Here's what you need to know...
• Ironically, spending 20 hours a week in the "fat burning zone" leads to very little fat loss and a lot of muscle loss. The result? Looking like a flabby runner.
• Steady state cardio should be reserved for endurance athletes, not for those seeking fat loss and awesome body composition. Physique competitors don't even need traditional long-duration cardio.
• Metabolic interval training can be made even better with advanced work-to-recovery ratios and a few select tools.
Back in 2008, I wrote a controversial article for T Nation: The Final Nail in the Cardio Coffin. In it, I talked about how my body composition suffered when training for an Ironman Triathlon. Despite twenty hours per week of endurance training, time spent mostly in the so-called "fat burning zone", I barely lost any fat and definitely lost muscle, even with a controlled diet plan and a couple of weight training sessions per week.
This solidified my belief that steady-state aerobics is absolutely, completely, utterly ineffective for fat loss. Long, steady-state endurance is not the answer for a defined, lean physique, and it's a waste of time if your goal is long term fat loss. Endurance work is only the answer if your goal is to compete in an endurance event, not if you want to actually look your best. If you want to lose fat but not look like a soft endurance athlete, metabolic interval training is the way to go.
That was five years ago. Have I changed my mind? And what have I learned since then as a coach, gym owner, and yes, as a woman who still competes in endurance events? Let's discuss.
Deeper and Deeper Into the Grave
Is it time for steady state cardio to rise from the dead as a tool for fat loss? Exactly the opposite. As my experience accumulates, my thoughts have not changed one bit since I wrote the original article. In fact, steady state cardio is sinking deeper and deeper into the grave when it comes to tools to use to shed fat quickly and effectively. We have progressed some of the ideas about how we do our metabolic interval training, which I'll share below, but my final paragraph still stands:
Get off the treadmill, stop spinning your wheels, and push yourself in the gym if you want to lose some serious fat. Take it from me, I finally learned first hand. It's time to put the final nail in the cardio coffin of using aerobics for fat loss, bury it for good, and do some high intensity, interval dancing on its overdue grave.
Five Years Later
After the 2008 article, I took a break from endurance training and lifted consistently three days a week along with a metabolic workout one to two times a week and an occasional short, hilly run. I maintained the body you see in the picture from the original article for the following three years.
Then I started to get the endurance bug again. I signed up to take a whole team to the Nike Women's Half Marathon in October 2011. I ramped up my endurance training once again, putting in the long steady state miles week after week, and I've continued to race every October, three years in a row.
What I started to notice year after year is that my body composition would fluctuate throughout the year, but interestingly I'd reach my "peak" body fat level right as I was training for my half marathon. Without changing my diet (and in fact staying very conscious of what I was eating), only shifting my training from mostly lifting to include more steady state aerobics, my body would shift to my "endurance body" with less muscle and more fat as a percentage. Interestingly, my weight didn't change much. I wasn't yo-yoing – my body composition was just responding to the activity I was doing.
I enjoy competing and love crossing a finish line. Unfortunately, looking back, my body composition around race time has once again confirmed my original statement: the more steady state aerobic exercise I do, the softer my appearance seems to be. There are a few things this could be attributed to, other than just the fact that I was doing more steady state cardio, including:
1. By doing more steady state cardio, I end up doing less strength training. Is it necessarily the cardio that's the problem, or just not strength training/metabolic interval training as much?
2. The strength training I'm doing could be suffering in quality and recovery since I usually head out for a run either the morning of, directly following, or on the opposite day when I could be recovering from my lifting session.
3. Increased appetite from doing more steady state cardio. I'm pretty careful about tracking my intake, but we won't rule this out as maybe I do end up hungrier and make up for the extra calories burned in my food intake.
I do my best to manage body composition when training for endurance events by lifting a couple times a week along with tracking my nutrition. I'm always only a month or two out from getting back to being photo shoot ready following the race. After each half marathon I shift gears, decrease the steady state aerobics, and hit the weights.
Just two months after the above pic, I filmed a DVD in December of 2012. After 8 weeks of no steady state aerobics and re-prioritizing lifting, I was once again photo shoot ready.
