This topic seems to be a hot button all over the fitness industry. Recently, I have been catching some flak with regards to recent articles on running and fat loss. Most specifically, on running being a poor fat loss method.
Yes, I said it. Running is bad for fat loss. So is most ‘cardio’ exercise. The facts of the matter are that these exercise modalities are not the best fat loss methods out there.
I am going to get to the biggest myths but first a little background!
This isn’t the first time I have written on this topic and if you want to read a little more after this blog, feel free to skim through the archives!
First I think we need to define the term cardio – it is a term that is horrendously misleading. We term low intensity, high volume exercise ‘cardio’. Jogging, swimming, cycling, and elliptical machines are usually what come to mind when we hear the term ‘cardio’. It is such a misleading term. These exercises have come to be associated with cardiovascular work and have perpetuated a belief that in order to keep a healthy cardiovascular system, ‘cardio’ exercises are the best way to train.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. For many years now the research has shown time and again that low intensity, high volume training has an initial positive benefit to cardiovascular health in untrained people but that this quickly reaches a limit. After that there is actually a DECREASE in cardiovascular health markers with continued participation in the same activities.
So for the purposes of this blog, we will use the term ‘cardio’ in the way it is commonly known – as a descriptive term for low intensity, long duration exercise; running, jogging, walking, swimming, elliptical machines, and indoor or outdoor cycling.
Oh, but you do intervals, so it isn’t low intensity exercise. I don’t want to burst your happy little bubble but no, it is still low intensity. Without getting into too much physiology I will grossly oversimplify this for you. High intensity work requires the use of your glycolytic system and creatine phosphate system. The longest either of these fuel systems can work is around 1 to 1 and a half minutes in highly trained individuals. Any work that goes longer than that moves into aerobic metabolism, which cannot sustain the same power and strength output (read that as intensity).
So if you do not take an equal break to work interval you end up automatically decreasing the intensity. Sorry spinners, but spin class is not high intensity training; it is a cardio workout that relies mostly on aerobic metabolism.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I need to clarify because I can see the nasty messages coming my way. I am not saying you cannot get a good workout from cardio-based training. I am simply showing you how it works and letting everyone know that you should not make this the ONLY component of your training!
How do I coach cardio? Why don’t you take a look!!!
#1 – Cardio Does As Much Harm as Good
Like the term ‘organic’ doesn’t mean healthy, *SHOCKER ALERT* cardio doesn’t mean it is good for your cardiovascular health.
Yes that’s right. For all the benefits of ‘cardio’ exercise, there are just as many negatives. Somehow, the fitness world has come to think of cardio as safe and not requiring much coaching. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you look at the biomechanics of cardio exercise we see one common theme – lack of full joint range of motion. Look at the hips and knees during cycling and jogging, they move in a very limited portion of their full range and they move through this shorter range hundreds or thousands of times during the course of a workout.
What is this potentially harmful about this? Prolonged decreased range of motion leads to tightening of the tendons, ligaments, and muscles around and related to those joints. So people who participate in just these cardio activities will experience decreased flexibility and range of motion over time.
This can be counteracted with a well-designed strength and conditioning program! But some basic warm-up and cool down stretches ARE NOT ENOUGH to counteract thousands of repetitions of these limited range movements. So when people get all or even most of their training via cardio we see a lot of muscle imbalances and eventually injuries happen.
Overuse injuries are extremely common with ‘cardio only’ enthusiasts. As I just mentioned, the body goes through thousands of repetitions over the course of a single training session, which over time leads to all sorts of overuse problems. Just ask runners to list their injury history: low back, knees, ankles, and hips usually take a battering.
Lastly, let’s chat cardiovascular health. Everyone wants to make sure that their heart and lungs are healthy and fit. Cardio exercise shows positive improvements to cardiac markers for the first few weeks of a program up to the first few months (depending on the previous fitness of the individual). After the initial stage, everything changes and your cardiac response plateaus. And in a lot of cases, some will actually see decreased cardiac health – because the body becomes more efficient and doesn’t have to work as hard to perform the exercise.
#2 – Cardio is Not Efficient for Fat Loss
Efficiency: efficient, Cardio is efficient for fat storage.
Most people do not understand that your body’s goal is to use the least amount of energy possible. Always. In everything it does.
What is an efficient metabolism? And efficient metabolism is a slow metabolism that burns as little energy as possible. The longer your body can function using less and less energy the better. Everything in your physiology is designed to keep as much energy storage as possible. We store energy as body fat.
