What comes to mind when you read or hear the word “cardio”?
Is it people with soulless eyes slogging away on the treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike for hours on end?
That’s exactly what you think of, right? Of course, you do!
That’s the only way to strip off those layers of fat to reveal the hunka burnin’ love underneath, right?
Ummmm…no, not really.
The most effective cardio for fat loss sure as hell isn’t that!
There’s something better — I mean, like distant galaxies apart in terms of effectiveness.
Before I spill the beans though, let me do that annoying thing where I tell you the problem with X before giving you the solution that you’re now cursing me out for delaying.
I. Going Steady
Traditional cardio, the type that most often comes to mind and involves running, jogging, pedaling at a low to moderate pace for all eternity, is not only boring as all hell but it doesn’t provide as much bang for the buck as popular opinion believes.
See, muscle is kind of a major deal. A pound of it burns 14 calories a day, whereas a pound of adipose tissue only burns 2-3 daily calories. Now, after reading that, if you don’t think muscle isn’t worthy of throwing a parade for and erecting statues in the name of, then I don’t know what is!
Because muscle clearly helps you burn calories faster, the first commandment of fat loss is to build and preserve it. Traditional cardio — otherwise known as continuous aerobic exercise or steady state cardio — aids and abets in the violation of that supreme law.
Here’s the thing:
Traditional cardio is great at getting people to enter the fat-burning zone, when the heart rate is roughly 60-70 percent of maximum. While the “fat-burning zone” sounds all fat burnerish, it really isn’t. Why you want to stray away from there is quite simple. It just so happens that as your body becomes acclimated to spending extended time in the so-called fat burning zone, your body becomes more and more efficient operating in it. Consequently, you start burning less and less total calories.
When that happens and you see the scale no longer budging, you begin doing steady state aerobics for longer periods in order to get the scale moving again. This in turn causes the body to adapt again, which in turn causes the vicious cycle to repeat itself.
Additionally, because you’re a genius who decided to drastically cut their calories and carbs since your genius informs you that you have to eat less to weigh less (you don’t, by the way), your body doesn’t have enough fuel to meet its energy demands. So here you are traversing a couple thousand miles on the cardio equipment with your soulless eyes silently pleading for help. Without stored glycogen from carbs in the muscles to burn for energy, how do you think the body is making that possible? That’s right! Your body is burning muscle as fuel rather than the fat the body has become exceptionally good at storing as a survival response to the decreasing amount of incoming calories.
All of that is ¡no bueno!
…unless you’re going for the skinny-fat marathon runner body type.
Now that’s sexy!!!
II. Bret Hart
Instead of incurring the fitGAWD’s wrath for breaking His golden rule guarding against muscle loss, you can do something other than wasting away on some piece of cardio equipment as you think FML and wish death upon yourself.
The alternative to steady state cardio is what’s known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). As opposed to moving at the same pace for what seems like eons, HIIT calls for working out less than 30 total minutes.
You can do your cardio in less than 30 minutes?!?!
Sounds like a godsend, right! Well, don’t thank your lucky stars just yet!
Sorry, but you’re not just dragging ass for those 5, 10, however many minutes you elect to cardio it up for.
HIIT involves you hauling major ass!!! The protocol (and Tabata) consists of very short bursts of intense movement followed by periods of low intensity exercise that allow for rest before the resumption of all out action again in repetition of the cycle. For example, you would sprint on the treadmill for 30 seconds at a speed you can barely handle then reduce the speed and briskly walk for 60 seconds. You would do that 5-8 times and after a proper warm up, of course!
Why doing this shits all over regular steady state cardio is simple.
While the longer duration of traditional cardio results in you burning more total calories than when performing HIIT, the calorie burn stops as soon as the cardio session ends. With HIIT, however, exercising at higher intensity levels places a demand on the body for oxygen. As a result, a sort of oxygen debt is created after HIIT, with the body taking in excess oxygen in an attempt to return to its resting state. Due to this process requiring energy, the body becomes a calorie burning machine for up to 24 hours removed from the gym as the metabolism is revved into action to bring oxygen levels back to normal.
If this calorie afterburn doesn’t make HIIT sound like the more effective cardio workout, then I honestly don’t know what to tell ya!
But you’re still not sold, huh?
Then how about the fact that while traditional cardio burns more total calories (again, it’s only because of how long you do it), those calories are primarily from muscle. On the other hand, HIIT recruits the large fast-twitch muscle fibers to contract and deplete glycogen, which clears the way for the calories burned during and after HIIT to come directly from fat stores.
To sell you even more, this is where I insert the fitness cliché that HIIT is very much why sprinters look the way they do — NOT like yucky long distance runners who cannibalize their muscle mass and rely on the puny slow-twitch muscle fibers for their endurance work.
But hey, if you’re going for the emaciated look, more power to you!
If not, then become a HIITman.
III. So Unnecessary!
Can we be brutally honest with each other?
With me as your brilliant supplier of fitness knowledge and you as a faithful reader, I think we’ve reached the stage in our relationship where we can keep it real.
Am I mistaken?
Or are we still in the “lie to each other, pretend to be who we aren’t” phase?
Since I’m never wrong, here goes…
You don’t even really need cardio for fat loss.
In the hierarchy of importance, cardio is dead last after nutrition and weight training.
No matter what you do, you won’t lose that pudge if you don’t account for what’s going into your mouth. And weight training, the building of muscle, is superior to all other activities at raising the metabolic rate — the amount of calories burned by the body even when laying in bed all day in the fetal position as you turn on the waterworks over another failed relationship and the all too real possibility of you dying very, very alone.
But if you want to do cardio because you don’t trust my saying that you’ve been brainwashed into believing in its importance, HIIT is the way to go because it’s the most effective cardio for fat loss.
And you should do your cardio after weight training, not before!
So do that, ye of little faith.