In Part 2, we talked a lot about some of the theories behind my critique on long distance cardio. Now it’s time to get down to some practical application strategies. Science and stories are all good, but what should we be doing in the real world with regard to this cardio conundrum? That’s the real question.
CARDIO IS FOR FAT PEOPLE
In Part 1, I mentioned that cardio can be good for several different populations: performance athletes, general health enthusiasts, and of course, porn stars and erectile dysfunction patients. We should add one more group to that list — fat people.
If you are over 20-25% body fat, than you need to start being honest with yourself — you are not bulking up or retaining water or using the extra mass to your advantage in a sport (unless its sumo wrestling). You are fat, plain and simple. I’m not trying to be a jerk or make you feel bad, but I am trying to give you some of the tough love that many of today’s spoiled, lazy generation needs to hear. We all need to stop procrastinating, making excuses, and finding rationalizations, and start getting motivated if we expect to make some changes to our physiques.
If you are fat, your body is obviously out of whack. It could be from improper food selection, lack of activity, stress factors, hormonal imbalances, or some combination. Activity in general, and cardio in particular, can go a long way in regulating some of your body’s fat burning mechanisms that currently lie dormant. Cardio can increase many of the hormones and enzymes that influence the fat burning process. These compounds are not functioning properly, or are just not stimulated enough, in the overweight population.
Cardio activity elevates the circulation of catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine) which increase the rate at which stored body fat is broken down to be used as a fuel source. It also increases the output of hormone sensitive lipase, which has similar fat burning effects. In short, introducing a regular aerobic routine into a fat person’s life can help them make the transition from a fat-storing machine into a fat-burning machine.
With fit people — those who have a higher lean muscle to body fat ratio — you need to be aware of some of the detrimental effects cardio can have on physical appearance. The leaner you get, the more concerned you need to become. Too much cardio can force the body to burn off muscle tissue, especially if you don’t have a lot of body fat left to burn.
This is less of a concern with fatter people — those who have a higher body fat to lean muscle mass ratio. Fat people have a lot of body fat to lose, so the body will preferentially burn off some of this excess, non-functional tissue in response to cardio sessions. The body will burn what it has plenty to spare and is less likely to tap into muscle stores as a reserve fuel.
In short, fat people can benefit from regular aerobic exercise. We’ll talk about specific recommendations later in the article.
CARDIO FOR FIT PEOPLE
The leaner you get, the more counterproductive cardio can become. This is because you are more susceptible to tapping into muscle tissue as a reserve fuel, which results in the loss of lean muscle mass, a lowered metabolic rate, and a soft/flabby appearance despite a high volume of work. Add to that the effects overdoing long distance cardio can have on the hormonal balance that influences physical appearance — cortisol is elevated and testosterone is suppressed — and you have yourself quite a counterproductive 1-2 punch combo. So what is a fit person, especially a fit person still trying to lose a little more body fat, supposed to do with their training protocol?
Lets look at our evolutionary past for clues. In terms of “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.
And 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 are not meant to reach arbitrary fat burning zones for arbitrary amounts of time. We are meant to alternate periods of kicking back with periods of kicking ass. That’s how you efficiently build an attractive, functional body.
How does that translate into today’s dilemma of designing optimal fat loss protocols? It’s quite simple. Assuming adequate health levels and no pre-existing medical conditions, all of your exercise sessions — or formal “activity” – should primarily be anaerobic in nature. Weight training is one form. In terms of cardio exercise, interval training is another option.
Interval cardio essentially means alternating periods of sprinting/maximal exertion with periods of recovery. It’s like the old physical education classic of walking the curve and running the straightaway on a track (minus the PE teacher with high and tight shorts yelling at you). You go hard for something like 30-60 seconds, then back off for 60-120 seconds, and then repeat.
There is a lot of research on the superiority of interval cardio (sprinters) to steady-state endurance training (marathon runners) for body composition transformation purposes.
- Intervals boost growth hormone and igf-1 levels. This leads to increased rates of fat oxidation (fat burning).
- Intervals have a higher after-burn effect than traditional cardio. Upon completion of an exercise session, intervals elevate the metabolism for a longer period of time than traditional cardio. This is due to the high-energy (calorie) demands involved in the recovery process from anaerobic-based, interval training.
- Intervals have positive nutrient partitioning effects, meaning nutrients are diverted more towards muscle cells (where they can be used to build/maintain lean muscle tissue) and away from fat cells (where they can be stored as body fat).
- Intervals improve insulin sensitivity, which is a follow up to the preceding statement. Improved insulin sensitivity means the carbohydrates you eat are more likely to be absorbed into the muscle cell and stored as muscle glycogen rather than stored as body fat.
- 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. Interval-based 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.
WHY NOT JUST WEIGHT TRAIN?
When people talk about the numerous benefits of interval cardio sessions, such as above, it sounds a lot like the benefits of another form of training — strength training! Weight training is an interval-based method of training. You do a set, hopefully close to maximal exertion, spend a period of time recovering, and then repeat. That’s an interval by definition.
Weight training boosts growth hormone, elevates the metabolic rate, has a superior after-burn effect, etc. In fact, many articles describing the benefits of high intensity interval training will often say things like, “interval training has many of the same benefits as weight training.” So my question is, why not just weight train?
I guess people have it so ingrained in their heads that cardio is absolutely necessary for fat loss. It is not. A solid diet and some anaerobic activity are requirements — which can be accomplished with smart food choices and weight training alone.
