Best Fat Loss Cardio for Men: 94 Studies Expose Ugly Fitness Lies

by | Building Muscle, Exercise, Fitness, Health, Weight Loss

Here you’ll find absolutely everything you need to know about cardio. Extensive analysis of the scientific literature, along with several dozen studies. All explained in a simple, easy to understand language.

What Is Cardio Exactly?

Not every type of physical activity qualifies as cardio. However, half of the exercises we refer to as “cardiovascular” don’t fit the textbook definition. Let’s look at some popular terms and explain the differences [1]:

Physical activity (PE) – movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscles. The result is a substantial increase in caloric requirements compared to resting energy expenditure.

  • Important note: Other muscles can also generate movement and burn calories. However, these are mostly unconscious activities (e.g. beating of your heart). They define your resting energy expenditure. Processes you have almost no control over.

Exercise – a type of physical activity consisting of planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movements. Usually performed with the goal of improving certain components of physical fitness. 

  • Important note: Any physical activity burns calories. But when it’s performed as an exercise you can reliably improve health and skill-related fitness characteristics (e.g. strength, endurance, balance, etc).

Aerobic exercise (cardio) – a moderate-intensity rhythmic activity that engages large muscles. The energy required is provided via aerobic metabolism. This allows for maintaining activity levels over a long period of time.

  • Important note: Most types of exercise have a positive impact on health [2] [3] [4]. But regular cardio improves some very specific fitness characteristics (e.g. endurance). Other forms of training may be less effective in achieving satisfactory results.

If your goal is to shed a few pounds and stay healthy you have plenty of choices. However, in certain situations, aerobic exercise is superior to other forms of training. It comes down to your aesthetic and fitness goals, personal preferences, and free time.

Based on these criteria we’ll help you choose the right type of cardio. We’ll also review some of the most effective alternatives.

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training: What’s the Difference?

Anaerobic exercise is not cardio. But there’s a lot of overlap. Combining both forms of training is not uncommon. It depends on your goals. You may want to exclusively focus on one. Or sometimes alternate between the two.

Aerobic and anaerobic exercises utilize different primary energy production pathways. You need energy to move. Food provides fuel. But nutrients need to be broken down into usable form. And there are different ways to do that.

Energy Production Pathways

ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the usable form of chemical energy. There are 3 major systems responsible for ATP synthesis [5].

Phosphagen system – Predominantly active during 10-30 sec max effort work. Or at the start of a strenuous exercise.

  • rapid ATP production
  • very limited capacity
  • doesn’t require oxygen
  • uses creatine phosphate

Lactic acid system (glycolysis) – Becomes predominantly active after ~30 sec of maximal energy output. Or during the first 1-2 mins of high-intensity exercise.

  • moderate to slow ATP production
  • limited capacity
  • doesn’t require oxygen
  • uses carbs (glucose in the blood or glycogen in the muscles)

Aerobic system – Predominantly active during moderate or low-intensity activities. Or supporting the work of the lactic acid system as it reaches its capacity.

  • very slow ATP production
  • high capacity
  • limited by oxygen intake (VO2 max)
  • can use fats, carbs and some forms of protein
    • mostly uses fats

These 3 systems often work at the same time. Though their contribution to energy production depends on the type of activity [6].

Note: when people talk about the “anaerobic system” they usually mean the lactic acid pathway. However, here we group it together with the phosphagen system. Both can function without oxygen. 

When Do You Switch from Burning Fats to Carbs?

The aerobic system has the greatest ATP production capacity [7]. But at a much slower rate as it requires oxygen. Also because it uses mostly fats, which take longer to convert into ATP.

However, as the intensity rises you need more oxygen. When you reach your max O2 uptake, called VO2 max, the aerobic system starts using more carbs [8]. That’s still an aerobic process as you use oxygen to break down the carbs.

But if the intensity raises too much oxygen becomes the limiting factor. The anaerobic systems kick in [9] [10] – the phosphagen and lactic acid pathways. Max effort and high-intensity exercises require a lot of ATP per unit of time. The anaerobic systems can provide rapid energy output. Carbs are broken down faster without the need for oxygen.

However, if ATP demands remain high those systems fatigue quickly [11]. That’s why you can’t sustain max effort for more than 20-30 seconds. And after a minute you experience another sharp drop in performance.

Taking breaks after maxing out your anaerobic capacity helps those systems recover. This way you can keep up the intensity high and burn predominantly carbs.

Takeaway: Anaerobic exercise is short and intense physical activity. Energy production is fueled by carbs, unaffected by inhaled oxygen [12].

About 85-95% of your daily activities are low to moderate in intensity. They are sustained by the aerobic system. But when you engage in strenuous exercises you start burning more carbs [13]. And as the intensity increases you switch from mostly aerobic to anaerobic carb breakdown.

