Today I want to share with you why cardio should NOT be your first choice for fat loss.
(PS- want the PDF version of this blog? Download it here)
In fact, steady state cardio should not be a priority at all unless you enjoy running (hello, who truly enjoys it?). I want you to breakup with cardio just like I did. Say it with me “buh-bye cardio”!
Let me explain why. Keep reading.
At 18 years old I was a freshman in college who was breaking out of my shell and experiencing independence for the first time. Living that dorm life with a dining hall pass meant zero cooking by me. However it also meant that us broke, college students took advantage of the awesome buffet full of incredible food almost every day. Was one plate satisfactory? Absolutely not! We had to go back for seconds and thirds, of course. We absolutely, most definitely, never left there empty handed. We came prepared with Ziplocs to stuff our purses full of goodies like cookies, banana bread, and pizza. Did I mention we had a Taco Bell and Wendy’s on campus as well? Well I bet you can guess where this story is going. Yes, I Stephanie Dorworth put on the freshman ten.
Over the next few years I did what I thought was best to lose the weight: I started working out. And guess what form of exercise I chose. I chose cardio for fat loss (okay that was too easy).
The elliptical became my second home everyday for about 1-2 hours. Once that bored me, I ventured outside and became a long distance runner. I never attempted a formal marathon but I trained as though I was going to until my knees screamed at me otherwise. I would run 20-50 miles a week because I thought more was better. I became obsessed with steady state cardio. If only I had known what high intensity interval training (HIIT) was back then, my knee wouldn’t be so messed up.
That was me from 2007-2010: a cardio addict.
Signs of a cardio addict:
You use it to negate a bad food choice
You care more about duration than intensity
You sign up for a marathon purely to lose weight not because it sounds fun
You feel fat if you skip a day of cardio
You do more cardio each time
You are anxious when you think about eliminating cardio- you need it
If you can relate to this in any way, then this article is most definitely written with you in mind. I need you to know something very important: cardio for fat loss is being misused due to ignorance. Society has ingrained in our minds that in order to lose weight we must run it off. When all that’s running away is our precious time, our joint health, and our knowledge of what is a healthy form and amount of exercise.
Part One | The Cardio Relationship
I want to preface this by saying that throughout this article, when I say the word cardio I am referring to steady state cardio. The type of cardio where you remain at low intensity for a long duration of time (i.e. jogging or running).
Cardio technically means heart and is derived from the Greek word “kardia”. The heart is the one thing that keeps us alive. Which means it is the one thing we should be focused on keeping healthy. “Oh oh oh oh staying alive, staying alive.” We’ve got to keep our hearts functioning at their absolute best. Not only so we can stay alive but also so we can keep swooning at Ryan Gosling every time he shows up on our TV screens and chase after cute and cuddly puppy dogs when they strut by.
You see, when we talk about the heart, our cardiovascular health and our emotions go hand in hand. Hence the reason I have titled this article “Breakup with Cardio”. It isn’t simply a physical action to stop cardio. It’s not that simple. It takes cutting emotional ties, habits, and feelings of addiction to cease the cardio cycle. From here on out, we are going to treat this relationship you have with cardio like a personal relationship. You and cardio? You’re done.
If only it were that easy. When have you ever had a clean and quick personal breakup? They just don’t happen like that. I have a classic case of the long, drawn out breakup as an example.
When I was in college I had an on-and-off boyfriend for over three years: let’s call him number four. He was my fourth boyfriend in life and we had a young and naive relationship. When we first started dated we had a great connection, had fun together, and were attracted to one another. However number four had difficulty keeping his eyes on only me. Over time, his wandering eyes led him to cheat on me several times: emotionally and physically. Number four has the chronic condition of always wanting what he doesn’t have and I’m certain he will always be like that.
The first time I forgave him and the second time I forgave him, with some additional bitterness and trust issues. Can you relate yet? Every time we broke up, he wanted me back after a few months of screwing around. By round three together, I thought things were better. But ultimately, his chronic condition had not been cured. I was left in a stand still.
More often than not I was crying myself to sleep at night. More often than not I was feeling like I wasn’t a priority to him. And more often than not, I felt deep down he was not good for me. Number four and I were in an unhealthy relationship.
