Precision Nutrition Blog

Clearing up cardio confusion

by Krista Schaus

It doesn’t matter what country I am in or what type of client or athlete I am working with — they WILL ask about cardio.

  • “How much cardio should I be doing?”
  • “When’s the best time to do my cardio?”
  • “I want to get leaner — should I do more cardio or more weights?”
  • “I hate cardio. Do I need to do hours and hours to achieve my goals?”
  • “I am up to 2 hours of cardio a day – where do I go from here?”

I don’t think there’s actual confusion about cardio. Rather, I believe cardio is simply being misused.

Most people are pretty clear about what they are doing and why, but they are using cardio inappropriately.

I was a police officer for over a decade. I often spoke to school groups about use/misuse and abuse of alcohol or drugs.

It dawned on me recently that there’s a strong similarity between the inappropriate use of drugs and alcohol within that population, and the inappropriate use of cardio within the fitness population. It is rampant, and it is based on ignorance and fear.

When I say ignorant, don’t take that the wrong way – do not confuse ignorance with stupidity. Ignorant simply means  being uneducated, unaware, or uninformed in a certain area. My goal is to inform you how to use cardio properly.

No more cardio cluelessness!

Here’s a big question for starters:

What do we mean by “cardio”?

When you ask questions about “cardio”, you need to be more specific. The industry as a whole, particularly print media (fitness magazines), needs to start talking about “cardio” appropriately and using common language.

“Cardio” is short for “cardiovascular”, which refers to the lungs and heart, and their associated systems.

I assume when someone asks about “cardio”, they are referring to longer, steady state, low to moderate intensity sessions of a repetitive movement. This can be easily done on any “cardio” machine such as an upright bike, rowing machine, elliptical trainer or Stairmaster but can also be done with no equipment, such as walking or jogging (depending on the individual’s level of conditioning).

For most folks, then, “cardio” means something like “go outside and run for a while to get your heart rate up”. That’s not wrong, but it’s not as accurate as it could be.

Energy systems – the key to understanding “cardio” effects

All cardio, however, is not created equal. In order to understand why, and how cardio types can differ, you have to have a basic understanding of the body’s three energy systems:

  1. Anaerobic a-lactic
  2. Anaerobic lactic
  3. Aerobic

The main difference between energy systems is the duration and intensity of the exercise and the type of energy source the body uses to fuel the activity.

What many people describe as “cardio” — long-duration, relatively lower intensity movement — works the third system, the aerobic energy system.

Now, there’s a place for this in training, especially if you’re an endurance athlete, or looking for some active recovery — or even just a nice way to unwind with a pleasant jog outside in the fresh air.

But despite what the “aerobics” craze of the 1980s told us, aerobic activity is not necessarily always the best choice for fat loss, athletic performance, or body recomposition.

I prefer anaerobic exercise (the first two energy systems) for myself and for my clients. I am all about results, function and balance. I also like to make the most effective and efficient use of one’s training time.

Aerobic exercise can play a role in accomplishing physique and/or fitness goals, but it must be used properly.

For more on energy systems, see All About HIIT.

Using cardio for good

First let’s look at 3 ways to use cardio, or anything for that matter:

  1. USE – Users understand the role of cardio, and incorporate it appropriately within the overall training curriculum or program.
  2. MISUSE – There is where ignorance comes into play. Users don’t know or understand why they’re using cardio, and thus use it inappropriately and improperly.
  3. ABUSE – Here, we get into the domain of self-sabotaging behaviour. Users know and understand the role of cardio. They know and understand — and have experienced — the consequences of improper use. Yet the individual continues to abuse cardio. There are deep rooted emotional issues along with disordered thinking and behaviours involved here. This person may need guidance and assistance beyond a performance coach or personal trainer. This is an addiction where logic, knowledge and experience are ignored. (To see whether you fall into this group, scroll down for our handy checklist.)

Using cardio appropriately: an example

I prefer to work with those who are using cardio appropriately and I can help them use it in different or better ways.

An example of this is someone who previously started their cardio progression 16 weeks before their “peak” date such as a wedding day or a physique contest.

I would look at things like their natural carb tolerance, metabolism and other individualization tools such as blood type and Biosignature profile and may suggest that they wait until 6 to 9 weeks out to start their cardio progression.

