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The Ins and Outs of Cardio


Do I Need To Do Cardio To Lose Weight?

NO, allow myself to repeat, NO! You do NOT need to do any cardio to elicit fat loss. When it comes to cardiovascular work I am highly conservative, allow myself to explain. We all have busy lives and schedules, the fact you make it to the gym on a regular basis is impressive, you are already vastly ahead of the majority but with this busy lifestyle means we need the biggest and best bang for our fitness buck. So while yes, you can spend your spare hour per day on a treadmill, it would be of much greater use spending that same hour strength training.



Bang For Your Fitness Buck

Strength training, even very novice strength training stimulates your muscles, reshapes your body composition, maintains and builds lean muscle tissue and triggers a positive metabolic response, unlike most forms of cardio. As mentioned, you need the biggest bang for your fitness buck, this means preserving as much LBM (lean body mass) as possible and staying metabolically active by stimulating muscle. Check out this study, two groups were put on a calorie restricted diet, GROUP A performed one hour of cardiovascular work four times per week, while GROUP B was given a strength training regiment in which they performed a variety of resistance training exercises three times a\per week. At the end of the study, it was GROUP A (only cardio group) that had more total weight loss, now before you stop reading and hop on the nearest treadmill note that GROUP B also lost a significant amount of weight (near identical) in addition to retaining more LBM. Moreover, GROUP B participants saw an increase in energy expenditure at rest or RMR (resting metabolic rate)(1). Further note that GROUP B saw very similar weight loss and metabolic benefits with one less hour per week, what could you do with an extra hour?



Burning Calories Doesn’t Make You Look Good

Let’s face it, everyone who frequents a gym regularly wants to look good and change their body image in some regard. The most effective and efficient way to do this is with strength training, building muscle in conjunction with losing body fat is going to give you that defined, “toned” look you’re after. Generally speaking, per unit time cardio is going to burn more calories than a strength training workout but the simple reduction of calories isn’t going to alter your body in any regard, you’ll simply get “skinny fat”, hit a plateau and most likely give up.


Strength training allows you to build muscle, recomposition your body and correct movement inefficiencies that could hinder future progress, for example. We all know a person who stands with their neck cranked forward, shoulders rolled in and upper traps that are harder and more pronounced than compressed diamonds, perhaps this person is staring at their phone screen right this second? Strength training allows you to correct this movement fault called upper cross syndrome, powering away on an elliptical for an hour would do absolutely nothing in this regard.


Moreover, simply weighing less than you do currently shouldn’t be your goal when beginning an exercise routine, yes the weight on the scale is an important metric of self monitoring but it shouldn’t be the focus of which your entire training routine revolves, it’s a tool in your tool box for potential future adjustments.



Fasted Cardio Vs Fed State Cardio

This section is dedicated to your local “beast mode” #killit bro or sis on social media waking up extra early hopping on the treadmill making sure to manipulate the lighting and angles just right for the inevitable selfie that’s to be posted on instagram with the hashtag #fasted.

Let me bust yet another myth, there is NO difference in fat loss between fasted or fed state cardio, repeat NO difference! Fat oxidation, or “fat burning” is not the same thing as losing body fat, fat oxidation is simply a bodily mechanism to utilize fat for energy and although fasted cardio does produce more fat oxidation than fed state, it has been found in research that if you burn more of one substrate during a cardio session, such as fat or carbohydrate, you will burn less of that substrate over the next 24 hours (2). In laymen’s terms, when you perform fasted cardio you do oxidize more body fat but this does not equate to more overall fat loss and you’re more inclined to oxidize (burn) less fat throughout the day.


In a 2014 study spear headed by Brad Schoenfeld, they took twenty young women and split them into fasted cardio and fed cardio groups, both groups had the same macronutrients, ate in a 500 calorie deficit and did three 1hr sessions of moderate intensity cardio a week. After four weeks, both groups lost a significant amount of fat but there was zero difference in fat loss between the groups (3). This is just further evidence that reinforces the fact, there is zero difference in body fat loss when performing cardio fed vs fasted, it simply comes down to personal preference and enjoyability.



HIIT vs LISS

Within the context of cardiovascular work there are two subcategories, LISS and HIIT. LISS stands for low intensity steady state, while HIIT stands for high intensity interval training. Let’s discuss LISS, think of LISS as a steady walk on a treadmill or a low intensity bout on an elliptical or other piece of cardio equipment, as the name implies, it is a very low intensity, low output cardiovascular work.


Inversely, HIIT is relatively short bouts of very high intensity, high output cardiovascular work, think intervals of 100m sprints or intense interval training on a stationary bike or rowing machine. HIIT is one hundred percent output followed by a relatively short rest period, you could use work to rest ratios such as these for HIIT training, these combinations are just a few of the endless combinations you can use for HIIT training.


