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Is Cardio Necessary for Fat Loss when Intermittent Fasting?

Three shredded physiques obtained without any cardio ripped body

“Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you’ll never get back.”

I don’t have a problem with cardio, just wasted time. For those that enjoy cardio then this is time well spent; everyone has their own preferences, live and let live. Let’s not pretend though that most people aren’t solely doing cardio because they wish to lose fat.

Cardio as a tool for fat loss is over-rated, over-used, and overall a very poor time investment for the IF user. Most people that ask me questions about cardio understand this, however there is confusion as to at what point cardio becomes necessary to get leaner.

Scott, Jeff and Phil pictured above did not use cardio to get into their shredded condition. I told them that they wouldn’t need it to get to a body-fat level they would be satisfied with. I suggest to you that the answer is likely the same. In my opinion the vast majority of people give up on diet manipulation alone as a means of achieving their ideal physique way too early.


At What Point Do You Need Cardio?

Intermittent Fasting (particularly the Leangains type where people skip breakfast) can perhaps enable us to get to leaner than with other diet methods through diet manipulation alone. This is due to the following factors:

  • The increased ease at creating a calorie deficit through an increase in satiety and better hunger control.
  • The increased potential to get to stubborn fat.

This article focuses on the latter point, though I must add that it is hypothetical, with little clinical research to support it at present. This will be enough for most people, however, there is a limit to how far you can take it no matter how skillful you are at manipulating your diet; the reason is stubborn body fat.

What Is Stubborn Body Fat?

Stubborn body fat is physiologically different from other fat in your body and this makes the removal of it difficult. Typically stubborn fat is found in the lower abs, back, and glutes in men; thighs, glutes, and hips in women.

What Makes Stubborn Fat Stubborn?

There is a theoretical limit on how much fat can be oxidized (burned) before the body will fuel itself by breaking down muscle mass. Fatter individuals can afford a greater deficit before this happens than leaner individuals because the body uses fuels in the ratio they are available. – Fat people clearly have their pantry stocked with a lot of butter, a little meat; shredded people with just a little butter, a lot of meat.

For fat loss three things need to happen:

  1. Lipolysis: Fat needs to be broken down into free fatty acids (FFAs) and released from the fat cell into the blood stream.
  2. Transport: The FFAs need to be transported through the blood to somewhere where they can be used for fuel.
  3. Oxidation: Tissues somewhere in the body need to pluck these FFAs from the blood stream and use them for energy.

When getting really lean (assuming a calorie deficit) the body has only muscle or the stubborn fat reserves left to fuel itself on. Due to the physiological differences of stubborn fat, both 1 and 2 are particularly tough to achieve. So though a calorie deficit may be present and the body ready to use the free fatty acids as energy (step 3), if they aren’t in the blood stream around those tissues, they can’t be used, and the body will break down muscle tissue to fuel itself. Clearly, you want to avoid this situation.

How Intermittent Fasting Can Help With Lipolysis

Unfavourable (for physique purposes) alpha/beta receptor ratio differences in the stubborn fat areas of the body are what makes it difficult for lipolysis to take place. To keep it simple, let’s just say that the morning fasting, by increasing catecholamine output and lowering insulin in the blood stream, creates circumstances which help to get around the receptor issues to allow the fat to escape the fat cells.

How Cardio Helps With Transport (by getting more blood flow to the right areas)

Before your eyes glaze over with the science please stand up and drop your pants. Take your right palm and slide it onto your right arse cheek. Is it cold? Relatively colder I bet. That’s because the blood flow to your glutes and other stubborn-fat areas is poorer. This matters because even if you overcome the problems associated releasing the FFAs (fat) into the blood stream if there isn’t sufficient enough blood flow to carry them elsewhere to be burned then they will just be reabsorbed into the fat cell.

  • Cardio can increase blood flow to these areas, which is one reason why you may have heard nutritionist Martin Berkhan recommend fasted walking on non-training days.
  • Yohimbine HCL can increase blood flow to these areas, which is why you may have heard that recommended also, but it would be a waste of money to take it before you get to the stubborn fat stage. (Incidentally it’s banned in many countries, not because of people taking it for stubborn fat loss, but because of idiots mega-dosing with it to boost erections.)

The Risks: IF can make it easier to burn stubborn fat, but increases the risk of muscle loss.

(Note: this is only really relevant when looking to get to exceptionally lean levels of body fat like you see above. – As long as you have your calorie intake and macros set up right)

It would be remiss of me to not mention this: The leaner we get, the greater the potential for muscle loss with a reduced meal frequency. It’s important to put this in perspective and weigh up the pros and cons.

