Cardio for Fat Loss?

There’s so much mis-information out there….

I go to a commercial gym when I travel, I notice that there’s a ton of people on the ellipticals, treadmills and bikes. Most have a magazine or they’re tuned into the TV. They’re barely breaking a sweat. I wonder what they’re doing and why they’re doing it…seems like a grand waste of time to me. Actually, studies show that low intensity cardio is the least efficient way to burn fat and even to get into good cardiovascular condition. If your goal is to burn fat and get into great shape, low intensity cardio is NOT the way to go.

The best way to burn fat is to raise your metabolism and increase lean muscle….why you ask? Let me tell you…

Muscle is metabolically active tissue and its what helps to burn calories and keep off those extra pounds. If you have more muscle, you will burn more calories, even as you sleep. The only way to elevate your resting metabolic rate is to build muscle tone by participating in any sort of resistance training, including body weight exercises.

You simply cannot attain your “ideal body” by only doing ‘cardio’. Cardiovascular training is important and promotes cardiovascular health, which is mainly beneficial for the inside of your body, but resistance training is not only great for the body’s outward appearance, but also helps to promote lean muscle tone which will put curves in all the right places. The ideal program will include both elements.

The problem is that many people think that cardio is the answer to losing fat, looking lean and feeling great. It’s important, no doubt. Most will dedicate the bulk of their time on cardio training with the hopes of fat loss. In fact, your cardio should take you less time in the week than your resistance training.

Let me explain by comparing two kinds of cardio…

It is true that your body will use a greater percentage of fat as an energy source when doing low intensity cardio exercise, but the fact is, your body will burn more total calories when you do higher intensity exercise. In the end, you’re looking to burn more total calories and have an elevated metabolism so that you continue to burn more calories even after you’re done exercising.

So your best bet for fat burning is HIIT, or high intensity interval training.

Studies have proven time and again that it’s not workout length that’s your primary concern, its workout intensity. As well, there’s a little something called “EPOC” or post excess post exercise oxygen consumption that occurs with high intensity workouts. You can actually elevate your metabolism for up to 48 hours after your workout so that you continue to burn calories even after you stop exercising. So drop the marathon barely-break-a-sweat low intensity workouts and opt for short intense workouts for maximum fat burning.

You’d be surprised how far 15-20 minutes of intense working out can go to improve your fitness level and burn fat. In fat, with HIIT, or high intensity interval training, you can’t go much longer than 15-20 to have an effective workout. I challenge anyone who says that they can’t find 20 minutes in their day to exercise. Clearly priorities need to be evaluated if this is the case.


So, let’s have a look at how I used cardio to prepare for national bodybuilding contests.

I want to say that when I first started getting ready for contests, I tried the ‘long, slow, boring’ cardio route. This made contest prep an arduous task. Holy cow, I was either training, doing cardio, weighing and measuring food (more on that in future posts), working on my posing routine and oh, I had to work for a living too. In other words, my life revolved around contest preparation.

Not only did my cardio sessions take forever, I got more of the ‘skinny – fat’ look and even lost some muscularity.

This protocol involved a minimum of three 30 min sessions of low intensity cycling (read: 90 min of cardio daily). It was just enough to barely break a sweat. I used the stationary bike for the most part. I kept my heart rate at a steady state for the entire time at about 70% of my maximum heart rate.

To determine maximum heart rate:

220 – (your age) = maximum heart rate (check this out!)

Can you say ‘mind boggling boring’?? This was where contest prep took discipline. I generally tried to cycle in front of the television when I was at home. Or when I was at the gym, it was heavenly if there was someone beside me to talk to. I could easily hold a conversation at this intensity.

Ug! I have to say that this long, slow boring cardio protocol was paired with a low calorie, very low fat diet. I had NO energy and even keeping my heart at 70% and my legs moving was a major effort. I know now that my metabolism was tanking due to restricted calories and loss of muscle.

Thankfully I found a better way.


(This is a picture of me well after my competition days and two kids later, and I still use HIIT a few times a week for my cardio.)

I found HIIT, or high intensity interval training. I still did my cardio twice a day, but it was MUCH shorter in duration. Rather than spending 90 minutes on the stationary bike, I spent only 30 minutes total on my cardio protocol.

Here are a few of the routines I followed in the morning:

Cycle workout #1

60% max 2 min warm – up,

30 sec 90-100% max followed by 30 sec 60% max

Repeat 8-10 times

60% max 2 min cool down

Total time = 12-14 min

Cycle workout #2

60% max 1 min warm up

20 sec 70% max, 20 sec 80% max, 20 sec 90-100% max, active rest 30 sec 60% max

Repeat 8 -10 times

60% max 2 min cool down

Total workout time = 15-18 min

Hill workout #3

60% max 1 min warm up (brisk walk up/down hill)

Hill sprints – I found a hill close to my house that took about 12-15 sec to power up with a full on sprint. I would do 10-15 hill sprints then jog return to the bottom and often I did a 20 sec ab move at the bottom of the hill. I would alternate sprinting forward and backward up the hill (holy hamstrings, try backward hill sprints!)

60% max 2 min cool down (easy walk)

Here I am, long after contest days, still doing the same forward/backward hill sprints:


As you can see, I varied my HIIT routine and was able to keep things fresh. Mentally, cardio was easier to handle since I always felt like I was doing something a little different. Also, I knew that in less than 20 minutes I’d be done. On occasion, when my energy was low, I’d go back to the low intensity steady state cardio, but soon remembered why I hated that boring protocol.

Today I use HIIT as my go-to cardio about twice a week. I do stationary cycling and hill sprints when the weather allows for it. On the other training days, which admittedly is pretty much every day, I do resistance training, supersetted with skipping or other HIIT options so I literally kill two birds with one stone: cardio training for fat loss and resistance training for muscle tone. Stay tuned for an awesome skipping workout coming up next.

My suggestion for you is the same. If you’re a cardio junkie as I know many are, at least by doing HIIT your valuable time will not be eaten up with hours of cardio weekly. You can easily devote up to 20 minutes a day on cardio as long as you’re getting in your resistance training. I might also add that if I were interested in leaning out for a photo shoot or event, I would likely double my HIIT cardio sessions weekly.