When it comes to cutting your focus should be on the equation of energy balance. This equation revolves around calories in and energy expended, it doesn’t matter how you balance this equation as long as you make sure you have a negative energy balance to promote fat loss.
Cardio is a tool that often divides opinion, many feel that cardio is absolutely necessary when cutting whereas others argue that a caloric deficit and resistance training is enough to get shredded.
The honest answer is that nothing is necessary when it comes to physique development however you should make the most of all the tools at your disposal to see optimal progress and results.
Is cardio necessary for cutting? Cardio is not necessary when cutting though it would be advisable to include it in some form. As long as you are consuming a caloric deficit and keeping energy expenditure high through resistance training or everyday activity then you should still be able to have a successful cut without cardio.
When cutting, the factors at play are your nutrition/diet, your recovery, your weight training sessions and finally your cardio sessions. If I’m honest they all do play an important role when cutting however when looked at in isolate, none are absolutely necessary.
Is Cardio Necessary for Cutting
As we are now in the 21st century it would be ignorant to assume that anything can be considered necessary for a goal when it comes to physique development and cutting. Research is an ongoing process and we are constantly finding new techniques and technology to assist us with cutting.
I’m also not referring to cheap marketing tools like a ‘shake weight’ or the latest low calorie diet fad but rather real and practical applications like Myfitnesspal or the trainers over at RNT Fitness who get their clients results by focusing on things within their control like hitting daily step targets.
Whilst steps are a form of cardio they are also a part of everyday life, you could walk to work, walk to the shops, walk on your lunch break, walk whilst listening to a podcast or music, walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator.
All of these alternatives are something that you can easily start to adopt into your daily routine and life, it would be hard to argue that choosing to walk to work can be considered as a cardio session!
Therefore when deciding whether or not cardio is necessary for cutting we will be considering cardio to be a dedicated session where your sole intention is aerobic work. Cleaning and organizing your garage will raise activity level but again we can’t class that as intentional cardio.
When deciding whether cardio is necessary for cutting we first need to see if you can lose body fat without doing any cardio.
Can You Lose Body Fat Without Cardio
The purpose of a cut is purely to lose body fat and get to a lean body fat percentage level (10% or below), this goal might not be for everyone as getting to these low levels will require hard work and some sacrifice.
Even if your goal is just to lose some weight to drop a jean size or get relatively lean for a holiday the important point to note is that you don’t want to lose weight but instead you want to lose body fat.
Weight in general can be water weight or muscle glycogen stores, the latter being of particular importance for weightlifting sessions and therefore something you want to hold onto for as long as possible. Therefore your goal should primarily be fat loss.
It’s worth noting that cardio (depending on the type performed) can actually deplete your muscle glycogen stores to be used as fuel, therefore if you are lifting weights at an intermediate to advanced level this could have a negative impact on your recovery.
When it comes to losing body fat you need to be in a caloric deficit in order to use body fat stores as energy for training and everyday activity.
Your body requires a certain number of calories each day just to maintain weight and perform your regular day to day tasks as well as essential bodily functions, this is known as your maintenance calorie requirements.
If you consume a calorie deficit then your body is not getting the required level of energy from food sources and will therefore need to use body stores (which not only include fat stores but also muscle mass) in order to function.
Therefore in terms of the energy balance equation, consuming a caloric deficit is enough to promote fat loss and cardio is not necessarily required to burn body fat. The only stumbling block is that you can only drop calories so far.
There will come a point when you stop losing weight and can’t drop your calories any further, this is an extreme end of the spectrum but you’d therefore need to look at the other side of the energy balance equation and increase energy expenditure (likely through cardio) to further promote fat loss.
That is at the extreme end of a cutting phase however and no one should be getting to the point where calories are extremely low so that was just for illustrative purposes. What it does show however is that a combination of calorie deficit and cardio are useful for cutting and fat loss.
What Type of Cardio Is Best When Cutting
When it comes to deciding on what type of cardio you should do when cutting it’s important to look at a number of determining factors. The first is the intensity level of your cardio session.
Cardio can be characterized by two key factors when it comes to intensity, you have low intensity steady state cardio (LISS) and high intensity interval training (HIIT). The difference between both as you can tell is the level of intensity.
LISS cardio can be anything that has a low impact and generally involves no shortness of breath of level of strenuous work. For this you can think of things like walking, light jog, cycling or swimming. The important thing to note is for these exercises your heart rate needs to be around the 40%-60% mark (as a percentage of your 100% max).
For HIIT cardio you will be working at a higher capacity and will be short of breath and causing muscle activation and fatigue. HIIT sessions involve all out efforts for a shorter duration of time and include activities like sprints, max effort cycling and jump rope.
