Editor’s Note: This post was updated on August 13, 2018for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on August 16, 2016.

Let’s be honest: deciding to take control of your health is never easy.

So you should be commended for taking that first steps towards a healthier life! You found a blog that taught you the importance of using body composition to measure success instead of BMI (or Body Mass Index) and the importance of getting enough protein in your diet. Next stop: getting in the gym and choosing a strength training method.

Unfortunately, a quick Google search of the phrase “workouts to stay healthy” sends you down the fitness rabbit hole. Figuring out which training method is right for you can be a surprisingly frustrating and confusing experience!

Frankly, with all of the options available, there’s just no easy way for people to figure out which training regimen they should follow. That’s why today, we’ve taken two of the most popular training methods and broken them down for you.

By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll learn the principles behind each training method and how they influence your body composition.

The journey to a healthier you is much smoother when you know which training program will help you reach your fitness goals, whether that may increasing the size of your muscles or improving your cardio.

All Training Programs are Not Created Equal

Bodybuilding, as you’re probably aware, puts a huge premium on physical appearance. That means big muscles (and low body fat percentages) which are accomplished by heavy weight training workouts.

On the other hand, High-Intensity Interval Training or HIIT workouts focuses less on progressing to heavier weight lifting and bigger muscles and more on performing high-intensity exercises in large volume reps quickly in order to raise a person’s heart rate, cycling between high intensity and resting periods. This can be accomplished by using light weights, body weight, or any cardio exercises.

Before we dive into the analysis, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that different training methods will affect your body composition is unique. When you consider how different bodybuilding’s physical demands are from a HIIT workout, it’s no surprise that your body’s need to adapt can have some interesting effects on your body composition.

Regardless of how you measure it, body composition is all about painting a more accurate picture of what’s going on in your body. So, the key here is to break down what each training program looks like, what it does and how to choose the program that’s best for your goals, whether that’s gaining Lean Body Mass, losing Fat Mass, or both.

Bodybuilding 101: What to Expect

Before you can hope to understand what bodybuilding does to your body composition, you need to understand what differentiates it from every other kind of training regimen.

Not only does this help in a practical sense (helping you decide if you want to actually get invested in this type of training), but it also gives you a fundamental understanding of the systems in place, making it easier to understand why your body reacts the way it does.

Bodybuilding is many things, but at its core, it’s about one thing: muscle gain while minimizing body fat. Minimizing fat is key to building that muscular defined physique, and it requires a detailed focus on protein and calorie intake. Essentially, it’s that emphasis on aesthetics ( increasing muscle size and reducing body fat) over strength training that separates it from a sport like powerlifting. Bodybuilders will focus on higher reps and lighter weight workouts, to encourage muscle hypertrophy, compared to a powerlifter that will focus on lower reps and heavier weights.   

In fact, it isn’t entirely off-base to define bodybuilding as a modified version of powerlifting.

We’ll focus more on that ‘minimizing fat’ component later, but for now, let’s take a look at the ideal bodybuilder body type. Where better to start than the poster child: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The 7x Mr.Olympia winner is one of the most famous bodybuilders, and for good reason. Arnold’s physique is typically seen as ideal: Small waist, broad shoulders, little to no fat and well-defined muscles.

That being said, something you’ll need to take into account the goal-oriented mentality you’ll have to embrace in order to achieve that physique. Things like adequate cardio, consistent protein intake, and calorie restrictions near competition time are important aspects of your training regimen of building a visually impressive musculature.

That impressive musculature isn’t only for looks either – it can help with the fat loss objective too. That’s because resistance training (a.k.a weight training ) can actually help you burn a lot of calories and lose plenty of fat on its own. A study by the Department of Exercise Science showed that just 10 weeks of resistance training can reduce your fat weight by 1.8kg–and increase your resting metabolic rate by 7%!

Bodybuilding and Body Composition

We’ve already established what a bodybuilding training program prioritizes– building visible muscle while keeping your fat content low. Of course, the real question is: what does this mean for your body composition?

