Exercises and workouts are a big source of contention for many millions of women, especially when it comes to fat loss, fitness, or physique goals. Many feel that the cardio training is the only way to achieve their goals. They will spend hours upon hours on their favorite (or not) cardio equipment hoping to get the results they want. Many women truly enjoy their weekly cardio class/activity and don't want to give it up (even though there are just as many who can't stand it). On the flip side, they may feel like any activity that isn't making them super sweaty just isn't worth the time on their workout calendar.
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They may test the waters of other workout styles, feel unimpressed, and wonder whether they should continue to do something they don't like. And it's not just the cards bunnies that experience this. It's easy for any of us to get super absorbed in the style of exercise that we like (Pilates, Yoga, Lifting, etc), and then completely turn our nose up at any other workout style.
What if I don't like this workout?? Should I still do it?
The short answer is – maybe.
If your goal is simply improved heart health, released endorphins, relaxation or stress relief, then do anything that makes you happy and keeps you moving. Overall health should be a huge consideration in what workouts make you happy. If you love your classes, then keep taking them. If you love running marathons, by all means keep doing them. Happiness is what will keep you motivated to continue to do something.
However, if you have specific goals in mind, there might be workouts you have to do in order to get the results you want, even if you don't like doing it. This means depending on what your goals are, things need to be done to help get you there. Want to run a 10k? Ramp up the endurance work. Wanna compete in a Strongman? Spend a bit more time on strength building. Improved flexibility and core strength? Break out that yoga mat. Looking to get ripped? Gonna need to apply some resistance to those muscles, if you ever wanna see them.
In other words, you're going to have to challenge yourself in new (and completely different) ways to reach each new (and completely different) goal. Even if you don't particularly like the challenge activity in question.
But it doesn't mean that you have to completely eliminate the exercises you do love in place of these.
What it does mean, is that you have to be aware of what you are doing and what results you should expect from it. If you are doing nothing but cardio, you cannot expect to get a ripped and muscular body (and say goodbye to that Strongman!). Cardio will give you a specific body style, but it is likely not the one you are hoping to get!
If you wanna become more flexible, but aren't willing to invest the time in the activities that will achieve better mobility/flexibility, then don't get upset when you can't go quite as deep into that squat – or when you discover that you're a bit more accident prone – than you like.
Bottom line – if you're just starting out, or don't have specific goals: do the activities or workouts that make you feel good and make you want to get off the couch and DO them. If you haven't found what that is yet, keep trying! There are so many different ways to move your body. Find what you love. However, if you are trying to get goal specific (i.e. looking to build muscle and have that “toned” look), then you might need to be open to new workout styles (read: pick up the weights), even if you don't like them.
Plateau Prevention 101: Workouts
When it comes to hitting plateaus along your journey, it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Knowing that plateaus will come should prevent you from the all-too-common mistake of trying to change too many things at once.
This is difference between amateurs and pros. Pros know start small, tackling one bite sized chunk after another. This not only helps them have a plan in place before they plateau, but assures that they can actually stick to the plan — progressing for years to come. Amateurs try to move ahead “faster” by biting off more than necessary. This not only gives them nowhere to go when they plateau (because they’re already doing the MAX, when the minimum would have given the same result), but they also burnout very early on in the process, and give up. Over. and. over. Instead of approaching your journey in the all-or-nothing way of the amateur, let’s level up and attack your workouts like a pro this year.
Tips for preventing plateaus:
5 ways to add challenge/variety/levels to your workouts
- Rep ranges – Don’t just stick to one. Try alternating short periods (daily, weekly, monthly) of one rep range before moving to another. Don’t get nostalgic or think that one rep range can do it all. It can’t/shouldn’t. (common rep “ranges” to alternate: 1-8 reps, 9-12 reps, 13+)
- Amount of weight you’re using – Every time you change rep ranges, the amount of weight lifted should change. Higher reps = lighter weight, lower reps, heavier weight. If you’re sticking to one rep range for several weeks, you should be seeing weekly increases. At the very least, your weight by week 4-6 should be heavier than weeks 1-3. If your weights aren’t increasing, time to take a break from that phase.
- Rest periods – Rest periods are not set in stone, they can range from no rest, to 3-5 min of rest depending on the above. If you’re lifting heavier weights for lower reps, you’ll need longer rest periods to keep hitting it hard. If you’re lifting light weights for high reps, less rest is needed.
- Exercise type – Compound vs isolation movements. Each has benefits, so don’t be extreme, or expect any one exercise movement to be a holy grail. But as a general rule of thumb, beginners should stick with more compound movements (1-3 yrs), and advanced lifters (3+ years) can benefit from some isolation work.
- Cardio – be strategic, add it slowly, if at all, based on preference. Your body quickly adapts to traditional forms of cardio, so adding in a ton from the jump makes it have a less of an impact in the long run. Unless you’re an endurance athlete, or just love cardio (and fully understand/accept it’s limits/diminishing returns), you may want to consider cardio as an occasional, “finish line,” or recovery-only basis.
Let’s talk about plateaus.
It’s likely that somewhere along your journey, you’ll hit one. You’re eating like you feel you should, and working out regularly. Yet for some reason, you’re not shaking up your body enough to invoke change.
At this point, many people want to run to cardio as the answer. They get sucked back in to the Cardio Trap thinking, “if 30 minutes on the treadmill each day helped me lose a few pounds, then 60 minutes will of course help me lose even more. And if 60 minutes at a moderate pace helps me lose more, 60 minutes at a strenuous pace must be even better.”
This philosophy is a huge misconception. Even if it works initially, it can and most likely will eventually backfire. What happens when 60 minutes is no longer enough? Go to 90? 120? Do you REALLY want to work for 2 hours to get the same amount of results that you once got in 30 min? This is something to consider before you even consider falling down that rabbit hole:
“What happens when what I’m currently doing, is no longer ‘enough’?”
Because the time will come. Your body is amazingly adaptive, always seeking ways to bring you back into balance. It naturally wants to adapt to cardio, so that you can go farther on less fuel (burn fewer cals doing more…and more…and moreeeeee work).
That’s why lifting is my number one recommendation when seeking fat loss…even if you LOVE and adore cardio. (aka “cardio for fun, weights to transform”)
Your body also adapts to resistance training, by building your muscles – making you strong enough to carry the same load in the future. This means that when you hit a lifting plateau, you also must make adjustments to your workouts. But these adjustments typically come in terms of weight amounts, not time. So you can still create changes to your body by increasing the challenge of the work load, without increasing your work time.
If you want to throw in a cardio workout or two each week for fun…because you enjoy it, that’s fine. However, be careful throwing in more than 2-3 intense cardio sessions a week (unless endurance is your goal). More is not always better, even if it “feels” awesome. Unknowingly, many ladies are putting far too much stress on their bodies and heading directly toward adrenal fatigue.
Going beyond a certain level of intensity need not be the goal of every.single.workout.
Understand that the number of calories you consume is also subject to this adaptation, making you require less and less to achieve the same goal. Many people start with the absolute lowest number of cals, thinking it will get them to goal weight faster. What they find out instead, is that it gets them to plateau faster…with no way out.
As you lose weight, the amount of food you need automatically lowers for you. (Don’t believe me? Go punch in your stats here, and compare the food your body requires now, vs 5-10 pounds from now.) You don’t need to implement the “minimum food / maximum workouts” suggestions that society promotes – WAY before it’s time. That lifestyle will backfire and kill your metabolism.
It seems counterintuitive to eat more and workout less, especially when you’ve tried the opposite in the past and it seemingly “worked.” Remember…if it “worked,” you wouldn’t need to keep starting over.
Slashing calories, ditching carbs (or other entire macronutrient groups), fasting, or going all out on the treadmill for 90 minutes instead of 30 is not sustainable in the long term for many of us. If the method is not sustainable, it’s not maintainable – no matter how attractive the “results” are in the short term. Chasing down non-sustainable methods, is a huge setup for hitting the inevitable plateau, that much sooner.
We recommend a no-nonsense, slower approach, that helps you to achieve results that you can maintain long-term. Using the Hierarchy of Fat Loss, and incorporating periodized resistance training, provides built-in progressions that naturally keep you climbing toward your goals.
This is no fast fix, so the weight will drop slower than it may if you were on a fad diet or jumped right in to hours of cardio a day. So many people look for those temporary measures, and view them as the gold standard. Many will attempt this lifestyle, but ultimately decide that this way is taking too long and decide to do something drastic to make the process move faster.
Most of those people will end up back where they started, or worse. Quick fixes actually take you further away from your goals in the long run; leaving you impatient, uninformed, and ill-prepared for what it really takes to reach them.
