The Biggest Cardio Myth (Plus 6 Tips to Do It Right)
Roll up, roll up! Get suckered here and feel good about the gym by fooling yourself!
We've all been sucked into this, and even now there's a part of me that falls for it despite knowing better.
Jump onto a piece of cardiovascular training machinery, input your bodyweight and then watch the calorie counter tick up and up.
It's enormously gratifying, it certainly justifies (we hope) all the naughty things we've eaten before or after the workout, and it satisfies our very human need to understand that the exercise, sometimes the pain/boredom/discomfort, that we're putting ourselves through has a direct correlation to our goal - in this instance burning calories and getting leaner.
I'm not saying that all fitness equipment manufacturers do this to be deceptive, but would you rather jump on a treadmill that shows you burning 100 calories for every mile covered or 200 calories for every mile covered? You know the answer.
Businesses cottoned onto this many moons ago, and now all cardio machines come replete with very optimistic calorie counters that give the unsuspecting user a wholly false sense of the number of calories they have just expended.
Not only are most of the machines we see in gyms today grossly inaccurate, but they are also open to wide-scale abuse that we see every single day in any busy operation.
If you trudge along at two miles an hour on a treadmill, all you're doing is lifting one foot up and putting the other foot down. You're not propelling yourself forward as you'd do if you were walking, but the calorie counter will fool you.
Maybe you're one of the countless people who set the treadmill up on an incline and a go at a decent pace, but you also hold onto the support bar at the front of the machine. GTFO here if you think that's not going to make it much easier, burn far fewer calories, and yet that calorie counter just skyrockets up!
To make matters worse, most of the calorie counters are independent of heart rate monitoring (a big mistake), but if we do measure heart rate we have to hold onto the machine, making it much easier and far less effective!
In short, ignore the calorie counters on machines, they lead you into a false sense of security.
As for the best way to approach cardio, try following the below advice:
1. Prioritise weight training over cardio
If you can only get to the gym three times a week and have zero other opportunities to train, then weight training should take priority over cardio.
You can lose body fat outside of the gym by sticking to your diet and living an active lifestyle, whereas weight training is the only way to build muscle.
As an aside, always perform cardio after weight training if doing both on the same day. However, the ideal time to complete cardio workouts is on a non-weight training day.
2. You don’t have to do cardio
The primary role of cardio in a body transformation is to help lose body fat or offset an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. If you are happy with your body fat levels and already live an active lifestyle then you don't have to (but still can) include a cardio component in your training program.
(We typically consider 10,000 steps per day as being representative of an active lifestyle).
3. Limit how much cardio you do
Any cardio you do takes place in the same week that you should also be weight training three to five times.
There is a limit to how much training you can recover from before your recovery and workout performance begin to suffer. Limit formal cardio (structured workouts performed at a medium to high intensity) to two per week.
There is no limit for low intensity or informal cardio, like going for a walk, as this doesn’t challenge your body enough to interfere with recovery or workout performance.
4. Keep the intensity high
The problem with moderate intensity steady state (MISS) cardio (a type of cardio where you maintain a steady pace for extended periods, e.g. a 10km run), is that it conditions your muscles to work at a low intensity for long durations.
In contrast, weight training challenges your muscles to lift heavy weights explosively for relatively short durations.
For optimal body composition results, you need to minimise any physiological conflict caused by these competing adaptations. As a result, we prefer to use high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as, like weight training, it asks your body to work hard for short durations.
However, done right, HIIT is very taxing which is why we recommend capping it at two workouts per week.
5. Don’t overthink it
If you do like going for a run or long cycle ride a couple times a week, don’t read the above point and think all your hard work in the gym is going to waste.
Provided you’re not performing excessive amounts, are generally on top of your recovery, and are making progress in the gym, then you don’t need to worry!
6. Keep it fun
With weight training, there is a clear benefit to sticking with a consistent set of exercises for an extended period while you learn the movement and progress to lifting heavier weights.
However, with cardio, you don’t have to (but still can) stick to the same options all the time. In fact, mixing it up can help keep cardio interesting and less of a chore.
For high-intensity cardio, we recommend the treadmill, rowing machine, VersaClimber, or even a punching bag and boxing pads.
The above options all require full body effort and are versatile enough to allow you to alternate between cruising and pushing hard easily.
The wildcard entry that is now more widely available in commercial gyms is ‘modified strongman training’ like prowler sleds and battle ropes. It allows you to train in a truly ‘functional’ and ‘primal’ manner that traditional cardio done on machines can never do, and it is so challenging and fun that it never gets boring!
For low-intensity cardio, the best option is a brisk walk in the great outdoors. Give it a go if you haven't tried it for a while!
Alternatively, you can use traditional cardio options, e.g. treadmill or exercise bike, just make sure you don’t cross the line between a comfortable pace (think 2-3/10 effort), and the relatively more challenging intensity (closer to 5-6/10) demanded by MISS.