Examples of Cardio and Non-Cardio Exercises

These examples are segmented based on which energy production pathway provides most of the ATP. Depending on the intensity some exercises can be considered both aerobic and anaerobic.

Cardio (aerobic) exercises:

  • walking
  • jogging
  • running
  • cycling
  • aerobic dancing
  • swimming

High-intensity (anaerobic) exercises:

  • sprinting
  • strength training
  • isometrics
  • plyometrics
  • high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

How Do Cardiovascular Exercises Cause Fat Loss?

Food and caloric drinks are broken down into usable energy. That energy can be used to maintain activity levels or stored for later use. Cardio affects both processes [14].

  1. Recently consumed dietary fats, carbs, and protein can be oxidized to fuel your exercise needs. This means less of those nutrients will be stored as body fat.
  1. Exercise can increase energy expenditure beyond what you get from food. So the body starts breaking down body fat to create more ATP to meet your needs.

All other things being equal, doing enough aerobic exercise results in weight loss. There’s a clear dose-response [15]. The more you do, the faster you lean down.

Note that this is true for all types of physical activity. However, some forms of exercise rely mostly on carbs. Cardio uses primarily fat. And this fact has created a lot of confusion and flawed theories. Fat burning doesn't always lead to fat loss.

How to Lose Weight Fast: The Biggest Fat Loss Lie

All 3 macronutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) can be stored as fat. And all 3 can be used as energy. Ultimately it doesn't matter if you burn dietary fat or not [16]. You still need to account for the other 2 macros.

We shouldn’t think in terms of fats or carbs. But in terms of total energy. Even if you burn 100% of the dietary fat you eat, excess calories from protein and carbs will be stored as body fat [17].

That’s why it doesn’t matter what type of activity you choose. Both running and strength training can help you burn off the extra food you eat. And if you train long and hard enough you start burning body fat to manage energy needs.

To speed up the fat loss, you can also reduce food intake. Adequate caloric restriction alone can lead to weight loss. Ultimately it comes down to creating an energy deficit. To maximize the effect you can apply severe food restrictions. Or do a ton of exercise.

However, a balanced approach leads to the best results [18] [19] [20]. It’s best to combine a controlled diet with moderate exercise. Training without diet changes rarely results in weight change [21] [22].

Note: The information in this section is only relevant for general fat loss. Maximizing performance requires managing other variables as well. What and when you eat in relation to how you train. More about this later.

What Are the Most Common Types of Cardio?

Usually, cardio is divided into different types based on a few criteria:

  • intensity – high-intensity work results in mostly anaerobic energy production. By definition, true cardio can only be low to moderate intensity. Things get murky when both the aerobic and anaerobic systems are equally active [23]. Usually happens when training requires relatively high effort but it’s sustainable for more than a few minutes.
  • intervals – mostly relevant to high-intensity exercise. When you take strategic breaks you allow the anaerobic systems to recover [24]. Hence, you can keep the intensity. But if you keep going eventually the aerobic system takes over. Any strength training exercise can turn into cardio. You just have to do it long enough and keep the resistance low.
  • high, low, and no impact – definitions vary. Sometimes it’s about exercise execution [25]. Other times it’s about the forces acting on the joints and muscles [26] [27]. Though different definitions overlap quite a bit.
    • high-impact: having both feet off the ground at the same time (e.g jumping). But it can also refer to jarring joint impact (e.g. boxing).
    • low-impact: always having at least one leg on the ground (e.g. jogging). But it can also mean a weight-bearing exercise causing no joint jarring (e.g. Tai Chi).
    • no-impact: exercise that doesn't involve standing on your feet (e.g. yoga). But it can also mean training where your weight is mostly irrelevant. Or there’s minimal stress on joints (e.g. swimming).

Note: High-impact doesn’t mean high-intensity. For example, lifting weights is considered low impact. Both feet are usually on the ground. Movements are controlled, rarely resulting in vibrations or shocking forces. 

  • oxygen consumption: it raises with the intensity to help ATP producing. But you inevitably reach your O2 intake limit (VO2 max). Then the lactic acid system kicks in [28]. However, certain forms of training improve VO2 max.
    • People with high VO2 max can train at higher intensity levels and it’s still cardio for them. The anaerobic system provides most of the energy.

Effort, rest time, exercise execution, and training adaptations can all vary. Changes to one variable can turn one type of training into a different one. Cardio can easily turn into anaerobic work, and vice versa.

High-Intensity Interval Training

Also known as HIIT. It involves alternating between two stages. First, a short burst of high-effort muscle engagement. Then a period of rest. Rinse, repeat. Exercise protocols usually include:

  • sprinting
  • bodyweight exercises (e.g. push-ups, jumps, etc)
  • circuit training (alternating between different strength training exercises)

Most people consider HIIT cardio. But that’s not always the case. The level of intensity and duration make a huge difference [29].

