Should I Do Cardio for Fat Loss?

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We did it again.

We overreacted in the short term.

10 years ago, the key to getting beach ready was two hours/day of cardio-cardio-cardio.

Then, someone caught wind of a pretty sexy idea: let’s get omg-lean without cardio.

Lift heavy. Count your macros.

Zero cardio’ing. 

It seems to work for some folks, but is it right for you?

We need to answer two important questions that will determine whether or not you, personally, should be doing cardio.

 

 

Important Question #1: Do you ENJOY teh cardioz?

“Mike, I just like to run. Why are you telling me I’m not allowed to run?!”

Another coaching client was begging to hit the pavement.

Look, if you enjoy running, like, really really enjoy running, the same way I enjoy reading Harry Potter books or watching Zac Efron movies with my little sister (alright, or just whenever), then you should run.

Whether you are marathon training, fueling your brain with endorphins or enjoy running as a lifelong hobby – I’m not going to deny you an activity that provides happiness.

Buuuuuut:

If you don’t actually love running, but rather, you feel like cardio is something you have to do to lose fat, then I strongly recommend you stop.

Why you should stop cardio (unless you reallllly <3 it):

 

Cardio Decreases Willpower

Richard Talens, the dog whisperer of fat loss, founded this idea.

In short, we don’t have infinite willpower. What this means is we cannot rely on sheer grit and determination month after month to achieve our fitness goals.

Rather, we must create a positive feedback loop (Dick’s idea).

We must associate our behaviors (exercise and diet) with a positive feeling (often increased strength, friends/family recognizing you look leaner, etc), else we will give up in the early stages of the process.

Positive Feedback Loop

Now, it takes several weeks and often 1-2 months before you receive the feedback.

So, it is absolutely critical to conserve willpower early on. If we drain our willpower before we have created the loop, we give up on the training/nutrition and fall into our old habits.

How is this relevant to cardio?

Simple. If you don’t enjoy running, it will be a severe drain on your willpower.

This increases the likelihood of quitting before you even find your fitness groove.

 

Cardio Leads to Overeating

Running makes you hungrier.

Fact.

Actually, I lied. It isn’t a “fact” — the science seems to be inconclusive:

Studies show that different types of cardio elicit different hunger responses in different people. Basically, for some folks, cardio actually suppresses appetite (at least in the few hours after exercise). For most though, cardio increases hunger.

I’m tossing science aside here. Because in a world filled with “eating back exercise calories” and everyone desperately rationalizing their next cheat meal, trading an afternoon jog for a juicy cheeseburger — human psychology seems to trump the physiological hunger response.

And after working with over 1,000 coaching clients in the last 8 months, the conclusion is crystal clear:

Cardio makes you hungry.

So, unless you LOVE running, swimming, etc. Please steer clear if you want to lose fat.

 

Cardio Burns Fewer Calories Than You Think

Let me tell you about a little thing called muscular efficiency.

The more you engage in an activity, the better you get.

It is innate in our biology: Thousands of years ago, men would go on long hunting excursions. Often, several days would span without food. Running dozens of miles chasing dinner without eating would seemingly create an enormous calorie deficit.

But the human body is one smart cookie.

Due to this phenomenon, muscular efficiency, our body becomes incredibly resourceful. Meaning, it expends the fewest calories possible to chase down that animal, while storing energy for survival.

Back to 2014 and your fat loss regimen.

Let’s say you have never run a day in your life. Or, maybe it has been a loooong time since you hit the pavement.

Your very first 3 mile run will undoubtedly burn more calories than would a single run had you been running 12 miles/week for the last few months.

In short, cardio can be a great tool to accelerate fat loss. However, as a consistent pillar of your regimen, its effectiveness will wane in the mid to longterm.

 

 

Important Question #2: What is Your Current Calorie Maintenance?

Note: I keep re-writing this section, and it’s just straight up boring. 

But, it’s important. So read it.

Whether or not you should do cardio depends on context. Specifically, the context of your previous fitness behavior.

That’s vague, so let me explain.

  • Sarah is 5’6″ 136 pounds. She has lost 40 pounds in the last 6 months. She wants to lose a bit more bodyfat.
  • Anne is 5’6″ 136 pounds. She has gained 8 pounds in the last 6 months, intentionally, eating a slight calorie surplus to add some strength and lean muscle tissue.

On the surface, these two women are the exact same.

But Anne’s total calorie expenditure (metabolizmz) is much higher than Sarah’s.

So, who, if anyone, should do cardio?

Yep, you guessed it.

Anne is likely eating 2200-2400 calories per day. She could begin eating 1800 and drop fat instantly.

No Cardio Needed.

Sarah, on the other hand, has stalled out at 1300 calories/day. Without much room to drop cals..

Cardio might make sense.

