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Gee, you think, if cardio really helps you burn fat, then that woman (or guy) should be a cartoon stick figure by now.
But they're not. In fact, both the woman who barely looks winded after 45 minutes on the elliptical and the guy whose T-shirt is soaked with sweat after 30 minutes of jogging, always look the same. Or maybe they're getting fatter.
Usually, these thoughts occur to you when you're doing your own time in purgatory. One of your three-times-a-week 30-minute stints on the treadmill. No, you're not Leisure Time Louise over there, watching CNN and checking her phone. Or worse, Try Hard Tommy, all red in the face. But you've heard about the "skinny fat" syndrome that afflicts aerobic exercisers. You've heard about cortisol build-up and its connection to fat gain.
And the thought nags at you. Am I wasting my time on this machine?
It's a valid question. Before we address it with the help of some experts, let's set one thing straight. Aerobic exercise is important for overall wellness and cardiovascular health. Nobody wants to be that bodybuilder who gets winded walking up a flight of stairs.
General wellness and cardiovascular health are essential to you as a bodybuilder, even if they're not your primary reasons for being in the gym. You're there to build muscle and attain the kind of physique that makes people go quiet when you enter the room. But fat loss is a part of that, so let's take a closer look at the science of losing fat in the gym.
Fat Loss and Cardio
It stands to reason, if you're expending a great deal of time and effort thumping away on a treadmill, that you should be burning at least some calories stored away as fat. And yet, if you've ever participated in, say, a charity long-distance run, you've seen a lot of people who just don't look that great. Long-distance running is going to burn muscle tissue, that's a given. But a lot of runners also complain about "skinny fat" syndrome, an outcome in which their body mass is very low and yet they still have noticeable excess fat. We asked Todd Bumgardner, co-founder of Beyond Strength Performance and a strength athlete with a Masters of Science in Exercise Science, about this seeming paradox.
"Extended periods of aerobic exercise train the body to be small, fat and slow," Todd says. "Hormones, and the associated physiological mechanisms, respond accordingly. To meet this adaptation, the body gets rid of muscle mass and stores fuel in the form of body fat, rather than storing fuel as glycogen in the muscles and in the liver. Appropriate amounts of high intensity strength training and other forms of anaerobic exercise can help you overcome this, but you really have to manage your cardio intelligently."
Josh Bryant, a renowned trainer with a Masters of Science in Exercise Science and several published books on exercise, agrees. "Excessive aerobics can decrease immune system efficiency, increase cortisol production and put a serious halt to any sort of strength or muscle gains," he says. "All of these outcomes will increase body fat and certainly won't help you progress toward your training goals."
Cortisol and Fat Loss
Josh's point about cortisol comes with some caveats. Cortisol production has been linked in the popular imagination with excess fat gain for some time now, and for a while, there were even a sizeable number of diet products which claimed to modulate cortisol levels to target fat loss. (Many of those discredited products are gone now.) The truth about the connection between cardio exercise, cortisol production, and fat gain is a little more complicated.
Chad Kerksick, a professor of Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico, weighs in on the topic, suggesting, "Like many other things, elevated levels of cortisol are somewhat necessary to encourage the breakdown of things your muscles can use for fuel. Chronically increased levels, however, which result from high amounts of exercise and less than adequate nutrition is not a good thing and over time can limit recovery and support an overall increase in inflammation throughout the body."
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When it comes to exercise, however, it depends upon intensity. Low-intensity aerobic exercise is great for decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity and improving the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that reduces the stress response.
High-intensity, prolonged cardiovascular exercise, however, can elicit a strong cortisol response. If this type of exercise is predominant over strength training, and is accompanied by a stressful life, high cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance that accumulates visceral fat."
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Here, at last, we arrive at the meat of the matter. If we can all agree that some cardio is necessary, both for overall wellness and as a physique enhancing tool, but too much cardio is counterproductive, then where is the sweet spot? How much time should you be spending on that treadmill, elliptical, or rowing machine? Josh Bryant brings the facts:
"Studies show the ill effects of muscle hypertrophy, anabolic hormonal deficiency and decreases in strength have some commonalities," he says. "What it comes down to is that intense cardiovascular exercise for more than 30 minutes at above 75 percent max heart rate intensity, with a frequency of three times or greater per week, will be counterproductive to strength and muscle gains.
