There are a lot of misconceptions out there about cardio and how it relates to your fitness goals. If you’re trying to use cardio for fat loss, sorry, you’re barking up the wrong tree. We’ll go over why cardio is important for overall health, but why it doesn’t work to promote fat loss or overall muscle growth. We’ll also go over how to properly infuse cardio with the fitness goals and routine you already have in a proper way. But first, let’s go over why cardio is important.
Why Is Cardio Important?
Of course, cardiovascular exercise is for your long term health. Your heart is a muscle, it needs to be trained like any other muscle, and cardio is the way to do it!
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), healthy adults should be doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio 5 days per week or vigorous cardio for 20 minutes at least 3 days per week. Strength training is also recommended at least twice per week. So yes, cardio is great for your heart health. However, chronic cardio, doing too much cardio and not enough resistance training or not having enough caloric intake to sustain the cardio, is something that is extremely common in fitness culture. This is what we want to avoid.
Is Cardio Good For Fat Loss?
The short answer, no. But, why isn’t cardio good for fat loss?
Well, to start, you should not use exercise as a way to lose body fat. This should be mostly dictated by your diet and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is just movement throughout your day.
Think of your workouts as the adaptation you’re trying to gain. So, through strength training, you’re trying to get stronger and build muscle. Even when eating in a caloric deficit, you should still be strength training and trying to send this stimulus to the body to preserve muscle.
When you’re doing cardio, you are telling your body to get better at it. So, you’re gaining endurance. This has nothing to do with fat loss, even though it may technically burn more calories during the actual workout than a strength training workout. But like with anything, your body adapts to whatever stimulus or environment you give it.
So, let’s say you do 30 minutes of cardio per day and initially see great results from it. As your body adapts to your workouts, you’ll find that you need to do more and more cardio to improve endurance. The same goes for fat loss – if you’re trying to lose weight with just cardio, you’re going to have to do more and more of it to achieve the weight loss you’re looking for. And, who wants to be doing 2+ hours of cardio per day? Literally, nobody has time for that.
Yes, cardio can certainly help create a caloric deficit and that is required in order to lose weight. But what people really want to do is lose fat, not muscle. So in order to preserve muscle and lose body fat, you need to build and have muscle first. This is why strength training is pivotal for those looking to lose body fat. Muscle needs to maintain itself when you’re at rest, creating a higher demand for energy and slightly increasing your metabolism over time. More importantly though, when you’re in a deficit, resistance training helps you maintain that muscle and instead lose body fat as the weight you’re losing.
What Is Cardio Good For?
You need to be doing cardiovascular exercise to keep your heart strong and to be in general healthy shape altogether. Being in general healthy shape also applies to your strength training, which, if you’re not an endurance athlete, should actually be the main focus of your fitness routine.
Any resistance training is also beneficial for your heart because you’re going to elevate your heart rate and work that muscle during a set, but you want it to come back down pretty quickly during your rest periods, so you can recover for your next set. If you’re out of breath for 3 minutes after you do a set of 6 reps of squats, then we have some cardio to work on my friends.
The fact is – everyone needs cardiovascular activity. Hiking, biking, walking – all of this raises your heart rate; it’s the extent it’s raised, the frequency it happens, and the modality chosen that we’re talking about here.
There are various levels of intensity for cardio, and if you look on the internet or even at different governing bodies in exercise, you’ll find various ranges for exercise intensity, but typically moderate intensity exercise ranges between 60 and 75% at maximum heart rate (MHR), and vigorous happens above this. In layman’s terms, moderate exercise is being able to speak but probably not sing, and vigorous exercise is only being able to say a few words at a time.
How Often Should You Do Cardio?
Moderate exercise is recommended at minimum for 30 minutes 5 days per week. For some people, this is a brisk walk uphill, ya’ll. It’s not all out sprinting for 30 minutes on a treadmill. That would most likely be considered vigorous, which you could potentially do instead (according to ACSM) for 20 minutes at least twice per week. For some people, the brisk walk doesn’t need to be uphill. Your fitness level determines what is moderate. And – if you’re doing that brisk walk uphill for 30 minutes 5 days per week, at some point, that will stop challenging you quite as much.