The key to HIIT is short bursts of max capacity work, this could be a 10 second sprint followed by a 10 second jog repeated for up to 10 minutes. This style of training is very taxing and will be at a heart rate level of 80%-100% of your max capacity.
For anything in between these two styles of cardio where heart rate is at a moderate level and exertion is 60%-80% then this is a moderate level of intensity primarily used for endurance style training. This is not ideal when cutting due to the energy demands for the muscle groups and therefore you’ll see recovery impaired because of this.
Both LISS and HIIT work well when cutting so the choice will come down purely to preference. If you have a lot of free time then LISS could be a good approach to take and is best for those with a focus on maintaining strength and muscle mass.
HIIT is a better option for those that have limited time and just want to get the workout finished as quickly as possible.
It’s also important to note that whichever style you choose to implement into your training will need to be aware of how many sessions will be required each week for both types (it’s also possible to combine them if you like the variety).
How Much Cardio Should You do When Cutting
Before getting into how much cardio you should do when cutting I first want to point out that increasing your daily steps is one of the best things you can do to promote fat loss without having to rely so heavily on cardio.
Whilst steps can be considered a form of LISS cardio, especially if you are going on dedicated walks to get your step count up, you can also increase your step count just by making some simple lifestyle tweaks.
Like i mentioned earlier just walking to and from work (depending on distance and feasibility) or having a walking meeting can go a long way to increasing your energy expenditure and will facilitate the fat loss process.
Start with a target each day of 8,000 steps to start with. This is a good guideline to get most active and then work towards 10,000+ over time. This simple habit will help burn fat before you ever need to resort to traditional forms of cardio.
When looking at how much cardio you should do when cutting you need to factor in the energy demands and recovery capability. LISS cardio will be less demanding however it will also burn less calories in a similar time period as HIIT.
Therefore with LISS cardio you want to be looking at 5-6 days of 1 hour sessions each week. You can start with 3-4 days of dedicated LISS whilst your body is adapting to the calorie deficit and you are still seeing weight loss however as it gets more difficult to lose that next pound of body fat you will want to switch to a more frequent routine of 5-6 days.
HIIT is much more demanding in terms of intensity and recovery so therefore it needs to be carefully planned around your current weight training routine. With LISS you could do this on the same day as a weight session however HIIT would either be impacted by/impact on your weight training session.
If you are not at an advanced level when it comes to training then I’d highly recommend against trying to schedule HIIT and weight training on the same day during a cut as energy levels just won’t be high enough to support both.
Therefore if you weight train 3-4 days per week you should look to perform a maximum of 2-3 HIIT sessions per week on your off days. Always leave at least one day free from any sort of physical activity except for your step target.
This is to allow for recovery and some might even require 2 rest days per week. You might think that more frequency is better for fat loss but your body will still need time to rest and recover sufficiently, especially when operating on low calories.
How Long Should You Do Cardio for When Cutting
The length of your cardio sessions will depend on the activity and intensity level that you choose. LISS cardio should be anywhere from 30 minutes – 60 minutes per session depending on your fitness level.
Remember that the purpose of low intensity should be to have no shortness of breath and you need to be able to maintain a full conversation (even if you are doing cardio on your own), once you start to get past the 60 minute mark, even with a low intensity, then you will start to tire and fatigue.
A trail walk might be considered low intensity however over a greater duration of time it will start to become a moderate intensity and tap into muscle fatigue and energy usage. Therefore even with LISS try to maintain shorter session duration but done more frequently.
For HIIT sessions you should be looking at 30 minutes maximum. I’ve done 1 hour HIIT sessions before and after a certain point it becomes less about high intensity and more to do with muscular endurance.
If you are really pushing your session (say a 20 second sprint followed by a 10 second jog and repeated) then you should be looking to do sessions lasting 10 – 20 minutes. Olympic sprinters demonstrate this best by showing how taxing it is to simply run 100m at a max capacity effort.
Whilst you are not an Olympic sprinter you want to hit your HIIT session hard, get the fat burning process switched on and then finish before you start to eat into your muscular endurance. A great method to look into is the Tabata method for fat loss, I produced an article for it for GoNutrition here:
You can lose weight without cardio, that is certainly true and therefore cardio is not necessary when cutting however it is an excellent tool that should be utilized in order to promote fat loss.
Relying on a caloric deficit will only get you so far when it comes to the equation of energy balance for fat loss so the smart approach to cutting would certainly make use of cardio to allow you to keep your calorie intake as high as possible whilst still being in an energy deficit each day.
Hunger can be one of the biggest struggles of a cut and therefore making use of cardio can help to prevent this issue for as long as possible. A balance of both is therefore the best approach to take when cutting.
Also check out:
How to maintain muscle mass when doing cardio
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