When it comes to fitness gadgets, one of the most popular items is the heart rate monitor. Heart rate monitors can be a great way to track calorie burn, and measure recovery levels during overly-stressed periods — but they are not always the best in every workout situation. In fact, when it comes to lifting, Heart Rate Monitors are not accurate for lifting.
Heart Rate Monitors are not accurate for lifting
If you jump on a cardio machine for a half hour workout, you'll notice a spike in calorie burn. If you spend the same amount of time doing a lifting routine, you'll notice you don't burn as many calories as you did in your cardio session. So cardio is the obvious winner, right?
When it comes to lifting weights, the bulk of the calorie burn comes in the EPOC (afterburn). Afterburn, as the name suggests, is the period of time after your workout concludes in which your body's metabolic rate is much higher than normal. So while you may burn fewer calories during the initial lift, you burn more overall in the hours/days following due to boosted metabolism. On the flip side, when it comes to cardio, what you see is what you get. This means is that when your cardio workout ceases, so does your calorie burn.
This can put heart rate monitors at a disadvantage when it comes to lifting, because they can dissuade “burn addicts” from strength training. Being addicted to the burn often causes people to place more focus on cardio than necessary, because they love to see that number spike during workouts. And I get it. We all want more bang for our buck – but when we let an initially low number on our heart rate monitor dissuade us from lifting, we're heading down the wrong road. Because muscle is the key to a healthy metabolism and high quality of life, we can't count on the number of calories burned during the workout to tell us how well we're doing.
The type of workout, doesn't immediately correlate to the burn that your HRM will show. This is true not only of weight lifting, but also with different types of cardio, as with HIIT/interval type workouts. Longer cardio sessions may show a higher burn than short, quick, HIIT style workouts. Circuits may show a higher calorie burn that lift/rest/lift style training. The key is to understand that both weight lifting and interval type workouts (anaerobic) lead to building (and keeping) more muscle than their alternatives. As you continue to build more muscle, your resting metabolic rate continues to increase (think more calories burned simply by sitting on the couch! Yeaaaahhhhh!).
If you're attached to your heart rate monitor, have no fear. The key is to make your heart rate monitor work for you – use it during cardio to gauge effectiveness and adaptability and keep in mind that wearing it during lifting isn't going to give you an accurate result. If you're bent on trying to get a more accurate number, you can look into adding something like a Fitbit to your arsenal, which will do a slightly better job of helping you understand how to properly fuel your body. Just be sure to note that when it's all said and done, even these “more accurate” devices typically underestimate the amount of cals burned. So don't use either as an excuse to undereat. ;)
Keeping the limitations of your HRM in mind will help you to continue including the workouts that are giving you the most return on your investment, while sprinkling in moderate doses of activities that you love. Seek true balance, rather than constantly fighting the uphill battle of too much cardio, and zero weights, to the detriment of your fat loss goals.
Remember: “cardio for fun, weights to transform!”
HOW MUCH CARDIO IS TOO MUCH
Contrary to my personal anti-treadmill stance, cardio can absolutely play a role in any fitness/fat loss puzzle. But just like everything else in life, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Although our motto here at EM2WL is cardio for fun, weights to transform, we understand the value cardio can add to a goal-specific workout plan (and that fact that some of you actually…umm…love it). So I understand that cardio lovers in the Fam, striving to heal their metabolisms, and finally lose fat would need a bit more explanation that “don't do so much cardio!”
When it comes to cardio, it seems that people either love it or hate it. Whether you’re a group instructor, runner, or despise cardio, your workouts should work for you, not against you. In order for this to happen, you must understand the purpose behind each type of workout, how it pertains to your goals, and apply it accordingly. Cardio is endurance exercise. The more you do, the better your body adapts, and builds up the ability to be able to withstand the same circumstances next time.
This adaptation is great if the goal is to cover a certain distance in increasingly quicker amounts of time (think: training for a marathon), or simply last longer in Zumba class. As far as general heart-health is concerned, this is usually the goal. Your new level of efficiency is usually noticeable during workouts when you're suddenly able to do more cardio than you initially were physically capable of doing just weeks/months before. For example: you may have originally broken a sweat doing ten minutes of cardio before, but now you have to do fifteen minutes to get to the same level.
Instead of inflicting cardio on myself as torture, I choose fun leisure-but-active activities to connect with those important to me.
