What type of cardio is best for weight loss? How do you incorporate cardio into your fitness program? When is the best time to do cardio and how do you make sure it serves your long-term goals?
Endurance training, for many, still represents the Holy Grail for weight-loss. Anytime someone decides to trim down they immediately dust-off their running shoes and bust out their way-too-tight jogging pants.
But before you jump on your treadmill, huffing and puffing for 2 hours every day, hear me out. I have a better solution for you.
Cardio = Fat-Loss?
Technically, yes. More calories burned equals more weight lost (good ol’ energy balance never fails). But as I said before (here), if you rely on cardio to create a negative energy balance and drive fat-loss, you’re headed down a one-way street to physique frustration. Excessive amounts of cardiovascular exercise will never make up for a shitty diet. You’ll literally run yourself into the ground.
Truth is you can get in fantastic shape without doing any cardio. As long as you’re in a calorie deficit, you’ll lose weight (Strasser et al, 2007). There are several benefits to doing cardiovascular work, however (read, read).
“What type of cardio should I do?”
Low intensity steady state (LISS) vs. high intensity interval training (HIIT)
When people think of cardio, they think of low intensity steady state activities like jogging, cycling, walking or swimming. This type of endurance training is performed with a steady pace at a low to moderate intensity.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the new kid on the block. The difference to traditional cardio? Short intervals of all-out (close to max-) effort are alternated with periods of lower intensity. These sessions are usually much shorter in duration and, as the name implies, performed with high intensity.
HIIT is far superior to low intensity steady state cardio in terms of physical conditioning (Laursen/ Jenkins, 2002). It also provides metabolic benefits that go beyond those of traditional strength training (Almenning et al, 2015). Sprints, for instance, are a fantastic metabolic booster.
Add sprints, rowing, jump rope or other intervals to your regimen, but adjust your training frequency accordingly. A 20-30 minute HIIT session is a workout in itself. If you strength train 2-4 times a week (which you should), 1-2 (max) additional HIIT sessions are all you need. The leaner and stronger you get, the less training frequency you need (NOT the other way around!).
“When should I do cardio? Before or after strength training? What about fasted cardio in the morning?”
There is research showing that pre-training cardio is superior for fat-loss, and studies concluding that post strength training cardio is best. In this study by Rosa et al (2014) pre resistance training endurance activity elicited a significantly higher anabolic response compared to doing cardio after weights. Pushing your cardio sessions after pumping iron seems to amplify fat burning, however.
You’ll also hear athletes claim that in order to maximize fat-loss you need to perform cardio in a fasted state (aka on empty). While I believe fasted training is an underutilized health tool, the research doesn’t support the claim that it is superior to endurance training in a fed state (Schoenfeld et al, 2014).
What does all this tell you? Nothing really. Anything can work if you make it work for you. Don’t concern yourself with the details. HIIT, LISS, pre, post, during, fasted or fed? Doesn’t matter. Find the activity you enjoy and do it consistently.
Walk it off
I always look for sustainable, long-term solutions for my clients. I’m not interested in getting them in shape for a couple of weeks/ months before they end up at the next Biggest Loser auditioning. The goal is to get them in shape and give them the tools to stay lean and mean for the rest of their lives.
If you’re in it for the long run now, you need to start looking for sustainable solutions. Find what works best for you and disregard the latest fitness fads and heavily marketed short-cuts.
As you get leaner and your strength sessions become more intense you want to minimize the time spent on the treadmill. There is one type of cardio that enhances weight-loss, circulation and fitness without compromising recovery, however. I consider it the ultimate cardio for fat-loss.
“What is it Victor?? Give it to me NOW!”
Alright alright, relax. It’s walking. Brisk walking is the best type of cardio for fat-loss, diet adherence and sustainability.
“Walking? C’mon Victor… I wanna get ripped!”
You do? Go on, start walking then. Unlike other forms of cardio, walking will boost your energy expenditure without negatively impacting appetite and recovery, thus, modulating the energy equation (calories in vs. calories out) in your favor.
Walking has also shown to eliminates acute hunger pangs and reduces the desire to snack (Oh/ Taylor, 2012).
If your heart is beating out of your chest, slow down. Walk briskly but don’t look to beat the clock or to burn X amounts of calories. Simply make sure you maintain a good tempo throughout. If possible, walk outside in the fresh air.
Walking, in my opinion, is the best type of activity to speed up weight-loss. In conjunction with a reduced calorie diet and a solid resistance training program (like this one), it creates the perfect storm for sustainable fat-loss.
How much should you walk to get the desired results? Aim for 30-60 minutes 4-7 days a week. Yup, that’s it. Make it a habit and ignore the people telling you you need to sweat buckets in order to lose weight. They’re absolutely clueless.
Thank you for reading
Almenning, I./ Rieder-Mohn, A./ Lundgren, K.M./ Lovvik, T.S./ Garnaes, K.K./ Moholdt, T. (2015). Effects of High Intensity Interva Training and Strength Trainin on Metabolic, Cardiovascular and Hormonal Outcomes in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrom: A Pilot Study. PLOS One
Laursen, P.B./ Jenkins, D.G. (2002). The Scientific Basis for High-Intensity Interval Training: Optimising Training Programmes and Maximising Performance in Highly Trained Endurance Athletes. Sports Medicine. , Vol. 32, Iss. 1, 53-73
Oh, H./ Taylor, A.H. (2012). Brisk walking reduces ad libitum snackin in regular chocolate eaters during workplace simulation. Appetite. 2012 Feb;58(1):387-92.
Rosa, C./ Vilaca-Alves, J./ Fernandes, H.M./ Saavedra, F.J./ Pinto, R.S./ dos Reis, V.M. (2015). Order effects of combined strength and endurance training on testosterone, cortisol, growth hormone, and IGF-1 binding protein 3 in concurrently trained men. Journal of strength and conditioning research 2015 Jan;29(1):74-9.
Schoenfeld, B.J./ Aragon, A.A./ Wilborn, C.D./ Krieger, J.W./ Sonmez, G.T. (2014). Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 Nov 18;11(1):54.
Strasser, B./ Spreitzer, A./ Haber, P. (2007). Fat Loss Depends on Energy Deficit Only, Independently of the Method for Weight Loss. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2007; 51: 428-432