Physique athletes (bodybuilding, fitness, fitness model, figure and bikini competitors) eat and train differently. In fact, a lot of what they do to develop the leanest, most muscular, most aesthetically pleasing bodies in the world is the exact opposite of how most people eat and train for fat loss. For more than 30 years, I’ve been teaching men and women the physique athlete diet system. I often sum it up as “eat more, burn more.” The “burn more” part includes cardio, and in today’s post, I take a reader question that clears up the misconceptions about the role of cardio, what this philosophy means and how it’s possible that you can eat more and get leaner and more muscular doing it…
Q: Hi Tom. I know nutrition is “element #1” in your Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle philosophy, but I plan on doing a lot of cardio because for this year’s Burn The Fat challenge, I’m in it to win it and I want the maximum results possible. That got me wondering, did you develop your philosophy of more training and less calorie cutting over the years from trial and error? Were you doing that right from your early days, or did you start out just cutting fat with the diet alone? I still hear people debate about how much cardio you should do and others debate that you don’t need cardio at all and I was just wondering how you came to your recommendations. Thanks! Chris.
A: No doubt about it – nutrition is #1, so your food quality and quantity has got to be on point. Exercising more is a poor crutch for a lousy diet or ignorance of calorie math. Adding cardio on top of a good nutrition plan simply makes fat loss so much easier and faster.
You can’t, however, give a cookie-cutter prescription to everyone, only suggested guidelines for a starting point and instructions on how to adjust mode, duration, frequency and intensity to break plateaus (we call that “dialing it in.”)
Just like nutrition, there’s no “one size fits all” plan. The amount of cardio may be different for everyone. It can go up or down during a peaking phase, and naturally, it goes way down for strength and hypertrophy phases.
If you stay leaner in the off season and/or increase the length of your cutting phase (start prep sooner), you can easily reduce the amount of cardio you need that way as well, so there’s no single specific amount you “must” do to get cut.
In fact, those people who say cardio is not necessary to burn fat are correct. What’s necessary is a caloric deficit – and that can be achieved with food reduction alone.
But adding cardio makes it easier to hit a larger calorie deficit than just cutting food alone, and it gives you infinitely more power in accelerating your rate of fat loss, breaking plateaus and “dialing in” for a contest or photo shoot peak. You also get some nice health and conditioning benefits too.
Cardio – The Way I Do It
I’ve experimented with very strict diet and little or no cardio, but through trial and error, I discovered that my body responds much better and much faster to less aggressive calorie restriction with more cardio than calorie restriction alone. Most people in the “endomorph” body type category find the same thing.
My volume of cardio varies. I increase or decrease based on my body comp results each week. When I’m training for muscle mass, my cardio is very minimal – about 3 times per week, for health, conditioning and to help keep body fat in check while gaining lean mass. (Though I’m not afraid to talk a long walk every day because walking places virtually no recovery demands on your body).
During pre-contest training, I’ve written about how I usually build up to daily cardio and on occasion, for short periods, even some double cardio sessions (depending on my condition and time remaining to deadline). Some people, therefore, seemed to think I’m some kind of cardio fiend. That couldn’t be further from the truth… As a bodybuilder, I’m a PHYSIQUE athlete, not an endurance athlete.
Over-doing cardio can cause interference effects in training response for power, strength and physique (with the effects impacting results in that order). But to maximize fat loss and reach peak condition, cardio is helpful and doing more is sometimes a necessary evil.
My philosophy is simple: you approach a body transformation goal with two types of training – weight training and cardio training. Weight training is the top priority. I then add as much cardio as I need, but as little as I can get away with.
Training (weights + cardio) is the BURN part of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. We are NOT dieters, we are athletes. We BURN the fat, we don’t STARVE it. And don’t forget, weight training burns calories too (though not as much as vigorous steady cardio).
The main point in my “burn more” philosophy is not that you must do tons of cardio, it’s that training more – resistance training and cardio training combined – will produce faster fat loss and a vastly superior body than not training at all and just cutting calories.
Unfortunately, that’s what the whole mainstream weight loss world is still doing – just dieting.
The Wrong Way: Eat Less, Burn Nothing
I’ve worked extensively with two different groups of people – the bodybuilders / physique athletes and the weight loss mass market. The readers of my newsletter and members of my inner circle are very smart and resistance training savvy, but out in the mainstream, the method that is still pushed today to lose weight is: “go on a diet” or just cut calories. It’s a horrible approach.
This is why you always hear fitness pros say “diets don’t work” and they’re right in the sense that diet can only give you weight loss but not necessarily a better body. Even with a perfect diet, what kind of body do you think you could possibly develop with no training??? That’s why I have to chuckle when people say, “It’s 80% nutrition!” No, its 100% nutrition and 100% training!
With the”just cut calories” approach, you lose weight, but the composition of the weight lost is not good, and even if you manage not to lose lean mass, when it’s over, your body does not look athletic, it looks soft… mushy. You may look better IN clothes than before, but when the clothes come OFF you can see that all you did was lose weight, you didn’t transform your body.
The “eat more burn more” approach doesn’t necessarily mean trying to see how far up you can push your energy flux for no reason, it’s simply saying that the masses of dieters are doing it wrong just by dieting.
It’s the mix of 4 elements: that produces your BEST BODY – not just weight loss, but body composition transformation:
2. Weight Training
3. Cardio Training
4. Mental Training
If you add a 5th element – support/ accountability– then your success rate will skyrocket because that’s what helps you stick with the nutrition and training.
The nutrition always has to be there at the top of the hierarchy. The weight training always must be a constant too. Cardio is the variable. People who know how to use cardio and properly manipulate that variable will always have more control over their body composition than people who don’t.
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation
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