If you were formally breathless chasing the kids, or climbing a flight of stairs – this type of adaptation is an amazing/healthy feeling. However, when the goal is fat loss, this adaptation means you now have to do more work to achieve the same results you initially were achieving with your cardio-only workouts. Adaptation= doing the same work for lesser results.
When it comes to adaptation, strength training is no exception. If you lift the same weight day in and out, your body eventually adapts and that weight just won't cut it. You'll have to introduce new stimuli to keep getting results, or risk hitting the infamous plateau. But there's good news when it comes to weight lifting adaptation: all you have to do to bust past that plateau is to lift heavier weights! The duration of your weight lifting sessions will never have to change (like your cardio has to) so long as you’re increasing your weights. This allows you to still be efficient without putting in extra time. Weight lifting gives you the most bang for your buck.
In other words: endurance exercise improves your endurance, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to fat loss beyond the initial newbie phase. Lifting improves your strength, endurance, lean body mass (muscle!) and assists in fat loss.
So how do you know that you've entered the “adaptation zone?” In addition to monitoring your performance during the workout, you can turn to your heart rate monitor (HRM) for clues. Using an HRM will allow you to see when your body gets to a point where it becomes more efficient at cardio. As endurance improves, your HRM will subsequently show that your calorie burn is lessening for common cardio activities. When you notice that you're burning less cals boing the same amount of work, your body has adapted. At that point you must either increase time, or change up your workout style to continue getting results.
If, for instance, you’re training for a race or are focused on increasing endurance, remember increased efficiency is in fact a good thing. When that calorie adaptation occurs, you've just shortened your race time. Increasing the time of the workout is actually the goal in that case. On the flip side, when it comes to fat loss, inefficiency is key. Doing the same workouts, but burning less cals, would mean that over time you'd be eating too much (even on a diet) – and eventually start GAINING weight.
That is what we're trying to prevent when we provide warnings about “too much cardio” during your reset or early stages of fat loss. It's not about removing something that you love, but rather understanding the roles that workout style plays in your fat loss journey.
There is no magic, universal number for how much cardio is too much. By using the tips above, your best answer is to listen to your body and evaluate often to see where your efficiency levels are at and if they’re conducive to the physique goals you’re trying to achieve.
Most of us are blown away when we learn the shocking truth that cardio is not the be-all-end-all of fat loss. It can take some time to fully wrap our heads around the concept (especially if you're the type who actually ENJOYS it and can't imagine life without it). Not surprisingly, one of the questions we receive most often in the early stages of discovering EM2WL is: “OK. So, where exactly does cardio fit? How much cardio can/should I do?
“The hierarchy of fat loss.”
The Hierarchy of Fat Loss (a concept coined by Alwyn Cosgrove several years ago) is simple way to self-regulate and decide for yourself if/when its time to add cardio into your fat loss protocol. It will also help those that can't imagine a cardio-less existence to work in their love of endurance in a way that does not contradict their physique goals.
The hierarchy outlines the top five factors you must nail down in order to achieve fat loss. The five levels are listed in order of importance, as is the nature of any hierarchy. This means that if you're looking to do/add/focus on items that are NOT listed here, they are being given far too much importance in your journey. Let’s take a look at each of the five and why they’re so important in the fat loss equation.
The perfect lifting and cardio routine mean nothing without proper eats. So check them TWICE before assuming any workout “is not working” for you. ;)
Level 1- Nutrition: Here’s the reality. No matter how hard you work out, run or lift, you can’t out work a bad diet. Period. If your nutrition is not on point, yet everything else is, you will not optimally achieve results or reach your fat loss goals. Main changes to make in your diet are to eat more protein, more fiber, and more food. Oftentimes, people aren’t eating enough food for fat loss- less isn’t always better. If you’ve spend periods of time eating low calorie diets (1200-1500 calories), then you may want to consider a metabolism reset. Before you can expect to lose weight, you must fix your metabolism so it is in proper working order.
Level 2- Nutrition: Nope, that’s not a typo. Level 2 is the same as level 1- nutrition! Why? It’s that important! If you have time for one thing and one thing only with regard to fat loss, nail your nutrition. Make sure you’re hitting your fiber, protein and calorie goals, and that you’re eating enough to sustain the type of workouts you’ll be doing.
