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DR. ERIC HELMS:
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Do you need cardio for weight loss? Cardio isn’t nearly as effective as most people think when it comes to losing weight and fat because of the constrained energy model. Most research has shown that people who start doing cardio without any changes to their diet tend to lose 20-50% of what they’d expect from the calories they’ve burned.
What about doing more cardio to lose weight? Without changing your diet, you’ve probably got to do a whole lot of cardio for it to have a meaningful effect on fat loss. Which isn’t a very efficient or realistic approach for most people.
The takeaway is that should think of cardio as a supplemental tool that you can stack on top of your diet to speed things up.
But how much cardio, exactly, should you “stack on top”? I sought the opinions of Alberto Nunez, an extremely knowledgeable coach and lifetime drug-free pro bodybuilder who’s known for getting into insane levels of leanness, and Lee Lem, a natural bodybuilder just a few weeks out from his show. Surprisingly, both said that by using either a longer or more aggressive diet, they didn’t really need cardio to lose weight or get into crazy shape.
But including cardio had its benefits. Alberto and Lee say maintaining a high daily step count helped them burn more calories and make sure they don’t get lazier as they get leaner.
But now I wanted to find out, on top of daily steps, how much actual “cardio” is required to get really lean? Here’s Alberto’s take: “Usually the smaller the athlete, the more cardio we will have to do. It helps so they can eat a little bit more, which is obviously gonna help with the mental component to some extent.” But he also emphasized it’s lifestyle-dependent: “I’ve had people do nothing. Nothing. And usually, this has to do with the occupation that if they don’t move, they just get fired. So servers, personal trainers, labor-intensive jobs, things like that.”
But for most of his clients, “7,000 steps on average as our baseline you have that set. I’d say most people, per week, are going to require 4 to 5 days of cardio to lose weight, ranging anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes.” This seemed to line up with Lee’s protocol as well. On top of 10,000 steps a day and lifting weights 4 times a week, he’s also doing 5x 30 minutes of cardio to lose weight.
But remember, this isn’t just to get “six-pack abs lean”. We’re talking shredded. And they don’t do this much cardio right away. Whenever fat loss has stalled, and they’re not making progress, that’s typically when they decide whether or not they should add more cardio.
Now as for how much cardio per week YOU should aim for? What I’d recommend is start with Alberto’s recommendation of walking 7,000 steps a day as a baseline. Once you’re consistent with that, try adding in 2 to 3 20-minute cardio workouts per week. And although Lee and Alberto recommend cycling or the elliptical, you have plenty of other options when it comes to the type of cardio to lose weight. The key is to choose things you actually enjoy and can recover well from.
Now, from here, once your body adapts and you reach a stall in your progress using your current routine, you can choose to either eat a little bit less or add a little bit more cardio or steps to continue losing fat. You basically repeat this process for as long as it takes for you to reach your desired level of body fat.
But the last thing you want to do is start doing a bunch of cardio to lose weight during your diet and then stop cold turkey as soon as it’s over. Dr. Eric Helms says keeping some level of activity (7,000 to 9,000 steps per day and strength training 2-3x weekly) seems to prevent fat regain. This is why for long-term success, when choosing the type of cardio to lose weight, it’s so important to choose activities you can actually stick to.