Intensity: true HIIT training is brutal. Very few people come close to that level of high effort. Exercise protocols are highly energy demanding. ATP production is mostly anaerobic. True HIIT workouts can hardly be called cardiovascular exercise.

HIIT shouldn’t be confused with Supramaximal Interval Training (SMIT). That second form of training requires an all-out effort. The intensity is usually maxed out. 

Duration: The longer the work interval, the bigger the involvement of the aerobic system. That’s because you can’t sustain high intensity for very long. Depending on the duration of each interval you have different forms of HIIT:

  • 15-30 seconds intervals: purely anaerobic (not cardio)
  • 60-90seconds intervals: mostly anaerobic (especially in the beginning)
  • 2-3 minute intervals: mostly aerobic (especially at the end)
  • 3-5 minute intervals: arguably “high-intensity”, mostly aerobic

What you see in most gyms is usually closer to moderate intensity. People are usually not pushing themselves hard enough. Or the intervals are too long to keep intensity high.

Within the context of this article, we’ll use “HIIT” as an intense form of interval cardio. Though real HIIT training is closer to strength training with frequent rest periods.

Pros and Cons of HIIT

  • Pros:
    • a lot of calories burned per session
    • temporary increase in calories burned after training
    • more dynamic compared to other forms of cardio
  • Cons:
    • highly fatiguing with long recovery times
    • hard to perform frequently
    • above-average injury risk (untrained and beginners)
  • Neutral (good or bad depending on goals)
    • low risk of endurance adaptations
    • some chance of increases in speed, explosiveness, strength or size

Why Is HIIT Better Than Normal Cardio For Burning Belly Fat?

As we already know, fat loss comes down to creating an energy deficit. All forms of activity burn calories. But HIIT has higher than average energy demands. Though its requirements vary based on the exact form of training.

The higher the intensity and duration, the more calories you burn. Yet, you can’t keep them both high. The highest intensities result in the shortest work intervals. Striking a balance between both variables leads to the most calories burned. This happens when intervals last about 2 mins [30].

But there’s a problem. HIIT training is highly fatiguing. While it’s very time-efficient, it’s not sustainable (for most people).

Fat loss is determined by your total daily energy balance. You may burn a lot within 30 mins. But if your activity remains low the rest of the day, it makes little difference.

As a fat loss tool, HIIT usually has a supplementary role. Don’t expect a couple of sessions to suddenly melt all the belly fat.

Consider training preferences and availability. If you love dynamic workouts and your time is limited, then HIIT is a great option for you. The best form of training is the one you can sustain long term.

Moderate-Intensity Steady State

Also known as MISS. This is your conventional cardio training [31]. Exercises include:

  • running and jogging
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • rowing
  • various cardio machines (elliptical, stationary bikes, etc)

Energy production is prevailingly aerobic. As the intensity increases you’re oxidizing mostly carbs. When it decreases you’re burning mostly dietary fat. But as already stated, that’s irrelevant for fat loss. Though whether you’re using carbs of fat can affect performance.

Pros and Cons of MISS

  • Pros:
    • a good amount of calories burned per session
    • can be performed frequently
  • Cons:
    • takes a good amount of time
    • may not be easy on the joints
  • Neutral (good or bad depending on goals)
    • high chance of endurance adaptations
    • may negatively affect speed, explosiveness, strength or size

This form of training is the most popular fat loss tool. There are a few things that can explain that [32] [33]:

  • low-level of technical proficiency requirements
  • not too challenging & and relatively enjoyable
  • sufficient amount of calories burned to notably affect fat loss

How to Improve Endurance?

MISS is not the most time-efficient way to burn calories. Also, it’s not the most sustainable. But it’s the best way to build (middle and long-time) endurance [34].

Note: Endurance is specific to the task. To build short-time endurance you’ll be relying on anaerobic metabolism. Here we use the term “endurance” to refer to aerobic training lasting from 2 mins to several hours. That’s usually MISS cardio.

Moderate intensity training is sufficiently challenging to stimulate endurance adaptations [35]. If effort goes down the stimulus will be insufficient. If intensity gets too high the focus will shift to other characteristics (e.g. speed, explosiveness, strength, etc).

Activities that involve repeated cyclic movements for more than several minutes improve endurance. But remember these adaptations directly oppose other fitness characteristics. Also while there are some global changes endurance is activity and body part specific.

Low-Intensity Steady State

Also known as LISS. Energy production is exclusively aerobic (predominantly fat oxidation). LISS cardio can hardly be classified as exercise. Such activities are rarely planned and structured. The intensity is usually too low to notably improve fitness characteristics.

