Body Conquest Articles | Weight Training Cardio Balance for Fat Loss

on Tuesday, 16 April 2013. Posted in Training

Weight Training Cardio Balance for Fat Loss

Its already that time again. The warm weather is fast approaching, days will be spent at the beach, balmy evenings catching up with friends and time spent in shorts, singlets and bathers. We all want to look great whilst doing so. As summer draws closer everyone duly considers giving more thought than usual to dropping their body fat levels. You know, that little extra that snuck up in the middle of those cold winter nights where you thought you were better off tucked up on the couch in front of a good DVD and some accompanying chocolate, rather than doing that extra cardio to keep lean.

But how much cardio is too much, at what expense to your muscle, and when is the best time to do it?

The debate surrounding the weight training versus cardio dichotomy has been around for the past couple of decades and finding the right balance between the two is a task in itself. Various factors including amount, duration, frequency, timing, type, intensity and your own body composition are all variables that must be taken into account when deciding how you are going to manage this balance for the best possible results.

Every fitness professional has a particular "take" on how to best balance cardio and resistance training according to what phrase you are in with your training. My task here is to explain my perspective and the reasons behind why I believe this advice to be good advice for a pre-summer routine that will get you looking cut and hard whilst maintaining your muscular, athletic look. Anybody familiar with bodybuilding whether as a sport or as a fitness system, knows that once you get to a certain level of development, all the muscles in the world don't count if you don't get rid of the body fat. As the saying goes "You can't flex fat". Putting on muscle is not difficult in itself, and neither is burning off bodyfat. However trying to maintain your hard-earned muscle whilst burning fat is far more complex a task. There are a lot of metabolic reasons for why this is true. However the bottom line in my mind is that the body considers building muscle mass and simultaneously shredding fat are simply two contradictory activities.

When you walk into your gym to train what energy pathway are you using? Primarily the anaerobic metabolic pathway right? Anaerobic training allows for the building of muscle because it predominately uses the ATP-PC and glycolysis pathways method. Conversely if you train aerobically, you primarily use your aerobic pathway. This may facilitate loss of weight, but that weight loss will invariably include hard earned muscle because aerobic training in lengthy forms is catabolic. So my question is, why would anyone bust their ass in the gym building muscle, only to get on a Stairmaster for an hour afterwards and break down the muscle tissue that they have just tried so hard to make bigger and stronger? This is precisely what leads to the controversy, because we know that the more muscle you carry, the more efficient your body is at burning fat. So it is imperative that you consider your cardio methods very carefully.

If you are training cardio for cardiovascular performance you need to continue your workouts for longer periods of time and that is another story altogether. However if your prime aim is to elevate your metabolic rate to aid burning off extra calories you don't necessarily need to be so concerned with the duration that you train. The intensity with which you train becomes the mitigating factor to fat loss. In other words instead of doing a run for one hour on the treadmill, you are likely to be better off doubling your intensity and halving the duration and still get the same effect, but maintain your muscle. Your plan to get ripped should be smarter cardio not more cardio.


I believe that your choice of cardio should complement your resistance training as much as possible and the best way to achieve this is by cardio training anaerobically. So, what would be a good choice of cardio? To my mind sprint training is the number one choice by at least 100 metres! Let us look at an analogy. Although bodybuilders may well respect the cardiorespiratiory superiority of the likes of Steven Monegetti, they do not aspire to have his level of muscle mass. Patrick Johnson and Linford Christie on the other hand, could walk on the stage of a bodybuilding competition and give some of us a run for our money. Why? Because their cardio training is anaerobic which allows not only for maintenance of muscle but also for the possibility of facilitating further muscle growth. They have very powerful and robust physiques with fantastic definition and spectacular six packs to boot!

Sprinting however is not for the faint hearted because it is arduous work. Sprints can be done on the treadmill, however are often better done outside in a park or on an oval. 20 minutes of sprint walking will heighten your metabolic rate like a raging furnace for hours after you have taken off the runners.

If sprinting is not for you, and you're going to do more traditional cardio methods like the treadmill, stepper and rowing machines there are things that you can do to try to minimise muscle loss. Exercise too short and too low intensity and you wont burn much fat at all. Exercise too long and too hard and your hormones will switch your body from burning fat to burning muscle. This can also cause your testosterone levels to plunge, and even worse, your levels of the potent muscle-eating and fat –producing hormone cortisol to skyrocket.

Optimum duration to avoid this would be somewhere around the 20 minute mark at an intensity where you are really working, with your heart rate up around 75% of your work rate. High intensity exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which releases key hormones that are called catecholamines-the strongest stimulators of fat burning. These hormones enable you to train harder and longer by improving your ability to tap into your fat stores for energy. Don't forget also, as your level of fitness improves over this 20-30 minute period, your ability to burn your own body fat dramatically improves-in other words-by losing fat, you become even more efficient at burning fat.

With high intensity training there is an increased post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). This means that your metabolic rate remains higher for longer long after you finish exercising. With low to moderate exercise your metabolic rate returns to normal much earlier. Burning fat is significantly greater when exercise intensity is high. In one particular study, individuals performed either an endurance training (ET) or High Intensity(HI) training program for a period of 15 weeks. At the end of the testing period, the HI group experienced 9 times the fat loss of the ET group. This is certainly presently supported empirically by the many individuals who have accelerated fat loss after adopting HI as their form of cardiovascular exercise.


Essentially the best time to do cardio is some time. It is beneficial morning, noon and nighttime. If you have the luxury of picking your time, then I would suggest first thing in the morning and preferably on an empty stomach as this has proven to be a successful strategy. When you first wake up your testosterone levels are at their peak and your insulin levels are at they're lowest. High testosterone means your body will preserve muscle while exercising and be more attentive to burning fat. Insulin is a potent fat-storage hormone, so low insulin levels mean your body can burn a greater amount of fat with less interference.

