Cardio is the most misunderstood exercise in the world. This is increasingly true when we are talking about fat loss. Very rarely do people give cardio the credit it deserves. On one hand you have people that completely overvalue cardio training. On the other hand you have people that consider cardio to be a complete waste of time. In this article I wish to clear up any confusion regarding cardio and it’s role in fat loss and body composition.
Say No to Cardio?
The recent trend in the fitness industry is to lift weights to promote muscle growth and use diet exclusively to lose fat or stay lean. I feel that this can be an effective approach and a great starting point for most people. You definitely don’t want to get in the habit of relying on excessive amounts of exercise to lose weight and stay lean. That being said, the lift and diet strategy only works well for two types of people. One – people that are just looking to maintain there weight and don’t need to tap into a calorie deficit. Two – people who are moderately active during the day and have larger energy expenditures. However, for those of us who are mostly sedentary, this no cardio approach can mean one of two things when it comes to losing weight.
1) We lose weight at a slow rate
2) We have to consume very low calories
The reality of the situation is that most of us are sedentary. We drive to work, sit on our butts all day and spend a negligible amount of time on our feet. Many of us are lucky to get a combined 30 minutes of walking per day. This results in very low energy expenditures. To even tap into a calorie deficit, we have to eat a very modest amount of food.
The Fat Loss Advantage of Cardio
By increasing our movement and giving our bodies 30-45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, we can burn 300-600 calories. This gives us much more room to work with in our diet. As well, getting exercise on a daily basis helps with dietary adherence. People are more likely to follow through with their diet if they are exercising that day.
I have found that for sedentary individuals, getting 30-45 minutes of exercise on non lifting days can help tremendously. You’ll be much more satisfied as you’ll be able to consume considerably more food and lose weight. In addition, 30-45 minutes of cardio is relatively short. That’s like one episode of television. How many of us watch a few hours of tv each day? Not to mention, getting exercise on a daily basis helps with mood, energy levels, motivation…. Lastly, this amount of cardio shouldn’t have too much of an impact on your appetite and hunger.
Too much of a good thing
There’s always the risk that someone will think a moderate amount of cardio is beneficial, therefore an extreme amount of cardio will be even more effective. This train of thinking is flawed and leads to doing more harm than good.
With too much cardio you can cause what is known as cardio compensation. This is where you reach a point where any additional calories burned will result in a proportional increase in hunger. This is much more apparent during longer 1-2 hour cardio workouts. These marathon long cardio sessions tend to create an insatiable appetite. What’s more, very long cardio sessions can cut into recovery and negatively impact strength gains and muscle mass.
Putting Cardio into Perspective
One of the reasons why cardio gets such a bad rep is because it’s so easy to undo an entire cardio session if you’re not careful. Let’s say that you did cardio for one hour and burned 500 calories. A serving of desert after dinner could completely off set that one hour of cardio. In this scenario your 60 minutes in the gym was traded for the few minutes of pleasure from a desert.
This scenario is common with people who solely use cardio to stay lean and let the chips fall where they may on their diet. Obviously this is not an ideal strategy for body composition. However, this is not the approach I am suggesting. My preference is to pay close attention to your diet and to use cardio synergistically. This is the ultimate fat loss plan. It’s a two vs one fight. Cardio + Diet vs Body fat.
Why Cardio Should Be Used?
Let me give you a perspective on cardio that will help you understand why I value cardio training and how I like to use it. Let’s say that you’re an average male who isn’t very active aside from 3 strength workouts per week. On your lift days your maintenance calorie requirements are around 2500. However, on your rest days your maintenance requirements are considerably less at only 2100-2200. On your lifting days you can consume 2000 calories and be at an optimal 500 calorie deficit. Unfortunately on your rest days you need to cut calories down to 1600-1700 to be at that same 500 calorie deficit.
Wouldn’t it be far more enjoyable to exercise at a comfortable intensity for 30-40 minutes and consume 2000 calories than have to eat very low calories? If you feel this way then cardio is probably for you! So ultimately, with cardio, you should already be eating under your calorie requirements. Cardio will help increase that calorie deficit so that you can lose fat at an appreciable rate.
Beach Ripped Cardio Recommendations
Forget about intervals, crossfit, p90x, insanity, complexes, circuits, medley’s, and the tough mudder. If you’re doing cardio to get lean then it’s a matter of burning calories while side stepping overtraining and increased hunger. Don’t let the allure of a turbo charged metabolic rate fool you. That’s a myth, a marketing ploy. The after burn effect of intense exercise is at best, a mere 15% of calories burned. Now that we have that out in the open let’s proceed with the workout.
Ultimately, the type of cardio you should do is what you enjoy the most provided that you stick to a few key principles.
1) Aim to burn a certain number of calories per session – 2-3 calories per pound of bodyweight.
2) Avoid activity that impairs recovery for strength and muscle building workouts.
Abide by those two principles and you’re in the clear. The options are endless, really! You can go for a long walk, alternate walking and jogging, mountain bike, jump rope, hit up the cardio machines, play a multitude of sports, swim, hike, shadow box, dance……… The aim of course is for movement and an increased energy expenditure while realizing all of the amazing health benefits of daily exercise.
Now for sake of simplicity and convenience I will outline a fun cardio protocol that you can do at your gym. The goal of the session is to burn calories, increase fat loss and avoid boredom.
Beach Ripped Cardio Workout
1. Treadmill Interval Pyramid:
2 min walk / 1 min jog x 6-8 or 1:15 walk / 45 second run x 10-12
For gym cardio, I always like to start with some form of interval. This is not because I feel that intervals magically boost my metabolism to the stratosphere but rather, it goes by much faster as my mind always has something to focus on. This is also not to be mistaken with high intensity interval training, in which you’re exerting a maximal effort. With that type of training, you are at a risk of cutting into recovery capabilities while on a diet.