I will admit I am biased towards weight training. I’d much rather kill myself hitting the weights than kill myself running wind sprints or doing boot camp drills. I think a lot of people feel the same way. Many people come to enjoy weight training — the pump, the burn, the mind-muscle connection, and the varied stimulus of changing exercises, angles, and rep execution. They don’t necessarily enjoy the cardio-based stuff — feeling like their lungs are going to burst. I am one of those people. So I do intervals, its just all weight training based intervals.
But if you are a cardio junkie, that’s cool too. You can hit the wind sprints or stationary bike or stair intervals a few times a week instead of the weights. Any sport that incorporates sprints, jumps, lifts, etc. — football, basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, kickboxing, mixed martial arts, the list goes on and on — is what I am talking about. You just have to get out of the habit of a cardio routine that consists entirely of sub-maximal, low intensity endurance training. Don’t get lazy and sit there mindlessly plodding or pedaling away like a hamster on a wheel. Don’t fall into the endurance-training trap. Keep incorporating the anaerobic/sprint bursts to maximize the session’s effectiveness for physique enhancement.
THE LOST ART OF WALKING
I told you all of my formal activity is based on weight training sessions, but that’s not quite the entire story. I walk, and if I’m trying to peak for something (say a physique competition or photo shoot) I walk quite a bit.
Walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around. And I don’t mean walking on a treadmill or anything “exercise” specific. I just mean real, outdoor walking as an informal activity. Remember, that’s what we did in our evolutionary past. We walked to hunt, gather, travel, track, etc., all just as part of our regular day. We didn’t sit at a computer all day eating M&M’s.
(On a side note though, aren’t M&M’s awesome with their milky chocolate center and crunchy shells? Damn I love those things! But I digress…and of course I am not condoning that you ever eat those tasty, little morsels. Stay away and stay on track my friends!)
Walking gives us many of the same benefits as traditional aerobic activity (calorie burning, lowered blood pressure, lowered resting heart rate, lowered cholesterol, increased nutrient/oxygen delivery, etc.) without all of the drawbacks (musculoskeletal injury, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, etc.).
Just like everyone can benefit from a little more Nate Miyaki in their lives, 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. Here are some deep thoughts for your walk:
1. Remember when I said fat people could benefit from a regular aerobic routine, and that I would give you practical advice later in the article. Well, here it is. Walk, preferably daily. That’s right, you get to walk as a formal exercise session. Wake your ass up earlier and walk for 30-60 minutes before work, or walk at lunch, or take a walk before dinner.
Most overweight, deconditioned people can’t handle the stress of anaerobic interval training. And what about traditional aerobic training (running, etc.)? Forget about it. All of that weight pounding down on the joints leads to nothing but chronic aches and pains, and ultimately results in the inability to adhere to a consistent fitness program.
Amazing weight loss results can be achieved by focusing on a sound nutrition plan and walking alone, no formal gym time necessary (kind of like our caveman ancestors). This is probably the easiest, safest, and most effective way for overweight/obese people to get results. And it’s probably the plan most likely to be followed — walk and eat right, simple enough if you are at least somewhat motivated. But what’s the drop out rate for extreme diets and/or pump and jump aerobics classes?
When you get below 20-25% body fat, which should be a relatively easy process if you work to clean up your diet and walk consistently, then we can talk about adding in some weight training and/or interval training to shape the body and magnify the fat loss results.
And if you can’t find 30-60 minutes a day to walk and do something good for yourself then: (a) You’re just being lazy as shit or (b) You really don’t give a shit. Either way, this blog is probably not for you.
2. For physique athletes, some outdoor walking on your off days from anaerobic training (weight training or interval cardio sessions) is a great way to burn off a few extra calories WITHOUT inhibiting your recovery abilities. In fact, the little extra blood flow and circulation can aid in the recovery process between training sessions.
If you are trying to peak and reach low single digit body fat percentages, you probably are already weight training 4-5 days a week, or performing some mix of weight training and interval training, AND following a strict, regimented diet. There’s not a ton more you can do. However, walking can be a small yet effective additional tool that helps you burn off some extra body fat WITHOUT the detrimental effects of traditional aerobics — muscle loss, cortisol elevation, testosterone suppression, etc. In this case, you too can walk as a formal exercise session, maybe 30-60 minutes on off days.
3. Because of our unnatural, sedentary and “seated” lifestyles due to the Technology Age, everyone can benefit from a little more non-exercise induced thermogenesis. In other words, a little extra, informal calorie burning built into the normal course of our days can add up over time. This generally involves walking more.
These are some of the common tips people throw around: take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further away from exits, and walk to a destination instead of driving (if its within reason). I’m sure you can think of a few more opportunities within your specific daily routine.
The science explains it, but from a pure logical standpoint it seems counterintuitive that less (cardio) can actually equal more (fat loss) results. All I can tell you is that it is true. I’ve seen it time and time again in the trenches of the training industry. I’ve had numerous clients back off on the volume of their aerobic sessions, or cut them out completely, focus more on strength training or interval aerobics, and as a direct result lose fat and tighten up their physiques. I guess you could say it comes down to a hormonal/metabolic-thing.
To summarize: If you want to lose body fat, particularly stubborn belly fat or whatever else your particular problem areas may be, than you should:
1. Follow a nutrition plan backed by science AND real world success (see my Nutrition 101 series).
2. Focus on anaerobic training (strength training and/or interval aerobics)
3. Limit traditional long-distance endurance training
4. Walk more