How much cardio should you be doing to lose weight and achieve your fat loss goals? Is hours and hours on the treadmill even necessary, or is there another way?
Cardio is seen by many to be the best way to lose weight and get in shape. And it's something that I continually hear time and time again. Because there's a perception out there that weights are for dude that want to get big and walk around like The Hulk. And cardio is for losing weight and fat loss. But how much cardio do you REALLY need to do to achieve those goals?
In this article, I'm going to guide you through why that popular theory is actually a misconception. And you'll also discover how much cardio you actually need to incorporate in your training and also what type of cardio has the most benefit.
Read on to find out more. Your fat loss depends on it!
The gym stampede
It's 6am on a cold and wet Monday morning. The doors to the gym fling open. And the 20 or so people that have been keeping warm in their cars for the last 10 mins stampede towards the bright lights and dodgy pop music like a heard of wilderbeast in the Serengeti. Being careful not to get trampled under hoof like Simba from the lion king, you make your way into the gym with the pack, still slightly bleary eyed. Because the preworkout hasn't quite kicked in yet.
But why the stampede in the first place? Because it's International Chest Day of course. And you MUST be first to those benches.
But as you walk through the turnstyles something strange happens. Not everyone is heading to the free weights area. In fact, there's a large group of people heading towards the mystical grey machinery lined up neatly in a row on the other side of the gym. Why this strange behaviour? Who are these people that want to run, bike, and step their way through the next 60 minutes, like hamsters in a wheel.
The 2 breeds of gym goer
In my experience, there seems to be two breeds of people that frequent the gym before the sun rises in the morning.
First of all there's those (like me) that make a bee line for the free weights area. We're desperate to secure that all important first piece of equipment. And I'm sure you've all taken those slightly hurried steps. Undoubtedly, you're trying to mask the fact you're rushing towards that bench to kick-start International Chest Day in the right way. But you don't want to look like a complete tool by literally running across the gym floor and throwing your towel across the bench. After all, it's not like your on holiday and trying to stake your claim to that all important sun lounger now is it?
And then there's the other type of gym species. When you head right towards the free weights, they head left to the dreaded cardio equipment. And it's those grey contraptions that are traditionally viewed a bodybuilder's Kryptonite. In fact, they're considered the very antithesis of what it takes to build a muscular physique.
The 'NEVER' changing physique
If your gym is anything like mine, it's the same people that hit the cardio equipment and every morning. And they proceed to sweat and toil their way through the next hour of their lives. Some opt for a steady plod on the treadmill while watching the morning news on the TV. But others go for the more intense blast on the treadmill, rower, or bike, with sweat emitting from every pore in their body.
But the one thing I notice is that these people's physiques never seem to change that much. Sure, they look like their working hard (well some of them at least). I once saw a guy trying to read the newspaper on a rowing machine. No word of a lie. After first thinking he was a bit of a strange guy, I began to actually admire the skill it took in keeping rowing while turning the pages of the Sunday Times. But I digress. My point is that appears to be little to show for all the sweat drenched shirts and hours of effort.
The common thought is that you lift weights to get big and you do cardio to get lean, right?
What this article will cover
In this article I want to tackle this common misconception about cardio. I'm not totally against cardio by any means. It definitely has a place in your training programme, if it's incorporated in the right way. Here's what we're going to cover;
- How to get the most out of your cardio sessions.
- How much cardio is the right amount of cardio.
- What type of cardio you should do to lose weight and hit your fat loss target.
- Why cardio alone isn't the most effective way of losing weight and achieving the fat loss you crave.
If cardio is not approached in the right way then it can lead to your progress stalling and in some cases actually set you back and make you PUT ON weight! Yes, you read that right.
There are certain circumstances whereby overdoing it on the treadmill is going to set you back. And neither of us want that.
Who is this article for?
So if you're tired of working away on that cardio equipment for little or no progress, despite your hours of effort, then this article is for you.
