Do Strong Girls Do Cardio? The Do’s and Don’ts of Cardio

By Jill Coleman

Note: Today, our good friend, Jill Coleman, gives you several tips that answer your most burning questions about cardio. Keep in mind that Jill is speaking about cardio as it relates specifically to making physique changes, and if you have specific performance goals, your cardio regimen may need to be different than what is recommended here.

Cardio: To do it, or not to do it? That is the question...

It seems like most people come down on one side or the other. It’s either ‘cardio is an essential part of your programming’ or ‘cardio makes you fatter.’

So, which is it? And how can you, as a recreational exerciser, know what kind to do, how often, and how much to get the results you desire? It can be confusing, right?!

As a former cardio queen and fitness competitor, I’ve done everything from three hours a day in preparation for a show, to taking months off from any type of cardio. My personal experiences (as well as the hundreds of women with whom I’ve worked over the last 14 years) have run the gamut, and I have gained some great insight regarding cardio that I’d like to share with you.

I'm going to break it down for you: the best practices for cardio, plus some insights to stay aware of as you navigate the RPMs, speeds, inclines and RPEs in your gym.

How should you use cardio?

DO use cardio to boost your mood, feel invigorated and accomplished.

Finishing a run outside through the trails or toughing out a crazy-ass spin class is something to feel happy about. It’s even been shown in research to boost mood and help with depression. So enjoy those highs. But…

DON’T rely on it for your self-worth.

I think it’s easy to get caught up in the “Can I run farther today?” or “Let me see if I can get in an extra 60 minutes of cardio this week!” trap. I used to wear my cardio minutes like a badge of honor. Proof of how hardcore I was. In reality, I never saw a difference, physically, and eventually felt miserable and like a failure if I didn’t get in all my minutes each week. Talk about a game you can’t win.

DO incorporate interval or sprint training a couple times a week, and keep it short and intense.

Alternating high-intensity “pushing” bouts with low-intensity “resting” periods helps train heart rate recovery, builds cardio fitness superior to that of steady-state cardio and also create the perfect hormonal soup to maximize muscle maintenance while burning more fat.

Exercising in the fat-burning zone for fat loss (read: low intensity, steady state cardio) is a myth. And for many women, longer bouts (40+ minutes) of high-intensity cardio can increase stress hormones past the point of benefit.

DON’T make the mistake of thinking more is better.

When it comes to cardio's effectiveness, if fat loss is your goal, intensity trumps duration. And if you want your workout to be intense, it will automatically need to be shorter. More is not better, better quality is better.

DO think about sustainability.

If you find yourself having to clock more and more minutes to simply maintain your weight, you’re in a cardio cycle and can potentially be damaging your metabolism long term (not to mention be miserable!). So instead, ask yourself, “Could I do this regimen forever?” and if the answer is "No," then let’s head back to the drawing board. Sustainable exercise will be:

  • time-conscious (not take hours)
  • fun or enjoyable (you don’t dread it)
  • it will get results (remember those?)

If you’re logging time on the treadmill, don’t forget to measure! The right amount of cardio, in my opinion, will be the least amount you can get away with and still maintain your results or continue to see progress, depending on your goals.

DON’T use it as your #1 tool to lose fat.

You’ve heard it a million times (and yet, you still don’t believe it!): You cannot out-train a bad diet. Nutrition matters more than cardio when it comes to fat loss. The more physical and mental energy you spend in the gym, the less energy you have available to make the best choices in the kitchen.

With that in mind, it might even be beneficial to cut back on cardio and spend that time prepping some nutritious meals instead. Another point: in terms of attainment, research suggests that dietary changes can make a bigger difference than exercise, though results are best when both nutrition and exercise are consistently addressed. Nutrition is the gross control for weight loss, while exercise is the fine control.

DO monitor your hunger and cravings.

Too much cardio can lead to insatiable hunger and ravenous cravings, due to increases in stress hormones, particularly cortisol. And doesn’t this just create the perfect negative feedback loop? “I do more cardio, so then I’m hungrier, so then I eat more, so then I need to do more cardio.” Stop this madness. If you’re caught up in this loop, sloooowly dial back your exercise volume and monitor hunger and cravings along the way. The progress you've made won't be lost, if you cut back over weeks and months. Stay mindful of nutrition, and you’ll be just fine.

DON’T forget to put weight training first when it comes to exercise.

The mode of exercise has varying impacts on the physique via hormones.
 When we assume the body is a "calories in vs. calories out" furnace, we assume that the mode of exercise is irrelevant, so long as we are burning calories. However, the missing piece to this is that weight training impacts hormones differently than cardio, and can impact your body composition differently.

Intense weight training increases testosterone, growth hormone and lactate, all of which impact muscle synthesis and fat burning. Doing cardio alone to burn calories can impact weight loss, but it takes some muscle along with it. Weight training trumps cardio for fat loss. And as I mentioned above, intensity trumps duration for fat loss.

I hope these insights help you develop your own plan that will not only lead to results, but will make you happier and freer, no longer chained to the elliptical. Cardio can be a trap, but if you are implementing intelligent, sustainable practices then you’ll be just fine in the long run.

This information is great for helping you figure out how to achieve balance with your training, but we realize it can be overwhelming when you start thinking about all the elements that go into a well-rounded program. In fact, it can be downright paralyzing for some people. If you could use a little more guidance with your training program, we can help!

Get in the best shape of your life—for good.

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Throughout our 12-month program, you’ll get a simple, step-by-step plan for developing nutrition, fitness, and mindset habits that will lead the way in reaching your goal.

Your coach is available 5 days a week to answer questions and help you navigate situations — like eating while you’re on vacation, exercise substitutions so you don’t aggravate your knee pain, or planning a workout with limited equipment options — so you always have support when you need it. And together, you'll find the best path toward long-term results in a way that works for you.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Improve your nutrition without giving up the foods you love
  • Exercise safely and effectively so you’re getting maximum results from your workouts without burning yourself out
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And you’ll become the happiest, fittest, strongest version of yourself, one step at a time.

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About the author:  Jill Coleman

Jill Coleman holds a B.S. in Health and Exercise Science, an MS in Human Nutrition and is an ACSM-certified personal trainer. You can find out more about Jill on her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Berger BG, Moti RW. Exercise and mood: A selective review and synthesis of research employing the profile of mood states. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 2000. 12(1):69-92
  2. Johansson K, Neovius M, Hemmingsson E. Effects of anti-obesity drugs, diet, and exercise on weight-loss maintenance after a very-low-calorie diet or low-calorie diet: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jan; 99(1): 14–23.

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