Love it or hate it, cardio can be an essential part of a comprehensive fat loss plan when applied correctly. However, the mistake that many make is that they use cardio (and more cardio, and more cardio…) as their #1 tool to lose fat.
Long-duration cardio has a poor track record when it comes to fat loss. You might lose weight, but many times you are losing muscle too. To exclusively lose fat, your best tools, far and away, are nutrition and weight training. High-intensity interval cardio brings up the rear at #3. Long-duration cardio is what I call “fun exercise” and really should only be used if a) you are prepping for a long-duration EVENT like a marathon and b) you just love the way it makes you feel (longer duration cardio has shown benefit for mental health) and you just want to do it.
For those who have a hard time prioritizing weights and just think cardio will get them shredded, start with the Two-to-One Workout Rule: You’re only allowed to do half the amount of cardio workouts as you do weight workouts. So if I want to weight train 4 days a week, I’ll allow myself no more than 2 intense cardio workouts per week (I can certainly do less, but no more). This doesn’t include things like leisure walking, yoga, etc.
This keeps us accountable to our weight workouts, and also puts the emphasis on weights and nutrition over cardio. For this former cardio queen, this rule was a good self-checking tool. Try it!
And without further ado, here are 4 cardio myths, and what’s really going on:
1) “I will just do all cardio until I lose weight, and then I will add weights to tone up.”
I have to admit, hearing this make me cringe. There is a misconception out there that in order to lose weight you need to just do cardio, since lifting weights can’t help with that (and only makes you “bulk up”), as if the 2 things are mutually exclusive.
The good news is that adding weight training to your regimen right out of the gate will not only accelerate your fat loss efforts, but will assure that what you lose is indeed fat, and not muscle. Losing weight is easy; just stop eating. But losing exclusively fat is much harder. Adding lean muscle mass while shedding fat allows for your metabolism to work for you, while you are not exercising.
Cardio alone burns calories, yes, but at what price? Ask most anyone who has embarked on a marathon training program and they will report increased hunger and cravings. This is normal, as a result of the hormonal effects of longer cardio workouts, but this consequence needs to be weighed against the benefits.
Resistance-training is like putting money in your metabolic piggybank, adding muscle to your frame serves you for the long haul. And weights are an essential part of any weight loss plan, and yes, you should start with them right now.
2) “I just need to burn calories so I will just do extra cardio. My nutrition is fine.”
Wrong. Your nutrition can usually use some tweaking first. Paying attention to your nutrition will have a much more profound effect on your fat loss efforts than cardio alone. As we say at JillFit, you cannot cardio your way to the stage (or to a sustainably lean physique). In many ways, excessive cardio is just that—unsustainable.
In our blog on exercise tolerance and breaking the cardio cycle, we touched upon the fact that the more cardio you do consistently, the less your body tends to respond over time, and the more cardio you will have to keep doing simply to maintain. In other words, the amount you used to do to lose is now what you HAVE to do in order to maintain. Meatballs Effect does a nice summary of this in its Law of Metabolic Compensation.
It is a nasty cycle and the #1 way to break it is to be more mindful of your diet. Most people can maintain their weight by simply keeping their nutrition tight. And if you are overweight or obese, you should be focusing 100% of your attention on your nutrition, not necessarily adding more minutes on the elliptical.
3) “I want to lose fat so I will do my cardio in the “fat burning zone.”
Ugh. Such a misnomer: “fat burning zone”—and unfortunately it has people all over the world choosing that preset program on their cardio machines thinking they are losing fat like crazy. The “fat burning” zone is essentially a moderate intensity zone that means per calorie burned, more are coming from fat than are from carbohydrates.
First off, this ratio of fat use versus carbohydrate use is an individual thing anyway, so assuming a random cardio machine can accurately dictate the amount of fat you are burning during your workout is insane. Second, a moderate/lower intensity workout might burn a relatively higher percentage of fat calories over carb cals, but the absolute NUMBER of cals burned is lower. The higher the intensity of the workout, the more total cals burned, which is the key.
So instead, choose a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio workout over a long-duration, moderate intensity “fat burning zone” workout for best results. Twenty minutes hard beats 60 minutes moderate any day if the goal is fat loss. For more info, we blogged on this already :)
4) “I am an apple (or pear) shape, cardio will help me get skinny.”
Usually comments are not voiced in this exact way, but essentially, the myth is that lots and lots of cardio will change your shape and make you into a toned fitness supermodel. The thing is, however, cardio can only make you a smaller or larger version of your current self, depending on how much you are doing (or not doing).
Only intense, heavy weight training can actually change the shape of the body: add muscle here, lose inches here, etc—in other words, essentially weights are your only tools to change the shape of your body. An apple that increases their cardio simply becomes a smaller apple. An apple that applies weights intensely opens herself up to a whole new physique.