Cardio for Fat Loss is a Myth!

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Table of Contents

If people across the globe agreed on one thing it would probably be doing cardio as soon as spring rolls out. Well, they would probably also agree on Monday being the international chest day. Anyway, as soon as spring rolls around, fitness enthusiasts hop on treadmills and start running their lives away like there is no tomorrow in hopes of shedding as much fat as possible before summer time. Cardio machines become more occupied than weight lifting machines. This trend is indicative of a universal idea – to get ripped, you must do cardio. As usual, things are not always black or white. In fact, doing excessive amounts of cardio while dieting could render sub-optimal results. But, why do many fitness models and bodybuilders still do cardio when preparing for a contest/show? And how can one incorporate cardio into their training program without sacrificing muscle mass?

TL;DR Version

  • Excessive cardio will cause you to lose muscle mass.
  • Cardio is not necessary when dieting. You can get shredded easily just by following a sound nutrition plan.
  • A sold nutrition plan is more important than cardiovascular exercise.
  • Strength training has a much favorable effect on both EPOC and nutrient partitioning when compared to cardiovascular training.
  • Walking and sprinting are the two best forms of cardio.
  • When enhancing your body composition, walking is the best of both worlds; you will reap the health benefits of cardio while avoiding its consequences. 


How cardio can help

First off, I do not mean to demonize cardio entirely in this article. What this article aims to do is to simply inform you that cardio is not mandatory for fat loss. Cardio is one of the best forms of exercise one can do for their overall well-being. It improves blood circulation, increases energy expenditure, slightly increases metabolic rate, enhances lungs function, and slightly enhances nutrient partitioning. And by now, you should know that optimal health is a prerequisite for optimal results in the gym. When your body is functioning as good as it possibly can, you will have a much easier time losing fat, building muscle, recomping or achieving any other goal you might have. Thus, eliminating cardiovascular exercise is not a very wise move.

Why do certain bodybuilders, fitness figures, and fitness models do cardio?

As a fitness enthusiast, you may assume that all those physique-mechanics are doing cardio to accelerate fat loss. I mean, why else would someone want to jog for 45 minutes or so? Well, here is what you may not know: those figures often do cardio because they are either on drugs and can maintain muscle mass easier, they do it because they enjoy it, or they do it merely to eat a little more.
In the last scenario, a person would jog for 30 minutes (or however long) and burn X number of calories. Then, they would eat back those calories. That’s it. This technique is especially helpful when being on a severely low-calorie diet. The dieter will experience hunger often and eating just a little more will help make the process easier mentally and physically. However, even then, doing tons of cardio is likely to cause more harm than good. And the luxury of eating a bit more will be negated by the less-than-stellar outcome.  Also, being on drugs changes the game plan. In this case, doing cardio and creating a larger caloric deficit is likely to cause very little harm since drugs will help maintain muscle mass easy and even add a bit more on the user’s frame.

Why is cardio counterproductive?

Larger caloric deficit – Less Muscle Mass
Let’s imagine your daily caloric deficit is 500 calories. You feel like you are not seeing results as fast as you would. So, you decide to throw in 3 sessions of cardio per week each one lasting 45 minutes. Your cardio sessions will consist of jogging at moderate intensity. Most likely, you will be burning a substantial number of calories. So, for example, this might put you at a caloric deficit of 750. Are you going to lose more weight? Yes. BUT, just because you are losing more WEIGHT doesn’t mean you are losing more FAT. The truth is, there is an ideal rate of fat loss that suits every individual. This rate depends on one’s age, weight, starting point, body composition, and of course genetics. Once you’re past that threshold, the extra weight lost will most likely come from hard-earned muscle tissue. And if you lose a substantial amount of muscle mass during dieting, you will end up looking flat and soft. Thus, cardio will probably put you at a larger caloric deficit which could potentially mean losing more muscle mass. This will also cause a domino-like effect because losing muscle means a slower metabolic rate. A slower metabolic rate will cause you to burn less calories at rest. Conclusion? You will end up gaining fat at an accelerated rate once you start eating normally again. This is the main reason why most people end up yo-yo dieting without achieving any of their goals.

Losing Strength

Losing strength goes hand in hand with losing muscle mass. As explained here, the more muscle mass you have, the stronger you are. You may not care much about strength; however, muscle is a by-product of strength. So, if you want to look your best and have a significant amount of muscle mass on your frame, you must get stronger. There’s no way around it. Doing cardio is one of the main reasons why many people lose strength while dieting, which was a precursor to the rise of “gaining strength while dieting is impossible” myth. If you are serious about taking your physique to the next level, you must AT LEAST maintain your strength levels while dieting. Cut your cardio sessions out of your program and you will have a much easier time maintain and even increasing your strength levels.

