The Top 3 Questions About Cardio And Body Composition

In a fitness world full of contradiction and misrepresentation – cardio probably takes the cake as the least-understood training tool that we can use.

Here are few things you might have heard about cardio:

  • It’s essential.
  • Never do it.
  • Only do cardio fasted – James Kuhn crushed that one right here!
  • Cardio eats muscle.
  • More than five reps is cardio (I like this one).
  • Anything else you want to make up and post online.

I have come full-circle, I used to do a tonne of cardio and then went to absolutely none. Currently, I sit somewhere in the middle. I don’t like to think of cardio as good/bad or essential/non-essential. Cardio is just a tool, but quite a relevant tool for body recomposition. Once you understand it’s application, you can identify where it best suits in the programming of different people and their goals.

Below is my take on three common cardio questions.


Q1: Should I be doing cardio at all?

While many people are anti-cardio, if the goal is fat burning or conditioning, there is certainly place for cardio in a well-designed training plan. The key is to remember cardio is a tool that is best used on top of the foundation of a resistance training program, particularly for body recomposition goals.

Once resistance training is in place, cardio can be added at certain stages of the program, depending on the client’s goals. I would recommend at least two resistance training sessions before adding in cardio training. If I could only plan two trainings sessions a week for a client – I would make them two resistance training sessions instead of any steady-state cardio.

The return on investment for body recomposition is much higher from resistance training that it is from cardio. However, resistance training is more intense and required greater recovery. It is important to keep a balance between the two in any training program.

If the goal is fat loss, I think cardio can accelerate this process when used in small doses. Cardio can also help build muscle indirectly, by increasing work capacity and thereby allowing greater exposure to loads. However, this impact is much less than it's role in fat loss!


Q2: Steady state or HIIT?

Steady state cardio after a resistance trainings session is my preferred strategy for fat burning. The reason being that if you have just completed a well-planned resistance training session, your body will be mobilising fatty acids into the blood steam. We have written an article about the three steps of fat burning previously, so let’s not go over old ground.

HIIT training sessions will  burn more energy then and there, but it will burn less fat and is also quite taxing on the body. If you have just completed an intense 50-minute workout, there should be no need add another 20-minutes of HIIT onto the end. If the workout was that intense, why do you need to burn another more energy?

When there is a strong base of resistance training, I would prefer to use steady state cardio exclusively, particularly for body recomposition goals. HIIT sessions can be completed on alternate days or even split sessions, but let's be honest - who has time to train twice a day?!

This isn't to devalue HIIT training in any way. However, for the majority of clients that I work with - busy people with body recomposition goals - the resistance training + steady state cardio has always been the most effective. I consider resistance training to be a form of HIIT anyway!

Making the most of machines

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Q3: Cardio before or after weights?

After. Every time. 

Do cardio after resistance training if you want to burn more fat (read above or linked article) and be stronger while you train. If you are fatigued from cardio before a resistance training session, your ability to train hard may be impaired. I’d much rather have a client have a good resistance training session and cut cardio down by five minutes, instead of reducing the intensity resistance training session.

The exception to this rule would be in the case of speed training. In this case, you would complete the speed training before resistance training, although there would ideally be a break in between these two. Realistically, if you are super concerned about developing speed, body composition probably isn't a concern!


Do your thing!

Cardio won't kill your gains and in fact it can be a key component to body recomposition when used correctly. Play around and see what works for you. These are just the guidelines I operate with that have been successful with my clients.