Work/Rest

20/10

30/15

60/20


If we’re talking about cardiovascular work per unit time HIIT is king, in a study comparing HITT to MICT (moderate intensity continuous training), both methods produced positive body composition improvements with little difference between groups, however the group performing HIIT needed 40% less training time for required results(4). HIIT when implemented within a program effectively can be useful and an important tool at your disposal.


So what method of cardio should you choose? Personally, I will always favour HIIT training for the intermediate or advance lifter (2-5 years of lifting experience), but before you lace up your Jordans and hit the track for some 100m sprints, there are some talking points. HIIT as compared to LISS is VERY demanding on our bodies, requiring more recovery efforts such as quality sleep, nutrition, hydration, quality movement patterns, etc. Given the intensity of HIIT training, it also puts us at a higher risk for injury and overtraining, when the output is cranked up movement patterns break down, sometimes severely, if you are untrained or a novice gym goer this breakdown happens sooner rather than later and can be detrimental to your long and short term health. Furthermore, HIIT is very psychologically taxing, especially for the general population just looking to feel better and lose weight.



Low Intensity Interval Training

If you’re a beginner and want to dabble with a method of HIIT, you can perform low intensity interval training (LIIT), which has been shown in studies to be more effective burning calories than steady state cardio. LIIT can be defined as fluctuations in cardiovascular output that are of lower intensity, for example, walking on a treadmill for two minutes at level three then upping the level to five or six and walking for an additional two minutes, every two minutes you switch back and forth between intensity levels until you’ve reached the amount of time you've allotted to cardiovascular training.



Should You Do Cardio?

I suppose this is the question you want answered and like any actual expert in a given field my answer is, it depends. Context is everything when it comes to health and fitness, again my general recommendation leans towards keeping cardiovascular work as minimal as possible and to favour strength training as much as possible, for all the reasons I’ve discussed. Now this is not to say cardiovascular work has no place within a properly structured program, for example some of you may enjoy a brisk walk on a nice day, a run on a Sunday afternoon or listening to a podcast while powering away on an elliptical, if these endeavours give you joy, fulfillment or just make you feel good, by all means go for it! Just avoid black and white, “this vs that” thinking.


With regards to programming high intensity cardiovascular work, as mentioned HIIT training requires a lot more structure and thought when implementing within your exercise regiment, this is because it is very physiologically and psychologically taxing and requires a lot of recovery, especially if you’re new to the gym or even new to high intensity training. This said, if you want to implement HIIT within your program I would definitely program it on a day completely separate from your strength training routine, plan a lot of recovery pre and post HIIT (7-9hrs sleep, hydration, quality nutrition), also start with something requiring low skill to avoid movement pattern breakdown and injury, a stationary bike or assault bike for example. Performing HIIT using an exercise involving a lot of skill and dynamic movement leaves a lot of room for movement breakdown and potential injury, these types of exercises are only meant for people with solidified movement patterns and lots of exercise experience. A beginner HIIT program could use a stationary bike for example and their programming could look something like this


Four Working Rounds Performed 1x/Week

Work: 20 Seconds

Rest: 15 Seconds

Work: 20 Seconds

Rest: 15 Seconds

Work: 20 Seconds

Rest: 15 Seconds

Work: 20 Seconds

Rest:15 Seconds



When Should You Do Cardio?

This is getting into the weeds somewhat, as it is getting into the finer details of a periodized program. Nonetheless, it is a talking point worth mentioning, we all have busy lives and schedules to upkeep so what is scientifically optimal may not be optimal from a lifestyle perspective. By the research, it appears best to perform cardiovascular work on off days or days that are completely separate from your strength training session(5), if this is not an option, you should seek to separate cardiovascular work from your strength training session as much as possible. Don’t get too caught up in the weeds with this one, if time permits you to move things around and create an environment that’s more optimal for your exercise routine, go for it. If you have to make major alterations to your daily schedule that negates your exercise adherence don’t worry about it, this isn’t something that drastically moves the needle.



Ending Thought

You’re at a fine dining steak house, you order a NewYork steak with a baked potato and sour cream, in terms of allocation of your time in the gym, the delicious steak, thats your strength training, the baked potato, thats your mobility work, warm up and cool down. The sour cream, that’s your cardiovascular work, it should be a small compliment to your program and act as the “cherry on top”. There is nothing wrong with performing cardiovascular work but if it becomes the entire focus of your training program, it’s time to reach out and ask for help!


By: Peter Baboulas


IG: babs302

Facebook: 302Fitness




1.) Effects of Resistance vs. Aerobic Training Combined With an 800 Calorie Liquid Diet on Lean Body Mass and Resting Metabolic Rate. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.1999.10718838

2.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21411835

3.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25429252

4.) Wewege, M., Van, R., Ward, R. E., & Keech, A. (2017, June). The effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28401638

5.) Küüsmaa, M., Schumann, M., Sedliak, M., Kraemer, W. J., Newton, R. U., Malinen, J. P., . . . Häkkinen, K. (2016, December). Effects of morning versus evening combined strength and endurance training on physical performance, muscle hypertrophy, and serum hormone concentrations. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27863207

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