Why Cardio Is a Bad Investment – by Jamie Bolton

Gyms up and down the country are packed full of ‘cardio bunnies’ endlessly pounding the treadmills. Gallons of sweat flowing everywhere. Thousands of calories being burnt. Great bodies being sculpted.

*Rolls eyes*

Just a hint of sarcasm there perhaps? Just a little. Only the first of those two statements are true, contrary to what the ‘cardio crew’ wants to believe. So what is really going on here? Why is it that the cardio bunnies, year after year, look EXACTLY the same?


Let’s start with some simple human biology. The human body is an incredibly intelligent, adaptive machine.

What happens when you do cardio? The body aims to become more efficient at doing it. It works out the shortcuts so you burn less energy for the same work. It means, all other things equal, your 30mins on the treadmill burns less calories each time you do it. The way around it then? Run faster or for longer, but ultimately you can only go so far with this approach before you’re running marathons at a sprint each day. I realise this is a gross simplification but the point remains – your body adapts, fast. Cardio doesn’t leave much room for addition.

Now, throw in on top of this that standard steady state cardio is not actually a great source of calorie burning. You burn calories while you’re moving. People on the cardio machines sure might look like they’re burning a tonne of calories, they’re covered in sweat after all. But it stops there. At the end of the session that’s that.

Consider this: An average male burns 105 calories in a 9 minute 30 second mile, but on average you burn 650 calories whilst sleeping. Say you sleep on average for 7 hours, that is about 93 calories per hour. You can really see that cardio makes sod all difference in the grand scheme of things. You need to run 6.2 miles at 9.30 pace jut to burn the amount of calories you burn when you are asleep. Granted if you do the run and sleep you burn about 1300 calories but it means a 6.2 mile run a day – about an hour daily!

The icing on the cake is that, as you ‘improve’ at cardio, your body will switch its muscle fibre make up toward slow-twitch fibres. In other words, let fast twitch fibres either atrophy (shrink) or take on slow-twitch properties, such as to make the body lighter and more ‘efficient’. What does this mean? A smaller ‘engine’, which thus burns less fuel. In other words you are lowering your resting metabolic rate – in the long run you will have to eat less calories, not more. You will also have to run longer or run faster for that hour to get the body out of its new adaptive cofort zone,

For those of you who think I am being unfair or want some studies to back this argument up, here is an awesome article, ‘Women: Running into Trouble’ by John Kiefer, that is extremely well researched and explains how over prescribed steady state cardio is a losing cause in terms of fat loss.

Now that’s not to say cardio is bad in its entirety, it’s just that there are more effective and efficient ways of shedding fat. It’s well documented that an amount is necessary to keep you healthy, not least for the heart. But unless you are a competitive distance runner, to have it as your main activity, you may well want to think again.

Most people when seeking to ‘get fit’ will instantly go to cardio. Now I support the fact that people are up and exercising and indeed slow long distance running will yield results to a degree. But after the initial treadmill introduction I would encourage those people to get stuck into some resistance training and metabolic conditioning. Hell it breaks the monoto, develops you a better looking physiqe and and saves you time in the process!

How many people that are only on the cardio machines at your gym still look the same as they did a year or two ago? Better yet, at marathons across the world, how many of those at the finishing line have a physique you REALLY desire? Surely that alone should make you think twice about pursuing cardio as a main form of activity.

STRENGTH TRAINING

Like cardio, the ‘act’ of strength training burns calories as you do it. And if you work out with any sort of intensity, you’ll be burning more calories than the cardio bunnies at this point alone. But the good stuff hasn’t even started yet.

Once you’re done, you have to recover. Your body has to build muscle tissue to deal with the stimulus you have put on it. This is a metabolically costly process (read: requires more calories). To top it off, as the body accumulates more muscle tissue, it has to be fueled on a daily basis (5-6 kal per pound of muscle). In other words, you raise your metabolic rate for the long run. Not by a huge amount but it all adds up.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Then we have conditioning work. Short, sharp-burst work. Like prowler & sled work, farmers walks, (hill) sprints. My kind of ‘cardio’. If this doesn’t send your heart rate through the roof, you’re doing it wrong.

I’ve got far more out of breath than traditional ‘cardio’ ever has for me. And with this sort of work, the after effect is huge. I’m talking ‘Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption’ (EPOC). In layman’s terms, it’s that after the work itself, you’re metabolic rate is on fire for the next few hours. Talk about fat burning potential! And that’s not to mention the strength endurance, speed-strength, power and work capacity development that’s taking place too.

THE HIERARCHY

I might sound ‘anti-cardio’. But the reality is I’m not. It has a place in a program, just usually not the one people give it. Placing it at the centre of a program is foolish.

It comes down to a hierarchy of what time you have. The more time you have the more you can ‘add’. Start with strength training. Once you have made it to 3 to 4 sessions a week, then can start to think about adding ‘extras’. The next ‘level’ is conditioning work. After you have 2-3 sessions a week of this planned in, can think about adding more. Low level steady state cardio. Weighted walking, inclined walking, cycling etc.

How many of you are at this point? I thought so.

Get the important stuff in first, the strength work and the conditioning. Then, and then only if you have more time would I seek to add ‘more’ in the form of some low level cardio. To get to that point, you will be investing about 6-7 hours a week before you can fit in your precious ‘cardio’. How many of you get even half that amount of time in?

The INVESTMENT

Training is always an ‘investment’ of your time. How you decide to invest it will clearly affect your results. If you make bad choices, like focusing on cardio solely, your investment may not even give you back your initial stake, i.e. you could look and perform worse.

By investing wisely, you make sure you get the most bang for your buck, and after time will find your ‘investment’ has flourished and you look and perform better.

So what will it be today? The treadmill or the squat rack and sled?

Train hard. Train smart. Be strong.

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About Elite Kinetics
Ben Coker CSCS & Jamie Bolton UKSCA. Elite Kinetics Strength Training Systems offers a no BS approach to strength training and athletic development. Our moto: 'Train hard. Train smart. BE Strong', is applied to elite-level peformance athletes right through to your recreational warrior wanting abnormal, outstanding results in all areas - bigger, stronger, faster.

5 Responses to Why Cardio Is a Bad Investment – by Jamie Bolton

  1. JP says:

    well written pal, as a bodybuilder… fasted a.m cardio is a must. the sled work and high intensity style training just doesnt have its place, glycogen needs to be preserved for quality gym sessions and thats about it. obv bodybuilding and those generally trying to loose fat is very diff and totally agree with everythin you have written….but for those wanting to get stage ready, lay off anythin HIT outside of ur resistance training sessions and let the fasted sub 130bpm cv work help drop off tht fat n keep metabolism high, JP

  2. Jaime, well said. You can burn a ton of calories with the resistance training that has the right intensity level. Adding super sets of two to three exercises, or treating it like a full blown circuit of six or more movements, is a great way to ramp up your heart rate. I do practice steady state cardio, but also use hiit. I think it’s about balancing the differences both have to offer for a better workout experience.

    -Mitchell

  3. Nice!!!!!!!!! I couldn’t agree more with your article!

  4. nicky fuller says:

    wow…so true,i have been a cardiobunnie for 4 years,what a bloody waste of money..i have just started bodybuilding training and am loving my new found muscles

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