By Naomi Rabon, NW Fitness Team Trainer
One of the first things that comes to mind when people want to lose weight is incorporating cardiovascular exercise, or “cardio” for short. Cardio exercise pretty much encompasses any physical activity that involves elevating your heart rate and increasing respiratory output. In other words, activities that increase the speed at which your heart pumps blood and your lungs take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide (labored breathing).
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
While cardio is synonymous with weight loss or a “shredding/cutting” phase, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that too much cardio can actually be counterproductive to your physique goals. If you haven’t heard that before, or if you’ve heard that before but still aren’t quite sure how this is possible since hours of cardio is supposed to burn a ton of calories, please allow me to enlighten you.
I have personally experienced both worlds of drastic physique transformations to prep for figure competitions – eating, exercising, sleeping and breathing for the sole purpose of sculpting my body to look a certain way – and also the world of athletic performance competitions (long distance running and ultramarathon trail races) – eating, exercising, sleeping and breathing for the sole purpose of the best possible athletic performance on competition day. Both involved cardio exercise, but both were for very different reasons with very, very different desired outcomes.
CARDIO FOR PHYSIQUE GOALS
When I was prepping to compete in figure, I drastically reduced my cardio to only about 20 minutes, three-times per week. In some cases, when I was really focusing on building, I cut it out all together for weeks at a time so that my muscles could grow. Only when it was time to lean down did I start incorporating cardio exercise back into my weekly regimen, and because of how my body responds to cardio, the most amount I did for competition prep was 45 minutes per day, 5 days per week.
I’ve heard of competitors doing two cardio sessions per day, as much as 1.5 hours per day, 6 days a week with 30 minutes of fasted cardio in the morning, then another hour of cardio later in the day (or vice-a-versa) on top of an hour or more of a weight lifting workout. That is a lot of exercise!
For physique goals, such as bodybuilding competitions, the cardio incorporated in the fitness program is solely for the purpose of a desired look, which is body fat loss. You want your body to burn calories and use body fat for energy, so you want the cardio exercise to be as effective as possible in that aspect. For this reason, you don’t want your body to adapt too much to the cardio exercise or it won’t respond as well as it did when you first introduced cardio.
ADAPTATION: A BLESSING AND A CURSE
The human body will always try to find ways to adapt to new foods, new exercises, and new environments, both internal and external, because it always wants to be in homeostasis. It strives to reach a comfortable level of homeostasis by adapting to its environment, which is often when plateaus happen. Your body initially reacts well to a new diet, new weight lifting routine or new cardio protocol, but once it adapts, it reaches homeostasis and no longer has anything new to respond to. We want to avoid this with physique changes. Athletic performance, however, is another story.
CARDIO FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Cardio exercise for improved athletic performance is completely different. The goal is to increase athleticism, which calls for the body to adapt to each higher level of cardio demands asked of it and increased levels of fitness conditioning placed on it. The goal of increasing athletic performance and fitness, at least in the sport of long-distance road races and ultramarathon trail races and other similar sports, is to try to get the body to be capable of maintaining high levels of cardio for long periods of time, anywhere between an hour up to 7 hours of sustained high levels of cardiorespiratory output.
At this point, the body has adapted so well to the cardio demands placed on it that it starts trying to conserve energy output and eventually doesn’t burn as many calories as it once did before adapting to the activity. Additionally, your metabolism will start to slow down with consistent high levels of energy output in order to conserve energy. Closely related to the “starvation mode” concept, as a basic survival mechanism your body will try to conserve as much energy as possible by slowing down how quickly it burns through energy, or calories
KEY TAKE AWAYS
Here are 5 tips to help you get the most out of your cardio regimen.
1. Know your goal for incorporating cardio Is it solely for cardio vascular health? Physique changes such as weight loss, fat loss? Overall improved fitness? Athletic performance and conditioning?
2. Hitting a cardio plateau If your body is no longer responding, it’s likely because it has adapted to the cardio you’re currently doing and you may need to back off for a few weeks or even a few months depending on how much you are doing. Increasing your cardio is not always the answer if your cardio goals are physique-based and not athletic performance-based.
3. Switch it up It may not be the amount of cardio you’re doing, but the type of cardio you’re doing that’s no longer effective. If you find yourself always gravitating toward the same cardio equipment or exercises, switch it up! Your body has adapted and maybe even gotten bored with doing the same cardio, the same duration and the same intensity day after day after day.
4. Cycle your cardio In order to keep your body responding to cardio, you might want to consider going through cycles of higher volume, intensity, frequency and duration of cardio for about 2-3 months, then 2-3 months of lower volume, intensity, frequency and duration as kind of a “cardio re-set button” so that your body will respond again with the next cardio cycle of higher volume, intensity, frequency and duration.
5. Can’t out-cardio a bad diet If you feel like your body is no longer responding to cardio after following the above steps, it may not be the cardio at all. It may be your diet.
In general, when your body is introduced to something, especially multiple times for long periods of time and in certain amounts, it can develop a resistance to it. For example, vaccines are injected into your body – sometimes multiple times over the course of a certain time period – so that your body can develop a resistance or immunity to whatever it is you are being vaccinated for.
Another example is when your body is releasing too much insulin on an on-going basis. You end up developing insulin resistance, also known as diabetes. So unless you are purposefully trying to develop a resistance to cardio to increase cardiorespiratory endurance for athletic performance, make sure you have cycles where you increase your cardio for an appropriate period of time to elicit a specific result (coupled with proper nutrition and strength-training, of course), followed by a cycle where you significantly decrease your cardio (which could be part of a reverse-diet). That way, when you start to increase your cardio again, your body will respond well to it.
ABOUT NAOMI RABON
One of the trainers on Nicole’s elite NW Fitness Training Team, Naomi is a certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is a NPC Figure competitor who has been involved in the health and fitness industry for over 12 years.