And if you're a fan of the free-weights like me, and about to embark on getting lean. The your need to read this article before you jump straight into 5 hours of cardio a week and undo all those gains from the past few months.
After reading through the article you'll have all the evidenced based rationale as to why hours and hours of cardio is not the answer to losing weight and achieving your physique goals. I'll also give you a clear plan of what cardio is best to achieve your objectives, how much to do, and what type is the most optimal to achieve great results.
Read on so that next time you veer to the left as you walk on to the gym floor to do some cardio, you can do so safe in the knowledge that it is going to be truly effective.
So What Actually is Cardio?
Let's start at the very basic stuff, so that we're both on the same page. Cardio is short for Cardiovascular, meaning 'relating to the heart and blood vessels'. Cardiovascular exercise is anything that elevates your heart rate and gets oxygen pumping through your blood. In simple terms, anything that makes you really sweaty in the gym is broadly speaking cardio. And I don't mean eyeing up the girl in the squat rack and trying to pluck up the courage to go and talk to her. No. Whilst you may get all sweaty and your heart starts racing that unfortunately doesn't constitute cardio in my book. I'm talking more about running, cycling, body pump or body combat classes.
Current government guidelines say that you should do around 150 minutes of cardio per week to stay healthy (mixed with some strength-based training). That means that you could spend 5 days of the week doing 30 minutes of cardio to meet these guidelines. Sounds like a lot for some people already, especially if you're expected to add some weight training sessions as well.
Interestingly, the guidelines also state,
"In general, 75 minutes of vigorous activity can give similar health benefits to 150 minutes of moderate activity."
This is a really important thing to bear in mind and something that we'll come on to later.
As with any guidelines, it's important to remember that they are very generic by their nature, and as such need to be tailored for your individual requirements and goals. Cardio does have a lot of great benefits, such as improving the health of your heart and lungs, as well as actually being enjoyable when you find the right exercise that works for you. So, it is important to have an element of cardio in your training programme to support improvements in your overall health and well-being.
What Are You Actually Trying to Achieve?
It might sound like a strange question to ask, but very often when I talk to people about their fitness goals, what they think they want is not actually what they should be aiming for.
Huh? I can just imagine the frown on your face right now. Your brow furrowed and wrinkled with confusion. Let me explain.
Go up to someone that's just spent an hour on the treadmill and ask them what their fitness goal is. Between the heavy breathing and dabbing of sweat they'll often say, "I want to lose weight and tone up." (or words to that effect). This might also be followed by, "I don't want to do weights. I don't want to look like a bodybuilder". It's a particularly common statement amongst women, but also there are a fair degree of men that want a muscular physique, but not necessarily something extreme like an Arnold Schwarzenegger type of look.
If losing weight and toning up is your goal, cardio alone won't get you there. In fact it might even do the opposite.
What your REAL goal is
When I hear these phrases I know that, as a coach, I need to dig a little deeper into the person's REAL goal and get a feel for what success looks like for them. Saying you want to lose weight and tone up, actually translates into losing body fat and adding muscle.
"Muscle you say? But I said I didn't want to look like a bodybuilder."
Trust me you have nothing to worry about.
As Arnie himself once famously said, "When people said we never want to look like you. I replied. Don't worry you never will."
To build muscle to the degree you'll look like a bodybuilder takes years and years of specific training and diet, and in some cases, very specific chemical additions to your diet that you won't find in your local chemist. The reality is that by focusing on losing body fat and building muscle you'll just look awesome.
Even for women, there's no need to worry about looking bulky and like a female version of the hulk. The fact of the matter is that your bodies simply don't produce testosterone to the same degree as us men. So unless you have strange genetics or are chemically enhancing your diet, you won't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger with boobs.
Cardio Alone Doesn't Lead To Fat Loss
Choose not to focus on building muscle and only gravitate to the cardio machines and you could end up being what is known in the fitness world as 'skinny fat'. This is where a person looks reasonably lean, but actually lacks much lean muscle and has quite a high body fat percentage.