If you eat a greater meal frequency and spread your meals further across the day instead of skipping breakfast, your risk of muscle mass losses will be minimized, but you add in more complication to your diet. – Meal preparation takes more time, macro counting is incrementally harder, and you likely have to add in cardio sooner to get shredded lean. (i.e. If you skip breakfast you might be able to get to 7% body fat without cardio, but if you eat breakfast you might only be able to get to 9%.)

How much of a risk is it to skip breakfast?

This depends. The greater the calorie deficit and the leaner you are, the greater the risk of muscle loss. But if you take things slow and steady then the risk is small. I’ve coached over 1000 people with the majority of them choosing to skip breakfast and I can’t say I have noticed it causing any significant lean tissue losses. The clients you see in the top picture skipped breakfast, ate twice a day, and did not use any cardio to get into that condition.

However, it’s important to consider that they were recreational trainees without a deadline, not professional or serious amateur competitors looking to get any potential possible edge over the competition. The calorie deficits were moderate, training intensity was kept high, protein intake was kept high, and BCAAs were used in cases where they trained fasted. (My guide to setting this all up here) In the case of a top-tier bodybuilder, it would be better to go with the more conservative approach and have a higher meal frequency (assuming they had the time and will to do it). Also, if someone is in a rush to get into stage-ready condition and so the deficit they need to have is greater than what would be most conservative for muscle mass retention, a greater meal frequency should be considered.

I’d add further that anyone convinced that they will lose muscle mass by fasting would be best to not fast. – The mind has a powerful effect on the body and this could indirectly cause muscle mass losses via increased stress and poorer training.

What if muscle mass is lost?

Outside of competing, it won’t really matter as you’ll gain it all back again quickly when you move into maintenance calorie circumstances after your cut. This is due to good old myonuclear domain theory.

RippedBody.jp Results - Katsu
Japanese client Katsu winning his class. He also skipped breakfast, ate just two meals a day and didn’t do any cardio.

Summary & Further Reading

Don’t kid yourself about what stubborn body fat is. Too often people at 15% cry about “stubborn body fat” when they are nowhere near that point yet. Due to genetic difference some folks seem to have more stubborn fat than others. If we say that the above three guys are at around 7%, even if you’re on the unlucky end of that genetic difference you should be able to get to 10% before running into issues. This will still be good enough for a good set of abs, at the very least a well-defined 4 pack.

 – Think before you give a portion of your life to a treadmill. –

Lyle McDonald’s book “The Stubborn Fat Solution” gives an excellent insight into what makes stubborn fat stubborn. Martin Berkhan has done a great job of explaining why IF can help with stubborn fat losses in his own article here.

If you’re interested in practical guidelines on how to set up your diet so that you don’t fall foul of any of these mistakes then you can get my complete set-up guide here. (This is the most viewed page on the site.)

*******

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.


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

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Mark
Mark

Hi Andy,
I’m starting IF right now and want to make sure I’m not hurting my own progress with my activities. I generally workout first thing in the morning, 5 AM in a fasted state. Workouts for me are largely cardio; running and boot camp style with the occasional sandbag workout.

My goal is more towards functional fitness than competition body, but I have a ton of body fat to drop still.
Currently, I get about 1.5 hours workout time in the morning and start eating at noon. I’m not taking any BCAAs or anything other than water before noon.
I am following your calculations for macros, but am not generally reaching any of the targets in a day.
Stop eating at between 7-8pm

Thanks!

Alexandre
Alexandre

Hi Andy,

I have been cutting for 3-4 months, and my abs are visible (very defined 4 pack, and decent enough 6 pack). However, I still feel like my lower back is loaded with fat. According to my planning, I should start my slow bulk phase, but I am not satisfied with my lower back fat. What do you recommend?

Antonio Martinez Garcia
Antonio Martinez Garcia

Hi Andy, I’ve been reading carefuly all your articles during the past 3 weeks, while I was on holidays and preparing all in my mind and agenda to start with IF as soon as I got back home…

I’m 39 years old male, fit (I would say) but not lean… Just got out of an hypercaloric diet right before the holidays started, as I was getting fat even though my whole training was quite intense…

Will not extend my topic too much… Just to comment that I decreased my calories intake during the holidays, almost no cardio, just weight lifting and I lost fat in a matter of 2 weeks…

In my normal life, I do weight lifting 4 times a week, and practice Muay Thai (can be compared with a HIIT easy) 2 times per week and BJJ (not so much cardio, but still a demanding activity) 3 times per week, sometimes 4…
Trying to rest at least 2 days per week…

As I do the martial arts usually in the morning and the lifting in the late noon/evening, I was quite sure about the BCAA’s intake for my early trainings after read your articles, but I read somewhere here that you recommend to only intake BCAA in case of weight lift training only…

So, how do you see to perform this activies (Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) fasted and then start eating around lunch time? No BCAA’s ?

