The Truth About Cardio

Photo by CF Undaunted via Flickr

Photo by CF Undaunted via Flickr

As a fitness professional one of the most typical comments I hear in at the beginning of the year is, “I need to lose weight. Those holidays went straight to my stomach.”

Often, people believe they need to make a huge shift in their workouts, such as adding long-distance running and extending the time on the cardio machines at the gym, to lose weight.

The challenge with that is cardio can be boring, time consuming and not as effective a solution to weight loss as you might think.

According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Obesity, “The effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible.” If fat loss is the goal, traditional slow and steady cardio is like using a fork to eat rice; it gets the job done, but it’s not as efficient as a spoon.

Even if you are exercising 8 hours per week, this is only 5 percent of the time in a week. So in order to increase fat loss, you must maximize fat burning during the 95 percent of the week in which you are not exercising. Nutrition is also key, but the focus of this article is how to use a specific type of training to maximize fat loss.

To maximize fat loss when you aren’t exercising, research suggests two strategies:

1) Control your fat-loss hormones.

2) Maximize excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), the calories your body consumes when returning to its resting state after exercise. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that your body can burn additional calories due to EPOC for up to 43 hours after exercise.

Fat-loss hormones

Two crucial fat loss hormones that you must control to help your body reach a more balanced state and to increase its capacity to burn fat are ghrelin and insulin.

Ghrelin is your hunger hormone. It is released from your stomach to tell your brain that you are hungry. Decreasing calorie intake causes an increase in ghrelin. Intense exercise decreases ghrelin levels, which is why you usually don’t feel very hungry immediately following an intense workout.

Insulin is a key hormone for controlling blood sugar levels. If there is too much insulin in the blood stream, your body cannot break down fats for energy. When you increase muscle density, the body’s sensitivity to insulin is increased. This means less insulin needs to be present in the blood stream to control blood sugar. In simple terms, the more muscle mass you have, the less insulin your body needs to produce. This enables the body to burn more fat. Increasing the intensity of your exercise builds muscle density. Unfortunately, increased muscle density is not a side effect of steady state cardio.

A quick, easy way to increase the intensity of your exercise and build muscle density is to replace your cardio with metabolic strength training. Metabolic strength training is total body resistance training (lifting weights, bands or body weight) using incomplete rest intervals to increase intensity and work the cardiovascular system. Incomplete rest intervals are achieved by significantly reducing your rest period between exercises and sets so your body is still working to recover from the last exercise when you move on to the next exercise.  Because of the incomplete rest intervals, metabolic strength training is much more time-efficient than cardio.

In fact, a recent study in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported that 4 minutes of metabolic strength training intervals had the same effect on fitness as 30 minutes of cardio at 85 percent heart rate.


The next step is to maximize the calories your body burns at rest. Again, intensity of exercise is the solution. When you increase intensity and use incomplete rest intervals, your metabolism is supercharged to levels well beyond what you can reach with steady-state cardio, and this means your body must work harder and burn more calories to reach equilibrium. The best way to create this metabolic supercharge is to use high-intensity intervals (working at 100% effort and speed for short periods of time) in your training.

Another Journal of Obesity study reports: “Most aerobic exercise interventions have consisted of moderate-intensity steady-state exercise, for about 30 to 40 min for 3 to 4 days per week, over a four- to six-month period. Disappointingly, these kinds of exercise programs have resulted in minimal fat loss.

In contrast, high-intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE) has been shown to result in greater fat loss.”

To summarize, an efficient fat-loss program must have the following components:

1) Metabolic strength training to control fat-loss hormones

2) High-intensity intervals to maximize the amount of calories your body burns at rest

You can eventually lose weight with traditional cardio, but if you want to lose more weight and spend less time in the gym, drop your long cardio routine and replace it with metabolic strength training and high intensity intervals.

Here’s a 12-minute workout to replace your cardio. Called the Super Burpee Challenge, it consists of only one exercise: You will alternate between doing super burpees for 30 seconds and resting for 30 seconds.

Here are the steps for a super burpee:

  1. Squat down and keep your feet flat on the ground.
  2. From the squat position, put your palms flat on the ground.
  3. Jump your feet back so you’re in a push-up position.
  4. Do a push-up.
  5. From the push-up position, bring your knees to your chest, then jump back to push-up position.
  6. Get back into squat position with your feet flat on the ground.
  7. From the squat, jump, and reach as high as you can.

Use these tips, and go take action to make those holiday pounds a distant memory!


C.J. Easter is an ex-Stanford football player turned fat-loss expert. He is the CEO of the Performance Science Training Institute. Email him at


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