Cardio is a poor time investment, it’s not necessary for most men to get shredded, it can steal recovery capacity, serve as a distraction, and the level of fitness most people will be happy with for their weekend warrior activities can be achieved by simply getting leaner and stronger.

If physique change is your priority then strength training and diet should be your primary focus. Cardio has its place, but shouldn’t be thrown in randomly and is best used sparingly.

I’ve done my best to bring together all notes on cardio that were previously scattered around the site into one comprehensive guide, and I’ve updated things drawing on the knowledge of some of the smartest minds in the industry in doing so. Time is a gift you will never get back, so use it wisely.

Tl;dr? Skip to the concluding recommendations.


Cardio For Fat Loss

A poor time investment

The most important part of the equation in losing weight is the energy balance. To lose fat you need to create a calorie deficit. You can come at this by either controlling your diet, increasing activity expenditure, or a combination of the two.

The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance for Fat Loss and Muscle Growth

For more, see ‘The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet‘.

An hour jog or cycle, for the average person is going burn approximately 400-500 kCal. That’s the equivalent of the average Starbucks muffin.

To get a pound of fat loss a week, you need to have an approximate ~3500 kCal deficit. To achieve that you could either eat a little less each day or do cardio for approximately 7 hours a week. Cardio is a poor time investment if fat loss is the goal.

Furthermore, if you throw in a lot of cardio at the start, you won’t be able to measure the results of the diet itself as it will mask the efficacy, which is a particularly important lesson to learn for those that have placed too much emphasis on the ‘increasing output’ side of the energy equation up until now (the cardio bunnies).

Point: In the future, you’re not going to have time to do cardio every day so learn to set up your training minimally now, so that you know how little you can get away with when the busy times do come.

Cardio: Unnecessary to get shredded?

This depends on your definition of shredded really, but for the majority of people I would say no. I’m defining ‘shredded’ here as the level of leanness 99.9% of people would be happy with, rather than the level that is necessary for the stage.

The guys in the pictures below are shredded, but not stage ready. Some cardio and timing tricks will be necessary for stubborn fat removal from the very lower back and glutes, but these clients were already more than happy at that point.

Cardio is often irrelevant unless you’re already at this stage of shredded, and not necessary unless you’re looking to step on a stage.

Cardio Intermittent Fasting

For more, see the article, ‘When is Cardio a Valid Tool for Fat Loss with Intermittent Fasting?‘.

My experiences getting clients shredded without cardio is similar to what Menno Henselmans reports:

“Cardio is no more effective than calorie restriction at preserving muscle or getting lean. In fact, cardio significantly increases the risks of both muscle loss and overtraining.

The muscle loss from cardio is due to the interference effect. Your body cannot become good at endurance and strength training at the same time. These are mutually exclusive physiological adaptations. As a result, your body will find a compromise. Endurance and strength will both improve slightly. In a caloric deficit for an advanced trainee, the interference effect is often sufficient to prevent strength gains or even increase strength loss.

Note that I have competitive standards in mind, as most of my clients are currently physique athletes or want to look as good as one. The average fitness crowd that’s not interested in maximizing muscle mass can certainly combine cardio and strength training (Crossfit, anyone?), but if you’re serious about physique training, cardio is a necessary evil, not a desirable method of fat loss.

So if cardio sucks so much, why do it? At some point, it becomes necessary to avoid nutrient deficiencies, especially in women. Most of my male competitors get to below 2% body fat according to calipers (which of course systematically underestimate body fat percentage in this scenario) without any cardio.

Menno Henselmans Profile shot
Menno Henselmans of Bayesian Bodybuilding

However, most of my (natural) female competitors need to decrease their calories too much to get in contest shape, especially the bikini competitors who don’t have as much lean mass as the others. I very rarely have any of my female clients consume less than 1500 calories every day. It is almost impossible to consume a balanced and healthy diet at that point.

When cardio becomes necessary to maintain a healthy diet and increase the caloric deficit further, LISS cardio [low-intensity, steady-state] is highly preferable to HIIT [high-intensity interval training] and both are better than anything in between. Avoiding the interference effect requires using a stimulus that is similar to strength training (HIIT) or a stimulus that does not require much adaptation at all (LISS). Avoiding the interference effect altogether is preferable to minimize it, so LISS is best in this regard.

