The fat loss trap: cardio

written by Philip Stefanov  |  DECEMBER 15, 2020

Cardio is a very popular method for fat loss, and there are tons of people who consider it mandatory if they ever hope to shed a few pounds.

The truth is, we don’t need cardio for fat loss, and it can do more harm than good for some folks. For example:

1. Overweight people using high-impact cardio to start their fat loss journey.

Individuals who have a lot of fat to lose shouldn’t start with high-impact cardio such as running because it puts too much stress on their knees and ankles.

The type of cardio done, if any, should be something less impactful, such as swimming or riding a bike.

2. People whose hunger levels rise when they perform cardio and end up overeating.

We share lots of similarities, but there are also individual differences. For example, in this post, Bret Contreras looked at cardio and appetite, among other things, and how individuals differ. To quote him:

“Take a look at THIS study where researchers looked at people’s calorie intake responses to a 50-min low-intensity cardio session at 50% of max heart rate. The researchers looked at the compensatory response to the exercise session. In other words, if you burned 100 calories in a workout, would you then make up for it by consuming 100 calories later?”


“A couple of people ended up with 300-600 calorie deficits after the exercise session, yet several people ended up with 300-600 calorie surpluses! The former group saw amplified results on account of their decreased caloric intake following the cardio session, whereas the latter group sabotaged their fat loss efforts by consuming more calories than they burned during the cardio session.

How does this apply to you? Are you a person who feels extremely hungry after low-intensity cardio? Then perhaps it’s not for you. Or maybe you’re a person who doesn’t get hungry, or even loses appetite, in response to low-intensity cardio. If that’s the case, low-intensity cardio might be a good way to help you establish an energy deficit to lose fat.”

Also, when comparing cardio and resistance training for fat loss, many studies (a recent one) have shown that lifting weights is much more efficient and better at preserving muscle mass than cardio is. And when you’re trying to lose fat, one of your biggest priorities should be to keep the muscle mass you already have. This is because muscle mass is metabolically costly.

If we were to compare two people of the same age, gender, height, and weight, but one had 33kg./73lbs. of muscle mass and the other had 50kg./110lbs., the person with more muscle mass would burn more calories throughout the day.

This means that this person would be able to eat more calories each day and maintain the same weight. How much more? Research has come up with a calculation of roughly 13 kcals/1kg. of muscle.

Hardly stunning, but these calculations are for muscles at rest. Meaning, the more muscle mass you have:

  • the more strenuous workouts you can complete
  • the more calories you'd burn during workouts
  • the more calories you would need for muscle recovery

Due to the nature of low-intensity cardio, solely relying on it leads to a lot of muscle loss alongside the fat. There isn’t a strong stimulus on your muscles, and your body doesn’t have a good reason to keep them around. As you diet, your body is going to burn off more muscle and less fat to meet its energy needs. The approach often leads to the famous ‘skinny-fat’ look.

The solution: strength training. Click here to read how to use strength training effectively for fat loss.

Until next week,



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