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Best Cardio Routine For Fat Loss

There is often a lot of confusion and debate over what type of cardio is best for fat loss. The fundamental problem when discussing which cardio routine is “best” for fat loss is people often automatically assume this implies that some routines won’t work.

The truth of the matter is all cardiovascular routines are beneficial and there is no such thing as an exercise routine that wouldn’t be helpful for weight loss.

However, you should know there is no question that some cardio routines promote fat loss faster than others. In order to see optimal results and avoid frustration you first must understand the different types of cardio and the role they play in a training program.

The three different types of cardio:

Aerobic (Low-Intensity) Cardio – This type of cardio is where your heart rate is kept at a low-moderate level typically between 55-75% of your maximum heart rate. The main benefit of “aerobic” cardio is improving the efficiency of your heart and lungs to transport nutrients and oxygen to your cells.

You’ll often hear a fitness professional speak of the importance of building an “aerobic base.” This is nothing more than building a foundation of cardio-respiratory conditioning so you can progress to higher intensity routines later.

Low-Intensity, aerobic workouts can include any physical activity involving the major muscle groups where you work at approximately 55-75% of your max heart rate. The most common types of aerobic exercise are walking, stationary bike, elliptical trainer, etc.

When first starting out on an exercise program you can receive benefit from as little as 15 minutes of aerobic activity daily. If that’s all you can do at first, that’s fine.

Simply keep looking to increase your duration as your conditioning improves. Eventually you’ll want to complete aerobic based cardio workouts 3-5 x per week at 30-45 minutes in duration for best results.

Contrary to popular belief, aerobic based cardio routines are NOT the best cardio routines for fat loss…

While it’s true you’ll burn more fat during an aerobic based cardio workout than when performing higher intensity routines, it’s not how much fat you burn during the workout that matters.

What really matters is how much you’ll use for energy after your workout and for the next 24-36 hours.

You’ll often see placards on cardio equipment that relate to an aerobic heart rate training zone as being the “fat loss zone.” This is one of my biggest pet peeves. It promotes the false belief that the best way to lose weight is to simply sweat it out on a treadmill doing longer duration workouts at a low-moderate intensity.

My experience has shown this simply to not be the case. More is not better when it comes to cardio. It’s not how long you do a cardio workout, but what you do during the workout that matters.

Never-the-less, aerobic based (low-intensity) cardio routines certainly have their place and they can be valuable in a fat loss program. I should note that I highly recommend that any program be started off exclusively with aerobic workouts since it’s essential to build the aerobic base I discussed earlier.

Without that foundation you’ll have a difficult time effectively utilizing the higher intensity routines. Depending on your starting level of fitness conditioning, it may take you anywhere from 2-6 weeks to develop a sufficient aerobic base to progress to higher intensity routines.

Lactate Threshold (High Intensity) Cardio – This type of cardio involves keeping your heart rate at a high level, typically above 85% of your max heart rate. The reason it’s called “lactate threshold” cardio is because you’re attempting to work steady at the point in which your body starts to produce lactic acid in response to a shortage of oxygen.

You see when you’re working really hard and your heart rate is racing it’s difficult for your body to bring in oxygen fast enough to keep up.

It has to find a way around this problem so it switches over to produce energy in the absence of oxygen, in something that’s called the “anaerobic energy system.”

Without getting into too much detail, lactic acid is a by product of all this. High intensity training helps your body deal with lactic acid and basically improves your endurance and stamina.

High intensity cardio is beneficial for runners, cyclists, swimmers, and other athletes who are looking to improve their endurance. For the average person simply looking to lose body fat and tone up, there is little benefit in doing this type of routine.

As a certified Charleston personal trainer, I rarely recommend doing high intensity cardio unless you’re an athlete in training as it’s simply too easy to sacrifice lean muscle.

This is why it’s not uncommon to see the “skinny-fat” runner, cyclist, etc who looks thin but has a pooch belly although they have amazing cardiovascular conditioning.

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Interval Training (High Intensity-Short Duration) Cardio – This a combination of both low intensity and high intensity cardio in which varying intervals of each are performed for a certain period of time (for example 30 min of high intensity exercise alternated with 1:30 of low intensity cardio).

There are several ways you can do interval training but just think of it as alternating back and forth between high, low, high, low. You do some exercise for a short duration (typically less than 1:00) but at a very high intensity (90% and > max heart rate rate), then allow a brief recovery period to allow your heart rate to come back down before repeating the cycle.

Interval training is the holy grail of cardio routines for fat loss. Not because it burns more fat during the workout, but because it burns more fat AFTER the workout.

The real benefit of interval training cardio workouts (that the other routines don’t have) is the increased hormonal responses from powerful fat burning hormones like adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, and growth hormone.

Interval routines are shorter in duration (typically 20-30 minutes) and can be counterproductive if done for longer durations.

For best results, look to incorporate interval training cardio workouts into your routine 2-3 x per week once you’ve developed a solid aerobic base.

So in a 5 x week training schedule a good routine for fat loss might look something like this:

Monday: Interval Training (20-30 minutes)
Tuesday: Aerobic Training (30-45 minutes)
Wednesday: Interval Training (20-30 minutes)
Thursday: Aerobic Training (30-45 minutes)
Friday: Aerobic Training (30-45 minutes)

The key here is that although interval training cardio is the most beneficial for fat loss, it wouldn’t be if it was used in absence of aerobic conditioning. These two types of cardio work best when they’re used together in a fat loss program.

At the end of the day, while cardio exercise is essential in any fat loss program it can only be best utilized when in combination with resistance training. The more lean muscle you have the more places you have to burn fat. Cardio simply helps to mobilize stored body fat through the hormonal responses and energy demands of the exercise.

If you have any doubts on this theory that I’m suggesting consider sprinters in any sport. They’re almost always the most muscular, lean, and healthy looking athletes you’ll see. The same thing can be said for gymnasts, swimmers, and other athletes that work at high intensities for short durations. This is not by accident.

Compare that to the physique of a marathon runner or other athletes who do more long-slow-distance cardio routines. If you want to have a lean, muscular physique it makes common sense to me that one would want to replicate the training style of the group that he/she would prefer to look more like. The choice is yours.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. Learn more how you can receive a FREE no obligations trial of our Charleston personal training programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Fat Loss.