The Cardio Myth

If you’ve taken up running, biking or swimming to get rid of a bulging belly, you’re hardly alone. But you may be wasting your time. If you really want to lose weight, claims Alwyn Cosgrove -- a certified strength conditioning specialist who is also the co-author of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs and owner of one of Men’s Health magazine’s top 10 gyms in America, Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. -- standard aerobic conditioning is simply not the most effective way to do it.

All of the trainers at Results Fitness subscribe to the theory that cardio just doesn’t work that well for fat loss. To find out why, we spoke to two of them. “It doesn’t promote the lean tissue growth required to elevate your metabolism and turn your body into a fat-burning machine,” begins fitness coach Brian Gilbert. Fellow fitness coach and certified strength conditioning specialist Charles Chattong goes on to explain that though you do burn more fat during cardio as compared to strength training, the minute the cardio stops, so does the fat burn. In contrast, he continues, “following a bout of high-intensity metabolic training [like weight training], the body’s metabolism remains elevated for several hours.”

So while the scale might tell you that you’re losing weight doing cardio, Gilbert says a closer look at your body composition would reveal that hardly anything has changed. In fact, the weight loss you’re seeing is usually the result of muscle loss. “Long bouts of aerobic conditioning will actually become a muscle-wasting exercise, which will lower your basal metabolic rate [how many calories you burn a day] and hinder your ability to burn fat,” he says.

In other words, your body will actually begin to tap into your hard-won muscle stores in order to meet the energy demands of the exercise. In a nutshell, says Gilbert, “you weigh less, but you’ve simply become a smaller version of your previous self.” Ouch … not exactly the goal most guys have in mind.

What we want is less fat and leaner muscles, right? So after chucking the cardio (and suddenly having much more training time at your disposal), your next step is to incorporate what Gilbert says are the two key components of any great fat-loss program: 1) Excellent nutrition and 2) Strength training that will increase your lean tissue and kick that metabolic rate into high gear.

Specifically, Chattong recommends that you embark on a program with both full-body metabolic resistance training and high-intensity interval training -- a combination that places a significant anaerobic demand on the body. That demand, says Chattong, ramps your metabolism up without sacrificing lean muscle mass.

To shed the fat and begin to sculpt the physique you desire, follow the workout below, which was designed by Chattong:

  • Train four times a week.
  • Alternate between workout Nos. 1 and 2, but never work out three days in a row.
  • Warm up before every workout with arm swings, lunges, and downward-facing dog and upward-facing dog poses.
  • Superset the A and B moves (i.e., do them back-to-back, without any rest in between). The rest comes after each superset is completed.

 

WORKOUT No. 1

 

Sets

Reps

Rest

Core training




A) Front plank (demo)

1-2

45-60s

0

B) Tall kneeling cable chop (demo)

1-2

12 reps/side

45s





Power Training




Med ball chest pass (demo)

3-4

10 reps

45s





Resistance Training




A) KB/DB goblet squat (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) One-arm DB row on bench (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s





A) Sprinter step up (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) Cable pull down (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

 




Interval training




Sprint

6

60 yards

90s

 

WORKOUT No. 2

 

Sets

Reps

Rest

Core training




A) Side plank (demo)

1-2

20-30s

0

B) Stability ball jackknife (demo)

1-2

10 reps

45s





Combination Movement




Squat to DB press (demo)

2-3

10 reps

45s





Resistance Training




A) SHELC (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) T push-up (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s





A) Split squat (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) Alternating DB shoulder press (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

 




Interval training




Rowing machine (or sprint again)

6

15 seconds

90s

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

The Stubborn Belly-fat Solution

You've tried it all: cutting down the carbs, eating endless amounts of chicken breast, exercising like mad. So why are those infernal love handles -- not to mention that below-the-belly-button roll of fat -- still there?

In part, we (as in the fitness media) are to blame. There are hundreds of different ways to put muscle on the body, and these workouts are what fitness and muscle magazines love to feature; it sure beats snore-inducing cardio with another shot of someone running on the beach. But unless you want to look like a bodybuilder (and even those guys do plenty of cardio come cutting time), it’s time to step up the cardio. “You’ve got to train like an athlete to look like an athlete,” says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Northeast Texas Community College.

In other words, 30 minutes of slow cardio a few times a week is not enough -- unless you’re happy with your current level of fat stores. If you want to access that fat, says Seabourne, you’ve got to do the right kind of cardio (intervals twice a week), the right kind of weight training (focusing on each muscle group twice a week), and long slow distance (LSD) cardio two to three times a week -- all while eating enough to support your metabolism.

