Fat Loss Programming

How we lose weight through cardiovascular exercise and an easy to follow, research based guide for fat loss programming.

Sam Stephens

Updated July 2019

TLDR

To lose weight efficiently and to improve our general fitness abilities, we need a smart cardio program to complement an even smarter diet.

Our bodies gradually shift fuel sources from fat to carbohydrates as exercise intensity increases but this transition can be delayed. Because of this, repeated bouts of easy, steady state aerobic exercise combined with high intensity intervals are key to weight loss.

By identifying heart rate values at our ventilatory and lactate thresholds (VT and LT), we can program custom cardio sessions to maximize fat oxidation and delay the fuel transition from fat to carbs. Meaning, we can burn more fat at a faster rate if we use individual heart rate data. 

I suggest a total of 1-2 hours of cardio per week. Aerobic exercise accounts for 80% of total cardio time and directly targets fat loss, while anaerobic interval training (remaining 20% of our total cardio time) aims to increase our lactate threshold. Both modalities combine to improve our work capacity. Increasing LT allows us to continue burning fat at higher heart rates, resulting in a greater caloric expenditure from fat per minute. 

Do cardio to burn fat and lift weights to increase strength/hypertrophy and maintain muscle mass. An effective fat loss cardio program should supplement your resistance training without replacing or significantly altering it.

Example weeks of fat loss cardio and resistance training are listed below. 

Running Away From Fat Thoughts

There’s no single best way to lose weight, but some methods are much more effective than others. 

The Fitstra weight loss strategy relies on customized cardiovascular exercise that uses individual metabolic markers to create personalized workouts designed to supplement an already existing resistance training program. That’s a mouthful. Basically, I encourage everyone to lift weights to target strength/hypertrophy as part of their normal routine and then add in heart rate specific cardio to burn fat – simple stuff. We shouldn’t change our resistance training to ‘boost’ weight loss. By looking at the science of fat loss, we can build programs that provide realistic, sustainable, and healthy solutions to weight management regardless of age, sex, or exercise experience. 

Because fat loss is primarily achieved through cardio (within the context of exercise), this guide focuses on the importance of oxygen/breathing, assessing one’s own conditioning levels, and burning the most amount of fat through aerobic/anaerobic exercise.

This overview of weight loss exercise is written to help anyone easily design an effective fat loss cardio plan that can be added to almost any existing resistance training routine. 

Take a deep breath in. Now let it out. Great job. You’re already burning (a tiny amount of) fat. 

Really Dope RDs (Registered Dietitians)

Before we get started, it’s important to first stress the influence that diet has on weight loss success. Research has shown that while we can lose body fat through exercise alone, a smart diet (normally just an intake reduction of 350-700 calories/day) combined with physical activity significantly increases our rate of loss. If you aren’t eating correctly, you’re already at a massive disadvantage. But what’s correct?

Effective diets will vary from person to person but all of them should promote healthy, sustainable weight loss progress, provide you with enough energy to easily perform daily activities, and allow you to live a normal life that isn’t controlled by overly restrictive eating habits.

Unless you edit macronutrient Wikipedia pages in your spare time, reach out to and work with a registered dietitian (RD) during your weight loss process. The advice and detailed information you’ll receive from a qualified nutrition professional will be insanely beneficial to your progress and overall health

OK, let’s dive into what this whole article is about – fat loss and exercise. 

The Process of Fat Loss

After a month of hard work and self control, you’ve accomplished your goal and lost 5 pounds. By using a bioelectrical impedance scale to measure your body fat percentage, you’re confident that the loss in weight was almost all fat. Awesome, there’s now less of you than before! But where did those unwanted pounds go?

When our body uses stored fat as a fuel source, triglycerides in fat cells are first broken down into free fatty acids (FFA) through a process called lipolysis. FFAs are then moved out of fat cells and eventually make their way into the mitochondria of our muscles and are then turned into energy (ATP) through beta oxidation. This overly simplified explanation of the oxygen dependent process of metabolizing fats into ATP also produces water and carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

So to answer the previous question about the 5 lbs of fat you lost, 4.2 lbs (84%) of it was exhaled as CO2 and 0.8 lbs (16%) was lost as H2O in your urine and sweat.

