Do you even lift?
That feels like the mantra of modern-day fitness buffs.
The verdict is in on the importance of developing your muscles to aid weight loss. Increasing your muscle mass boosts your metabolism and lets you burn more calories throughout the day when you are just doing your normal stuff. All good.
But that doesn’t mean we should be signing up to #TeamNoCardio any time soon.
When you are looking to burn fat, cardio is still one of the best things that you can do, especially when combined with weight training.
According to a recent study conducted by Duke University, aerobic exercise is still the best way to burn fat and lose weight, and it is even more effective when combined with resistance exercise.
Working with a sample group of 119 overweight adults over a period of 8 months, they had one group perform only cardio, one group perform only resistance training, and one group perform a combination of the two.
The cardio group lost significantly more weight than the resistance training group. And while the resistance training group added more lean muscle, there was not a corresponding loss of fat.
So, who fared the best? The group that combined cardio and resistance, who lost fat and also toned up their physique. The problem, of course, is that they also spent twice as long at the gym.
So, resistance training gets you in shape and cardio burns fat, but how do you find the time to do both to get your ideal physique?
Luckily, the evidence also suggests that shorter periods of high-intensity cardio is better for you than long moderate cardio workouts. So, unless you are training to run a marathon, you can say goodbye to long runs and hello to rapid and intense 20-40 minute cardio workouts.
We have pulled together a list of the best type of cardio to give you the greatest fat-burning potential in just 30 minutes.
We will also talk about why short, quick, intense cardio is best, and share top tips for getting the most out of your cardio workout.
How Does Cardio Help You Burn Fat?
First, let’s just be clear, cardio is any exercise that involves rhythmic or repetitive activity that raises your heart rate. So, it can include walking, running, dancing, Zumba, rowing, cycling, and the list goes on.
During cardio, your heart rate becomes elevated as it works harder to send blood and oxygen to your muscles. This uses energy, so calories, which helps you reach the calorie deficit that’s needed for losing weight.
But cardio can also help you burn fat.
When you need a short burst of energy to do something, like lifting something heavy, carbohydrates are often the easiest things for your body to grab and burn for fuel.
But for more sustained energy exertion, such as is required for cardio, fat cells offer a better source of energy. So, if you are looking specifically to burn fat, cardio is an important part of the equation.
You can do as little as 10 minutes of cardio at a time to see the benefits, but periods of at least 20 minutes are certainly better. However, more than 60 minutes is not recommended.
Why Keep Your Cardio Workouts Short?
Long cardio sessions aren’t necessary to see the benefits, and they can also be damaging to your body.
First, cardio generally requires repetitive motion, and this can seriously damage the tissues and joints most used if you force them to maintain this motion for hours on end.
For example, long-distance runners often suffer from microfractures on the shins (yep, shin splints), inflammation of the Achilles tendon, and patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner’s knee.
Secondly, if you do too much cardio, for example, more than 40 minutes at a time five times a week, your body can start metabolizing muscle tissue. This undermines your physique and lowers your metabolism, which limits your body’s ability to burn calories and lose weight.
Thirdly, the body adapts very quickly. So, while you might have burnt lots of calories on that first one hour run, once you are on your 20th long run in the space of three weeks, your body is already adapting and using less energy to do the same amount of work. The longer your cardio workouts, the faster this is likely to happen.
Finally, there is good evidence that your body stays in the fat-burning zone for longer after a shorter, higher intensity workout. In contrast, the body leaves the fat burning zone pretty quickly after long, moderate cardio workouts. So, if you work at a higher intensity, you can burn more calories in a shorter time, and then continue burning fat for longer afterward.
Best Fast Cardio Exercises
But, if you are looking for cardio exercises to do in your 30-minute windows, not just any exercise will do. You need something that is high in intensity. So, goodbye leisurely jogs, and hello HIIT training.
Here is our list of the best exercises for high-intensity, fat burning cardio.
Jumping rope is a favourite exercise of boxers for good reason. As well as burning a lot of calories, it strengthens the shoulders and builds foot speed.
How many calories? Well, this depends on your weight, fitness level, and the speed and intensity of your jumping. But jump rope simulates sprinting, allowing the average person to burn 200-300 calories in just 15 minutes.
Boxers also use skipping rope as part of their regime to quickly (but temporarily) get their weight down before weighing in for a fight.
Of course, a 20-30 minute jump rope session is going to be hard work, especially if you aren’t accustomed to it. And don’t underestimate the strain on your arms as you get used to the motion of swinging the rope.