The female physiology is well adapted to endurance training and fat burning, so women do even better on LISS than men.

Thirdly, HIIT increases the risk of overtraining and injuries with no advantage to LISS other than saving time.

In summary, advanced male lifters generally don’t need cardio. Women tend to need cardio in the final weeks of contest prep to avoid starving themselves and in that case, LISS beats HIIT.”

LISS beats HIIT

That last part reminds me of this by Martin Berkhan,

Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com
Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com

“Strength is strength. Cardio is cardio. Don’t mix, keep them separate, and use cardio sparingly on a diet or if your primary goal is strength and muscle gain.

If you’re adding 2-3 sessions of HIIT to your 3 sessions of weights, it is almost comparable to adding 2-3 days of weights. Keyword is “almost”, I’m obviously not drawing direct comparisons. That’s all fine and dandy if you think working out 5-6 days/week is a good idea on a diet. But I don’t think anyone – no matter what level of experience – needs more than 3 days a week in the gym when cutting. (Yes, this goes for competitors and beginners alike.)

In conclusion, if conditioning is not terribly important for you, if your goal is really about getting shredded while keeping your muscle, I highly suggest limiting moderate to high-intensity cardio on a diet – or ditch it completely. Save it for some other time when your recovery is good and not limited by your diet. A calorie deficit is a recovery deficit. Avoid deficit spending.”


Cardio For Physique Development

Endurance training compromises strength work

This is the interference effect that Menno talked about that Martin mentioned also:

“The mechanisms furthering adaptations in one trait – AMPK for mitochondrial biogenesis for endurance, suppress those that would have allowed optimal adaptation in the latter case, mTOR for muscle protein synthesis – all things being equal – looking at concurrent endurance/strength training vs strength training sans endurance training.

“It should be noted that it’s primarily endurance training that impairs strength and muscle growth, not the other way around (strength training even has some modest, but positive effect on endurance in beginners).”

If you chase both, you will compromise both. That’s not to say that cardio doesn’t have a place…

Cardio work can help push through strength plateaus

“Aerobic exercise can actually make you a more efficient lifter, by helping increase your training density, volume, and frequency by aiding in recovery during your workouts and between your workouts. Being able to work harder and recover from more work is the simplest way to make more progress.”Greg Nuckols, one of the strongest drug-free lifters in the world.

“This is assuming you’re eating enough to recover from your training,” Greg adds. So don’t make cardio additions as an attempt to bust through a strength plateau when in a calorie deficit.

The type of aerobic work you perform has an impact

Running is particularly bad for lower strength acquisition.

“Running has a significant eccentric component. Your muscles have to decelerate your legs as they hit the ground, which causes more muscle damage. This hinders recovery from lower-body training. Cycling, on the other hand, doesn’t increase muscle damage significantly,” says Greg Nuckols. 

If you keep your steady-state cardio sessions low impact (for example, swimming, rowing, or brisk walking) your lifting shouldn’t suffer.


Cardio for Health

People will insist they wish to do cardio for their health. What people generally mean is one or both of the following:

  1. They wish to reduce their risk of premature death due to heart disease,
  2. They wish to be able to accept an invite for a hike in the mountains on the weekend without fearing the feeling that their lungs are about to explode and they will embarrass themselves by holding up the group.

The best thing you can do to improve your blood lipid profile if you are overweight is to get leaner. – A strong heart running on a system with clogged, dirty pipes isn’t much good to you.

Strength training and getting leaner will improve your endurance. – Losing the 40lb rucksack of fat that you are carrying each day while getting stronger is going to do far more for your joints and everyday movement than aerobic work alone will.

I have worked with a lot of clients who have hired me to help them pass physical preparation tests for various branches of the military, fire service, and police force in several different countries. The focus is nearly always to strip off the unnecessary fat first to make them pound for pound stronger, then putting conditioning work in at the last point possible.

Why strength and fat loss first, and then the conditioning?

Cardiovascular endurance comes mostly from chemical and metabolic adaptations in the body, which can happen relatively quickly. As the two are better separated, I focus on the fat loss first and ramp up the cardio much later in the programming.

