As many of you know, I’m not a big fan of traditional long slow distance aerobic cardio, especially if it is done in the totally imaginary “fat burning zone.”
I’ve already explained why I think it is a waste of time and energy, but the arguments against cardio are more numerous than that.
Here are just two more reasons I don’t waste my clients and my own time doing traditional cardio
It is very poor at improving body composition or fitness level
Optimal body composition: low body fat and appreciable quantity of muscle mass. Everybody can agree with this, even though there is bound to be some disparity in the amounts of both. Traditional cardio has been used since the ‘60s, when Dr. Kenneth Cooper launched the fitness craze with his books titled ‘Aerobics’, ‘More Aerobics’ and ‘Aerobics for Women’, based on his research.
He is the originator of the jogging movement and maintained that optimal body composition and fitness could be obtained solely through cardio.
The rationale behind that was that cardio increase mitochondrial density and thus, the capacity to burn fat in the cells. The mitochondria are tiny little organelles in the cell that are responsible to produce energy by burning fat in the presence of oxygen, a process known as cellular or aerobic respiration (aero- means air in greek).
So the more mitochondria, the more fat burning, the better your capacity to produce energy and the better you look and perform, right? Absolutely.
There are better options out there
Short sprints and short rest intervals done in a repeated fashion have consistently out-performed long distance aerobic activity in the ratio of productive results vs. time invested
The problem is, research shows that sprinting, or anaerobic activities (anaerobic means without the use oxygen) are way better at upregulating mitochondrial biogenesis. Short sprints and short rest intervals done in a repeated fashion have consistently out-performed long distance aerobic activity in the ratio of productive results vs. time invested.
One study even looked at 4 seconds treadmill sprints with 20 seconds active rest. That’s less time than most people take to lace their shoes to go out jogging!
As a bonus, it leaves plenty of time and energy to develop your muscles through another anaerobic activity: serious weight training! Talk about looking good, performing well and not spending your time in misery in a hamster wheel.
There is limited return on investment for your time
As mentioned in the previous point, to have any measure of results past the first few weeks, you need to do long distance cardio precisely in this way: long. And I mean lllooonnnng!
A novice who trains right and eats right can often gain enough muscle mass to transform his physique in a few months
Sure, people will say that building muscle takes a long time too. But that’s only true for the intermediate/advanced trainee. A novice who trains right and eats right can often gain enough muscle mass to transform his physique in a few months.
Of course, the keywords in my previous sentence were: train right and eat right. Big caveat when conventional wisdom says that a banana equals a steak. And that chocolate milk is enough post workout carbohydrates and proteins to make optimal gains.
The answer is NO, not even if you train with the intensity of a snail on valium. Otherwise I would advise proper nutrition and training. And I’ve seen plenty of young and not so young beginners gain plenty of muscle mass.
If you want to keep using mostly aerobic energy system, or V02 max in the parlance of the field, the intensity of the exercise is limited. If you go more intense, you’ll start using the other energy systems of the body: the anaerobic energy systems. Those systems produce energy more rapidly than the aerobic system, but they do not use fat to do so. However, the process of using them during exercise triggers greater fat loss via increases in many of the body’s metabolic pathways.
This is where the traditional cardio myth is even more useless; it prevents people from using other energy systems properly in order to stay in the so-called ‘fat burning zone’, thus promoting longer and more frequent cardio sessions, promoting a vicious cycle: want to lose more weight (unfortunately not just fat)? Then you have to run/pedal/swim longer.
This is in spite of the fact that short sprint intervals and burst-type activities are more effective for fat burning. Plus they take only a few minutes of actual work each time. The most famous protocol for this is the 20/10, invented by Professor Izumi Tabata. His methodology became so famous that these sprints are now simply known as ‘Tabatas’. They consists of 20 seconds of all-out, balls to the wall cycling, with 10 seconds of active recovery. Do this 8 times in a row, for a total of 4 minutes.
The Question of Intensity
The biggest problem I see right now is that people are very, shall we say, ‘conservative’ when it comes to the definition of ‘balls to the wall’. In my book, your face should be turning a pastel type of green and your spleen coming out of your left eye socket on each of the rounds. Otherwise, you’re cutting corners and preserving energy for latter rounds. Of course, there are other less extreme protocols, especially since this one was tested on Japanese Olympic athletes. But the results for only 4 minutes of work were dramatic. Indeed, every markers of energy system performance, including aerobic power and capacity, went up.
So even though you might choose a different sprinting methodology, you can increase your aerobic power and capacity and lose more body fat in a much shorter time span.
So the lesson is this: ditch the hamster wheel and start sprinting…. Repeatedly. You’ll look and feel much better, and be able to demonstrate it too.
Coach Charles R. Poliquin
P.S. Remember Dr. Cooper, founder of the Cooper Institute and founder of the jogging revolution? Fast forward to the 90’-early 2000: his new books now preach against overdoing aerobic work and implementing a weight training regimen. Food for thought!
Ismail, I., Keating, S., et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Aerobic Vs. Resistance Exercise Training on Visceral Fat. Obesity Reviews. 2012. 13, 68-91.
Irving, B., Davis, C., et al. Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2008. 40(11), 1863-1872.
Macpherson, R., Hazell, T., et al. Run Sprint Interval Training Improves Aerobic Performance but Not Maximal Cardiac Output. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011. 43(1), 115-121.
Meckel, Y., Nemet, D., Bar-Sela, S., Radom-Aizik, S. Hormonal and Inflammatory Responses to Different Types of Sprint Interval Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 25(8), 2161-2169.