"People hate cardio. I hate cardio. But pick the five top songs you love. Do your cardio during these songs and you're done. I'd say 95% of the time, you don't even know you just did it."
What do you think of when you hear "cardio"?
Rocky racing up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
Michael Phelps finishing a lap in the Olympics?
Carli Lloyd running up the soccer field in the World Cup? (P.S. God Bless America).
The options for cardio are nearly LIMITLESS. When it comes to fat loss, however, some approaches are better than others. Let's break down which approach is best by looking at the 2 popular forms of cardio in fitness today.
What's HIIT? What isn't it?! It'll make you more manly! (or womanly, ladies)
Essentially, it's performing an intense, short burst of activity followed by a longer, more relaxed pace of that same activity. The total time spent moving is usually 15-20 minutes. Sprints, stationary bike, and swimming are among the common ways to do HIIT. A simple routine would be as follows:
- Warm Up: 3-5 minutes
- Burst Set 1: 30 seconds
- Back Off Set 1: 90 seconds
- Burst Set 2: 30 seconds
- Back Off Set 2: 90 seconds
- Burst Set 3: 30 seconds
- Back Off Set 3: 90 seconds
- Burst Set 4: 30 seconds
- Back Off Set 4: 90 seconds
- Burst Set 5: 30 seconds
- Back Off Set 5: 90 seconds
- Cool Down: 3-5 minutes
One drawback of this method is that it could lead to overtraining. Some forms of HIIT, especially sprinting, are very hard on your CNS. So if you're lifting heavy weights or doing some form of HIIT 6-7 days a week, you can fry your nervous system pretty quickly.
Steady State Cardio
This is the classic form of cardio. Whether it's jogging, swimming, biking, or whatever, the concept is simple: just keep going. Not necessarily fast, but keep a good pace.
Now, this approach can be VERY INEFFECTIVE for fat loss when taken to extremes. What do I mean by extreme?
Well, once you cross the 30 minute threshold for this type of exercise, your hormone levels start to really shift. Testosterone plummets and cortisol shoots up like crazy.
In essence, instead of losing fat, you start losing muscle and glycogen. This kind of weight loss will leave you looking flat and weak; in fact, you might lose more muscle than fat!! During freshman year of college, I tried running for 60 minute sessions 3 times a week (not on the same days as lifting). I was down to almost 150 pounds at one point, yet I still could barely see my abs! The loss of lean body mass left me weaker in the gym and my strength had plateaued.
This is why cross country runners are so lean yet low on muscle mass; your body's hormonal profile just isn't conducive to building muscle when you're running for an hour or more on a regular basis.
Though flawed when used incorrectly, this method has its place in training. If you already do a lot of heavy lifting, implementing a few 30 minute steady state sessions will give your CNS a break and enable you to burn some fat. Furthermore, they will pump blood and nutrients into your muscles to help promote recovery.
There you have it: 2 effective approaches for cardio.
Whether you're bulking or cutting, implementing some form of cardio will help you feel better and improve your physique.