So, build up over time, use intervals of slow and fast jumping to give you rest periods, and learn some tricks such as crisscrossing your arms to keep it interesting.
High-intensity interval training is a great way to do cardio as it requires aerobic exercise and works your muscles at the same time.
During a HIIT workout, you rotate through a number of high-intensity exercises, that usually involve explosive movements, followed by a short period of rest or active recovery, before increasing the intensity again.
Interval periods vary. You see short intervals that couple 30 seconds of activity with 30 seconds of rest, but you can also see long intervals, such as seven minutes of activity followed by 90 seconds of rest.
The kinds of exercises that you can expect to do during HIIT training tend to be repetitive explosive exercises that elevate the heart rate quickly, such as:
- Tuck jumps
- Jumping jacks
- Mountain climbers
- Clap-jump or walking push-ups
- Renegade Rows
- Pipe jumps
Often resistance exercises such as push-ups, triceps dips, and abdominal exercises will be mixed in with these.
Depending on many factors, you can expect to burn between 300 and 400 calories in a 20-25 minute HIIT session, plus you will be building and toning your muscles at the same time.
Kettlebells is another workout that is a great combination of both cardio and resistance training. You can kill two birds with one stone in an intense fat-burning session.
It works very much the same as HIIT training, except you mix in exercises using kettlebells. Alongside your burpees (there’s no escaping those) and your mountain climbers, you add single-arm kettlebell swings, Turkish get-ups, and half squat jerks.
You are going to be doing a lot of reps of each exercise, so you need weights that aren’t too heavy, but aren’t so light that they aren’t working your muscles.
You can expect to burn a similar amount of calories duing a Kettlebell workout as a HIIT workout.
There are a lot of people who will be relieved to see swimming on this list. And swimming is awesome. It combines cardio with muscle work, and it’s just fun.
You are automatically burning a lot of calories in the water as you work to stay afloat. In fact, by just treading water, you can burn as many calories as you do when clocking up laps. You can expect to burn about 300-500 calories in 30 minutes depending on you and what exactly you are doing.
You can intensify your work out by choosing your stroke. Breaststroke burns fewer calories than freestyle, which burns fewer calories than butterfly.
If you are a good swimmer, swim as long and hard as you can, and then take a short rest lap. If you aren’t as strong, turn your swim into interval training by alternating fast and slow lengths.
If your preferred way of doing cardio is on one of the machines at the gym, then head towards the rowing machines. You will burn calories, work your upper and lower body, and it has a lower impact on the joints than activities such as running or that stair master.
You can burn between 250 and 400 calories in 30 minutes on the rowing machine even at a moderate intensity, and you can upgrade your burn by adding in some more intensive intervals.
The key to using the rowing machine, however, is to make sure that you are spreading the work between your arms and legs, rather than favouring one over the other. The result of this is a complete full-body workout, which can also get at some of those back muscles that we often neglect.
What About the Rest?
But what about running, cycling, the elliptical machine?
Yes, you can get your cardio workout on any of these machines, but it is not a case of climbing on and pushing through for an hour.
To get the best workout on these machines, you need to integrate interval training into your workout.
Intervals are probably the easiest to do when running. Whether on the road on the treadmill, you can combine sprints with recovery pace jogging.
If you are using the treadmill, make sure to set the incline to 2-3%. This will both simulate running outside, and does less damage to your knees and other joints.
You can find all our top tips and advice for running here.
When it comes to cycling, the fact is that you have to work really hard to see much of a benefit. That leisurely cycle to work or down the pub is not doing much for you.
If you are cycling outdoors, seek out a track with significant inclines, and push yourself to really work through the pedals.
On the stationary bike at the gym, again it is all about intervals. Push hard for a few minutes, and then give yourself a minute of recovery.
If you are new to cycling, join a spin class to get an idea of how hard you need to work, and how to break up your cycle exercise and keep it interesting.
A lot of people are fans of the stair climber as you get to work your glutes at the same time. But this is one of the most damaging machines for your knees. So, throw this in as an occasional workout rather than making it a daily commitment.
Elliptical machines are low impact on the knees and hips, so it is a great choice if you have problems there. But if not, you might be better off choosing something else as it is hard to build intensity on these machines.
For the best workout choose either a high incline, which activates the glutes, or a low incline at high resistance, which works the quads.
Don’t be tempted to grip the handles too tightly, as this will further reduce the intensity of your workout and will probably just leave you with sore wrists.
