How necessary is cardio in the cut?

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With summer approaching, the cutting season has opened for many: time to get those muscles out from under that layer of fat! And time for cardio, too, right? Or can you do the job without it?

The key points:

1.   For fat loss, a calorie-restricted diet is your main tool. Cardio is a supplement to that.

2.   Cardio is good for your health and because of the extra calories you burn with it, you don’t have to diet as heavily. Exercise during the day also ensures a better night’s sleep. Some cardio in the cut is therefore definitely recommended.

3.   Do cardio in moderation. Doing a lot of cardio can conflict with your strength training and that can lead to muscle loss, especially with a long-term energy shortage such as in the cut.

4.  The most suitable form of cardio is the cardio that you can best sustain. HIIT is no better than LISS/MISS, and neither is it the other way around.

5.   Always do cardio after strength training or on another day or part of the day.

EATING LESS OR EXERCISING MORE?

Cardio is an abbreviation of ‘cardiovascular’, which literally means ‘related to the heart and blood vessels’. Cardiovascular training, or simply ‘cardio’, therefore refers to any form of training that increases the heart rate. Slightly more practical: any form of training that is aimed at burning fat and/or improving fitness.

We distinguish three types of cardio: LISS (Low Intensity Steady State, such as walking and cycling), MISS (Moderate Intensity Steady State, such as jogging, running and rowing) and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training).

Is Cardio Necessary to Lose Weight? No. For fat loss, you can in principle suffice with a calorie-restricted diet. If you had to choose between diet or cardio, diet would be superior to cardio i ] .

Whether you also do cardio in addition to dieting is primarily a matter of personal preference. If you like food and if you find it difficult to stick to a diet, there is of course nothing wrong with achieving the desired energy deficit partly or completely through cardio. This way you more or less continue to eat your normal amounts, while at the bottom there is still an energy deficit.

But cardio may offer other benefits. However, there are drawbacks. Let’s take a look at those.

BENEFITS OF CARDIO

Doing cardio can have several beneficial effects. Not only for your body composition, but also for your health.

1. CARDIO CAN KEEP YOU EATING MORE

You know it: you are cutting for a while, the diet is easy to maintain and you lose a lot of weight. But over time, the fat burning seems to go slower and slower. No matter how well you stick to your diet, you barely lose fat. Cause: metabolic adaptation. There is only one thing to do: lower your energy balance even further. You can do that by eating even less. Or by doing cardio.

Suppose your daily requirement is 2400 kcal. A deficit of 400 kcal then means that you ‘may’ eat 2000 kcal (or more, if you do cardio). But due to metabolic adaptation, your maintenance level is only 2000 kcal over time. Result: to create a deficit of 400 kcal, you can now only eat (2000-400) 1600 kcal. If you continue to eat 2000 kcal, the original level, there is no longer an energy deficit. Exactly the reason why many people do not or hardly achieve any results after cutting or losing weight for a while. And then cardio may offer a solution, namely to burn those 400 ‘extra’ calories. Then you have an energy deficit of 400 again, without having to starve yourself.

Of course, reality is never as beautiful as the above calculation. You have used up extra energy through the cardio and several studies have shown that this is often compensated, consciously or unconsciously ii ] . Usually people compensate by taking in extra food, but sometimes also by exercising less at other times iii ] . This is something you should be extra vigilant about after your cardio session. One ‘unconscious’ grab in a bowl of peanuts can just destroy the effect of an entire cardio session.

2. CARDIO INCREASES INSULIN SENSITIVITY

Insulin sensitivity indicates the extent to which your body responds to the hormone insulin. The more sensitive you are to it, the less your body needs to produce insulin. Too much insulin means your body wants to transport too many sugars to your cells at once, causing some of it to be stored as fat.

Whether you are actually better able to burn fat due to a high insulin sensitivity is a matter for discussion, which is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s evident that keeping your insulin sensitivity low is important for your overall health vii ] .

