If you asked me 5 or even 10 years ago how to get shredded I probably would’ve told you to keep lifting heavy (or start if you weren’t already), pull back your carbohydrate intake, and add in some cardio.
The funny thing is whilst the term “bro-science” has emerged and the above statement might align with it, to be honest my opinion hasn’t really changed. We just know more now, or in a way know better.
We know that weight training will help you to preserve maximal lean mass when dieting for fat loss. We know that pulling back carbs (or any macronutrient) will reduce your total caloric intake, which can result in weight loss. We know that adding in cardio will increase your caloric expenditure, which can also result in weight loss.
We just consider things a little more intellectually and with better understanding than simply: lift weights, eat less, move more. Furthermore, we understand that there is a difference between weight loss and fat loss, and are more aware of what may dictate the outcome.
As a result cardio in recent years has been discouraged by many health & fitness professionals and is becoming less of a ‘necessary component’ of fat loss and more of an optional consideration.
Well simply, if you combine weight training with a calorie-controlled diet that puts you in a caloric deficit, you will lose weight. Given you are consuming adequate protein and have a reasonably structured and effective training program; most of the weight dropped would be fat loss.
When you bring cardio into the picture, there are more things to consider. The first being that performing typical cardio-based training will almost never make you stronger and in some cases can make you weaker. There have been studies that suggest that the combination of weight training and cardio can result in decreased strength in comparison to weight training alone.
Secondly to some people cardio can be draining, time consuming, boring, and even increase hunger – causing a battle between sticking to your diet or adding in a few more “cheat meals”.
In the past I have generally referred to cardio as an insurance policy towards weight loss for those who are less strict with their nutrition. Clients who I felt weren’t sticking to their diet would be prescribed cardio sessions to make up for their nutritional inconsistency. I would also include cardio for clients who really wanted to push for definite weight loss within a given (short) period of time.
Have my methods changed? Yes, and no.
Incorporating cardio is a very individual consideration. When working with clients I look at their current and goal body composition and come up with a plan to get them to their goal the most effective way possible. In all circumstances cardio is the last consideration when structuring a plan.
Before adding cardio it is wise to create weight training & nutritional structure to gain consistency and set the stage for fat loss. You also have to consider activity levels outside of the gym such as a physically demanding job, social events, or weekly sporting endeavors. We call this non-exercise activity. Basically things that you do outside of the gym that you wouldn’t consider exercise but do contribute to the ‘move more’ factor of weight loss.
When adding cardio to the mix it is often as a result of little to no non-exercise activity, or to a replace an activity that you would typically be involved in (the off-season of a sporting event for example).
But without getting way off track or confusing you with various potential circumstances, below are a few scenarios that may help you to decide if incorporating cardio is for you.
- You genuinely love going for walks, doing early morning stair master sessions, or performing hill sprints, and see it as a pleasure rather than a weight loss focus.
- You’re in a position where you are consistent with your weight training and diet however you’d like to see quicker weight loss and don’t want to eat any less or add more weight training.
- You feel your non-exercise activity has reduced (due to lifestyle change or an injury for example) and would like to compensate for this without considering weight training or diet changes.
- You have a time-based goal that could require quite a restrictive diet if additional exercise is not added.
- You are seeing expected results from weight training and diet alone.
- You are looking to maximize lean muscle retention.
- You are looking to maximize strength gain.
- You have a high level of non-exercise activity.
- You are happy to reduce food intake to remain in a caloric deficit rather than adding cardio.
The truth is whilst cardio can be effective in certain situations, there are also better alternatives. Increased weight training is one example. Rather than adding cardio you could simply add in another weight training session, or add more exercises, sets, or reps.
You could also consider something like a barbell complex as a resistance based alternative to cardio, performing multiple weight training exercises in combination for a period of time (read more here: http://denversteyn.com/training-for-fat-loss)
When deciding to incorporate cardio into your plan, it is wise to start with a minimal approach, 1x HIIT (high intensity interval training) session per week for example. If you prefer lower intensity options, maybe a weekly goal of 400 calories burned from various added exercises (walking, bike rides, etc.) would be reasonable. This would require a method of tracking your calories burned such as a heart rate monitor.
It is important to note that cardio can and should be incorporated in phases and should never be something you do every week forever in the goal of fat loss.
Maybe you didn’t see the results you expected over the past month and are happy to add another HIIT session to your routine for the next 4 weeks. Maybe you want to enjoy a higher caloric intake from food for a period of time, so you decide to add in 800 calories burned from cardio per week to compensate a little.
However if you keep cardio in for extended periods of time it becomes less effective and blends into non-exercise activity.
Cardio for fat loss will always be a personal preference. However it would be extremely unlikely for me to suggest that doing cardio daily for 1-2 hours is a good idea for fat loss, regardless of your situation. So if that’s you, please reconsider.
In any case, utilise cardio as a tool if you feel it is suitable for you, but don’t consider it a necessary component for fat loss.
Train smart, eat smart, live well.