Thanks in advance.

Antonio Martinez Garcia
Antonio Martinez Garcia

Thanks for the quick and precise answer Andy.

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Justin
Justin

I enjoy doing HIIT cardio 2 or 3 times a week as well as lifting heavy in a progressive overload style 4 days a week(1 meal before training set up..cardio is done in the AM). My question is..do I need to recover from the HIIT sessions any differently..or BCAAs on those days?

Josh
Josh

Hey Andy,

First and foremost I love the site. I’ve read your articles roughly every day for the past two weeks and I’m finding it easier than ever to maintain proper eating and training habits.

I’m currently in the hiring process to become a fire fighter and I need to keep my cardio up for fire academy once I’m hired. I’m currently doing HIIT spring sessions for 20 min (including a 2 min warm up and cool down light jog) twice a week and a moderate intensity stair climbing session for 20 min once a week. I am also doing a 5×5 training program where I only do compound lifts 3 times a week. I’m roughly 25-30% body fat. I currently have my calorie deficit set up for a 1-1.5 lb of fat loss per week and have two questions:

1) Should I increase calorie consumption to create a buffer for the cardio? I’m trying to minimize muscle loss due to burning more calories.

2) Since I have to do cardio would you recommend doing it before or after my resistance training? My goal is to increase strength and muscle mass > cardio.

Thanks for your help,
Josh

Josh
Josh

Great! Thanks for the reply, Andy!

Sebastian
Sebastian

Good content as always.

I’m thinking of doing at least moderate cardio just to increase the calorie intake on a cut, this so that I can increase my carbs intake.

Otherwise, with all the other parameters considered, the carbs intake will be at levels that are both hard to adhere to and unpleasant. (I know some people think low carbs diets are the greatest thing ever, I’ve just never been able to handle it well)

Does increasing carbs intake seem like a valid reason to add cardio exercise on rest days?

Joram Kalsbeek
Joram Kalsbeek

Hi Andy,

(I live in Holland and my English is not my best… but I will try)

I have downloaded you’re diet guideline to setting up my diet. On the first place I’m very thankful for you’re effort in the guideline. Already noticing progress. Only now I see that my skin at my abs area is becoming some lose skin, do you have any suggesting’s for that issue?

My second question is concerning chapter 4 and then especially page 46 at the top “Despite this you’ll find some fancy ideas out there such as: only eat fats and protein earlier in the day, and only carbs and protein later. – This is not likely to have any nutrient partitioning benefits, and will threaten adherence by making your diet more complicated and restrictive”.

Question: referring to Carb Backloading, isn’t there a benefit to eat about 30 grams carbs throughout the day and then after exercising the rest of the daily macro’s (carbs) ? I’m curious what’s you’re opinion about this is?

This come to my third question is: after calculating my daily macro’s with the help of you’re excel sheet.

[DELETED by Andy as per comment rules]

On my training days I’m leaning to eat about 30 grams of carbs and then de rest of the Carbs approximately 200 grams after my training. But then I’m really have a full belly and a inflated feeling in my stomach. Do you think it is sensible to eat according this Carb Backloading principles ?

Sorry for my last question: what’s you opinion about reverse dieting when you have completed you’re goal in cutting en want to go for bulking? First 2 weeks after cutting calculating for maintenance and then bulking or…..?

thanks!!!
Greetzzz
Joram Kalsbeek
The Netherlands

Leonardo
Leonardo

Hi Andy,

I’ve been following your guides for a few months and I’m pleased with the results. My only concern actually is that I’m stuck at 10-11% BF for several weeks. I did a diet break but it didn’t seem to work, still stuck.

I’m on a solid training routine and I have good control of my calories and macros so I believe I’m limited by stress and maybe poor quality sleep (2 children). I’m sleeping an average of 7hrs/day. Is there any simple test that allow me to measure my stress level or even estimate if I’m sleeping enough?

Thanks.

Leonardo

rusty
rusty

Hi bro, really need your advice here..i’m on bulking mode for past 4 months.gain around 10kg so far..was doing 3-day split push/pull programme..doing calorie counting on my own. The prob is my stubborn fat around my belly still there and my stomach getting bloated/bigger while other body parts can c improvement. Is this norm or what? Care to advice?