"The best way to attack this is a couple days a week of low intensity steady state cardio. Brisk walks of 20 to 30 minutes will suffice. Very low intensity cardio like this will actually enhance your ability to recover! This coupled with a two, short, intense interval days will get the job done. If you are taking short rests between sets like circuit training or Peripheral Heart Action training, you can get away with very little extra cardio."
Todd Bumgardner prefers to address the issue by way of body type. "I know this isn't the answer that everyone wants to hear, but it depends. It really depends on somatotype. Ectomorphs, or naturally skinny people, should cut cardio completely while trying to add muscle. You need to use all their calories toward gaining mass.
"Mesomorphs can include some cardio into their mass building programs. These are the people that can put weight on, or lose it, at will. You'll want to include some low-intensity, short duration cardio into your workout programming.
"Endomorphs, those of you that are typically larger and carry more fat mass, can include a bit more cardio than mesomorphs. But if you're concerned with body composition, you'd do well to worry more about diet than cardio exercise.
"Most folks are a combination of two somatotypes rather than a distinct embodiment of a single somatotype. Experimentation, then, becomes the means to finding a balance of cardiovascular and strength training.
"The best policy, though, is to keep the goal the goal. This is a lesson from renowned strength coach Dan John. If you want to add muscle, cut out everything else and train to gain healthy muscle. Lift heavy things and eat the appropriate amount of good calories."
Three Bodybuilding Strategies for Targeting Fat Loss
Keep It Short and Focused.
People who include cardio training in their workout programs would do best to include a short duration (ten to fifteen minutes) of low-intensity aerobic training directly after their strength training session. Heart rate should be around 120-130 and movement should be continuous. Keep total cardio training time around thirty minutes per week. This will promote recovery without destroying the caloric surplus necessary for adding muscle.
Add a Powerful Fat-Loss Catalyst to Your Regimen.
There are a number of highly effective, physique-enhancing thermogenics out there that will not only help you facilitate fat loss, but they'll also amp up your workout and sharpen your focus and intensity as well. One of the best, BetaStax Elite from BioQuest, works simultaneously through a multitude of biochemical pathways to fundamentally "hardwire" your metabolic processes for maximum fat-loss. In fact, in a comparison of clinical studies, BetaStax Elite's key active ingredient, PureWay-Slim, achieved more weight loss in two weeks than other leading weight-loss compounds achieved in eight weeks. Try getting that kind of result on a treadmill!
Pairing your thermogenic with a non-stimulant fat-loss catalyst for synergistic effect can pay dividends, too. ProSource's Green Coffee Bean Extract is rich in chlorogenic acid, a compound that has been shown to modulate blood sugar levels, thereby helping to provide powerful non-stimulant diet support. ProSource's Tonalin CLA, Super 7-Keto, and Ultra-GTX are other non-stimulant options with peerless reputations for supporting fat loss.
When it comes to burning fat while maintaining muscle, it pays to consider a cutting-edge protein with body partitioning efficacy as well. Of particular interest in this category is ProSource's unique physique-enhancing protein Vectron. Vectron contains Prolibra, an advanced weight management system clinically proven to help improve the ratio of lean muscle to fat. In an independent, randomized, double-blind, 12-week clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, test subjects showed significant improvements in the ratio of lean muscle to fat while taking 24.4 grams of Prolibra per day compared to a control group taking an isocaloric placebo. The subjects taking Prolibra retained twice as much lean muscle with 79% fat-loss compared to the control group at 51% fat loss. No other protein complex has been clinically proven to achieve this type of body composition improvement in a 12-week period. The Prolibra group also lost 6.1% fat. Again, you'd have to spend a lot of time on an elliptical to get that result!
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Doing the same things in the same way every day is not going to get the job done. When it comes to cardio, changing things up will not only keep your body from adapting to the routine and conserving fat. It will also help you retain your sanity.
You really don't even have to run. Walking, rowing, bicycling, anything that gets your heart rate up will do the job. Recently, we here at ProSource were talking to Mark Wahlberg, an actor with one of the most well-recognized, ultra-ripped physiques in Hollywood. Mark doesn't run at all. "I don't like to run," Mark told us. "Running, treadmills, that stuff, I don't do much if I can avoid it. I play a lot of basketball. I do some boxing, rope skipping. That's how I stay lean. That's what works for me."
If it works for Mark Wahlberg, it'll work for you.
How much cardio do you do in a typical training week? Do you find it to be an effective fat-loss tool? Let us know in the comment field below!