Steady State Cardio: More Efficient, Less Defined
Yeah, I'm just one person. Everyone is different and some people do respond to endurance training. People who go from being sedentary to walking or jogging can of course see results from adding activity to their day. In fact, any time you do something new or different your body usually responds by dropping body fat, at least initially.
Here's the catch: your body quickly adapts to steady state aerobic activity, decreasing the amount of calories you burn with each walk/run, making you more and more efficient at the activity. This is the goal if you're training for an endurance event – to be super efficient using the least amount of energy (calories) possible to complete the distance. You want just the opposite if you're trying to lose fat.
Over the past five years I've also had the opportunity to train clients for both endurance events and Bikini/Figure competitions. While training for the half marathon, many of our clients notice they have a hard time maintaining their muscle and their body fat percentage starts to creep up, looking "softer" come race time. By the time they do the race they can't wait to get back to heavy lifting and take a break from steady state running.
We've also had teams of Bikini/Figure competitors train for and compete without using any steady state cardio over their 12-16 week prep. They lift weights four days a week and do a metabolic workout one to two days a week. These women decrease their body fat consistently by half a percent a week on average while maintaining or gaining muscle.
Think about this for a minute: the endurance athletes do what many experts say you have to do to lose body fat – steady state cardio – and their body composition gets worse as the event nears. The physique competitors on the other hand do no steady state cardio, only weight training and metabolic conditioning, in order to achieve a very lean and hard condition. Ironic... at least to those who don't know any better.
The Newest Research
Let's review some of the recent research. Since the last article there have been several studies published showing no real fat loss benefits of aerobic training. In fact, a review paper by Stephen Boutcher opened with the statement, "Most exercise protocols designed to induce fat loss have focused on regular steady state exercise such as walking and jogging at a moderate intensity. Disappointingly, these kinds of protocols have led to negligible weight loss... the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible."
Another paper from the American Journal of Medicine also stated, "Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise programs of 6-12 months induce a modest reduction in weight and waist circumference in overweight and obese populations. Our results show that isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy in these patients." One study looking over the clinical benefits of high intensity interval training concluded, "Exercise has numerous benefits for high-risk populations and such benefits, especially weight loss, are amplified with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)."
Advanced Interval Training
At Results Fitness, we've always focused on metabolism-boosting, interval training workouts for fat loss. We know they work, but could we get them to work even better? Yes. Here's how we've dialed them up:
1. We've advanced the interval protocols. There are four different options we've incorporated into our programming:
Fixed Work, Fixed Recovery.
This was how we initially started our metabolic interval workouts, programming a fixed time such as 30 seconds work to 60 seconds rest.
Fixed Work, Variable Recovery.
With this variation you move for a fixed work period but then, using a heart rate monitor or rate of perceived exertion, you recover as long as needed. The better shape you're in, the less rest you'll need.
Fixed Work, Progressive Recovery.
Instead of having the same rest period we've used a progressive rest period that gets longer each round as you're getting tired.
Variable Work, Variable Recovery.
We use this most often now, with all of our members wearing heart rate monitors which individualizes the workout completely. We saw our results increase when we added in the monitors. People in great shape may take 1-2 minutes on an exercise to get their heart rate up to the intensity it needs to be. Those same people will recover much faster and be ready to go again quickly. Meanwhile, someone newer to exercise will hit red in less than 30 seconds and may take 1-2 minutes to recover.
2. Heart rate technology has changed the metabolic training game. All of our metabolic interval classes are done monitoring our members on Polar heart rate monitors. This has allowed us to individualize their workouts and guarantee they're working at the intensity necessary to get the best results, along with recovering fully before doing another interval.
3. Over the past few years we've incorporated other tools such as kettlebells, sandbags, sleds, and ropes into our metabolic training. The advantage of using a tool such as a kettlebell or sandbag in metabolic training is the ability to change the exercise – keeping the heart rate up when the movement you're doing is getting fatigued. You can easily switch from swings to push presses to cleans to deadlifts while keeping the heart rate elevated. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioningcompared traditional weight training to superset weight training. The researchers concluded that pairing exercise sets burned more calories during and after the training session than traditional training.