If you have to fit in your cardio during a lunch break, or after dinner do not sabotage your fat burning efforts by consuming sugars and starchy carbohydrates before you exercise. These will cause a large insulin spike that leads to a less efficient fat burning workout. Try to leave at least 2-3 hours after your last meal before you do it. Cardio at the end of the day before bed is better than none at all, but may cause some sleeping disruptions. Essentially, fit it in when best convenient for you, as long as it gets done, and not put on the backburner, while you choose to settle into a night of "The Secret Life of Us" instead.


Like anything there is such a thing as overtraining with the cardio, and too much can be like taking a step backwards rather than a step forwards in your efforts to burn fat. If you are going to give your all with high intensity cardio, I would advise no more than three times a week, particularly initially. It really is not for the wuss...it can and should be treacherous training! If you wish to add a couple of moderate cardio sessions like a 20 minute walk on the alternative days, that should negate muscle catabolism as much as possible yet still provide the spark to ignite your metabolism.


If at all possible the ideal situation would be to separate your weight training from your cardio. This means that you can give your supreme effort to the weights without holding back, knowing that you have an impending cardio workout to do as well afterwards. That can be tough mentally. Cardio before training can rapidly reduce the muscles' ability to work at maximum intensity, especially legs. Also, if you do it afterwards, because resistance training uses muscle glycogen almost exclusively as a source of fuel, doing weights first will mean that you will start your cardio already glycogen depleted. This in turn will mean that your body will have to increase the proportion of fuel for its aerobic work coming from fat reserves and start digging into those fat supplies earlier that if cardio is done first. Also, if you can train twice a day, that is twice that your metabolic rate gets a jump start, which means a raised rate for hours afterwards twice over! If this isn't possible you are better to train weights first and follow with cardio rather than the other way around.

Time is the essence and so are the results that you obtain from the work you put in. If you want to maximise your results in the shortest amount of time, then high intensity training, completing it in an anaerobic fashion will alleviate muscle loss and maximise fat burning.


Monitoring your fat loss progress can be quantifiable, that is, can be measured in a number of ways. This can help to ensure that your weight loss is coming from fat and not lean muscle tissue or water. To recapitulate, this is of paramount importance because if you lose lean muscle your metabolic rate slows down, and your propensity to put back the weight that you lose increases. Also, if you are losing lean muscle tissue, you will not take on a lean, muscular look, which is presumably what you are striving for. The most common way to measure body composition is via skinfold measurements with calipers. These can be bought at most sports stores and some gyms. Make sure that if you use calipers that you have the same person take the measurements so that sites and style used is at least consistent as it can dramatically vary amongst instructors. Have a skilled technician perform the monitoring if you can. I would pay less attention to the actual figure, but more attention to the trend in which your results are going, i.e. up or down!

Many fitness centres still use the BMI method (Body Mass Index), along with the height/weight ratio chart. This can indicate being overweight relative to the average weight, but does not provide quantitative information about the composition of that weight in terms of fat-free mass and fat mass. I personally do not advocate it as a useful tool for measuring your body composition.

Another increasingly popular way is via scales or a hand held monitor that have electrical bio impedance which can ascertain whether it is measuring fat or muscle. These can be used at any time of the day and offer a reasonable reliable feedback of your body fat levels. If used on a regular basis, they will certainly indicate whether you are maintaining, gaining or losing it, even if the ultimate figure is not exact. Bare in mind that this method too has it's problems and may not be precise. They aim to minimise errors, but their equations are based on some assumptions and on the basis of population norms and can therefore only be used as an approximation

A further alternative if you are really keen is to visit your local university where they will be able to perform a hydrostatic test that is performed by underwater weighing. This is by far the most accurate of the above-mentioned, however can be difficult to arrange and accessibility is a problem.

The method I use with my clients and one I try to actively encourage the most is actually by the use of the mirror and "intrinsic feel". My philosophy is that usually, unless you wish to compete in a particular weight class, most people are not so concerned with what they weigh or what a particular device says they're body fat is. All most individuals wish to see is a reflection in the mirror that they are happy with.

So from the outset, understand and take into account that the most FAT that is possible to lose in a week physiologically is 3.3 pounds. That figure though, is including a miracle. So, if you lose more than say, 2.5 pounds a week, you can be safe in surmising that some of what you have lost is muscle. Secondly, you know when you are holding your muscle and losing only fat because separation of the muscles starts to become obvious as you start to take on a "ripped" appearance. Your skin will begin to thin out, yours senses will become far more heightened, i.e. hearing, vision, sense of smell will all be on high alert. You will lose all sense of "bloatedness" and will become "harder". The at home "pinch test" will become difficult to perform and you will be happier with that reflection that is coming right back at you. Admiring glances from the opposite sex and friends asking what you are doing to look so good are also great indicators that you are achieving your fat loss goals. To me, these details are the best gauges of fat loss.

One final point worth noting, is that of course, no matter how hard you train, no matter how much effort you put into your cardio......if your nutritional habits are not spot on, you certainly will not achieve a lean and muscular physique. Eating the right nutrients from natural sources at the right times is a no brainer, and is equally, if not more important than all the training in the world. So make sure that you are embracing a healthy eating regime that will complement your training.

It is always problematic reconciling cardio with your weight training, as you don't want to get lean at the risk of looking like a skun rabbit. However if you adopt the principles that I have outlined above you will be able to feel great, increase both your health and your fitness, have endless energy to get through your days and be armed with the physique you want for a fabulous summer.

A Tremblay "Impact on Exercise Intensity on BodyFatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism" Metabolism 43:7 (1994) p814-818.