One of the biggest myths in fitness is that you should choose endurance over strength exercises for fat loss. In weightlifting, it is higher reps. In cardio, it’s long, low-intensity sessions that help you find the magical “fat burning zone.” This not an ideal form of cardio for fat loss.
The two biggest drivers of fat loss are diet and anaerobic exercise which involves workout intensity, intervals and resistance training.
Endurance cardio exercise is an option, not a necessity for fat loss. And not the most optimal.
This article illustrates why you should ditch the idea that endurance and slow steady cardio is the best and only option for fat loss. Learn why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and anaerobic training should be your secret weapons for fat loss and better health.
Start by being honest with yourself
Forget cardio for a second. If you are overweight and want to make a change, walking is single handily the most underrated forms of exercise around. Walking more throughout your day can provide astronomical benefits on your overall health.
Walking does not have the drawbacks of traditional cardio or weightlifting injuries, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, or lowered metabolic rate. It is the aerobic activity we were meant to do. And you can do it more any day you choose.
It is the simplest way to build in consistency to overall health.
Let’s take a look at the compound effect of walking. According to da’ scientists, a 200 lbs person, walking at a 3.5 mph pace (decently brisk walk) can burn 120 calories per half hour.
If you walk every day for a half hour, the math pencils out as follows:
- 12 months = 365 days
- 365 days x 120 calories = 43,800 calories
- 43,800 calories divided by 3,500 calories per pound = 12.5 lbs over the year!
Sadly, it is because walking is boring that people choose something else. But it is not in the epicness of an individual workout that makes the difference. One day, one workout and or one bad meal does not determine your life.
But it is the collection and the consistency of healthy practices that determines overall health.
Everyone can benefit from walking more in their lives. From the severely overweight and deconditioned beginner to the advanced physique athlete looking to reach their peak. Start walking.
Now, into the good stuff.
The problem with long slow steady cardio (LSSC)
When people think of weight loss the majority of them think of long slow steady cardio (LSSC) which might consist of low-moderate intensity work such as jogging on a treadmill, elliptical or cycling for 45 minutes in that misunderstood “fat burning zone.”
As long as you do not have any crippling or deterring medical issues, there are reasons that LSSC is not ideal for optimum fat loss that you should know.
Part of the problem with consistent, repetitive slow steady cardio sessions is that our bodies adapt to these types of exercises. To do so, it sheds off any extra muscle it may not need to become efficient as possible. If you are an endurance athlete, this is a good thing.
For others, this is only great at first. You lose some weight. And start to move better.
But in terms of overall fat loss, LSSC doesn’t do much to shock the body into burning more fat over the long term. Your body will adapt to these efficiencies and you start to burn fewer calories. Thus the reason you shouldn’t be chasing calories burned when it comes to exercise. It is a poor indicator of long-term health.
One of the biggest misinterpreted understandings is that there is a “fat burning zone” that is generated from slow steady cardio. Yes, slow steady cardio does burn more overall calories (in the workout).
When you burn and burn, you also lose precious muscle. And when you lose that muscle, your resting metabolic rate goes down. Which means you burn fewer calories throughout the day as your body loses more of the lean muscle tissue.
However, there exists an afterburn effect or total calorie expended over a 24-30 hour period of time which equates to a greater total of calories being burned.
One study mentioned by boss man Alwyn Cosgrove discovered some pretty interesting results when comparing adults who performed 20 weeks of endurance training against 15 weeks of interval training:
- Energy cost of interval training = 28,661 calories.
- Energy cost of endurance training = 13,614 calories (less than half)
This illustrates that the training group showed nine times greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group (when corrected for energy cost). This is the importance of working harder and with intensity for fat loss or strength than it is for longer and more efficient.
“Even if the interval training group had lost the same amount of fat as the endurance group, we’d get the same results in less time. That means interval training is a better tool in your fat loss arsenal.” – Alwyn Cosgrove
As referred to in New Rules of Weightlifting for Women, one study referenced within that measured the weight workout one day and an aerobic workout another day. Both burning around 400 calories. What they found is that 15 hours after the weight workout, both men and women were burning 22% more fat that they did fifteen hours after their slow steady cardio workout.
