If you are in a hurry and do not have time to read the whole article, I understand. Here is the summary of the article.
Prolonged cardio takes too much time and ultimately slows your metabolism making it harder to lose weight.
Steady cardio is a muscle-wasting activity.
The repetitive nature of cardio invites injuries and impaired motor control.
You cannot out train (or out cardio for that matter) your eating habits. Change them, or else.
To avoid a plateau, your cardio needs to be more varied.
Continuous aerobic work plateaus after about 8 weeks.
The calories you burn during the workout don't matter that much and calorie burning stops shortly after the exercise is done.
There are some studies cited at the end of the article that highlights the ineffectiveness of traditional cardio. It is not just my opinion.
First things first. What does cardio even mean? In its simplest terms, it is anything that involves your heart and lungs. Hmmmmm. That is quite a long list of potential suitors. Let's try something different.
What about aerobics. Simply, with oxygen. It is anything that you can be performed at such a level that your body can produce the energy necessary for the activity using aerobic methods. Generally, these are lower in intensity and something you could carry on a conversation while doing.
Sadly, this is where the "Fat Burning Zone" on all those cardio machines resides. Yes, technically, you do burn more fat in this "zone". But it is a low-intensity type of activity. I mean, just sitting there ready this you are primarily burning fat as fuel. Does that mean sitting on your ass all day is the best way to reach your weight loss goal? Of course not
Muscles drive the cardiovascular system
Your muscles don’t move because of cardiovascular demand – the cardiovascular system is elevated because of muscular demand. And, if your muscular system cannot handle the stress of thousands of reps, then you have to condition the musculoskeletal system first.
You may gravitate towards cardio because it seems safe and is something you can walk into a gym and start right away. Weights are scary. Better avoid those.
Or maybe you are ready to get in shape so you throw on your sneakers and go for a run. What could possibly go wrong? A lot. I wrote about this as it pertains to Ankle Mobility.
Although you may undertake your cardio challenge with all the motivation and proper intent to reach your goal, it will ultimately fail. And not just because I said so. There are a number of reasons.
Why steady cardio will leave you disappointed
1. Nutrition. I will not go into much detail in this article, but this one is a big one. Starting any exercise program without making the commitment to change dietary habits won't work. Adding some extra cardio to make room for that extra glass of wine or extra desert will never yield the body you want. Not to mention, once your body gets used to your jogs or cardio sessions, you burn even less that you did when you started (see below).
2. Efficiency. Say what? This is why you may see some immediate results that plateau and eventually lead to you gaining the weight back plus some more. When you expose your body to repeated bouts of steady cardio, the body works to improve its efficiency at that specific activity.
This means, that the number of calories you used to burn doing an exercise (what the body actually burns, not what the treadmill says you burned) changes over time.
Say your body used to burn 500 calories for you to run 5 miles (arbitrary numbers to illustrate the point). You run that same 5 miles for the next 4 weeks. The treadmill says you keep burning that 500 calories (or thereabouts).
However, from a physiological standpoint, you are burning less. One reason is that cardio eats up muscle. Muscle is metabolically active tissue. You burn more calories at rest and during activity when you have more of it. Not good for duration cardio.
Your body will break down the muscle tissue to help make you lighter (part of the initial weight loss) and to allow your body to burn less calories to run those 5 miles (increased efficiency).
You will also increase efficiency of fat storage. This concept will sound weird at first, but makes a lot of sense once you think about it. Since you use more fat for your cardio session, this triggers our bodies to become more geared towards storing it for the rest of the day.
Even though it is a bit overplayed and often misused, the idea of muscle confusion is basically to give your muscles different workouts or exercises to avoid the body getting too used to what you are doing. Yet, you will probably just hop on the elliptical and zone out for 45 minutes like it is no big deal. There are better ways to spend 45 minutes.
The take home message is that you do not want to get good at doing your cardio. Cardio should kinda suck each time you do it.
PLEASE NOTE: This does not mean that going for walks, swimming or bike rides are bad. I am not saying that. Those types of activities, if you like them, can absolutely be added into your program. But, if you are using cardio for fat loss, it needs to be done in different ways.
3. Time. This piggybacks off the last idea. If you are now burning 300 calories to run that 5 miles, you will have to run further to get back to burning the same 500 calories. More work just to get back to the same point. And the body continues to try to improve its efficiency with the more you run. So you keep running further. More distance leads to more time. If you already have a busy schedule, this could become an issue. This also leads me to my next point.
4. Injuries. The repetitive nature of cardio increases the likelihood of injury. The average person gets 1500 foot contacts per mile (with 2.5-8x your body weight going through different parts of the lower body with each contact)
It doesn't take a genius to realize that if you are overweight, have lower body weakness and ankle mobility issues that this combination is not going to end well for you.
5. Misconceptions about body types and people that do lots of cardio. Many women will see a petite female runner and want to look like her and assume that she got that way running. Maybe.
But, what is more often the case is that she has been about that size for a long time, which makes her a better candidate for running. See, you do not run to get fit, you need to be fit to run. That statement is also true for any activity like basketball, softball, volleyball or soccer. Using those modes as your way of getting into shape will lead to injuries and won't widdle away the middle.
