Are You Doing Too Much Cardio?

Too much cardio….Is there even such a thing?

For most people they associate a weight loss program with endless hours of cardio and a very low calorie diet. I’m going to shed some serious light on this subject.

As a registered dietitian and personal trainer cardio is one of the more common questions I get asked about. Contrary to the popular belief that more is better, I am here to tell you other wise. Cardio is an important part of any fitness or weight loss program but so many people make some very common mistakes and actually end up shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to seeing results.

First off we need to get one thing very clear – You can not out work poor nutrition.

Read that line again, and again, and again…Sorry, but there is no way to eat whatever the heck you want and expect to kill yourself on the treadmill and still see results. Nutrition is 80% of the equation for weight loss. Now that we have that out of the way let me tell you the two very common mistakes most people make when it comes to cardio.

Mistake number one is they do their cardio before weight training. I know there are some that may disagree with this but in my opinion you should never do anything beyond a very light warm up before weight training. When you weight train you use glycogen or stored carbohydrates as an energy source for the muscles to perform work. Your muscles store three to four times more glycogen than the liver. When you bust out a one hour session on the elliptical before your weight training session you start to deplete your muscle glycogen stores. This is a problem because now you have less energy going into your weight training session, and your performance may suffer.

You may be thinking, “I’m trying to lose weight so why do I care if my performance suffers with weight training?” My philosophy with weight training is it’s role is to build and maintain muscle mass, not to induce weight loss which is what a caloric deficit and cardio are for. When you are in a caloric deficit you need to continue to strength train with maximal intensity to preserve the lean muscle tissue you have. Maximal intensity with weight training is much harder to produce after a cardio session. Keep the cardio after the weights.

Mistake number two is most people do too much too soon. The average person who  wants to lose weight thinks to start by doing as much cardio as possible for as long as possible to kick start their weight loss. While this approach may logically make sense, it is setting you up for long term failure.

The human body is resilient and adaptive. It does not wan’t you to lose weight. It is going to fight you along the way in forms of metabolic adaptations aka plateaus. So, when your body plateaus you have two options:

  1. Reduce calories from food (intake).
  2. Increase how many calories you burn daily (expenditure).

Most people I have worked with over the years prefer to eat more, and burn more through cardio as a form of expenditure. So, you slowly increase the duration and intensity of the cardio over time as the body resists change. If you start off your weight loss journey doing six days a week of cardio for an hour, sure you may see initial results more rapidly, but what do you do when your body adapts? Go up to seven days a week? Increase to an hour and a half per session? Two-a-days? These scenarios are not long term sustainable. Remember the main goal is to lose weight and keep it off, right? So, we want to take a safe and sustainable approach to cardio.

As an example, if I have a female client coming to me to lose weight I set her macros where I wan’t them and let’s say she wasn’t doing any cardio, then I may start her with only one to two days of steady state cardio after her weight training for 15- 20 minutes total duration. I stick with this until her body adapts to the protocol. Then, I slowly increase the duration of her cardio (maybe go up to 25 minutes each) and start to incorporate short sessions of high intensity interval training (HIIT). Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to the human body. For most people outside of those looking to achieve very low body fat levels, two-a-day cardio is never necessary and excessive in my opinion. My motto for weight loss is this: My goal is always to get a client to lose weight with the most amount of food possible and the least amount of cardio for long term health and sustainability. 

Be smart and go slow.

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