“What is the best cardio for fat burning”? This is one of the questions I am asked over and over and over again. It is such a talked about subject with really divided opinions across the board. This, however, does surprise me as it has been proven time and time again that there is one type of cardio that is a clear winner.
This is, of course, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio. There are however more divided opinions on what HIT cardio is and what it involves. For example is doing an hour-long circuits class, HIIT cardio?
Keep reading as I am going to answer this question and many more, and show you how cardio should really be viewed and what the ultimate way to perform a cardio session to reap all the rewards, one being fat burning whilst maintaining all your muscle is.
Steady-State vs HIIT Cardio
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. Steady-state cardio involves going at a steady pace, usually the same through the whole duration of your session. This will last anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. I have known people to take it to real extremes and go for 2 hours. Wow, I just fell asleep just thinking about how boring that must be.
HIT cardio involves bouts of high-intensity intervals followed by rest periods which vary from being slightly shorter than the work interval to slightly longer. This all depends on the intensity of the work interval.
The overall duration of a HIT session typically varies from 15 minutes to 1 hour. The latter is not a true HIT session and I will explain why a bit later.
Steady-state vs HIT cardio – and the winner iiiiiiiis?
Well, we already know the winner on this one from reading above, yet I still see 80% of bodybuilders, physique athletes and generally anyone trying to lose fat doing steady-state cardio.
The question is, why? I know one of the answers to this question, and that is because at the time of doing it its a hell of a lot easier then HIIT cardio. In fact, some people are so relaxed when doing their steady-state cardio they are able to focus and concentrate on reading a book.
Seriously, I don’t even want to get started on how wrong this is. But surely even when doing steady-state cardio, if you are going at an intensity that allows you to fully and mentally focus on reading a book, that something can’t quite be right here.
Another answer to this question is the old school teachings of the dreaded fat burning zone. It goes something like this. If you keep your heart rate in this zone you are training at the optimal level for burning fat. Once you finish this article you will understand how cardio should be viewed and used in your training plan, and then you will realise that this type of thinking is extremely counterproductive.
Cardio, why do we do it? – uuum to lose fat silly
In the bodybuilding and physique world, the answer in the title is given 90% of the time when asked this question. And because of this thinking most will spend 40 weeks of the year not doing any at all, and then 12 weeks of the year doing it when prepping for a contest. Now although there is truth in it, it’s not strictly the most accurate answer there is. Below is a short list in order of importance why cardio should be included in your plan whatever stage of training you are in.
- Cardiovascular health is enhanced
- Improved anaerobic fitness and endurance
- Expends energy (from stored body fat if done in the correct way)
As you can see using cardio to burn fat is just one of the benefits. Cardio in my view should always be focused to improve the top 2 in the list, and HIIT training has been proven to have a much greater effect then steady-state cardio.
The confusion behind fat burning – lets clear this up once and for all
There is so much confusion when it comes to burning fat and yet it really is the most simple thing to understand. The problem we face is the crazy amounts of misguided information on the internet. The fat burning industry is worth over 23 billion pounds. And unfortunately, over 80% of this money spent produces no results.
There are so many bad products and scams out there, which people spend their hard-earned money on trying to find that magic answer.
I really believe there is more dishonest information out there than honest, and for this reason its no wonder people struggle. I will never ever try and sell you or even recommend some magic fat burning pill or powder. 99% of the time they are horrible products designed to sell you a dream and then take your money. To understand how to burn fat you need to know how the body puts it on.
This is simple. If you eat more calories then you burn off over the day, you will store those extra calories as fat. So to burn fat you just reverse the process. If you eat fewer calories then you burn off each day, your body has to grab that extra energy from somewhere (fat stores). Now, unfortunately, there are other places your body can grab this energy from but if you check out the links below, you will learn exactly how to set up your very own nutrition plan, so your body burns fat efficiently.
- How many calories to build muscle and lose fat
- How much protein to build muscle and lose fat
- How many carbs to build muscle and lose fat
- How much fat do we really need
It honestly is this simple, so please don’t waste your hard-earned money on these useless fat burning products anymore. Especially when your money could be much better spent on a high-quality whey protein for example.
Steady-State Cardio (extremely counterproductive when trying to build muscle)
We now know cardio can be used as a tool to increase our overall energy expenditure. So yes steady-state cardio will do this, however, our goal is to maintain all our muscle while doing this.
Long duration steady-state cardio will have a negative impact on muscle size. A really good example of this is comparing a marathon runner with a sprinter.
The marathon runner has a very slim physique carry very little muscle mass and spends hours upon hours each week doing long steady-state runs.
This is obviously a must for their sport. Now take a sprinter. They have much more stocky and muscular physique and spent most of their time doing short sharp sprint intervals.
This shows your body will change and adapt to cope with whatever training you throw at it the most.