Sweat and or pain should not be the goals of your training, adaptation and progression should. You may be surprised just how far focus on simply getting leaner and stronger will take you to whizzing up mountains with a backpack on the weekend, …if that is what takes your fancy.


Summary: Recommendations on Cardio for the Physique-Focused Trainee

Dieting

  • Diet should be the primary means of creating the calorie deficit required for fat loss. If you set things up right, unless you’re looking to get on a stage, most men likely won’t need cardio at all.
  • If cardio is necessary, LISS low-intensity steady state) work such as brisk walks, rowing or swimming is the way to go. Avoid running.

Bulking

  • Focus on strength acquisition for physique development.
  • Cardio can be used to help with this, but it’s prudent to change other aspects of programming in your strength training first (guide). Cardio is likely not necessary until you’re into the intermediate phase where some form of periodization is needed.
  • When introducing cardio work, make it low impact, low intensity; like cycling, rowing or swimming. Avoid running due to the eccentric component.
  • Avoid HIIT work unless conditioning is absolutely necessary for your sport. Again, make it low impact work if possible, like the cross-trainer, cycling, or swimming. Save your knees.
  • Add in carbs to make up for the additional energy expenditure of cardio work, but beware of the tendency to overestimate the calorie burn from aerobic activity.

If you are an endurance guy looking to push your physique to the next level, consider putting your endurance goals on hold for the short-term, do the minimum you can do to maintain a level of stamina you deem tolerable, and put your focus into chasing strength gains. – Endurance goals can always be chased down later, and you’ll likely quickly surpass your previous records because you’ll be working with a stronger base.


Hope you found that useful. Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy.

127
Comments

Please keep questions on topic, write clearly, concisely, and don't post diet calculations.

avatar
700

Privacy policy.

newest oldest
Josh
Josh

Hey Andy!! what do you think about including some sets of power exercises to an active recovery day in bulking? (3-5 sets of 50m sprints and 2-3 sets of cleans and some pliometrics or box jumps) I play soccer and love the gym. Any advice would be awesome dude 🙂 (btw i train in a 5 day split PPL+UL)

Ralph Dunniehigh
Ralph Dunniehigh

Andy, you hit it right on the head when you said “stubborn fat and lower back and glutes fat removal!!!” What are your recommendations? 8 weeks out, full frontal (lol) leanness, and I haven’t done any cardio yet.
HELP ME GET TO THE FINAL LEVEL Thank you!!!!

Nate Britt
Nate Britt

I really enjoy running. I want to see strength gains but want to keep running for the enjoyment of it. I generally run 20-30 miles a week. Is there ANY way to be able to keep running and see strength gains?

Silvia
Silvia

Hi Andy!
I came across your page and read your free nutrition guide twice! it’s awesome and big thanks for the hard work. After reading this article I feel so much relief. As a woman there is so much information out there on how cardio is the solution for fat loss and I hate it sooo much. Strength training was intimidating at first (too much too learn at first, gym area flooded with guys..), it seemed too hard to start with. However, thanks to You Tube and all the amazing articles with great advice given for free like your page, I fell in love with weight lifting and going to the gym is so enjoyable now. I don’t do cardio because it’s boring, I hate it and my brain takes it as a punishment so I stick to what I love: lifting weights and challenging my body. Adherence to any plan is key and I don’t pretend to be stage ready any time in my life. Besides, I can say I am losing weight with no cardio at a healthy rate per week so I don’t feel i’m missing out for not doing it. Instead of taking cardio as a must-do for fat loss, I take it as a supplement for whenever my body feels like doing it or when i’m enjoying outdoor activities, that all. Wish more women would turn to strength training for results in fat loss because I really hate to see them for hours on the treadmill ~

Nicole Murray
Nicole Murray

this sucks. i LOVE HIIT, plyometrics and such (hate running though); I love sweating and pushing my body to the limit for 10-20 mins. “Sweat and or pain” feels so, so good for me. giving it up in place of boring weight lifting makes me sad.