For these I like to use a 2 degree incline and walk at 3.8mph (4.0 mph seems unnaturally fast for a walk). For my first interval I will run at a comfortable 6mph. With each interval that passes I will build up the speed. Depending on how I’m feeling I might go up by 0.5 or 1 mph each interval. So I might do 6-7-8-9-9.5-10. If the diet is getting to me or I don’t have the energy I might just jog at 6 or 6.5 during the running portion of the interval. Nothing is 100% set in stone with cardio workouts so you can take the ball and run with it or walk with it. This is completely different than how I approach my strength training workouts, which are very structured, goal oriented and maximal effort.
Note: We’ll be tracking calories during cardio. Make sure to manually enter your weight into the machine for a more accurate calorie burn reading.
2. Steady State Cardio: 10-20 minutes
During the first portion of the workout, the intervals, you should have been able to burn around 200-300+ calories. This is largely dependent on your weight, cardiovascular shape and level of exertion. During the second portion of the workout you will aim to burn the remainder of your calorie target off. I like to go at a low to moderate intensity for active recovery and fat burning. Somewhere around 60-70% of your maximal heart rate. Again the options are endless for this: I like to hit up an elliptical style machine, the one with the handles that you can push. I opt to avoid the bike and the rower for a couple reasons: Much of my day is spent in the seated, spine compressing position, why add to that while exercising? As well, I can burn significantly more calories on the elliptical machine.
My favorite modalities for this part of the cardio workout include: jumping rope, elliptical (pushing handles) and incline walking. For incline walking I will pyramid the incline for fun. So I will walk at 3.8mph and increase the incline by 1 each minute until the half way point. Then I’ll decrease the incline by 1 each minute until I’m finished.
3. Stretching and Abs Training
This is an ideal time to train your abs and stretch out any tight muscle groups. I like to do a lot of hanging abdominal movements. These exercises build very strong abs and don’t cause any low back pain like most crunching movements. I finish off with bridging, the king of all exercises. Bridging is the reason why I have been lower back pain free for 2 years. These movements also serve to decompress and elongate your spine, you may notice you stand slightly taller, a nice side benefit.
1. Leg Raises (hanging bent leg, hanging straight leg or from dip bar): 3 sets x 10-20 reps
2. Side to Side Knee ups or Abs Whee Roll outs: 2 sets x max reps
3. Hip/Back Bridge Hold: 2-3 sets x 20 seconds
4. Bonus stretches (optional)
Notes: rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
I’d recommend aiming to burn about 2-3 calories per pound of bodyweight. So if you’re 150 lbs, you’d aim to burn 300-450 calories per session. This is a reasonable amount, shouldn’t take too long to complete and will result in a proportionally smaller increase in appetite than calories burned. So you might find that it’s just as easy to consume 2000 calories per day on complete rest days as cardio days.
Beach Ripped Cardio Q&A?
1. I play (insert sport here) 2-3 times per week, should I still do cardio?
If you are involved in sports then you can count that as your cardio workout. So on a day that you are playing a particular sport, you won’t need to do a cardio workout. Only do cardio workouts on days that you are not active or lifting weights.
2. I work manual labor, should I still do cardio?
If you work manual labor then your energy expenditure will be very high. If you are spending several hours per day walking, lifting, moving and doing physical tasks there is no need for additional calorie burning exercise. Lift weights 3x per week to build strength and maintain muscle and that’s about it.
3. I find that on days I do cardio I become very hungry?
There are some individuals that find even 30-45 minutes of cardio exercise can make them much hungrier. If that’s the case for you and you find it more enjoyable to eat low calories without cardio then go for it. Alternatively you can try just doing a limited amount of exercise. Maybe a 10-30 minute walk to see how that affects your appetite/cravings.
4. Won’t cardio cause me to lose strength and muscle?
If you stick to the cardio protocol that I laid out, there will be no negative impact on strength, power or muscle mass. Take a look at athletes from a wide array of sports including basketball, hockey, rugby, boxing, mixed martial arts….. These athletes have incredible cardiovascular fitness and in most cases great strength and muscle development. Not to mention, many of these athletes are required to do cardio intensive activities for several hours per day.
The belief that cardio training will cause you to sacrifice strength, power and muscle mass has been completely over exaggerated in the fitness/bodybuilding world. For this to even remotely come about, you’d already have to be very big, strong and muscular so that your body would need to take a turn to efficiency. As well, you would have to push the cardio to the limit. Perform cardio frequently and push your body very hard so that you are signalling improvements in endurance are demanded.
Remember this, high level aerobic fitness and elite strength and power are opposite adaptations. You’ll rarely come about a 500 lbs squatter who can run 3 miles in under 20 minutes. Trying to get stronger while trying to train for a road race is never the best idea. If you’ve read this article you will understand that I am not trying to get you in top physical condition for a endurance competition. We are simply using cardio as a tool to increase fat loss. Therefore those extreme endurance based physiological changes will not take place. Instead you will just maintain a reasonable level of cardio fitness, think of it as your base. You can build strength and muscle at the maximal rate with this base. However, if you want to take your cardio to the extreme, you will need to put your strength and muscle into maintenance mode. Like the Chinnese proverb, the man who chases two chickens catches none.
Beach Ripped Article Series
Part 1 - DIY Guide
Part 2 - Counting Macros
Part 3 - Cardio for Fat loss
Part 4 - Single Digit Body Fat
For the strength training routine I recommend performing the strength and density program from my Kinobody Muscle Building Course. It is ideal for cutting. If you don’t have the program, the next best thing would be the warrior physique workout.