Best Cardio for Cutting Fat: Without Losing Muscle

Can cardio for cutting be the best solution to the common problem of cutting a couple of excess kilograms?

cardio for cutting fat

Every year people have the ambition to drop body fat in what is so commonly called the ‘New Years Resolution’.

This is very optimistic and can work for some, but why is it that 78% of people fail after their first month on the diet?

Why is it that the gym is always full at the beginning of the month and completely empty towards the end?

How do you actually cut body fat?

Today, we’re going to explore:

  • Why cardio is the most popular activity for cutting fat
  • If cardio is the best way to lose fat
  • Why you may not even have to do cardio to lose fat

Let’s first get familiar with what cardio is and what types of cardio there are.

What Is Cardio?

“Cardio” is short for “Cardiovascular exercise”.

These are usually low-intensity workouts, long in duration, that utilise the aerobic energy system of the body.

The aerobic energy system uses oxygen to use up muscle and liver glycogen (the stored form of carbs/glucose), as well as fatty acids (and protein if fat and glucose are not available). 

Unlike resistance training, this type of training has one goal in mind:

Burning as many calories as possible.

No wonder cardio for cutting is so widely associated with weight loss. It is one of the best calorie burning activities. 

lady on a long distance run through mountains

Here are just a few examples of viable cardio activities:

  • Running/jogging
  • Swimming
  • Rope skipping 
  • Team sports
  • Boxing
  • Cycling
  • Treadmill running

Now, depending on the output of effort, cardio workouts can be further separated into two groups- High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Low-Intensity Training (LIT).

#1 HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training

High-intensity interval workouts have one simple goal:

Alternating between high-intensity bouts and low-intensity bouts.

Applying HIIT to running, for example, would lead to a workout, where you are jogging at a slower intensity for some time, then sprinting for 5-6 seconds and returning to a moderate intensity again.

The premise is simple:

Activating the fast-twitch muscle fibres of the body and creating a more anabolic response.

Anabolic simply means constructive. 

This type of training is associated with pleasant development of the musculature.

Many people claim that HIIT is the perfect way to burn more calories for less time and also, develop your musculature like normal cardio can’t.

This is exactly why it is the most preferred way to do cardio, at least nowadays.

#2 Low-Intensity Training (LIT)

Though HIIT workouts are fun and engaging, nothing really beats a jog in the park.

The low-intensity training approach is the most common form of cardio.

Let’s be real, we all associate jogging and running with being healthy and active.

These workouts are the low-intensity bouts, long in duration, which we talked about in the beginning.

This type of cardio is the best option for people with no prior training experience, who are looking to develop endurance.

Furthermore, it is less impactful on the joints and is perfect for people who are overweight and/or obese.

This, however, begs the question:

Is cardio Necessary For Body Fat Loss?

When it comes to cutting fat, most people think they have to spend countless hours on the treadmill.

Well, while cardio can certainly be beneficial, it is not mandatory for weight loss.

In fact, you can lose fat with no cardio at all!

What drives weight loss?

Each and every one of us, have different daily activities, different heights, weight, age, and so on.

All of those factors combined can tell us more about an individual’s energy needs.

As a matter of fact, you can precisely calculate your daily energy needs using a trusted calculator such as this one.

Now, those daily needs represent the amount of energy (number of calories) you would need to sustain your physiological processes and more importantly, in this case, maintain your weight.

This number of daily calories is commonly referred to as the “Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)”.

From a purely thermodynamical standpoint here, if you consistently put your body in a deficit of energy (consuming less than the TDEE), you will lose fat.

And vice versa – If you are consistently in a surplus of energy, you are putting the body in an environment favourable to weight gain.

Doing more cardio is just one of the ways to expend more energy and create the caloric deficit required for weight loss.

The More, The Better?

Okay then, if caloric balance is the prime determinant for body composition is it better if you go for an aggressive deficit?

Well, not really.

The truth is that an aggressive caloric deficit may lead to loss of lean body mass and performance.

This is exactly why a moderate caloric deficit of ~500 calories per day is the widely recommended range for sustainable weight loss.

