Here's what you need to know...
- A small amount of cardio is okay if you enjoy it, but it's really not necessary for fat loss.
- At its worst, excess cardio "eats" lean muscle and creates a destructive pattern of slow metabolic rate and a yo-yo'ing body weight.
- Excess cardio leads to muscle loss which inhibits natural hormone production. Aerobic workouts also elevate cortisol levels.
- Strength training raises the metabolic rate for longer periods of time than aerobic work.
- Walking has many of the benefits and none of the drawbacks of traditional cardio. With the right diet and weight training, walking is all you need to lose fat.
Cardio Isn't That Important
There are only two types of people I hate in the fitness world: 1) people who are intolerant of other people's exercise choices, and 2) runners!
I should qualify that second part. I dislike people who dogmatically insist that any form of long duration, sustained cardio activity is the best and only way to lose fat and change a physique.
Anyone who's been in this game long enough will tell you that the hierarchy of body composition transformation goes something like this: nutrition is by far the most important, weight training is next, and cardio is a distant third.
Traditional cardio is at best a minor importance in the physique enhancement game. And under many circumstances, it becomes the worst form of exercise a relatively fit person could do for further body composition enhancement.
Reasons People Run
If you chose to run, make sure you understand the real reasons why you're running. You're running for performance enhancement, sport specific training, stress relief, general health, an endorphin rush, to prove something to yourself, or just because you like to do it. That's fine.
But if you're running to drop body fat, remove that last little layer of flab from around your midsection, or look good at the beach, you're doing it for the wrong reasons.
Cardio in the Real World
Most lifters have heard the ol' sprinter vs. marathon runner comparison. You know the drill. Marathon runners that engage in primarily low intensity, aerobic activity are usually skinny-fat, jiggle when they wiggle, and are riddled with injuries. Sprinters that engage in primarily high intensity, anaerobic work are more lean and muscular.
It's amazing how many intelligent people understand this on a conceptual level, but don't practically apply it within their training protocols. "Yeah, marathon runners are losers." Then that same allegedly intelligent person will go out and do frequent cardio to try and reach single-digit body fat percentages.
No physique athlete has any business spending two hours on a stationary bike. The fittest "looking" people in the world, and the smartest coaches in the world, base their exercise programs around strength training.
They all lift weights – both the men and the women. Cardio may be a part of the plan, but it's not the foundation.
And on a side note, most physique athletes do cardio out of tradition rather than necessity. Diet and strength training are what changes physical appearance. Cardio is supplemental at its very best.
The Dark Side of Cardio
Traditional cardio sucks for fat loss, period. I'll save you the long dissertation and give you the cliff notes version of the science behind why the majority of your training should be anaerobic (strength training/interval cardio) vs. aerobic (traditional cardio) in nature:
- The physique transformation process is more complicated than the simple calories in vs. calories out theory. The real keys are to use your diet and exercise protocols to elevate your resting metabolic rate and manipulate your anabolic, lipolytic hormones and enzymes. Strength training has a much more powerful effect on these processes than aerobic training.
- Many who focus on just calories and the "slash and dash" mentality end up with destructive patterns – extreme calorie cuts and/or excessive aerobics. This sets off an alarm state in the body where the body sheds muscle tissue to lessen energy demands and stores/hoards body fat as a survival response. Once this physiological state is reached, it becomes impossible to lose any more fat no matter how many calories you cut or how much aerobic work you try and add. What you end up with is someone who is on starvation level calories and performing excessive exercise, yet is still flabby.
- Muscle loss due to excessive aerobics drastically lowers the resting metabolic rate and inhibits natural hormone production. When this type of person goes back to even just normal, healthy calorie and exercise levels, they gain all of the weight back plus a few extra. This generally results in a vicious cycle of huge swings in body weight and appearance. Whether it's housewives following fad diets or bodybuilders alternating between competition shape and off-season obesity is irrelevant – it's still yo-yo'ing. Sometimes the damage to the metabolism and hormones becomes so great over time that it's irreversible without medical intervention.
- The calories burned during an exercise session are relatively small compared to the amount burned the other 23 hours of the day during the recovery process (at rest). Most fat oxidation occurs between training sessions, not during. As such your exercise sessions should primarily be geared towards building muscle and boosting the metabolism, not "burning fat."
- Upon cessation of an exercise session, strength training raises the metabolic rate (the after-burn effect) for longer periods of time than aerobic work – up to 48 hours. This is because all of the steps involved in the recovery process from strength training (satellite cell activation, tissue repair, protein synthesis, etc.) require energy/calories.
- Aerobic workouts elevate cortisol levels. Long sessions can lead to excessively high levels, and too frequent sessions can lead to chronically elevated levels, neither of which is good for body composition enhancement. Cortisol can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue, convert it to glucose (gluconeogenesis), and use it as fuel. It also leads to increased fat accumulation, especially around the midsection.
- Strength training raises cortisol levels, but it also raises testosterone and growth hormone – potent muscle building/fat burning hormones that offset cortisol. The net hormonal effect (assuming proper dietary support) is protein synthesis/lean muscle gain.