Fat loss contributes to lowering your insulin sensitivity, and that contribution is greater if you burn fat through exercise rather than just a calorie-restricted diet viii ] .

3. CARDIO IS GOOD FOR YOUR SLEEP

What I personally think is a bigger advantage of cardio is that it can improve your sleep, if you do it during the day and preferably outside, in the daylight. Exercising in the sun has positive effects on the duration and quality of your sleep xxxvi ] xxxvii ] . And sleep is a crucial aspect for a successful cut. If you exercise in the evening, a few hours before going to bed, this benefit will be lost. Intense cardio, such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), is especially bad for your sleep in the late evening. As a late exerciser, try to do your cardio at another time, even if it’s just a walk during your lunch break.

4. CARDIO COMPENSATES FOR SIN

Sometimes we would forget that besides bodybuilding you probably also have something like a social life. And a school life, or working life. And that sometimes includes birthdays, dinners, staff drinks and evenings out. So sometimes you ‘have to’ eat and/or drink more than your diet allows. A brisk cardio session may (somewhat) offset its caloric effect.

5. HEALTH BENEFITS

Doing cardio also has some benefits that affect not so much your body composition as your overall health: cardio improves your fitness, strengthens your heart and lung function ix ] , has a beneficial effect on your intestinal system x ] and even improves your cognitive function capabilities xi ] .

DISADVANTAGES OF CARDIO

Despite the benefits mentioned, cardio has a pretty bad reputation, especially among bodybuilders. Is that right? The possible disadvantages of cardio at a glance.

1. CARDIO MAKES YOU HUNGRY

We already saw that cardio can be especially useful if you are cutting for a longer period of time and there is metabolic adaptation. Instead of eating even less, you use cardio to burn the necessary extra calories. This makes dieting easier to maintain.

We also saw the flip side of this story: by doing (a lot of) cardio, which means energy loss, you get (more) hungry, so the question is to what extent dieting will become easier. You may be compensating too much and your cardio was wasted energy and time.

2. CARDIO GRADUALLY BECOMES LESS EFFECTIVE

Your body ‘thinks’ in survival. That is why it always tries to use energy as economically as possible. One of the mechanisms for this is adaptation, as we have already seen with metabolic adaptation. This principle also applies to activities. The more you do a certain type of activity, the more your body adapts to increase its efficiency, and the more this happens, the less energy it takes to keep doing that activity xii ] .

People who do an extreme amount of cardio don’t burn as many calories with it over time as they think xii ] . As a result, they sometimes do even more cardio. Which can also fuel another disadvantage, as can be read in point 3.

3. CARDIO CAN REDUCE MUSCLE MASS

Cardio kills gains. The ominous credo that has many bodybuilders running around the treadmills and ellipticals. Cardio would make your diligently trained muscle mass go up in smoke. And indeed, cardio can negatively influence the effects of your strength training.

It has been confirmed by multiple studies that doing both strength and endurance training is good for fat loss xiv ] . But that does not mean that the combination is also ideal for muscle maintenance: the more endurance training you do, the less the development of muscle strength and muscle mass xv ] xvi ] xvii ] . There are three possible causes for this:

I. Strength training and cardio work against each other physiologically
As we have already seen, cardiovascular training serves a different purpose (condition and endurance) than strength training (muscle strength). The physiological adaptations that the body makes as a result of cardio are therefore different from (or even opposite) those of strength training. And that can hinder the gains of strength training, namely muscle growth and strength gain xviii ] .

Of course, in both forms of training you use your muscles, but the effect is very different. Strength training leads to an increase in muscle tissues (especially type II muscle tissues) and thus to muscle growth. Cardio and in particular endurance training does much less for muscle growth. Endurance training can slightly increase the size of type I muscle tissues xix ], but the size of type II muscle tissues remains the same or even decreases. The latter has to do with the enzyme AMPK, which increases when you do endurance training. This increase ensures, among other things, that you can improve your endurance, which is of course important during an endurance session. But at the same time, this increase slows down the influence of the protein kinase B. That protein is important for muscle growth, because it reduces muscle breakdown and activates protein synthesis xx ] .