The stoichiometric formula for the oxidation of a common FFA is listed above. Notice that in order for the reaction to take place, oxygen must be present. This is an example of aerobic (requires oxygen) metabolism. In our hypothetical weight loss scenario, oxidizing 5 lbs of fat requires almost 15 lbs of oxygen. Based on this sizable quantity of O2, it’s clear that our ability to burn fat is heavily tied to how well we can breathe and the efficiency of our aerobic energy system.

So, just do super intense cardio and breathe harder, right? Not quite.

One small issue we face when programming for weight loss involves our metabolic response to exercise intensity. As we workout harder and increase our heart rate beyond a certain point, we actually use less oxygen for energy metabolism and burn less fat despite a higher per minute caloric expenditure. High intensity exercise like a 400m sprint requires a rapid fuel delivery system to maintain a constant supply of ATP to our muscles, much faster than what fat oxidation can offer. Carbs provide less energy than fats, but the carbohydrates glucose and glycogen that are stored in our bodies can be broken down almost immediately and do not require oxygen to be metabolized. This specific oxygen lacking metabolic pathway for carbohydrates is called anaerobic (lacking oxygen) glycolysis. Carbohydrates can also be metabolized aerobically through a slightly different glycolytic process, but that specific form of sugar breakdown does not affect the fat loss program described later in this guide.

Although we burn very little fat at higher intensities, a great fat loss program will still utilize both low and high intensity cardiovascular exercise along with their corresponding fuel sources – we need to be implementing an appropriate mixture of aerobic and anaerobic work. So, what cardiovascular exercise intensities are best for weight loss and how much time should we be spending in each area?

To solve these problems and ensure we’re able to maximize our fat burning potential, we first need to dive a little deeper into fuel utilization and learn about our individual lactate thresholds.

Breathe in. Breathe out. *Weight loss*

Fat Oxidation & Cardio Intensity

If you hopped on a treadmill and set the speed to 10 mph and ran for 15 minutes, you would burn more calories per minute than if you set it to 6 mph for the same time. At 10 mph, you’d knock out your run and afterwards probably be reduced to an exhausted, sweaty mess, yet perfectly content with your effort. What you wouldn’t want to hear while attempting to regain your composure, is that the high intensity cardio session you suffered through wasn’t necessarily ideal for weight loss.

In a laboratory setting, we can calculate fat utilization through metabolic assessments by measuring the ratio of carbon dioxide exhaled to oxygen inhaled per breath. This measurement is known as the respiratory exchange ratio (RER). An RER of 1.0 indicates that 100% of fuel being consumed/burned is from carbohydrates, a ratio of 0.7 is all fat, and 0.85 is an even mix of the two. As exercise intensity increases, we gradually shift from fat to carbs for energy (RER goes up). That 10 mph run from earlier burnt quite a few calories but it’s unlikely that many of them were from fat.

After learning about RER and the relationship between intensity and fat burn, you decide to change up your cardio tactics and try a different approach. 

The next day at the gym, you get back on the treadmill at an easy starting speed of 3 mph. As you search for the right playlist on your phone and clear out some new notifications, a few minutes pass by but you keep on walking. After successfully finding the right song, you get to work and increase the belt speed by 1 mph every 2 minutes until you reach 10 mph. You’re able to sustain this top speed of 10 mph for a max of 30 seconds before stopping due to exhaustion. *High five*

During the short time it took you to browse through Spotify, your body started producing a bit more lactate (a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism commonly and mistakenly referred to as ‘lactic acid’) than normal what would be measured at rest and your RER slightly rose as more stored carbohydrates were burned. At low to moderate levels of exercise intensity, lactate build up isn’t a problem and our bodies can remove this metabolic waste at roughly the same rate it’s being produced. It would also be completely reasonable to assume that your RER never exceeded 0.85, meaning that fat remained as your primary fuel source. With manageable lactate levels and a plentiful supply of stored aerobic energy (fat), your song selection walking pace could be sustained for hours without any difficulty. 

