I’m not a fan of “traditional” cardio. Instead, in this post, I’m going to show you the best cardio to lose weight.
Before I do, I’d like to challenge you with something to think about: What makes a workout a “cardio” workout?
Does it mean that it’s done on a cardio machine? For most people, the answer to this question is yes.
However, I’ll argue (actually prove) that the best cardio to lose weight has nothing to do with spending time on cardio machines. I mean, you could if you wanted to, but the most important thing to remember is this:
Cardio is any activity that raises your heart rate significantly.
By that definition, it could mean running, jumping rope, doing strength workouts, or anything else that gets you huffing and puffing. Simply put, the days of spending an hour lifting weight followed by an hour on the cardio machines are dead!
You don’t need to waste your time following old school advice. It’s time for a more efficient and effective way to train to lose weight and get in great shape.
Debunking the “Cardio Myth”
The first thing you should know is there is no right or wrong way of doing cardio. Instead, there are only effective and ineffective ways of using your time if you wish to maximize your results.
After all, I’d rather you do something – anything – than do nothing and sit on the couch all day.
Many people have been led to believe that low intensity, long duration cardio is the best cardio to lose weight mainly because it keeps your in your “fat burning zone”. You can thank misleading charts on cardio machines (like the one below) for this big myth…
The worst part about this chart is that it’s “danger zone” is actually the BEST place for you to spend more of your time when doing cardio. When you do this, you effectively spend much less time training and achieve much greater results.
Thus, the “danger zone” should be renamed the “rapid fat loss zone”. And the best way to spend more time in that zone is by using interval training, which I’ll describe for you in more detail below.
To understand why low intensity training is a waste of your time and why high intensity training is actually much better for you and your ability to lose weight, it’s helpful to have an understanding of how your body chooses fuel at different intensities and durations…
The Impact of Cardio Intensity and Duration on Fat
Depending on the duration and intensity of the exercise, your body will rely on more carbohydrates (stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver) and fat for its fuel. The following graphs show these relationship.
Graph 1 depicts the relationship between exercise intensity and fuel selection/utilization. In layman’s terms this means the type of “calories” that are being burned at any given exercise intensity.
Notice that as the intensity of exercise increases, there is more reliance on carbohydrates for fuel. Typically, intensities greater than 70% of VO2 max (or maximum heart rate for our purposes) will use carbohydrates as the dominant fuel source.
However, this doesn’t mean that working at high intensities doesn’t burn fat.
This is where most people get confused.
Many people believe that since exercising at a lower intensity implies more reliance on fat as fuel, they feel the need to work at this low-intensity to burn fat, which leads us back to the misleading “Cardio Zone Chart” from above.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that compared with a control group, 8 months of moderate or high intensity exercise all led to positive changes in overall lipoprotein (one type of blood fat) profile in overweight subjects.
However, it was the latter group (high amount/high intensity) that also gained the best training, fat loss, and blood lipid effect! This makes sense since spending more time at higher intensities will get you fitter and more effective at burning fat. (1)
In fact, that’s one of the cool effects that comes with increased fitness—your body is better able to spare its muscle glycogen and more easily rely on fat at any given intensity. (2)
The point is that your body chooses different fuels during different situations but you become more efficient at using fat the fitter you become.
In general, fats yield more calories and are slower burning as they are metabolized than carbohydrates, which fizzle out quickly like a sparkling candle on a birthday cake. Thus, fats tend to be favored during longer duration exercise when compared to carbohydrates. Graph 2 shows this relationship…
Whether your goal is to lose weight or simply get in better shape, the same approach applies: You must get fitter.
The only way to do that is by spending more time training at near maximal intensities, even if that means you’ll be training far less. After all, you can only sprint for so long, right? Remember, as you become fitter your body becomes more efficient at using fats for fuel while sparing your vital carbohydrate reserves.
If you are totally unfit, you will obviously fatigue sooner. One of the reasons for this is that you blow through your blood sugar and carbohydrate stores much more rapidly than someone who is fitter and has trained their body to rely more heavily on fat for fuel.
Thus, the fitter you get, the longer and harder you can exercise because you’ve developed the ability to use the slow burning fats as fuel, and therefore conserve your short-term (sugar) energy better.
Naturally, there are other improvements that help you exercise longer and harder but let’s just keep it simple for now.