LISS activities include:

  • walking
  • hiking
  • (slow) dancing
  • recreational activities (e.g. skateboarding, surfing, etc)

Anything that involves repetitive movements. However, it doesn’t have you break a sweat. You should easily hold a conversation at the same time.

Though overweight and poorly conditioned people may struggle with some activities. It depends on the level of homeostatic disruption caused to the individual. Some exercises can be considered both LISS and MISS.

Pros and Cons of LISS

  • Pros:
    • can be performed multiple times a day
    • safe and easy to execute
    • the most sustainable training method
  • Cons:
    • the lowest amount of calories burned per unit of time
    • might be considered boring and uneventful by some
  • Neutral (good or bad depending on goals)
    • barely any effect on fitness characteristics

Is Walking Enough Cardio?

Low-intensity activities are aerobic in nature. They are technically cardio. But it’s hard to get a good workout doing LISS activities. If you want to get faster, stronger, or build endurance you need to bump up the intensity.

However, walking intensity is mostly determined by your weight and training experience. Some daily activities can be challenging for overweight sedentary individuals. Even walking can become quite the workout. The intensity can get closer to that of MISS.

But if your only goal is fat loss, LISS is actually a great tool. Its low demands allow you to remain active for very long periods. Much longer and more frequently than MISS or HIIT.

You don’t burn a lot of calories per minute. But the compound effect over days has a notable effect on weight loss [36] [37]. Especially considering LISS can easily be done multiple times a day. That’s much harder with MISS and HIIT.

How to Choose The Right Exercise Regimen for You?

Major Considerations:

  • total calories burned
  • time investment
  • physique goals
  • interference effect & recovery time
  • learning curve & injury risk

How Many Calories Does Cardio Burn?

There are 4 main factors that affect how quickly you burn calories:

  • intensity: the more demanding the task, the more calories you burn (per unit of time)
  • time: the longer you remain active, the more calories you burn (over long periods)
  • weight (and height): the bigger you are, the more calories you burn
  • body composition: the higher the percentage of muscle mass, the more calories you burn

Intensity and time and closely related. If the intensity is high you fatigue faster [38] [39]. You can’t train for long. Hence you burn a lot of calories in a short period of time. If the intensity is low you can remain active for a long period. Total energy expenditure is similar [40] or greater than very high-intensity activities.

Weight and height are passive components. A big person burns more energy compared to a smaller individual doing the same activity [41]. But that’s not always an advantage. Heavier people usually have more weight to lose.

Note: As you lose weight you burn fewer calories. Being heavy helps burn more energy initially. As you drop weight the effect diminishes. One of the reasons why fat loss slows down.

Body composition is another passive component. Let’s take two individuals. Same weight and height. The one with a higher muscle percentage will use up more energy [42]. Lean tissue is metabolically active, unlike body fat (adipose tissue). Hence muscle growth helps speed fat loss.

Practical Implications

You don’t want to go into extremes. Training very hard saves time. But it has a negative effect on the frequency and length of sessions. Those variables impact long-term fat loss. However, low-intensity training may require a lot of time. More than you can spare.

Depending on your fitness goals, you may also want to minimize muscle loss. Ideally, increase lean mass as you lose fat. This requires keeping the intensity relatively high.

However, improving body composition won’t completely offset the effects of weight loss. If total body weight goes down, you’ll be burning less energy. Even if you’re getting more muscular.

Bottom line, train as hard as you need to reach your goals. If you only want to lose a few pounds you can keep it light. Just make sure you train frequently and consistently. To focus on certain fitness characteristics you may need to train hard.

Which Exercise Burns the Most Fat?

There’s more than one answer to this question.

In terms of calories burned per minute, intensity is everything. Energy demands go up with the amount of physical effort required. Here’s a basic activity comparison. Exercises are ranked from the least to the most energy demanding [43]:

  • playing board games
  • cycling (recreational)
  • brisk walking
  • canoeing (calm waters)
  • swimming (slow pace)
  • dancing (vigorous)
  • running (moderate pace)
  • swimming (fast pace)
  • soccer and similar sports (vigorous)
  • cross-country skiing
  • rowing (vigorous)
  • running (fast pace)

Note: You don’t need to know the exact amount of calories burned per minute. Too many variables affect that anyway. However, a more intensive activity usually burns more than less intensive one. Conditioning levels do play a role. But the intensity already reflects that.

Low or High-Intensity Cardio to Get Lean?

From a fat loss perspective things are not so simple. Some activities involve variations in intensity, rest periods, and frequency. Weight loss happens over weeks, months, and years. Burning a ton of calories per minute is not a top priority. Elevated energy demands over long periods lead to consistent progress.

This doesn’t mean vigorous activities are a bad choice. Well-trained athletes can train hard and long. They require fewer breaks and recover faster.

