Cardio for Fat Loss

Whether you want to just tighten up your mid-section or lose over 30 pounds, it’s easy to quickly confuse which type of exercise to prioritize. What if all the gym-goers on the treadmills have it all figured out? Or what about the bodybuilders who lift weights and get nice and lean with abs that pop? And how about the cover model who credits her figure to running 3 miles every morning? Where exactly does cardio fall in the fat loss equation?

cardio workouts for fat loss

You must lift weights

I need to start with this one. When it comes to a body transformation, resistance training is the most important tool for changing your physique. Contracting muscle burns calories and shapes and changes the body. Lines on your stomach, a toned upper back and arms, shapely legs, a round and lifted bum is all known as muscle definition. Definition is not possible without doing exercises that challenge and strengthen your muscles. Follow a good resistance training program and combine it with a diet based on whole unprocessed foods and you’ll shed body fat to where you’re lean enough to see all your curves.

Training builds strong bones, ligaments, tendons, and lean muscle mass. It prevents the loss of muscle which happens as we age. Strength training increases your metabolism both after a workout and at rest. Unlike fat, muscle is a tissue, mean it’s constantly being broken down and reconstructed. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn just by doing nothing. This metabolic boost is huge in helping with fat loss and maintaining bodyweight for the rest of your life. Muscle is dense, making the body tighter and skin smoother in appearance. The density of muscle is why the scale doesn’t tell the whole story. You can have two women who are both 5”6 and weigh 130 lbs, one lifts weights and the other doesn’t, and they will look completely different. The one who trains more frequently will have a lower body fat percentage, giving her that tight and toned look.

Strong and Lean in 12 Weeks is open until Sunday, July 15. If you want weight training workouts all organized into a program with an easy to follow training plan and nutritional guidelines for a maintainable lifestyle that allows you to enjoy life, this is the best program out there. You can sign-up here.

What does an effective weight training session look like?

  • full of intensity, focus and intention
  • 10 minute warm-up of cardio and dynamic stretches to get the body warm, activate sleepy or weak muscles
  • prepared with a workout plan detailing the exercises, reps, tempo and sets
  • 40-45 minutes of mostly compound movements (i.e. lunges, deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups)
  • select challenging weights and execute each exercise with perfect form
  • 10 minutes to cool-down and stretch

Build cardio into your daily life

cardio for fat loss

Regular cardio boasts so many benefits including improved cardiovascular health, fat mobilization, energy expenditure, and circulation. For general health, performing structured cardio for 30 to 45 minutes three to five times a week is a sweet spot. These cardio sessions should be added to an already active lifestyle. Active means doing non-exercise activity that adds up to 10,000 steps per day. This improves health, burns calories, improves sleep and manages stress – all of which are required for fat loss. Tracking your steps for a few weeks using a Fitbit or Apple watch is a good way to judge how much more you need to move during the day. There are so many ways to up your activity. Wake up and walk outside for 10 minutes. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Take a break every hour and quickly walk the stairs in the stairwell. Encourage your colleagues to have walking meetings. Walk at lunch time. Walk your dog. Park further away instead of fighting for the closest parking spot. Ask family members to take a brief walk after dinner.

Listening to your body, and when cardio becomes too much

We all need a good mix of cardio, strength and flexibility in our weekly routine. The exact mix of these will depend on your unique physiology. The only client I have doing high volume cardio (over 45 minutes several times per week) is someone training for endurance sports. For most people, 30 to 45 minutes of cardio is all they need for results. Exercise is a stress to the body. The longer the session lasts, the greater the increase in cortisol (stress hormone) production which can lead to fat storage specifically in the mid-section. Cortisol plays a huge role in adrenal health, metabolism, immune function and thyroid health.

    Intensity is important

    The best bang-for-your-buck cardio session is high intensity interval training (HIIT) 2 to 3 times per week. Short intense workouts have been proven to be more effective for fat loss than traditional cardio(2). To perform interval cardio, let your heart-rate gradually warm-up with 5 to 10 minutes of moderate cardio. Then do a brief sprint followed by a recovery interval. A 1:2 or 1:3 sprint to rest ratio works well. This allows enough time to recover and come back with as much intensity and reduces risk for injury. Sprints work best on a bike, elliptical, treadmill, rower, or as hill or sand sprints. Interval training increases fat burning hormones during and after the workout. Endurance trains for efficiency which is the opposite of what needs to happen if you want to build muscle or lose body fat. Your body will quickly adapt and become more efficient at anything it does on a regular basis. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to change up your training program every 4 to 6 weeks.

    Sample Interval Workout

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    Cardio or weights, which comes first?

    Before a weight training session, perform a warm-up for 5 to 10 minutes to rev the cardiovascular system, increase blood flow to muscles, raise body temp and reduce risk for injury. I like to have clients work up to running a mile before their workout. Your workouts should be full of compound multi-joint movements that work big muscle groups. These exercises require a lot of mental and physical power, which will be drained if you do a bunch of cardio beforehand. Form and intensity is everything. I spend a great deal of time with clients instructing them on proper form and technique. Get your mind into your muscle and focus on the muscles working during the exercise. Ideally, separate your cardio and weight sessions to separate days, or at least by 4 to 6 hours. If you put them together, always prioritize resistance training and then end with 10 to 15 minutes on the bike.

    Strong and Lean in 12 Weeks has 3 phases of weight training to prevent plateau and get amazing results in just 3 months. Every workout is planned out down to the body parts, reps and sets. It's open until Sunday, July 15. You can sign-up here.

    Why you can’t out exercise a bad diet

    Let’s end with a reminder that sustainable and healthy fat loss is only possible when eating a diet around single-ingredient foods, or foods that once grew. Intense excessive exercise will burn calories but the elevated cortisol levels increases the body’s fat stores. If you overindulge on drinks, food, or sugar, getting on the treadmill the next day and running for an hour while hating yourself is not effective and can even continue a cycle of binge-eating and chronically elevated cortisol. Instead, wake-up and drink loads of fresh water to flush your system, perform either a full-body resistance routine or an interval cardio workout, and follow it up with your regular healthy breakfast.



    1. Boutcher, Stephen H. “High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss.” Journal of Obesity, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2011,

    2. Trapp, E G, et al. “The Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training on Fat Loss and Fasting Insulin Levels of Young Women.” International Journal of Obesity (2005)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2008,

    3. Tremblay, A, et al. “Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism.” Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 1994,

    4. Schoenfeld, Brad. “Does cardio after an overnight fast maximize fat loss?”, Strength and Conditioning Journal. 33(1), 2011.

    5. Shaw, K, et al. “Exercise for Overweight or Obesity.” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 Oct. 2006,