You see having fat on your body is good. Your body likes that. It’s like a life jacket, or a safety vest – your body want’s body fat storage. That way if food becomes scarce it has reserves!
When you start asking your body to go longer and further it prepares by getting energy output as low as possible. If this goes on more and more frequently your body will do its best to create more safety energy storage at every opportunity it can get.
“But my friend runs all the time and has no fat at all!” Very possible. They eat well and the exercise is burning a lot of calories. Their body is still trying to store as much fat as it can, they are simply burning too many calories for the fat storage to happen. This doesn’t mean that their metabolism isn’t slowing down.
Ever seen a runner get injured and quit running but not modify their eating habits? Ever watched what happens to all those people rocking the elliptical machines when they ‘fall off the wagon’ and stop using the elliptical?
They typically gain a whole lot of fat very quickly. Why? Because their calorie output is gone and they have taught their bodies to store as much fat as possible when the opportunity arises.
I am trying to not delve too deeply into pure sciences here so I won’t go to in depth about hormone levels. But if you do a little research you will understand that growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol are all directly connected to health and fat metabolism and storage.
High levels of growth hormone and testosterone are good. More energy, more muscle, better recovery, and lower fat levels.
High levels of estrogen and cortisol are associated with increased fat storage and increased cellular breakdown. Ever wonder why women have more fat then men and typically store more of it? Higher estrogen. Ever notice how people who are chronically stressed and grumpy seem to get sick and injured more often? They have high levels of cortisol, which does really horrible things to your body.
Guess what? Cardio training tends to decrease testosterone and growth hormone and coincides with higher levels of estrogen and cortisol.
High intensity style training and pure strength training is exactly the opposite.
I will let you draw your own conclusions.
#3 – Cardio Will Destroy Your Strength
Yes. It is true. Long duration, low intensity exercise will decrease strength. Get a marathon runner and a 100m sprinter into a gym and see how much they each squat.
No, I do not think the squat is an ‘end all be all’ exercise so don’t bother writing me about that but it is a good way to test the strength of an individual. I promise you that you will see a huge strength difference between the marathon runner and a 100m sprinter.
Why? Because to go longer and longer outputting energy your body needs to minimize how much of that energy is needed. The more muscle you have the more energy is required to move. The less muscle you have the less energy is required to move.
If you need to move a lot for a long period of time it is better to have less muscle. Your body will find a balance of the least amount of muscle it can have that will still allow it to complete what you are asking it to do. It will eat up the rest!
Less muscle means less strength. Less strength means the demands on your joints, ligaments, and tendons are increased. Those tissues and areas take over doing as much work as they can so you can get away with having less muscle, thus saving more energy.
That is why cardio destroys your strength. I am not saying you will have NO strength. And if you haven’t trained for years or have never trained you will get some strength from cardio training. You still need strength to run. But it will be far less than your body is capable of developing.
#4 – Cardio Doesn’t Build Sexy
Now, I guess this is subjective because sexy is in the eyes of the beholder. But let us assume for a moment that the vast majority of people find a little less body fat, a little bit of muscle tone, and being strong to be sexy.
I think this is a safe assumption as after 12 years as a trainer and coach with the thousands of clients I have trained, these goals come up about 95% of the time.
Lose weight. (I say lose weight because that is what people say – I – and they – really mean lose fat).
See some muscle definition.
Well guess what? If you have read everything so far none of these goals are best served by traditional cardio exercise.
If you want a firm ass that fills out those new jeans and arms that make people want to touch you (which CAN get awkward) you need to be focused on strength and interval based training.
Arghhhh you are saying. ‘So what SHOULD I be doing for fitness?’
First, know your goal. If your goal is to change your physique, get stronger, and have less body fat, then you want high intensity strength based interval training.
If your goal is to run a marathon or do a triathlon, then you want to be doing some cardio training and some high intensity strength based interval training.
Second, you have to know your experience level. If you haven’t been active in a long time you need to work into higher intensity training slowly. Starting with some lower intensity cardio training can be a good first step before moving into higher intensity strength based work.
What is the moral of this story?
Cardio isn’t what people think it is. I am not saying do not do it or that it is bad for you. But you need to be informed.
If you passionately want to run a marathon or going out for a run turns you on, then go for it. But train smart and know that you HAVE to be doing strength based full range of motion training as well.
If you just want to be healthy, fit, active, strong, and fit into a sexier pair of jeans then cardio is NOT the best way to do that. High intensity interval based strength training is by far superior for those goals. With the added benefit that it takes less time and lasts longer if you have to take a break for any reason.