However, things changed as your speed and heart rate increased. At some point along the way from 3 to 10 mph (possibly around 7 or 8 mph), the manageable trickle of lactate from earlier turned into a flood and byproducts of anaerobic glycolysis (lactate, ammonia, and hydrogen ions) started accumulating exponentially faster than they could be removed. At the same time, your RER grew significantly and eventually reached 1.0, meaning all of your energy was being produced through the breakdown of glucose/glycogen. With metabolites building up in your muscles and the unlimited fuel supply from fat oxidation a thing of the past, you reached failure a few minutes after crossing that invisible metabolic line and were forced to stop due to exhaustion. 

The heart rate value associated with a sudden and exponential increase in lactate production during high intensity exercise is called our lactate threshold (LT), and it’s basically the upper limit of sustainable exercise. Meaning, we can work for a really long time at easier heart rate intensities below and just up to our LT, but once we exceed it and start to burn carbohydrates as our primary fuel source, the countdown timer to exhaustion begins. 

So, with fat loss being the main topic of this whole discussion – how can we delay the transition from fat to carbohydrates and keep burning stored body fat as exercise intensity increases? The answer – high intensity exercise.

Lactate thresholds vary from person to person due to different diets, training styles, conditioning levels, and genetics but they can be modified (up to a point) through high intensity exercise. Although activity beyond this transition point burns a very small amount of fat, it’s incredibly important that we spend time above it regardless of our cardiovascular programming goals. When targeting weight loss, the higher we can extend our ceiling for sustainable high intensity cardiovascular exercise, the more room we have ‘below’ it to burn fat.

If we increase our LT through high intensity exercise, we’ll have a larger aerobic heart rate range to burn fat during aerobic activities (increased fat burn per minute at low to moderate intensities), a greater general work capacity (can recover from both resistance and cardio working sets/workouts faster), and an improved VO2max (increased oxygen consumption and utilization = better fat oxidation during exercise and at rest). All of these factors can help us lose weight significantly faster than diet alone. Plus, if you rely on a combination of diet and exercise for your weight loss progress instead of just eating less, you’ll accidentally get into really good shape as an added bonus. 

“Oh no… Now I’m really good at running and it’s turned into an enjoyable activity that’s drastically improved my health and body composition.” 

Talking about metabolic thresholds and fuel utilization is cool (to me), but it’s not really that helpful if we don’t know how to apply these concepts practically. Let’s now look at how we can calculate LT and RER along with their specific applications to our weight loss training.

Accurately Determining LT & RER

The only truly accurate way to measure your LT and RER is to have metabolic testing performed at either a local gym, training studio, hospital, or university. These tests are relatively short (usually 1 to 2 hours max) and not incredibly expensive (typically ranging from $150 to $400). If you have the ability to get these done, please do so. The data provided will be well worth the required time/financial cost of the assessment and will prove to be an invaluable asset to your weight loss program.

If you don’t have access to a testing facility, don’t worry. We can still estimate LT and RER using two simple self-assessments. The data collected from these tests will not be nearly as accurate as those performed in a carefully controlled professional setting but can still serve as great reference points for your cardio programming.

Estimating VT, LT, & RER

As previously discussed, a shift in fuel utilization results in different gas exchanges as exercise intensity increases. Because of the strong link between breathing, heart rate, the oxidation of fats, and the anaerobic metabolism of carbohydrates, we can estimate an RER of 0.85 (equal mix of fats and carbs for energy) and an RER of 1.0 (all carbs) with just two simple tests. These two self-assessments are the ventilatory threshold (VT) and lactate threshold (LT) tests. 

The heart rate values provided by VT and LT testing tell us what intensities we need to aim for during cardiovascular exercise – VT for aerobic cardio and LT for anaerobic. Testing for these metabolic points allows us to develop unique cardiovascular programs based on our individual needs and target fat loss as efficiently as possible. 

