“Feed Your Cardio: An Argument Against Using Cardio to Get Lean”

“Feed Your Cardio:  An Argument Against Using Cardio to Get Lean”

Let me start this off by saying that if you do something that varies your heart rate, using all of your energy pathways good for you. That’s great for your overall health.  So that’s number one:

  1. Cardiovascular activity imposes demands upon your heart and circulatory system that cannot be duplicated with weight training alone.  Sustaining an elevated heart rate and blood pressure for several minutes is just not possible with dynamic weight training.  All that blood circulating throughout your body is favorable as it relates to transporting nutrients and optimizing many processes within your body.
  2. Steady state cardiovascular training is necessary for endurance sports.  If you want a challenge and you think a marathon is something you’re up for, then you will want steady state cardio to be a staple in your weekly routine (I also think long weekly runs are the low hanging fruit for feeling and performing better in WOD’s for a lot of people).
  3. High intensity interval training or HIIT has many advantages.  First, it stimulates all of the various energy or metabolic pathways (phosphagen pathway, the glycolytic pathway, and the oxidative pathway).  For example, you work out at the top end of your heart rate range, as your heart rate decreases it will travel through all of the various zones, and the stress of the activity will keep your heart elevated for hours after the actual activity.  Because of this, it’s said to be favorable as far as retaining muscle goes; the downside is that HIIT can be very hard.
  4. Many people will argue that steady state cardio is less stressful than HIIT and while that is true, it’s actually the stress that causes the metabolic and cardiovascular adaptations over time.  Some level of pushing your limits appropriately, using all energy pathways, will result in better heart health.
  5. Your heart is a muscle.  If you want to strengthen and condition it so that it works optimally, employing various methods has great benefit – not the least of which is that you can affect your resting heart rate favorably.  When your heart is healthy, your resting heart rate will be lower.  This allows for less stress because that is what heart rate is after all – a reaction to stress hormones.  This is favorable for recovery, and it will probably keep you alive longer.

Simply put, cardio makes you a better, more capable human being.  We need to stop looking at it as solely a fat loss tool – it’s so much more than that.  The benefits extend far beyond the calorie burn.

Oh, by the way – cardio isn’t great for fat loss.

The Argument Against Cardio for Fat Loss

I’ve got bad news for all you folks living under the impression that you’re “earning your pancakes” by ceaselessly plodding away on a treadmill to burn calories.  No matter what your heart rate monitor tells you, you didn’t earn 450 calories.  When you work out, you are essentially placing stress upon the various systems of your body.  This is fine in short doses because it allows for adaptation but the same thing constantly provides a lot of stress without a lot of benefit for fat loss.  When your body senses stress (as a general rule) it needs food, rest, or a combo platter to combat the disruption.  If you don’t provide sufficient amounts of both your body simply down-regulates fat loss to adjust to the stress.  The one caveat to this would be if you replace most if not all calories burned, this might seem counterproductive for most people trying to get lean but there are only a handful of ways to deal with stress and food is one of them.

As I mentioned above, this is actually a pretty great thing – stress is what leads to adaptation and makes you a more functional human being.  What it doesn’t tend to do be favorable for is retention or growth of muscle – the notable exception is HIIT with sprints or spinning or something of that nature.  Even in that instance, dollar for dollar, you are better off with resistance or weight training for building muscle.

Why is building muscle important?  Put simply, the body functions better and processes nutrients better when it’s carrying more muscle.  If you want to speed up your metabolism, weight training is the ticket – not cardio.  Once again, we need to talk about stress adaptation.  If you want the absolute biggest bang for your buck as it relates to building lean mass, you want to hit the muscle with a varied approach.  A good mix of lifts that challenge more of your body (compound movements) is going to be favorable for long-term stress adaptation.  In the end, this will all equate to more fat loss.

“But Cardio Keeps Me Lean!”

Virtually anything you do that is provides a novel stimulus to your body will show an almost immediate response, for the short-term.  This is an argument for some level of variance in training, but once again that has its pitfalls as well.  When your workouts are too varied, they don’t allow you to refine your skills and technique, so you need to combine consistent practice with varied stress factors to make lasting progress.  Simply put, eating less works in the beginning because your body takes time to adjust to it.  The same thing applies to cardio.  If you are lean, in the end, it’s because you have great genetics, a great plan, or (for most people) you are eating less than your body requires on a daily basis the majority of the time.

Let’s not get this twisted though – none of this is an argument to avoid cardio.  Sadly, the rumors about Honey Nut Cheerios are exaggerated, and some level of HIIT or steady state work is required, especially if you don’t weight train.  While a healthy cardiovascular system has many benefits that can make you a better athlete, if your goal is fat loss, following a PLAN that is dominated by cardio is counterproductive.  Take a varied approach – lift, sprint, and eat well!