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Cardio for Fat Loss
How much, when, what, & why?
Some variation of question regarding cardio is inevitable when athletes begin a program with me:
Should I be doing cardio?
When should I do cardio?
What type of cardio should I do?
How much cardio should I be doing?
Basically, should you use cardio to achieve your goal?
First, you must consider what your fundamental objective is as an athlete, and what my job is as a strength coach: to produce and maximize a specific desired adaptation.
Every single detail in your program from a yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily basis, down to every individual loading parameter in one workout, needs to be considered and organized in a way that maximizes desired adaptations.
Not only do we want to maximize adaptation — we want to produce the correct adaptations.
So before we can make sense of the questions regarding cardio, we have to obtain a fundamental understanding of exercise physiology.
Exercise Physiology: A Primer
In English: the way that you train will determine the results of your training.
This is known as the SAID principle, which stands for “Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands”.
In other words, when you apply sufficient stress to your body, your body will adapt in a way that allows it to better tolerate that specific stressor.
The second principle to understand is the Detraining Effect.
Your body will not maintain adaptations that are not necessary, because they require precious resources to maintain.
That is why an intelligently designed program is critical for long-term progress.
What is the adaptation to cardio, or, longer duration aerobic exercise that primarily challenges the heart and lungs?
You will develop a bigger, stronger heart, increased capillary density, and increased mitochondrial density and efficiency so that you can better utilize oxygen for energy.
You will primarily develop Type I muscle fibers which are slower and best equipped to handle longer duration exercise, however, you will not train and thus potentially detrain the Type II muscle fibers, which are best equipped for strength and maximum power output.
You will not produce specific mechanical tension on the majority of your skeletal muscle and so you will not develop muscle and strength. In fact, you will potentially lose muscle and strength due once again to the detraining effect.
You also develop the oxidative energy system, which is the body’s ability to use oxygen for energy. This is the energy system primarily utilized when an exercise lasts longer than 2 minutes in duration.
As a result, you do not train and potentially detrain the ATP-PC and glycolytic energy systems, which are responsible for maximum power output and sustained power output.
Cardio for Fat Loss, Simplified
As you can see, it quickly becomes complex if you’re starting with zero understanding of exercise physiology.
Still, take a step back and ask yourself this: what truly is your goal?
If your goal is to develop a stronger, leaner physique, in adaptation terminology that means you want three things: increased muscle, increased strength, and decreased fat.
Decreasing weight is chiefly a result of energy balance.
Cardio is an effective way to increase energy expenditure and thus accelerate weight loss.
The problem is if we don’t stimulate adaptations in muscle and strength, the weight lost is both muscle and fat.
As a result we end up with a smaller, lighter physique, but it is also weaker with less muscle and does not have the appearance or definition we envisioned.
If we want to maximize the amount of fat lost and build a strong physique with an attractive shape, we need to combine an energy deficit with resistance training to develop muscle and strength.
Cardio can be a useful tool when properly implemented in a program. It can increase energy expenditure, which is important when a substantial amount of weight needs to be lost or when pursuing an extremely low body fat percentage.
However, it must not interfere with muscle and strength adaptations, and we must be careful it does not produce structural or postural imbalances.
Structural or postural imbalances are especially a concern because cardio tends to be repetitive by nature, especially when the same type is used each time.
A properly designed resistance training program can also restore and maintain structural balance while developing muscle and strength.
Finally, we can use other methods to strengthen the heart and increase energy expenditure that do not involve cardio such as sports, activities, strongman training, and high-intensity interval training.
The resistance training program can be designed in such a way that strengthens the heart and improves aerobic endurance indirectly, while building muscle and strength. This may be a more economic approach.
Cardio can be useful in proper quantities because it minimally stresses the nervous system and muscular system, which can increase energy expenditure and enhance recovery by increasing circulation. This is especially useful when there is substantial weight to lose or the athlete is looking to push their body composition into the single digits.
The key is the quantity and the balance of the program in general.
The simplest question you should ask yourself is this:
Do you want to look like a marathon runner or a sprinter?
A swimmer or an Olympic freestyle wrestler?
A long-distance cyclist or a gymnast?
I’m willing to bet most people in the gym want to look like a gymnast, but they train like a marathon runner and then wonder why they aren’t satisfied with their physique even though they’re losing weight.
I hope this primer on exercise physiology helped you make sense of the questions regarding cardio.
And I hope they not only improve the results you get in the gym - but that they help you get the specific results you’re looking for.
If you want to learn more, please send me a message or an email, I would love to hear from you and I enjoy answering your questions.
If you want to work with a qualified professional and learn through experience, you know where to find me.
Daniel J Furtado, CPT, LMT, Owner of Honor Strength
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