**Photo courtesy of bodybuilding.com**
Strength training. Cardio. Nutrition.
These are the things you think about when someone mentions fat loss.
I am going to assume that you already participate in a strength training program - because strength is the foundation of all other fitness related qualities - so the focus of this article will be on how cardio can help you achieve your fat loss goals.
In order to lose body fat, you must be in a caloric deficit. This deficit can be achieved by either reducing the amount of calories you consume or increasing the amount of calories you burn each week.
Rather than continuing to decrease calories in order to lose body fat and risking health and performance, cardio can be added to your training program to create a caloric deficit or to allow for an increase in caloric intake.
For example: If you were to burn an extra 1500 calories over the span of a week from your cardio sessions, then you would be able to eat an additional 1500 calories and still lose body fat, so long that you were still in a caloric deficit.
The higher you can keep your caloric intake while still achieving your fat loss goals, the better you will feel, the more energy you will have, and the more sustainable your efforts will be. This is why cardio is an important tool that you can use to achieve your fat loss goals.
What Type of Cardio is Best for Fat Loss?
Cardio for fat loss has long been associated with mundane segments on the treadmill or elliptical, while new research has brought light to performing high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Which type should you be doing to reach your fat loss goals?
The short answer:
The type that you will be consistent with over a longer period of time.
The long answer:
LISS (Low Intensity Steady State)
Examples: walking, jogging, easy bike ride, raking leaves, cleaning the house, playing softball, tennis.
What are the benefits?
- Intensity is low. This saves your nervous system for your strength training.
- You can perform more often because the intensity is lower.
- It takes less motivation to perform than HIIT. For example, it would take less motivation to walk around your neighborhood than to do sprints around your neighborhood.
What are the drawbacks?
- The overall caloric burn over a 24 hour period is generally less than a HIIT session
- It can be considered catabolic in nature - meaning it's not going to be great at preserving muscle mass during during periods of caloric deficit.
- Greater time commitment - it takes longer to burn calories walking than sprinting.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
Examples: sprinting, intervals on a bike, prowler pushes, kettlebell swings, full court basketball.
What are the benefits?
- Your metabolism is boosted for hours after your finish. This means you are not only burning calories while you are performing the activity, but afterwards as well.
- Your testosterone and growth hormone spike - both are beneficial for fat loss.
- It stimulates the same muscle fibers as strength training. Therefore, you are able to preserve more muscle muscle mass during periods of a calorie deficit.
- Overall, it takes less of a time commitment to burn the same number of calories.
What are the drawbacks?
- Intensity is high. HIIT is very taxing on your body. This must be taken into consideration with overall training program as your body only has so much it can recover from each day/week/month.
When to Choose LISS Over HIIT?
By the above comparison you can probably come to the conclusion that HIIT would be a better choice when it comes to fat loss. However, are there times when someone should choose LISS over HIIT?
1) If you have the ability to dedicate more time to training.
Most people don't have this luxury. But if you do, substituting some LISS sessions for some HIIT will allow for more recovery and keep you from feeling like this -->
2) If you have been training or working towards your fat loss goals for less than a few months, start with LISS. A couple of reasons why:
- Your training capacity is probably not to a point yet where you can handle the volume and intensity from both a strength training program and HIIT sessions.
- Starting out, you want to do the least amount of cardio possible while still achieving your fat loss goals. That way, when you hit a plateau, you can add in more intensity or volume to cardio sessions - thus burn more calories in a week and start making progress again. For example, if you start off performing three strength training sessions and three HIIT cardio a sessions per week, you'll make astounding progress at the beginning; but when you hit a plateau, where do you go from there? I'm sure you don't want to be working out multiple hours a day, six days a week.
3) If you find that you get injured and/or sick often, then you may need to substitute some LISS sessions for HIIT sessions. Too much combined stress from your overall program (plus the stress of life) is often the culprit of overuse injuries/continual sickness.
4) If you really enjoy steady state (LISS) cardio.
I personally love running. And if you find enjoyment in steady state cardio and can accomplish your fat loss goals by doing so, then there is no reason why you shouldn't do it.
When to Perform Cardio
Now that we have covered the why, what, and how, let's dive into when you should perform your cardio sessions.
LISS and HIIT can be stand alone sessions - meaning not performed in the same session as your strength training. These are generally programmed on your "easy" days, not on strength training days.
The benefit of programming them this way is to avoid too much intensity/volume in the same session.
However, you can perform HIIT during or at the end of a strength training session to save time, but make sure of the following:
- It occurs after your strength training
- You are proficient at the exercises you will be performing during your HIIT session. Your form will break down a little as you become fatigued; and if you are not already proficient at the exercise, you are asking for an injury.
- The overall stress of the workout is not too much too recover from (you won't be completely zonked afterwards).
Cardio’s main purpose in a fat loss program is burn more calories so that a caloric deficit is more easily attainable. This makes your fat loss efforts more bearable and sustainable. Doing something that is sustainable is the name of the game when it comes to achieving your fat loss goals.