If you're a guy, think of the 'Dad-Bod' concept. Walking down the street with your clothes on (at least that's how I imagine you walk down the street) you look like any other normal guy. Not overweight. No beer belly. Just a regular Joe. However, underneath the clothes you've got a bit of a wobbly belly, no ab definition. Not much muscle in the upper body. That's my definition of skinny fat. And if your training focuses solely on cardio then that's the type of body you'll be heading towards.
And I can't think for one second that's your aspiration!
But don't just take my word for it, the scientific studies back it up!
To make this point hit home just that bit more, take a look at these scientific studies that looked into the effects of cardio training on weight loss.
Study Number 1
This study looked at the effect of cardio exercise on a group of 81 women aged between 22 - 38 years old.n They completed 12 weeks of 30 minutes treadmill walking, 3 times a week. Overall, weight and fat loss was minimal across the entire group, with 55 (68%) of the women actually GAINING fat mass.
Study Number 2
The British Medical Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2009 showed similar results. 58 men and women were involved in the study across a 12 week period. The exercise was slightly more substantial than the study mentioned above. The group were required to complete cardio exercise at 70% of the max rate to the equivalent of 500 calories burned per workout, 5 times per week. At the start and the end of the 12 weeks all their vital statistics were measured, including weight, body composition, and blood pressure. All of the group experienced health related benefits from the exercise regime, but as many as 26 (45%) didn't achieve the expected weight loss targets. Therefore demonstrating that cardiovascular exercise alone is not the answer to weight / fat loss.
Study Number 3
Finally on this point, a study was carried out at the University of Denver, Colorado (go Broncos!) that looked into some of the psychological reasons behind the minimal amounts of weight and fat loss experienced in following cardiovascular exercise programmes. The study showed that exercise increased the likelihood that an individual would compensate for the resulting imbalance in energy by increasing their energy intake in the hours following training. What does that mean? Basically, it means that the exercise burned a few hundred calories, but the individuals put those calories straight back on again by eating.
I'm sure you can relate to that feeling of starvation after a gruelling cardio session. You down your protein shake, but that's not enough. You rifle through the cupboards and gorge on various healthy snacks, or whatever you can find that doesn't require any preparation or cooking. However, a handful of nuts or some fruit can quickly add up to counteract all the calories you've just burned, potentially leading to weight gain rather than weight loss.
I hope you're in violent agreement with me now on two things:
- Your real goal is to lose body fat and build muscle
- Cardio exercise alone will not achieve that
If Cardio Isn't The Answer, What Is?
To get the physique you desire, lean, muscular, toned, abs, tight glutes, whatever it may be, your approach needs to be balanced across 3 areas, incorporating both training and nutrition.
The 3 areas being;
- Strength-based weight training as your predominant form of exercise.
- Calculated nutrition that ensures you are in a calorie deficit on a daily basis.
- Enough cardio to achieve your goals and stay healthy.
Adopt this approach to your training and I guarantee that you will see amazing results. And I also guarantee that it won't take forever to start seeing those results.
Within about 4 weeks of consistently following this structure you should notice visible changes in the mirror. After around 12-16 weeks you will have made a significant change in your body composition and you will be looking and feeling better than ever before.
What I want to do now is take you through each one of the 3 elements in a little more detail. This will help you understand why I truly believe this is the best approach and one that delivers the best results time and again. After all, the only real thing you and I are focused on are results. If you're not improving your health and the visual aesthetics of your body, then what's the point? It's all just wasted effort.
Strength-based training leads to more muscle and to more fat loss
This form of weight training is the cornerstone of my own personal fitness regime and I encourage all my clients to adopt the same approach. In this article by Siobahn Harris, there is a comparison between the cardio and strength training to determine which is the best for weight loss, fat loss, and toning. In the article she provides a quote from Adam Hawkey, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Wolverhampton, who says:
"By doing strength or weight training you are looking at increasing your muscle tissue. The more lean muscle tissue you have the more calories you burn. One kg of muscle burns 50 extra calories a day, whereas 1kg of fat burns just three calories a day."