The first assessment is the ventilatory threshold test. As we increase exercise intensity, our ability to talk smoothly and without interruption slowly decreases. For example, a casual walking conversation around the office with your coworker requires a very low level of physical exertion. You can walk and talk with no problem. However, if you two were to run at full speed for a minute or two outside in the parking lot, you’d both be breathing so hard that getting out a single word be nearly impossible. The ventilatory threshold test helps us find the midpoint between these two intensities and estimate an RER of 0.85. This is a submaximal talk test – it measures observable changes in speech consistency to pinpoint specific metabolic changes and it does not require a maximum exercise intensity. 

The goal of this assessment is to establish a steady state heart rate value at the point where you can no longer talk comfortably and/or continuously during cardiovascular exercise. The marker for this test is speech consistently broken by large breaths every 3-5 words – you should be breathing harder than at rest, but the intensity should be theoretically sustainable for a very long time. The VT self-assessment should not be difficult to complete. 

VT Self-Assessment

To test for your ventilatory threshold (VT), you will need a heart rate monitor and a treadmill.

  1. Record your resting heart rate.
  2. Warm up with a walk or jog on the treadmill for 5 minutes at an intensity of roughly 4/10 – just intense enough to cause a mild sweat. Check out the Warm Up guide to see the recommended warm up routine.
  3. After warming up, get off the treadmill and relax for a few minutes until your heart rate has recovered to its resting level.
  4. Once recovered, start walking on the treadmill at 1.5 mph at an incline of 1%.
  5. Every 2 minutes increase the speed by 0.5 mph.
  6. During each 2 minute segment, recite any (literally anything) memorized (not read) paragraph long enough for 20-30 seconds of continuous speaking – the Pledge of Allegiance is commonly used here. This oral section of the exam should begin roughly 90 seconds into your 2 minute period.
  7. Closely monitor your heart rate during each 2 minute section. Noting the number every 30 seconds is recommended.
  8. Continue to increase the speed and recite your paragraph/phrase until you are no longer able to speak continuously due to breathing requirements. Record your heart rate. This is your estimated VT.
  9. Return the treadmill speed to an easy walking speed and cool down for 1 minute.
  10. Congratulations, you’ve completed the test for VT.

Now that you’ve got your VT info, you can shift gears and find your lactate threshold. 

Before reading any further about LT testing, please keep in mind that this assessment is optional for most people. The heart rate data is great to have but it’s not absolutely necessary for fat loss success or for the workouts covered later. However, it will greatly benefit your training to know and track your lactate threshold progress. We’ll cover why this is optional in the Anaerobic Training section below. 

The LT test helps us estimate a heart rate value associated with our lactate threshold and an RER of 1.0. We test for our LT by attempting to maintain the highest level of consistent cardiovascular intensity possible for 10 minutes. It’s a tough test. 

LT Self-Assessment

To test for your lactate threshold (LT), you will need a heart rate monitor and a treadmill.

  1. Record your resting heart rate.
  2. Warm up with a walk or jog on the treadmill for 5 minutes at an intensity of roughly 4/10 – just intense enough to cause a mild sweat. Check out the Warm Up guide to see the recommended warm up routine.
  3. After warming up, get off the treadmill and relax for a few minutes until your heart rate has recovered to its resting level.
  4. Once recovered, get back on the treadmill and start walking at a speed of 3.0 and an incline of 1%.
  5. Increase speed until you have reached what you estimate to be the highest level of intensity you can sustain for 10 minutes. Adjusting the speed early is OK but should be left to a consistent speed for as much of the run as possible. This is not a test of how fast you can run at the end of the 10 minute period or a ‘workout’ built on intervals of increasing difficulty – your speed should be set by minute 2-3 and it should be held for the entire test duration. It’s important that you settle into a steady state heart rate as early as possible. You should be completely exhausted just after the 9 min mark. This test sucks and is not meant for new exercisers or severely deconditioned individuals. 
  6. Record your heart rate each minute during the last 3 minutes of the run. Use these 3 points to find your average heart rate.
  7. After the completion of the run, return the treadmill speed to an easy walking speed and cool down for 2 minutes.
  8. Multiply your average heart rate by 0.9. This is your estimated LT.
  9. Congratulations, you’ve completed the test for LT.

