Do you hit the gym and hop right onto the treadmill or elliptical as your go-to workout?
Let’s face it, finding the perfect training routine can be a bit tough at times. Maybe you’ve tried to jump on the weight lifting routine - or, maybe you haven’t because you want to avoid looking like a bodybuilder.
The trouble is, many people - especially those focussed on fat loss - may not understand the importance of a varied workout routine, and often end up overdoing cardio and missing out on a multitude of other exercise benefits.
Of course, doing cardio is an essential part of your overall fitness, but here’s the thing: it’s not the be all and end all of training.
In order to maximise bodywide benefits, cardio needs to be complemented by regular resistance training, which promotes growth and strength of multiple systems within your body, including those involving your muscles, bones, joints as well as promoting flexibility, balance and form1,2.
And, don’t worry, it’s not going to turn you into the next Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When it comes to weight loss, a regular weight training routine actually helps to burn more calories at rest by increasing muscle mass and lowering total body fat percentage3.
Believe it or not, doing too much cardio can actually have the opposite effect…
Exploring the skinny-fat concept
There’s a body type commonly known as “skinny-fat” which, in scientific terms, is called a metabolically obese, normal weight person. It means you can look great in clothes and appear to be sporting an athletic-type body - but, inside, you’re lacking muscle mass and have a higher body fat percentage than you should for your build.
These individuals typically have a BMI which is within in the normal range4 and a standard clothing size, which gives a false illusion of the true health status.
Why should you be concerned if you fall into this category?
Well, because even if your weight is normal, a higher than desired body fat percentage can leave you at risk of major complications such as diabetes and heart disease5,6,.
So, where does cardio come into play?
Well, the risk with overdoing cardio is that, despite it burning a significant amount of calories, these calories are not always ones you want to get rid of, like fat.
Instead, because muscle contains an easily accessible source of fuel in the form of sugar and protein, the body may prioritize breaking muscles down for energy when you take part in lengthy cardio sessions over the more hardy, stored fat molecules. In fact, some people trying to add muscle actively avoid overdoing cardio due to potential effects on muscle loss.
Another problem with cardio overtraining is the stress it places on your body overall7.
Your adrenal glands produce the stress hormone, cortisol, during a training session, which increases over the course of the workout. If the workout is particularly long in duration, it can take longer for the release of cortisol to return to pre-workout levels, even once you have completed your routine8.
The interesting thing here is that, while short bursts of cortisol from exercise actually improve stress tolerance and inflammation - prolonged elevations in cortisol are bad for your health in the same way that high levels of cortisol from chronic stress are bad for your health. Physically, these levels promote fat storage and muscle wastage8.
Lastly, some people who take part in endurance-type cardio training sessions may burn so many calories they choose more calorie-dense foods9 to compensate for the calorie deficit, which attenuates fat loss effects.
Overall, it’s possible that overdoing cardio can have the complete opposite impact on your goals!
Cardio is not to be skipped however, it simply needs to be part of a varied exercise routine that incorporates resistance training.
The benefits of a well-rounded exercise routine
While optimal for muscle building, resistance training doesn’t mean you have to lift weights.
Weights add resistance that your tissues need to work against and overcome to help develop muscles - but, your own body can be as effective as using weights10!
If you’re just starting out and aren’t comfortable with using weights and machines just yet, you can try bodyweight exercises like:
- Push ups
- Sit ups
- Leg raises
- Pelvic raises
- Tricep dips
- Step ups
- Mountain climbers
Remember, ensuring proper form is essential for preventing injury - so, starting out with bodyweight only can not only begin an effective resistance routine but, can also reduce the risks involved.
Your new resistance training routine: what to expect
As you begin to replace fat stores with muscle, you can expect to start seeing and feeling enhanced benefits in both physique and overall health11,12!
These changes can be further complemented by dietary alterations that include eating more lean protein, healthy fats from mostly plant-based sources and switching out those refined, calorie-dense carbs for healthier, complex and natural ones.
That’s right - it’s time to rid yourself of prepackaged diet products and counting the calories you have to burn off on the treadmill later. By adding resistance training to your routine and aiming for a more wholesome diet, you’re bound to see some dramatic changes that you’ve been hoping for.
So, cardio bunny, it’s time to make a promise to yourself: next time you hit the gym divert yourself away from that trusty treadmill. Make a plan beforehand so that you feel more comfortable when you walk in - and, once you arrive, the resistance is on!
- Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2009. 41(3):687-708.
- Kilpatrick, M., et al. Impact of aerobic exercise trials with varied intensity patterns on perceptions of effort: An evaluation of predicted, in-task, and session exertion. J Sport Sci 30(8): 825–832, 2012.
- Schoenfeld, B., et al. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2017. 35(11):1073-1082.
- Mathew, H. Metabolic health and weight: Understanding metabolically unhealthy normal weight or metabolically healthy obese patients. Metabolism. 2016. 65(1):73-80.
- Sahakyan, K., et al. Normal-Weight Central Obesity: Implications for Total and Cardiovascular Mortality. Ann Intern Med. 2015. 163:827–835.
- Eckel, N., et al. Characterization of metabolically unhealthy normal-weight individuals: Risk factors and their associations with type 2 diabetes. Metabolism. 2015. 64(8):862-871.
- Ruzicic, R., et al. Oxidative Stress in Training, Overtraining and Detraining: from Experimental to Applied Research. Serbian Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research, 2016. 17(4):343-348.
- Barton, A., and Yancy, W. Determining the Culprit: Stress, Fat, or Carbohydrates. Biological Psychiatry. 2015. 78(4):e12.
- Werle, C., et al. Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking. Marketing Letters. 2015. 26(4):691-702.
- Krause, M., et al. The effects of a combined bodyweight-based and elastic bands resistance training, with or without protein supplementation, on muscle mass, signaling and heat shock response in healthy older people. Experimental Gerontology. 2019. 115:104-113.
- Ribeiro, A., et al. Effects of Traditional and Pyramidal Resistance Training Systems on Muscular Strength, Muscle Mass, and Hormonal Responses in Older Women: A Randomized Crossover Trial. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017. 31(7):1888-1896.
- Radak, Z., and Taylor, A. Chapter 5 - Exercise and Hormesis. The Science of Hormesis in Health and Longevity. 2019. 63-73