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Is Cardio Necessary to Lose Weight?

girls on exercise bikesWhen most people embark on a weight loss program, one of the first things they think about is cardio. How much should they do? How often? How long should you do it for? These are all great questions, but the real question should be – is it even necessary to lose weight?

What is Required for Weight Loss?

In order to lose weight, you need to do one very important thing – you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. All these minute details don’t matter if you aren’t creating a calorie deficit. You could be lifting weights 3 times a week, doing HIIT cardio on your non weight training days, eating whole foods, and managing your stress levels, but none of that matters if you aren’t creating a calorie deficit.

Sure, you can still lose fat while maintaining your weight or even increasing it. Weight and fat are not always one in the same. However, if you want to get lighter, the calories that you are storing on your body need to be burned off. You can’t do that with a calorie surplus.

How Can You Create a Calorie Deficit?

There are a few different ways for you to create a calorie deficit. They will all give you very different results in body composition. For example, you could:

  • Create it Through Diet Alone – Yes, you can lose weight without any exercise. You will also lose quite a bit of muscle in the process. However, by simply eating fewer calories than you burn, you can lose weight. If you eat 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight, reducing your calories to 1,500/day will theoretically net you 1 pound of weight loss per week.
  • Create it Through Exercise Alone – Let’s say that without any exercise, you can eat 2,000 calories a day and maintain your weight. To lose weight, you could keep your calories at 2,000/day and create a calorie deficit through exercise. If you burn 500 calories per day through exercise, you can lose 1 pound per week.
  • Create it Through Diet and Exercise – You can also create a calorie deficit through a combination of diet and exercise. For example, you could reduce your 2,000 calorie diet by 500 calories through diet, and then another 500 calories through exercise – netting you a daily 1,000 calorie deficit, resulting in 2 pounds of weight loss per week.

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While these 3 methods for creating a calorie deficit will all help you lose weight, only the ones that include exercise will provide a stimulus to your muscles to keep them from wasting away while dieting. Your ratio of fat loss to muscle loss will be much greater if you include exercise. Muscle boosts your metabolism and helps keep fat loss humming right along.

Here are 10 more ways to boost your metabolism and fat loss.

Do You Need to Do Separate Cardio Sessions?

OK, so back to the question at hand – is cardio necessary to lose weight? Based on the above facts – no, it is not necessary to lose weight. Will it help you lose weight? Yes it can if you’re using it to create a calorie deficit. However, if you’re doing cardio without a calorie deficit, you can obviously forget about any kind of weight loss.

Of all the methods for creating a calorie deficit, I’m the biggest fan of either creating it through exercise alone or via a combination of diet and exercise. These methods will allow you to eat the most food, get in the most nutrients, while at the same time building and maintaining the most muscle – all while dropping a high percentage of body fat.

Read more about how to lose fat while maintaining muscle.

What Kind of Exercise is Best?

Plain and simple, resistance exercise is going to give you the biggest return on your time. Cardio is nice, but if you are strength training a few times a week at a high intensity, then dedicated cardio sessions aren’t even necessary to lose weight. Cardiovascular training is great, and you should do it, but separating cardio and strength training, or even prioritizing cardio sessions as your primary means to weight loss can be a waste of time.

My point in this article is not to demonize cardiovascular training. What I’m trying to do is show you that the idea of dedicated cardio sessions, like so many people do on the treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical, are totally unnecessary or possibly even counterproductive. Prioritize strength training, and if you want to do cardiovascular training, find ways to increase the intensity of your strength training workouts.

Keep your diet spot on, and create a calorie deficit through high-intensity strength training, and you will begin to notice that you don’t have to labor day in and day out on the treadmill to get results. Be smart about your food choices and how much you eat, and push yourself in the gym when you do go, be active, and you will begin to see great improvements in your body composition.

  • Tasha

    Awesome, thanks for sharing this!

  • Laura Bradham Frisch

    Coach,

    Question. Do you find that if your deficit is too big (In my case eating 1500 or so calories a day and my calorie burn is around 2700 to 3000 on my Bodymedia) that you stall in losing weight? I would tell you what all I am doing on both sides with diet and exercise, but we are just talking about calorie deficit here. I get that!

    So, my deficits are usually around 1300 to 1500 a day. On average/ day in the week it is around 1200 or so.

    • Coach Calorie

      Yes Laura, I have seen that. When that happens, I have to ask if you are really creating a calorie deficit. I don’t know much about BodyMedia or its accuracy in determining BMR, but when you drastically cut calories, your body senses that and slows down your metabolism to compensate. Hormones, muscle mass, and metabolic rate are all affected negatively. You want to create a small deficit so that your body does not think it’s in any danger. Periodic refeeds are a good way to accomplish this.

      • Laura Bradham Frisch

        Worked with a trainer and yes BOdymedia is accurate. I log my food religiously. I am getting a good extra burn every day from cardio and then Strength training 3 times a week. As you said, if I am going to keep up this activity (I see no reason to stop as I am having fun at it) then I need to up my calorie intake to create a smaller deficit. I think that I am going to try upping my intake to about 1800 to 2000 a day for about a couple of weeks and see what that does. I sure do not want to lose any of the muscle that I have been working so hard to get.

        So, Periodic refeeds?

        • Coach Calorie

          I think upping your calories would be good. You seem to be very active and you need to make sure you are getting all the calories and nutrients necessary to function optimally.

          Periodic refeeds are periods once or twice a week where you’ll increase your calorie intake up and above maintenance. It’s a way to show your body that food is plentiful and that it can release its valuable fat stores.

          Start thinking of calorie intake as a cumulative number. Look at it over the course of a week instead of just a day. If your aim is 2000 calories a day, then that is 14,000 calories every week. You can get there by having 2,000 calories a day, or you could do it by having three 1500 calorie days followed by a 3000 calorie day.

          • Laura Bradham Frisch

            Makes perfect sense. Thanks for the advice!

            Laura

    • Angie

      Alot of those calories showed being burned are the calories your body is burning just to function, these aren’t an actual calorie deficiet that you get from increasing your heart rate.

      • Angie

        we also have starvation hormones that our bodies release when our calorie deficiet has lasted too long. These hormones when released tell our bodies that it’s being starved so it stores the calories that it does get, you can fool your body by increase your caloric intake by a few hundred calories for about a week then cutting back again. Doing this periodically shocks your system & gets you through the platueas.

      • Laura Bradham Frisch

        But Angie, with my device you get to look at the ENTIRE picture. Total calories burned vs. Calories taken in from eating. So, it is showing the entire deficit.

      • Laura Bradham Frisch

        To add onto that. I wear the device 24/7. It shows what is burned just to function and also what is burned by cardio. It also shows steps, Activity (Moderate vs. Vigorous) and hours slept. I then log all of my food that I eat every day. I am very good at this part as it has always been a good part of day.

        • Laura Bradham Frisch

          Yes, Angie. I did increase my calorie intake and it seems to have done the trick. I think I was needing to feed my workouts a little better. Doing Chalene Extreme (Like p90x) and then Shaun T and Turbofire for cardio. So, lots of calorie burning going on. By increasing my calorie intake to an average of 2000 a day like Coach suggested, it seems to have done the trick. At least for now. When I plateau again, I will review.

        • http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/1Qufsh/www.coachcalorie.com/is-cardio-necessary-to-lose-weight/ JAnderson

          Hey Laura,

          What is your device that you wear? I am looking to wear something like this to see where I am at.

  • preeti

    What is “high intensity strength training” , as you have mentioned . Can I do it , i am 39 years old.would it help me loose inches even if i am not regularly doing cardio?

    • Coach Calorie

      39 years is young! You should be able to do any kind of strength training that someone half your age does. Do you have any kind of medical condition? If not, high intensity strength training is just resistance training done at a high intensity. In other words, push yourself. Don’t waste your time doing isolation exercises. Get under the bar and squat. Give your body a reason to change.

      • Matt Ritchie

        “Get under the bar and squat” Possibly the single best piece of advice I’ve heard anyone give someone thinking of taking up exercise. I’m 43 and I still squat…nothing torches the calories like squatting but its surprising how many people avoid them like the plague and waste their time with leg-extensions and leg curls. Great advice as usual.

  • Kathy

    Coach,

    I am currently on a 1400 to 1550 calorie diet right now, and do try to work out 4 to 5 times a week. I am 36 going on 37 years old, and trying to lose 20+ lbs left over from having a baby 4 years ago. I did it before using Weight Watchers (7 years ago) and lost 45 lbs. I know that I am not as young as I was back then, and my body is different now..but my question is: Is 25lbs ( I am currently 175 and 5’9″ tall) to lose too much??

    And I am doing it correctly by only eating 1400 to 1550 calories a day?

    Kathy

    • Coach Calorie

      25lbs certainly isn’t too much. Focus on losing it over the course of a few months. That looks like a good starting point for your calories.

  • http://movemofitness.com Kevin Asuncion

    When burning fat I’ve always seen it as a diet is king and metabolic resistance training is queen, and everything else is sorta just a bonus including traditional cardio and interval training. But I guess the best exercise would be the one you’d stick to that is enjoyable and you look forward to. Sometimes a regimented exercise routine is tough to do day in and day out.

  • zsuzsanna

    should I do cardio training before or after the workout

    • Coach Calorie

      If you’re going to do it, I would do it after. I give preference to weight training. However, if your goal is to improve your endurance, then you might want to do it first and make it the priority.

  • Matt B

    Great post! I was a little worried at first when you mentioned the weight loss through diet alone, but when you mentioned and highlighted the two (and I think better) options you had me hooked. What would you say for those folks that emphasize not just eating less but eating foods that have a higher thermic effect and/or raise your metabolism in order to lose weight. Or what about the method of timing your meals or the raising in popularity option of intermittent fasting? Thanks coach!

    • Coach Calorie

      I think the TEF of food is a nice statistic, but it doesn’t always mean much. Protein, carbohydrates, and even alcohol have a high thermic effect, but I wouldn’t recommend a diet that’s based around them. It’s a good measure to know, but it still comes down to calories.

      I’m a big fan of meal timing, and I’m a recent intermittent fasting convert. As long as you are getting in the right macros and calories, you just need to pick a “diet” that best fits your lifestyle – one that you will stick with for the long term.

  • Iyana

    I go to a culinary school for baking and pastry, and we have to taste a lot if not all of our pastries. In doing this, I have gained over 30 pounds in the past couple months. I usually try to count calories of other foods that I eat, but it’s hard to do it with the ones that I eat in class since there are no labels.

    Do you have any advice on how I can count these extra calories so that I may create a calorie deficit?

    • Coach Calorie

      My advice would be to try to take smaller bites. If you’re going to eat it, it’s going to count towards your calories. There’s no need to eat the whole pastry if you just need to taste it. Take a small bite and move on. Takes willpower, but it’s necessary if you have other goals you want to reach.

  • Janifer Keel

    I am at a happy weight within 5 lbs give and take. But I still want to lose more of my stomach. How do I do it ? I watch my sugar and white flour intake. I do weights / resistant training 2-3 days a week for average 30 minutes. And cardio maybe 4 days.

    • Coach Calorie

      Set your calories at maintenance and focus on changing your body composition. Try moving your carbs to around your workout and having protein/fat meals the rest of the day. Continue resistance exercise, be consistent, and it will come off.

  • Salma

    Okay I think at this point I have read EVERY PAGE of your site :D……I am going mental with what is going on in my world and I have read for weeks now trying to figure out what is going on….Okay so I get the calorie deficit , and it being the KEY to weight loss…So I “think” I am consuming somewhere in the 1500-2000 range…I work out SIX days a week…most of the days start with cardio..30 min of running, or 30 elliptical (some days doing HIIT) followed by weight training…with 12 pounds or higher…doing compound moves, squats, burpees and also sets of reps !! and the scale has NOT moved in either direction :/ …..I notice change in my body but not significant enough that I wearing SMALLER clothes…..WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON!!! ….(P. yes my clean eating is 80 % of the time and the other 20 % is foods such as a glass of wine, or a piece of chocolate, a ice cream outting with the family…!!!)