We’ve all had a relationship like that: on and off. We think we need them and then we realize they aren’t the best option for us. Are you and cardio perhaps like this?
Lesson learned: Your relationship with cardio is unhealthy.
Part Two | The Cardio Breakup
Now it’s only tearing you down. You’re in pain and the love is no longer growing. In fact, progress has plateaued and the miles together feel endless. Those hours together each and everyday used to feel young and exciting. Now they only leave you feeling hurt and depleted. Something has to be done. And this time, for good.
Just end it. Breakup with cardio.
I will get into the science of things later and explain why you don’t need cardio as much as you think you do. But first, before you make that physical change of removing cardio from your routine, you have to make an emotional change and breakup with cardio. No more turning to it when something goes wrong and no more feeling required to do it after eating half a pizza and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.
From this point on, you’ve got to slowly break away. You know how in a relationship when you know it’s ending but it kind of lingers on until the end? That’s how it’s likely going to be with cardio. You’re going to slowly spend less and less time together. And finally, you’ll cut the cord.
Going back to number four, after three years of on and off we were at a stand still. It was something my mom told me that stuck. She said Stephanie, until one door closes another cannot open. What she meant was, until I closed that chapter of my life, the door for my future husband could never open. From that point on, I realized that relationship had to finally end or else I would be stuck in a vicious cycle of disappointment. I knew that if I stayed with him, I would never fully trust him, he would never be faithful to me, and I would never feel truly loved. Number four did not make me a better person. I deserved better. I did what I knew I should have done long ago and ended it for good. Three strikes, you’re out.
That breakup played out like most breakups do. Think back to your past breakups. Imagine yourself in that exact moment. What did you feel? Angry? Depressed? Lonely? You probably wanted to crawl into your big, puffy cloud of sheets and pillows and stay there forever. It took time to move on, right? The same process goes for your breakup with steady state cardio. You will move on, it just takes time.
Once you’ve accepted the relationship is over, it’s time to announce it to the world- Facebook official no more. It’s not official until you tell the world. If you break up with a boyfriend, the breakup truly becomes official when you tell your friends. They will now hold you accountable to stay away from them and won’t allow you to go running back to them. The same goes for cardio. Announce it to the world. Seriously. It only becomes official when you have accountability from others. Get the support of your friends and family to move on. Just like you probably announced your goal to run a marathon in the past. Announce your breakup and then we can move on to the next stage!
Go on your facebook, twitter, or instagram right now. Share this “I am done obsessing over steady state cardio” #breakupwithcardio #beautifultothecore
Lesson learned: To stop cardio, you must first breakup with it emotionally.
Part Three | The Mindset Change
Those thoughts during my breakup with number four were similar to the thoughts I felt during my breakup with cardio. Me and cardio, we were tight. It was the peanut butter to my jelly and the milk to my Fruity Pebbles (can you tell I’m hungry?). Here’s how that breakup went.
Let me take you back to 2011. I had moved to Arizona to start my first professional job so I was in a brand new environment. When I got there I got a gym membership at the Gold’s Gym down the street. My first few weeks there I took full advantage of the cardio movie room. It was Heaven for a cardio bunny because it was a dark room full of cardio equipment and a movie playing. I loved it! But I also felt guilty. A few months before I realized my cardio obsession and decided it was time to start the breakup process. Yet here I was, still putting in my time. I felt like I was hiding my obsession with cardio by doing my hours of cardio in the dark. I knew what I was doing to be “healthy” was not truly healthy. So what did I do? I made a mindset change. I set a goal for myself: Over the next few weeks I would do less and less cardio. Until eventually I was doing none at all. I gradually shifted some of my cardio time to the women’s only weight training room of the gym.
I began lifting weights in a comfortable environment where only women were allowed in that gym. At first I felt like a weakling because I could barely leg press 50 pounds, despite my years of running. I guess endurance doesn’t mean you’re strong. Over time I spent less time doing cardio and more time strength training.
