Cardio Rules Explained Once And For All!

I’ve been meaning to write another post about cardio for a while now, in large part because I think some of the things I’ve said may have been mis-interpreted to imply I don’t believe in any cardio, ever. This is most definitely not true, so I want to cover the ‘rules’ of cardio once and for all.

The first rule of cardio is that in its traditional (meaning 1980s) sense at least it absolutely does not rule. Not if lasting fat loss and lean muscle are important to you. We’ll talk about why, and I’ll explain what type of cardio I am a fan of, but first let me give you a little background.

i’m a cardio queen from way back

I haven’t always been anti-cardio. In fact, I’m still not completely anti-cardio, although you could be forgiven for thinking so the longer you spend on this blog. The truth is I’ve spent years as a cardio queen, and the (less frequently admitted to) truth is that there’s something about a major lung-burning sweat session that still really empowers me. I don’t know if this is because (apparently) running activates endorphins from the same centre of your brain that near-death does, or if it’s the perception of achievement and calories burnt drummed into me from years back, or if it’s as simple as I love pushing myself to the max. Probably a bit of all three.

But whatever the reason, these days I prioritise results above doing regular bouts of endurance cardio or even too-regular bouts of interval cardio.

could your cardio routine be making your butt bigger?

According to an ever-growing group of health experts, cardio exercise as a fix-all for fat loss and even for cardiovascular health has been far overrated. In fact, strength coach Charles Poliquin, who is arguably one of the world’s leading fat loss experts, talks about the adaptation process your body goes through when you repeatedly perform cardio exercise as a primary reason for over-exercisers struggling to lose fat, and possibly even increasing it (as I controversially wrote about over here).

The most recent reference I have seen to the concept of exercise not aiding fat loss was actually in a call-out from Cleo magazine – they were asking just yesterday for experts to comment on new research indicating that exercise does not help you lose weight.

And that’s just the tip of the ice-berg. You can, of course, find anything you like to support any possible argument or theory on the internet, but certainly not always from reputable clinical sources such as these –

So. The long and short of it is not to trust everything you read on the internet, but simply to consider that perhaps recent ‘wisdom’ on health and fat loss is not all it’s cracked up to be. You only have to look around to see that!

When it comes to working out, to eating well, to anything really I am a big believer in hormonal response and doing what nature intended, rather than simply calories in versus calories out. It works for me!

the rules on cardio

So let’s talk about the rules on cardio, because I do want to make it very very clear that I am absolutely not against ALL cardio and in fact I DO think you should be including sweat sessions as well as pure strength sessions (on a side note, a proper strength session should definitely also BE a sweat session!).

Confused much? Keep reading.

1. Keep it short most of the time – I’m talking under 30 minutes short. The maximum amount of pure cardio I allow my clients to perform on a regular basis is 20 minutes of interval work. An ideal breakdown for this is 30 seconds of intensity followed by 90 seconds of recovery. Repeat 10 times. I’d recommend doing this no more than 3 times a week, and only as a supplement to your weight training program.

2. Keep it shorter – as you start to focus increasingly on ideal nutrition and weight training you’ll slowly be able to let go of the ‘need’ to do cardio. That guilty itch may never go away – sometimes I still have a little freak out moment about not doing any ‘real’ cardio despite the fact that I easily maintain a size 8 lean body without it – whereas I used to battle to be size 10 or even 12 when cardio was the bread and butter of my training. There are mixed reviews on training such as Tabata (8 rounds of 20 second work plus 10 second rest; 4 minutes total), but I’ve found that this sort of structured interval training can be enough to really finish off a weights session with a bang.

3. Mix it up. Outdoor activities such as hill climbing, hiking, playing sports, and even some indoor activties such as well-instructed kickboxing or muay thai are all great forms of ‘real’ cardio. By real I mean that whilst they may certainly go for over 20-30 minutes, they involve movement variety and can be considered (IMO) more natural than repetitive steady-state cardio on gym equipment. Using gym cardio equipment, by the way, has been shown in Canada-based research to increase insulin resistance by up to 46%! Due to the dirty electricity.

4. Break the rules once in a while. Yes, even my rules! Going for a massive ride, or run, or walk now and then (gasp, steady state cardio!) is FINE. Especially if you love to do it, but even just to give your body a change now and then. My point with all of my posts on cardio is largely that people take it too far thinking the answer is 40+ minutes of endurance cardio every time they workout. I do not mean you should be scared of or avoid ever doing this style. If you love to do spin, by all means do it once in a while, but don’t do it 4-5 times per week because you think it will get you lean. I hope all of that makes sense?!

