When it comes to working out, most people assume more is always better.
If you want to be bigger and stronger, you should spend more time lifting heavy things, right?
And if you want to be leaner, you should just suck it up and spend more time on the Stairmaster, no?
Well, not quite.
That MO has some relevance to gaining size and strength because you do have to keep overloading your muscles to keep making gains, but it can easily lead to overtraining if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Cardio is different, though.
Namely, the only reason to do a lot of cardio is to improve your cardiovascular endurance.
And that’s what we’re going to dive into in this article
You’re going to get answers to all your most pressing questions, like…
- How much cardio should you do to lose weight?
- What about building muscle? Is cardio good or bad?
- How much cardio is too much? What happens when you do too much?
- What type of cardio is best and why?
By the end, you’re going to know how to create the perfect cardio routine for you and your goals.
So let’s get to it.
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- How Much Cardio Should You Really Do?
- How Much Cardio You Should Do to Lose Weight
- The Best Type of Cardio for Burning Fat, Not Muscle
- What About Cardio and Muscle Growth?
- Should You Do Cardio or Weights First?
- The Bottom Line on How Much Cardio You Should Do
- What's your take on how much cardio you should do? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
For decades we’ve been taught that we should all be running, stepping, and jazzercising our way to fitness.
This, combined with a low fat diet, was the mission statement of the nineties. Any foods that were full fat were sinful and anything less than an hour per day on the treadmill was just plain laziness.
Obesity rates have continued to soar and people are more confused than ever about what it really takes to “shift” fat and get ripped.
There’s good news, though.
Thanks mainly to the scientific advances and the efforts of the evidence-based fitness community to disseminate the research, we now know better.
We know, for example, that eating fat doesn’t necessarily make us fat and that grinding our joints to dust doesn’t necessarily make us lean and healthy.
In fact, doing grueling amounts of cardio can actually harm us more than it can help. For example…
- Research shows that endurance athletes are at a higher risk of heart dysfunction than the general, non-running public. Moreover, the older they get and the more miles they log, the worse the problem gets.
- Studies also show that marathoners develop more arterial plaque than sedentary non-runners, which increases the risk of stroke and dementia.
- Spend a bit of time with dyed-in-the-wool endurance athletes and you’ll quickly notice how many problems they have with their joints, tendons, and bones.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that doing too much cardio can kill you, but that’s not wholly inaccurate, either.
The reality is if your goal is to look and feel great, then doing more cardio–and exercise in general–isn’t always better.
And that’s why my position on cardio is this:
You should do as much cardio as it takes to achieve your goals and no more, and it shouldn’t be so much that it impairs your strength training, recovery, or health.
So, with that in place, let’s now get a bit more specific about how much cardio you should be doing based on your goals.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that you’re here because you want to lose weight as quickly and healthily as possible.
I’d also wager that you’ve heard that cardio is absolutely vital to this–that you simply can’t lose any meaningful amount of weight without sacrificing gallons of sweat to the human hamster wheels.
Well, I have good news:
You don’t have to do cardio to lose weight–proper dieting alone is enough.
That said, if you want to maximize fat loss, cardio can certainly help. If used correctly (which we’ll talk more about soon), cardio will help you drop body fat faster.
But, more good news:
You don’t need to do more than an hour or two of cardio per week when you want to lose weight.
No, that’s not a typo. Not per day but per week.
A personal case in point:
I cut down to this look of about 8% body fat doing no more than 1.5 to 2 hours of cardio per week. And I can maintain it with even less.
You see, there are three reasons that, by itself, cardio isn’t as great for weight loss as you’ve been led to believe.
1. It’s too easy to eat the calories you burn.
You might be surprised how much you have to move just to burn a few hundred calories (about 30 minutes of vigorous exercise).
And you might be equally surprised at how easy it is to eat all those calories back without even realizing it. A couple handful of nuts and a piece of fruit is all it takes.
