CARDIO, that six letter word that is generally dreaded by almost everyone, but is one of the most asked about topics of discussion. Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, is any activity that raises your heart rate for a sustained period of time. At least in my case, when I get asked about cardio it usually pertains to doing cardio to lose weight or fat, forgetting all the other more non-egotistical benefits that it does for your body. While cardio does burn calories and helps reduce body fat, more importantly it helps to improve the function and efficiency of your heart and lungs. Your heart is a muscle just like any other and in order for it to be and stay strong it must be worked. If you fail to work it, it will weaken and be less efficient at pumping blood and oxygen to your body which undoubtedly has negative health effects down the road AND to keep your attention, it will make losing weight and burning fat much harder.
So lets get to the question you guys are probably most concerned about: Which cardio is best for fat burning? There are two major forms of cardio that are heavily debated in the fitness world: LISS, or Low Intensity Steady State cardio and HITT, or High Intensity Interval training.
LISS, or Low Intensity Steady State, the cardio that you see the Kai Greene, the Phil Heath, the Flex Lewis and pretty much all the bodybuilders doing. So if this is what all the pros use to get shredded, then it must work, right??!! LISS involves doing a repetitive movement at a low to moderate pace for a sustained period of time. Examples of this type of cardio would be walking on a treadmill, stair mill or elliptical, biking, distance running, pretty much any exercise that you can do continuously usually 30-60mins, or longer for some crazy people. It is usually advised to keep your heart rate in the aerobic (with oxygen) zones which tends to be around 50-60% of your max heart rate. Generally they say you should be able to hold a conversation as you are working. This will vary depending on cardiovascular fitness. What may be strenuous to one person may feel like a walk in the park for another person. This is purely individualized and because your body will adapt to exercise this should also change as your fitness level changes. As you build your cardiovascular fitness and endurance, you will also need to add more stress which you can do with speed or intensity, like raising the incline. The whole premise behind Steady State cardio is that when your heart rate stays at a low-moderate rate during your workout, you will primarily be burning body fat for fuel. Once your heart rate gets too high or in anaerobic zone, which your heart rate will be above 75% of your max, you primarily burning glucose (stored carbs) instead. Of course you are burning calories during both types of training, but your body is fueling itself from different sources depending on your energy output. Keeping your heart rate at a moderate level, about 60%, there has been some research that says you are burning body fat as a primary source while also retaining muscle mass. Think of LISS as a slow simmer. It is also low impact and recovery time is much faster. LISS is something that you could do every day and if you are someone that does weight training separately, you should be able to recover fast enough to have full energy for that workout. So to wrap up LISS cardio in one sentence: keep it easy pace, but longer duration, burn more fat instead of carbs, and keep your muscle.
HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, involves alternating between short bursts of high intensity efforts, or sprints, with low to moderate intensity or recovery intervals. The intense work periods may range from seconds to a couple minutes long, and are performed at 85-95% of a person’s estimated maximal heart rate. The recovery periods may last equally as long as the work periods and are performed at 40-50% of a person’s estimated maximal heart rate. An example of HIIT training would be a 15 sec all-out sprint followed by a 2 minute walk or jog to bring your heart rate back to normal and then repeating this sequence for a number of minutes or a number of times. So what makes HIIT so intriguing is that this type of training can be done in half the amount of time!! There have been many studies done indicating that HIIT may be more effective at reducing body fat than any other exercise. During a HIIT workout, you are cranking your heart rate up to 85-95% of its max during the sprint phase. At this point your body can’t transport enough oxygen to your muscles, so they are working anaerobically (or without oxygen), and continue to accumulate a shortage of oxygen that must be recouped after your workout in order to get back to normal. The result in this anaerobic training: Your metabolism is fired up for hours after you leave the gym and you are burning more calories throughout the day, even while you are sitting on your ass. HIIT training is said to increase your metabolic rate for up to 24 hours. However, to make this happen and reap all the benefits of HIIT training, you must be working very close to your maximum heart rate. In other words, this workout needs to be freaking hard and intense. Want more fat loss? Why not turn up the intensity, push yourself, be done in a fraction of the time? High intensity cardio burns more calories which will ultimately produce more fat loss, period. Right??? Seems logical, plus you'll burn more throughout the day.
Alright I’m going to break it down for you how I see it. Both forms of cardio exercise are great and work. I have personally done both and have used both for my own various reasons. When preparing for the Olympia, the Arnold, or pretty much any of my pro shows that I competed in, I primarily used steady state either on a stairmill or I would go for long runs. I did this type of cardio for a couple of reasons: 1. Because it was very easy and convenient for me to do first thing in the morning. I didn’t really have to think, I would just go down stairs, hop on the stairmill, watch a movie or just take it outside for a long run which is also very enjoyable. 2. Because I was doing cardio on an already restricted diet, first thing in the morning and fasted (which I’ll save that discussion for my next blog post), I had lower energy levels, so I think doing full-out sprints I would tap out real fast or just not really be able to go to max speed, which to me defeated the purpose of HIIT. Mentally I just don't think I had that type of workout in me. Being calorie deficit already, I had to take recovery into my considerations. I wanted to be able to recover adequately so that my weight training later in the day would not be sacrificed.
I don’t really do anything in my life at a slow pace. The mythical “fat burning heart rate zone” was never really something that I have followed. In my head I always want to go as hard as I can for as long as I need to go, which ranged between 20-40 minutes depending on how far out I was from the show. Whether I was on the stairmill or running outside, I would find the highest pace that I could maintain for 30 minutes. So obviously I couldn’t sprint for 30 minutes straight but it definitely wasn’t a slow “fat burning zone” pace. I guess I would name that HISS, High Intensity Steady State. My goal was to burn as many calories I can in the amount of time that I was suppose to do for cardio. Calories in, Calories out..right? So regardless if that was considered LISS or my hybrid HISS, steady state cardio evidently works. I have a first place Olympia trophy that proves that.
Since my competing days are at a hault, I have actually been incorporating a lot more HIIT style of cardio in my week and actually less steady state. And what do ya know…this is also working very well for me. I started playing soccer again 3 days a week, so the games in themselves are HIIT cardio. The entire game is composed of all out sprints, continuous jogging, and the occassional break when the ball goes out of bounds. In preparation and to stay in “soccer shape,” I would do my own sprint HIIT workouts on the field. With doing more HIIT training I am finding it very easy to stay lean, even without being strict on my diet whatsoever, and maintain, dare I even say build more muscle. So I guess both forms of cardio work.
I think one of the most important factors to choosing your cardio is #1 you need to like what you are doing. This article became so much larger than I expected to be because there are so many contradicting theories, information, and research combating the two forms cardio against each other. What it comes down to is they both fxcking work. What doesn't work is not doing cardio at all because you hate it. So find something you enjoy. If running on a treadmill in your basement just sounds awful, try something else! If you hate it and dread it every day, the less likely you will continue to do it. You don't need to be at a gym, you don't need to be on a certain piece of equipment, you don’t have to stay in any mythical zones. Find something you like to do and get to it! Don’t be afraid to switch it up during the week. I base everything around my mood. If I am not in the mood to go balls to the wall with sprints, than maybe I opt for a relaxing run outside with fresh air and surrounded by nature. Do cardio not only because it makes you look good, do it because it makes you feel good and gosh darn it, cardio is just damn good for you, your heart, and your lungs!
Stay healthy my friends, and do your damn cardio!
Dana is a owner of Run Everything Labs and Kaia. Not to mention 1st ever Women's Physique Olympia champ and tons of other rad shit. You can find more Dana info on her site www.danalinnbailey.com .
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