When it comes to losing fat as fast as possible, conventional advice is to slash your calorie intake and do lots of cardio.
And chances are pretty good that if you have ever
tried to lose weight, you have followed this advice, and one of two things
- You starved yourself for weeks while doing lots of jogging, biking, and elliptical-ing and at the end of your diet, you lost some weight but didn’t have the chiseled muscle and 6-pack you were hoping for.
- The extreme calorie deficit had you hangry all the time and you didn’t make it through an entire week before giving up the diet and you returned to your normal habits.
Both of these scenarios yielded the same result
— you’re frustrated, unhappy with your physique, and you still don’t know how
to get the beach body you’ve always wanted.
In this article, we’re going to tell you the truth about cardio and fat loss, and the answer may shock you.
Let’s begin by discussing what exactly qualifies as “cardio”?
What is Cardio?
Cardio, in the view of people trying to lose
weight, is a form of light-to-moderate intensity exercise performed at a
constant speed for a predetermined amount of time without stopping. The goal of
this activity is pretty simple — burn as many calories as possible.
While “cardio” in the traditional sense refers to
long, relatively low-intensity forms of exercise (jogging, cycling, etc.) there
are actually 2 different forms of cardiovascular exercise:
- Aerobic Exercise
- Anaerobic Exercise
Aerobic training by definition means involving,
relating to, or requiring oxygen. In other words, in order to perform aerobic
activities, your muscles must use oxygen.
Aerobic activity is typically done at a
low-to-moderate intensity, roughly between 50-70% of your VO2max with a heart
rate between 120-150 beats per minute, for prolong periods of time. Types of
activities that fall under the aerobic training category are those
traditionally associated with the term “cardio” — jogging, biking, swimming,
This style of training is also commonly referred
to as “low-intensity stead-state cardio” or LISS, for short.
Aerobic training helps build muscle endurance and stamina as well as blood vessel capillary size. It also helps train the heart to become more efficient at pumping blood to the working muscles.
Anaerobic exercise is the opposite of aerobic
activity. Anaerobic means without oxygen or not requiring it. Essentially, it’s
the type of exercise where you get out of breath rather quickly and need to
rest briefly before continuing to exercise.
Another difference between anaerobic and aerobic
exercise is that anaerobic activity breaks down glucose for energy without
This type of training predominantly works the “fast-twitch” type II muscle fibers — the ones involved in powerful, explosive movements such as sprinting, jumping, lifting heavy weights, or high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Due to the intensity of the movements, you cannot
perform anaerobic exercise for as long as aerobic exercise without stopping or
significantly dropping the intensity.
Anaerobic training is performed at moderate-to-high intensities up to an including 100% VO2max.
What Type of Cardio is Best for
Traditionally, performing low-intensity, steady-state cardio on an empty stomach has been viewed as the most effective way to burn fat. This is because your body primarily relies on stored body fat for energy during low-intensity activities, such as LISS.
Recently, however, researchers have shown that it doesn’t really matter whether you perform your cardio fasted or not. As long as you calorie intake at the end of the day is below your TDEE, you will lose body fat.
Now, comparing HIIT vs LISS for fat loss, HIIT is the clear winner for a couple of reasons:
- It results in the same amount of calories burned in a fraction of the time.
- Research has shown that HIIT helps burn body fat, while preserving lean mass better than hours and hours of low-intensity, steady-state cardio.
In the end, LISS or HIIT can be used to increase
calorie expenditure, but high-intensity interval training is generally
considered the more efficient means to burning a maximum amount of calories in
a limited amount of time.
Do I Need to Perform Cardio for Fat Loss?
The short, simple answer is no. Cardio is NOT a
requirement for you to lose weight. The only that is required for you to lose
weight is a negative energy balance, meaning that you must consume fewer
calories than your body requires on a daily basis.
In other words, weight loss is essentially calories in vs calories out.
You can tip the balance in favor of weight loss
by reducing calorie intake and/or increasing calorie expenditure.
And, it’s here where cardio comes into play.
Cardio, along with high-intensity interval training and resistance-training (lifting weights) can help increase the amount of calories you burn in a day. But, it’s important to remember that the number of calories that you burn during a workout is a mere fraction of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Cardio can help you burn more calories, but it is not absolutely necessary.
The real key to losing fat as fast as possible is using a combination of calorie deficit, resistance training, and a limited amount of cardio.
Why Do I Need Resistance Training
to Lose Fat?
Resistance training is vital to losing weight as it helps preserve lean muscle while in the midst of a calorie deficit. And, if you’re relatively new to training, you may actually be able to build muscle while losing body fat. Retaining and building muscle is crucial when dieting for fat loss, as the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate. This means you can lose weight at a higher amount of calories than someone with a lesser amount of muscle.
