How Extended Cardio Will Inhibit Your Strength Gains

Let’s put together a little scenario together, which is played out in gyms all over the world. After sleeping for 6-8 hours, you wake up, sit at the table and eat breakfast. Then you either sit in your car, on your bike or on the bus to work, where you will sit for another 6-8 hours. After this long day of sitting, you head to the gym to hop on the elliptical, treadmill or stationary bike for an hour. Then you head home to sit down at the computer or on the couch, finally returning to bed where you will repeat these activities the next day.

See anything wrong with this scenario?

Spending most of your day sitting down, and the one hour of exercise you do get involves aerobic exercise in a single modality is not optimal for human performance. If your idea of exercise involves sitting in the cardio theater for an hour, watching the latest episode of The Real Housewives, then I think it’s time we had a little chat.

How exactly will extended, low-intensity cardio sessions ruin your strength gains? Let’s look at a couple examples.

First off, typical gym cardio workouts involves one of three modalities. The three options are the elliptical, the treadmill and the stationary bike. The big thing that they all have in common is their repetitive movements in an incomplete range of motion. This is especially important for individuals who are trying to lose fat. These are aerobic exercises (literally meaning “with oxygen”) they are sustainable because your body can produce enough oxygen to sustain the exercise indefinitely. The problem with that is the moment you stop the workout, calories stop being burned at the same level. As opposed to strength training, which continues to have a calorie burning effect on the body long after the exercise is finished. Your body works hard to repair itself to get back to a state of homeostasis.

Another huge reason as to why I am against extended cardio is because of its catabolic effects. Anabolic (muscle building), not catabolic (muscle-breakdown) is what you should want out of your workout. Most people think that extended cardio sessions will make the fat melt off of them, but it is simply not the case. Have you ever looked at a marathon runner and thought “Damn I want to look just like that”? I didn’t think so. Marathon runners are very lean, but they have very little muscle. Endurance cardio is very catabolic to your body, which means less muscle, which in turn means lower metabolism and fat gain.

A dead horse that I find myself beat every day is the effects that extended cardio has on hormone levels, specifically testosterone, cortisol, and estrogen. Think of exercise as stress because it is exactly that. Cortisol is a major hormone that is directly linked to stress. Thus, extended cardio will keep the cortisol elevated. Elevated cortisol is very catabolic. Once the glycogen in your muscles run out, cortisol will start to burn not only fat, but muscle and bone as well. The longer the session, the more fuel is broken down.

Rather than wasting hours doing a workout that gives you nothing but bad knees, twisted ankles and fat gain, try something different. I understand that not everyone wants to lift big. I don’t approve, but I understand.

Enter HITT (high intensity interval training), specifically the TABATA method.

The Tabata Method is based off of results found by a Japanese doctor named Dr. Tabata. He found that extended cardio does not stimulate the metabolic pathways sufficiently. Instead, he found that short interval workouts at near-maximal power outputs yielded much greater results. His studies showed that the trainees VO2 max had the greatest increase. It was also the only group that experienced anaerobic capacity benefits out of all cardio groups.

Here is an example of a tabata squat workout

It’s a very simple workout. 8 rounds of 20 seconds max work, 10 seconds rest. Your score is the round with the lowest number of rest. This is so you don’t blow your load in the first 2 rounds and hit a wall for the remaining 6. You have to find that equilibrium of high intensity while maintaining it across 8 rounds.

It is the perfect workout to do when on road trips or in airports, like we did in Hawaii.

HIIT has also been shown to increase overall athletic performance. For athletes who are already well trained, increasing training volume can yield little to no improvements. Whereas HIIT can challenge athletes along all 3 pathways. Research is still in its infancy stages, but HIIT has been shown to substantially improve insulin actions in young healthy men. It may be a way to help ward off the onset of type-2 diabetes.

Hopefully this article will serve as a sufficient motivation to get off the elliptical and stop wasting your muscle and bone during hour long cardio sessions. This is a call to all my brothers and sisters stuck in the cardio mindset. Join us in the squat rack, the iron is calling.


Gibala, Martin J; Jonathan P. Little, Martin van Essen, Geoffrey P. Wilkin, Kirsten A. Burgomaster, Adeel Safdar, Sandeep Raha and Mark A. Tarnopolsky (September 15 2006). “Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance”. J Physiol 575 (3): 901–911.

Esfarjani F, Laursen PB (2007). “Manipulating high-intensity interval training: effects on VO2max, the lactate threshold and 3000 m running performance in moderately trained males”. J Sci Med Sport 10 (1): 27–35. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.05.014. PMID 16876479

Babraj J, Vollaard N, Keast C, Guppy F, Cottrell G, Timmons J (2009). “Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males”. BMC Endocrine Disorders 9 (3): 3.

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