The other day I was on the phone talking with a young woman who wants to get in shape before her wedding in May.
We talked about weight training and diet and venues and whether or not weather in May was going to be good for a wedding. I’ve watched Four Weddings before, I know how all this goes. Plus I planned (vicariously) a wedding of my own.
Then she asked this question:
“Is cardio bad for you?”
As you read that question you might have the impulse to laugh or get frustrated..even face-palm.
Let’s clear something up:
Even though this might seem like a silly question, it exemplifies the general narrative about health and fitness:
The fitness industry is rife with conflicting information, poorly presented ideas, dogmatic coaches/trainers, and bullshit on social media making everything “fitness” absurdly confusing.
She’s probably worried she’s making the wrong choices when it comes to her fitness. Should I do cardio? Or avoid it altogether? Is it good or bad for me? How much should I do?
This fear may be paralyzing to the point where no actions are taken, goals aren’t met, and she’s unhappy (to some extent) before her big wedding in May. That’s sad.
So let’s answer this question, and maybe convince you to rethink “cardio” in your own approach to your fitness goals:
Is cardio Bad for you?
There are many things that are bad for you:
The Twilight Saga (gross)
Click-bait article titles
All are bad for you. But cardio?
Cardiovascular exercise is defined as any exercise that raises your heart rate. That means pretty much everything above sitting on the couch could be considered cardio exercise.
But let’s just call it what you’re all thinking it is: jogging, running, biking, swimming, dancing, kickboxing, etc.
Typically “cardio” is considered any continuous activity that elevates your heart rate and maintains an elevated heart rate for some period of time.
Cardio is great for you! Check out this list of Pros and Cons of Cardiovascular exercise:
- Improved Heart Health: cardio works your heart muscle and blood vessels, making your heart stronger
- Cardio also reduces risk of high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, stroke, and certain types of cancer
- Reduces weight/body fat
- Improves stamina
- Manages chronic conditions like hypertension and elevated blood sugar
- Reduces anxiety and depression and improves mood
- Helps you live longer
- Boring!! (to me at least)
End of discussion right? We’ve solved the mystery Scooby!
NOT SO FAST!
While cardio is certainly good for your health, cardio’s role in achieving certain fitness goals is misunderstood at best, and abused at worst.
Cardio is good for you, but should you be doing it?
Somewhere along the line cardio somehow became a “silver bullet:”
Build muscle: cardio
Lose fat: cardio
End world hunger: cardio
Slay dragons: cardio
Plodding away on a treadmill three days a week became the go-to for flat abs and looking good nekkid. Unfortunately that’s far from reality.
Here’s the truth:
Cardio is great for health and marathoners. Cardio is pretty fucking terrible for almost any other fitness-related goal.
It may deserve a place in your program, but you’d be surprised how little cardio you actually need.
So let’s start asking the hard questions:
Who should be doing cardio?
Anyone who has an aerobic-related goal, like running a half- or full-marathon. Cyclists. Ultra-marathoners, etc.
Anyone who is at risk for cardiovascular disease and related comorbidities (high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, high blood sugar).
Elderly to maintain/improve health so they can live longer and more enjoyable years.
What type of cardio should I do?
This depends on a couple things:
1) What do you like to do? You’re much more likely to keep it up if you enjoy it. I fucking hate running, so I don’t do it. I like walking my dog though. Whether it’s biking, running, or dancing naked and like no one’s watching, doesn’t matter; pick the one you enjoy and will continue to do.
2) Specificity: if you plan to run a marathon, you should probably run. Biking and swimming will be great alternatives to improve aerobic capacity, but you need to actually put in the miles.
How much cardio do you need?
This is too broad a question. Let’s rephrase:
How much cardio do I need for good health?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise per week, or roughly 30 minutes of walking to jogging each day. <– Yes you read that right: moderate to vigorous intensity is about the same intensity as walking and jogging.
In other words, you can drastically improve your health by walking about 30 minutes per day.
And by drastically I mean 40-60% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, with similar reduction in comorbidities (hypertension, dyslipidemia, Type II diabetes, etc.) and similar reduction in some cancer risk.
So get outside, enjoy the sunshine, and take your dog for a walk. While you’re at it expect to reduce your risk of a lot of bad stuff.
How much cardio do I need for performance?
Now this is a different question:
Are you a marathon runner? Then you need to do a lot of cardio.
Are you training for a ultra-marathon? Then you need to bike and swim and run a whole lot.
Are you a sprinter? Not much cardio. Most of your time will be spent in anaerobic events: short but intense bouts of high energy activities like sprinting or jumping.
Athlete? Depends on the type: soccer players and lacrosse players need some cardio for their sport, but not much because their sports are characterized mostly by short but intense bouts of sprints, interspersed with some lower intensity jogging. Baseball players run about 90 feet really fast, so cardio doesn’t do much for them either.
Evaluate the demands of the sport to determine how much cardio you need.
How much cardio do I need to look good naked?
Finally! The million-dollar question.
Here’s where I’m going to convince you how little cardio you actually need for this goal:
We all know that the best way to build muscle is through proper diet (plenty of protein) and weight training. Lifting weights 2-5 days per week typically works great for most people, and obviously depends on their goals (how much muscle they want/can build) and their work schedule.
Men call this building mass while women call it getting toned. A hint from the professional: gaining muscle mass and “tone” are the same thing.