Setting up Your Diet for Fat Loss
A properly set up eating plan will melt fat off
your body. It only requires you to do a bit of planning, tracking and tweaking
things along the way as needed.
You can perform all the cardio and resistance-training you want, but all of your efforts will be in vain without a proper fat loss diet plan in place.
There’s a reason people say that “abs are made in the kitchen. It’s because diet ultimately dictates success no matter what your goal is, whether it be building muscle or losing body fat.
Even better is the fact that your diet plan doesn’t have to be bland, boring, or restrictive. You can tailor it to fit your needs and tastes. You can also set it up to lose fat quickly or a bit more slowly.
This is why you don’t “need” to do
cardio to lose fat. While cardio is great for overall health and can help burn
a few extra calories, it will never be as powerful (or effective) as a properly
set up eating plan
How Do I Set Up A Diet Plan for Fat Loss?
To set up a meal plan for fat loss, the very first
thing you need to do is estimate how many calories your body requires each day
to maintain your current weight. This number is referred to as your total daily
energy expenditure or TDEE for short. It’s the sum of all calories burned in a
day from exercise, non-exercise activity (walking from room to room, fidgeting,
etc), digesting, and performing various life-sustaining functions.
Now, you don’t need a PhD in Nutrition or
Mathematics to calculate TDEE, we’ve provided a handy calculator for you here. Simply plug in the requested data, and
you’ll have a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat each day to
maintain your weight.
Once you have your TDEE calculated, you next need to decide how aggressive of a deficit you want to run. Basically, if you want to lose fat as fast as possible, you want to use a moderately aggressive deficit, but not so drastic that you risk losing a lot of muscle in the process of losing fat.
How big of
a calorie deficit should you use?
Somewhere between 20-25% below TDEE is an
aggressive enough calorie deficit to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle
loss. This number is backed by research conducted using trained athletes that
showed that a 24% calorie deficit led to virtually no muscle loss, but an
average rate of 1 pound of fat lost per week.
So, for example, if you ran the TDEE calculator
and your TDEE was estimated at 2500 calories. And, you wanted to use a 20%
deficit, you would want to remove 500 calories (2500 * 0.2 = 500) from your
Therefore, you would be consuming 2000 calories
per day during your fat loss phase.
The next thing you need to do is set your macros.
To preserve as much lean muscle as possible
during your cut, you want to consume at least 1-1.2 grams per pound of
bodyweight per day. Regarding the amounts of fats and carbs, once you have your
protein set, you can play with the exact amounts of carbohydrates and fats.
Some people like to consume more fat when dieting as it helps them feel more satiated at meal time, while other dieters prefer more carbohydrates than fat as it gives them more energy for their workouts, and carbohydrates have a protein-sparing effect in the body, which can help preserve more lean mass while cutting.
In the end, so long as you stick to your calorie
deficit each day, the exact ratio of carbs to fats isn’t as important as you
maintaining a negative energy balance and consuming enough protein.
How to Use Cardio & Diet to
Lose Body Fat
Now that we have your eating plan set up, let’s
talk about how much cardio you should do. Ultimately, it’s up to how much time
you want to devote to it.
The main focus during fat loss is on your diet.
After that is resistance training. If you need help selecting a training
program to use during your weight loss journey, we have a whole stockpile of
plans specifically geared for fat loss, here.
Now, as for cardio, we’d recommend no more than
2-3 sessions of HIIT per week, lasting 20-30 minutes. This minimizes the amount
of time your in the gym training while providing a huge boost to your
metabolism and burning a bunch of calories.
If you need help setting up a HIIT protocol for training, check out this article. Essentially, HIIT involves alternating periods of all-out effort with brief periods of active recovery. A popular structure is 30 seconds of max effort followed by 30-60 active recovery at a lower intensity. The length of your active recovery periods depends on your fitness level and how quickly your heart rate can come down following the periods of all-out effort.
Popular options for HIIT include burpees, kettlebell swings, recumbent bikes, sprints, rowers, and ellipticals. You can also perform HIIT with bodyweight circuits as well.
The Bottom Line on Cardio for Fat
Cardio is great for improving heart health, but it absolutely is NOT NEEDED for fat loss.
Focus first and foremost on your diet plan, then on resistance-training, and then if time allows and you want to, you can add in a few brief HIIT cardio sessions each week. Keep your cardio session short but intense and you’ll torch calories, burn body fat, and preserve lean muscle.
Fat loss will come with a proper diet plan and resistance-training program in place. Cardio is always there if you have time for it, but if not, don’t worry, your fat loss results will not be any worse for wear.
Huovinen HT , et al. “Body Composition and Power Performance Improved After Weight Reduction in Male Athletes Without Hampering Hormonal Balance. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028999.