As you progress in your conditioning level, regular retesting is absolutely necessary. A great cardio program will improve your aerobic base, work capacity, lactate threshold, and fat burning capabilities. However, if you never retest and chronically work below your optimal fat loss zones, changes in body composition will take much longer. The intensity of your fat loss cardio sessions needs to continuously scale with your conditioning progress – the better shape you’re in, the higher your VT and LT will be. 

I suggest reassessments every 4-6 months for conditioned individuals and every 2 months (for the first 6 months) for anyone just starting a more consistent cardio program.

Choose whichever assessment method is best for you but please purchase a heart rate monitor of some kind. Whether it’s a nice watch with a digital display or just an IR light sensor band that connects to your phone through Bluetooth, get one. If you need device suggestions based on your budget, let me know.

Aerobic & Anaerobic Training For Fat Loss

Now that the most complicated and potentially confusing part is behind us and we know our heart rate values relative to VT, LT, and RER, we can actually start programming for fat loss.

The overall concept and plan of attack here is pretty simple. We want to spend 1-2 hours each week doing cardio with ~80% of our time burning fat at or just above our VT (within 5-10 bpm of your target HR is fine) and the remaining ~20% at or above our LT focused on pure high intensity interval training (HIIT) and/or lactate threshold training (LTT). This split allows us to maximize our rate of fat oxidation and increase our aerobic capacity thanks to quite a few pretty cool physiological adaptations – we’re essentially training our bodies to more clearly recognize which exercise conditions should burn fat for fuel versus those that should rely on carbohydrates. 

Aerobic conditioning directly targets fat loss through low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, leading to better general oxidation efficiency during non cardio based activities. Regularly engaging in cardiovascular exercise also causes the type 1 fibers in our muscles to become better at oxidizing fats by stimulating protein synthesis and increasing their mitochondrial densityWith greater mitochondria content in our muscles to metabolize fat, we also get to benefit from elevated post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) – burning fat at rest after a workout. 

Because we know that fat utilization decreases as exercise intensity increases, working as close to our VT (RER of 0.85) as possible during longer aerobic sessions is key. The heart rate range at VT gives us a great point of compromise between max calorie burn per minute and fat utilization percentage. This intensity level is also easy enough to be repeated multiple times throughout the week with a decreased risk of CNS fatigue accumulation if sessions are capped at 20-30 minutes (not including resistance work) and limited to 4-5 days a week. Do your best to stick to these upper limits to avoid unnecessary strength and hypertrophy losses. 

Running and walking are fantastic aerobic exercises and highly recommended. Many of us spend so much time indoors with work that getting outside is a great change of pace. Along with the potentially therapeutic scenery, propelling yourself forward with a natural movement pattern is preferred over the use of a stationary machine due to the additional physical requirements of the exercise. When we walk/run outside, our bodies must continuously propel themselves forward (greater energy demand than on a treadmill) and use core musculature to remain upright (better posture and balance). There are no rails to lean on or belts to keep you moving as you walk through your neighborhood listening to an audiobook or podcast, you do the work. If you have the ability to get outside, please do it. With that said, using a treadmill is totally fine – the aerobic exercise you choose should be one that you enjoy and are able to repeat consistently. Stick to your target heart rate and do what’s best for you. 

On the other side of the intensity spectrum, anaerobic workouts increase our lactate thresholds and give us a larger aerobic window to burn fat. By training the body to adapt to high intensity exercise and delay the onset of rapid lactate production, our heart rate value for VT increases. This shift in metabolic efficiency means our new VT is still registering an RER of 0.85 (using both fat and carbs) but the total caloric burn per minute from fat has increased

In the examples listed above, you can see this general concept illustrated in trained vs untrained individuals. If the untrained person’s VT is 110 bpm and the trained exerciser has a VT of 130 bpm, it’s easy to see who would be able to drop weight faster based on their individual metabolic targets. While both people would eventually reach their weight loss goals, the trained person is able to work harder and burn more fat at a faster rate. Training at and above our LT with high intensity exercise improves our metabolic efficiency/fat utilization at higher heart rates and result in faster weight loss during subsequent aerobic sessions – that’s why we do it.