Another study showed that high-intensity interval training resulted in greater loss of adipose tissue or deep fat cell storages, even though the subjects expended fewer than half as many calories during exercise (1).
The conclusions were that the slow and steady cardio folks would have needed to burn twice as many calories to get the same post-workout fat oxidation as the weightlifters.
In all of these scenarios, exercise science continues to back HIIT.
Positive effect on Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
At rest, your body uses up energy and depending on how much energy your body is burning at rest, can help you determine your caloric intake. Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of energy you need to function and is partly determined by the amount of muscle mass you have in your body.
When you lose weight, your RMR decreases and you require fewer calories per day. In contrast, when you gain dense, heavier muscle, your RMR will increase.
The more muscular you are the more calories and fat you burn at rest. Therefore, adding activities that promote or maintain muscle mass will make that muscle mass work harder and elevate the metabolic rate.
A number of calories you burn during exercise matters less than the amount you burn when you are not exercising.
When you strength train or do bouts of HIIT, you trigger an afterburn effect. This means that you continue to burn calories after the workout is over. So, the harder you work out in the present moment, the more of this afterburn effect you get to capitalize on.
Put simply, it is intensity, not slow steady cardio that directly affects your metabolism.
One of the goals of strength training and interval training is to “shock” and stimulate your muscle cells, nervous system, and hormones. When you simply chase calories burned, you miss out on the real benefits of interval and workout intensity.
So to summarize, there is a better chance that not that weight lifting/HIIT does three things
- Afterburn extra calories
- Higher percentage of fat calories used up after a workout
- A possible increase in resting metabolic rate.
While there might not be a bulletproof answer that definitively proves the effect on the number of calories burned at rest, there have been studies that show a slight increase in RMR months after consistent weight lifting sessions.
Remember that the definition of efficiency in the form of LSSC is the loss of muscle. Which means you are losing the power to burn more calories and fat.
Think about it. Wouldn’t you want to better your chances of burning a few extra calories well beyond the workouts you do? Think about that extrapolated over a year. How many would that add up to?
When you gain muscle, this is what happens!
One example of HIIT would be short sprint intervals coupled with low-moderate intensity work. In practice, it could be a 30-second intense sprint followed by a 1–3-minute steady pace walk to cool down and bring your heart rate back to normal. Then, repeating it.
There are many different forms of high-intensity interval exercises and workouts including squat jumps, CrossFit, battle ropes or any explosive movements but the common theme across all are explained best by the name HIIT. That is high-intensity intervals.
HIIT training has been shown to improve:
- Aerobic and anaerobic fitness
- Blood pressure
- Cardiovascular health
- Insulin sensitivity/resistance
- Abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass.
After cardiovascular exercise or weight training, the body continues to need oxygen at a higher rate than before the exercise began. This sustained oxygen consumption is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
As weightlifting or cardio intensity increases, the EPOC duration also increases.
With HIIT workouts, you are better able to burn more calories in a shorter period of time. Additionally, HIIT workouts also recruit more muscle groups which help to build a more muscular body.
For boosting your long-term energy levels, HIIT also takes the cake.
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate are critical energy and muscle building molecules that are better enabled by weightlifting and HIIT workouts. With HIIT workouts, you are better able to produce more mitochondria (which produces ATP) which are not only food for fat oxidation, it is great for more sustainable energy in life as well (2,3).
By generating quick bursts of energy throughout the muscles, HIIT helps your body burn more of the free flowing glucose running throughout and tap into existing storages.
This is a good thing because excess glucose is what ultimately gets stored as fat in the body. When these fat storages get blasted time and time again, you wake up your bodies fat storages and give yourself a chance to rebuild.
With LSSC, you are working out “efficiently.” Which means that most of the glucose (and what is stored) you could be burning can exist without you using it all up.
In order to get the biggest benefit for fat loss, you have to “shock your body” or reach a level of discomfort in order to maximize energy expenditure and glucose burnin’. Something that you cannot necessarily get with LSSC.
When you do LSSC with a calories-in-calories-out approach, you gain fewer of the benefits from weightlifting and HIIT can provide you.
Now, the other side.
