Why Traditional Cardio Sucks for Fat Loss (and What to Do Instead)

Your hours on the treadmill aren't going to get you in shape. Here's why.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when it comes to training is spending too much time on traditional cardio.

The human race was designed to throw a spear at a deer and then sprint after it. We sprint and we walk. We don't jog. Don't get me wrong—if you're currently an avid jogger and you are enjoying it, that's great! But if you want to get leaner and build and maintain muscle, then you should drop the traditional cardio in favor of short bursts of high intensity intervals.

What Is Traditional Cardio?

I define traditional cardio as any type of cardiovascular exercise (jogging, cycling, etc.) that is performed at a consistent pace for about 3 minutes or more. This type of exercise has limited benefit in your fat loss and muscle building endeavors. Many of the people you see on the rows of treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes at commercial gyms are doing some form of "traditional cardio."

What's Wrong With Traditional Cardio?

What can go wrong when you perform too much traditional cardio? Here are some examples:

  • It can raise your cortisol to levels to the point where your body begins breaking down muscle fiber. While cortisol is a critical steroid hormone, too much of it can wreak havoc on your strength and muscle gains. Many people already have high cortisol levels due to stress brought upon by work, school and personal problems.
  • It can lower your testosterone to the point where you have lower levels than those of a sedentary individual. Exercise should increase testosterone, and lower testosterone equals less muscle.
  • It can cause a loss in bone mass, which is especially problematic during the aging process.
  • High levels of cardio lead to decreased muscle and make it harder to gain/retain muscle mass. So not only are you losing muscle, but you're making it harder for yourself to build muscle in the future.
  • You negatively affect your immune system as you lose muscle mass.
  • It lowers your basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you would burn if you lie in bed all day). You need that to be as high as possible to burn more calories the other 23 hours of the day you aren't working out.
  • It changes fast-twitch muscle fibers into slow-twitch muscle fibers, making you slower and weaker. If you want to be as strong and as fast as possible, you want to maximize the growth of your fast-twitch fibers.
  • And the pièce de résistance, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of the Cooper Institute and founder of the jogging revolution, is now an advocate for not overdoing jogging and implementing a weight training regimen.

What Should Be Done Instead of Traditional Cardio?

If you want to improve your conditioning for your sport like football, we would suggest short intervals for 20 seconds with 100 percent effort, then rest for 2-3 minutes.

If you give your best, you will need the rest.

Unfortunately, over the years, there seems to be a growing population of people conditioned to go all out, all the time. Forget the rest; we've got no time. This trend seemingly is half about training and half about creating entertainment for social media. Without rest, you cannot truly train and develop your high-intensity energy systems.

Here's a look at the two energy systems you should focus on in your training:

  1. ATP-CP (maximum effort under 20 seconds)
  2. Glycolytic (think lactic acid burn in your muscles between 21 and 70 secs of exercise)

There are two subsections of each of these systems:

  1. Power (think of power as the 0-60 of your car)
  2. Capacity (think of capacity as the amount of miles you get in the tank)

If you can finely tune both your ATP-CP and Glycolytic systems, your workouts will feel easier as you will be stronger, more explosive and more efficient.

How Do I Develop the ATP-CP System?

You develop the ATP-CP system with 3-20 seconds of max effort – Not 85 percent. Not 75 percent. 100 percent. The fitter you are, the longer you can go all out. Most likely, if you consider yourself unfit, it will be around three secs. From here, it's important to consider appropriate exercise selection so you stay injury free.

Here's some examples of great movements to hone your ATP-CP system

  • Sled Pushes
  • Hill Sprints
  • Tire Flips
  • Sledgehammer
  • Farmers Walks
  • Med Ball Throws and Slams
  • Broad Jumps and Vertical Jumps

The closer you get to 20 seconds of all-out effort, the more this becomes about your ATP-CP capacity. That is a work rest ratio of 1:12-18, meaning if you exercise for 20 seconds, you get 4 mins of rest. Not everyone is capable of giving 20 secs of max effort. That's OK. It's great to be aware of this so that you can exercise your hardest and smartly work to develop your capacity.

How Do I Develop My Glycolytic System?

This system is about creating maximum lactic acid!

To train the power component of the Glycolytic systems, you're looking at 21-40 seconds of exercise (a less fit person is closer to the 21-second range). When training this component, you should utilize a 1:12 work/rest ratio. For example, 30 seconds of exercise followed by 6 minutes of rest.

To train the capacity component of the Glycolytic system, you're looking at 41-70 seconds of exercise (a less fit person is closer to the 4- second range). When training this component, you should utilize a 1:5 or 1:6 work/rest ratio. For example, 60 seconds of exercise followed by 5 minutes of rest.

With that long of a work-rest ratio, we have ways of tweaking your workouts so you're not actually standing around for 6 mins (examples include supersets or circuits of non-competing exercises).

But the fact of the matter remains, be prepared to focus more, work harder in your sets, rest longer, and subsequently get stronger, build more muscle and lose body fat.

Intensity is No. 1. If you start talking or get distracted in your set, you are not committing yourself to the exercise. I am talking about 30 secs of maximum focus and effort where if you had a gun to your head you couldn't do another rep.

Then you get to chill and talk, refocus and do it again.

If you are not feeling that burn in your muscles (lactic acid), you are not creating change. Lactic acid increases growth hormone and testosterone production. Growth hormone stimulates muscle function while testosterone helps to break down fat. Lactic acid training forces your body to produce high amounts of lactic acid, increasing both muscle growth and loss of fat. The amount of growth hormone released in lactic acid training can be up to nine times the amount produced under normal circumstances. Or you could go for a jog and have it lower than someone who doesn't workout.

How Often Should I Train?

In my opinion, you should be training at least four times a week.

There are studies that show training four times a week gets proportionally greater results than training three times a week. And yes, we have that data backed up over numerous weight loss challenges. Four or five times a week is enough. Don't feel you need to train six times a week or more. Listen to your body. Recovery is just as important as intensity when trying to build muscle and lose fat.

If you feel the need to do more, walk or do a hike. This will keep your cortisol low, it will help you burn more calories through NEAT (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), and we should all be striving for a minimum of 10,000 steps per day. Because if you are not taking at least 10,000 steps, you are not considered an active person, even if you workout five days a week. So 10,000 should be your baseline goal. If you are just starting your journey, by all means, be happy with 10,000 steps, but if you have been in this health and fitness thing for awhile, and are not satisfied with your results. Perhaps it's because you are not moving enough during the day?

There are so many variables to consider, and yes, while, some work for almost everyone, we are all different and unique. But, the one constant you will always have control of is the consistent effort you put into your training. You can read more about my approach to training at bootcampeffect.com. Now get after it!

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