Run from the “Marathoner Mentality”
As Graph 2 (above) shows, the longer you exercise, the greater the reliance on fat as a fuel. However, this again feeds the myth that exercising for long periods of time is necessary to burn fat.
I call this the “Marathoner Mentality”.
When it comes to exercise, it’s important to understand that: A calorie is a calorie and 1 pound of fat is equivalent to roughly 4000 calories.
Losing weight will boil down to creating a negative energy balance (ie. more calories expended than consumed).
Thus, the goal is to choose the best cardio exercise that will elicit the maximum number of calories expended… not just during the activity but afterwards as well.
This is important because cardio is not a long-term investment – like building muscle – in your pursuit of losing weight. Muscle burns calories 24/7. The cardio workout you did last week has ZERO impact on how many calories you burn today.
Cardio is a short-term “fix” that must be maximized to give you the biggest ROI during and immediately following your workout. And training at higher intensities is the only way to do that. Doing so creates a greater total calorie loss (even for hours after you’re finished exercising) and that’s what really matters if you’re looking for the best cardio to lose weight.
The other reason that high intensity exercise is crucial for fat loss is because of the following 2 mechanisms:
- First, exercising near your maximal heart rate releases catecholamines from your adrenal glands that circulate through your body and prompt your fat cells to breakdown into free fatty acids (to be converted into usable energy)
- Second, the enzyme HSL (hormone sensitive lipase), is required to breakdown stored fat. Intense exercise is a potent stimulator of HSL, which means it prompts more fat to be broken down compared to lower intensity exercise. (3)
A remarkable study investigating the effects of exercise of extreme duration at low-intensity on body fat profile followed subjects completing a 32-day crossing of the Greenland ice cap on cross-country skis. After this crossing, researchers discovered HSL activity was NOT influenced by prolonged low intensity physical activity in either arm or leg muscle. (4)
2-3 Hours of Cardio Training Per Day?￼
Be my guest.
If you have the time (and patience) to exercise for 2 to 3 hours at a low intensity then be my guest. You will achieve some degree of fat loss, but you’ll need to do a ton of exercise to gain the benefits you desire.
Here’s why I’d strongly recommend NOT doing this:
Exercising at a very low intensities actually makes you LESS fit.
Remember, when it comes to your body, you either “use it or lose it”. Spend a few days lying in bed is not much different from spending a few days in space as it pertains to your muscle mass and strength. (5) That’s why I don’t consider traditional walking to be an effective form of cardio for losing weight.
And that’s because your body quickly adapts. So, unless you’re adding more weight to your body in the form of a knapsack or weighted vest, or you’re walking uphill, walking alone is not enough of a “stress” on your body for it to get fitter.
So why not save time, dramatically improve your aerobic fitness, and burn more fat by upping the intensity of your workouts?
Let’s look at how to do just that…
Interval Training: The Best Cardio to Lose Weight
If you’ve followed my advice or any of my interval training workouts, you’ll know interval training is THE best cardio to lose weight and get in the best shape of your life—quickly.
This graph shows you why…
Note: You’ll want to read this post for more details on how to do interval training properly.
The most powerful aspect of interval training is that it allows you to work at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate for longer periods of time because it is broken down into chunks.
I’m sure you’d agree that running as fast as you possibly can would be near impossible for more than 10-20 seconds, right?
But with interval training you can “chunk” your maximal run into smaller “fast” bouts (say, 5 seconds each) that are interspersed with slightly longer recovery bouts (say, 20 seconds each). Fast, slow, fast—that’s the key.
Doing so allows you to perform several maximal bouts amounting to much more time than the 10-20 seconds you would only be capable of doing if you were to go all out in one shot.
Now, if you’re thinking there’s no way just a few minutes of this “fast, slow, fast” training can be as beneficial as a long run (or other form of cardio), it is. Even more so actually.
Here’s another reason why:
Look at the graph above and notice the line called “Average heart rate”.
This line is important because it reflects your average heart rate over the interval cardio session. It is a reflection of your overall intensity for the workout.
Notice how the line increases over time? Why does this happen?
Your average heart rate is simply an “average” of the line directly above it called “fluctuating actual heart rate”. This line represents the “ups” and “downs” your heart rate experiences as you increase the intensity and then subsequently lower it.