Each form of exercise is essential if you really want to chisel your body down. You need LSD cardio because after your body burns through the glycogen in your muscles, it burns your fat stores next. And while interval training doesn’t burn as much fat during exercise, it burns more calories afterward -- just like strength training does.

Seabourne points out that some guys over-train on LSD cardio while eating too little and neglecting intervals or weights -- therefore slowing their metabolisms and holding on to that stubborn fat. Other guys do a lot of weights and short bouts of cardio, then eat tons of food in order to build muscle -- so their fat stores remain steady or even increase.

The following program was designed by Seabourne to give you the best of both worlds (i.e., recruit more than enough muscle while forcing those stubborn fat stores to surrender, at last).

Follow this program six weeks on and one week off, depending on your body’s ability to avoid over-training mode (in which gains come to a screeching halt while muscle soreness and overall fatigue increase). For some, three weeks may be all you can handle without a break. For others, 12 weeks works.

Weights
You probably have this covered, but here’s a guideline: Lose the bodybuilding program with all the isolation lifts and the absurd amount of exercise sets per body part (e.g., 15 sets of chest). Instead, go with upper-body on Monday and Thursday, then lower-body on Tuesday and Friday -- but only with about 20-30 minutes for each weight-training workout. Aim for two to three sets of two exercises for the major body parts (chest, shoulders, back, quadriceps and core) and two to three sets of one exercise for the smaller body parts (triceps, biceps, hamstrings and calves).

Interval Cardio
Complete two 20- to 30-minute bouts of cardio per week. Always start with a warm-up and end with a cooldown. Examples include:

  • On a heavy bag: Three minutes of effort + one-minute recoveries
  • On a stationary cycle: 10 cycles of 15-second sprints + 45-second recoveries
  • On a treadmill or outside on a grass field: 10 cycles of 10-second sprints + 50-second recoveries

LSD Cardio
Because of the length of each session (60 to 90 minutes), Seabourne’s preference for LSD is nonimpact. “For some, impact LSD, like jogging, can cause unhelpful muscle breakdown -- whereas cycling will not,” he explains.

An LSD cycling, elliptical or stair-climbing program can begin with an hour. Add two minutes a week until you’re moving for 90 minutes. Any more than 90 minutes and you'll need a snack to replenish glycogen stores.

The Best Fall Sport for Cardio

Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

Fall sports season is kicking into gear, but you’ve committed to doing more than just watching sports on TV. You want to play ’em. Moreover, you want to participate in the ones that will actually be good for you. So which fall sports offer the best cardio workout?

There are countless pastimes to choose from -- everything from archery to wallyball. For our purposes, though, we’ve narrowed down the field (pun intended) to three top contenders, and from there, we’ll declare the best.

Contender No. 1: Soccer
While many red, white and blue-blooded Americans used this year’s World Cup as an excuse to go out and celebrate, most still don’t accept soccer as a real sport beyond the youth level. But the 6.39 billion people outside the U.S. do take the game seriously. Very seriously.

One of the great things about soccer is that it requires next to no equipment to play -- all you need is a ball and a couple of sticks to mark the perimeters of the goal. It also requires very little skill to get a good workout.

Now, before all you Cristiano Ronaldo fans start sending hate mail, we’re not saying soccer requires no skill. We’re saying anyone can run around for 90 minutes on a soccer field for the sake of a good workout -- and possibly have a little fun in the process!

As for the workout, soccer demands an hour and a half of starting, stopping, direction changing, sliding and jumping in the middle of an open field, all while you maneuver a ball with your feet (or at least try to). The near constant movement of soccer challenges your aerobic system, but the occasional bursts of speed can really push your anaerobic threshold to the max.

Note: If there’s one position you don’t want to play when a good cardio workout is your goal, it’s goalie. Sure, your heart rate will occasionally spike when you’re trying to stop a 1-pound, 70-mph bullet coming at you and the net. But you can get the same heart-pounding effect when you realize you just accidentally tipped over your friend’s 50-inch plasma TV.

Contender No. 2: Football
A typical game consists of approximately 125 plays, each lasting an average of seven seconds and distributed over four 15-minute quarters. Even if you play on both sides of the ball, you’ll still only get about 14 minutes of work before the final second ticks off the clock.

So why, then, is football such a good cardio workout?

For starters, wearing a helmet and shoulder pads adds close to 30 pounds to your weight load. Throw in highly intense, short blasts of activity requiring power and quick reaction time while simultaneously trying to avoid being tossed aside by one or more of the 11 adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled opponents, and you’ve got yourself some cardio!