    • Coach Calorie

      Let’s see your diet Salma. What do you weigh? You’re doing quite a bit of exercise for being in a calorie deficit. You might want to consider adding a couple rest days in there between HIIT and weight training days. Weight loss is mostly a function of your diet. Exercise creates a favorable metabolic environment to ensure your weight loss is fat loss.

  • MARG

    HI I AM A 51 YR OLD MOM OF 4 ADULT CHILDREN…. MY THYROID WENT HYPO ON ME 5 YRS AGO. GAINED 20LBS. I HAVE ONLY BEEN ABLE TO LOOSE 5 OF IT! AT 1 POINT I WAS DOING ZUMBA CLASSES–ELIP–WTS–AND MAYBE ON A 1500-1700 CAL A DAY.
    NOW I AM ON 1200-1400 SLOWED DOWN ON THE CARDIO.. NOTHING AND I MEAN NOTHING I DO WILL TAKE THIS 15LBS OFF..:{ I HAVE BEEN TOLD TO STAY AT 1500CAL. I HAVE BEEN TOLD 1700CAL. SO CONFUSED AND FUSTRATED. MY THYROID #’S ARE ALLLL GREAT. OH AND THEN I HEAR THE BIG “MENAPAUSE” REASON… PLEASE PLEASE HELP
    TY
    MARG

    • Coach Calorie

      What are you eating Marg? Let’s see a typical day’s diet.

  • Kristen Raymer

    I typically do 30 min of cardio and 30 min of weight training at least 4 times a week, usually 5,alternating with upper and lower body. How much weight training should I be doing if I am going to replace some of my cardio sessions with it? I try to do compound exercises for both upper and lower with some isolation exercises as well.

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

      Your current frequency is fine. Just find ways to boost the intensity of your workouts.

  • Donna Katchorick

    Hi Coach,
    Love all of your articles, think I’ve read them all now.

    • Donna Katchorick

      Oops…pressed post before I was even done. I am a 44, 5’11″ and weigh 187, the heaviest I’ve been in 7 years and have been stuck at for the last 6 months. I lost 15lbs last year on calorie restriction and promptly put it all back on, before that I went down to 157 doing Herbal Magic, I am a chronic dieter. When I hit 187 the switch went off. I have been doing a 20 minute, 5 day a week HIIT work out for 4 weeks now and not seeing any changes, I also get in a bike ride 2-3 times a week. I stopped weighing myself and am going by how my clothes feel, they feel the same. I am eating close to 1700 calories, those calories are from whole natural foods. I heard Jillian Michaels say “if it didn’t have a mother or come from the ground don’t eat it”, I have been doing that. I’m not getting discouraged because I really do love the HIIT training I’m just wondering if I’m doing something wrong? Or if it’s going to take longer for results because my body is like…”what the heck is going here?”

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    The problem could be any number of factors, but assuming you don’t have a medical condition, and you are eating whole foods in the quantities you say, I’d look into implementing one of the following protocols – http://www.coachcalorie.com/how-to-break-a-weight-loss-plateau/

  • mrshoops

    Hi Coach,
    I read your articles daily and am trying to get started with some good life habits. I’ve recently purchased the bodymedia device and have a quick question. I notice that you can go online (or on the phone) and log the exercises that I’ve performed for the number of minutes. If I’m wearing the device at the time I do those exercises, I wouldn’t bother entering that info, correct? I assumed that I would only use that function if I had forgotten to wear the device at the time I was doing those activities, or else I would be “double documenting” those activities. Thanks for your great info!

  • Lesley L

    I exercise in classes usually 5 times a week, spin, combat, pump or gym. I usually burn about 400 to 500 calories per session. After an initial loss of 6K, I now seem to have put that back on and all round my middle. Feel really uncomfortable in clothes again although I actually have lost two dress sizes. I think that I eat carefully, am a veggie, hardly have carbs and struggle with enough protein. Can I have some advice as to the best approach as I really want to feel better in my body? I weigh 81K at the moment, am 54 and 5′ 3″ height.Thanks

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    Yes, that’s for adding in exercise that wasn’t logged by the armband.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    My guess is that you’re not eating enough. You say you eat very little carbs and struggle getting enough protein. Unless you are eating a high fat diet, your calories are likely too low.