Once I felt comfortable using more weight and had good form with strength training, I tiptoed out into the main part of the gym (where all eyes were on me). I could just imagine what other people were thinking seeing a twig like me lift. But the more I lifted weights, the more confidence I gained, the stronger I got, and the happier it made me! I noticed little baby biceps growing and I felt a booty starting to grow and fill out my once pancake-flat butt. The results gave me motivation to keep going. And it was then that I fell in love with strength training: similar to the feeling I once got when I was running endlessly, feeling light as a feather, and free as a bird! Those endorphins were now coming from strength training and I felt like Wonder Woman. That simple mindset change from “I can’t” to “I can” is all it took.
Later in 2011 my now husband Zach moved to Arizona so we could be together. Going to the gym together became one of our favorite things to do. I was still doing a little cardio at the time (about 25% as much as before) but thanks to his education and motivation, I was transformed from a cardio queen to a weightlifter 100%! He is one of the most intelligent people I know (swoon) so I learned more about the what’s and why’s: why I was doing each exercise, what I was supposed to feel, what muscles I was working, what proper form was, what timing to use, etc. He has changed my life in so many positive ways, but one of the biggest ways in regards to my health was him urging me to quit the endless cardio. With that handsome smile, who could say no?
The result: my legs transformed from twigs to shapely and my arms started to grow some shoulder pads! I fell in love with sculpting my body and learned a lot about health and fitness over the next few years. Sure, I gained weight as expected. I have since put on about sixteen pounds of muscle (over six years). But I look about the same body fat percentage as before. So it was good weight gain! The number on the scale isn’t everything.
Through this entire process my mindset about exchanging cardio for strength training went from one of fear, intimidation, guilt, and insecurity to one of confidence, fearlessness, growth, and fulfillment. I had re-wired my mind to pick strength training over cardio as my passion for training grew stronger.
Often times fear is holding us back from change. Maybe you’re afraid that if you stop steady state cardio, you will gain weight and feel awful. Here’s the truth: if you stop working out altogether you will likely gain body fat. So the trick is, replace it with something more effective. Replace steady state cardio with strength training and HIIT. It is more effective and typically burns more calories than steady state cardio. Intensity gives results, not duration.
I can’t forget to mention something about my food mindset. Whenever I was running, I justified eating crappier food. Oh, I can eat this tub of Ben & Jerry’s because I went on a seven mile run this morning. Oh, I can go out to Taco Bell because I ran ten miles today. As a runner, I thought I was burning off more than I was. So I justified eating worse by the amount of time I spent out running. Ultimately, it comes down to calories in versus calories out. If calories in is more than calories out, you will gain weight/fat.
Lesson learned: When you think weight loss, think strength training (not cardio).
Part Four | The Habit Change
Let’s use some real life examples to think about this. If you’re a smoker, you can replace grabbing a cigarette with grabbing a puzzle to do. If you’re a drinker, you can replace grabbing liquor with grabbing a yummy tea. If you’re a binge eater, you can replace grabbing a second or third serving with grabbing a book to read. If you’re being strung along by an ex, you can replace grabbing the phone to call them with talking to a friend (family, roommate, etc) instead. If you’re a cardio addict, you can replace going on a run with going to the gym. This active decision to replace running will eventually become an automatic behavior by actively replacing the habit. That’s how I cut my cardio addition for good in late 2011! It wasn’t easy the first few weeks, but once it became a habit I never looked back.
If you think about it, half our daily life is a string of habits. From when we wake up to when we go to sleep: habits. Those habits are important because it’s the decisions we make and the habits we’ve created over time that determine our happiness, health, career success, and financial success. Since habits are so important let’s dissect them a little bit.
A habit occurs due to a cue or trigger. That leads us to a routine (physical or emotional) and ends with a reward of some sort.
Example a: Getting home from work and seeing your running shoes by the door cues a run which rewards you with relaxation time watching TV after.
Now let’s replace that running habit with something else.
Example b: Getting out of work and seeing the gym bag by the door cues you to go to the gym which rewards you with relaxation time at the TV after.
We kept the cue and the reward similar but replaced the routine.
Seems pretty simple, right? But once stress hits, old habits may resurface. Stress makes this simple habit replacement process harder. That’s why we need community support (which will be covered in part seven).
Lesson learned: Replace your running habit with strength training by having a cue that leads you to the gym.