Hindered recovery

As most of you know already, the human body doesn’t like being in an energy deficit. When dieting, the body tries to fight back in several ways to ensure one’s survival. Consequently, our bodies perform their functions at sub-optimal levels in an attempt to use less energy. Logically, this results in hindered recovery. Which is why gaining muscle mass and recovering from strenuous workouts is harder compared to being in an energy surplus. Given that you are following an optimal training that will stimulate your muscles without affecting your recovery, incorporating excess cardio into your schedule is likely to hinder your body’s ability to recover. This will likely result in less muscle retention and the implications associated with having less muscle mass. Therefore, I personally prefer low intensity short-duration cardio sessions.

EPOC / The “Afterburn” Effect

As discussed before, EPOC, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function. As discussed in the first segment of this series, the high-reps-fallacy, EPOC response to strength training is greater than the response to cardio sessions, including HIIT, or high intensity interval training. EPOC, or more commonly known as the afterburn effect causes our bodies to keep burning calories even after we finish our training sessions. However, since EPOC’s response to strength training is greater compared to cardio sessions, you may want to focus more on lifting heavy shit! Doing so will help you become stronger, burn more calories at rest (speed up your metabolism), and help you build muscle while losing fat – more on that later -. 

Cardio does NOT maximize fat loss

Our ancestors did not run at steady states for long duration to “burn fat” or enter “the fat burning zone”. On the contrary, their daily lives consisted of long walks, food gathering, cooking, and hunting. Thus, they were doing low-intensity activities most of the time. When they ran, they sprinted, period. They sprinted to either hunt animals or run away from predators. It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that they didn’t sprint for minutes. Thus, the human body is primed to perform anaerobically more than aerobically. Short bursts of running in the forms of sprints are better than long duration walks. While cardio may help you burn some extra calories, it also raises cortisol levels. Even though strength training raises cortisol levels as well, the spike in cortisol is weaker than the spike causes by cardio. Additionally, strength training also elevates anabolic hormone levels such as testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone which offset the effects of cortisol. Thus, doing excessive amounts of cardio is likely to cause a significant increase in cortisol levels and put you at a catabolic state. The last and most important thing to mention is cardio’s effect on nutrient partitioning. Any form of physical training will likely enhance nutrient partitioning to some degree. But, when comparing cardio’s effect on nutrient partitoning vs. that of strength training, cardio’s effect pales. Nutrient partitioning simply refers to storing nutrients as either muscle or fat. Training enhances the body’s ability to store nutrients and calories in the form of muscles, which is what we all want. Once again, you’re better off doing strength training than tons of cardio.

Practical application

As stated in the beginning, this article doesn’t aim to demonize cardio entirely. In fact, I believe keeping a bit of cardio in your training program is optimal in regards to health and body composition enhances. What I wanted to focus on was proving that cardio is not necessary to achieve a shredded physique and more so show that the extent to which most people take cardio is counterproductive. So, the question now is; how can we incorporate cardio into our programs to reap its benefits without impacting our body composition enhancing endeavors?

  • Unless you are an athlete who must incorporate cardio sessions into his program to improve his athletic performance, you are likely better off doing low intensity cardio in the form of short-and-sweet walks. 
  • The most underrated form of cardio is walking! Not necessarily as a formal exercise, but more so as a fun walk in the park. Take a walk whenever you would like and do not think about the pace. Keep it short and sweet. 
  • Walking will allow you to exercise your cardiovascular system, improve nutrient partitioning, speed up recovery, and allow you to eat a bit more – if you want – without cutting into your recovery, or worse – causing you to over-train.
  • If you insist on doing cardio as a formal exercise, a maximum of 2-3 short sessions per week is more than enough. Keep your sessions short < 2o minutes. Or do some sprints! 
  • If you have a large amount of fat to lose, incorporating cardio into your program in addition to strength training will help you lose fat faster without impacting your recovery by much. This is because you have tons of stored energy and your body will have a much easier time burning it off. 
  • If you are relatively lean, keep your cardiovascular sessions short and sweet. Do not do more than 2 sessions per week. Want even better results? WALK!
  • If you are very lean and want to get under 10% body fat, do NOT do any strenuous cardio. At most, walking is all you need to reap cardio’s benefits without losing muscle mass. 



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