Do You Even Cardio?

A comprehensive breakdown of traditional cardio verses resistance training when it pertains to Fat Loss

The New Year is now here, and the gyms are packed with extremely enthusiastic individuals who are on fire to reach their fitness goals and lose the weight they gained over the holidays. Now, even though my clients and I do not base our goal setting around the Julian calendar, one of my client’s “cutting/burning fat phase” happened to land at the start of January. I bring up the subject of my client, because now, when she goes to the gym to do her required cardio, there is a literal line to get on the cardio equipment. Might I add that this is so even with her particular gym having at least 50 pieces of cardio equipment?!

Obviously, when it comes to losing the holiday weight gain and burning fat, cardio is the first type of exercise that comes to the masses’ minds. But what is the most efficient exercise for burning fat?

Believing in the “magical fat-burning heart rate zone”, the fitness community has been led to think that steady state cardio is the best way to burn fat up until recent years. On paper, the “magical fat-burning heart rate zone” of steady state cardio seems to make sense because your typical steady state cardio primarily uses an energy system in the body called the “aerobic energy pathway”. This energy system creates energy through the usage of stored fat. Nonetheless, in real-world applications, we see that traditional steady state cardio is not as effective as it may seem.

traditional cardio

Even with the “magical fat burning zone,” the energy one expends during steady state cardio tends to be an insignificant amount unless upwards to an hour is completed. Lower usage of energy equals lower energy expenditure and fewer calories burned, meaning significantly less fat burning. On the other hand, weight training or resistance training is a completely different ballgame. The greater intensity of weight or resistance results in a greater amount of energy being expended by the body and, therefore, greater fat-burning effects can occur. The reasoning? Resistance training causes you to engage your Type 2 muscle fibers, which are much larger and much more energy demanding than your Type 1 muscle fibers. In contrast, Type 1 fibers are the type of fibers predominantly used during low-intensity steady state cardio. The greater intensity from resistance training is so taxing on the body that you continue to burn calories long after the workout and even on the days you don’t work out. This is often called an “afterburner”, however, the technical term used in exercise science would be the acronym E.P.O.C., standing for Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption (or how I like to say “post-exercise oxygen consumption” — E.P.O.C. just sounds cooler than P.E.O.C.). As demonstrated by scientific studies, this afterburner has been shown to increase energy expenditure up to 33% for a minimum of 16 hours after the workout or upwards to 36 hours post workout for those who operate at a higher intensity level. This may not seem like much, but, remember; you can spend much less time with a greater expenditure rate engaging in resistance training than walking hours on end on an infinite staircase. The best part of this is that studies have also shown that roughly 80% of the calories being burned during high intensity training come from fat. Sounds awesome, right?? But guess what? #werenotdone, there’s more! Let’s talk about the muscle building effects of resistance training, which resistance training alone does and cardio can never do. Resistance training is stressful enough to stimulate the brain to release hormones and activate satellite cells that are responsible for muscular hypertrophy. Furthermore, cardio has such a low stimulus on these particular pathways that it does not prioritize in keeping your Type 2 muscle fibers active, potentially resulting in a loss of muscle on your journey to losing fat. Unfortunately, this is what I call “weight loss” not “fat loss,” and it can lead to detrimental metabolic damage.

But, back to the muscle building effects that resistance training can provide that cardio can never. With resistance training, you will still lose fat and you will also have the benefit of building muscle, or at the very least preserving it. But why is this important, and how does it translate to better fat burning?  When you train, you use muscle. This helps build muscle mass. What is more, muscle tissue burns more calories — even when you’re at rest — than body fat. According to studies, 10 pounds of muscle can potentially burn 50 calories in a day spent at rest, while 10 pounds of fat would burn 20 calories. This is why people with more muscle mass have a better metabolism and an easier time staying lean year round.

Now that we know resistance training can help us burn fat more effectively, let’s discuss how to utilize resistance training routines for losing fat. I would venture to say that the best resistance training exercises would include moderately heavy compound movements. Moderately heavy compound movements stimulate multiple muscle groups at once. This is important to consider, because the more muscles you engage during any given exercise, the more calories you will expend. Also, focus on an intensity that will help you reach muscular failure while aiming for a rep range of anywhere from 10 to 25 reps. This will allow your body to activate  a greater amount of muscle fibers, leading to a higher metabolic demand, and ultimately producing an increase in muscle growth and fat loss. Additionally, considerably the most important factor of resistance training to take into account is the tempo and pace of the preformed exercise. For example, make sure to keep your rest periods short. The most common exercise routines that cover this standard include: circuit training with supersets and drop sets, Tabata, and H.I.I.T. (High Intensity Interval Training). All of these methods fall under the umbrella term “metabolic training.” These kinds of exercise routines allow you to push yourself to your maximum effort, while spending very little time in the gym and burning the maximum amount of calories possible.

However, with all this said, this does not mean you should totally avoid steady state cardio and solely engage in resistance or metabolic training. Overall, steady state cardio has not only been proven to be great for heart health, but is optimal for building endurance, and may also be a better option for exercise depending on one’s age or fitness level. High intensity metabolic training may not be physically practical or suitable for everyone, therefore, steady state cardio may be a better fit for them–“fit” for them– see what I did right there?? Anyways…if fat burning is your main goal and you have a fairly high fitness level without a lot of time to spend in the gym, then high intensity metabolic training is most likely your best choice of action. Be aware- it is intense, but it needs to be!

At the end of day, when choosing your cardio regiment, you need to choose what you like and something you can stick to. While deciding between steady state cardio or high intensity cardio with weights, keep in mind, steady state cardio and high intensity resistance training should be like heads and tails on a coin; they are inseparable- you really shouldn’t have one without the other. Due to the fact that metabolic training is so intense, the average person will find themselves doing both types of exercise and that’s awesome!! It should be like the action of buying and selling–one cannot go on without the other.

So I will leave you with this…. you can either work long or work hard– the choice is yours! Just get to the gym and don’t be late!

This is Derek Luther signing off. Peace in and peace out Self Made Family.

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