by Rachel Cosgrove T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
• Ironically, spending 20 hours a week in the "fat burning zone" leads to very little fat loss and a lot of muscle loss. The result? Looking like a flabby runner.
• Steady state cardio should be reserved for endurance athletes, not for those seeking fat loss and awesome body composition. Physique competitors don't even need traditional long-duration cardio.
• Metabolic interval training can be made even better with advanced work-to-recovery ratios and a few select tools.
Back in 2008, I wrote a controversial article for T Nation: The Final Nail in the Cardio Coffin. In it, I talked about how my body composition suffered when training for an Ironman Triathlon. Despite twenty hours per week of endurance training, time spent mostly in the so-called "fat burning zone", I barely lost any fat and definitely lost muscle, even with a controlled diet plan and a couple of weight training sessions per week.
This solidified my belief that steady-state aerobics is absolutely, completely, utterly ineffective for fat loss. Long, steady-state endurance is not the answer for a defined, lean physique, and it's a waste of time if your goal is long term fat loss. Endurance work is only the answer if your goal is to compete in an endurance event, not if you want to actually look your best. If you want to lose fat but not look like a soft endurance athlete, metabolic interval training is the way to go.
That was five years ago. Have I changed my mind? And what have I learned since then as a coach, gym owner, and yes, as a woman who still competes in endurance events? Let's discuss.
Deeper and Deeper Into the Grave
Is it time for steady state cardio to rise from the dead as a tool for fat loss? Exactly the opposite. As my experience accumulates, my thoughts have not changed one bit since I wrote the original article. In fact, steady state cardio is sinking deeper and deeper into the grave when it comes to tools to use to shed fat quickly and effectively. We have progressed some of the ideas about how we do our metabolic interval training, which I'll share below, but my final paragraph still stands:
Get off the treadmill, stop spinning your wheels, and push yourself in the gym if you want to lose some serious fat. Take it from me, I finally learned first hand. It's time to put the final nail in the cardio coffin of using aerobics for fat loss, bury it for good, and do some high intensity, interval dancing on its overdue grave.
Five Years Later
After the 2008 article, I took a break from endurance training and lifted consistently three days a week along with a metabolic workout one to two times a week and an occasional short, hilly run. I maintained the body you see in the picture from the original article for the following three years.
Then I started to get the endurance bug again. I signed up to take a whole team to the Nike Women's Half Marathon in October 2011. I ramped up my endurance training once again, putting in the long steady state miles week after week, and I've continued to race every October, three years in a row.
What I started to notice year after year is that my body composition would fluctuate throughout the year, but interestingly I'd reach my "peak" body fat level right as I was training for my half marathon. Without changing my diet (and in fact staying very conscious of what I was eating), only shifting my training from mostly lifting to include more steady state aerobics, my body would shift to my "endurance body" with less muscle and more fat as a percentage. Interestingly, my weight didn't change much. I wasn't yo-yoing – my body composition was just responding to the activity I was doing.
October 2012 (Again, I didn't feel good enough about my body to wear a crop top!)
I enjoy competing and love crossing a finish line. Unfortunately, looking back, my body composition around race time has once again confirmed my original statement: the more steady state aerobic exercise I do, the softer my appearance seems to be. There are a few things this could be attributed to, other than just the fact that I was doing more steady state cardio, including:
1. By doing more steady state cardio, I end up doing less strength training. Is it necessarily the cardio that's the problem, or just not strength training/metabolic interval training as much?
2. The strength training I'm doing could be suffering in quality and recovery since I usually head out for a run either the morning of, directly following, or on the opposite day when I could be recovering from my lifting session.
3. Increased appetite from doing more steady state cardio. I'm pretty careful about tracking my intake, but we won't rule this out as maybe I do end up hungrier and make up for the extra calories burned in my food intake.
I do my best to manage body composition when training for endurance events by lifting a couple times a week along with tracking my nutrition. I'm always only a month or two out from getting back to being photo shoot ready following the race. After each half marathon I shift gears, decrease the steady state aerobics, and hit the weights.
Just two months after the above pic, I filmed a DVD in December of 2012. After 8 weeks of no steady state aerobics and re-prioritizing lifting, I was once again photo shoot ready.
Steady State Cardio: More Efficient, Less Defined
Yeah, I'm just one person. Everyone is different and some people do respond to endurance training. People who go from being sedentary to walking or jogging can of course see results from adding activity to their day. In fact, any time you do something new or different your body usually responds by dropping body fat, at least initially.
Here's the catch: your body quickly adapts to steady state aerobic activity, decreasing the amount of calories you burn with each walk/run, making you more and more efficient at the activity. This is the goal if you're training for an endurance event – to be super efficient using the least amount of energy (calories) possible to complete the distance. You want just the opposite if you're trying to lose fat.
Over the past five years I've also had the opportunity to train clients for both endurance events and Bikini/Figure competitions. While training for the half marathon, many of our clients notice they have a hard time maintaining their muscle and their body fat percentage starts to creep up, looking "softer" come race time. By the time they do the race they can't wait to get back to heavy lifting and take a break from steady state running.