II. Strength training and cardio ‘compete’ each other
In addition to strength training, cardio is also called concurrent training. You train your body twice, in two different ways (see point 1), and it has to recover from both workouts.

It is not yet entirely clear to what extent strength and cardio training overlap and influence each other (negatively). We do know that both partly use the same energy stores, muscle fibers and the nervous system. Especially with a calorie restriction, where you therefore get relatively little nutrition, the recovery of your strength training may be hindered xxi ] . And that can jeopardize the preservation of muscle mass, after all, the goal of strength training in the cut. This negative effect can occur if you perform endurance or interval training more than three times a week and for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time xxii ] .

Update Monday, August 13, 2018: a meta-analysis has been published into the effects of competitor training (HIIT vs. strength training) on ​​muscle growth and strength gain. This shows that doing HIIT has no negative influence on muscle growth [ xxxv ] . However, strength gains in the lower body can be inhibited, although that effect only appears to occur with cycling and not with running. It is unclear from what amount of HIIT there may be negative effects for muscle growth, partly because the available research is relatively limited. But as long as you don’t do HIIT daily, and not before your strength training, you probably don’t have to worry about competing effects.

III. Endurance training raises the cortisol level
By exercising intensively you put stress on your body. And when stressed, the level of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, rises.

As a human being, you can’t live without cortisol: acute cortisol release provides the body with an immediate source of extra energy it needs to survive. For example, cortisol, together with the fellow stress hormone adrenaline, facilitates the fight or flight mechanism when a lion suddenly stands in front of you. Or another enemy. Or when you are dealing with traffic jams, stress at work, an approaching deadline, financial worries or lack of sleep.

In strength sports, cortisol is mainly known as a catabolic (muscle-depleting) hormone. And indeed, cortisol ensures that certain proteins in muscles are broken down, releasing amino acids. Glucose (energy) is made from this. That energy can then be used to deal with the stressful situation.

Chronic stress causes long-term elevated cortisol levels, which is disastrous for muscle growth. But prolonged exercise can have the same effect. Normally, protein utilization as a fuel source is low, but it increases as glucose and glycogen storage decreases. Your liver is able to convert the amino acids from protein to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. It does this to maintain glucose levels and carbohydrate stores during periods of prolonged physical activity.

But isn’t cortisol also released during intensive strength training, after all, it is also a form of physical stress? Correct. But that’s not as bad as you might think. Because in addition to catabolic cortisol, strength training also increases the levels of the anabolic (muscle-building) hormones testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1 xxv ] . It turns out that during training the anabolic hormones counteract the effects of cortisol on muscle breakdown. And after exercise, it appears that cortisol plays a role in the remodeling of muscle tissue after exercise xxvii ] . But the exact interactions between anabolic and catabolic hormones after strength training are still unclear xxviii ]

The moment at which and the extent to which cortisol is released during strength training is mainly related to the intensity of the training and not so much to its duration xxix ] .

As a strength athlete you strive for the optimal ratio of cortisol and testosterone. This ratio is partly genetically determined. But you may be able to influence (read: increase) the proportion of testosterone through diet and through the type of exercise you do xxx ] . Major compound exercises (squats, deadlifts), as well as explosive exercises can increase your testosterone levels during training.

Cortisol is also released during endurance training, at least if you train at a medium or high intensity xxxi ] . For example, cycling and running respectively. The disadvantage compared to strength training is that the levels of anabolic hormones do not increase (significantly) during endurance training. Cortisol therefore seems to have free rein. Low-intensity endurance training, such as walking, does not significantly increase cortisol levels. Unsurprisingly, HIIT does release stress hormones, but also anabolic hormones. This also applies to forms of cardio with a large strength component, such as loaded carries, circuit training and metabolic finishers.