Part Five | The Physical Change
For years, it was thought low intensity cardio was best because it kept you in that “fat burning” zone we have all seen charts for on the cardio machines. Our bodies were not built for steady state cardio. Our bodies are programmed to survive as long as possible with the least amount of energy expenditure. What steady state cardio does is shoot our cortisol (stress) hormone levels through the roof and lower our testosterone hormone levels (which are important for fat burning). Now, research is finding high intensity interval training (HIIT) is far superior. Let’s start from the beginning.
What is HIIT? HIIT is training involving short bursts of maximum intensity followed by a short period of recovery. Notice the “H” stands for high intensity which is 100% effort. I see a lot of supposed HIIT floating around the internet that I would rate more as “M” moderate intensity because they aren’t giving it everything they’ve got.
What type of exercise is HIIT? Doing jumping jacks or jogging on the treadmill are not high intensity. Those are things I could talk during without losing my breath: too easy. True high intensity takes maximum effort. You would not be able to talk, concentrate on watching a show, or read during it. Examples of true HIIT would be sprints, bike sprints, cycle sprints, sled push sprints, incline sprints, deadmill treadmill sprints, bleacher sprints, etc. If I do HIIT correctly, I usually feel sick afterwards. (click the links on those to see video examples)
What length of time should HIIT be performed? Think about Olympians Usain Bolt or Allyson Felix. Sprinting is true high intensity. Usain Bolt has been said to say he tires out after 12 seconds of sprinting. If the best in the world gets tired at 12 seconds or more...the average person is likely less. I like to say if you can go beyond 15 seconds it’s not true high intensity.
HIIT takes less time and promotes more fat loss, even when we’re resting afterwards. Let’s take a look at some research examples that show HIIT is superior to LISS for fat loss.
DROP 2% BODY FAT IN 8 WEEKS
A 2001 study from East Tennessee State University demonstrated findings with subjects who followed an 8-week HIIT program (subjects dropped 2 percent in body fat) as compared to those who followed a continuous steady-state program (subjects had no percentage drop in body fat) on a treadmill. They also found the subjects who did the HIIT program burned almost 100 more calories per day during the 24 hours after exercise. 1
LOSE 6 TIMES MORE BODY FAT
A study from Australia reported that females following a 20-minute HIIT program, consisting of 8-second sprints followed by 12 seconds of rest, lost six times more body fat than the group who followed a 40-minute cardio program performed at a constant intensity of 60 percent of their maximum heart rate (LISS).
LOSE FAT AND PRESERVE MUSCLE WITH HIIT
In a 2012 study by Dr. Jacob Wilson, he concluded that the greatest fat loss occurred with the shortest duration and highest-intensity activities, like sprinting. He also saw the longer you do cardio per day, the greater the losses are in muscle mass. However, less than 20 minutes per day and muscle mass was preserved. 2
INCREASE MUSCLE SIZE WITH SPRINTING
In a 2013 study by Nalmo, he compared low-intensity, long-duration cardio of 60 minutes with 4-10 sets of 10-30-second all-out sprints. He found that long duration cardio decreased muscle size but sprinting actually increased size. 3
How does HIIT affect metabolism? HIIT has been shown to increase metabolic rate, which leads to more body fat loss. For the next 24 hours after HIIT your metabolism is running like crazy! HIIT therefore burns more calories than steady state cardio.
In addition, the body begins to adapt to LISS, not HIIT, in 7-10 days which leads to exercise tolerance. This means the more you do the more you need for the same effect. If one month you can do a three mile run daily to maintain weight, the next month it may take four mile runs to maintain weight. And the next month it may take five mile runs to maintain weight. Your body gets used to the repetitive, mundane running. In order to see continual progress, your body requires more from you. There’s not many ways to make jogging more diverse and mix things up. It’s a jog; that’s it. Not to mention, with each and every step your poor joints are wearing down more and more.
Whereas with strength training, you become tolerant to certain exercises. If you do the same exact exercises everyday for a year your body will become tolerant to those. However, lucky for us, you can mix things up! You can change the timing you use to lift, the rest periods, the number of sets, the number of reps, the equipment you used, the muscle groups you work each day, whether you strengthen the muscle in a shortened or lengthened range, etc. Strength training can be very versatile. Which allows us to continually provide the body with new a stimulus! We therefore aren’t required to always spend more and more time lifting weights. Instead, we can stick to 45 minutes to an hour of lifting but simply change our style of lifting to avoid plateau and tolerance.
