Eat less, move more.
If you’ve even scratched the surface of weight loss advice, you’ve no doubt heard this axiom before. And while it may sound cliché, it’s true.
Everyone wants to know the “secret sauce” when it comes to shedding fat, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the laws of thermodynamics- eat fewer calories than you’re expending.
You can choose whatever strategy you want, and as long as it’s based on this principle, you’ll lose weight.
With that said, not all strategies are created equal. And if you’re like most guys, you probably lean more towards the “move more” side of the equation.
You’ve also probably been told by countless “fitness experts” that cardio is the holy grail of fat loss, and if you want to shed the pounds, you need to be doing more of it, more often.
Well, if you’re currently grinding out endless hours on the treadmill or stationary bike and you’re still not seeing the results that you want, it may be time to change your strategy.
Today we’ll be talking all about cardio, what it is, why you’re probably doing too much of it, and how to do it properly.
What Exactly Is Cardio?
Before we dive any deeper, let’s take a moment to break down what exactly cardio is (don’t worry, we’ll keep it brief).
The term cardio is an abbreviation for “cardiovascular exercise”. The cardiovascular system is the system responsible for providing blood flow and oxygen throughout the body. The heart pumps blood through the blood vessels, shuttling nutrients and moving waste to the organs where they will ultimately be eliminated.
Cardiovascular exercise is an exercise that causes an increase in heart rate. At least, that’s the broad definition.
Practically speaking, when we talk about cardio, we’re usually referring to “aerobic exercise,” which is any activity that stimulates the heart, increases oxygen, and can be continuously sustained for more than a few minutes. Common examples include running, swimming, and biking.
Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, is any exercise that doesn’t rely on oxygen. Such activity is more intense (and therefore briefer) than aerobic activity and is used to produce greater speed, power, and muscular development. This includes activities such as weightlifting and sprinting.
The Benefits Of Cardio
Make no mistake; cardio does have its benefits. No one is saying you shouldn’t do it- we’re just saying you shouldn’t overdo it.
Regular, consistent exercise of this kind strengthens the heart, allowing it to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently and reducing your risk of cardiovascular illness. It’s also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as improve sleep.
It will also likely come as no surprise that it can be beneficial for weight loss. During cardiovascular exercise, a greater number of calories are expended and ultimately burned (although as we’ll discuss later, it does have serious limitations).
But it turns out that cardio can also aid muscle recovery. The increased ability to provide blood flow and get rid of waste makes it easier for your body to repair muscle damage, which translates into more progress in the gym.
Why Cardio Might Be Killing Your Results
Now that we’ve extolled the virtues of cardio, let’s talk about why you may be overdoing it, and the consequences this has on your results. Ultimately, there are two main factors to consider:
1. Cardio Is Not An Efficient Way To Burn Calories
This is by far the biggest issue. The main reason you’re probably doing so much cardio is to burn calories with the goal of losing fat. The issue isn’t that it doesn’t work- it just doesn’t work as well as you think.
This comes down to a math problem. Most people overestimate how many calories they’re burning through exercise, and seriously underestimate how many are in their food.
Ask your average person the caloric value of an entire box of cookies, and they’ll probably tell you that it’s 600 or 700…try 2000 (if you’ve made this mistake, don’t feel too bad, because it’s extremely common)
On the other hand, people have dramatically high expectations when it comes to their workout sessions. Many of these same people think that an hour of jogging burns 1000 calories, when in fact, it’s closer to 400-500.
400-500 calories is a bagel and a can of coke. Or a couple of cocktails. Even for the diligent dieter, it’s a lot easier than you think to undo an hour of running.
2. Cardio Takes Time Away From What Really Matters In The Gym
We’ve already covered why cardio is a poor way to create a caloric deficit and lose weight. So, if your goal is to build a lean, muscular, athletic physique, what should you spend your time doing in the gym then?
Weightlifting. Once the fat comes off your body, you need to make sure you’ve got enough muscle underneath it, and lifting weights is the best way to do that.
If you’re serious about changing your body and achieving your physique goals, we recommend making this a priority. Try to devote time in the gym to performing and progressing in compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses (as well as a few select isolation exercises).
Spending hours and hours on the treadmill or stationary bike not only takes time away from weightlifting, but if you really go overboard with it, it can even start to negatively impact your recovery.
How To Do Cardio Properly
1. Use Cardio To Supplement Your Diet- Not The Other Way Around
If you’ve got some fat to lose, let your diet do most of the heavy lifting and only use cardio as a supplement, because as we’ve talked about, you’re going to have a far easier time cutting calories out of your diet than you will trying to burn them off on a stationary bike.
It’s also a far more efficient way to go about it. Chances are if you’re a reader of this site, you’re trying your best to excel in all areas of your life. From work and money to relationships, to health and wellness, it’s hard enough trying to keep all those in balance.
Unless you’re passionate about running as a sport, the last thing you need is to be spending hours and hours on the treadmill.
With that said, moderate cardio does have its place in your workout. But again, go easy on it. 1.5 to 2 hours per week is plenty.
2. Consider HIIT Training
Not all cardio is created equal. HIIT, or “high-intensity interval training” is a great alternative to conventional cardio. It’s been popular for a few years now, and if you haven’t tried it already, you’ll want to give it a shot.
So what exactly is HIIT? Remember how we talked about the difference between aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise? HIIT is a strategy that combines both, alternating brief periods of high-intensity, anaerobic training with a longer period of low-intensity aerobic training.
Sounds complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Let’s say you’re on the treadmill. You want to cycle back and forth between short bursts of high intensity sprinting, and longer periods of low-intensity jogging.
Here’s a sample of how that might look:
Warmup: 5 minutes (low-intensity)
1 minute: high-intensity (sprint)
2 minutes: low-intensity (jog)
Repeat for 6 cycles (6 minutes of sprinting, 12 minutes of jogging)
Training like this has the advantage of burning a larger number of calories in a short period. You also get both the cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercise, as well as the anaerobic benefits of increased strength and muscle mass (sprinting, in particular, is an excellent way to build the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves).
3. Try To Make Cardio Fun
Let’s be honest, going for a nice, brisk run on a beautiful spring day is one of the simple pleasures of being alive- spending hours grinding on a treadmill under fluorescent lights is not.
Working out is rewarding in many ways, and the benefits it brings to your life can be tremendous…but it’s not always fun. The good news is that cardio is one of those areas where we can get creative.
A great example is taking up any sport you like. By doing that, you shift the focus from “cardio for the sake of doing cardio” to performance and mastery over whatever particular activity you choose. The cardiovascular training becomes a benefit, but not the goal, and you’ll have a far easier time sticking with it.
So, to sum it up, cardio has a lot of upsides to it, and you should be highly skeptical of anyone who tells you to abandon it all together. But it does have a point of diminishing returns. Keep the amount you’re doing under control, choose the type of training wisely, and make sure you’re not neglecting your weight lifting.
Bottom line- make sure your cardio is serving you, not the other way around.