HIIT like workouts have been my primary modus operandi for years.
i’m reaching a plateau, though. i’m at 21% body fat (female, 160cm) which is low but i feel like i need to cut. i’ve got muscle for sure but it’s hard to see. i’ve read your articles on macros and calories, and on Big 3….. please don’t tell me I need to give up my beloved HIIT to achieve what i want 🙁 do you think it would be ok 1-2 times a week to go for it?

Joshua
Joshua

Hey Andy,

I have a question regarding skin elasticity and cardio. I used to weigh 300 lbs, in 2008/2009 I got down to 190 lbs through diet and exercise only. I then started dating my now wife and over the years slowly gained about half of that weight back. After finding your site and learning about IF and the Leangains approach to diet lifestyle I’ve successfully gotten down to 200 lbs (and I’m still dropping). I’m doing the stronglifts 5×5 routine only with no cardio at the moment. I’m increasing in strength every week but I’ve noticed that my skin hasn’t bounced back as well as it did the first time thus far. I feel fatter at 200 lbs than I was when I initially lost the weight. My question is would the fact I was doing a heavy cardio routine the first time around be a factor in my skin not bouncing back as fast? I understand I’m older as well, and the first time I lost the weight was over a year In the making versus less than 4 months this time around. Just wanted to get your thoughts on the issue and see if you’ve had any experience with your heavier clients loose skin woes? Thanks for your reply!

Joshua
Joshua

Got it, thanks for the response, Andy.

Is there a rule of thumb as far as how long one should wait after losing weight before exploring other options such as surgery? I want to give my skin the proper time to bounce back.

Thank you.

Quinn
Quinn

Andy:

I have 3 Questions about the following life-changing [for me at least] sentence from Menno Henselmans report (The Cardio Comedown):

“studies have found that it’s not more effective to burn extra calories with aerobic exercise than simply consuming less of them: the weight and fat loss is the same15,16”

Q1. But to maintain lean mass (and even gain some), the Calorie restricted individual HAS to perform heavy resistance training, correct?

Q2. What happens if someone creates a deficit through Calorie restriction, but they do zero exercise?
(my guess is that they would simply lose both fat AND lean mass, which is not optimal)

Q3. What happens if someone creates a deficit by both expending energy and controlling Calorie intake, but they do not lift weights and their only form of exercise is low-to-moderate steady state cardio (i.e. elliptical, treadmill, stepmill, etc.)? Would they just get the same results as in Q2?

This article has completely changed my life paradigm.

Thank you Andy.

-Quinn

Bill Calhoun
Bill Calhoun

I’m goo-goo-eyed at the wealth of information on your site. You obviously care greatly for reader’s success. It appears everything one needs is right here, on your site. But, you know what? I’m going to buy your book anyway. Why? Because a guy who spends this much effort helping us with so much free advice and information DESERVES the token. So Andy, you’ve go my support. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

My questions:

1. I’m a wholefood plant based eater, can I still see masterful gains (or losses when it comes to fat-loss)?
2. Do you coach for strength gains as well? And would you consider coaching a non-meat-eater…pleeeeease?
3. So, we don’t have to complicate things like the protocols within T-Nation: “5 New Strategies For Fat Loss” or “3 Tricks for Faster Fat Loss”?
4. Before I buy your book (looks awesome), how does it differ from the information you have already blessed us with within your site? I’m still buying as mentioned but, wanted to see if its for fit pros, trainees, body-weight transformation contestants or whatever?

Thanks Andy

Sam
Sam

In regards to cardio, I am in the Royal Marines so maintaining fitness is important. Every weekday morning consists of some cardio; normally 4-6 mile run, metcon style circuit, HIIT or sometimes football. In the evenings I will do my strength training which is mainly olympic lifts and powerlifting and then I’ll rest wednesday evening and Sunday.

I’m relatively new to tracking macros, I’ve been through a bulking phase which is pretty enjoyable as due to my energy expenditure I can eat a lot! I’m looking to do my first ever cutting phase soon so the question I have is; with this amount of cardio will I still be able to achieve progressive fat loss without losing considerable muscle mass? Since finishing training I have bulked up from 74kg to 87kg (~14-16%bf) at 184cm over a period of 3 years so I know I can slowly make some progress despite the training interference.

I appreciate this is aimed at the solely physique focused trainee not performance/physique focused but I would love to hear your opinion.

