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
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)
Treadmill Incline Walking (Male Example)
– 200lbs Athlete
– 5% Incline
– 3.5 mph
– 45min Duration
Approximate Calories Expended (accounting for BMR): 415 Calories
Equivalent Macro Change: -4 Grams Fat and -6 Grams Carbohydrate per Day (-420kcals/week)
– 175lbs Athlete
– 1% Incline
– 6.0 mph (10min mile pace)
– 30min Duration
Approximate Calories Expended (accounting for BMR): 420 Calories
Equivalent Macro Change: -2 Grams Fat and -10 Grams Carbohydrates (-406kcals/week)
It should also be noted that, just like with virtually any exercise, our bodies will positively adapt to a given stimulus, resulting in more efficient work capacity and less overall growth stimulus and caloric expenditure. So although your initial expenditure may be something like the above examples, without an increase in speed, duration or grade (higher intensities), you can expect to gradually expend less and less total calories per session. Especially as bodyweight declines and movement efficiency increases even further. In short, along with the expected metabolic adaption during fat loss, you’ll also have to continually increase cardio just to get the same degree of caloric expenditure.
*Calculated with ACSM metabolic equations.
Macro Adjustment Comparisons
Each above example listed equivalent macro adjustments that could create the same weekly deficit. I imagine most of you reading this article would agree that a relatively small dietary adjustment is quite a bit more enjoyable than spending an extra hour heaving on the treadmill. Especially early in a dieting phase when you have plenty of macros to work with.
The point of these examples is to help highlight that, yes, cardio can be helpful in expending more calories each week when dieting. The problem though, is many athletes start off doing loads of cardio right away, when in reality many initial dieting changes can be made through quite small macro reductions. As a result, athletes have more time and energy to go toward other aspects of their training, which brings us to another important topic.
If we can still expend notable calories through cardio, and we happen to really enjoy doing cardio, then what’s the big deal? Won’t we continue progressing regardless? This is a consideration too many athletes overlook. Cardio and macros can both be manipulated to create a similar deficit, sure. The separating factor though, is how much unnecessary cardio can hinder overall recovery.
Let’s say you decided to keep as much food in as possible during your diet as. So instead, you decide to embrace your inner cardio bunny. That’s all fine and well at first. That is, until you’re plugging away at 2 hours more cardio than you could have likely gotten away with up to that point. Now you’re expending energy, and fatiguing your legs 2 hours more each week on top of your weight training sessions. Soon you’ll notice your strength begins to decline. Leg workouts are harder and harder to progress in, much less maintain the strength you had gained prior to dieting. What happens when you get weaker? You got it; you’re getting smaller too.
Dieting in general, no matter how well it goes, will result in some strength and muscle tissue loss. It’s just the nature of being a natural athlete. That said though, our goal is to limit that loss as much as possible through being as strategic as we can be with our nutrition and training programming along the way. Few things flush muscle retention down the drain quicker than overly fatiguing ourselves outside of weight training sessions.
Female bikini athlete not worried about getting and staying jacked on your journey to the stage? This is still applicable for you too. Although bikini athletes aren’t worried about looking jacked, the maintained muscle tissue is still vital for achieving the best overall shape possible. If you want the best glutes and shoulders on show day or at the beach, making sure not to waste away hard earned muscle through over-reliance on cardio goes a long way in making that a reality.
Developing the best physique possible aside for a moment, simply considering the efficiency of our programming makes a minimalistic approach to cardio pertinent (unless you’re an endurance athlete, which is a totally separate topic). Now obviously at some point, the majority of athletes are going to have to program some cardio in their plan when looking to bring a properly conditioned physique to the stage, or higher levels of conditioning for photo shoots or vacations. The amount varies, but few get ripped doing zero cardio as natural athletes.
