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Is Cardio the Best Way to Lose Weight?

By Shannon Cole on Jun 5, 2023 8:00:00 AM
4 Minutes Reading Time


Stop the treadmills!

If you think running and endless hours of cardio is the best way to lose weight, think again. 

I’m sure either you, or someone you may know, has lost weight just doing cardio. And yes, you absolutely can. Cardio is a very effective way to burn calories and drop pounds. But, it is not the BEST way to lose weight.

According to the International Sports Science Association, cardiovascular training involves the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to working muscle tissue, and to use oxygen most efficiently for optimal energy production. Being aerobically fit means more energy is available to power your muscles through your workout, and less on oxygen intake, which can hinder performance.

Cardio training is a great tool for overall performance, physical and mental health, and to improve one’s quality of sleep, but cardio alone isn’t the best strategy to lose weight. Initially, when you start implementing cardio into your routine, weight seems to drop pretty seamlessly (like it’s almost too easy). But after a month or so, most people inevitably hit a plateau, meaning the weight-loss stalls.

It is much easier to avoid plateaus, and attain a desirable physique, when you have a greater percentage of lean body mass. In terms of body composition, more muscle equates to a toned physique and typically a higher metabolism than those who have a greater percentage of fat mass. There are many more variables to consider when it comes to how efficient one’s metabolism is, but more muscle doesn’t hurt!

The best way to reduce fat mass while increasing muscle mass is to strength train. Cardio workouts, whether steady-state or HIIT, doesn’t provide the same stimulus to induce muscle synthesis. During resistance training, Type II muscle fibers go through a process of repairing micro-tears that are induced while training, then repaired when at rest; these muscle fibers are repaired to a state that is stronger and more efficient than they were before. Type I muscle fibers (which are recruited during cardio and longer-duration activities), aren’t programmed to want to grow.  

The goal of Type I muscle fibers is to sustain activity for longer periods of time.

The goal of Type II muscle fibers is to provide considerable strength and power in a short amount of time.

If you constantly turn to cardio methods to lose weight, your body will adapt. When this happens, you actually start burning fewer calories than you did when you first started training because your muscles have adapted, and you don’t have to work as hard. A common solution is to go harder, or longer, but the average person doesn’t always have the capacity to do so.

But what about switching from running to cycling, or the stair master to the elliptical? You may see some progress if you switch equipment; however, most cardio equipment has you moving in the same plane (in a forward motion), generally using the same muscles (quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and possibly glutes and calves). Bouncing from one cardio machine to another has its benefits, but for the purposes of long-term weight-loss, it’s not the best.

One underrated cardio machine is the row machine, which requires you to use the upper body in conjunction with the lower body. But again, if this is one of, or the only, tool you use to lose weight, your body will eventually adapt to it as well.

I’ll finish with this.

A combination of a healthy diet and resistance training is the best strategy if you want to lose weight.

One of the few exceptions I have when utilizing cardio for weight loss is using cross-training methods throughout your exercise programming. Dispersing short phases (about a month) of different cardio methods in between mesocycles could actually be a great strategy to avoid plateaus, utilize different muscle groups and Type I muscle fibers, and improve your cardiovascular and aerobic energy systems.

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Shannon Cole

Shannon Cole is an ISSA certified personal trainer and lives in the Dallas area. She is a certified nutrition coach through NASM and NCI, and is currently pursuing her M.S. in Sports Science and Rehabilitation. After obtaining her B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication she eventually gravitated to personal training, and hasn't turned back since. Her passion for athletics and fitness initially stemmed from her high school years playing golf, and her love for the sport still hasn't faded; her career goal is to obtain her Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) certification and develop strength and conditioning programs for golfers. You can usually find her working out in her garage gym, or training for the next Spartan Race with her husband.

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