Cardio is such a common question and it’s also one of the most difficult ones to figure out because it is extremely variable depending on each person as well as their goals. Many people don’t know where to start with cardio which is totally understandable because everyone seems to do cardio a little differently. You talk to one person and they’ll say they go hard on the elliptical for 45 minutes 6 days a week and then someone else might say they do the bike once a week for 20 minutes. So who’s right? Well, the honest answer is both of them could be right.
However, I will say that in my opinion 45 minutes on the elliptical 6 days a week could be classified as a humane form of torture (unless you enjoy it!) and you don’t have to start out with that much cardio. I can’t promise that you might not eventually need that much cardio because it truly does depend on someone’s goals and the general timeframe of those goals. My number one recommendation for people who come to me looking to lose weight is that you want to start out with lifting and a proper caloric deficit, and then add in cardio as you go when it’s necessary. I utilize cardio (for both myself and clients) as a tool to either push for extra weight loss on top of current progress or break through a plateau. Lifting and nutrition come first and always but cardio is on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.
There is an easy way to determine right off the bat, though, if you need cardio based on your goals. If you are looking to gain weight then lucky you! You get out of cardio! If you desperately love cardio and don’t want to give it up then you still can do some but be warned that if you have difficulty gaining weight in the first place then doing cardio on top of trying to gain weight will make it even more difficult. Not impossible but just more challenging so that’s something to be aware of.
If you’re looking to lose weight well then cardio is pretty much inevitable at one point. This is because cardio is one of the easiest ways to create a bigger caloric deficit to help you lose weight. The first being a decrease in food and then increasing exercise is the second way.
But then comes the question of how much cardio do you need to lose weight?
This again can be tricky to give a straight answer as it’s also based on the type of cardio you do because there’s a big difference between HIIT (high intensity interval training) cardio and LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio as well as the amount that you need of each. HIIT sessions I recommend keeping shorter, no more than 15-20 minutes (25 minutes max is my preference). Steady state cardio can be much longer, though, like up to 60 minutes or more. LISS doesn’t mean it’s easy but it just means you’re not doing intense intervals followed by periods of rest. You still want it to be challenging but you stay at that steady level for the duration of the workout. You can also do a mix of the two with some HIIT sessions a week and some LISS sessions.
If you’re currently not doing any cardio but are looking to add it in, I recommend to people to add in 1 short HIIT session like 10-15 minutes once a week to see where that gets you. The thing about HIIT and the way I do it is you have to go all.out. When you’re doing 20-30 seconds on, you better be pushing it to the limit as hard as you can (but please be safe and know your limits) which is why I tell people to keep sessions shorter. HIIT should NOT be like 45 minutes long because to me that means a) you’re not going hard enough in those on intervals and b) you’re gonna kill your muscles and not achieve proper recovery throughout the week. It’s also why I don’t recommend more than 3 HIIT sessions a week because HIIT requires more muscle recovery so that means more time and/or more food. However, if you’re cutting then your body has less access to food for recovery so it can take more time for them to recover.
So my personal preference is a mix of both HIIT cardio and LISS because one is more efficient for fat loss while the other can create a bigger caloric deficit because you can do it for longer. But the bottom line is if you want true and effective fat loss then you need to be doing lifting as well. Lifting will help retain as much muscle as possible so please don’t forget the weights.
So, say you added in 1-2 HIIT sessions a week and you saw results for a little bit but have then plateaued again. You have a couple options but also bear in mind only change one thing at a time. This will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. Because if you add in one HIIT session and then one LISS session in the same week you’re not going to be able to tell which one it was that helped. It could have been one or the other or could have been both.
The first option (and what I’d usually go for) is you can add time on to those already existing HIIT sessions. If you were doing 10 minutes try for 15 or 15 then go for 20, you get the idea. Or you can split the difference and create a whole new HIIT session. So say for example you’re doing 2 10 minute HIIT sessions a week and instead of adding 5 minutes on to each of those you just create a 3rd day of HIIT with a 10 minute session. Up to you and your schedule.
The second option is you can add in a LISS session but keep those HIIT sessions the same. Remember, one change at a time. I generally start people out with about 20 minutes of LISS (30 total actually with 5 minute warm-up and 5 minute cool-down but that’s at a very easy pace).
Alright, so say you did either one of those options and saw results but then plateaued again. How do you keep adding in cardio? For HIIT, I always say about 5 minutes max but if you get to the point where you’re at 20-25 minutes 2-3x per week then that’s the most HIIT I’d truly want a client to do. Don’t get me wrong, I like HIIT, I’m a fan of HIIT but my main focus is muscle. We want to preserve it, take care of it, and train it properly. Too much HIIT and you risk doing more harm than good. Ideally, I like 2 HIIT sessions a week and then add in LISS for the rest.
For LISS, you can do bigger jumps and I’d say add in about 10 minutes to a session. If you’re doing multiple LISS sessions per week, just add on 10 to one or you can evenly disperse it throughout the week. The way I look at cardio is cumulative per week. So week one I might be doing 40 minutes (however I want to break that up) of LISS so then I’ll do 50 minutes of LISS the following week to bump it up a notch.
In the end, the amount truly depends on your goals. What I always tell people is try to start out with the least amount of cardio possible to lose weight because that makes it easier to add it in. If you start out with 60 minutes for 5 days a week that’s gonna be miserable to add on when you plateau. So take it slow and only add on cardio when you need it meaning if you stop losing weight. If you are steadily losing weight on your current nutrition and cardio/lifting plan then no changes are necessary. However, if you need to bump it up a notch due to time constraints then yes you could probably add in some extra cardio or cut macros a touch to speed things along.
I know that this was very long-winded haha! But I hope this at least addressed some of the cardio confusion, and give you an idea of where you’re at and where you want to get going. As always if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to email me! 🙂