For as long as I can remember trainers, athletes, bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, physical therapists and even doctors have extolled the virtues of cardio training to burn fat.

Most of the time when they’re talking about “cardio” they are referring to steady state or low to medium intensity workouts.

Typically this means one of the following:

Going for a jog or run, cycling or spinning, spending an hour on a cross-trainer or the equivalent.

Take this a step further and the common perception of being “fit” is someone who regularly does triathlons or marathons or IronMan events.

Most of this image of fitness, fat burning and healthy heart is a total myth.

It’s a bit like the ridiculous notion that whole grains are healthy for your heart.

Utter nonsense.

The fat burning, heart rate zone , cardio ideas so prevalent in the fitness world is simply misunderstood and there is an assumption that people are lazy.

I have to agree that given the choice of having a nap on a huge comfortable couch or running for your life whilst being chased by the rabid zombie hoard, most people would go for the couch. You could say it’s human nature but the survival instinct is pretty strong in humans too so if you knew that the same zombie hoard was coming to get you and you had a chance to get away if you ran, most people would run.

Sadly the couch does exist and zombies do not…yet.

We’ve all seen these charts attached to treadmills and stuck onto walls of gyms.

pulse-rate chart

It’s based on a common calculation of 220-your age, which assumes is your maximum heart rate.

Basically, the older you are, the less strain you can put on your heart.

For someone over 40, this doesn’t give me much hope for the future and apparently if I want to burn fat at the most efficient rate I need to be working out, wearing a heart rate monitor, at about 110 bpm for at least an hour, 4 times a week.

A few years ago I put this to the test for a month to see how much lard I could shift and to see if my resting heart rate would improve. The basic protocol was either walking at a moderate pace (6kmph or 3.8mph) on a slight incline (4%) on a treadmill or to mix things up (??!!) ride a stationary exercise bike at a moderate resistance (level 6) at 80rpm.

The first week I did 45 mins per session. The 2nd week I did 60 mins per session. The 3rd week was 75 mins and the final week was a mind numbingly hideous 90 mins per session, 4 days a week.

I was so utterly bored after a couple of weeks of doing this, either on a treadmill, crosstrainer or bike.

I actually began reading magazines and watching te BBC 24 hour news service that repeated the same stories every 45 minutes because I was so bored.

After a month, I checked my weight & measured my bodyfat

My diet was paleo based at the time.

I had lost some weight (3kg or nearly 7 pounds) and some bodyfat (2%) which was nice but when I tested my strength, power and speed based movements they had all deteriorated (my deadlift was 20kg or 45 pounds less, my clean & jerk was 20 % down and I could not do more than 25 pullups without coming off the bar).

My conclusions to all of this were the following:

Traditional Cardio training is good for me (and you) under the following circumstances:

  • If I am heavily overweight perhaps this would have been a good way to introduce training consistency into my life.
  • If I wanted to do something that had the least risk of ever injuring me or ruining my amazing good looks, this would be an option.
  • If I liked reading and watching the BBC news 24 hour news service, this would be my thing.
  • If I had a lot of time to spare because I didn’t have to work or do anything productive, this would be a winner.
  • If I was someone that believed everything people told me, even those who have no expertise on the matter but were professionals like trainers, athletes or even doctors…cardio would be my first option.
  • I came to the conclusion that the more time you spend doing something physical the more you feel like you have done something, like you have really accomplished something.

    If it takes you 13 hours to assemble an Ikea flat pack table you’re really going to think that table is the boss of tables even though it’s a actually pretty lame.

    “Cardio” is not useless. It’s just not as effective and requires far more time for results which could be gained from CrossFit workouts.

    I did the same experiement a couple of months later, with the same diet but doing only 20 min or less high intensity crossfit based workouts and lost more bodyfat, increased my strength on all the aforementioned movements and was able to run 5km and 10km faster. My bodyweight did not go down (increased muscle mass) and thus I was convinced to do CrossFit full time.

    Granted this is not the most scientific of case studies but it proved a point to me.

    Ideally I would have done this over a 6 month period with all the VO2 max bells and whistles etc but I got so utterly bored of the monotonous repetition that I had to stop.

    If you disagree try it yourself.

    If you like cardio because it makes you feel good – don’t stop, keep doing it by all means – whatever makes you happy! It’s not going to make you fitter in ALL the components of fitness.

    If you don’t know what those components are go to a CrossFit gym and find out.

    Physically we know for a fact from research studies that High Intensity training and lifting heavy weights burns far more calories and reduces bodyfat for longer periods post exercise and gets you “fitter” quicker.. but it’s much harder.

    Higher intensity training hurts, it makes you feel a bit like puking and yes…you might even want to shout and use bad language.

    However slow steady state cardio training is like the couch option. It’s a lot more comfortable than being chased by zombies but you are at risk of getting eaten…

    Further reading and real science?

    Look at this: