3 Reasons to Cut Back Cardio for Fat Loss Goals & 3 Things to Do Instead

Good morning Open-mouthed smile

Before we get into today’s post, I have a couple updates about online personal training services: I am currently at capacity for my one-on-one online coaching style clients -  I’ll open up applications again once I have a spot free. However, I’ve added a tier to my one-on-one personal training.

In addition to coaching style training, I will now also be offering program-style training. This option is more affordable, but less hands on as far as my involvement with coaching you. You can read more about it if you’re interested here.

So, back to today’s post title. Let me show you a very typical scenario I get with new clients:

A new client – we’ll call her Sue -  comes to me with a goal of fat loss. In pounds on the scale, let’s say it’s between 10-20 – so not too much (FWIW, the scale is my least favorite form of measurement. Body fat analysis, measurements, and how the clothes fit is much preferred.)

When I ask what Sue what she’s currently doing for exercise, it’s a 6 day regimen of a combination of steady state cardio, interval work, core work, and “trying to do circuits with weights a couple times a week,” too.

My advice to this Sue, first and foremost is: cut down your training. That’s way more cardio than necessary.

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And this message is usually not well received at first. In Sue’s mind, if she’s doing that much aerobic exercise and not losing weight, clearly doing less than that will prevent her from losing weight – or even make her gain, right? Wrong.

Trust me, I tell her. It’s time to stop training harder and more, and start training smarter.

Begrudgingly, she does, but it also usually pays off after our first re-assessment, after she discovers she’s lost x % of body fat and several inches (notice I didn’t mention the scale.)

It’s the same type of thing when I’m working with a client on her goals, and goal 1 is to lose fat, while goal 2 is to run a half marathon or another endurance event. In my experience and research, those two goals are conversely related, so I usually tell them to pick one. Because while endurance training is wonderful if you’re training for, well, an endurance sport, it’s not great if your primary goal is fat loss. 

There’s several reasons why I often have clients scale back cardio:

1) With that much cardio, there’s not much time or energy for strength training.

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With hours and hours of cardio a week, it’s extremely hard (if not impossible) to build muscle, let alone maintain it. This works conversely if a goal is to see those defined arms or develop some glutes. Additionally, if you’re doing that much cardio, you likely don’t have the energy it takes to put toward a solid strength workout.

2) Your body is really good at running/spinning/poison of choice for an hour.

Our bodies are very smart and very adaptable. It’s likely that the body has become very efficient at the 5 miles run you do 3x’s/week, meaning that it gets a little easier each time. Easier=less energy expended=fewer calories burned. Several recent studies, like this one from the Journal of Obesity, says that exercise programs that call for steady state cardio lead to negligible fat loss results.

3) Cardio lights a fire to the appetite.

Increased cardio leads to an increased appetite. Just as our bodies are smart enough to adapt to a certain mode of exercise, they’re also smart enough to know we’ve burned 700 calories in one workout, and now we’re in a huge deficit.  According to your body’s needs, it’s time to get those calories back in, stat.

In addition to the three reasons above, your body is likely really tired, and not recovering well. If you are adding in strength training on top of all of that cardio, it makes it tough to reap the reward for the work you’re putting in. And if all of that aerobic exercise  isn’t even an effective weight loss tool, like this study from the Divisions of Cardiology says, why put yourself through that at all?

So what should you do instead?

1) First of all, if you’re equating workouts with a number of calories burned, stop.

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Precisely.

This type of mindset might have helped one lose weight for a while, but it’s usually never long-lasting. Additionally, it turns workouts into punishment. So you end up eating 3 donuts, running or stair master-ing it off, getting hungry again from the cardio, overeat, and it ends up a vicious cycle. Instead, think about what your workouts do FOR you instead of take away from you: you get stronger, become more capable, gain muscle, increase bone density, increase your bad-assery, etc.

2) Secondly, complete 2-4 strength workouts a week using compound exercises.

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For fat loss, I prefer either a full body split or an upper/lower/full split. Also, make sure you’re getting plenty of rest and recovery from those strength workouts. With a solid strength program, your body will reap a multitude of benefits, and good nutrition plan should take care of/supplement your fat loss goals.

3) Do 1-3 HIIT/interval training/cardio strength training workouts a week.

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Yes, this ultimately burns a lot of calories from the EPOC (excess post oxygen consumption,) but try not to think of these workouts in terms of how many calories they burn, but rather as cardio that’s muscle-building. This study from the Montreal Heart Institute concluded that HIIT produced more weight loss than MICE (moderate-intensity continuous exercise.)

It’s tough to back off of cardio – I know, I’ve been there before. I used to run, spin, or do some sort of cardio 5-6 days a week. The feeling is almost addictive and euphoric during and directly after. But generally the rest of the day, I was exhausted, felt tired, and wasn’t sleeping well. That, along with some other things, lead to hormone disruption, over-training, and burn out.

First, omit a couple of your “formal” cardio workouts, and walk instead. I know some people may disagree, but I don’t consider walking a workout or exercise– it’s being active. As human beings, we are supposed to walk a whole bunch. Replace a couple cardio workouts for a leisurely walk, soaking up some vitamin D and enjoying the day.

Having said all of this…the most important thing (I believe) is that if you’re doing something active and you love it, good on you! If you love running with every bone in your body, by all means, don’t let anything I say stop you. I’m the first one to admit, I love a good spin class (but I keep them to 30 minutes, and focus on intervals – even the ones I teach!) Just be cognizant that if you also have goals of getting a lean, muscular physique, the two don’t go hand-in-hand.

How much cardio do you typically do a week?

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