The single biggest fallacy in the entire fitness world is that cardio is your ticket to a lean, hard, muscular physique. The recipe for fat loss from 99% of coaches on the planet is #1 cut carbs/fats, and #2 start doing cardio. Here I am, the 1%, and let me tell you why and how I do it.
Before we get into what exactly cardio does for us, and why it should never be our first option to get lean, let’s first define what we are trying to do. The goal is to get as lean as possible, while maintaining as much muscle as possible (or some derivative thereof for bikini/figure etc). The point is, minimize fat and maximize muscle. If we can master the principle of doing this, anything in between becomes incredibly easy for the finesse classes such as men’s physique, bikini, figure etc.
With that said, cardio does not build muscle, nor does it serve to maintain muscle. In fact, it does quite the opposite….Cardio indiscriminately burns calories. While we definitely WANT to burn calories, the problem lies in that we can only burn fat at a particular (and relatively slow) rate. So, too often, by doing cardio, we end up burning calories at a rate too fast in which we can pull from stored body fat. Since we are in a deficit already and glycogen stores are depleted, we end up burning hard earned muscle for energy. When it comes for overall health and longevity and a healthy body, YES, cardio is fantastic. It increases blood flow, strengthens the heart, and overall there are thousands of studies proving its effectiveness. While that is great, and it does serve a big purpose for health and weight loss (not necessarily fat loss), getting “healthy” is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to look amazing! Looking amazing means lots of muscle with no fat. Cardio training is not the first answer in this equation.
The strategy I employ, and have had huge success with, is using cardio only as absolutely needed. The first approach to fat loss is a fat/carb reduction. Secondly, we increase weight training volume. Increasing weight training volume in lieu of cardio training accomplishes three things. For one, it burns calories just like cardio does. Where it differs is it also allows you to spend those scarce calories you are eating and spend the body fat you are burning to build and retain muscle. Thirdly, weight training, in and of itself, creates a hormone response in the body that incites the body to build and hold muscle.
This is not to say you should never do cardio. Eventually we may hit a point where our muscles and CNS are fatigued and our diet is sufficiently low that a low impact, low stress form of calorie burning is what we need to burn those last few pounds of fat (much more so for those who aren't genetically blessed). Rather, it is saying that you should use cardio as more of a nuclear solution to fat loss. First drop calories, then increase training volume. Once these options are exhausted, then start adding in cardio, in small but increasing amounts until you are in show condition.