Do you hate cardio? Me too. It’s HIGHLY overrated as a fat loss technique, and many people slog away on ellipticals and pavements for hours at a time without much to show for it. Now if you compete in a cardio sport like marathons or Ironmans, obviously you have no choice but to get out there and slog. I am going to argue here that the standard reasons for doing cardio: hearth health, sport performance, or to lose weight, are not served by doing cardio. Most standard cardio definitions involve a repetitive steady-state exercise, without breaks, for 30-60 minutes. For the sake of argument, I’m going to include any repetitive movement lasting longer than 20 minutes.
I’m going to dive into the reasons why, unless you’re a cardio athlete, you don’t need this cardio. Is it better than sitting on the couch? Sure. But is it the best way to lose weight and get better at sports? Not by a long shot.
For weight loss:
Pros don’t do it
At TrueFN it’s our JOB to help people lose body fat, feel lean and get strong. So I asked my team, ‘Have you ever told a client to go for a run or get on an elliptical?’ The answers?
‘I did it once as an April Fool’s joke.’
‘Oh god never.’
Our Physical Therapist said, ‘Runners keep me in business.’
Not a great showing. If the people who are paid to help others get results don’t use a tool, that speaks pretty poorly for the tool. What do we use instead? Lifting weights and solid nutrition.
Cardio doesn’t make you lean
But doesn’t it burn calories? It sure does, but so does going into a hot room, being nervous or stressed, or shaking/dancing/twitching your body for long periods of time. Fat loss doesn’t depend on how many calories you burn anyway, it depends on the signals you send your body, and what it builds back after exercise. Lifting weights also burns calories, and tells your body to build muscles. Eating protein afterwards helps to build that muscle, while drinking a Gatorade after a run just gives you the fuel for more running. No thanks. Lift weights and build muscle, and you’ll burn more calories all day long, not just while you’re exercising. The physique built by this work (versus cardio) is often the look people are going for anyway, as demonstrated by the following physiques:
Cardio is a waste of time
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a lot of people with extra hours to waste. Then why spend an hour running in a hamster wheel? I agree time is tight, so you’re better off lifting hard and heavy and getting out of the gym in 45 minutes than spending hours and hours on the road to nowhere. Time saver special? Try a Tabata. It’s 20 seconds of work, and 10 seconds of rest performed for 8 rounds. It takes 4 minutes total, and is MORE effective for fat loss than long, slow, distance training. I know people who spend more than 4 minutes in the bathroom. Don’t have time for an hour on an elliptical? Me neither, but I bet you’ve got 4 minutes to push your heart and lungs. Make sure to lift weights first, and if you still have time and energy to spend, throw in a Tabata finisher.
Cardio actually makes you worse
Outside of cardio-based sports (marathons, ironmans, rowing) you never run for more than a minute or two at a time when you play most sports. Watch a soccer player and clock how long they spend at a time legitimately running. Even if they run the length of the field and back again, and back once more, that’s still only 330 yards, which is still less than ¼ mile! That means that in most sports, you take breaks. So unless you compete in cardio, lifting weights and sprinting (with breaks) is more “sport specific” for just about everything. Sports also rely on power and strength coming from fast twitch muscle fibers. That’s why some athletes take steroids to improve their performance. Cardio leads to more slow twitch muscles fibers that make you slower, and weaker. Not the type of qualities you’d look for in an athlete. Just remember, athletes take steroids to get stronger, they don’t take ‘cardio steroids’.
You can improve your cardio without ever doing it
A little science is in order. Your body uses different energy systems for activities of different durations and intensities.
ATP/CP- the energy already in a cell is used for quick bursts like throws, jumps, and short sprints. It fuels activities that last 6-10 seconds
Fast Glycolysis- your body whips up some energy quickly for activities lasting 30-90 seconds like sprints, hard sets of squats, or carrying in some heavy groceries
Slow Glycolysis- your body makes more energy, but it takes longer and fuels activities lasting 2-5 minutes like shoveling snow, wrestling with grandkids, or interval running.
Oxidative- your body makes TONS of energy, super efficiently, but it takes a really long time to do it, thus fueling activities lasting longer than 5 minutes like jogging, cardio, and…keeping your organs functioning.
This oxidative energy system is the important one. It is working right now as you read, tonight while you sleep and all day tomorrow. It is the body’s most efficient energy producer, but it takes a long time to make all that energy. This time-based requirement applies to all the energy systems. You can have a little bit now, or have a lot later. That means that the faster energy systems (ATP/CP and Fast Glycolysis) tap into your body’s reserves of energy that is has on had, in case you ever need to jump out of the way of a car or run up the stairs. If you use up tons of this stored energy, you have to make more after the activity is over, and this is where the Oxidative energy system kicks in. It runs EVEN AFTER an exercise is over to help restore you to homeostasis (bringing your breathing, blood flow, and temperature back to resting levels). The energy you burn after an exercise is over is called EPOC-excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, and can last for 12-48 HOURS after an exercise is over. That means that lifting weights hard and heavy is STILL improving your oxidative, err, cardio system. Check out the yellow portion of the following graph. That's how much extra energy your body is using after your exercise is over. Note that high intensity beats low intensity by a long shot.
For heart health:
Lifting weights gives you a two-for-one
When you lift weights, you get the immediate benefits of strength building AND those of doing standard cardio after you’re done. You use the oxidative energy system (the cardio system) for DAYS after lifting heavy weights, or doing some hard sprints. But when you go for a jog, the energy production is the same as the activity level, meaning your EPOC might only last a minute or two after you stop jogging. Let’s compare the choices:
- Lift weights- increase strength, bone density, tendon/ligamentous strength, increase muscle/metabolism, increase recovery ability through oxidative energy system. Negligible oxidative system during training, 12-48 hours of production afterwards.
- Cardio- improve oxidative energy system, create more slow twitch muscle fibers. Oxidative system kicks in from the 5 minute mark to whenever you stop, nothing afterwards.
So for those who are keeping score, here are the benefits of each in layman's terms:
- Heavy, hard set of 10 squats- get better at sports, improve heart health, get stronger, faster, leaner, sexier, and save time doing it
- Go for a jog- get better at jogging
Don't run from the truth
Now this seems like a pretty clear choice to me. So if you’ve been looking for a reason to stop running, here you have it. If you like running or cardio for its own sake, that is fine, I won’t stop you. But if the goal is heart health, sport performance or to lose weight, you’d be better off hitting the weights and following it up with solid nutrition. So give me a hard set of 10 squats, and then tell me through gasps of air whether or not you think your heart is working hard.