While the genders like their “go-to” terms for it, the reality is that we’re talking about the same thing. In order for you to have sleeve-busting muscle “mass” (guys) or swimsuit-flaunting “tone” (ladies), you both need to lift weights to build the muscle to do those things.
When it comes to looking good naked, you have to build muscle. Period.
How much cardio should you do? Very little, and here’s why:
1) Specificity: you can’t get stronger or build muscle on the treadmill. You need to, you know, lift weights.
2) If you only have so many hours per week to spend in the weight room, you should spend the majority of your time on the thing that will actually push you towards your goals. Building muscle? Ditch the treadmill and hit the weights.
3) When it comes to burning fat off, muscle mass is metabolic tissue, meaning that the more of it you have, the more calories your body burns just to exist. So you should strive to build as much of it as you can, and watch the body fat melt off on its own. No treadmill required.
Look at it this way: let’s say you have a pint glass that represents your “workout week.” If lifting weights is the best way to build muscle and get lean, are you going to fill your pint glass with cardio? Or weight training?
Keep this in mind when you plan your workouts.
But won’t cardio burn fat so I can be lean?
Technically yes, but only a little, and only initially.
The truth is that cardio isn’t that great for burning fat. Without going down the rabbit hole, cardio does burn calories, but because the intensity is relatively low the total caloric expenditure is also low.
That’s why High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has gotten so popular over the years. It’s been found that short but intense bouts of high intensity exercise, even when the total amount of work is really low (like 5 minutes or less), is far greater at burning calories and burning fat than steady state cardio ever will be.
Traditional cardio, like jogging for 30 minutes, may burn some belly fat at first, but after awhile it becomes harder and harder to burn more fat off.
That’s why many people throw in the towel after weeks and weeks of cardio-their progress has stalled.
This is adaptation: Your body doesn’t like being bad at exercise and burning calories, so it adapts to your 30-minute jogging bout and learns how to burn fewer and fewer calories to get the job done.
I’ve written more about this in my blog post Everything Works, Until it Doesn’t: How being Bad at Exercise Makes you Better at Fat Loss. Basically, the worse you are at exercise, the better you are at burning calories and losing fat. Give it a read.
Do you want to build a sexy and lean body? Lift weights often. Eat a healthy diet. Burning fat off takes very little cardio, if any, and is better achieved through weight training and a caloric deficit.
If you take anything away from this post it should be this: in order to burn fat and build muscle you need very little “traditional cardio” and a lot more weight training. Eat a healthy diet of lean proteins and lots of veggies. This is the fastest and most efficient way to achieve your goals.
Does cardio have any role in my program at all?
I hate resorting to this phrase, but it’s true: it depends on what you’re training for. Marathon runners and cyclists and swimmers need lots of cardio. Elderly need cardio for health reasons. Everyone should at least walk 30 minutes per day, and that would greatly reduce disease risk and lead to a longer, healthier lifespan (and a huge reduction in medical costs per year).
However, if you’re like me and have no plans to run a marathon anytime soon, you probably don’t need much more than a casual walk in the park with your dog.
If you enjoy doing cardio, please don’t stop doing it. However you may want to re-evaluate it’s importance relative to your goals. Don’t “waste time” on an activity that doesn’t match up with your goals.
Keeping the goal the goal: If you want to build muscle, you need to slow down and focus on lifting heavier weights on a consistent basis.
You need to ask yourself, “what is my ultimate goal?”
“Keeping my cardio up” is a strange goal to me, but a goal for some nonetheless. If you have a standard of “be able to run 5 miles easily” then some cardio deserves a place in your program. It doesn’t get easier without working on it, so plan accordingly.
However, if the goal is “burn more fat and look good naked” then you need to ditch the cardio (mostly) and focus on weight training most, if not all, of your available gym days.
Is cardio useless then?
In fact, heavy weight trainers should do the occasional long distance, slow pace cardio. It helps with recovery between heavy weight training sessions. It’s also nice not to be completely out of breath walking from the car to the gym.
About 20-30 minutes of super slow cardio a couple times per week would suffice for these people.
Again, keep the goal the goal. If you want to build muscle and burn fat, you need to lift weights and do very little cardio.
Remember, cardio will never build muscle like weight training, and won’t burn fat off like weight training does. Keep that in mind as you plan your workouts.
But Andy, I HAVE to do some Cardio…
Do some cardio. Choose activities that you enjoy doing, and do it for the positive mental and emotional effects it brings.
Just don’t expect it to achieve your fat-loss goals, because it doesn’t work well.
Adjust your “pint glass” to accommodate your cardio and your weight training sessions. Don’t pull all your efforts into cardio if building muscle and burning fat is the goal. Hit the weights.
Metabolic Circuits or Complexes are a series of weight-lifting exercises, with an emphasis on “lifting weights faster.”
Complexes will seriously kick your ass in shape. The best part about it? It takes only 3-5 rounds, maybe 20 minutes of your time, and burns fat and builds muscle all at the same time.
That’s a win-win. Check it out here:
Cardio is great for health and aerobic events, but not very good at helping you burn fat and look good naked.
Weight training will be far more important for building muscle and burning fat than cardio will ever be. Keep this in mind when filling your “pint glass”
Metabolic circuits “marry” the two ideas, giving your cardio a run for the money and building muscle at the same time. They’re intense and will melt fat off like you wouldn’t believe.
Thanks for sticking around, and I hope I at least gave you some things to consider. I’m definitely not anti-cardio, but it’s not the “silver bullet” everyone builds it out to be. Stick with weight training and a healthy diet and you’ll achieve your goals much faster!