A newbie may only manage a couple of 20-30 min sessions a week. Experienced trainees can handle several 60+ mins workouts. Hence fat loss speeds up. If you can keep the intensity high without burning out it certainly doesn’t hurt [44]

Mix a few activities to keep the average energy expenditure high. Intensive sessions 1-2 times a week. The rest of the time, do less intensive work. Arrange sessions and rest days in a way that keeps performance optimal. Think in terms of sustainability and long term progress.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Get in Shape?

We need to consider a few things:

  • Starting point: the more excess fat you carry, the longer it will take.
  • End goal: the learner you want to get, the more time it takes
  • Diet habits: a sufficient caloric restriction can lead to fat loss, even if you don’t train. A poor diet may render training pointless.
  • Availability and time requirements: sometimes reaching the optimal rate of fat loss may be impossible due to lack of time
  • Personal preference: the most optimal strategy may not be something you enjoy.
  • Injuries and limitations: similar to the previous point. The best (general) approach may not be the one that works for you.

Note: muscle mass plays a huge role in building an aesthetic body. Depending on your physique goals you may have to also consider resistance training.

Weekly and Daily Cardio Requirements for Weight Loss

There’s no right answer. Pick an activity you like. Something you can do frequently, keeping sessions at least 20-30 mins long. Do it for as long as you need to reach your goals.

For some people walking an extra 30 mins a day is enough. But to lose a ton of fat you may need to hit the treadmill several times a week. Alternatively, you may save time signing up for a HIIT class. If that’s not fun for you, try dancing classes. There are plenty of options to choose from.

Respect your body’s limits. Adjust according to your availability [45]. And be patient. You don’t gain 20 lbs in a week. You don’t lose them in a week.

Reduced Activity Compensation: More Is Not Always Better

Training hard, long, and frequently is not always the best approach. After an intensive session, the body may reduce energy expenditure for a few hours [46] [47] [48] [49]. The compensatory effect might even cancel the benefits of hard training.

The mechanisms are not clear. Mental burnout may reduce activity levels. No desire to move due to overwhelming fatigue. Some suspect it’s an adaptation to balance physical stress. The body recovers from hard training by deliberately reducing activity after that.

Sometimes metabolic adaptations occur as a result of dieting alone [50]. A survival mechanism minimizing energy waste. You move less to conserve nutrients. That’s what people refer to when they say their metabolism has slowed down. In ancient days, it may have helped us deal with famine. In today’s world, it just makes dieting harder.

Important: don’t confuse laziness with unconscious activity reduction! A single hard session rarely affects unconscious activity levels. That’s more likely to happen when consistently pushing your limits and generating massive fatigue.

People are affected to a different degree. Intra-individual variation is also common. You may experience activity reduction only when dieting. But not when actively bulking up. Or maybe only as a response to a certain type of activity.

Monitor your activity levels throughout the day. Especially post-training. Let’s say you can’t do anything but lay on the couch for hours after a hard session. You may be better off taking it easy to avoid crashing after that.

Reducing the frequency and length of training may also help. This way you can remain active, keeping energy expenditure elevated. Or at least not let it tank.

Appetite and Hunger Suppression

A side effect of most forms of training is they suppress hunger [51]. The body is in a catabolic state. You’re on the move. The focus is on breaking down stored nutrients or tissue (usually fat) to fuel energy needs.

It’s not the time to eat and relax. This is when you engage in anabolic processes (creating, growing, or repairing). The exact opposite of what happens when you’re training.

Training benefits expand beyond that of a mere calorie-burning tool. However, the hunger suppression effect varies between individuals. Also, it decreases as intensity goes down [52]. Lastly, it doesn’t last very long.

However, you can strategically arrange training at times you want to minimize consumption. Or use a reactive approach. Do a quick run (or a workout) to deal with hunger spikes.

Even a 20 min walk can suppress hunger. This strategy can be used to prevent compulsive eating. Provided you recognize the early signs and act fast enough.

Which Is the Best Exercise For Building a Great Physique?

Everybody has their own version of what’s considered an aesthetic body. Culture, society, and trends also shape our view. Though most people find having some muscle definition attractive. While excessive body fat is considered unattractive.

Does Running Help You Get Ripped Abs?

We can assume the main goal of training is to reduce body fat. Or to keep you lean. However, that alone may not result in the level of muscle definition most people desire. Even if you’re not trying to look super big and muscular.

Simple fat loss protocols may leave you looking like a smaller version of yourself. Not necessarily a much better looking one. You may even end up too skinny or “deflated” if you do too much cardio.

Endurance training can reduce muscle mass along with fat. You might get a six-pack. But this doesn’t mean it will look impressive. Look up pictures of endurance runners online. See if that’s the look you want to go for.

Which Is Better Cardio or Strength Training?

