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.
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.
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.
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.
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!