In addition, there has also been some research in the past five years showing kettlebell training is a fantastic tool for fat loss. One study compared two groups – one doing explosive training and the other slow training. The explosive group burned 13% more calories during training and 7% more in the post-exercise period. In another study, researchers established max kettlebell snatch rate per minute. Subjects then performed one-fourth of the max reps for 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off for 20 minutes. Caloric burn was 20.2 calories per minute.
Also a huge bonus, these exercises are lower impact than other aerobic options, like running or jumping rope. Easier on your body and more effective!
Not Quite "Anti"
I confess, I still love running and endurance sports. I know this may sound like an anti-steady-state cardio article, but please make sure that you add "for fat loss goals" to the end of that sentence! We don't use steady state cardio for our fat loss clients, but we do have a strong endurance following at our gym with mud run, triathlon and half marathon teams.
Plus this year I adopted a dog. She loves to go running and I love to take her running. Every morning we head out on an adventure together which includes a couple miles of steady state cardio. Interestingly, my body fat percentage has been creeping up with the added seven days a week of steady state cardio. Why would I keep going for a run when I know it isn't effective for fat loss? Because I enjoy it more than I care about seeing my abs right now. If you love going for a run, if it's your meditation or you're training to cross a finish line, by all means go out for a run!
If you're getting ready for a photo shoot, a beach body reveal, or want to look like a physique competitor with chiseled abs, skip your run for a few weeks and make strength training and interval training your priority. Mix in a heart rate monitor, kettlebells, and sandbags and see if you reach the same conclusion I have.
I'm signed up for three half marathons this year and believe me, this endurance athlete would love to look like a Figure competitor crossing that finish line. I'll continue to work on how to do that, if it's possible... Stay tuned.
Cosgrove, R. (2014 April 07). The Death of Steady State Cardio.
Retrieved from http://www.t-nation.com/training/death-of-steady-state-cardio/
Here's what you need to know...
• A small amount of cardio is okay if you enjoy it, but it's really not necessary for fat loss.
• At its worst, excess cardio "eats" lean muscle and creates a destructive pattern of slow metabolic rate and a yo-yo'ing body weight.
• Excess cardio leads to muscle loss with inhibits natural hormone production. Aerobic workouts also elevate cortisol levels.
• Strength training raises the metabolic rate for longer periods of time than aerobic work.
• Walking has many of the benefits and none of the drawbacks of traditional cardio. With the right diet and weight training, walking is all you need to lose fat.
Cardio Isn't That Important
There are only two types of people I hate in the fitness world: 1) people who are intolerant of other people's exercise choices, and 2) runners!
I should qualify that second part. I dislike people who dogmatically insist that any form of long duration, sustained cardio activity is the best and only way to lose fat and change a physique.
Anyone who's been in this game long enough will tell you that the hierarchy of body composition transformation goes something like this: nutrition is by far the most important, weight training is next, and cardio is a distant third.
Traditional cardio is at best a minor importance in the physique enhancement game. And under many circumstances, it becomes the worst form of exercise a relatively fit person could do for further body composition enhancement.
Reasons People Run
If you chose to run, make sure you understand the real reasons why you're running. You're running for performance enhancement, sport specific training, stress relief, general health, an endorphin rush, to prove something to yourself, or just because you like to do it. That's fine.
But if you're running to drop body fat, remove that last little layer of flab from around your midsection, or look good at the beach, you're doing it for the wrong reasons.
Cardio in the Real World
Most lifters have heard the ol' sprinter vs. marathon runner comparison. You know the drill. Marathon runners that engage in primarily low intensity, aerobic activity are usually skinny-fat, jiggle when they wiggle, and are riddled with injuries. Sprinters that engage in primarily high intensity, anaerobic work are more lean and muscular.
It's amazing how many intelligent people understand this on a conceptual level, but don't practically apply it within their training protocols. "Yeah, marathon runners are losers." Then that same allegedly intelligent person will go out and do frequent cardio to try and reach single-digit body fat percentages.
No physique athlete has any business spending two hours on a stationary bike. The fittest "looking" people in the world, and the smartest coaches in the world, base their exercise programs around strength training.
They all lift weights – both the men and the women. Cardio may be a part of the plan, but it's not the foundation.
And on a side note, most physique athletes do cardio out of tradition rather than necessity. Diet and strength training are what changes physical appearance. Cardio is supplemental at its very best.