Contender No. 3: Basketball
Take a constant action sport like soccer, make the playing field a lot smaller, toss in some aggressive physical contact like football, add a small steel rim at each end of the playing court, and what do you get?

Well, yeah, basketball obviously. But more important, you get a nice blend of the types of cardio workouts you’d get from soccer or football. Additionally, basketball can be played indoors or out, any time of year.

Even if you don’t boast the kind of ball-handling skills worthy of an hour-long circus-like ESPN press conference (cough ... LeBron ... cough), you can still get your cardio workout in by being Johnny Hustle and setting picks, going after rebounds and boxing out your opponent in the paint.

The Winner: Football

Basketball and soccer fans might be surprised when we say football is best for your heart. While the plays are relatively short, the sheer intensity of the game requires you to work your muscle fibers to the max -- all of which require oxygen. How does that oxygen get to your muscles? Via your cardiovascular system, of course!

With only 30 seconds or so of rest between each play, a gridiron workout may just be the ultimate in interval training.

Alert: YouÂ’re Pushing Yourself Too Hard

You’ve seen commercials that feature athletes grunting through pain as if it’s a virtue. You’ve watched sports icons lead their teams to unbelievable comebacks on their seemingly inexhaustible shoulders. You’ve seen veins popping on the grimacing faces of those on “World’s Strongest Men” and Tour de France riders alike.

It’s not just macho to push yourself to the limit -- it’s considered cool. But how do you know if you’re about to take your body beyond that limit and into dangerous territory? Especially in hot weather, there are risks you should you know about. As long as you can read your body’s signs, you can prepare for pushing it without going over the top. Here, your body’s warning signs and what to do about ‘em:

Warning 1: You Stop Sweating
When doing cardio, your biggest risk is overheating. “If you stop sweating, you’re in danger of heatstroke -- which can kill you,” warns Clint Phillips, a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

What to do: In such a case, “Stop working out immediately, hydrate and cool off. Go somewhere air-conditioned, splash water on you, get in front of a fan, use an ice pack on your head.” Avoid overheating when you’re training outside in hot or humid weather by going out in the morning or evening for more effective, less risky workouts.

Warning 2: Your Urine Isn’t Clear
Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and holder of four ultradistance cycling world records, recommends that you check your hydration levels via your urine color -- ideally, it’s clear. The darker (yellow) it gets, the closer you are to dehydration.

What to do: Go-to drinks should contain electrolytes with essential elements like sodium, potassium and magnesium. While sports drinks can be a boon for hot outdoor workouts, Phillips urges that you avoid energy drinks, which may push your heart rate too high. Oh, and water’s good!

Warning 3: Your Resting Heart Rate Is High
Keep abreast of your resting heart rate, which you can check after a good night’s sleep. “If you wake up and your resting heart rate is consistently 10 beats above your regular resting heart rate, that’s a red flag,” says Seabourne. It indicates that the body is in an overtrained mode and is not sufficiently recovered, even after a night’s rest. This can be due to a very strenuous cardio workout or even a grueling strength training session.  According to Greg Haff, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at West Virginia University, higher repetition schemes -- such as 20 ser set -- can take four times as long to recover from than lower rep sets, such as five. If summer heat is involved, fatigue can be even greater, making recovery time longer.

What to do: During cardio workouts, make sure you use a heart rate monitor. Phillips advises that you never go over 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. (This can be calculated by subtracting your age from the number 220. To calculate 90 percent of that, multiply by 0.9.) And on days when you wake up with a resting heart rate that is higher than normal, your body is telling you that it needs more recovery. Listen and take the day off.

Warning 4: You’re Still Sore
For strength training, soreness that lasts more than a day or two usually means overtraining. Other symptoms include a lingering sense of lethargy, achiness, almost flu-like symptoms, a lack of motivation to train and even irritability. “If you can't lift as much weight or do as many reps [as you did the week before], you are probably overtraining,” says Phillips. And pain is only normal when it is throughout the whole working muscle, he adds, but pain in a joint or isolated in one small spot in a muscle means something’s wrong.

What to do: Get your z’s. Says Seabourne: Seven to eight hours of sleep is needed for an adequate release of growth hormone to build and repair muscle. When working out, err on the side of intensity over volume. Phillips says a couple of heavy sets for each muscle group is plenty. As “for cardio, I'd rather have someone do 20 to 30 minutes of high-intensity intervals than an hour of lower intensity work.” Also, consider working out with a partner, who can keep an eye on you (and vice versa).