Therefore, the more muscle you build, the more calories you will burn. This doesn't mean calories burned in the gym (because weight training typically burns far less in a single session). This is a reference to what happens throughout the course of the day, for the 23 hours you're not in the gym.
Building lean muscle will result in an uplift in your metabolic rate. Thereby increasing the calories you continue to burn once you step off the gym floor. Doing cardio alone will result in far less (or none) of this additional benefit.
Build muscle to burn calories with your feet up
Just think about that for a second. In the morning stampede I've made a rush for the free weight area, lifting, pressing, and pulling my way through the last 45 minutes to an hour. In the hours that follow, I'm still burning calories because of the metabolic responses to the development of that lean muscle. Whereas the guys and gals that drifted left in the stampede burned more than I did in the single session, but put all the calories (and more) back on shortly after, and don't continue to burn calories during the day.
For me, the evidence is clear. Strength-based weight training leads to more lean muscle, increased metabolism and reduced fat levels. I can can put my feet up and watch TV content with the fact that I'm burning fat at the same time as being pretty damn lazy.
Nothing much happens without calculated nutrition
I've said it before and I'll say it again. All the training and cardio in the world won't help you get lean if you're not controlling your calorie intake correctly. Whilst there's a bit more science to it, weight loss essentially comes down to calories in versus calories out. Get that equation right and you'll lose weight. Get it wrong and you'll either stick where you are, or worse still, put on a few pounds.
Making sure you are in a calorie deficit is essential to losing weight and this is one of the core principles I teach all of my clients. Without this fundamental in place we don't pass go and we don't get started on anything more complex.
The start point for getting your nutrition right should be in the calculation of your calorie target and your macronutrient (protein, carbs, and fat) intake. To do this you'll need to know you're current weight, estimated body fat, and the average number of hours per week you exercise. You can download my FREE eBOOK here which contains my simple 7 step guide to creating an awesome nutrition plan. Within the eBOOK there is an easy calculation you can follow to calculate the amount of calories you need to eat per day in order to progress towards your target.
What type of cardio is best for fat loss?
You've got your weight training programme in place, your nutrition plan is on point, so what next? In actual fact you could achieve pretty great results with doing nothing more than that.
If you only care about the visual look of your body then, you could get to c.10% body fat (15-17% if you're a woman) with no cardio or additional training.
Personally, I find that getting into single figure body fat percentages requires the addition of some cardio, or else there has to be a significant drop in calorie intake, which I'm not a big fan of (because I love food).
Also, as mentioned previously, cardio does have some great health benefits in terms of your heart and lungs, which can also assist your weight training as a further side benefit.
But what is the right type of cardio you should do to specifically target fat loss?
Ultimately cardio can be split into two categories;
- LISS - Low Intensity Steady State
- HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training
In simpler terms LISS is the equivalent to plodding along on a treadmill for 30 mins at the same pace. Whereas HIIT is short burst of hard efforts followed by a brief rest period. This might be something like sprinting all out for 20 seconds, followed by 40 seconds of rest, repeated continuously.
Bodybuilding tradition would have you believe that LISS is the best form of cardio for those wanting to preserve lean muscle.
But the fact is there's no real difference between HIIT and LISS
It's more a case of doing what you prefer. For example, if you're short on time, then HIIT would be the way to go. But it is more taxing on the body, so bear that in mind if you're incorporating it alongside a tough resistance programme.
LISS on the other hand will take longer to get the same amount of calorie burn. But it's much less taxing and even relaxing to some degree. Whack a Netflix box set on the iPad and just pedal through that for an hour. There's definitely worse ways to do cardio.