The Dark Side of Cardio
Traditional cardio sucks for fat loss, period. I'll save you the long dissertation and give you the cliff notes version of the science behind why the majority of your training should be anaerobic (strength training/interval cardio) vs. aerobic (traditional cardio) in nature:
• The physique transformation process is more complicated than the simple calories in vs. calories out theory. The real keys are to use your diet and exercise protocols to elevate your resting metabolic rate and manipulate your anabolic, lipolytic hormones and enzymes.
Strength training has a much more powerful effect on these processes than aerobic training.
• Many who focus on just calories and the "slash and dash" mentality end up with destructive patterns – extreme calorie cuts and/or excessive aerobics. This sets off an alarm state in the body where the body sheds muscle tissue to lessen energy demands and stores/hoards body fat as a survival response.
Once this physiological state is reached, it becomes impossible to lose any more fat no matter how many calories you cut or how much aerobic work you try and add. What you end up with is someone who is on starvation level calories and performing excessive exercise, yet is still flabby.
• Muscle loss due to excessive aerobics drastically lowers the resting metabolic rate and inhibits natural hormone production.
When this type of person goes back to even just normal, healthy calorie and exercise levels, they gain all of the weight back plus a few extra. This generally results in a vicious cycle of huge swings in body weight and appearance.
Whether it's housewives following fad diets or bodybuilders alternating between competition shape and off-season obesity is irrelevant – it's still yo-yo'ing. Sometimes the damage to the metabolism and hormones becomes so great over time that it's irreversible without medical intervention.
The calories burned during an exercise session are relatively small compared to the amount burned the other 23 hours of the day during the recovery process (at rest).
Most fat oxidation occurs between training sessions, not during. As such your exercise sessions should primarily be geared towards building muscle and boosting the metabolism, not "burning fat."
• Upon cessation of an exercise session, strength training raises the metabolic rate (the after-burn effect) for longer periods of time than aerobic work – up to 48 hours.
This is because all of the steps involved in the recovery process from strength training (satellite cell activation, tissue repair, protein synthesis, etc.) require energy/calories.
• Aerobic workouts elevate cortisol levels. Long sessions can lead to excessively high levels, and too frequent sessions can lead to chronically elevated levels, neither of which is good for body composition enhancement.
Cortisol can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue, convert it to glucose (gluconeogenesis), and use it as fuel. It also leads to increased fat accumulation, especially around the midsection.
• Strength training raises cortisol levels, but it also raises testosterone and growth hormone – potent muscle building/fat burning hormones that offset cortisol. The net hormonal effect (assuming proper dietary support) is protein synthesis/lean muscle gain.
• The body burns predominantly fat during aerobic work. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store body fat.
The body burns predominantly glucose/glycogen during strength training. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store muscle glycogen.
• Strength training has more powerful, positive nutrient partitioning effects than cardio, meaning nutrients are diverted more towards muscle cells (where they can be used to build or maintain lean muscle tissue) and away from fat cells (where they can be stored).
• There are certain "intermediate" muscle fibers that can take on the properties of either slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers, depending on different modes of exercise. Endurance-based training leads to the conversion of those fibers into slow twitch fibers.
Strength training leads to the conversion of those fibers into fast twitch fibers. The latter is the more desirable result for physique enhancement because fast twitch fibers have the greatest potential for hypertrophy. This process is what firms and shapes the body, boosts metabolic rate, and leads to increased fat burning even at rest.
Cavemen and the Lost Art of Walking
We can even look at our evolutionary past for clues. In terms of "formal activity" or exercise, our bodies were designed to be anaerobic in nature. Yes, for most of the day we performed sub-maximal (and what could technically be termed aerobic) activities.
We walked around, gathered food, tracked prey, cooked, cleaned, etc. But we didn't run to keep the heart rate up or reach some type of fat burning/aerobic zone. None of what we did was formal exercise; we just completed the necessary tasks of the day, whatever that may be.
In fact, we used as little energy as possible during most of the day in order to conserve energy for when it was absolutely necessary for survival.