In short, if you can lose weight without cardio, DO IT. It is a nice tool to keep in your back pocket in case weight loss stalls late in the game. Kind of like in High School Musical 3, when Troy and Gabriella rush back to save the performance from th-errrr, nevermind.

 

So, should you cardio?

  • Do you enjoy it?
  • How much time and effort do you want to dedicate?
  • Can you lose weight without it?

 

 

“Nahhh, cardio ain’t for me right now”

Cool. Go count your macros. Or start lifting weights. Or grab an entertaining, easy-to-read guide on all things nutrition.

 

“Yep, I’m in for some cardiovasculation”

Sweet, here are MY five favorite cardio options, in order:

 

1. The Geezer Walk

Yeah, yeah. Sprints are sexy. HIIT. Whatever.

I prefer some good old fashion walkin’.

Walking will not impair your recovery from strength training like many forms of cardio do. Further, you can efficiently use it as a time to make phone calls, clear your head or practice some mobile meditation.

 

2. Complexes

Using a barbell or pair of dumbbells, complete several different exercises without setting down the weight.

Generally, I like lower rep work with the barbell and higher rep with dumbbells, getting a good mix of upper, lower and full body.

For example (because I <3 you):

  • Pendlay Row – 4×6
  • Hang Clean – 4×6
  • Hack Squat – 4×6
  • Romanian Deadlift – 4×6

Perform these exercises sequentially, with no rest between each set. Rest ~2 minutes between circuits.

 

3. Dat Intensity

HIIT. Kettlebell circuits. Hills. Bike sprints.

Pick your poison.

High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to burn calories in a short period of time.

 

4. Swim

Swimming is hard.

Coming from a guy with 24 lifetime saves off the ol’ lifeguard stand, including a no-rescue tube headfirst dive off of B4 (Jeff Ellis still doesn’t know about this), swimming laps is a completely different ballgame.

But if you can get the technique down, swimming is great. It’s joint saving, and you get that chlorinated smell on your skin the rest of the day leaving you nostalgic and reminiscent of childhood vacations and hotel pools.

Who doesn’t love pools?

 

5. Pound The Pavement

Steady-state for 30-40 minutes, you know, the type of cardio all these new-age guys say ‘does nothing for you.’

Well, I don’t hate it.

Just don’t stack the run on top of your strength training; ideally it would take place on a rest day.

 

Wrap Up

It looks like ‘should you cardio?’ depends on your specific situation.

Remember to ask the important questions to determine whether or not cardio makes sense for your personal fat loss regimen.

Yep, I did it again. I opted for moderation in place of extremism.

My mom would be so proud, if only she read my blog =(

Dick and Mike

Dick and I, cleaning up the definition of ‘bro’ – one tanktop at a time.

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Was this article helpful?  If so, grab my FREE Beginner’s Fitness Guide – easy to read fat loss and muscle building tips, plus we pick apart popular fitness lies. Get it here.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Char

    Great post, V. As someone who doesn't like cardio nor participate in cardio exercise (outside of dangling bros in my adult men's hockey league), should I be worried about cardiovascular exercise for "heart health" purposes? I lift weights 3-4 times a week, but I feel like I would be doing my heart a favor if I got my heart rate up for an extended period of time, a few times a week. Thoughts?

    March 19, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Maddie Grant

    Thank you. That's all. thank you! p.s. Love swimming. :)

    March 19, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Monique

    BOOM! What a well written article! Thank you!

    March 19, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tom Ram

    This blog post is perfect! I rant about it everyday, try to go to the "cardio people" and preach. Already forwarded it to all of my clients/friends/people that have an email address :P Thank you for writing Mike!

    March 20, 2014 at 5:06 am | Reply to this comment

  • Amanda

    OK, so if I'm an Anne- working on building strength & lean muscle mass, eating that calorie surplus....and I *want* to run on my non-strength days, should I adjust my macros? Not looking to lean out (yet), just enjoy a good run once a week and don't want to sacrifice any muscle gains :)

    March 21, 2014 at 9:51 am | Reply to this comment

  • Domi @ Eat, Pray, Lift

    Finally someone who admits that going for a simple jog won't automatically catabolize all your muscle! Not that I actually want to go for a jog, but still... Complexes, bodyweight circuits, and plyos are my cardio of choice. Of course I bike to work, but that's just part of the daily grind! The only thing I would add is that medical concerns should come into play when clients are figuring out their cardio needs. If they have a personal/family history of CVD, etc., I would probably suggest some kind of formal cardio 2-3x weekly. Not for weight loss or body composition purposes, but for cardiovascular health.

    March 23, 2014 at 4:02 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nikkie V.

    Just wanted to say love the article, im blog stalking right now. But you have some much good info, still pretty new to weight lifting and loving it. Keep up the good work

    March 25, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sally

    I play basketball a couple days a week on a women's league. Full court, 3 on 3, or 5 on 5, depending how many women show up! I couldn't imagine giving that up...the comradery, the competition, & love of the sport...plus it's playing, not working out. ;) Now, how to balance that with my goals...