Check out this article where we briefly explain the macronutrient amounts for fat loss and how magnesium can help you optimise the process.

The Best Type Of Cardio

Alright, we know that may not be what you expected to hear, but doing cardio with an unsustainable approach to nutrition is a no-no.

Long, exhausting cardio for cutting is NOT what you must do mandatorily to trigger weight loss.

They may actually even increase your appetite, which will most likely lead to binging and failing on your weight loss goals.

Instead, create a good approach to nutrition, then add cardio and strength training to it, a couple of times a week to reap the health benefits.

We widely recommend doing HIIT cardio, or even just sprints alone.

Though highly intense, sprints are a natural movement, which will certainly create a stimulus for the body to respond in an anabolic (constructive) way.

Not only that but HIIT improves resting blood pressure, metabolic (MET) capacity and heart rate reserve.

This will ultimately translate into better retention of lean body mass and hence, a more toned, aesthetically pleasing look.

How To Do Sprints

When it comes to lower body development, sprints are superior to steady-state cardio and are a good addition to your regimen, whether you are bulking (trying to gain muscle) or cutting (burning fat while trying to avoid muscle loss)

They are quite an intense, full body exercise, so we will need to prepare for those bouts.

man getting ready to sprint on a running track

Warm-Up

First and foremost, before you even start to warm up, pick a good running surface.

That would be something more natural, such as soil or sand.

Running on artificial surfaces will impact your joints in the long term.

Once you are at the place where you will do those workouts, it is time to warm up.

A good warm-up will do the following:

  1. Raise your heart rate
  2. Engage your lungs
  3. Move the joints in their full range of motion
  4. Fill the muscles with blood
  5. Activate muscle fibres

Here is one of our favourite warm-ups:

  1. Full-body dynamic stretching – 10-15 minutes (start from the neck and work your way down to the ankles)
  2. Bodyweight Squats – 3 sets of 15 quality repetitions (Full range of motion, pause at the bottom, explode on the way up)
  3. Jogging – 200 meters (low intensity)
  4. Running – 3 lengths of 100 meters (higher intensity, working your way up for sprinting)

Once you are done with this warm-up, proceed to the high-intensity sprints:

  1. 80-90% effort, 2 lengths of 50 meters (60-90 seconds of rest between sets)
  2. 95-100% effort, 3 lengths of 50 meters (60-90 seconds of rest between sets)

If you have never done sprints, these 5 working sets of sprints will be enough for you.

Once you feel comfortable with that amount of work, you can progressively overload by adding more lengths or distance.

NOTE: Rest periods between each sprint are 90-180 seconds.

Cardio Workouts And Bodybuilding – Are They Compatible?

The goal of most fitness trainees is to look pleasing, aesthetically.

As we learned, low-intensity cardio for cutting does not directly impact the musculature as high-intensity cardio does.

And that begs the question, are cardio workouts and weight lifting compatible?

Well, yes, they are compatible indeed!

However, you will need an approach where most of your energy output goes in favour of muscle-building, strength training workouts, rather than cardio workouts.

That would mean, 3 to 5 weekly cardio sessions, up to ~30 minutes long.

Note that cardio workouts are preferably done after you lift weights. If you do it the other way around, the resistance training workout might be suboptimal due to depleted glycogen.

All of that, of course, has to be combined with an adequate approach to nutrition to facilitate muscle building processes.

strong lady showing her back muscles

Conclusion

Cardio for cutting can be done but it is NOT a mandatory part of the weight loss process.

Body composition and weight primarily depend on energy balance and protein intake.

Your first thing to consider when you’re trying to lose weight is the nutrition plan and placing the body in a moderate, sustainable caloric deficit.

From then on, it is a matter of staying consistent and optimising your workout routine, by adding low-intensity and high-intensity cardio activities.

What do you think about cardio as a way of cutting body fat? What other types of cardio would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below! 

Tihomir Stefanov
 

As a qualified personal trainer with sports academy certification, Tihomir Stefanov (Tisho) has helped over 100 people face to face, and thousands more online in their journey of a healthy body and mind. Tisho continues to study health relentlessly so that he can continue to deliver honest, objective, evidence-based information to all.