All forms of training burn calories and can help you achieve a caloric deficit. If you sustain that deficit long enough you’ll lose weight. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what exactly you’re doing.

Both aerobic and anaerobic (e.g. strength training) exercises can help you lean down. You can choose an activity based on your personal preference and availability. Though cardio training may give you a few more time-efficient options than pure strength training.

However, lifting weights has one big advantage. It’s an efficient muscle loss preservation tool. And it can also cause growth [53]. Cardio has a small effect on muscle mass [54]. And in the case of endurance training, it may even reduce muscle size [55].

If your goal is to build an aesthetic body you shouldn’t ignore strength training. Mixing cardio and weights can help keep fat loss optimal while increasing muscle mass.

How Do You Maximize Your Training Results?

Note: This section addresses performance. Though some of the information is relevant to body composition and weight loss. 

To maximize performance there are two concepts you must not violate:

The principle of specificity: training must be relevant to your sport. For example, if you’re a powerlifter training must be focused around your main lifts (bench press, squat, and deadlift). Bodybuilder exercises might be okay in certain situations. But only if they positively affect your main lifts. Otherwise, they’re wasting valuable energy and time.

The interference effect: some physical adaptations are not compatible with others [56] [57]. Certain fitness characteristics may even oppose each other [58]. Engaging in more than one form of training might lead to poor results [59]. For example, what makes you fast and explosive directly hinders endurance [60]. The opposite is also true. You can’t be good at everything.

How to Get Bigger, Faster, Stronger, and Have More Stamina?

These main expressions of physical fitness are:

  • Speed
  • Power (explosiveness)
  • Strength
  • Size (muscular hypertrophy)
  • Endurance

The list order is based on how closely each characteristic is related to those around it.

Speed and power are closely related. Training is similar in some ways. You can expect someone who is fast to also be fairly explosive. There’s also a lot of overlap between size and strength. But hypertrophy and speed training protocols differ quite a lot.

However, endurance training shares even fewer commonalities with the rest [61]. There’s more overlap between size and speed adaptations than size and endurance. Endurance is strictly cardio work. While the other four are primarily anaerobic exercises.

Another major difference is that the first four are better at promoting muscle retention and growth. Especially hypertrophy and strength training [62]. While intense and prolonged endurance work causes a reduction in muscle mass [63].

Improving Overall Fitness

Important: It takes a great effort to improve any fitness characteristic. However, maintaining performance requires far less work. Given time you can gradually improve overall fitness. Focusing on one thing at a time. But also providing enough training stimulus to keep the rest at maintenance.

In practical terms, you need to leverage the overlap [64] [65] and avoid interference [66] [67] [68]. Use some sort of periodization. Alternate between different forms of training.

For example, start with strength training. Then gradually shift into power, and eventually speed work. Cardio should be minimized when the focus is on speed. But if training for size, you can do some cardio and still manage to progress [69]. However, you still need to clearly prioritize one form of training.

Cardio Before or After Weights

Workout order is irrelevant if you neglect the principles of specificity and interference.

Doing a lot of cardio when trying to maximize muscle mass won’t get you far. The same goes if you do a ton of weight training when trying to improve endurance. However, it all depends on the volume of work done. A bit of cardio won’t interfere with strength and size gains [70].

There are a few situations to consider:

Trying to lose some weight, no performance or physique goals: Do whatever and whenever you want to do it. The only concern is proper recovery and sustainability. Any activity that causes a caloric deficit helps weight loss.

Trying to improve a specific trait: You may be better off avoiding other forms of training. Or at least keep them to a minimum. Do supplementary training after your main sessions (with a few exceptions, see below). This way you’re fresh for your important workouts [71].

Trying to Maximize Muscle Mass and Improve Aesthetics

Let’s consider this common scenario. The same rules stated above still apply. Cardio should be kept at a minimum [72].

About 2-3 sessions. No more than 30-40 mins of low to moderate-intensity aerobic work. Usually done on a separate day. Or after your strength workouts. If possible not immediately after, but several hours later. This way the body has time to recover and grow.

The only exception is if you’re actively bulking. The focus is on optimizing (muscle) mass. After weight training you want all resources to go towards muscle growth. This might mean you do cardio before the heavy training.

When you’re bulking you shouldn’t get fatigued easily. Also, aerobic work shouldn’t be very challenging to begin with. You can get away doing cardio first. Resistance training won’t take a huge hit. And you’ll leverage the optimal recovery conditions after that.

Ideally, you do cardio on a separate day. Or don’t do it all. Fat loss is not a consideration during bulking phases. Though if you have to do aerobic work when bulking, do it before lifting. If maintaining or cutting, do it after the workout.

What Else You Need to Consider?

