How many times have you been told that in order to lose weight, you'd better be doing lots of cardio? Fitness professionals and researchers have known for a good while now that this is certainly NOT the case, but this myth just doesn't seem to die. So without delay, here are 3 reasons why steady-state cardio sucks for fat loss.
NOTE: There are lots of great reasons to do cardio, as I'll discuss. Fat loss just isn't one of them.
1. You Don't Want to Do It...So You Won't.
There are physiological reasons why steady-state cardio isn't ideal for fat loss but even from a behavioral standpoint, it underperforms. I can't tell you how many times I have had clients tell me that they hate doing cardio. So why even bother doing it? Exercise should be something you look forward to and enjoy, and you should pick types of exercise that allow you to have that positive experience. If the idea of slogging along for 30 + minutes is dreadful to you, pick something else that you would prefer! Early in a fat loss program when your motivation is high, it's easy to "push through" and get these sessions in begrudgingly. However, when your motivation inevitably fades (it WILL happen), there is a very high chance you start to bag out on your boring cardio sessions. Pick something that you will consistently want to do time and time again.
2. It's Not Time Efficient
Since steady-state cardio requires maintaining a moderate heart rate for an extended period of time, you have to plan at least 20-30 minutes minimum for this type of exercise to provide meaningful benefits to your heart. Anything is better than nothing for sure, but less than 20 minutes is rarely worth the effort. If you only have 20-30 minutes to spare, you are FAR better off doing something that requires the intensity to spike your heart rate way up, let it come down, and repeat. This type of training could be HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or just plain old strength training. Since the intensity is higher, you will burn more calories per minute and also increase your fitness faster. Keep in mind too that HIIT training is relative to you, so no excuses. You don't have to keep up with anybody else. You just have to push yourself within your own limits.
3. It Doesn't Help Build Muscle
Another way in which steady-state cardio is inefficient is that it doesn't simultaneously help you build muscle. The stimulus received through this type of cardio does not typically load the muscular system enough to cause a growth response. Let me assure you, more muscle mass is almost always a good thing. I'm not talking about becoming a bodybuilder here. Developing truly large muscles like that would take a tremendous amount of time and effort, not to mention eating a ton (which if you are reading this, you shouldn't be). I'm talking about building enough muscle to keep you strong, functional, athletic-looking, and maintain healthy bones. More importantly in the context of this article, having more muscle increases your resting metabolic rate, which aids in fat loss. More muscle means more potential for fat loss.
So in order to build this muscle, you need to mechanically load the muscular system via resistance training. Focus on big, multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses, pulls, etc. to burn the most calories and stress the most muscles. Don't be afraid to push the intensity a bit either. If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you. In short, resistance training builds muscle and causes high spikes in heart rate, both of which make it the better option over cardio for fat loss.
The Only 3 Reasons to Do Steady-State Cardio
I just spent a good chunk of time talking about why cardio sucks for fat loss, which it does. Having said that, there are great reasons to do cardio and you should still do at least some of it. At the very least, it is great for your heart and can be used to supplement a consistent resistance training program. Notice that cardio is the supplement though, not resistance. Resistance is the staple.
Other reasons to do cardio? You love it! There are certainly tons of people who enjoy going for long runs, bike rides, or swims. In fact, training for endurance events like marathons and triathlons has boomed in recent years. So if this describes you, have at it and enjoy knowing that your heart is in good shape. Just don't forget to do some lifting as well!
There are great reasons to perform steady-state cardio exercise, but fat loss is not one of them. There are much more effective and time-efficient means of gaining muscle and burning calories, such as HIIT training or strength training. In fact, with the sole mission of losing fat, cardio is not strictly necessary at ALL. Losing fat has much more to do with your nutrition habits than anything else. If you want to learn the physiology behind losing fat, take a peek at our Fat Loss 101 article on this blog.