The argument against HIIT
While I believe that HIIT and weightlifting should be a part of everyone’s workout routine (especially for fat loss), proceed with caution. When developing a HIIT program the duration, intensity, and frequency of the interval must be considered along with the length of the recovery interval.
Back-to-back sessions of strength training and HIIT or doing HIIT and weightlifting workouts 5-6 times a week can be extremely taxing and negatively affect the central nervous system. If you are not in peak shape, it may do more harm than good if done improperly.
Not to mention people who might have heart or serious health problems. Obviously, they would want to seek consultation before flipping tires and shifting into beast mode.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that form and safety should be paramount throughout. Blowing your form just to get some ridiculous personal record is not worth injury and the long road to recovery.
Your form is the first thing to go when your body gets tired. Don’t be a hero.
The other risks
Not to mention that a novice beginning with HIIT may increase the chance of injury and muscle soreness because they likely haven’t experienced this shock before.
Furthermore, if you do not fuel your body with the right fuel beforehand, you will eventually lose your capacity to put forth your best effort. If you don’t properly fuel yourself after your workout (and possibly come back the next day) you are on pace to wreck your hormonal and metabolic balance.
Your body can deal with only so much stress at once, whether it’s from HIIT, work, poor sleep, or your other workouts. Since HIIT workouts produce stress hormones, too much HIIT with little recovery can negatively affect your health.
In fact, take a look at some of the other problems with overtraining.
- Weaker immune system
- Poor focus
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sugar cravings
- Weight gain
I found a great quote from fitness professional Mike Robertson on the website experience life. He stated in an article:
“So many people these days are stressed out, on the go, can’t relax, can’t shut down. And then they go to the gym and stress their bodies more with high-intensity workouts. But what these people might need is more steady-state, chill-you-out workouts.
With HIIT, you have a higher probability for overreaching and overtraining, especially if you’re doing strength training as well.”
However, he also goes on to explain that if you’re trying to lose fat, it’s pretty clear that HIIT is a more effective tool than long-distance cardio so make sure you integrate it into your workout routine.
As with everything in life, cardio is about balance. And the reason that it is beneficial to include a mixture of LSSC. Doing so, you reap the benefits:
- Help recovery
- Safer balance with caloric deficit nutrition plans
- Cardiovascular endurance
It is not that slow steady cardio is inherently bad, in fact, many will see positive benefits from doing so. It doesn’t “slow you down or make you weak” but how you do it does.
How about both in one workout?
Can you do both at once? Absolutely. During a slow steady cardio session, it would be beneficial for you to mix in sprinting type bouts with steadier pace bouts. Such as a 1:2 ratio where you might go harder for a minute then back it off.
One strategy used by fitness professionals is to load interval training in the beginning of a workout. First, burning off some of the glucose in your body and muscle helps to jump start and switch your body into fat burning mode.
As with any type of anaerobic exercise, you force your body to use carbohydrates for energy during the high-intensity intervals. Then you use more fat when you’re recovering.
The combination of both aerobic and anaerobic exercise is where the money is at. Try to do more of it within the slow steady cardio session.
Cardio is not an all or nothing approach. HIIT is not a cure for everyone and neither is LSSC. This article is not intended to discourage endurance exercise but to acknowledge that in order to optimize your muscle, fat loss, and overall performance, LSSC should not be your only option.
Remember the following things moving forward.
- Walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around. Regardless of weight loss, everyone can benefit from more walking.
- Chasing calories burned when working out has its flaws.
- LSSC is not your only option and might be doing more harm than good.
- There is a difference between losing weight and losing fat.
- Weightlifting and HIIT provide tremendous benefits for fat loss and grow the muscles you need to burn more calories.
- Design a workout that integrates weightlifting, HIIT and LSSC workouts.
- One of the biggest determinants of fat loss is proper nutrition. If your nutrition is not on point, how can you truly reap the benefits of a HIIT workout?
You don’t have to do crazy ass battle ropes, you don’t have flip tires, you don’t have to push cars, sleds, or reach a new PR in your WOD. But you do need intervals that get your heart rate up to about 75% if you want to burn the most fat.
It’s not about a single workout or a single meal. It is the combination of all components to your overall wellness that leads to results and a healthy life.
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