Should I Do Cardio for Fat Loss?
Posted by Michael Vacanti
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
“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.
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.
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.
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 I, cleaning up the definition of ‘bro’ – one tanktop at a time.