Thanks in advance

Peter W
Peter W

Andy, first thanks for this wealth of information. My question is that I’m confused about how to track my exercise with regard to MyFitnessPal: specifically, do I add the calories burned from my cycling rides or not? I typically burn between 500 calories on a short ride and up to 1500 on longer ones. I’m training for endurance rides.

First, I found my TDEE. Then I used your calculator and guide. I did factor in about 67 minutes of exercise per day, 6 days a week using your calculator. That’s three days of lifting and 3 days of cycling. So it seems to me that I wouldn’t want to enter any calories burned into MyFitnessPal because they’ve already been accounted for in your calculator. Would that be correct?

If I should enter those calories burned (from my garmin) then would I need to replace them?

Cj
Cj

Thanks for the response Andy,

But would you say from experience that the only way to get that lean without needing cardio is only if you use the “Leangains” approach which utilizes fasting and calorie cycling? Or can you get there by just simply counting macros with the daily calorie deficit staying the same without cycling calories, without fasting, and without cardio and still get that lean?

Cj
Cj

Hi Andy,

I am currently not doing Leangains but just simply tracking macros/calories and making adjustments with no carb cycling. I am 6’1 199lbs and roughly ~12% body fat and am stalling at 1900 cals with fat loss. I started at 2200 cals and I’ve been going at it for nearly 5 months. I am about to do another diet break to help reset hormones but would you say that there is point where you should no longer cut calories let’s say at 1700 and suggest adding in cardio since I’m not doing leangains? I honestly was hoping to take your suggestion and not add in cardio the entire cut but it’s been 5 months and my progress is slowing.

Also, would it be possible to get into single digit bf% shredded lean with just simply counting macros/cals and adjusting as needed without having to use IF or carb cycling (Leangains)?

Thank you

shawn
shawn

Hey andy, what do you think about fasting every other day to burn stubborn body fat?

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Ivan
Ivan

Hi Andy,

I am very happy a friend referred me to Leangains, and I don’t have to follow my previous diet that forced me to eat 5 meals filled with chicken fillets, broccoli or brown rice per day.
I would not want to abuse your free advise here on the website but would like an opinion.

I am 26 years old, quite short in length (I don’t know my actual length) and weigh 65kg. Because of years of excessive beer drinking I had a beer belly. I have gone from 73kg to 65kg by doing no exercise but switching from beer to whiskey and soda water (only on weekends) and lots of water. Now, when I’m standing up-right I have a flat belly. However, when I bend over I still have a bit of “rolls” at the bottom of my stomach whitch I want to get rid of, basically having only skin showing when I bend over. I am not looking to get built or have huge arms, just loose that bit of belly fat and mabe work on a 6 pack. This is my current diet:

– I eat twice a day (12:30pm and 18:30pm). This I am changing today from 1:00pm and 21:00pm as per your suggestions.
– When I eat, I eat cooked food usually (Beef,rice,potato,vegies,salad). A fist portion of each.
– I drink nothing less than 3l of pure water per day, starting off with one glass when I wake up.
– I never eat take-away’s, and RARELY eat out.
– On weekends I will drink Whiskey,lime and soda water, and don’t really eat much.

Exercise wise – I don’t do any at them moment. I was looking on starting to:

– Jog on Saterdays and Sundays (starting off with 3km each day)
– Do home exercises at home (The mountain climber, crunches, push-ups)

Do you have any critical adjustments you suggest I make to get rid of that little bit of belly fat still left?

Thank you in advance.

Ivan

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Ivan
Ivan

I’m currently cutting (or at least trying to). I have a lot of fat but I have been lifting for some time and am in fairly good condition. I do resistance training 4 times a week. I do exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, etc… I try to do these fast and often combine ones that fire different muscle groups into supersets. I try to make myself sweat as much as I can. I rest between sets/exercises only to catch my breath. In the begining and at the end of every workout I ride the bike for ~10mins. Sometimes I do interval, sometimes steady. If I feel I have the energy left I do a tabata with burpees and something else.

I generally feel great but my results have been inconstant. Recently I made a 5 day break and returned to the gym lighter with a lot of energy. Is that a sign that I might be over-training? Should I cut the cardio or the amount of training days? I really feel good, I am energized the whole day (don’t need coffee or other stimulants during the day).
Also if I should heavy lift 3 times a week and not do cardio during these days, would 2 morning 10 minute cardios + tabatas on the rest days hurt my recovery?

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