READ FIRST: Cardio For Fat Loss is Important But…
It won’t get you far on its own.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of cardio for fat loss, I want to go over an important topic.
Cardio, by itself, doesn’t cause weight loss or fat loss.
A caloric deficit causes weight loss(I have a full article on how to calculate your caloric deficit for weight loss here).
And your macronutrient split of protein, fat, and carbs determine what you “keep” and what you don’t.
For example, you could be in a caloric deficit and lose weight, but if you don’t provide your body with enough protein, then you can lose muscle also!
So, what should you do?
Before you do start the cardio workouts I am about to show you, MAKE SURE you are in a caloric deficit, have a good macronutrient split and stick with it. Otherwise, all your hard-fought efforts will be for nothing. I can assure you of that.
You can check out my book that teaches you all about macros and calories here.
With all that being said, let’s get onto the main topic of fat loss and cardio.
First up, let’s talk about the right amount of cardio.
- READ FIRST: Cardio For Fat Loss is Important But…
- Why You Shouldn’t Do TOO Much Cardio
- How Much HIIT Cardio Should You Do?
- Best Cardio Workouts and Why
- HIIT Workouts Should Mimic Compound Lifts
- Sample HIIT Cardio Workouts:
- Sample LISS Workouts – Can Be Almost Anything
- Cardio For Fat Loss Summary
- Popular Cardio Workout Programs
Would you rather watch the video to this article? Click the play button below!
1:05 – Why Calories and Macros > Cardio
2:31 – Why You Shouldn’t Do TOO Much Cardio
4:48 – How Often Should You Do HIIT?
6:49 – What About LISS and Walking For Fat Loss?
8:51 – Why Being Active Is Optimal For Fat Loss
10:21 – Cardio For Fat Loss Summary
Why You Shouldn’t Do TOO Much Cardio
1. Muscle Loss
Doing loads of cardio (like the guy in the picture) can lead to severe muscle loss.
While the man running above may be in good conditioning shape, it’s not necessarily a desirable physique.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re goal is to run marathons and such, then “loads” of cardio is definitely required.
In this article, we’re talking specifically about doing just the right amount of cardio to promote fat loss.
This also means that we’re not providing our bodies with sufficient energy.
Muscle loss potential is high.
Add cardio to the mix and the potential gets even higher!
That’s why TOO much cardio in your fat loss routine can result in muscle loss.
When you lose weight AND muscle, you end up looking skinny fat:
This is the “skinny fat” physique. It’s a result of being “skinny” but having too much fat and/or little-to-no muscle on your frame.
The main point is… don’t go crazy with cardio.
Just do enough (we’ll talk about what “enough” is shortly) and you’ll get the result you’re looking for.
2. Overtraining and Muscle Fatigue
HIIT and “traditional” cardio can cause a ton of stress to the body.
It’s in the name… “High-INTENSITY Interval Training.”
Have you ever done sprints the day before a leg workout?
You probably looked like this after said leg workout:
You also probably weren’t able to lift the same amount of weight as you normally could.
Doing sprints too often can really hit the legs hard and interfere with your squatting and deadlifting performance.
You don’t want that.
And it’s not only HIIT you have to worry about.
Jogging too often or for long distances can cause the same effect.
Same with doing circuit training workouts with weights.
What I recommend is that you leave the majority of the “heavy lifting” (no pun intended) to your lifting workouts.
I am NOT saying you shouldn’t push hard on your cardio workouts. What I AM saying is to keep it those “intense” cardio workouts to a minimum and focus on lifting weights more than cardio.
How Much HIIT Cardio Should You Do?
HIIT 1-2 Times Per Week
Given that you lift weights 3-5 times per week, HIIT 1-2 times per week is plenty.
Each workout should last at least 15-25 minutes.
I like only 1-2 HIIT workouts per week because you don’t have to sacrifice much if any, performance loss due to soreness and/or fatigue.
For the rest of the week, you should do Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio.
LISS 3-4 Times Per Week
Examples of LISS are:
- Jogging (at a very slow place)
- Stairmaster or Stepmill
- Incline Walking
For all of these examples, you don’t want to push yourself too hard.
Each workout, if on a cardio machine, should be 20-45 minutes.
For example, I like to do the Stairmaster machine for 20 minutes at level 5 (top speed is 20 for reference).
I do that 5 times per week and it works for me.
It doesn’t interfere with my lifting workouts and I still do my HIIT once per week on top of that.
However, if I can’t make it to the gym, I walk.
Why does LISS work so well?
LISS does not result in muscle loss because of how little effort it takes to accomplish.
The only thing that is “bad” about LISS is that it takes some time to get any significant calorie burn.
That’s why I do 4-5, 20 minute Stairmaster sessions per week for 20 minutes each.
However, if I DO have time on my side, then I can accomplish the same thing by walking for 1-2 hours with very little effort.
All in all, being more active overall week to week will always top doing loads of cardio.
Best Cardio Workouts and Why
HIIT Workouts Should Mimic Compound Lifts
This study shows that the more a HIIT workout mimics a compound lift, the less muscle loss potential there is.
A compound lift is any lift that involves multiple joints and muscle groups to execute (i.e., Squats, Deadlifts, Pull-ups, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Barbell Row, etc.).
For example, Cycling and Sprinting mimic the same movement pattern as the squat.
Jeremy Ethier illustrates this perfectly.
That’s why I recommend:
Cycling, Sprinting, and Rowing
Whereas cycling and sprinting mimic the squat movement, rowing mimics the Barbell Row, which is another compound lift.