Now, any energy burned supports your weight loss efforts, of course, but my point is it’s not enough to just exercise without also knowing how to regulate your food intake.
If left to its own devices, your body will naturally increase its appetite to negate most of the fat-burning benefits provided by the exercise.
2. Your body adapts to reduce its energy expenditure.
Most people that “can’t lose weight” are simply overeating. They may not realize it, but that’s the whole story.
What can also get in the way of consistent weight loss, though, is the adaptive element of exercise.
Specifically, the more you do a certain type of activity, the more your body adapts to increase efficiency, and the more this occurs, the less energy it burns.
3. Cardio doesn’t preserve muscle (and can even accelerate muscle loss).
We may say we want to lose weight, but what we really mean is we want to lose fat and not muscle.
This isn’t just semantics, either.
It’s a very important distinction because how the scale changes isn’t nearly as important as your body composition–the amount of muscle and fat you have.
The key here is resistance training.
If you want to lose fat faster and preserve–or even build–muscle, then you absolutely must include resistance training in your exercise regimen.
So, as you can see, cardio is a double-edged sword with seriously diminishing returns. It can help you get leaner faster, but it can also burn away your muscle and health.
Now, I mentioned earlier that I do (and recommend), no more than a couple hours of cardio per week for losing fat.
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a bit more to this advice…
What would you rather do:
4 to 6 30-second sprints with 4-minute rest periods or 60 minutes of incline walking?
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the sprints–give me short and hard over long and boring any day.
(Wait, that didn’t sound right…)
Now the more important question:
Which workout do you think would burn more fat?
Most people would answer the walking…and they’re wrong. Research shows that the sprinting burns significantly more fat.
And that’s the beauty of the type of cardio known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves alternating periods of high-intensity, all-out exertions and low-intensity “rest” periods.
HIIT is quite a bit harder than traditional low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS), but it’s also far more rewarding.
Studies such as those conducted by scientists at Laval University, East Tennessee State University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of New South Wales have all found that shorter sessions of high-intensity cardio result in greater fat loss over time than longer, low-intensity cardio sessions.
Some of the reasons why HIIT beats LISS include…
- Greater increase in resting metabolic rate following exercise (afterburn effect).
- Improved insulin sensitivity in the muscles.
- Higher levels of fat oxidation (burning) in the muscles.
- Significant spikes in growth hormone and catecholamine levels.
- More consistent post-exercise appetite suppression.
- And more…
HIIT’s advantages extend beyond fat burning, too.
Generally speaking, the shorter your cardio sessions are (and the less total cardio you do in general), the easier it is to preserve muscle and strength.
This is especially true when you’re in a calorie deficit to lose weight.
As HIIT involves doing short but intense workouts that burn significant amounts of fat (but not muscle), it’s the ideal type of cardio for improving your body composition.
Many bodybuilders and fitness folk shun cardio because, they claim, it gets in the way of building muscle.
Well, it’s not that cut-and-dried.
Cardio doesn’t mystically shrivel your muscle and sap your strength. In fact, it can even help with muscle growth.
What is true, however, is that doing too much cardio can hinder muscle gain.
Hence, marathon runners.
And therein lies yet another advantage of HIIT over LISS, even when bulking:
You get to keep your cardio to a minimum while still burning a considerable amount of energy and improving endurance.
I’ll keep this short and sweet:
Lift first and then do your cardio.
This way you’ll be freshest for your lifting, which will help you progress faster in your workouts (and thus gain muscle and strength faster).
As much as I rail against the mainstream fitness scene, I have to admit it’s changing for the better.
Proper weightlifting is getting more popular.
Starvation diets are losing sway.
Honest supplement companies are gaining ground.
And people are finally realizing that you don’t need to be obsessed with aerobics to have a great body.
Here’s the long story short:
If you want to be lean, muscular, and healthy, then you want to do at least a few hours of resistance training per week (very important!) and do just enough cardio to reach your goals but not more.
Do that, eat sensibly, and you can’t lose.