    April 2, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Eisa

    Love your blog - very good information - thank you! I am trying to do a 35% fat / 25% carb / 40% protein and I'm having a hard time not getting frustrated on using up all my carbs so easily on vegetables! I loveeeee my vegetables and I never paid attention to macros before. I LOVE how my body feels already but I miss my veggies. I also just gave up alcohol so I feel like my weight loss should pick up now.. and maybe then I'll feel comfortable adjusting the fat/carb ratio but I am loving the protein focus. Any suggestions for meals? :D

    April 4, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sylvia

    Mike, I need some help. I'm eating at a caloric deficit, hitting my macros, and have been doing body weight resistance training, but losing nothing! My clothes fit the same and the scale has gone UP. What am I doing wrong?

    May 24, 2014 at 4:27 am | Reply to this comment

  • Lucia

    Hi! I think your article was great but I still feel a little lost. I have recently started my weight lost journey. I am a 23 year old female, 5'9 and about 160 pounds over weight. I have made major changes in my diet and physical activity and although it's only been about a month of these changes I have managed to lose 10 pounds. It's not a lot but it's definitely a start. The problem is that my work out routine is just about 1-2 hours of cardio 5-6 times a week. I have been reading many articles online and all seem to point out that cardio isn't the best way to burn fat but weight lifting is. And that cardio is bad because you lose muscle (not that I have much of it). My question is considering the amount of weight loss I need to do, should I mainly focus on cardio the first few months and then weight lifting or should I start lifting like asap? Please help!! - A confused soul just trying to get healthy. *** Antispam disabled. Check access key in CleanTalk plugin options. Antispam service cleantalk.org. ***

    August 12, 2014 at 8:33 am | Reply to this comment

    • Nini

      Hi Lucia, I'm not an expert, but I would say try a variety of different exercises. Find one that you love and then you will be able to push yourself harder, see more results and stick at it longer. Weight loss is not a one off event. It's all about a lifestyle change. I enjoy running and have just started lifting, and now I'm always thinking about my next gym session. But I have been running regularly (though not nearly as much as you!) for about 6 months and have seen some awesome progress in the 5 weeks I've been lifting. My body is responding so much and I love it! But I have also spent more time focusing on my diet (counting macros). Remember that no matter how many hours you spend doing whatever activities you do, if your energy intake is more than your output you will never lose weight. I hope that helps. *** Antispam disabled. Check access key in CleanTalk plugin options. Antispam service cleantalk.org. ***

      August 19, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Reply to this comment

  • mayra

    I'm 5'2 and 135 lbs. Just confused on amount of macros I need? I work out about 6 times a week just not seeing results. I lift but maybe not heavy enough and do 30 minutes of cardio. Just my lifting hurts my knees. Thanks Mayra *** Antispam disabled. Check access key in CleanTalk plugin options. Request number 556c5319399f79529d543b54a03e7418. Antispam service cleantalk.org. ***

    September 11, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Stefi P

    Mike! Thank you!! Fantastic article. I will definitely be passing this on to others. I love your writing style, by the way.

    January 30, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Reply to this comment

  • kodachrome

    Mike, Thanks for this article. I am a runner, but I also lift. I always struggle with the cardio thing.....you know to cardio or not to cardio that is the question. Its nice to see someone finally say hey if ya wanna run then run. :)

    March 13, 2016 at 10:59 am | Reply to this comment

  • Mariah

    This is kinda unrelated to this post, but I have a specific question (also could be inspo for a whole post). What should a rest day look like? If I'm mostly maintaining my weight (I guess toning up a tad), how many days/week should I rest? Should I still get a walk in or doing some cardio? Or just not worry about doing anything? As far as my diet, should I eat fewer carbs or calories? Sorry about the four-pronged question!

    April 6, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kaye Herl

    This was really interesting for me to read, because I love swimming but I absolutely hate doing any cardio out of the water. (I think you just saved my fitness life, actually, so thank you very much!) I can now go to the gym and not feel guilty about walking straight past the stair stepper calling my name, and I'll feel tons better, because I don't feel like I'm working to my maximum potential when I do cardio machines and afterwards it's kind of a let down because I know I could've worked harder but in the moment I thought I was dying. So yes, anyway, thank you so much!

    July 6, 2016 at 12:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kayla

    Spin bike or treadmill? Which is better for occasional cardio and to jump start fat loss?

    July 28, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Brian Pippard

    Awesome info man! I always figured cardio was a good addition to weight training and went well with a stretching day to keep limber and moving well! Your explanation with Anne and Sarah made so much sense and I've never heard how cardio should be used so succinctly before! Thanks for that!

    August 16, 2016 at 4:39 am | Reply to this comment

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