Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
The sad truth is that many trainers lie about cardio training. These lies come typically in two statements. The first is that cardio is the only way to burn body fat. The second is that doing cardio makes you fatter.
I am over-simplifying the issue, of course, but it is any wonder why so many people are confused? And not just the gym newbies, but also guys who have a decent training history.
When I was a boy in my teens many things used to wind me up. It didn’t take much at all to boil my blood and my father constantly likened me to a coiled spring. I’ve mellowed a lot since, but now and then the red mist descends when I read or hear something truly outrageous, especially when it comes from the mouths of morons masquerading as fitness professionals.
A little while ago my inner fire was fuelled by something I read on social media. Some bandwagon-jumping clown had hitched his colours on the anti-cardio mast and decided to preach that running will make you fatter.
I get that tweeting or posting a simple line like ‘Run Yourself Fatter’ is click-bait designed to try and make people go to a website or promote something being sold, but what these people fail to realise is that most people pick up on just 10% of any message that they read, so no matter what else he may have written the majority will only recall the headline. Once absorbed, they then repeat it. And people in their hordes stop running for fear of getting fatter.
I’ll be honest with you, I am not a huge fan of cardio training, and never have been, especially some forms of running as an optimal body composition tool, but to claim that going for a run will make me fatter flies in the face not only of common sense, but also many, many years of training experience. To get lean you need to lift weights. To prove my point all you need to do is go to the gym and observe those who weight train and those who do cardio training to see who has the leaner, harder and more impressive physique.
I can understand why inexperienced gym goers who want to lose fat flock to the treadmills, stationary bike or rowing machines. Not only are they given the majority of the floor space in commercial gyms – don’t get me started – but many of the gym’s larger members congregate around the bench press platforms, while the experienced cardio bunnies and their skinny frames are concentrated around the cardio kit.
But the guys lifting weights, and it’s always guys, are carrying more weight not because it’s all muscle or because they avoid all forms of cardio like the plague, but because they aren’t lifting properly. You know the type: they do eight badly-performed reps then rest 10 minutes before going again, but consume food like they’re at all-you-can-eat buffet.
Meanwhile, the cardio kings might look lean and toned in their sleeveless tops, but may well be carrying their fat around the middle, in that health problem-promoting skinny-fat physique. My point is that if you don’t train properly then it doesn’t matter what type of training you do. You won’t burn fat effectively.
Right time and place
In an attempt to be constructive, let’s look at where cardio belongs in the pantheon of exercise modalities, because it does have a place, and doing it won’t eat away at muscle mass or promote fat storage if done correctly.
Cardio is not the best way to get lean if you have limited time to train. If you are always short of time to workout, or can only get to the gym three times a week and have no other opportunities to exercise, then high-intensive weight training is the single-best approach. It will increase lean muscle mass – and the more muscle you have the more energy you burn at rest – and it will raise your metabolic rate post-training for far longer than cardio. It will also work your cardiovascular system, mimicking the benefits of intensive cardio training, if you do genuinely work out in an intensive manner.
Cardio is a great fat-loss tool for those of you who can weight train three to four times a week and still have time to exercise at home and/or outdoors. But that cardio needs to be intensive too, if fat loss is your goal, and long cardio sessions can be counterproductive. I don’t believe for a single second that it will make you fatter, but it will raise your cortisol levels, thus making effective recovery harder, and be damaging to your muscle-building efforts. In short, extended endurance cardio performed for too long and too often will make you look ‘stringy’: lean limbs but lacking decent quality muscle, and increase the risk of developing the dreaded ‘skinny fat’ look.
Aerobic improvements plateau after six to eight weeks of the same type of training. So there is limited value in doing traditional aerobic-style training as a means of continuously improving your fitness without regularly – and drastically – shaking it up.
If truth be told, you can exercise your heart – which is the true meaning of cardio work, after all – elevate your metabolism, and improve aerobic fitness without an overemphasis on cardio. You don’t necessarily need any ‘traditional cardio’ at all. High-intensity weight training will achieve all these heath benefits and plenty more besides.
If you do want to do cardio for fat loss and/or fitness, then mixing it up regularly will prevent your body adapting to a more efficient, less metabolism-boosting, mode. Different machines, different paces, uphill, downhill – the options at your disposal are endless and infinitely better for both mind and body than mindlessly trudging away at the same speed on the same treadmill.
You will hear some people harp on about the oxidative stress and elevated cortisol issues that come with performing cardio. I say if cardio makes you feel good, and you are otherwise healthy, then a little bit will not hurt you. For some people, myself included, cardio serves the purpose of clearing my mind rather than improving my body composition, and the mental benefits of a cardio workout – whether that’s some lung-busting all-out sprints, or an hour’s walk along the beach – can not be overstated. The positives far outweigh the negatives. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a replacement for the more effective forms of fat-loss training.
Walk the walk
If you want to burn fat but maintain muscle then 30 minutes of fast walking three times per week may be useful, but is probably not essential if you are weight training hard and with sufficient volume and frequency. A few fast walks on top of four times per week weight training will not really hinder your recovery process unless you have the testosterone levels of a neutered hamster.
If you want to maximise muscle mass whilst simultaneously getting leaner then I’d advise a 6:1 ratio of weight training to fast walking. This is a very personal thing though, and really has a lot to do with your own recovery levels, your diet – specifically the extent of your daily calorie deficit – and the type of resistance training protocols you’re following.
You must always adapt the training tool to the goal. I do not really like interval training as cardio for those who are primarily concerned with muscle growth or muscle retention. I think the energy demands, both physical and mental, of hard weight training are already too great to add interval training into the mix. If a lean and athletic body is your goal then adding interval training can be a huge benefit, and for most regular people with non-physique competing goals this would be my preferred cardio of choice.
There is a correct time to perform cardio if you are going to do all your training in just one session. Always perform it after your weight training as the other way around will hinder your lifting performance and limit the fat-burning effectiveness of the cardio: much more fatty acids will be freed up into the bloodstream for energy after weight training than before.
The absolute best form of fat-burning, fitness-enhancing cardio training isn’t really what most people consider to be cardio at all. If I were to supplement any type of fat loss and/or conditioning regime with extra training sessions above and beyond a tough weight training regime it would be by adding in modified strongman training.
The beauty of this training modality is that it elevates the metabolism and keeps it elevated for up to 36 hours. It allows you to train in a truly functional and primal manner that traditional cardio on machines can’t match, and there is minimal impact and repetition in comparison to running, so much easier on the joints and soft tissue. Moreover, it is incredibly challenging yet fun at the same, so it’s mentally and physically challenging and never gets boring.