- The body burns predominantly fat during aerobic work. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store body fat. The body burns predominantly glucose/glycogen during strength training. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store muscle glycogen
- Strength training has more powerful, positive nutrient partitioning effects than cardio, meaning nutrients are diverted more towards muscle cells (where they can be used to build or maintain lean muscle tissue) and away from fat cells (where they can be stored).
- There are certain "intermediate" muscle fibers that can take on the properties of either slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers, depending on different modes of exercise. Endurance-based training leads to the conversion of those fibers into slow twitch fibers. Strength training leads to the conversion of those fibers into fast twitch fibers. The latter is the more desirable result for physique enhancement because fast twitch fibers have the greatest potential for hypertrophy. This process is what firms and shapes the body, boosts metabolic rate, and leads to increased fat burning even at rest.
Cavemen and the Lost Art of Walking
We can even look at our evolutionary past for clues. In terms of "formal activity" or exercise, our bodies were designed to be anaerobic in nature. Yes, for most of the day we performed sub-maximal (and what could technically be termed aerobic) activities.
We walked around, gathered food, tracked prey, cooked, cleaned, etc. But we didn't run to keep the heart rate up or reach some type of fat burning/aerobic zone. None of what we did was formal exercise; we just completed the necessary tasks of the day, whatever that may be.
In fact, we used as little energy as possible during most of the day in order to conserve energy for when it was absolutely necessary for survival.
When it was time to move, we frickin' moved, baby. We sprinted away from predators or towards prey. We climbed trees, hoisted objects, swung weapons, and clubbed stuff to death with maximal exertion.
These are all predominantly anaerobic activities. We're not meant to reach arbitrary fat burning zones for arbitrary amounts of time. We're meant to alternate periods of kicking back with periods of kicking ass. That's how you efficiently build an attractive, functional body.
So we can take two things away from our cavemen brethren:
- The majority of our formal exercise sessions should be anaerobic in nature.
- Walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around.
And that doesn't mean walking on a treadmill or anything "exercise" specific. It just means real, outdoor walking as an informal activity. Remember, that's what we did in our evolutionary past. We didn't sit at a computer all day eating M&M's.
Walking gives us many of the same benefits as traditional aerobic activity: calorie burning, lowered blood pressure, lowered resting heart rate, lowered cholesterol, increased cardiac output, increased capillary density, increased nutrient/oxygen delivery, etc.
Walking does not have the drawbacks of traditional cardio: musculoskeletal injury, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, or lowered metabolic rate. Simply put, it's the aerobic activity we were meant to do.
Everyone can benefit from a little more walking in their lives. This covers the entire spectrum, from the severely overweight and deconditioned beginner to the advanced physique athlete looking to peak.
Let's apply this information to your own situation and training protocol:
Fat people: Over 20% body fat
- First, you need to start being honest with yourself. You're not bulking up or retaining water or using the extra mass to your advantage in a sport (unless it's sumo wrestling). You're fat, plain and simple.
- Diet has and always will be the biggest factor in the fat loss equation. You need to get your ass on a targeted nutrition plan. This is where most fat loss comes from, and amazing fat loss results can be achieved with diet alone.
- Walk 30-60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This will help you burn some calories and get some of the fat burning hormones and enzymes going (hormone sensitive lipase, catecholamines). Go first thing in the morning, at lunch, after work, or after weight training, whenever you have the time. And if you can't fit it in, then (a) you're either lazy or (b) you really don't give a shit.
- If you're fat, you're probably putting a lot of extra weight on your joints, are out of alignment, and are suffering from some type of chronic pain. Check out the mobility articles here on T Nation.
Fit People: 10%-20% body fat
- Train 5 days a week. All of your training should be anaerobic in nature.
- If you're a cardio-junkie, that's cool too. You can do a mix of strength training and interval-based cardio.
- So 5 days of strength training, 4 days of strength training plus 1 day of interval cardio, or 3 days of strength training plus 2 days of interval cardio. Do a minimum of 3 days a week of strength training. Remember all of the metabolic and hormonal benefits of strength training?
- Interval cardio essentially means alternating periods of sprinting/maximal exertion with periods of recovery. You go hard for something like 30-60 seconds, then back off for 60-120 seconds, and then repeat. Do a 5-minute warm-up, 20-40 minutes of intervals, and a 5-minute cool down.
- If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What's worked best is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
- This article is more about getting you to back off on traditional cardio than it is about specific strength training protocols. But you do need a plan designed by experts to get results. Luckily, you're on T Nation and just a click away from tons of great plans.
Competitive Physique Athletes: Less than 10% body fat
- Don't take advice from anyone who hasn't gone through the process themselves. What looks good on paper doesn't always work in the real world. At the same time, just because someone competes or is ripped doesn't mean they have any clue about the physique transformation process. Learn from people who have both a scientific background and practical experience.
- Again, diet is still the most important factor to get to low single-digit body fat percentages. So take care of it.
- Ditch cardio work completely, even interval work. At this point you don't have a lot of body fat left to burn, and are more susceptible to tapping into muscle tissue as a reserve fuel, which results in a loss of muscle and a soft, flat appearance.
- You should be strength training 4-6 days a week. Focus on building, preserving, and maintaining your muscle mass with your training. Let your diet "burn off" the body fat.
- If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What typically works best is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with two or three 45-minute walks per week.
Heading to the gym tonight? You better be heading towards the gym floor and not the stationary bike!