Or I may recommend they switch from an upright bike and treadmill to an road bike and outdoor walk. They are using “cardio” properly, but I help them use it better or differently in order to continue to get results, or get more optimal results.

Misusing cardio: an example

Of course, people come to me for advice, so I don’t reject clients simply because they aren’t getting things quite right immediately! After all, they’ve been told by mass media sources that they should be cardio junkies.

I also enjoy working with those who are misusing “cardio”, because often they respond by saying, “I had no idea! I just thought to get leaner I should do more and more cardio! This will save me time and I will look and feel even better.”

They have no hang ups or unhealthy attachments to cardio, and they’re quite compliant with my recommendations once they have been better educated about the role of cardio, where it fits within the energy systems, and how they can use it effectively.

An example would be someone who is doing three days a week of 30 minute resistance training sessions (weight) and five 40-minute cardio sessions a week.

I flip that and have them do five 40-minute strength training sessions a week and follow each of those with 12 minutes of either steady state or interval training (anaerobic) “cardio” sessions.

This results in much less total “cardio” time, plus more metabolism and hormone boosting strength training – thus, better results in less time!

Abusing cardio: two examples

Here are two examples of cardio abuse. I think they exemplify some of the ways in which people can develop unhealthy attachments to cardio, and keep abusing it despite knowledge and evidence about the consequences.

A very tall, thin and lean female client was doing 60 minutes of steady state cardio at 40% of her heart rate almost every day, even though her goal was to look more toned, lean and muscular. In fact, she was an ultramarathon runner who raced every 3 weeks on average! In her case, she misused cardio because she was trying to lose weight.

She also consumed far too few calories to support this activity — about 1500 on an average day — and her carbohydrate intake was very low. It’s amazing to me that her body still functioned after all this abuse!

Ironically, she didn’t even lose weight.

Neither the choice of activity, the duration, nor the intensity were appropriate for her goal, but she had a very hard time giving it up — even despite all the data and information showing would be more appropriate and why. She still could and would not give up nor change her running duration nor frequency.

In another case, a lean and underweight male client wanted to gain weight and muscle, yet he would not give up running and cardio kickboxing sessions.

He refused to change, even though he was a kinesiology student who understood various training modalities, muscle fibres and energy systems (and that his current exercise regime was not specific to his goals)!

Thus, again, despite knowledge, understanding, and evidence, cardio abusers — like addicts — persist.

If you're spending hours and hours here every week, you may have a problem.
If you’re spending hours and hours here every week, you may have a problem.

 

What does cardio change look like?

Here is an actual Biosignature profile comparison of a client who was initially misusing cardio.

The first report shows her starting stats as a cardio misuser.

The second report shows the progress she made after 1 month of implementing a system that uses cardio optimally. In her case, that was a mere 6 to 12 minutes (!)  of postworkout cardio after each of her five weekly strength training sessions.

Start After 1 month Difference
Weight 120 lb 116 lb -4 lb
Body fat % 12.1% 9.1% -3%
Lean mass 105 105 0
BMI 21.5 21.1 -0.4
Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) 0.9 0.8 -0.1

Here’s a graph showing the change in her skinfolds. Note that she lost 13 mm from her total skinfolds!

skinfold comparison start to month 1

Not only did she lose fat, she improved all of her hormone correlations – increases in androgens, improved thyroid function, and carbohydrate tolerance.

Her face filled out. Long cardio sessions can give the face a gaunt appearance. (Ladies, pay attention. If you’re grinding out the cardio hours to look good, you may be achieving exactly the opposite!)

All in one month.

How’d she do it? Simple. She cut her cardio from one to two hours of “cardio” weekly to less than one hour total time of aerobic and anaerobic combined.

Again: Less time, better results. Sweet!

Krista’s optimal cardio use system

OK, you’re prepared to toss the hours of hamstering on the treadmill. Great! How do you go about implementing this?

1. Decide on your goal.

What are you really trying to do with this cardio?

Lose fat? Stay lean? Improve athletic performance?

If you aren’t an endurance athlete, then you probably don’t need those long-duration, low-intensity sessions.

2. Start with a schedule.

Once you have your goals, figure out a schedule to accomplish them.