If you’re looking to try a new recreational activity consider the following:

Learning curve: Some forms of training take longer to master. Even basic exercises might take a long time to get the hang of. Simple cardio work doesn’t involve a lot of technique work. But some forms of anaerobic exercises have steep learning curves. The same goes for aerobic team sports.

The harder you have to work, the more likely you are to give up. Don’t pick something too challenging if you’re new to exercise. If possible start with familiar exercise. Or similar to something you’ve done before.

Injury risk: There are many variables that affect injury risk [73]. Following a proper training protocol, managing work/rest periods, and proper technique are key to staying safe.

However, dynamic movements and high intensities generally increase injury risk. Fast movements generally reduce the level of control. And big forces may result in more damage if something goes wrong.

Bottom line, be realistic. Don’t underestimate the time and effort required to build good exercise habits. Even if you’re feeling motivated now, that might change in the future. Think long-term. Start easy. You can always make things more challenging later.

Cardio Myths that Waste Time, Effort, & Money

Common myths and misconceptions about cardio training.

Should You Train Only in the Fat-Burning Zone?

First off, let’s discuss the different training zones. They are all based on your maximum heart rate (MHR). You can calculate that using a simple formula. Subtracting your age from 220. The result is your MHR. So if you’re 35 then that’s 185 beats per minute

Though this method doesn’t take into account fitness, medical conditions, or drugs you’re on. There are certain physical tests that can determine MHR more accurately. But they are far less practical for recreational athletes.

The fat-burning zone is considered to be 65-85% of MHR. Exercise that falls in that category burns a lot of fat and no carbs. Hence the name. But the exact ranges of the fat-burning zone vary from person to person [74].

To make sure you stay in that zone you have to track your heart rate. Though measuring this is still a challenge. Wearable devices can make that easy. But they are not perfectly accurate [75] [76] [77]. Not to mention they can be pricey and not always practical.

Making sure you’re in the fat-burning zone can be a huge hassle. Though you can go by feel. Most medium intensity aerobic work covers the criteria highlighted above. But is it even worth it to limit yourself to training only in this zone?

Can You Burn More Fat Outside the Fat Burning Zone?

As you get closer to your maximal heart rate (100% MHR) you start burning more carbs. Most sources distinguish between 4 different training zones:

  • warm-up zone (~60% MHR): low-intensity aerobic work burning exclusively fats
  • fat burning zone (~75% MHR): moderate (lower end) aerobic work burning mostly fat
  • aerobic zone (~85% MHR): moderate (higher end) aerobic work burning fats and carbs
  • anaerobic zone (~95% MHR): high-intensity anaerobic work

Note: the names can be deceiving. The aerobic system is predominantly active during zones #1 to #3. But only #3 is referred to the aerobic zone. 

We already explained why it doesn’t matter if you’re burning fats or carbs. Both can be used as energy. Both can be stored as fat. Burn more fat and more carbs will be stored as body fat. Burn more carbs and more dietary fat will be stored as body fat.

The total calories burned have to be lower than the total consumed. This means creating a caloric deficit. If you train hard and long enough most types of exercise can help with that.

The exact ratio of individual components (fats, carbs, and protein) on each side of the energy equation is irrelevant.

Does Fasted Cardio Burn More Fat?

The body is really good at monitoring energy intake vs expenditure. Occasional spikes or drops in food intake and activity are normal. Those are usually managed easily. The body taps into its energy reserves. Then replenishes the losses later when food is available.

Even if you haven't had food in a while you can maintain balance. Bodyweight remains stable. Only drastic changes can unsettle the equilibrium.

For example, training gets very energy demanding. So much that your usual meals can’t cover your needs anymore. Energy stores are depleted fast and cannot be properly replenished. The result is a gradual weight loss.

Even in research fasted cardio doesn’t lead to increased fat loss compared to fed exercise [78] [79] [80] [81]. However, training fasted might negatively affect performance [82]. You may want to be a bit more careful about how you arrange your meals.

Is the Afterburn Real & Do You Continue to Burn Calories after HIIT?

After a demanding workout metabolism may remain “elevated” for some time. Despite resting you burn more calories than normal. Oxygen consumption remains high as a result. The effect is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

The EPOC effect is usually observed after intensive (predominantly) anaerobic exercise. Examples include SMIT, HIIT, or resistance training [83] [84]. That’s when you rapidly deplete the body’s resources.

When the intensity is low the aerobic system can usually keep up. However, after a very intense workout you need more time to recover. Metabolism remains elevated to restore functionality. That’s due to a few things happening at that time:

  • increased ATP production
  • resynthesis of carbs (glycogen) from lactate
  • restoring normal oxygen levels
  • repair of damaged (muscle) tissue

Most of these processes raise oxygen requirements. Hence the name “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption”.