Level 3- Activities that Burn Calories, Promote/Maintain Muscle Mass and Elevate Metabolism: This means lift! Lifting promotes muscle mass growth. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest due to an increased metabolic rate. Not only is muscle good for boosting your metabolism, but it has great cosmetic benefits as well- it looks good! If you’re not comfortable with lifting on your own, consider seeking out guidance from a personal trainer.
A snippet from Martha Stewart's book on “Living the Good Long Life” – at 74 years young, she KNOWS that lifting is the key!! What are YOU waiting for?
Level 4- Activities that Burn Calories and Elevate Metabolism with EPOC (after burn effect): If you find yourself having an extra day to workout or time leftover at the end of your lift, add in HIIT/Tabata/Interval/Metabolic Resistance style training. If you are short on time but still wanting to burn fat, these types of workouts are crucial for you. While this type of exercise may not promote muscle mass growth, it certainly can help maintain the muscle mass you already have.
Level 5- Activities that Burn Calories but Don’t Necessarily Maintain Muscle or Elevate Metabolism: Cardio is considered the icing on the cake, and in the puzzle of fat loss, is considered the least effective. This lines up with what we here at EM2WL always preach- cardio for fun, weight to transform.” Cardio works best when it’s not done frequently, because it shocks the body. If you do cardio all the time, your body adapts. If you continue to do the same amount of cardio and burn less calories, or don’t see an elevation in heart rate, that may be a good sign you’re doing too much, too often.
Putting it all together: What the hierarchy means to you
If you’re short on time (let’s face it, who isn’t!?) and can’t get to the gym, focus on your nutrition. When you do find yourself having some time, get a lift in. If you can commit to 1-2 days of exercise a week, lift weights those days. If you have 3-4 days, lift and do some HIIT (Level 4) training. If you have more than 4 days a week, then have the icing on the cake and do some cardio and fun aerobic activities you enjoy- Zumba, Body Pump, etc.
Remembering the motto “cardio for fun, weights to transform” will help you to fit in the activities you LOVE without having to use them as punishment.
For my cardio loving followers reading this, don’t freak out. Oftentimes people connect a regular cardio routine to results. If you go from doing nothing to doing just cardio, of course you’re going to see results. But once those results stop, the enjoyment of your workout(s) may stop also. When your cardio workout comes to an end, so does the calorie burn. On the other hand, with lifting, you may not burn as many calories initially during your workout but you’ll continue to burn calories up to 36 hours after your workout is over (called the after burn/EPOC). This is more beneficial for you compared to just burning calories while you’re on a piece of cardio equipment and not a minute more thereafter. If you’re looking to elevate your metabolism, then going for that after burn is what you want and need.
Especially if you’re a newbie to the world of proper nutrition, it’s important to take baby steps into your new healthy eating journey. Adequate consumption of protein, fiber and water are key. Focus on adding in or improving upon each (of the three listed above) into your daily intake until you nail it. For example, if you’re currently not drinking enough water, make it a goal to drink at least a gallon a day. Once you can consistently do so for several weeks/at least a month, next tackle eating more protein. Continue this process until you’ve aced all facets of a proper nutrition plan. In order to ensure adherence, eat the types of foods you enjoy while hitting your macronutrient totals. Keep in mind that the foods you consume have to work for your lifestyle and fit your taste preferences in order to be most successful and stay on track.
Not sure where to start? The Beginner Strength Training Manual answers all your lifting Q&A and comes with a full 12-week periodized workout plan with video demonstrations.
If you don’t have much time to lift, that’s okay. Do more compound movements and work multiple muscle groups (not isolated movements like bicep curls). Make sure you’re regularly alternating rest periods, sets, and rep ranges. This is important because if you don’t change these variables, your body will adapt and not respond as desired. Rest periods are especially important because they are needed in order for the body replenish its energy stores. Over a period of time, rotate through the following rep/set/rest schemes (also known as periodization). A sample 12-week rotation could be:
4 weeks: 30 seconds rest, higher reps (12+), lower weight
4 weeks: 45-60 seconds rest, lower reps (8-12), higher weight
4 weeks: 60+ seconds rest, low (5-8) reps, heavy weight
The problem with fat loss is most people approach the process in the opposite order, doing cardio first, then HIIT, then deciding to lift, and then tackling nutrition – no wonder the process can be so frustrating. When you turn the hierarchy on its head, you’re not going to see the results that you want. If you follow the fat loss hierarchy in order, you’ll see better and faster results. Work smart, not hard, and you’ll be more than impressed with the results awaiting you.
Go kill it this week, Fam!