Tips for Better Cardio
As well as choosing the right exercise, the right intensity, and the length, there are other things that you can do to ensure that you are getting the most out of your cardio workout.
Doing it at the right time of day, what you eat before and after, and how you relate it to your other workouts can all make a difference to your result.
Below is our list of top tips to get the most out of your cardio.
Mix Up Your Cardio
Don’t stick to just one type of cardio, have a range of different cardio workouts that you like to use.
This keeps it interesting for both your body and your mind. You won’t get bored, and you will keep your body guessing so that it adapts more slowly to each exercise. That means that you will continue to get a higher calorie burn from each workout.
Try Fasted Cardio
If you are already in pretty good shape and you are struggling with a few final pounds, try fasted cardio.
Fasted cardio is what it sounds out, going in on an empty stomach. It is the justification for getting up early and doing your cardio before breakfast while your insulin levels are still low.
The justification for this is that when your body is in this state, it will preferentially burn stored fat for energy rather than carbohydrates.
This can be a great way to burn off any final pockets of fat if you are already pretty lean.
However, this is not recommended if you are doing a cardio workout that combines weight training, such as HIIT or Kettlebell. Your body will need protein to protect your muscles, so it is best not to go in empty.
Match Your Diet to Your Exercise
Fasted cardio is one strategy for improving the results of your cardio workout, but it only works for certain people and certain workouts. In general, rather than being fasted, you will want to make sure that you are eating the right things at the right time in relation to your workout.
It is best to eat about two hours before your workout, so that you don’t feel like you have a full stomach while you are actually doing the work. What you each should be low in fat and sugar, and high in protein and carbohydrates.
Prioritize protein in particular if you are mixing cardio and resistance training, such as with a HIIT or kettlebell workout.
When you are working out, drink enough water, but steer clear of energy drinks or protein shakes. They are just unnecessary calories when you are doing 30-40 minute cardio workouts, and give your body something to burn other than the fat that you are trying to shift.
After your workout, you have a 20-30 minute “metabolic window” during which your muscles absorb nutrients most efficiently. This is the time to give them the fuel that they need, so this is the time for that protein bar or shake.
Remember, regardless of what type of exercise you are doing, you are trying to create a calorie deficit. So, don’t use completing an intense cardio workout to turn a day into a cheat day.
You can also up your result by using fat burners: read more here.
Do Cardio After Weights
While we have been talking a lot about cardio, it needs to be combined with resistance training (go back to the beginning of the article if you forget). So, the question becomes, should you do you cardio before or after weights?
To burn fat, the answer is to do cardio after, or as a different session: perhaps you do cardio in the morning and weights at night.
The reason to do cardio after is twofold.
First, cardio will deplete your energy and therefore make it more difficult to have a really good weight training session.
Second, when you do weight training your body is more likely to burn glycogen, so the carbs that you have in your system, for energy. But when you are doing cardio, you want your body to burn stored fat.
The way that your body works during cardio, it is already inclined to do that. But you can make this even more effective by doing your weight training first, burning up the glycogen that you have in your system, and making sure your body needs to burn fat during the cardio session.
Take Rest Days
Rest days are essential for weight training to give the muslces that you damage during training a chance to heal. While you don’t need as much rest between cardio sessions, you do needs some so as not to exhaust your body.
Have a day off from cardio at least every 3-5 days. The exact distribution depends on you and the intensity of your workout.
The best thing you can do is listen to your body. Don’t fall intothe “I don’t feel like it” trap to avoid workouts. But if you are feeling sore and tired, and you haven’t had a rest in a few days, then listen to what your body is telling you.
We have been told for years that resistance training and lifting big, heavy weights is the way to lose weight through boosting our metabolism. This is true, but it doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on cardio.
While resistance training builds muscle, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate stored fat. Cardio, done the right way, can.
But that doesn’t mean that you should be committing to hour long jogs every other day. The best form of cardio is short sessions of around 30-40 minutes that are high intensity.
Your best options? Jump rope, go for a swim, or do some HIIT. If you are a fan of more traditional forms of cardio, focus on high intensity intervals to get the most out of your workout, rather than just assuming clocking up the miles will see the pounds fall off.
- Effects of Aerobic and/or Resistance Training on Body Mass and Fat Mass in Overweight or Obese Adults – Journal of Applied Psychology
- Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights – Harvard Health Publishing
- Effect of Overnight Fasted Exercise on Weight Loss and Body Consumption – MDPI