Adding more and more cardio activity can end up making fat loss (and life in general) MORE difficult

(What to do instead of adding more and more cardio to lose fat)

The Gist

  1. If you hit a plateau in your fat loss, something needs to CHANGE, not necessarily be added.

  2. The body burns less calories as it becomes accustomed to activities.

  3. If the body needs to, it will compensate for the energy burned during exercise away from activity by either increasing energy intake or reducing energy expenditure.

  4. Continuing to add more and more cardio activity with each fat loss plateau can put you at a high risk of injury and rapid weight gain once your weight loss “diet” stops.

  5. Too much (>20-30 minutes; >3 days/week) of steady state cardio can result in muscle loss.

  6. HIIT is a different kind of cardio that has shown to be more effective for fat loss and muscle preservation.

  7. Endurance training is still encouraged for its many health benefits.

  8. Doing exercises you enjoy and are going to do regularly is more important than any perfect program, but if steady state cardio isn’t cutting it for your “cut” then consider replacing some time spent endurance training with resistance training, HIIT and/or interval work.

  9. More diet and more exercise are not usually the answer, change is.

Let’s clear this up right off the bat:

The key to stimulating more fat loss is not adding more and more cardio exercise

If you hit a plateau in your fat loss, something needs to CHANGE, not necessarily be added. Let’s take a deeper look.

Why do fat loss plateaus happen?

The body is an adaptation machine and what it wants is efficiency. You may think of efficiency as a good thing, but it’s not when you’re looking for fat loss. As an extreme example: being able to run 5k on 200 calories is efficient (40 kcal/km), whereas running a 5k on 1000 calories is very inefficient (200 kcal/km), yet more inducive of fat loss.

Let’s take the first time you go cross country skiing as an example. The first time you hit the trails you are markedly inefficient; your movement patterns are all over the place, many muscles are contracting to keep you balanced and muscles you never even knew existed will be sore soon after and the next day. As you continue to cross country ski you learn techniques to make it as easy as possible for you to get the most out of each stride. It basically becomes automatic, you’re now only activating the muscles you need to when you need to, you’re thinking about other things and you’re back to normal soon after you return home.

The same goes for your energy systems. A new stimulus and the contraction of those muscles to keep you from falling on the cold hard ground means high metabolic demands[1]. The little power houses in your muscle are working like crazy trying to keep up wherever they can. As you rest and recover your muscles and even your nervous system (mind-muscle connection) start preparing for next time. They basically start building the machinery that is going to help you cross country ski at higher levels for longer periods of time using less energy.

The great compensatory mechanisms

Not only will you burn less energy during the activity that you do regularly, but it also seems that if your body needs to, it will find a way to save up for the demands it knows are coming.

Here’s a great eye opening example: A well-controlled research study[2] conducted at The University of Copenhagen took 61 overweight men and split them into three groups: a control/sedentary group, a moderate dose of aerobic exercise group and a high dose of aerobic exercise group. The moderate volume group was given 30 minutes of endurance cardio calculated to burn 300 kcals per day, whereas the high dose group was given 60 minutes of cardio calculated to burn 600 kcals per day. The subjects did this for 13 weeks. At the end of the study both groups lost equal amounts of fat (4.0 kg and 3.8 kg respectively).

Wait... what!?

Although their measures were not sensitive enough to determine exactly what caused the high volume group to not lose more fat, they did determine differences (though not statistically significant) in the amount of energy burned during activities AWAY from exercise. It seemed that the high volume group were just down-right lazier; meaning they walked less, stood less and just all around moved less when they weren’t working out. Had they had more subjects, they may have been able to pin point more effectively. One of the few limitations of this study.

Other studies have also noted this compensatory change, as well as changes in appetite (goes up) and even daily metabolic rate (goes down), particularly when coupled with caloric restriction[3,4,5,6,7,8,9]. It seems that not only is it hard to do the cardio and schedule your day around hours of working out, but life in general becomes more difficult.

The initial grand delusion

“But I added more running to my workout routine two weeks ago and I’ve already lost weight.”

Remember when I talked about new stimulus = high demands? It takes time for your body to adapt, so IT IS likely that you will lose weight at first. Even each additional increase in time spent doing this steady state exercise (going from 30 min to 60 min to 90 min to 120 min) could induce a bit of new stimulus leading to some more weight loss, but expect earlier plateaus between each increase. This stands to reason why many individuals as well as uneducated coaches feel the need to continue to add more cardio exercise as soon as the weight loss comes to a halt.

“But if I just keep increasing incrementally half hour at a time won’t this work just for my big day?”

This COULD get you down to your goal weight and even an ultra-lean physique ready for a competition, which is why many coaches are successful at bringing athletes to the big day (whether it be a bodybuilding show, a wrestling match, boxing match or the bride’s wedding). However, not only is this likely to make your life miserable because of chronic fatigue (not wanting to move or get out of bed), but it also comes with a high risk of both injury and a risk of rapid weight gain afterwards. When the athlete or average Joe trying to lose weight want to return to having a normal life so they have time to work, pay the bills and see their family they are usually just left to go back to their regular diet and activity level as they were before starting their weight loss “diet”.