We've also had teams of Bikini/Figure competitors train for and compete without using any steady state cardio over their 12-16 week prep. They lift weights four days a week and do a metabolic workout one to two days a week. These women decrease their body fat consistently by half a percent a week on average while maintaining or gaining muscle.
Think about this for a minute: the endurance athletes do what many experts say you have to do to lose body fat – steady state cardio – and their body composition gets worse as the event nears. The physique competitors on the other hand do no steady state cardio, only weight training and metabolic conditioning, in order to achieve a very lean and hard condition. Ironic... at least to those who don't know any better.
The Newest Research
Let's review some of the recent research. Since the last article there have been several studies published showing no real fat loss benefits of aerobic training. In fact, a review paper by Stephen Boutcher opened with the statement, "Most exercise protocols designed to induce fat loss have focused on regular steady state exercise such as walking and jogging at a moderate intensity. Disappointingly, these kinds of protocols have led to negligible weight loss... the effect of regular aerobic exercise on body fat is negligible."
Another paper from the American Journal of Medicine also stated, "Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise programs of 6-12 months induce a modest reduction in weight and waist circumference in overweight and obese populations. Our results show that isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy in these patients." One study looking over the clinical benefits of high intensity interval training concluded, "Exercise has numerous benefits for high-risk populations and such benefits, especially weight loss, are amplified with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)."
Advanced Interval Training
At Results Fitness, we've always focused on metabolism-boosting, interval training workouts for fat loss. We know they work, but could we get them to work even better? Yes. Here's how we've dialed them up:
1. We've advanced the interval protocols. There are four different options we've incorporated into our programming:
Fixed Work, Fixed Recovery. This was how we initially started our metabolic interval workouts, programming a fixed time such as 30 seconds work to 60 seconds rest.
Fixed Work, Variable Recovery. With this variation you move for a fixed work period but then, using a heart rate monitor or rate of perceived exertion, you recover as long as needed. The better shape you're in, the less rest you'll need.
Fixed Work, Progressive Recovery. Instead of having the same rest period we've used a progressive rest period that gets longer each round as you're getting tired.
Variable Work, Variable Recovery. We use this most often now, with all of our members wearing heart rate monitors which individualizes the workout completely. We saw our results increase when we added in the monitors. People in great shape may take 1-2 minutes on an exercise to get their heart rate up to the intensity it needs to be. Those same people will recover much faster and be ready to go again quickly. Meanwhile, someone newer to exercise will hit red in less than 30 seconds and may take 1-2 minutes to recover.
2. Heart rate technology has changed the metabolic training game. All of our metabolic interval classes are done monitoring our members on Polar heart rate monitors. This has allowed us to individualize their workouts and guarantee they're working at the intensity necessary to get the best results, along with recovering fully before doing another interval.
3. Over the past few years we've incorporated other tools such as kettlebells, sandbags, sleds, and ropes into our metabolic training. The advantage of using a tool such as a kettlebell or sandbag in metabolic training is the ability to change the exercise – keeping the heart rate up when the movement you're doing is getting fatigued. You can easily switch from swings to push presses to cleans to deadlifts while keeping the heart rate elevated. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning compared traditional weight training to superset weight training. The researchers concluded that pairing exercise sets burned more calories during and after the training session than traditional training.
In addition, there has also been some research in the past five years showing kettlebell training is a fantastic tool for fat loss. One study compared two groups – one doing explosive training and the other slow training. The explosive group burned 13% more calories during training and 7% more in the post-exercise period. In another study, researchers established max kettlebell snatch rate per minute. Subjects then performed one-fourth of the max reps for 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off for 20 minutes. Caloric burn was 20.2 calories per minute.
Also a huge bonus, these exercises are lower impact than other aerobic options, like running or jumping rope. Easier on your body and more effective!
Not Quite "Anti"
I confess, I still love running and endurance sports. I know this may sound like an anti-steady-state cardio article, but please make sure that you add "for fat loss goals" to the end of that sentence! We don't use steady state cardio for our fat loss clients, but we do have a strong endurance following at our gym with mud run, triathlon and half marathon teams.
Plus this year I adopted a dog. She loves to go running and I love to take her running. Every morning we head out on an adventure together which includes a couple miles of steady state cardio. Interestingly, my body fat percentage has been creeping up with the added seven days a week of steady state cardio. Why would I keep going for a run when I know it isn't effective for fat loss? Because I enjoy it more than I care about seeing my abs right now. If you love going for a run, if it's your meditation or you're training to cross a finish line, by all means go out for a run!
If you're getting ready for a photo shoot, a beach body reveal, or want to look like a physique competitor with chiseled abs, skip your run for a few weeks and make strength training and interval training your priority. Mix in a heart rate monitor, kettlebells, and sandbags and see if you reach the same conclusion I have.
I'm signed up for three half marathons this year and believe me, this endurance athlete would love to look like a Figure competitor crossing that finish line. I'll continue to work on how to do that, if it's possible... Stay tuned.