Unlike aerobic exercise, anaerobic sessions should focus on short intervals lasting 0.5-4 minutes per set and utilize a 1:1-1:4 work to rest ratio depending on your segment intensity and level of conditioning. High speed running intervals are great for HIIT/LTT but may not be ideal for some people. Instead, you can focus on other modalities like cycling, kettlebell swings, burpees, battleropes, air bikes, and rowers or combine a few of your favorites into a circuit. As long as your heart rate stays at or above LT for the required time, feel free to experiment with different styles. CNS fatigue is also a risk factor here if frequency is too high, so it’s best to limit HIIT/LTT workouts to 3-4 times per week. 

As mentioned earlier in the LT testing section, if you don’t have your lactate threshold heart rate info, don’t sweat it. You can estimate the workload needed. As long as you work at or above your LT, you’re good. If an interval is 2 minutes long, you should be working at an intensity of at least 7/10 for the entire segment – it should be pretty difficult and leave you spent at the end of each round. It may take a few workouts to accurately assess your limitations and capabilities at higher intensities, so to be safe, start on the easier side of things and work your way up as you feel more comfortable and confident with new exercises. These sets are meant to be tough, but they’re also relatively short and only take up 20% of our total weekly cardio time. 

Work hard. Recover. Repeat. 

Alright. We’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle. Let’s put it all together.

Resistance Training & Weight Loss Examples

To build a complete program that emphasizes fat loss, our cardio needs to supplement an already existing resistance training routine. 

Research shows that resistance training alone is an ineffective fat loss method but lifting heavy things frequently during longer periods of reduced caloric intake helps to maintain muscle mass that would normally be lost on a weight loss diet. Because of this, your weight training program design should not indicate that you’re trying to lose weight. If you’re interested in being strong, focus on strength training. If aesthetics are your thing, follow a great hypertrophy plan. Lift to improve some aspect of muscular fitness but don’t attempt to burn fat with high rep/light load sets. We want to maintain as much lean mass and strength as possible as the pounds drop and a good strength/hypertrophy plan is the most effective strategy. Lifting before a cardio session can also deplete glycogen stores, making fat loss focused cardiovascular exercise more effective.

For novice lifters, it is entirely possible that you will lose fat, gain muscle, and increase strength at the same time. However, these results will fade as you adapt to the demands of your new active lifestyle. Depending on the timeline for your goals, it may be a great idea to take advantage of the beginner gains and tackle all three aspects of fitness or you may want to simplify things and begin your exercise journey with only strength/hypertrophy and then incorporate fat loss at a later time – do what’s best for you. 

Experienced lifters will most likely notice slowed progress or even some regression in their size/strength due to the slightly (350-700 kcal/day) negative caloric balance and overall catabolic stress on the body. Because you aren’t crash dieting and are taking a smart approach to weight loss, don’t worry about it. Your weight loss period is temporary and you’ll catch back up leaner than before with a greater aerobic base.

Two example weeks that vary in style and total cardio time are listed below and should help with your own program design. Both examples take advantage of three different cardio styles that target aerobic and anaerobic energy systems – low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and low/high intensity splits (LHS). 

The cardiovascular conditioning time structure is number of rounds [aerobic minutes > anaerobic minutes]. Using 1 [2 min > 1 min] as an example, one round of cardio is performed for a single two minute aerobic bout followed by a one minute high intensity segment, totaling three minutes of work time. 4 [2 min > 1 min] would be read as four rounds of a two minute aerobic bout followed by a one minute high intensity segment, totaling 12 minutes. 