Usually, the runner, instructor or other cardio aficionado has a body type that allows them to excel at that activity. I'm not saying it can't be the reverse, but it is far less likely.
Better options for losing body fat
There are plenty of better options for doing "cardio" and reaching your goals in a time-efficient manner. However, you can't read a book while doing them and watching the TV at the gym at the same time will not be an option. Carrying on a conversation with someone simply means you need to work a little harder. If that sounds doable, read on.
Change your mindset about nutrition.
This is critical. You cannot out-train a poor diet. Do not even try. Approach this with the same intensity as a workout and you will be doing just fine.
This should be a no-brainer. In general, guys lift a little less with better technique. Ladies, do not be afraid to move some weight. It won't bulk you up.
Short-duration, high-intensity metabolic work.
This is a better way of doing cardio and should make up most of your “cardio” time. Circuits, complexes, medicine ball exercises, battling ropes, sleds, rowing machine, body weight moves, jump rope, stair mills (aka The Gauntlet), upright bikes and to a lesser degree, treadmills and ellipticals. This is not an all-inclusive list. The idea is simple, but not easy. Go hard for a certain duration. Rest for a certain duration and repeat.
On the rower - row 250m. Rest 60s. Repeat for the desired number of rounds. You should pull that distance in about a minute (assuming you were never on a crew team). Your interval will be about a 1:1 ratio for work:rest. There are plenty of other options to explore.
Select 3 exercises. Airdyne bike, MB slams, rope slams.
Select 1 work:rest ratio. Let’s go with 15:30. You will work for 15s, rest for 30s.
You can perform a certain number of each (3 on the bike then 3 MB slams then 3 rope slams) or you can cycle through each after the rest.
So, bike for 15s. Rest for 30s. MB slams for 15s. Rest for 30s. Rope slams for 15s. Rest for 30s and go back to the bike.
Short, sweet and pretty miserable.
This one kind of ties in to the mindset piece about nutrition. Too many people do too much cardio too many days a week. After doing all these classes and spending hours a week on different pieces of equipment, they are no better off than when they started.
This is a large waste of your time but it can also create issues with hormonal imbalances. Days off are incredibly important. You are not going to lose whatever progress you didn't make just by taking a weekend off from reading your book on the elliptical.
Don’t just take my word for it
For those that are interested in such things, here are some articles to show that this is not just my opinion but also backed by research. This is, by no means, an all-inclusive list. There is plenty more where this came from.
1. Kraemer, WJ., Volek, JS. et al. Influence of exercise training on physiological and performance changes with weight loss in men. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 31, No. 9, pp. 1320-1329, 1999.
Three overweight groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics and diet plus aerobics and weights.
Diet group lost 14.6 lbs of fat in 12 weeks
Aerobic group lost only 1 more pound (15.6) than the diet-only group while training 3x/wk for 30 mins progressing to 50 mins over 12 weeks (not even remotely efficient)
Weight group lost 21.1lbs
Summary: The aerobic group put in a lot of time and effort to only burn 1 additional pound of bodyfat.
2. Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M, Yeater R. Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. J Am Coll Nutr. 1999 Apr;18(2):115-21.
Aerobic group performed 4 hours of aerobics per week.
Resistance training (RT) group did 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps, 10 exercises, 3x/wk.
VO2 max increased in both groups.
Both groups lost weight
RT group lost more bodyfat and didn’t lose any lean body mass. Aerobic group did.
RT group increased metabolism, aerobic decreased.
3. Trembblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C. (1994). Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism.- Metabolism. 43(7): 814-818.
Compared a sprint ergometer group vs an aerobic group
20 weeks of endurance vs 15 weeks of intervals
Despite burning 50% less calories, sprint group lost 3x more BF
Endurance calories = 28661
Interval calories = 13614
Summary: the amount of calories you burn during the activity really doesn't matter when it comes to fat loss and preserving lean body mass.
4. Utter AC, Shannonhouse EM, Butterworth DE, Nieman CN. (1998) Influence of Diet and/or Exercise on Body Composition and Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Obese Women. Int J of Sports Nutrition . 8(3): 213-222.
5days/wk of aerobic training for 45mins for 12 weeks
No effect on body comp compared to diet alone.
Diet group lost 7.8kg and diet and aerobic group lost 8.1kg (cardio group only lost .3 kg more with all that time spent performing the cardio)
5. Cakir-Atabek, H., Demir, S., Pinarbassili, R., Bunduz, N. (2010). Effects of Different Resistance Training Intensity on Indices of Oxidative Stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September . 24(9), 2491-2498.
Sixteen young men who did not have RET experience in the past were randomly divided in 2 groups.
Hypertrophy-intensity group (n = 9) performed 3 sets of 12 repetitions at an intensity corresponding to 70% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM).
Whereas strength-intensity group (n = 7) performed 3 sets of 6 repetitions at an intensity corresponding to 85% of 1RM. Resistance exercise training involved 6 exercises, and it was performed 3 times a week on nonconsecutive days for 6 weeks.
Summary: Results suggest that chronic RET has protective effects against oxidative stress similar to aerobic exercises and that these effects seem to be independent of the training intensity.
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Until next time,
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