Before reaching that point of necessity though, consider how much more efficient it can be to focus more on dietary changes than cardio early on in your dieting phase. We’re all busy. Work, family, maintaining a personal life- we have a lot going on every day. Adding hours of unnecessary cardio to our plan just makes those daily responsibilities even more difficult to accomplish through the week. As I continue growing my coaching business and pursuing other projects, I would personally much rather make a 15g carbohydrate reduction on macros than spend an additional 30-45 minutes knocking out cardio if I have the choice.
The majority of failed dieting phases are due to complaints of time restrictions among general populations, and contest prep is challenging enough in itself to then only make it harder than it has to be. Why not make it easier on recovery and time management by first doing what you can through diet, keeping weight training intensity high, then sprinkling in cardio as needed once the diet progresses to a point that requires it? That whole, “work smarter, not harder” phrase really comes to mind right now, doesn’t it?
Stair Climbers & Leg Development
Going along with the above section on recovery, it also seems very important to touch on the belief in stair climbers to “tone” lower body muscles, especially in the bikini division of competitors (sorry for picking on you ladies). Stair climbers as a form of cardio can be a great choice. It can be more interesting than feeling like a hamster on a treadmill, plus the reduced eccentric contraction seen with stair climbers (and even more so with bike cardio equipment) can help improve recovery from cardio sessions compared to sprinting or jumping rope. As great of a form of cardio as it can be, it’s equally as bad of a method for developing better legs.
Sure, cardio can increase the caloric deficit we need for fat loss, and as we get leaner, our current muscle development will be revealed as total body fat declines. Where many athletes error though, is trying to diet & cardio their way to very defined, shapely legs. In reality, we can’t uncover muscle that isn’t there by doing more and more cardio, namely stair climbers and similar modes despite appearing to be a great option on the surface.
Athletes may notice initial muscular development when first starting to use the stair climber, given it’s a new stimulus. After the initial few weeks though, it can’t be expected that more leg development will come from continuing to rely on stair climbers. Just like lifting the same weight for a given exercise will result in muscular adaptions early on, then eventual regression in strength and size without continued, progressive overload- so will continued cardio lead to plateaued leg development. The only way to increase intensity to overload the musculature on a stair climber is to walk faster or longer- neither of which will sufficiently stimulate the types of muscle fibers responsible for better & retained muscle development (namely type II fibers).
At the end of the day, if you want to reveal the most shapely legs possible, weight training with proper periodization and progressive overload is what will make that happen, especially in a dieting phase where smart weight training programming will help retain muscle gained in the growth season. Overusing the stair climber will simply fatigue your legs unnecessarily and take away from your weight training sessions which will be much more beneficial in helping you unveil the best legs possible on show day.
TLDR- Use cardio for complementing your dietary adjustment for fat loss, and weight training for developing and maintaining muscle growth for better size and shape. Relying on anything aside from weight training to bring in your legs on show day is only going to take you steps back, not forward.
Cardio as a Complement, Not a Crutch
Follow BioLayne content for very long, and you’ll realize one underlying commonality among each piece of content- extremes are rarely the answer to continue physique development. The phrases “it depends” and “individual variability” are often sprinkled throughout articles. Now there are generally better and worse methods for going about various programming aspects, but to say any one strategy is THE strategy typically leads to more frustration than fulfillment.
This is because no two people have the exact same situation, genetic pre-dispositions, or exact response to dietary and training adjustments. The same goes for cardio, while this article helps outline why reliance on cardio for positive physique adaptations does more harm than good. It’s important to once more note that each person’s exact needs can vary considerably.
Some athletes may only need a couple short sessions of cardio each week when nearing stage conditioning. Others very well may hit near daily cardio at the end of their dieting phases or contest prep (depending on the exact dieting goal). The important thing to remember is that although exact cardio requirements can differ, keeping the above considerations at the top of the priority list can help ensure as little cardio as possible is implemented to make sure the physique you unveil is to its fullest potential.
At the end of the day, regardless of gender, physique goals or division, if your goal is based around getting leaner while uncovering the best physique possible- it’s clear that nutrition and weight training are the cake and icing, while cardio is the sprinkles that top it all off. You may need more or less sprinkles, but without the cake and icing, those sprinkles won’t be all that important.