HIIT vs Regular Cardio

Metabolism may remain elevated anywhere from an hour to more than half a day [85]. However, the extra calories burned are not a lot. To cause significant weight loss you need to train very hard. Most people can’t tolerate the required work to cause sufficiently high EPOC effect [86]

When it comes to fat loss there’s almost no difference between HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio [87] [88]. So while the “afterburn” is real, it’s usually not enough to influence weight loss. The only exceptions are athletes who can tolerate very intensive workouts.

Is Excessive Sweating a Sign You’re Making Good Progress?

A couple of factors influence perspiration (sweating):

  • Thermoregulation: Mostly determined by the environment. However, total weight and body fat affect heat retention.
    • Big and overweight individuals retain heat easier than smaller people [89]. They also overheat quicker due to being unable to cool down efficiently. A smaller temperature increase may be required to start sweating.
  • Emotional sweating: Regulated by the limbic system [90]. Usually caused by elevated emotional stress.
  • Special conditions: Excessive or suppressed sweating may be caused by health issues, drugs, etc.

Training raises your temperature. As a result the body tries to cool down to avoid overheating. The harder and longer you train the more likely you are to start sweating. But sweat is not a sign of progress. Different people start overheating at different times.

A small lean person training rigorously in a cool place will barely break a sweat (no pun intended). A large overweight individual in an overcrowded gym is a different story. Especially if he’s self-conscious and getting stressed out in public places. Even light cardio can lead to profound sweating.

Lastly, “sweat is not fat crying”. You’re not melting body fat and excreting it out through your skin. Sweat is mostly water mixed with some minerals, lactate, and urea.

Can You Get Rid of Belly Fat Without Doing Any Cardio?

As we already showed, fat loss occurs when food intake cannot sustain current energy needs. This can be achieved by reducing intake, increasing expenditure, or a combination of both.

The most efficient way is to combine diet and training [91] [92] [93]. But even if you don’t exercise, dieting alone may be enough. Though it will take more time and effort.

A quick note about exercise. It doesn’t have to be cardio. Any workout resulting in a caloric deficit can help reduce belly fat. To build an aesthetic body resistance training might be your best option. Or combining lifting weights with cardio for best results [94].

The Most Effective Way to Eliminate Face Fat, Moobs, and Love Handles

As you get leaner you lose fat from various places. Unfortunately, you can’t target when and where exactly you lose fat from. However, if you keep leaning down you’ll eventually lose fat from all areas. You just need to be patient.

Exercise affects only the specific muscles involved. There’s no direct effect on the fat surrounding that area. But rather a general effect on all the adipose tissue. You lose fat. But not necessarily around the muscles you’re engaging.

Most men experience fat loss in this order:

  1. You lose fat from the face first.
  2. Man boobs start to shrink down soon after that.
  3. Upper belly fat is decreasing continuously.
  4. It takes a while to get rid of love handles.
  5. The lower abdomen is the last place you’ll lose fat from.

Medical conditions and personal differences can play a huge role. Some people lose fat from certain places sooner and easier.

Beginner Tips

General advice when it comes to training to lose weight.

What Is the Best Way to Start Exercising?

Pick something you enjoy. Consistency is the most important aspect of training. If you don’t like what you’re doing you’ll give up soon.

Also, don’t get too ambitious right from the start. Building a habit takes a while. Don’t bite more than you can chew. Start with short and easy workouts. You can always make them more challenging later on.

How Effective Are At-Home (No Equipment) Workouts?

You’ll be limited in terms of exercise choices. However, any extra movement helps you increase your caloric deficit. It’s better to do a quick home workout circuit compared to lying on the couch all day.

There are many great cardio and strength training exercises you can do at home. Bodyweight workouts can be very efficient. Especially if you’re not very advanced.

Should You Do Your Cardio Outside Or in a Gym?

Again, it goes back to your personal preferences. Do what you like. Just stick to it long enough to see results.

Training in a gym might be a bit boring for some. Outside workouts can be more fun and refreshing. However, bad weather may ruin your sessions occasionally. So there are upsides and downsides to both approaches.

Is It Okay to Change Exercises If You Get Bored Easily?

It depends on your goals. If you’re going for top performance that may be a bad idea. Remember the “repeated bout effect”. You get good at what you practice.

But for general fat loss it mostly matters how many calories you’re burning. You can be way more flexible. Though for the sake of consistency you still want to have some structure.

What Is the Least Efficient Cardio for Burning Fat?

As you know by now, any activity is better than no activity. Provided you can do it safely and consistently. And of course you should enjoy what you're doing.

For example, if you’re poorly conditioned engaging in HIIT might be a bad idea. You’ll probably have a bad experience and give up soon. Something less intensive may be a better choice for you.

But for a well-trained athlete HIIT might be a perfect choice. Though that same person may not enjoy something slow-paced.

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