Many bodybuilders see the great danger of cortisol in cardio. But that potential danger only arises with endurance training, at a medium or high intensity. And even then that does not mean that bicycle, running shoes and crosstrainer are taboo for the bodybuilder. As long as you do these types of training in moderation (not too long and not too often), the increase in corisol levels will not be too bad and will not lead to muscle breakdown.

But what is ‘in moderation’ and what is too much? Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a clear answer to this in the scientific literature. Recommendations range from a maximum of three to five endurance workouts per week, from a maximum of 30 to 45 minutes per session.

In addition to muscle breakdown, cortisol can also stimulate fat storage xxxii ] , the opposite of what you want to achieve with cardio. But again, you should already be doing an extreme amount of cardio and your cortisol levels are already high due to the stress of everyday life.

Benefits of Cardio Disadvantages of Cardio
  • You can keep eating more
  • Increases insulin sensitivity
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Compensates for social eating and drinking moments
  • Improves fitness
  • Has various health benefits
  • Makes you hungry (compensatory food)
  • Gradually becomes less effective
  • May hinder recovery from strength training
  • Frequent and prolonged endurance training can increase cortisol and therefore reduce muscle mass

THE VERDICT

The basis of fat loss is a calorie-restricted diet. It is a misconception that more exercise is just as efficient for fat loss as eating less. Cardio can be a supplement to diets. If you do some cardio, you can keep eating a little more. That often makes it easier to stick to a diet. Cardio also has several health benefits. Extra exercise during the day can also ensure a better night’s sleep. We recommend that you always do at least a little cardio during the cut.

The essence of cardio in the cut is that you do it in moderation. Doing too much cardio can come at the expense of the most important training goal during the cut: muscle maintenance. So make sure strength training remains your first priority. As coach and scientist Eric Helms (of Muscle and Strength Pyramid fame ) once said:

Remember that you’re a weightlifter first.

In addition, cardio gradually becomes less effective: you burn fewer calories with it than you calculate. In addition, doing cardio makes you hungry, which can encourage compensatory eating.

WHICH CARDIO IS MOST SUITABLE?

The most appropriate form of cardio is the cardio that’s best for you, says muscle-growth expert Brad Schoenfeld. So that’s a matter of personal preference.

HIIT has become more popular in recent years, but research shows that HIIT is no better for body composition than LISS/MISS cardio.

As far as we are concerned, walking has an advantage, but the disadvantage is that it takes a relatively long time to burn a substantial number of calories.

HOW MUCH CARDIO MAXIMUM?

The frequency and duration of cardio will of course depend on which form you choose. You can do as much as you want, so to speak, but time is the limiting factor. With HIIT it is of course different. Due to the high intensity and therefore large training load, we recommend a maximum of two to three sessions per week. A HIIT session should generally last no longer than 15 to 30 minutes. You should also use cardio forms related to strength training such as  loaded carries and metabolic finishers in moderation. Do these types of workouts two or three times a week, 15 to 20 minutes each time.

For the other forms of cardio, LISS and MISS, you do a maximum of five sessions per week of 20 to a maximum of 40 minutes.

WHEN?

Never do your cardio right before your strength training (except for a short warm-up cardio). Do them afterwards or better yet, on another day or part of the day. This way you prevent cardio from interfering too much with your strength training.

Doing cardio (in the morning) on ​​an empty stomach is no more effective for fat loss than cardio on a full stomach.

IN SUMMARY

1. For fat loss, a calorie-restricted diet is your main tool. Cardio is a supplement to that.

2. Cardio is good for your health and because of the extra calories you burn with it, you don’t have to diet as heavily. Exercise during the day also ensures a better night’s sleep. Some cardio in the cut is therefore definitely recommended.

3. Do cardio in moderation. Doing frequent cardio can conflict with your strength training and that can lead to muscle loss, especially with a long-term energy deficit such as in the cut.

4. The most suitable form of cardio is the cardio that you can best sustain.

5. Always do cardio after strength training or on another day or part of the day.

Last edited on October 22, 2022.

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