How Much Cardio Do I Really Need?
The above is a (loaded) question I receive on average 3-4 times a week so it might be a good idea to tackle it once and for all.
So should you do any cardio and if so how much and what kind? As usual, the answer is: it depends. This by the way goes for 99 % of all fitness related questions (and life as such).
Let’s break the matter down into smaller parts, starting with overall time commitment. Essentially, the first point of consideration is whether you are a physique or performance athlete. When I was prepping for the Olympics as a swimmer , we were doing 20+ hours of cardio per week, which is not a volume I would even wish on my worst enemy. Granted, I was a full time athlete with no other obligations, but if you are thinking of doing a marathon or triathlon, you’ll need to commit anywhere from 5-12 hours per week to said activity.
Since however most of our readers fall into the physique athlete category, one can assume that cardio is used for fat loss or caloric expenditure first and performance second, which brings me to my next question: Is cardio a good fat loss tool?
Excellent question and by flipping through the magazines and walking by any commercial gym, one would certainly be inclined to think so. You can find ads for all kinds of “fat blasting” body furnace” metabolic response” classes and workouts. But is that really true?
Before I answer this one, I am going out on a limb and I ll assume that everyone understands the difference in between weighing little and being lean. Why do I make this point? Simple: cardio is terrific in regards to transforming you into a smaller version (albeit healthier) of your old self, but it won’t do much to really change your appearance.
So, the short answer is: not really. Cardio uses up energy like any other physical activity or form of training but it does not posses any type of fat burning magic.
Personally, I believe that weight training yields similar or better results than cardio when it comes to fat oxidization and overall caloric expenditure. Additionally, weight training has the added benefit of making the body hold on to it’s muscle mass and preventing you from becoming “skinny fat”. Furthermore, weight training serves as a hormonal optimizer whereas cardio does not.
As for cardiovascular health, weight training can deliver the same benefits, provided you are not the type of individual who is resting 5-7 minutes between every set on the bench press. I always urge clients and students alike to retrain their thinking when it comes to training during a diet in the sense of:
- Preventing muscle loss aka keeping the BMR as high as possible;
- Expanding energy second.
So if you set up your diet properly and calculate the deficit needed to lose the amount of fat you want to drop; that is where you ll find if you need to add cardio. How to find your caloric level? I ll keep it simple and use the follwoing formula : LBM x11.5 as your base. From there on you substract anywhere from 300-1000 calories to get to your desired body fat levels. Since I would not recommend dropping the calories below 1100 per day, there will be instances where cardio is warranted since there are limits as to how much weight training can be done.
Is fasted cardio the best method in which to lose body fat? I am so glad you asked since this is one of my pet peeves in the fitness industry. For decades, thousands of athletes have dragged themselves to the gym at the crack of dawn without daring to eat or drink anything of any substance. They perform cardio on an empty stomach as they believe that they are tapping into their fat stores. It sounds great, but does it actually work?
Let’s go to the videotape. Cardio on an empty stomach does burn more fat as a percentage, than cardio in a fueled state. So there, do we have a winner? Not so fast, I’m afraid. This effect only holds true for untrained athletes, so that does not include you. Furthermore, fasted cardio is a highly efficient way to get frustrated and lose a ton of muscle.
As you can tell, I am rather opposed to it. It is a really outdated way of doing things and a classic case of the blind leading the blind. The underlying thinking is that in a fasted state, the body has no choice but to burn fat for energy. This is actually partly correct, but still falls short of reality. First off, most athletes do not perform well in a fasted state, compared to those that have eaten. As a result, the actual amount of calories burned is lower, meaning less fat is lost. Furthermore, the body tends to go into starvation mode if left without food, which leads to significantly reduced levels of testosterone, GH and thyroid hormone.
All this spells muscle loss, and makes further fat loss even more difficult as your body thinks that you are starving it, so it will then store the next meal as body fat to ensure your survival. On the flipside, in a well-nourished athlete, post workout calories will be used to refill muscle glycogen. Lastly, your rate of EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or ‘after burn effect’) will be substantially reduced if you train on an empty stomach. This means you’ll lose much less body fat post workout than if you had eaten. At the very least you should have about 12-15 grams of carbs and 10 grams of protein before a workout. If you are on a very strict diet, drink about 15 grams of BCAAs as they will improve performance and help spare your muscle.
To sum it up, stop the starvation cycle and start feeding your body!
With that out of the way, lets look at different types of cardio that one can do: