This is one of the top questions I receive. It’s something I’ve worried about in the past too, but now I have a great answer and approach for all of us.
First off, you know I’m one of my top pieces of advice is to train according to your goals. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon and your physical goals take a back seat, you workouts aren’t going to be focused on muscle hypertrophy, muscle symmetry and overall aesthetics, right?!
I’m writing this post for those of us who have goals of getting fit by focusing on muscle as well as getting lean through reducing overall body fat. What I call the “fit and lean” body is pretty much always my goal, so my answer here is tailored to that.
Why does this question even come up? For me and many women is arises when we start talking about weight training and cardio. There’s an older school of thought that cardio “eats” at muscle. At least, that was the fear I had and what I heard people talking about when I first began my journey.
I also think it’s a common and good question because let’s say we only make time for a one hour workout each day. We think about the best way to spend that hour in order reach our goals, right?! Like is 30 mins of cardio and 30 mins of weights going to be the most effective? Should I be doing more cardio if I want to focus on losing weight? Will that stop me from putting on muscle? So, maybe more weight training? I can see why this is a common question. Let’s get into it.
-TYPES OF CARDIO-
First off, I suggest rethinking your idea of cardio. The definition of cardiovascular training is a workout that exercises the heart, lungs and associated blood vessels; it is any exercise that raises our heart rate for an extended period of time.
HIIT: high intensity interval training consists of a high intensity interval followed by a recovery interval. During a high intensity interval, you give your maximum effort (100%) through a short, burst of exercise. Following that interval comes a recovery interval of complete rest or an active recovery period. A HIIT workout is typically much shorter than a more traditional workout and includes workouts like sprinting.
HIIT is highly effective because during this type of training, our muscles “burn” due to the lactic acid build up and our oxygen stores begin to deplete, which is the shortness of breath we experience. When high-intensity workouts are completed, the body will work to stabilize itself on many different levels; one of those ways is to pay back the “oxygen debt” created during exercise and to clear out the lactic acid. This requires calories to be burned! In fact, our bodies will work to do this for 16-24 hours following a HIIT workout. This is commonly referred to as the “afterburn” also known as EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
Not only do HIIT workouts allow us to burn the same amount of calories in a shorter time period as compared to a longer steady state workout, but also calorie burning may occur for up to 24 hours following the workout! In short, the HIIT style of training can burn more fat in less time and allow us to burn calories for hours after the workout has ended.
LISS: low intensity steady state cardio can be thought of as the opposite of HIIT. Instead of maximum effort for short bursts as is the goal during HIIT, under the LISS approach, we aim for a low level of exertion for a longer, continuous period of time. It was once thought that steady state workouts kept the heart rate in a “fat burning range,” but that is not exactly the case. LISS cardio includes walking, jogging and swimming as just three of many examples.
LISS is effective at burning calories and fat but the benefits go beyond that; it is great at developing aerobic fitness, cardiovascular endurance and overall health. Also, because we need to allow our bodies to recover, LISS workouts serve as a low-impact option for days when our muscles feel sore. This is often called an active rest day: no lifting, just LISS cardio.
Which is more effective?? HIIT and LISS are equally as beneficial, but uniquely effective. HIIT allows us to burn just as many calories (plus that after-burn) in less time as compared to LISS. HIIT is likely the better option under a time constraint. LISS is a great choice for days when our bodies are too sore for HIIT. Plus, ask anyone who completes a nice run or walk (LISS) and some of the benefits such as a clearer mind are unmatched. I find the most effective training approach utilizes both of these styles, which is what you’ll find in my plans and challenges.
-CARDIO/WEIGHT TRAINING BALANCE-
Balancing cardio and weight training becomes tricky when the goal is to build muscle mass. Muscle hypertrophy and retaining muscle mass requires a sufficient amount of calories. Too much cardio can burn the calories necessary for muscle hypertrophy, making building muscle a bit more difficult (but certainly not impossible or something to be fearful of). Still, cardio is important for overall health and keeping body fat low.
There’s definitely a balance to be reached and that balance can be highly personalized. I also love to mention this… weight training is actually a form of HIIT. The weight training sets serve as the high intensity intervals and the time between sets are the recovery intervals. This is why I’m such a proponent of weight lifting. Think of it as hitting two birds with one stone: cardio for calorie burning and muscle targeting for building a fit physique.
In short, I like to use weight training as my staple workout as it’s both cardio and sculpting. Then, I add cardio in as a supplemental workout based on my goals at the moment. I’ll go into that in the next section.
-FINDING YOUR BALANCE-
Always remember, the cardio and weight training balance will vary person to person. For example, I am a naturally thin individual and it takes a lot of work for me to build muscle. Too much cardio can quickly keep me from my muscle mass goals, so doing cardio just 2-3 times per week at 15-30 minutes is plenty for me and maybe you too. For others, you may do better with cardio every day or every other day.
So, where do you start?? I suggest 4x per week of weight training and 2x per week for cardio (maybe 1 HIIT and 1 LISS session) as a good place to begin assessing your cardio/weight training balance. This doesn’t mean you have to workout 6x per week. You could do those 2 cardio sessions before or after your weighted workout to workout 4x in a week or you could spread that out to 6 days per week.
From there, assess. If you feel you need more cardio to keep lean, add some more in. If you’re finding it extra difficult to put on muscle, maybe dial down the cardio. Also, cardio isn’t just about the physical goals. A walk helps clear my mind. I love the way I feel after a short run. I’ll go through periods when I do a bit more cardio than at other times just to feel better. Or, maybe I’m getting ready for summer or a beach vacation and want to lean out a bit more; I’ll add in some more cardio than usual. Follow your goals and listen to your body! It knows best!
You may have heard Anthony and I chatting on Instagram stories last night as I was writing this post. Basically, we were saying that focusing on exactly how much cardio we should do is a secondary type of question. The more important thing to focus on first is establishing an overall healthy lifestyle, which entails making workouts (of any kind) a habit and most importantly, focusing on nutrition.
We cannot out-train a poor diet. If you need any help there, I highly suggest checking out my Eat Your Way Lean Meal Plan as a place to get you started with how to eat for physical results: getting fit and lean.