results with Weight Training/Circuit Training

When people think about weight training, I think the average person goes right to visualizing grown men in the gym grunting and doing bicep curls. Which does happen, but that isn’t a great way to think about it.

Weight training is overloading a specific muscle group until the muscle starts to break down, and then giving it a few days to regenerate stronger and bigger. This is going to help build muscle and give you the visual appearance you are looking for. Because if we get stronger, and bigger (trust me, it is very hard scientifically speaking to get too big) which means we will be able to uncover them quicker!

Circuit training has the ability to do both build muscle and burn fat (do cardio). This is because you are going to be continuously moving, with very little down time, so your heart rate is going to be high for an extended period of time. Now, it shouldn’t be so high that you are about to pass out or throw up, but it will be elevated enough to burn a significant amount of calories. This coupled with strength training exercises to build muscle is really going to change your physique!

Building muscle burns fat, during the exercise and after. Having more muscle tissue on your body burns more fat at rest because it takes more energy (calories) to fuel and innervate muscle than it does fat. Therefore those will a lower body fat percentage burn more calories at rest than those with more body fat, because their metabolism is working faster! Here is a great post on body fat, and how to accurately measure it!

So shifting our focus to building muscle, is going to allow us to visibly see a difference at a higher body weight than anticipated. If we build a few pounds of muscle, we have less body fat to lose before we can see the changes! I don’t know about you, but I would much rather spend time building muscle than losing fat, it is way more enjoyable!

So if you put two people side by side, one that runs 50 miles a week and one that follows a weight training program 5 days a week…they are going to look every different. I want you to remember that. Just because you assume running burns more calories, doesn’t mean it is going to give you the image you are after.

It is also important to remember that again, everyone is different. What works for one person won’t work for everyone. And that following the same program might give 2 people different results. You just have to decide which program is right for you, and what you enjoy doing!


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Haley Rowe April 16, 2019