When should HIIT be performed? The frequency depends on your fat loss goals. I recommend performing HIIT 1-3x/week for 5-15 minutes max. It should be done after your strength training. Dr. Jacob Wilson suggests It is best to separate HIIT from leg day by at least 24 hours.4
Example HIIT Protocol (spend 1-2 weeks in each phase, as tolerated)
Phase 1: 4 rounds of 15sec high | 60sec low
Phase 2: 4 rounds of 10sec high | 40sec low
Phase 3: 5 rounds of 15sec high | 60sec low
Phase 4: 5 rounds of 10sec high | 40sec low
Phase 5: 6 rounds of 15sec high | 60sec low
Phase 6: 6 rounds of 10sec high | 40sec low
To play out the protocol above, for phase 1 you would do the following: Sprint 15sec, walk 60sec, sprint 15sec, walk 60sec, sprint 15sec, walk 60sec, sprint 15sec, walk 60sec. That took you five minutes total. That’s it! Keep in mind, it will take you a month or so to become conditioned to this kind of training. You will likely cry like a little baby like I did for the first month, but it will get less agonizing over time.
Is there any reason to do steady state cardio? My recommendation: do it only if you love it or if you are physically unable to do HIIT due to a heart condition, blood pressure, arthritis, etc. Otherwise, hang up your running shoes and grab your weight belt. Stick to strength training with some HIIT sprinkled in. Get that revenge body you’re aspiring to build from strength training and rub it in cardio’s face how good you look later! Take that stupid cardio. We’re better off without you.
Lesson learned: Strength training and HIIT are a great way to burn fat while maintaining muscle mass.
Part Six | The "Breakup with Cardio" Plan
Your goals over the next 8 weeks:
Decrease LISS running distance/duration
Decrease LISS running frequency
Increase running intensity to maximum intensity instead of low intensity
Replace past time spent running with strength training
#BreakupwithCardio 8 Week Plan
Distance/Duration (% of normal)
Strength Training Frequency (#/week)
You can use the “Example HIIT Protocol” from Part Five. Start with 1x/week and you may increase that to 3x/week, if needed. HIIT frequency should be based on how you are progressing physically. Remember, there are also 8 other ways to break a fat loss plateau.
Track your physical progress with: weight, inches, progress pictures, and how you feel / how clothes fit. Your scale weight alone does not accurately display your progress. Watch this video to learn more about how to properly take those measurements.
8 weeks later and… congratulations, you are free of steady state cardio!
You are on your way to becoming a lifting pro. If you need some guidance on programming a strength training program, I have several options you can choose from. It can be confusing to decide what muscle groups to workout each day, how frequently to work them out each week, what exercises to do, what order to do the exercises in, and what sets and reps to do. I have done all the research and thinking for you. Simply follow one of my programs for strength training practice.
Beginner at home: 4 week Home Sweat Home program
Beginner at the gym: 4 week Guns and Buns training program
Intermediate at the gym: 12 week The Beautiful to the Core Body training program
Advanced at the gym: Monthly subscription to my online coaching training program
Lesson learned: Spending less time running gives you more time for the important things in life.
Well in January of 2010 I ended it for good with number four and in August 2010 my husband showed up knocking at my door. When one door closed, another was able to open with an amazing man who has treated me like a freaking princess since day one. This incredible man helped me realize my addiction to cardio, replace that habit with a healthier one, and help build me into the strong and confident woman before you.
Close that cardio door. Slam it shut. A brand new, shiny door awaits you and the future you is looking good girl.
*Disclaimer: Please consult your Physician before beginning a new exercise program.
2. Wilson, J.M., et al., Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2012. 26(8): p. 2293-307.
3. Naimo, M.A., et al., High Intensity Interval Training Has Positive Effects on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy, Power, and On-Ice Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Conference Proceedings, 2013.
4. Sale, D.G., et al., Comparison of two regimens of concurrent strength and endurance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1990. 22(3): p. 348-56.