The risk is that suddenly going back to an hour per day 3-4 days per week may not cut it as it can take the body a while to recover from the calorie saving adaptations it has made[10]. All of a sudden there’s x-number (300, 400, 600…) of calories that are now NOT being burned off regularly. Those will be going straight to those starved fat stores (which just can’t wait to take them in at this point) as detraining occurs. This is likely contributing to why you see athletes, bodybuilders and other physique competitors commonly gain up to 20-30 lbs in a matter of weeks after their competition.

Reason #2: Steady state cardio can reduce lean muscle and strength

This a short one for the athletes, physique competitors and anyone who wants to maintain muscle and strength while losing fat:

Too much endurance exercise alongside weight training can reduce the ability to preserve muscle while losing fat[11,12]

Losing weight without losing muscle is hard enough; do you really want to make it more difficult? Also, less muscle results in reductions in daily energy expenditure[13]. Meaning as you lose muscle, your metabolic rate goes down. (one more unneeded variable to add to the equation; especially after competition day)

Keep in mind that I said the words ‘too much.’ In order to preserve or gain muscle it is recommended to do no more than 20-30 minutes of endurance exercise and to do so only 3 or less times per week[12]. It is also best to space out your endurance training away from your strength training (at least 3 hours) and have at least one snack or meal in-between.

Therefore, if you’re an athlete looking to lose weight, you don’t have to avoid endurance cardio like the plague; just take my next 3 points to heart.

What you can do

#1. HIIT it up

I know I’ve been using the term ‘cardio’ a lot in this article and specifically I was referring to steady state (long duration endurance activities). However, there is another type of cardio activity that trumps steady state when it comes to both fat loss and muscle preservation. That cardio is High Intensity Interval Training or as the gym rats and lab rats call it, HIIT (“hit”) training.

HIIT training is doing very high intensity activity in shorter bursts (usually 10 seconds to 60 seconds, but there are many different definitions). Examples would be: resistance training circuits with short breaks between each exercise, sprints, Wingates and intervals. It also involves fast paced resistance or plyometric exercises that are highly demanding of the heart and lungs, such as burpees, battle ropes, squat jumps, tuck jumps, kettlebell swings, mountain climbers, boxing rounds on a punching a bag, etc.

HIIT training has shown to result in less of an adaptation in energy efficiency than endurance exercises[12,15]. It is also better at preserving muscle mass and in some cases has even shown to build muscle while losing fat[16]. Now again, CAN you adapt to HIIT training to the point where you are burning less energy during the activity like in steady state? Yes, eventually to a certain degree you can, but there are so many different types to choose from to switch it up AND provide your body with something new to adapt to. Playing around with the resistance, time and reps are all ways to provide a new stimulus. Examples:

- Increase the weight of the kettlebell and do less reps of kettlebell swings - Decrease the weight of the kettlebell and do more swings

- Sprint for 10 seconds - Sprint for 30 seconds - Sprint up a hill

- Do shorter Wingates with more resistance - Do longer Wingates with less resistance

I think my point has been made.

#2. Do your cardio!

That’s right, I said it. This article was not meant to be endurance cardio bashing, it was meant to be eye opening to the fact that going to ridiculously extensive measures to lose fat quickly usually backfires.

Endurance activity still has a whole host of health benefits and the last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from doing the exercise that they enjoy. Here’s a belief I hold close:

The best exercises are the ones that you enjoy the most and are going to do REGULARLY and CONSISTENTLY.

There isn’t a single type of exercise on earth that is going to work if you don’t do it consistently. If you love running, cycling, walking and other steady state endurance activity, that’s great! Continue doing what you love to do and what you are going to do. However, if you are trying to lose fat and your endurance program hasn’t been working for you, consider replacing some of it with interval work, sprinting or resistance training. Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, an added benefit of these high intensity and resistance exercises is they have all shown to improve endurance performance[16,17,18]. If you haven’t worked out in a while and you use to love endurance activities like cycling, you’ll likely see some changes in your body after a few weeks of just cycling, but don’t expect the rate of those changes to last forever as it adapts.

#3. Remember that more is not the answer, change is

If you’ve hit a plateau, don’t add to your exercise program, change it! This goes for both HIIT and steady state.

Running stopped working? Start sprinting. Sprinting stopped working? Start doing resistance training circuits. Circuits stopped working? Start doing Wingates. Wingates stopped working? Start doing rowing intervals.

If you run out of activities that you enjoy or are able to do, either get creative (there’s always more) or start over! Just as your body adapts, it ‘unadapts’ (detrains) over time of not doing it often enough.

One last time:

When it comes to diet and exercise, more is not usually the answer, change is.


The key to success when you feel like nothing else is working


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