John or Jane Doe first decides to get in shape, and what’s the first thing he or she does? Yep, hits the pavement for daily jogs or buys a full gym membership, only to use the cardio equipment. After all, if you want to get leaner and improve your physique, what better way than to start with cardio right? Wrong…understandable, but wrong. That is, if you’re looking to make impressive and not just incremental progress in your physique development.
This doesn’t just hold true for the average Joe either. Almost every bikini competitor that I begin prepping for a show expects loads of cardio to be implemented in the very first week. Flights on flights of Stairmaster climbs, more jump squats than Superman leaps tall buildings, and of course plenty of treadmill sprints. Surprising to them, it’s actually quite the opposite. Cardio is kept to a minimum through prep until absolutely necessary.
Why is it that a contest prep coach focused on helping athletes reach their best conditioning avoids cardio until only necessary, and the non-competitor is selling themselves short by focusing jogging and treadmill trots to get in shape? Because for decades, cardio has been over hyped by magazines and movies to be the no-brainer for body sculpting. In reality, there are much better options, and you came to just the right place to outline what those are.
The Reality of Cardio & Calories
Nine out of ten times, society hops on the treadmill because they want to lose body fat. It’s been fun eating and partying, but the spare tire has got to hit the road. This alone is where 90% of general population is going wrong with their fat loss efforts, and where a majority of aspiring physique athletes are missing the big picture in creating their ideal physique.
It’s always assumed that cardio is the answer for expending extra calories and spurring fat loss. Ironically, the assumed solution to caloric expenditure isn’t as significant as many are lead to believe.
Tale of the Treadmill
Hop on the treadmill, rev ‘er up and so begins the constant checking of the “calories” read out to track just how many of those bad boys you’re incinerating. From a consistency standpoint, these readouts can help ensure that cardio sessions are consistent from week to week, and you’re properly adjusting your total work output accordingly as your dieting phase developments. From an accuracy standpoint however, there’s some unmentioned details to be taken into account.
Hop off the treadmill and see you’ve expended an additional 300 calories in your session. Great, 300 extra calories out of the way, right? Well, not really. One thing that goes unmentioned when discussing cardio & calories is that these readouts are also taking into account what you’re already expending just being alive through your basal metabolic rate (BMR) (calories expended each day through normal life processes).
Let’s say your current BMR is 2,000 calories. So each day, through normal life processes, basically everything aside from planned exercises, you’re expending an average of 2,000 calories each day (BMR varies between individuals). Break that down, and it results in an average expenditure of ~42 calories per 30 minutes in this example. Apply this to cardio, and that half hour on the treadmill is actually 300 calories minus your estimated BMR (300 – 42), so 258 calories. That’s 258 of actual, additional calories expended during that session, not 300. Since you would have expended somewhere around 42 calories just by sitting on the couch.
Now this isn’t the end of the world of course. That’s still 258 additional calories to go toward your current caloric deficit and subsequent fat loss. It is, however, a valuable note behind why cardio itself isn’t the Holy Grail to fat loss, and there are other options that can benefit you far greater.
To give some further context, let’s look at the average expenditure from a few different cardio scenarios. Along with each example is a comparison of what daily macronutrient reduction would create approximately the same contribution to the caloric deficit. In other words, rather than completing (1) of these example cardio sessions, that same person could reduce daily macronutrient intake by the listed amount to equal the same calories.
Average Caloric Expenditure During Cardio
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Treadmill Incline Walking (Female Example)
– 120lbs Athlete
– 2.5% Incline
– 4.5 mph
– 60min Duration
Approximate Calories Expended (accounting for BMR): 326 Calories
Equivalent Macro Change: -12 Grams Carbohydrate per Day (-336kcals/week)
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