Well, to fully understand the benefits, let’s take a look at a study published by the University of South Australia’s Exercise Physiology Laboratory.  The scientists studied elite bodybuilders by breaking down their body compositions and took measurements twice before a competition, once 10 weeks out, and again 5 days before.

Why does the time period of the study matter? Simple: with a competition on the horizon, the athletes had no choice but to focus on achieving their ideal physique by fine-tuning the reps of their workouts and watching their calorie intake.

Their most noteworthy find? A 4.1% reduction in body fat with a 6.91 kg loss in body mass. How much of that mass was fat, you ask? A whopping 64%, suggesting that bodybuilding can be an effective way to reduce your fat content.

Another study by the University of Alabama’s Department of Health Education yielded similarly promising results.

This time, the study monitored twice as many bodybuilders 12 weeks before a competition. While there were significant decreases in body mass, once again fat-free mass showed little change with a 5% loss in body fat.

So, what does this mean for you, the average person trying to get into bodybuilding? Basically, it means that if your focus is on building visible muscle while keeping a low body fat percentage, bodybuilding is a great choice.

One of the biggest concerns that people have with bodybuilding is the belief that it’ll make them look bulky. Fortunately, the data speaks for itself and shows that the ideal bodybuilder body composition has a focus on keeping your fat content to a minimum without compromising any other components.

HIIT 101: What to Expect

On the other end of the spectrum, we have High-Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT). With popular training programs like CrossFit using HIIT style lift workouts regularly, while the differences between these two training programs might seem minor to the untrained eye, their goals and ideal end results actually differ quite a bit.

Right off the bat, there’s the fact that a HIIT workout doesn’t shy away from cardio. While it’s true that weight training can certainly aid in the fat loss process, its main focus remains on building muscles, not burning calories through cardio workouts that significantly increase your heart rate (although it does help).

The longer you look at HIIT as an overall training program, the more you start to notice a trend. Exercises are short, loaded with mini-breaks in between high-intensity sets and just about every HIIT workout is designed to test your cardio.

As its name implies, the focus is on high reps, not reaching personal strength training records like a bodybuilder might shoot for. In fact, HIIT workouts are so intense that professionals recommend you only train 2-3 times per week, to avoid putting too much stress on your body.

So, how does it compare to bodybuilding? Well, that’s the point: it doesn’t really. They’re distinct exercise disciplines. While you might be doing a few of the exercises that bodybuilders do (squats, push-ups, tricep dips), you’ll be doing them with a very different goal in mind.

The priority of a HIIT workout is predominantly reducing fat, improve cardio, while also trying to develop some muscle along the way. Remember: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long it’s in line with your goals.

HIIT and Body Composition

It’s time to take a look at the HIIT body composition situation.

For starters, let’s look at a study done by the Ohio State University. Scientists observed more than 40 subjects from all levels of cardio fitness. Over the next 10 weeks, subjects completed a variety of HIIT lift workouts (squats, deadlifts, etc.).

After careful observation, the scientists realized that not only were people developing a more capable cardio system, but their body fat percentages were dropping across the board!

If your only concern is getting stronger and losing weight, then bodybuilding seems to be your best bet. That being said, if your main goal is to have stronger cardio and to lose some serious weight without caring too much about building size, HIIT workouts are for you.

No matter what training program you choose to follow, remember that achieving a body composition you feel comfortable with is the most important thing. If your goal is to make positive changes to your health, there’s no reason why you can’t incorporate both of these strategies into your strength training routine.

Both of these training methods are challenging, but the benefits of muscle gain and improved cardio are absolutely worth it. Let’s get into the gym and start lifting!

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Brian Leguizamon is a content marketing specialist. Brian has worked with Shopify, Gigster and a bunch of startups you’ve never heard of. When he’s not working, you’ll find him at his local gym, waiting for the squat rack to open up.

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