Note from GGS: The information in this article is intended for individuals seeking body composition change, and is not applicable if your primary focus is to improve your athletic performance, particularly if you’re an endurance athlete.
Many women are hasty in their decision to do more cardio when they stop seeing progress, hoping that another session or two per week on the elliptical is all that’s standing between them and their “goal body.”
The bad news is that adding more cardio is rarely the best solution in this situation. More often than not, there are bigger, more important issues that need to be addressed before tacking on more cardio. The good news, however, is that once you can make progress on those more important things, you will very likely see better results than an additional session of cardio alone could have provided.
The kind of cardio I’m talking about is moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio, in which your heart rate is between 120 and 140 beats per minute throughout the duration of the activity.
Moderate-intensity cardio plays a key role in a well-rounded exercise program, offering a number of benefits. For starters, it helps develop your aerobic base, which is important for exercise performance. For example: if you have lifted weights in a fairly basic manner and become easily winded, it was probably because due to a poorly-developed aerobic base. Moderate intensity cardio can help with that. In addition, moderate-intensity cardio can improve your recovery, improve your sleep quality, and increase your body's capacity to deal with stress. Lastly, cardio contributes to your overall energy expenditure, which can certainly be helpful if your goal is fat loss.
All of these are wonderful reasons to perform cardiovascular exercise, and at Girls Gone Strong and in our Girls Gone Strong Coaching program, we generally encourage most women to integrate two 25- to 30-minute sessions of moderate-intensity cardio into their exercise routine per week, for optimal fat loss.
However, like many other things in life, more isn’t always better when it comes to cardio and fat loss. When you are using cardio as a tool for fat loss, there comes a point of diminishing returns when you do more than what is necessary to simply elicit the desired result.
For example, more exercise can increase your appetite and make you feel voraciously hungry. Additionally, the body perceives exercise as a form of stress and reacts to it the same way that it reacts to anything else that’s stressful. So while doing more exercise can feel good emotionally and make you feel like you're taking action to address your stalled progress, stress is stress is stress—and cortisol will always respond accordingly.
Let’s talk about a few ways that women commonly misuse moderate-intensity cardio when striving for body composition change.
All too often, people turn to cardio in an attempt to “cover up” the effects of (potentially even more important) lifestyle factors that they are not yet willing to address for improved health and fat loss. After all, it’s often much easier to do more cardio than to put in the time and consistency required to improve poor eating habits, get better sleep, and manage their stress, for example.
This is what I refer to as “BAND-AID cardio.”
In these situations, more cardio often seems like a good choice because it may very well get your measurements moving in the desired direction again. However, that is usually temporary. Throwing additional cardio at the problem will only work for a little while before you find yourself stuck again.
Think of it like adding layer after layer of paint to camouflage the cracks in your driveway. Eventually, those cracks will re-appear time after time until you actually get to the root of the problem and properly repair the cracks.
The next problem I see are people who “eat bad” and then attempt to “burn it off” with cardio. Using movement as a form of punishment is never a good idea.
To be able to move is a luxury and a privilege, and not something to be taken for granted. At Girls Gone Strong, we consider movement a form of self-care, and it’s important to treat it as such. We exercise because we love our bodies; not because we ate nachos last night and need to punish ourselves for that choice. Labeling exercise as “punishment” for our “bad” behavior with food or drink can take all the fun and enjoyment away from training (and from food and drink!).
So what if you indulged in some nachos? Let it fuel a big squat or deadlift PR (personal record) and celebrate it like crazy! I’m willing to bet that this change of perspective will feel a lot better and improve your body composition results.
When it comes to fat loss, there are a several things that will impact your results far more than adding more cardio will. The following are some of the things that we consider to be “The Big Rocks.” (In case you’re not familiar with the concept of “big rocks,” it’s something we refer to often when talking about organizing your priorities. It’s from Steven Covey’s popular book on strategies for personal change, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
People are often quick to claim that their eating is “fine,” but there is a big difference between “eating fine” and eating for fat loss. When you are eating for fat loss, you are generally doing the following things at almost every meal:
Above all, you are eating for a caloric deficit.
Take a look at the habits listed above, and see where you may need to make changes to your nutrition. It’s safe to say that most people—myself included—have some room for improvement.
One of the key factors to losing body fat beyond a certain level is choosing to imbibe in moderation. There is no way around this, but fat loss beyond a certain extent is simply not possible when a person is frequently having cocktails. In my experience in working with clients, anything more than a drink or two per week is maintenance behavior, and is not conducive to fat loss.
Getting plenty of sleep is imperative for fat loss. How much and how well you sleep greatly affects your hormones, and getting your zzz's helps regulate your appetite. It’s no secret that carbs and other snack foods are extra tempting when you are under-slept! An adequate amount of high-quality sleep helps you with willpower (which you call upon all day long) and your decision-making skills, such as opting for foods that are conducive to your goals.
Additionally, sleep is crucial for recovering from your challenging training sessions. A well-rested body is able to train hard again, and being able to really push yourself in your training sessions leads to better results.
You’ve probably heard a lot of people lately talking about how “sitting is the new smoking.” While I’m not so sure about that claim, I am sure that we, as a society, have never been as sedentary as we currently are. With the automation of more and more everyday tasks, and the prevalence of laptops and handheld electronics keeping us transfixed by screens for longer periods of time, we spend more time sitting than ever before.
Most people who participate in an exercise session four to five days per week for 45 to 60 minutes are still very likely to be considered sedentary if they work a desk job or are a student! This means that we need to incorporate as much non-exercise movement into our lives as possible.
Take the stairs, park farther from your destination, and schedule movement breaks into your busy workday by taking a few extra walks to the drinking fountain, or going for a walk on your lunch break. All of these seemingly “little” things add up, and contribute to your daily overall energy expenditure—and the best part is that none of this is stressful on your body!
Address and fine-tune all of the above factors before throwing more cardio into the mix. Remember, moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for fat loss has a point of diminishing returns, so use cardio as a tool wisely, and only when you have all of your “Big Rocks” consistently in place!
It may seem easier to just add another cardio session to your routine than to address your eating and alcohol habits, improve your sleep, and increase your non-exercise movement, but, in the long run, tackling these big rocks is what will allow your cardio (and strength workouts, for that matter), to bring you the biggest fat-loss payoff.
With Girls Gone Strong Coaching, you’ll get the support, accountability, and expert coaching to eat and exercise in a sustainable way — without restrictive diets or spending your life in the gym.
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Your coach is available 6 days a week to answer questions and help you navigate situations — like when you need advice for how to eat while you’re on vacation), when you want exercise substitutions so you don’t aggravate your knee pain, or when you need to plan a workout when you have 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.
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