In the fist example, resistance training frequency resembles a Fitstra Upper Lower routine with 4 days of weights combined with 5 days fat loss cardio. This week contains 98 minutes of aerobic activity and 22 minutes of anaerobic work (times are listed in the bottom right corner), totaling 120 minutes. Monday begins with an alternating aerobic-to-anaerobic LHS style of cardio, Tuesday is pure HIIT, Wednesday and Thursday are both low intensity steady state (LISS) days, and Friday wraps things up with one last LHS workout. This more advanced schedule might not be feasible for some people due to the time commitment and total volume of work, but the format can easily be modified.

The second example follows a Beginner two day resistance split, combined with 5 supplemental days of weight loss cardio, totaling 90 minutes of fat burning activity. Just like the 120 minute example, all three (LHS, LISS, & HIIT) styles of cardio are used here. The week kicks off with some LHS work on Monday, is pure aerobic LISS on Tuesday/Wednesday, HIIT on Thursday, and LHS on Friday. This specific example has 74 minutes of aerobic cardio and 16 minutes of anaerobic. 

Each week definitely requires an investment of time and they’re both on the higher end of the duration spectrum, but the overall plan is pretty straightforward and very doable for most people. 

Hopefully these simple outlines are useful and help illustrate how relatively easy it can be to incorporate an effective volume of cardiovascular exercise and resistance training into your week without spending hours at the gym each day. Like nearly every other aspect of fitness, there’s more than one way to approach a problem. Use the time, ratio, and frequency guidelines covered here as models to help build what’s best for you.

Both of these fat loss examples were taken directly from full programs that you can start right now. Check out the Programs page to get started. Everything’s free. 

For more help with resistance training, check out the Strength & Hypertrophy Training guide.

Strength & Hypertrophy Work Capacity

This article is all about weight loss because it’s a common goal for most people, but a great cardio program does not exclusively benefit those seeking a change in body composition. Within the context of resistance training, aerobic and anaerobic cardio give us one major advantage over those that skip it – greater work capacity. Work capacity is basically the amount of exercise volume we can complete in a set amount of time (per set or per day) and how quickly we can recover from it. 

The different styles of cardiovascular exercise programming we’ve covered stimulate mitochondrial protein synthesis. An increase in muscular mitochondrial density to help with various metabolic processes throughout the body means our ability to store, produce, and break down energy (ATP, creatine phosphate, & glycogen) is increased, the efficiency of all three energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolytic, and aerobic) is improved, and recovery times between sets/workouts are decreased. More muscular energy and quicker activity turnaround times due to an improved work capacity result in faster muscle growth and strength gains. 

If you have zero interest in weight loss but want to maximize gains, you need to be doing some amount of cardio. Keep the 80/20 percentage, cap the total max time to about 1 hour per week, and limit most cardio to lifting days. The example above follows these modifications with an easy 10 minute LISS aerobic session to start the week, some LHS work on Tuesday, more LISS on Thursday, and wraps up the week with a single round of LHS on Friday for a total of 44 (36/8) minutes. Simple, effective, and easily variable.

Train however you like, but make sure you’re emphasizing cardiovascular health too. No program is truly complete without it. 10 minutes at the end of each workout won’t rob you of gains if your diet is dialed in correctly. 

Wrapping It Up

While there are a number of variables that contribute to weight loss, a smart cardio program should be our number one priority with regards to exercise. 

By using a few key metabolic markers, we can easily design a plan that supplements just about any weight training routine. When that plan is combined with healthy nutrition habits and purpose driven resistance training, the pounds will drop. Weight loss is hard when you eat poorly and workout without structure. Make it easy. 

Establish appropriate expectations for yourself by setting goals based on realistic timelines and your own dietary habits. Do your best to keep weight loss from turning into an obsession that controls your life – small (1% or less) weekly reductions in total body weight can seem insignificant week to week, but they add up fast. Work hard, stay consistent, and be sure to take the time to celebrate every minor victory you experience throughout your weight loss journey.

If you have any questions about what was covered here or would like to chat with me about building a custom weight loss program or the very basics of nutrition, please let me know. I’d love to work with you.

Experiment by manipulating different variables. Find out what works best for you. Share what you discover. Have fun.

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