You read that right. Don’t do cardio for weight loss. It sounds atrocious to many people and trainers out there. And there’s a good reason for that. Doing cardio for weight loss initially seems to work, it’s simple and easy, doesn’t take much of an investment and as a trainer, it is stupidly easy to program. I want to share more on what I learned about the human physiology and weight loss in the course of this article.
Here’s why cardio for weight loss has such a good reputation, despite the fact that it’s a terrible idea for the purpose of weight loss: minute for minute you actually – initially! – burn the most amount of calories. Sounds great, but the problem is that it only works initially.
What do I mean by that? If you did a little deeper into human physiology you’ll quickly notice that the human body is an outstanding apparatus when it comes to adaptation and efficiency. It finds ways to get by on less or more, too much or too little. So the moment you do something your body will start to become proficient in that one thing. If you lift weight to gain more muscle mass you are very familiar with this concept already.
You lift weight, your body initially breaks down, recovers and tries to adapt to the new load by getting stronger. Easy.
More weight = more muscle (in the long run)
In other words, you become efficient at it and if you wouldn’t increase the weights, you would simply plateau there.
What’s cardio all about?
What has this to do with cardio? Everything. Now ask yourself what the body tries to accomplish when you go running for an hour, what exactly is happening? You are stressing your cardiovascular system and you need a lot of energy to do this. Energy equals calories in this case. So you spent calories, which is great for weight loss, right? Wrong.
Adapting to stimuli: Cardio vs Muscles
It’s wrong because your body will adapt to this stressor by getting more efficient doing it. One of the things the body can do in this case is to get your motorfunction on a better level (as in practice makes perfect). A perfect stride costs less energy than an imperfect one, which means your body can to more strides with the same amount of energy. That’s fine, the problem really lies in thefact that your body will also become energy-efficient too.
This means it will find ways to get the running session done with less energy. And that is the problem with cardio for weight loss. If you never did this, then it initially works fine because your body is inefficient. The moment the scales tips over to being efficient this advantage will quickly turn. If you want to burn the same amount of what you did at the beginning you need to increase the stimulus. There are really only two ways of doing this:
- you can run faster
- or longer
- or both (in weights this translates to more weight more volume or both).
As with muscles, your body will also adjust and adapt to that and so the cycle begins anew. You will be locked into this and what initially kickstarted your weight loss will now be detrimental to it. You have to do all this cardio work simply to maintain your weight because you constantly decreased your basal metabolic rate (BMR) with all the cardiovascular exercises.
The BMR is the amount of energy you need simply to keep you alive. It’s the amount of energy your body needs if you would lie in bed for 24h and not doing anything else. It’s easy to see that a lower BMR will make weight loss harder, as you need less energy from the start.
Caloric deficit for weight loss
And while there are exceptions to this rule (because of certain illnesses), the only way to lose weight is by maintaining a caloric deficit (here are a few tips on eat less calories and start losing weight). That’s a fancy way of saying that you need to burn more energy than you consume (find out why weight loss diets don’t work).
If you want to lose weight in a sustainable way you need to find ways to increase your BMR. The best way is to find tissue that is energy expensive. The body has plenty of those but you cannot really grow more brains or livers now, can you?
So the next best thing is muscle tissue. Pound for pound you will simply burn more calories by carrying more lean muscle tissue compared to fat.
Fat needs almost no energy to get by, whereas a pound (that’s 0,45 kg) needs almost 5 kcal to make it through an hour. In one day, having a kilo more of muscle tissue increases your BMR by ca. 200 kcal. That was the old belief at least. While muscle does burn more calories at rest than fat, it’s not as dramatic as previously believed.
But compare that to your treadmill where you might “burn off” a couple hundred calories while reducing your BMR with strength training where you “burn off” also a couple hundred calories (but less than doing cardio) and increasing your BMR.
Besides that, increasing your muscle mass makes your body much more insulin sensitive. This translates in an overall better use of the calories you consume and less will be turned into body fat.
Increase your BMR and lift weights
So, if you really want to lose weight, stop your cardio focus and lift weights. More lean body mass will also look better, if you are prone to this, but will also benefit your overall health in many other ways too.
Before you start trolling me: cardio has its purpose! If you
- do cardiovascular exercises because you want to improve this for the sake of improving or because you need it to carry over into another sport than cardio is great.
- want to shed that extra pound and understand that effects of cardio on your BMR than use it like medicine and achieve your goal.
- simply enjoy running then go for it, movement is great.
Simply realize that cardio is a detrimental way when it comes to losing weight. If you need help with achieving your weight loss goals let me know and we can go through this process together: