"Don't waste your time on steady state cardio brah, it's just going to jack your cortisol and kill your gains. Don't do it."
Ok, but what if you don't care about 'gains'? What if all you're looking for is to shed some unwanted poundage and look a little better in the buff? Should steady state cardio be a part of your workout regime?
I thought 'hey this will be fun, and even if I lose a bit of muscle mass I'm going to get super lean and ripped because I'll be doing so much extra cardio'. I will tell you now that, at least in part, this was misguided thought.
Ry and I didn't have a ton of time to train together so in general we both did our own thing during the week. I rode my bike to and from work, so I just ratcheted up the intensity a bit. I also started doing stairs over lunch hour. The really big training day for Ry and I was always Saturdays. We would go to Thornhill pool and swim 750m (30 lengths), get out of the pool. One of us would hop on the treadmill and the other would get on the stationary bike. We'd do our 5k run and a 20k bike.
So every weekend we would do a Sprint Triathlon, in training for our eventual Olympic Tri.
It was great, I was starting to understand the whole 'runner's high' thing. You got caught up trying to improve your time and I started to look forward to those workouts. The number one goal was to compete in and complete an Olympic Tri, but I thought I was going to see some awesome physique side benefits too. But was I actually getting 'lean and ripped'?
I remember it was about two thirds through my training and I ended up catching up with an old workout buddy (my man Wil), we met at the park between our two places to do a park workout -- body weight exercises of various format with whatever you can find at your local park, good stuff.
It was approaching summer, it was a hot spring day and shirts eventually were dropped. I remember Ry eyeing me and then telling me
'you've really started to take on that runner's build, eh?'
You get so used to looking at yourself in the mirror every day that seeing change that is occurring slowly is always really tough. It often takes an outside perspective to really appreciate it. But training the way I had been had definitely changed my body. All that running, riding and swimming had left me looking more like Ghandi than Brad Pitt (Fight Club, you know what I'm talking about).
I ended up completing my triathlon in May of 2012. I have to admit that despite not getting the results I wanted from an aesthetic point of view, I did thoroughly enjoy the competiveness of race day and I had a lot of fun training and racing with my buddy Ry.
The point of this story is not to tell you that you shouldn't be doing cardio -- the reason for working out is never 100% aesthetic. It's to tell you that there are better ways to lose fat while maintaining your muscle, strengthening your heart and looking your best (yes girls, you want to build and maintain your muscle too. I promise you're going to look and feel better for it).
That was a round-a-bout way of getting to my next story:
Most of my training life I've thought that steady state cardio wasn't going to help me reach my goals of looking and feeling my best. I thought that burning calories on the treadmill puts your weight loss or maintenance on a treadmill as well, you have to keep going in order to keep your results. Rather than being the Ferrari that burns a tank of gas driving across the city, you're being the Jetta that has to drive from Calgary to Edmonton and back to burn the same amount of fuel.
I've said it a lot of times that resistance training is a way better way to get and stay in shape, because not only are you burning calories while you workout, you are also improving your ability to burn calories after you workout, both with the 'afterburn effect' and by increasing your muscle mass (Muscle mass burns 3x as many calories as fat at rest)
Well I was able to do an experiment the other day that actually proved my point. When I was training for aforementioned Triathlon, my lovely wife bought me a super cool Ironman heart monitor watch. It had the strap that went across your chest to track your heart rate and you could store your workouts to see your energy expenditure throughout training.
Cool stuff. The only problem is I never actually used it to review my workouts.
The other day I decided I would finally figure out how it works (3 years later...)
I started tracking my heart rate on my lift days. I'm nerdy like that so I absolutely loved it. I could see how my body responded to different lifts throughout my workout and how hard my overall workout was.
The coolest part was comparing what a normal 'lift' looked like in comparison to some relatively 'steady state' cardio -- Squash.
Here are the results:
Second comment, notice how my heart rate is jumping up and down quickly during my resistance training? In comparison, during squash my heart rate stays relatively steady. All those intervals of high and then short bursts of low heart rate are forcing me to enter a more pure 'anaerobic state'.
The benefits of spending time working out at an intensity higher than your bodies oxygen rate can keep up (anaerobic) is that you're creating an oxygen debt (fancy word) which means you're going to burn more calories after your workout.
If you look at the time period after my upper body workout vs after my squash workout (both around the 43 minute mark), you can see that my heart rate quickly returned back to (relatively) normal after my cardio workout, where as my resistance workout actually left me with a higher heart rate for a longer period of time.
This is the coveted 'Afterburn' and what makes High Intensity Interval workouts (HIIT) so great.
Cool Fact: For mid to high intensity exercise, the majority of 'fat calories' are burned AFTER the workout (in your 'afterburn' or EPOC period).
Third comment, I don't really believe in the absolute values for calories burned that my watch has given me for both workouts but I think they are correct in a relative sense. You can see that during my resistance workout I spend a longer time at a higher heart rate and my average heart rate is basically the same despite having many periods of short 'recovery' where my heart rate dropped down quickly between sets. This adds up to a more effective calorie burning workout when compared to my squash game cardio.
What I'm getting at is that even if you're just chasing 'fat calorie' burning exercise, resistance training (set at a high tempo) can do a better job than your typical cardio workouts. Add to it the fact that training your muscle is going to help you maintain your basal metabolic rate and help you burn more fat and you've got no reason to not be in the gym lifting weights.
So Ladies (and gents), don't be afraid of hitting the Iron House! You're going to burn fat, you're going to shape all your favorite muscles (yes, looking your best is a combination of both reducing excess fat and improving muscle tone) and you're going to be helping yourself burn more calories while you're not working out -- Win, Win, Win.
I think that every single person over the age of 16 should be doing some sort of resistance training as a part of their workout routine, whether that be body weight or free weight driven.
If you're main goal is to be cutting fat while trying to maintain or build a little muscle keep a couple things in mind.
1. Find a split that works for you: You should be doing resistance training at the very minimum of twice a week. Full body workouts are fine, but you may find you can be more effective by splitting up body parts. Upper and a Lower day? Push and Pull day? Find a split that works for you and stick to it for four to six weeks
2. Start with your big complex lifts: The biggest lifts (deads, squats, standing military press...) put the greatest demands on your nervous system. You should start your workout with these lifts, if you save them for the end you're more likely to perform them poorly and increase risk of injury.
3. Keep your rest breaks short: This is a trade-off, depending on your goals. If you're looking to build absolute strength you will do best to have longer breaks and ensure 100% recovery and maximal energy for the next set. If you're trying to increase your conditioning and burn more fat you should keep your rest periods shorter and increase your total volume.
4. End with a Finisher: I'm not talking Sub-Zero from mortal combat here, I'm talking about a conditioning finisher. Kettlebells, box jumps, battle ropes, skipping, sprints... there is an endless amount of 'finisher' options for you to add to the end of your workout. The key to getting the most out of your finishing exercise is to ensure it gets you very close to your max heart rate.
You'll know when you are approaching it -- It should feel like you literally can't push your body any harder.
Usually a finisher will be three to five minutes with little to no rest. This type of high intensity exercise is going to really drive up your oxygen deficit and create an even longer 'Afterburn' period where you will burn the most fat calories.
5. Fuel for Performance: Just read an awesome article by Brad Schoenfeld on whether to eat before a 'cardio' or HIIT workout. His main point is that fueling yourself before a workout actually shifts when you burn your fat calories from during your workout time (if you fast) to after your workout (if you eat before). Sounds a bit counterintuitive, but if you are performing with a high intensity you are going to create an awesome afterburn that is actually going to be a more effective calorie burner than your workout was. So he recommends you eat before a mid to high intensity workout to take advantage of that 'afterburn' period. Give Brad's article a read if you want to dig in deeper, it's worth the read!
There you have it, the case for replacing your cardio workouts with a weight based training session. This article should illustrate for you that you're not missing out if you trade in your spot on the elliptical for the squat rack; you're actually going to be gaining -- in the best ways possible.
Live your best life!