Give yourself enough time to healthily accomplish the goal, but not too long that you lose motivation and peak too soon. Twelve to sixteen weeks is optimal.

Pick a target date and mark it on the calendar. Then work backwards to figure out your workout plan.

3. Eliminate ALL cardio

The first phase of your plan should involve little or NO cardio.

Oh yeah, I can hear the squeals of fear. “What?! I have been going two hours a day! If I take it all out, I will get fat!”, you say.

Then so be it. You must let your body reset. Whatever body you get from going cardio-free is reality.

The body will strive to achieve balance one way or another. By being proactive, you can have control over it rather than it controlling you.

If continue to do more and more cardio — longer sessions, more often — you will either experience a crash (hormonal, metabolic, emotional and/or situational) or you will sustain an illness or injury.

The body always gets what it needs. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we’ll be a balanced and healthy society.

Whether through hormonal collapse, injury, or your choice, the NO CARDIO rule will become reality. This way, YOU choose it and YOU manage it.

Proper cardio progressions will be more effective by first taking cardio out. You must create an environment within the body to use cardio successfully. And you don’t do that by hammering away at cardio until your body crumbles. Give it a break.

4. Weight training FIRST

The most important part of any workout plan is to create a stimulus for your muscles. Lift weights. Weight training impacts hormones and metabolism positively and also builds strength, structure and function that you can use for many years into the future.

Decide first how many days a week you are going to do resistance training.

Apply the “opposite rule” here (in other words, the opposite of what you were doing before that didn’t work). For example, if you are training every day, twice a day, then start your 12 to 16 week peaking plan with 4 or 5 days a week and increase from there. If you are only lifting weights two or three days a week, double your efforts.

5. Anaerobic work second

Now plug in your anaerobic or interval progression. Start with 1 interval training session a week starting at 12 minutes each session, working up to three sessions weekly for 20 to 30 minutes.

The duration of your interval can be anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds and your rest is relative to the intensity and duration of your interval.

Sample intervals:

  • 15 seconds HIGH intensity work such as burpees or 100 m sprints at the track – 1:00 REST – Repeat until your total time is completed.
  • 30 seconds MODERATE-HIGH intensity upright bike spurts – 1:30 REST – Repeat until your total time is completed.
  • 45 seconds MODERATE-HIGH tire flipping or elliptical spurts – 2:00 to 3:00 REST – Repeat until your total time is completed.

The progression above is just an example using various modalities and variables. You may also pick one form of anaerobic activity and plan in progressions each week by increasing intensity, frequency and volume and/ or reducing rest between sets.

6. Now… finally… it’s time for “cardio”

Now we’ve taken care of the components that get optimal results — the strength training and anaerobic work. Only after that’s happened should you add a “cardio” component.

In fact, some people may not need any cardio, as they are metabolic furnaces — genetically gifted machines who respond very well to strength training and anaerobic work.

However, those who have had issues with their weight much of their life, and would not define themselves as genetically blessed or fortunate, will benefit from the additional cardio piece. But remember, it is progressive and part of the entire plan.

7. Assess and re-assess — follow the evidence

Throughout this period, follow the evidence. Take regular measurements of body composition, athletic performance and health to keep track of how this works for you.

Above all, ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Am I using cardio properly?
  • Is what I am doing truly helping me reach my goals (as demonstrated objectively by evidence such as body fat tests or tape measurements)?
  • Was I misusing cardio simply because I did not have enough information?
  • Or do I have an unhealthy attachment to cardio that I need to examine more deeply?

If you fall into the last groups — cardio misusers and abusers — there’s good news. High intensity training is a highly effective way to bust through mental barriers as well. In fact, I like to refer to them as barrier-busting workouts.

The time and effort you put into high intensity anaerobic training sessions will not only help you break through physical plateaus, but mental ones also.

Stop abusing and start using and progress your “cardio” protocols properly and you will find yourself making real progress with your physique and your overall health.

No need to thank me for the time and energy I just saved you. Just make sure to post pictures of your better body in about 16 weeks time!

Learn more

To learn more about making important improvements to your own nutrition and exercise program – or, if you’re a fitness professional, to help your clients do the same – check out the following 5-day video courses.

They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).

The best part? They’re totally free. To check out the free courses, just click one of the links below.