Cool It With The Cardio

Do you remember when math was easy?  All you had to do was Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally and you were the arithmetic champion of 6th grade.  I remember when I was taking physics courses and we began to calculate the flight of a golf ball; it was a simple parabola.  Have you ever seen a ball fly? They don’t do that!  We removed important variables such as wind resistance and spin on the ball, to make the math easier, but you knew it wasn’t that simple.

When it comes to exercise, you were lied to.  In an effort to simplify eating and exercise, we turned a complex equation into a simple one.  Exercise burns calories; food contains calories.  If x=y, then there is balance in the Force.  That’s not exactly how it works:


Simplifying diet and activity to calories in and calories out can allow for great results, but it’s neglecting some major aspects of the equation.  Your body has a different response to different quantities and types of calories, and the same could be said for exercise.  Not all exercise is created equally, which is why I think you should cut out all of that cardio that you’re doing.

If your goal is strictly performance based, train for your sport.  If it’s running a 5k mud run or completing a triathlon, get all cardio’ed up.  If it’s looking good naked, cool it with the cardio.Sure, it burns calories, I’ll give you that.  If you’re in the accounting world and want to keep crunching numbers when you get home, then by all means, do cardio.  I think that most of us would rather engage in exercise that works for us when we’re not working:  Exercise that is efficient at building muscle and burning fat.  Long duration cardio doesn’t build muscle, and it’s not very good for burning fat. In reality, it really only makes you good at doing long duration cardio.  That’s about it.


As Memorial Day Weekend approaches, I can’t think of many who wouldn’t want to get leaner for the summer.  That’s a goal that we have in common, but are you going about doing it in the right way?  Cardio can sure be part of the equation, but here’s what to focus on first:

Stop eating like shit.

The simplest way to burn fat is to not eat foods that make you fat.  This one isn’t physiology; it’s psychology.

Pick up heavy shit.

We know that strength is great for building muscle, but it’s often overlooked for fat loss.  This doesn’t necessarily means 1RM strength in the Holy Trinity of powerlifting, but I’m thinking about relative strength.  Who does more work, the person who has a 5RM deadlift is equivalent to their body weight, or twice their body weight?  The person who can do 20 push-ups in a single set, or struggles through five?  Who can sprint faster, the 50lb squatter or the 200lb squatter?

Developing strength is about work capacity; What is the most work that you can do per rep, which contrasts the typical, “how many reps can you do” or “how fast can you do them?”  Those are viable options when planning out workouts, but start with strength.

Each workout should have one or more exercises that are implemented with the goal of getting stronger or more powerful.  That is, moving progressively heavier weights, or the intent to move sub-maximal weights as fast as possible.  This should not be overlooked.


Run, fast as shit.

High Intensity Interval Training is sexy right now.  Everyone does intervals, right?  Every website, magazine, newspaper article, and Tweet raves about the greatest interval training workout ever.  Apparently most people have a poor definition of what “high intensity” means.

Changing the speed on your treadmill during a run is not “high intensity”.  Going to a Zumba class is not “high intensity”.  These things can be challenging, and you might perceive them as hard.  They may very well be higher intensity than what you’re used to, but they’re not high intensity.

Few people are training with heart rate monitors, so 90% of age-predicted maximal heart rate is irrelevant.  For some, the “talk test” works relatively well; if you can talk then you’re not working hard enough.  I prefer to use a combination of tests.  I call them “heart attack zone” and “garbage search”.  Obviously, they’re not very scientific.

If you’re engaged in interval training and you’re not using a heart rate monitor (which I’d recommend), the “heart attack zone” and “garbage search” can help fill in the perceived exertion gap.  While doing a serious of sled pushes with a training partner several years ago, I asked him what his heart rate was.  The second his fingers touched his neck, his eyes shot open and he said, “I think I’m going to have a heart attack.”  That’s the heart attack zone.  (It’s about 90% of your HRmax for all of you exercise science fans.

The garbage search is a step above the talk test.  It’s that moment during your conditioning when you you think, “I should look for a garbage can, just in case I get sick.”  I don’t advocate projective vomiting as an exercise; you shouldn’t actually use the garbage can.  Just locate it; in case you haven’t learned to dial it back a bit.

If you’re moving as fast as you possibly can during your interval training, be it sprinting, pushing a Prowler, or kettlebell swings, your heart rate will fluctuate and you may search for a garbage can, just in case.  That’s what I mean by “run, fast as shit.”

Sprinting is a a good idea.
Sprinting is a a good idea.

I love when people exercise, but I also love when they feel empowered and confident in their body.  Strength training is empowering in ways that cardio is not, and it is better at stripping fat to show off hard-earned muscle.

Preparing for the upcoming summer is on everyone’s radar, and there should be a focus on diet, strength training, and HIIT.  Until you address those three things, cool it with the cardio.


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