When it was time to move, we frickin' moved, baby. We sprinted away from predators or towards prey. We climbed trees, hoisted objects, swung weapons, and clubbed stuff to death with maximal exertion.
These are all predominantly anaerobic activities. We're not meant to reach arbitrary fat burning zones for arbitrary amounts of time. We're meant to alternate periods of kicking back with periods of kicking ass. That's how you efficiently build an attractive, functional body.
So we can take two things away from our cavemen brethren:
1. The majority of our formal exercise sessions should be anaerobic in nature.
2. Walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around.
And that doesn't mean walking on a treadmill or anything "exercise" specific. It just means real, outdoor walking as an informal activity. Remember, that's what we did in our evolutionary past. We didn't sit at a computer all day eating M&M's.
Walking gives us many of the same benefits as traditional aerobic activity: calorie burning, lowered blood pressure, lowered resting heart rate, lowered cholesterol, increased cardiac output, increased capillary density, increased nutrient/oxygen delivery, etc.
Walking does not have the drawbacks of traditional cardio: musculoskeletal injury, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, or lowered metabolic rate. Simply put, it's the aerobic activity we were meant to do.
Everyone can benefit from a little more walking in their lives. This covers the entire spectrum, from the severely overweight and deconditioned beginner to the advanced physique athlete looking to peak.
Let's apply this information to your own situation and training protocol:
Fat people: Over 20% body fat.
First, you need to start being honest with yourself. You're not bulking up or retaining water or using the extra mass to your advantage in a sport (unless it's sumo wrestling). You're fat, plain and simple.
2. Diet has and always will be the biggest factor in the fat loss equation. You need to get your ass on a targeted nutrition plan. This is where most fat loss comes from, and amazing fat loss results can be achieved with diet alone.
3. Walk 30-60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This will help you burn some calories and get some of the fat burning hormones and enzymes going (hormone sensitive lipase, catecholamines).
Go first thing in the morning, at lunch, after work, or after weight training, whenever you have the time. And if you can't fit it in, then (a) you're either lazy or (b) you really don't give a shit.
4. If you're fat, you're probably putting a lot of extra weight on your joints, are out of alignment, and are suffering from some type of chronic pain. Check out the mobility articles here on T Nation.
Fit People: 10%-20% body fat.
Train 5 days a week. All of your training should be anaerobic in nature.
2. If you're a cardio-junkie, that's cool too. You can do a mix of strength training and interval-based cardio.
3. So 5 days of strength training, 4 days of strength training plus 1 day of interval cardio, or 3 days of strength training plus 2 days of interval cardio. Do a minimum of 3 days a week of strength training. Remember all of the metabolic and hormonal benefits of strength training?
4. Interval cardio essentially means alternating periods of sprinting/maximal exertion with periods of recovery. You go hard for something like 30-60 seconds, then back off for 60-120 seconds, and then repeat. Do a 5-minute warm-up, 20-40 minutes of intervals, and a 5-minute cool down.
5. If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue.
This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What's worked best is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
6. This article is more about getting you to back off on traditional cardio than it is about specific strength training protocols. But you do need a plan designed by experts to get results. Luckily, you're on T Nation and just a click away from tons of great plans.
Competitive Physique Athletes: Less than 10% body fat.
Don't take advice from anyone who hasn't gone through the process themselves. What looks good on paper doesn't always work in the real world.
At the same time, just because someone competes or is ripped doesn't mean they have any clue about the physique transformation process. Learn from people who have both a scientific background and practical experience.
2. Again, diet is still the most important factor to get to low single-digit body fat percentages. So take care of it.
3. Ditch cardio work completely, even interval work. At this point you don't have a lot of body fat left to burn, and are more susceptible to tapping into muscle tissue as a reserve fuel, which results in a loss of muscle and a soft, flat appearance.
4. You should be strength training 4-6 days a week. Focus on building, preserving, and maintaining your muscle mass with your training. Let your diet "burn off" the body fat.
5. If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle.
This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What typically works best is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with two or three 45-minute walks per week.
Heading to the gym tonight? You better be heading towards the gym floor and not the stationary bike!
Miyaki, N. (2010 October 10). The Best Damn Cardio Article - Period.
Retrieved from http://www.t-nation.com/training/the-best-damn-cardio-article-period/