The neat thing here is your average heart rate is drifting upwards even while you’re recovering. For instance, if your initial recovery heart rate after the first bout was 120 bpm it could well end up being 140 bpm (or more) by the last recovery bout simply because your body doesn’t have enough time to fully recover as you become more and more fatigued.
Can you begin to see how this automatically increases your exercise intensity for the entire session? And you thought you were recovering. Ha!
That’s why with interval training, recovery time is a mirage.
This is also why using your heart rate as an indicator during interval training cardio workouts is not a good idea. You’re better off using “perceived exertion” and just giving it all you’ve got during the work bout then slowing things down for the recovery, and repeating.
As I mentioned above, the amazing thing about interval training is that, as you can see in this example, it allows you to spend more time near your maximum intensity… because it is “chunked”.
Check out the above graph:
How many 30-second maximal bouts would you be doing in this 13 minute interval session? Eight.
And eight times 30 seconds equals 4 minutes, right?
So that means that you’re now able to work at your maximum possible intensity for a full 4 minutes (instead of just 20-30 seconds otherwise). Pretty powerful stuff! Especially when you consider that your aerobic endurance (VO2) will improve dramatically the more time you can spend at or near your maximum intensity.
Which Cardio Modality is Best?
Now that you know why interval training is the bomb for burning fat, you may be wondering what “type” of cardio training (modality) is best. Is it running, cycling, rowing, something else?
Have a look at the following forms of cardio exercise below. Each one is represented in terms of how many calories it burns at a given exercise intensity. I’ve highlighted 3 in red to pay attention to.
As you can see from the above chart, running burns more calories than the other activities, at the same intensity. There are two main reasons for this…
- First, running is weight bearing, which means the muscles of your lower body must work harder to support you and propel you forward; thus, expending more calories. Therefore, the heavier you are, the more calories you will burn (assuming equal intensity as someone who is lighter).
- Second, running is one of the least efficient forms of human movement, which means it produces a lot of heat/energy expenditure for its movement. This also means a lot of calories are being spent. This is great for those who want to lose weight, but not so great for those looking for efficient modes of movement.
And this makes sense if you think about it…
Cycling is easier than running, right? That’s because cycling is one of the most mechanically efficient human movements, meaning that more of the energy you put into the movement actually results in movement (and not as much heat production) as running! Thus, cycling at the same intensity burns fewer calories than running.
Even though running can burn calories, it should be used sparingly and ideally with good running form. Unfortunately, running is a disaster waiting to happen for many people because of poor form and/or too much time spent running.
Now while jumping rope is not included in the above chart, it’s my favorite cardio modality.
[Related: Jumping Rope vs. Running – Which is Better?]
Becoming a Smarter Cardio Exerciser
There are a few other cardio activities worth mentioning, mainly so you know how to do them properly – and so you can actually benefit from them.
Based on the chart above, your second best bet for burning maximum calories and getting a terrific cardio training effect is heavy resistance cycling and/or cross-country skiing (ie. the elliptical machine).
Unless you live in the North Pole, cross-country skiing is obviously not available in its purest form to the majority of us. But there are numerous types of elliptical machines that try to mimic the cross-country skiing movement.
The biggest, yet unknown, challenge facing elliptical users is that they don’t know how to properly use the machine.
I’m always amazed at just how many men and women spend hours upon hours on the elliptical simply going through the motions without much effort.
The fact that the elliptical is very simple to use presents a catch 22 scenario…
On one hand, it’s beneficial for those with joint issues who can’t tolerate high impact activities like running. On the other hand, the nature of the movement makes the elliptical almost too easy, rendering it very ineffective for fat loss for many people. Unless of course…
… you crank up the resistance.
The key to an effective elliptical workout (and the bike for that matter) boils down to eliminating the machine’s momentum by getting your muscles to do more of the work.
The only way to do that on the elliptical/bike is to increase the resistance to a point that your arms are required to work just as hard as your legs to create the movement. Otherwise, forget about it.
It is for this simple reason I developed Elliptical Workouts and Interval Cycling Workouts. I wanted to provide people like you – people looking for the best cardio workout to lose weight – the chance to have the proper coaching and a workout structure to maximize your results in less than 30 minutes on the elliptical or bike.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and now know that short duration, high intensity exercise (whether “pure” cardio or another activity that gets you huffing and puffing) is the best cardio to lose weight.
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.