If you consistently do slow steady-state cardio then it is counterproductive for your body to hold onto muscle mass. The body will want to be as light as possible to make coping with the longer distances easier
Now if you consistently do short intervals of HIIT cardio which requires power and speed, the body will naturally want to produce stronger, bigger and more powerful muscles in order to cope with this.
HIIT Cardio (The BFG Muscle Way)
There are many views on what HIIT cardio is. An hour-long circuits class where you are on a station for 1 minute then rest for 1 minute is by some classed as HIIT training. However, to me, this most certainly is not a true HIIT session.
A true HIIT session should be done at a work rate between 85 to 100% maximum effort. Working at this level it would be impossible to maintain for a full hour.
What will happen is after about 15 to 20 minutes your intensity levels will naturally drop down as it would be impossible to keep that level up for much longer. All you are doing then is going through the motions for the next 40 minutes. See below for what is happening here
- Past the 20 minute mark you will not be working at maximum intensity (it would be impossible)
- You will just be going through the motions to complete the rest of the session
- Although if you tried to keep going you will burn more calories during the session this will have a negative impact on the long-term
- You will start nearing the overtraining stage by trying to push yourself to the absolute limits for this period of time
- This will negatively affect your nervous system in the long term, therefore reducing your bodies ability to recover and burn fat.
- With your nervous system being overworked, suffering injuries will most likely occur
- As you get more and more tired your form will suffer during the circuit.
To do a circuit style session properly without the negative effects above occurring you would need to dial back the intensity slightly, enabling you to keep form and last the full session. This, however, will again mean you are not doing a HIIT session
Below is exactly what a HIIT session should look like. This is the BFG Muscle way and has helped my clients improve on fitness and body composition for years.
- Max duration should be no more than 20 minutes including your warm-up
- Intensity should be 100% max effort level. I do not mean 100% of your max heart rate. This can never be fully monitored accurately. I mean if you are at 100% effort levels, then that interval should be flat out, no holding back, moving as if your life depended on it.
HIIT Cardio (Structure)
You will see from the video, that they are using a Wingate bike. You won’t often find this piece of equipment in your average gym, however as you will see below this can easily be done using a spin bike.
- Equipment– Best performed using a prowler sled or spin bike
- Warm-up– 3 to 5 minutes
- Main session (prowler sled)– If using a sled make sure it is heavy enough to make it challenging but not so heavy that you can not move the sled quickly. I usually am pushing 100kg. The track I use is 15 metres long. I will go flat out for 4 lengths usually lasting around 15 seconds to start with and getting nearer the 20 to 25-second mark on the later intervals
- Main session(spin bike) – If using a spin bike you want to start the resistance low, as soon as you are ready to go, sprint and get your legs moving as quickly as possible. Once they are at full speed (usually takes around 2 seconds) put the resistance right up and pedal between 15 to 20 seconds. By starting with a low resistance to get your legs moving, this will allow you to pedal on the harder resistance as a much faster and more intense rate. Just try starting on the high resistance and see if you can produce the same turnover speed.
- Rest– If you are starting off I would recommend resting for around 2 to 3 minutes between each interval and doing a total of 3 intervals. Your body and especially legs will feel destroyed after this. As you advance on you can drop the rest time from anywhere between 1 to 2 minutes. This will allow you to get more intervals in.
- Note– With this type of HIIT session never drop the rest below a minute. You are working at a flat-out pace and need that recovery time in order to be able to work at a sufficient intensity on your next interval. If you start trying to drop your rest times lower then this, then you will get to a stage very quickly where you can barely move the sled and not put the required intensity in.
Some people will find it hard to think such a short duration of cardio can really aid in fat burning. Well if done right you should be wanting that 15 to 20-minute mark to come around extremely quickly.
It’s the after-effect that is so beneficial here. You may burn a tiny bit more fat when actually doing steady state cardio compared to HIIT. but its the after effect of HIIT that counts. Your metabolism will return to normal very quickly after a steady-state session, where after a HIT session of this type it will stay raised for up to 24 hours after the actual session. This means your energy expenditure will be far greater from doing HIIT compared to steady-state.
Finally – When and how often?
When – Never do cardio directly before a weights session. You will be shattered and unable to produce the intensity level required to maximise muscle growth from your BFG training. It’s always best to do on a separate day if possible or at least 6 hours after weight training. However, this means getting into the gym twice in one day which is not ideal so doing it directly after weight training is also okay. The only downside to this is it will be slightly harder to mentally focus on it due to fatigue from your weights session
How often – If you are in a building phase, then twice a week is best. If in a cutting phase then anywhere between 2 to 5 times a week is ideal.
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Hi, I’m David and I believe absolutely anyone can achieve the body of their dreams. I’m a qualified health and fitness coach and have been helping clients achieve their dream bodies for 15 years. Whether you are looking to get beach body ready, compete in a bodybuilding show or simply to improve your confidence and wellbeing, I can help.