There are only two types of people I hate in the fitness world: People who are intolerant of other people’s exercise choices, and runners! I should qualify that second part. I hate people who dogmatically insist that running (or any other form of long duration, sustained cardio activity) is the best and only way to lose fat and change a physique. Actually, I don’t really hate anyone, but for Hollywood dramatic effect…
Long distance running is the worst form of exercise an average to semi-fit person could do for body composition enhancement. I understand that stance is highly controversial and contradictory to what most people believe, and I know I’m going to have to do a lot of convincing to make a true believer out of you. But trust me, I’ve been in the physique game long enough to say that with the utmost confidence, and more importantly, with the truest sincerity in wanting to help you reach your physique goals.
The hierarchy of body composition transformation goes something like this: nutrition is by far the most important, weight training is next, and the “C” word is a distant third. Traditional cardio is, at best, a minor importance in the physique enhancement game. My stance stems from a combination of scientific research, practical experience as a competitive physique athlete, and over ten years running a training business working with clients interested in body composition change just like you.
So if you chose to run, make sure you understand the real reasons why you are running. You are running for performance enhancement, or sport specific training, or stress relief, or general health, or endorphin rush, or to prove something to yourself, or just because you like to do it. But if you are running to drop body fat, remove that last little layer of flab from around your midsection, or look good at the beach, you are doing it for the wrong reasons — unless your last name is Hasslehoff.
CARDIO – THE GOOD
I’ll be doing a lot of bagging on cardio in the upcoming article, so I figured I’d start by saying a few nice things about it first. After all, there’s a little bit of good in everyone, and in everything. I don’t want you to think I’m some crazy radical that is completely biased or is way off his rocker. I understand the many benefits of aerobic exercise:
- Improved cardiovascular functioning
- Increased maximal cardiac output
- Increased stroke volume
- Reduced resting heart rate
- Reduced heart rate during submaximal activity/exercise
- Reduced blood pressure
- Increased capillary density and circulation (increases oxygen and nutrient delivery to cells)
- Increased mitochondrial density
- Increased cardiovascular endurance
- Improved aerobic performance
THE CARDIO CREW
Keeping in mind the above physiological adaptations to aerobic exercise, the two primary groups of people that could potentially benefit from regular cardio activity should jump right out at you. Take a wild guess — porn stars and erectile dysfunction patients. Just kidding (actually, not really, both of those groups can benefit). But the two groups I am thinking of are: (1) the general population for general health; and (2) performance athletes.
Some people just want to include moderate exercise in their daily routine simply to improve overall health, reduce disease risk factors, feel better, extend life expectancy, etc. They don’t necessarily care about improving physical appearance or getting ripped. That’s cool, and certainly understandable. And yes I get it — us bodybuilders, figure girls, fitness models, beach-goers, and single guys/girls on the prowl are way too vain anyways, right?
Obviously, reducing blood pressure and improving circulation and cardiovascular functioning can go a long way in improving your overall health profile. Couple that with a sound nutrition plan, and you’re not doing half bad. You may not get yourself onto the cover of next month’s Men’s or Women’s Fitness magazines, but you can rest assured you are doing something good for your health and well-being.
The benefits of aerobic exercise for performance athletes should be a no-brainer. It’s common sense. If your sport requires a certain amount of aerobic endurance, than your training should mimic those demands. Training protocols need to be structured in a way that enhances your sports’ skills and maximizes your performance abilities. In other words, if you run in your sport, than you should be running, and trying to improve your running efficiency, in your training routines.
PERFORMANCE GOALS ARE DIFFERENT THAN PHYSIQUE GOALS
Now, here is the critical distinction that most people overlook when designing their fat loss plans. Training for general health is different than training to maximize body composition change. Training for sport performance is different than training to maximize body composition change. Yes there can be overlap. Yes there can be similarities in training protocols. But what is good for one group of people is not necessarily good for the other. You need to prioritize.
One size does not fit all when it comes to targeted program design based on a person’s SPECIFIC goals. While running may be good for your resting heart rate or for improving your marathon times, excessive aerobic work may also be the reason why you can’t get rid of your damn stubborn belly fat. So, what you really need to ask yourself is do you want to have a kick-ass marathon time or a kick-ass six-pack? Those are different goals that necessitate different training protocols that necessitate different trainers/coaches. Obviously, being biased towards appearance-based training, my focus is on the six-pack junkie.