5. Get creative! For more ideas on how to makeover your cardio routine and finally get lean, check out this earlier post.

cool stuff to maximise your training success!

  • For a daily insight into how I eat and train be sure to ‘like’ the Woman Incredible Facebook page!
  • Will you take the Skins challenge with me? All week this week I am training and recording my recovery (wearing normal gym gear), and then next week I am going to use Skins compression pants and compare the difference. I’ve never tried compression gear before so I think it’s time to see what all the fuss is about!


21 responses to “Cardio Rules Explained Once And For All!”

  1. Peta says:

    I love the post Kat, but i have a question: what about when cardio is part of your daily commute?
    I cycle to work at least twice a week, about 40 minutes each way. It naturally involves high and low intensity because it’s not a flat route. Should i mix it up a little by taking alternate routes from time to time or is it ok to keep doing the same thing week in week out?
    I do have faster and slower days depending on the weather, how i’m feeling etc.

    • Kat says:

      It sounds like it’s a good route if it has natural highs and lows. This is a tricky one, and it brings up an interesting question. My opinion is that this sort of stuff is – unless you are already super high on cortisol and find it stressful – is fine, and even useful incidental exercise. I believe that mindset has a lot to do with the outcome of any form of exercise, and especially cardio. So there is a difference between 40 minutes of ‘i have to’ on the tready, and 40 minutes of enjoying the scenery riding to work. Still a great idea to change route now and then though! I hope that makes sense?

      • Peta says:

        Makes perfect sense 🙂
        Thanks for your thoughts. I am pretty sure i’m not super high in cortisol and i certainly do enjoy my rides to work as well as not having to pay for petrol or parking.
        I’ll keep mixing it up and look for new and exciting routes.

      • Kat says:

        Perfect 🙂

  2. Belinda Benn says:

    Great post Kat! I started doing sprint work a few weeks ago and I am loving it. Just a really short high intensity session either post weights or on my day off – plus I am getting some nice leaning out results. Thanks for the reinforcement. Belinda

  3. cj says:

    Hi Kat,
    What you say rings true, but what if you really want to train for a particular event (eg, a half marathon or something) as well as having goals like fat loss. I just love the idea of running a longer distance. How do I train my body for something like that at the same time as maximising my fat loss?


    • Kat says:

      Hi CJ. I get this question a lot. In part it comes back to your reasons – as mentioned in the post, I’m a big believer in the power of intent. So if you are doing this sort of thing because you love to, by all means do it, but do it in addition to strength training, not instead of. And usually people overtrain for this sort of stuff. Strength training is the ultimate way to increase cardiovascular fitness. Well, that and supplementing with carnitine 🙂 and then some cardio training within reason, part of which would def. be intervals. Hope that helps!

  4. Joanne says:

    Hi Kat, great post!
    I have recently read that doing long duration cardio such as running or power walking will make your legs leaner. It was recommended to me to do this type of cardio in addition to my regular weight training to achieve a leaner, slimmer look rather than my legs bulking up.
    Would love to hear your thoughts on this, as it think it is commonly accepted as true, and I don’t want to be misguided.
    love both of your blogs 🙂
    Jo 🙂

    • Kat says:

      I don’t agree … I think it can work for about 6 weeks if you haven’t done it before, but I think aside from that it can just detract from lean muscle. People often think their legs are bulking up when their muscles become more defined, but when you measure them it’s actually body fat dropping and muscle increasing – so you see more muscle (which looks great!) but overall size is less …

      • Joanne says:

        Thanks Kat for your advice.
        I guess its really hard to find the right balance. 🙂

      • Kat Eden says:

        Definitely … and in large part I think at some point we all have to stop listening to rules and just train in a way we enjoy!

  5. Merran says:

    Hey Kat
    New to your page but am loving all the info!!
    Im just wondering where RPM/spin classes fit in with the cardio rules?
    Ive read you suggest we avoid the group fitness classes, is this included?

  6. Merran says:

    oh i just re-read the bit at the end where you mention spin….thanks!

  7. Catherine says:

    Hey Kat, another question I have is Im currently training for a half marathon which is in June. I do strength training 5-6 days a week and endurance cardio for 40 mins approx 3-4 times a week and speed work 10 x 30 sec sprints maybe twice a week is that OK to still achieve fat loss and lean muscle gain. Thanks