The bottom line is to do what you prefer. The important thing is you actually do it.
How much cardio should you do for weight and fat loss?
The answer to that is straight-forward. Do enough cardio to achieve your overall goal.
Typically, with my coaching clients I would look at a number of factors to determine cardio requirements. The first of these would be adherence. A lot of people come to me after spending half their life glued to a treadmill and getting zero results.
So to build up adherence and enjoyment of fitness i might ditch the cardio altogether in this scenario. Because filling their programme with exercise they'll hate is not the way to long-term results.
Understanding step count is also an important component. Because if step count is under 10,000 steps per day, then topping up with some cardio would be a wise move. Even if it's 10-15 mins before and / after a workout.
The key takeaway here would be to start with low levels of cardio and build up. At the point you feel cardio is needed in your programme, start with 60-90 mins of cardio per week. This is manageable in 3 separate sessions and won't leave you dreading the very sight of a piece of cardio equipment.
What cardio exercise should you do?
Again the answer is pretty simple. Do what you enjoy and do what gets results. My first choice is always the exercise bike. Most of all, I prefer the low impact nature of the exercise. And I find I can do the hard efforts without pounding on my joints and muscles (if I want to do HIIT). However, the elliptical trainer, rowing machine, etc are all good options. For a lot of people just getting on a piece of cardio equipment is the biggest struggle.
Try different pieces of equipment out and find what works for you.
How much cardio should you do in a bulking or maintenance phase?
Most people would say you should do zero cardio in these situations. And I'm sure the bodybuilding.com forum would lambast me for saying it, but I think you should do some (if you want to). I believe that your overall health is an important part of leading an enjoyable life. Cardio supports having a healthy heart and lungs, and much more.
Just 1 or 2 short sessions per week will give you that health benefit. And best of all, the extra calories you'll burn mean you can eat more. So for me, it's win win!
How Much Cardio? What's the bottom line?
In a nutshell this is the key information you need to remember;
- Cardio alone will not help you achieve your fat loss goals and may have the opposite effect.
- Follow a good weight training programme with the aim of developing lean muscle and increasing metabolism.
- Support your training with a calculated nutrition plan that keeps you in a calorie deficit. Without that, it doesn't matter how much cardio you do.
- HIIT or LISS doesn't really matter. Do what you prefer.
- Continue with an element of cardio during maintenance and bulking phases to promote health benefits (if needed).
- Never overdo the cardio as it can lead to overtraining and a slowdown in your metabolism.
Need help putting it all together?
You know how much cardio you need to do to lose weight and achieve your fat loss goals, what's next? Well, it's time to look at another important aspect of the process. And that's nutrition.
Nutrition is absolutely crucial for weight and fat loss. Because if you're not in a calorie deficit you won't lose weight. And it doesn't matter how much cardio you do that fat loss just won't happen.
Ultimately, I want to help you create the perfect nutrition plan that gets you to your goals. But most of all I want to show you how to do it while still enjoying the foods you love.
Because a well designed meal plan can be full of foods you love. There's no need for tons of restriction and misery.
However, setting up that nutrition plan can be a bit of a minefield. It's all talk of energy balance, macros, micros, intermittent fasting, protein shakes, and supplements. And that can leave you more confused than when you started.
7 Steps to Get Lean
To give you a way through the minefield I've created a completely free online nutrition workshop. My 7 Steps to Get Lean course gives you all the information you need for the perfect nutrition plan. In the workshop I'll walk you through the exact approach I use with all my clients to achieve great results. And it's also the approach I use to build my own physique.
So if that sounds good then you can register your place for free by clicking the image below.
By the end of the workshop, you'll have everything you need to achieve some fantastic results. And all without selling your soul to plain chicken and rice for every meal.
So if that sounds good, just click on the image above and register for free.
I hope you enjoyed finding out about the best chest exercises and the ultimate chest workout. If you did, leave some comments below.
Simon - IPF