So, how can you incorporate cardio into your training plan that includes strength training?
Generally, strength training is done 3-4x times per week, and that’s how most of our clients are training as well. So, there are a few ways to go about adding in some cardio. And to be clear, we’re talking about structured cardio, not just general movement throughout the day which you should be doing – these are things like steps, cleaning, cooking, etc.
If you’re strength training 3-4x per week, you can either add in 20 minutes of cardio at the end of a couple of your workouts or add it into one of your strength training rest days. If you haven’t been doing any cardio, then we would recommend starting with moderate cardio 1-2 days per week for 20-30 minutes. From there, maybe you can scale up to 2-3 days per week and maybe increase your time until you hit the general health recommendations per week concerning cardio.
How much cardio you want to add to your fitness routine comes back to your fitness program and your goals. Most people need to build or maintain muscle mass, and most people are stressed from life to begin with. If those two things are happening for you, there is a solid chance you shouldn’t be doing a bunch of HIIT workouts every week. Your body is just going to be focusing on recovering from all of the stimuli you’re giving it vs. adapting. There might be periods of time in your training when you can add in HIIT, but that would require you to drop the volume with your strength training and other more cardio workouts to stay in a healthy range.
Here’s a look at some recent studies in regard to HIIT:
A 2021 study found that excessive HIIT exercise in trained individuals caused the body to be less effective at removing glucose from the bloodstream, meaning they had less insulin sensitivity, which is what happens with type-2 diabetes. Mitochondrial function also decreased. After a week of deloading, however, the participants saw supercompensation benefits, which actually highlights the importance of deloads or lower waves of intensity in your training.
A recent meta analysis looked over literature on concurrent training (strength and endurance together) and found endurance training to significantly reduce type I and type II muscle fiber growth from strength training, and it really found that HIIT reduced muscle growth significantly more than less intense, steady state cardio. So, if you’re trying to change your body composition (lose body fat, gain muscle, etc.) lower intensity cardio is the way to go. If you’re training to maximize your heart health and endurance, HIIT can be great, but proceed with caution if you’re strength training.
If you want to add HIIT to your workout routine, there are some things to consider. You can add HIIT in one day out of your week if you are strength training 2-3 days per week, especially if your HIIT day is shorter. So, maybe this day can look like 10 minutes of rowing all out for 30 seconds, resting 60 seconds and repeating for 6-10 rounds. If you want to incorporate more HIIT into your training, scale back your pure strength training focused workouts to 1-2 full body days per week max and incorporate HIIT maybe 1-3 days per week. This is where you can start to incorporate some weighted movements to perform the HIIT workout.
Here’s an example.
Maybe on your HIIT day this looks like interval kettlebell swings, goblet squats, push presses, etc. You can even structure it like a strength training workout in that you’re giving yourself sets and rest instead of timed intervals.
So again, specificity to your goals is key here. What’s the rationale behind what you’re doing? What are you training for, and how can you incorporate cardiovascular training into your program while still working toward your goals?
This is where a coach can really help you with understanding your goals, your volume, intensity, and recovery in your program. And, all of this to say, if you’re going to pick one form of training for the rest of your life, it needs to be strength training. It’s literally imperative if you want to function optimally and live a long time. Having a well rounded approach to your fitness with strength training being the main priority, but making sure you’re training your heart as well with some cardio.
Want to learn more about how to combine cardio with strength training? Check out our Stronger Than Your Boyfriend Podcast, Episode 53: We don’t Hate Cardio.
Physical activity guidelines resources. ACSM_CMS. from https://www.acsm.org/education-resources/trending-topics-resources/physical-activity-guidelines
Flockhart, M., Nilsson, L. C., Tais, S., Ekblom, B., Apró, W., & Larsen, F. J. (2021). Excessive exercise training causes mitochondrial functional impairment and decreases glucose tolerance in healthy volunteers. Cell metabolism, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33740420/
Monserdà-Vilaró, A., Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Hoffman, J. R., Alix-Fages, C., & Jiménez, S. L. (2022). Effects of Concurrent Resistance and Endurance Training Using Continuous or Intermittent Protocols on Muscle Hypertrophy: Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, Advance online publication. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36508686/