Let’s talk about some sample workouts for each of these examples.
Sample HIIT Cardio Workouts:
For each cardio machine workout, make sure to find a speed that allows you to go FAST for 20-30 seconds with good form, but NO longer.
This means that going any longer than 30 seconds at “this” speed and form starts to break down.
For example, for me, on the treadmill, this would be 10 mph.
On the stationary bike, this would be resistance level 6.
The goal ISN’T to choose the hardest resistance.
The goal IS to choose the resistance to allow you to go FAST for 20-30 seconds.
With those ground rules set, let’s get onto the sample cardio workouts.
For HIIT, I prefer a stationary bike. I’ve had back problems for years so it’s the easiest form for me.
Here’s how the workout goes:
- Warm-up for 2-3 minutes on the bike.
- Go fast at resistance level 6 for 30 seconds.
- Rest at resistance level 1 for 1 minute.
- Repeat for 15-30 minutes
*increase or decrease rest times based on fitness level*
This looks easy, but if you push yourself to go as fast as possible, this is one of the toughest workouts I’ve encountered.
Want to hit the legs hard? Stairs are your best option.
You can do this outside on any set of stairs (i.e., at the local high school football stadium) or on the Stairmaster machine.
Either way, the workout will look the same.
Run upstairs in a sprint-like fashion, and walk back down (or rest at a low speed).
Remember, the goal is to go fast for at least 20-30 seconds.
If you’re on a Stairmaster machine, choose somewhere between level 15-20 (if the top level is 20) for your high-intensity interval.
Then rest for 1 minute.
Repeat this for 15-30 minutes.
*Increase or decrease rest times based on fitness level*
Here’s a video I did a long time ago showing this exact workout.
Pardon the cringe 😀
This workout is similar in structure to the others above.
Sprint at a high speed for 20-25 seconds.
Rest for 1 minute.
Repeat for 15-25 minutes.
Here’s a sample video showing off the workout.
I also have a couple more sample workouts below that you can follow as well:
- HIIT Workout With Weights
- 20 Minute HIIT Treadmill Workout
- HIIT For Beginners – No Equipment Necessary
Sample LISS Workouts – Can Be Almost Anything
- Walking to and from the gym
- Riding your bike to and from the gym
These are all forms of LISS in different ways.
They don’t take much energy to do and you’re burning additional calories just from being active.
I believe this is a MUCH better way to burn additional calories than traditional cardio.
Check out this quote from Greg O’Gallagher from Kinobody on cardio for fat loss:
I share a lot of the same beliefs as Greg when it comes to fat loss (i.e., intermittent fasting).
While I do believe that being more active day to day trumps cardio, I do realize it’s not possible for everyone.
Not everyone has the time to go on hikes, or walk to and from the gym.
Therefore, here’s a summary of my recommendations:
Cardio For Fat Loss Summary
1. Your Overall Calories and Macronutrient Intake Are More Important Than Cardio
Don’t be “that” guy or gal who just does cardio but eats like crap. That’s not how this whole fat loss thing works.
Nutrition is much more important than how much cardio you do.
I don’t care if you run 10 miles per day, if you’re in a caloric surplus, you’re not going to lose weight or fat.
2. Don’t Do TOO Much Cardio…
… Unless you want to lose all your gains.
Keep the cardio to a minimum. Too much cardio can hinder training performance and cause lots of stress to the body.
Instead, focus on getting stronger or maintaining your strength and muscle with your current lifting routine.
You will look a lot better because of it.
3. HIIT 1-2 Times Per Week | LISS 3-4 Times Per Week
This is an optimal schedule for anyone who wants to drop fat fast, without losing their gains.
Given that you already lift 3-5 days out of the week, 1-2 HIIT workouts per week is plenty. This amount of HIIT shouldn’t interfere with any lower body workout performance (i.e., when you’re working on squats and deadlifts).
Remember, your HIIT workouts should mimic compound lifts. If possible, limit your HIIT selection to cycling, rowing, and sprinting for the least Muscle breakdown rates.
LISS (Low-Intensity Steady State) cardio is also great to add into your fat loss routine.
It doesn’t require much effort to accomplish and therefore doesn’t hinder your progress or cause much training fatigue. The only thing is that it takes longer than usual to accomplish.
4. IMO, Being More Active Trumps Cardio
If you lead a sedentary lifestyle (i.e., you get almost no activity other than the gym), then you should definitely think about changing that.
Otherwise, you’ll most likely NEED to do cardio 5x per week on top of your lifting workouts.
This is why I believe being more active in your daily life is the key to effortless fat loss.
Being more active = burning more calories each day.
Burning more calories each day = easier (and potentially faster) weight loss.
After all, losing weight comes down to being in a caloric deficit.
If you remember that, then you will succeed.
Popular Cardio Workout Programs
If you’re looking for a full cardio workout program that COMBINES HIIT and Steady state cardio workouts, you should check out Visual Impact Cardio:
Visual Impact Cardio
Here’s what Rusty Moore has to say about his Cardio Course:
“This is a pretty aggressive approach to getting lean in a hurry…
You will experience a large drop in body fat during the 8 week cycle… but this isn’t easy.
Get your fat loss out of the way, so you can enjoy a sleek and lean physique as soon as possible...
– Rusty Moore, Former fitness coach to fashion models
What’re Your Thoughts On Cardio?
Let me know down in the comments below and if you have any questions, leave them down there as well!