I’ve been meaning to write another post about cardio for a while now, in large part because I think some of the things I’ve said may have been mis-interpreted to imply I don’t believe in any cardio, ever. This is most definitely not true, so I want to cover the ‘rules’ of cardio once and for all.
The first rule of cardio is that in its traditional (meaning 1980’s) sense at least it absolutely does not rule. Not if lasting fat loss and lean muscle are important to you. We’ll talk about why, and I’ll explain what type of cardio I am a fan of, but first let me give you a little background.
i’m a cardio queen from way back
I haven’t always been anti-cardio. In fact, I’m still not completely anti-cardio, although you could be forgiven for thinking so the longer you spend on this blog. The truth is I’ve spent years as a cardio queen, and the (less frequently admitted to) truth is that there’s something about a major lung-burning sweat session that still really empowers me. I don’t know if this is because (apparently) running activates endorphins from the same centre of your brain that near-death does, or if it’s the perception of achievement and calories burnt drummed into me from years back, or if it’s as simple as I love pushing myself to the max. Probably a bit of all three.
But whatever the reason, these days I prioritise results above doing regular bouts of endurance cardio or even too-regular bouts of interval cardio.
could your cardio routine be making your butt bigger?
According to an ever-growing group of health experts, cardio exercise as a fix-all for fat loss and even for cardiovascular health has been far overrated. In fact, strength coach Charles Poliquin, who is arguably one of the world’s leading fat loss experts, talks about the adaptation process your body goes through when you repeatedly perform cardio exercise as a primary reason for over-exercisers struggling to lose fat, and possibly even increasing it.
The most recent reference I have seen to the concept of exercise not aiding fat loss was actually in a call-out from Cleo magazine – they were asking just yesterday for experts to comment on new research indicating that exercise does not help you lose weight.
And that’s just the tip of the ice-berg. You can, of course, find anything you like to support any possible argument or theory on the internet, but certainly not always from reputable clinical sources such as these –
- Endurance training may increase intramuscular lipid (fat) storage and insulin resistance – “The greater insulin sensitivity despite an elevated IMTG deposition in the endurance-trained state has often been described as a metabolic paradox.“
- Increased intramyocellular lipids on Skeletal Muscles in Sprint and Endurance Trained Athletes
- Intramyocellular lipid content is increased after exercise in nonexercising human skeletal muscle
- There are further studies listed in the comments section of the above-linked blog post of mine.
So. The long and short of it is not to trust everything you read on the internet, but simply to consider that perhaps recent ‘wisdom’ on health and fat loss is not all it’s cracked up to be. You only have to look around to see that!
When it comes to working out, to eating well, to anything really I am a big believer in hormonal response and doing what nature intended, rather than simply calories in versus calories out. It works for me!
the rules on cardio
So let’s talk about the rules on cardio, because I do want to make it very very clear that I am absolutely not against ALL cardio and in fact I DO think you should be including sweat sessions as well as pure strength sessions (on a side note, a proper strength session should definitely also BE a sweat session!).
Confused much? Keep reading.
1. Keep it short most of the time – I’m talking under 30 minutes short. The maximum amount of pure cardio I allow my clients to perform on a regular basis is 20 minutes of interval work. An ideal breakdown for this is 30 seconds of intensity followed by 90 seconds of recovery. Repeat 10 times. I’d recommend doing this no more than 3 times a week, and only as a supplement to your weight training program.
2. Keep it shorter – as you start to focus increasingly on ideal nutrition and weight training you’ll slowly be able to let go of the ‘need’ to do cardio. That guilty itch may never go away – sometimes I still have a little freak out moment about not doing any ‘real’ cardio despite the fact that I easily maintain a size 8 lean body without it – whereas I used to battle to be size 10 or even 12 when cardio was the bread and butter of my training. There are mixed reviews on training such as Tabata (8 rounds of 20 second work plus 10 second rest; 4 minutes total), but I’ve found that this sort of structured interval training can be enough to really finish off a weights session with a bang.
3. Mix it up. Outdoor activities such as hill climbing, hiking, playing sports, and even some indoor activties such as well-instructed kickboxing or muay thai are all great forms of ‘real’ cardio. By real I mean that whilst they may certainly go for over 20-30 minutes, they involve movement variety and can be considered (IMO) more natural than repetitive steady-state cardio on gym equipment. Using gym cardio equipment, by the way, has been shown in Canada-based research to increase insulin resistance by up to 46%! Due to the dirty electricity.
4. Break the rules once in a while. Yes, even my rules! Going for a massive ride, or run, or walk now and then (gasp, steady state cardio!) is FINE. Especially if you love to do it, but even just to give your body a change now and then. My point with all of my posts on cardio is largely that people take it too far thinking the answer is 40+ minutes of endurance cardio every time they workout. I do not mean you should be scared of or avoid ever doing this style. If you love to do spin, by all means do it once in a while, but don’t do it 4-5 times per week because you think it will get you lean. I hope all of that makes sense?!