Sam
Sam

Thanks for the reply Andy.

That article makes a lot of sense, I wish I had known this years ago as I have definitely been guilty in the past of just trying to smash myself by adding more and more work to bring results. I guess it’s about training smarter and not always harder. I’ve just purchased the muscle & strength pyramid books that you co-authored so I look forward to learning a lot more. Thanks again!

Dylan
Dylan

Hey Andy,

Not really sure where to ask this, but figure why not here as it is related to me in an anecdotal way.

I like to perform some LISS cardio while I read, I feel like it gives me some mental clarity when reading. (Boring personal dribble over)

I was curious if you had a reading list, I’ve seen a few posts on here that made mention of books (e.g. the book that lead you to move to Japan). I was curious what kind of library you have in your arsenal. Not necessarily just fitness and health related books, but fictional as well.

Thanks in advance, love the website!

georgefilippakos
georgefilippakos

Thanks for your advise. I just pre-ordered your new books and cant wait to read them.

George
George

I’ve been reading about your recommendation not to perform cardio. I’m a computer programmer and therefore desk bound most of the day. I also work from home which means I don’t have a daily commute (not much walking around throughout the day either) . I get very lethargic if I don’t do some form of cardio on rest days.

I workout Mon-Wed-Fri and find that I have go swimming on Tues and Thurs to keep the weight down while bulking. Weekends I’m generally doing something such as walking around or swimming in the sea.

I have always done very slow bulks and mini cuts but have never been shredded as I am more endomorph body type. I always try to maintain about 15-20% fat BF while cut/bulk but I have been really inspired by your site and I am keen to get shredded for the first time in my 40 years of existence!! Something I never thought possible.

Using your calculator I generated figures to perform a cut and I am currently fasting till 1pm and doing 30 minutes swimming on Thursday and Friday in fasted state from 12pm till 1pm. I’m doing heavy compound lifts 3 times per week , my strength is maintaining and the fat is melting off.

Should I increase my calories to account for the cardio considering I don’t move around much for the rest of the day? I am worried as I lose more fat it will start eating into my gains.

Is it possible to add a feature to the calculator to allow us to add some cardio work for us office bound endomorph type guys?

Where should the extra calorie come from for cardio, fat or carbs?

Excellent site BTW and information resource! It’s so refreshing to finally find some information that cuts through all the crap and actually makes sense to all people of all oft types. Thanks for your excellent work!

Nick
Nick

What is your stance on walking at say a 2-3mph pace or hiking with a weighted ruck? Are those considered cardio or more as an ADL?

Christian
Christian

First and foremost awesome website. I have been coming to it for a few years for great information. I started at lifting when I joined the Air Force about 4 years ago. I have gained from 121lbs to 165lbs at 5’8 over the years of training. My 1-rep maxes consist of 285lb bench, 455lb deadlift, 330 squat following an upper/lower split. I just started my first cut following your guide. However, my concern is that each year my 1.5mi run times have gotten slower and slower. My question is how would you go about adding cardio once or twice a week just to be able to maintain a 12min 1.5 mile run time? I appreciate your time and assistance.

Luis Rojas
Luis Rojas

Hi Andy,
A few weeks ago I left a few comment.
Just wanted to let you know I ran my CFT today and got a perfect score.
The sprint I mentioned was actually 800 meters and not 880, (800 m = roughly 880 yards) and I was able to run it in 2 minutes and 41 seconds. I beat my time from last year which was 2:45.

I have gotten weaker and lost just a bit of weight but I’m not sweating it. Ultimately I’d like to get pretty ripped and lean, so losing weight is what I’m going for anyways.

Now I have until about June of next year to get ready to run 3 miles for score and hopefully run it as close to 18 minutes as I can.

I am excited to focus on lifting again.
And I am looking forward to all the new stuff you will be putting up on your site.

Thanks for your hard work, keep up the greatness.

R/S
Luis

Luis Rojas
Luis Rojas

Hello Andy,

What do you recommend for military members?
There are 2 annual fitness tests (PFT January-June/CFT July-December) that I participate in every year.
To score a perfect 300 on a PFT, one needs to run 3 miles in 18 minutes or less in regular athletic clothing.
To score a perfect 300 on a CFT, one needs to run 880 meters in under 2 minutes and 45 seconds while wearing boots in the utility uniform.

