I work with an increasing number of physique competitors – most of whom have worked with other coaches in the industry. One of the first questions they ask in our interview process is: How much cardio do I need to do? – Cringing in anticipation of an answer that will rival a part time job.
I have seen coaches recommend as much as 2 hours of cardio per day – yes I said per day! I have seen the damage hours of cardio can create within the body and it’s not pretty.
Let me be clear, I am not pro or con cardio – but I am pro result. Here is my editorial comment on cardio.
The Skinny on Cardio:
Technically all training is “cardio” but is specific “cardio” training required for fat loss? No it’s not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Cardio exercise – like running – is often the fitness activity with the lowest barrier to entry – simply grab a pair a shoes, walk out side, start running, and within 30 min you will feel its effects no matter your speed.
Just because you feel its effects does not mean it is a successful tool for fat loss. In fact many people get addicted to the feeling you get when you do cardio – the runners high – and continue to pursue the cardio for the feeling and just assume that it is delivering fat loss results.
This may be true to an extent – But If a person goes from being sedentary being physically multiple times per week they will experience fat loss for a 6 to 8 week period regardless of the validity of activity – steady state cardio is no different.
Is cardio effective for fat loss?
The research suggests steady state cardio (cardio preformed at a low intensity for longer than 30 min at a time) is not necessary nor is it the most effective way to achieve fat loss. The research also suggest steady state cardio can create a deficit of strength – meaning cardio training is not only less effective than strength training for fat loss but cardio training can also reduce your strength – Heck of a combo.
Steady state cardio training not only weakness the skeletal muscle it can also weaken the cardiac muscle – yes, the cardiac muscle means your heart – meaning steady state cardio may actually be bad for heart health.
So the research suggests if you want to reduce your strength, muscle mass and be less effective at fat loss – focus on extended cardio training. But we know empirically that cardio can be used for fat loss so this cant be the definitive statement on cardio training.
Is fasted cardio effective for fat loss?
Enter the Bro-Science – ask 10 physique competitors what to describe the cardio program their coaches gave them – and they will look at you with a look of haughty derision and say “fasted cardio in the morning” as if you asked in which direction the sun rises. They may also randomly tell you how many asparagus they are eating with each meal but we will explore that issue in another post.
Performing fasted cardio training does not provide a fat burning advantage over cardio preformed after eating – in fact the research suggest that fasted cardio may actually be less effective than cardio training preformed after eating – provided you are eating an appropriate diet.
So can we use cardio for fat loss?
I said at the beginning of this post that I am not pro or con cardio – I’m pro result. And despite the fact that I think cardio is used inappropriately to achieve fat loss, I do use cardio in program to expedite fat loss results. I use cardio with clients, I use cardio myself and have spoken to countless coaches I respect in the industry that use the dirty little “C” word to enhance training results.
The reality of cardio:
Few things in the fat loss world are as simple as “do them, don’t do them” and cardio training is no different. Like anything else, knowing when and how to use cardio training will help maximize the result. Do we NEED to perform cardio? No, probably not at least in the traditional sense, I’m reminded of the old adage that says “if you want to do cardio – lift weights faster” – sounds like cross fit – but cardio if done properly come in handy in a few situations:
- Cardio training can be helpful to build work capacity. Meaning if your cardiovascular energy system is under developed it can hinder your ability to weight train hard and long enough to maximize results. So I do use cardio training to improve ones ability to perform work.
- If you can only allocate a few hours per week to training, say 3, I don’t recommend spending any of them with direct cardio training, 3 hours of full body strength training is far superior in every health and fitness category. This is supported by clinical research and empirical results. But if you are training 4+ hours per week and are merely supplementing strength training with cardio sessions, 2-4 strategically placed cardio training sessions can enhance fat loss.
- Enjoyment – I have said this about food, and I will say it again about training, doing what you enjoy DOES provide value, if you get all amped up to go for a walk, run, ride etc, and it helps you stay focused on your weight training, more power to you! Who am I to tell you to stop? Provided you are not OVER Training your cardio it will not hinder your fat loss results or cause any metabolic compensation of note.
- Stress – ok this is a weird one, though low impact cardio has been shown to be one of the least effective ways to achieve fat loss, it has been shown to modulate cortisol levels – I’m not talking about step classes or water aerobics here, I’m talking about walking at a s l o w p a c e for an hour or so a few times per week. I have used this with girls recovering from major neuorendocrine damage caused by coach’s using excessive cardio training (as much as 2-hours per day, yep I said it again…because recommending two hours per day to get girls stage ready should be a criminal offense)
Ok so what kind of cardio do I recommend?
How many per week?
2-3 interval-training sessions per week
That’s what she said – couldn’t resist – 20-30 min per session. 30-60 second intervals preformed at high intensity followed by 30-60 seconds at rest or at low intensity and repeat as many times as you can before you fail, no more than 30 min.
What type of activity?
Resisted when possible. This means using Modified Strongman Training (MST) pieces when available, drag sleds, prowler, plow, sledgehammer, tire, rope, sprints, rowing, Jacobs ladder, incline walking etc.
Try adding 1-hour of slow cardio to the mix. This is best done outside. I live in Chicago and strongly recommend walking by the lake, museum park, Lincoln park etc for 1-hour hour at as many times per week as you can to help decompress the mind and provide a balancing effect on the hormones.
Try adding these cardio training techniques into your training schedule and see if it makes a difference for you.