CARDIO FOR FAT LOSS — A PRACTICAL LOOK
Traditional cardio sucks for fat loss – period. That’s the end of today’s lesson my young apprentice. I’ll see you next week.
We’re going to get into the science of my critique on cardio, so don’t worry. But for now, lets just take a look at some practical examples. After all, that’s what matters most right? We just want to know what works for fat loss in the real world, forget about science or theory.
I was sitting in a coffee shop by my house the other day, which was directly within the route of the San Francisco Marathon. In half an hour, I must have watched at least a thousand runners go by. I could count on one hand the number of them that had what would be considered exceptional physiques. You know what I’m talking about — lean, ripped, would look phenomenal in board shorts or a bikini — the type of body most of us are in pursuit of right?
And what about the rest of the pack, the other 99%? Most of them were skinny-fat. They were lean to some extent, yet somehow remained flabby. They had no muscle tone or definition, and their arms and legs jiggled as they wiggled. They carried a nice layer of flab right smack-dab around the midsection; no six-pack setting up shop under the lycra shirt. Many of them were just plain ol’ fat. To make matters worse, almost all of them looked beat up, unhappy, injured, hobbled, etc. It didn’t look like an appealing way to get in shape, even if it was the most productive way.
But it is not. If running, or the performance of any type of long duration, sustained cardiovascular activity were the key to fat loss/body composition transformation, wouldn’t every single one of those runners be ripped? I mean, based on their shear volume or aerobic training – often 20+ hours a week — marathon runners or triathletes would be the fittest “looking” people on earth. They definitely are fit, but they are not the fittest “looking”, and that is what my clientele cares about the most. The people I advise want to “look” like they can run a thousand miles non-stop or bench press 1000lbs or beat-up Superman or Wonderwoman in a fight. Whether they can actually do it or not is of lesser concern. Again, beach body training is about appearance, not performance.
I hope you don’t think I’m trying to be a fitness bully picking on runners or endurance athletes. In all honesty, I highly respect what they do. I was born a sprinter, I couldn’t even imagine running 26 miles straight. That’s amazing to me. Give me 100-200 meters, an oxygen tank, and a Martini and I’ll cheer you on the rest of the 25¾ miles. To complete a race is an incredible achievement that you can remember the rest of your life. I’m simply trying to teach people the optimal way to train for physique enhancement, and point out the many differences between performance-based training and appearance-based training.
Many people are under the misguided notion that they must kill themselves running long distances in order to get into shape, or maintain a decent weight. It’s simply not true. If you want to complete a race to attain a personal goal or prove to yourself you can do something athletically, than run Forest or Franny, run. But if you are as vain as I am and just want to look good, I’m hear to tell you the answers DO NOT necessarily lie on a treadmill or running trail. You should lift Forest or Franny, lift.
THE GYM PHENOMENON
Take a look around your gym the next time you are there. What do you typically see? You probably see rows and rows of cardio equipment filled to the brim. You probably see the aerobics room overflowing with dancers, spinners, hip hoppers, and cardio kickboxers jumping and pumping away. You probably also see a bunch of average physiques.
Now, find some of the fittest “looking” people in the gym. Look at the people that have the physique attributes that you want. Guys, we’re talking full pecs, wide shoulders, ripped arms, six-pack abs, etc. Girls, we’re talking toned arms, firm legs, tight glutes, flat stomach, etc. I can guarantee you that you are looking on the weight room floor to find those beautiful bodies.
The fittest “looking” people in the world — natural bodybuilders, figure girls, fitness models, etc. — base their exercise programs around strength training. Just look online or in some magazines at their programs, you’ll see what I mean. They all lift weights — both the men and the women. Cardio may be a part of the plan, but it is not the foundation. And on a side note, I would even go as far as to say that most of the physique athletes out there do cardio out of tradition rather than necessity. Diet and strength training are what changes physical appearance. Cardio is supplemental at its very best.
HITTING THE WALL
This article is probably starting to feel like a marathon, right? Lets take a little break to digest some of what I’m trying to get across. I understand it is a controversial topic, and is counter-intuitive to what has been brainwashed into us from most of the fitness industry and mainstream media.
Think about some of the practical examples I’ve discussed. I speak the truth, right? How many ripped endurance athletes do you personally know? Thin, maybe, but full-blown ripped?
We’ll be back in Part 2 with all the scientific explanations for the problems associated with too much cardio. Sometimes objective science is necessary to overcome preconceived notions and personal biases.