I’m 5 feet 6 inches tall at about 150 lbs,
If I were to go run 3 miles right now for time I could probably come in less than 19 minutes, maybe 18:45. Not too sure about that 880 sprint though.
So far my PRs are:
Squat 205 for 8 reps
Bench 185 for 6 reps
Deadlift 310 for 4 reps

I’m due soon for that CFT, I got my 300 last year and the year before that. I’m not too sure if I’ll get it this year though. I’ve been really focused on hitting the gym consistently.

My goal is to get down to 140 lbs and focus on improving my strength from there. In the past few weeks though, I haven’t been losing much weight and I haven’t been getting stronger. I think it’s from running I’ve mixed in trying to get ready for that CFT.

Should I just forget about lifting until after I have the CFT done with? I really enjoy going to the gym but I feel like I am fighting myself, and I’m not getting faster, stronger or lighter.

R/S
-Luis

Luis Rojas
Luis Rojas

Thanks Andy,

I like running but not as much as lifting, I definitely wouldn’t want to eliminate it completely. When I run, it’s more just to run and that’s it. It’s normally a slow pace. I don’t like having to train for these fitness tests but I’ll have to if I wanna stay competitive.

I was shown Martin’s RPT style before being introduced to your site (which is awesome) and have tried both the “big 3 routine” and your RPT (which I prefer out of the 3 training routines).

I feel like I didn’t give the “big 3” a good chance and should’ve stuck with it longer before going back to your RPT.

Anyway my workout plan is kind of in limbo right now, since I’ll be doing plenty of cardio what workout plan would you recommend I try to stick to? I’d say even with running, I can recover decently before going to lift.

Luis Rojas
Luis Rojas

Gotcha, thanks Andy.

Jag H
Jag H

Hi Andy,

I recently started working out and tracking my diet around 4 months ago to achieve a 37lb loss, I am 5’10” and have dropped from 282 lbs to 245 lbs and my body fat has gone from 38% to 32%. I have been eating as clean as possible except for the odd weekend when parties and family events occur.

Recently I have come across your site and many of the things you mention make sense to me but the cardio issue has sadly been beaten into my head. I am happily tracking my calories (1850/day) & macros (~195g protein, ~70g fat, ~140g carbs), pleasantly what i have been doing seems to fall inline with your suggestions. I can see where i could make some small improvements.

My current situation is I lost my weight by doing the p90x3 program for the first 3 months, and for the past month I have started to get into weight training. I am currently back onto the p90 program while also doing weight training 3 times a week. So 6 sessions of p90 (30mins each) with 3 additional session of weights (45 mins, with no more than 45 seconds between sets) based on what days it seems to work best with the p90 program. Based on what i have read and am feeling I am sure I am overtraining as i have started to feel lethargic after session and meals, I think your article on micronutrients might be the missing link there.

With my current training routine it has been easy for me to keep my caloric intake the same each day, but I am unsure how to calculate if I choose to go onto the 3×3 program. I much prefer doing weights and have wanted to try deadlifting and squats as i really enjoy that type of training.

A) Am I correct to set my activity multiplier based on 2-3 days activity, which would be 1.375? Essentially giving me ~2050 cal/day based on losing 1.5lb week
B) Should I see the same results as to what i am doing now but with much higher gains in strength?
C) How long would each training session typically be for the Big 3 Routine

Thanks
Jag

Byron
Byron

What are thoughts with IF for someone who has had bariatric surgery….I’am already in a caloric loss even without trying…do you think I can still build muscle mass with such a low caloric intake…..

trackback
Cardio for Fat Loss – Why and How |

[…] If conditioning is not too important for you and you only want to get ripped, cardio is not necessary. You can reach 6-7% body fat through diet alone. […]

patrick
patrick

Thank you for answering and I do agree with cardio not being as needed. I like to save my strength. My goal is to strip fat and get that lower body fat. What if I fast like 18 to 19 hours. Is that bad for my muscles. The reason I ask is because it works best for my meals. Again cheers brother!! Your workouts are no joke lol.