How Much (Steady-State) Cardio Should You Do?

I hate cardio. The steady-state variety, that is.

I despise it.

You couldn’t pay me to do it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is in large part due to some PTSD of sorts from my eating-disordered cardio bunny days (15 miles a day, 7 days a week? No fun). And also partly because I find it incredibly, mind-numbingly boring and I can think of a hundred other things I could be doing to make better use of my time.

Surely I can’t be alone on this. Right?

But steady-state cardio isn’t all 100% evil. Only 97%. (Just kidding. Kind of. Not really. Not at all, actually.)

Let’s go over the do’s and don’ts of steady-state cardio for the fat loss-minded individual.

Reasons to Do Cardio

It can be a great stress-reliever.

Not for everyone, but for some of us, the best way to unwind after a long, particularly trying day at work is to head out for a jog. Personally I would get more relief out of smashing some heavy weights - but in either case, that’s a hell of a lot better than drowning out your sorrows with a large pizza and a sixpack of beer.

You need to walk your dog.

Okay, perhaps I’m being a little facetious here, but technically yes, brisk walking does count as a form of cardio. For the purposes of this article (and in the SoheeFit world), though, when I refer to cardio, it’s more along the lines of steady-state jogging/biking/ellipticaling. Personally I walk upwards of a cumulative 90 minutes a day with my pup, but in no way do I consider that cardio.

It gives you an excuse to catch up on Breaking Bad.

Again, a tad tongue-in-cheek, but I know this is a popular one. There’s something about pedaling away on the bike (however meagerly) while watching your latest TV indulgence that takes the guilt out of guilty pleasure.

Reasons Not to Do Cardio

Doing it for the calorie burn.

Attempting to “run off” that donut you just devoured is an exercise in futility (hah). [Tweet "It is depressing how few calories you actually burn while performing steady-state cardio. "] To really make any kind of appreciable dent in your caloric expenditure would require not only a high degree of effort but also a good deal of time. I mean, a lot of time. Like, part-time job time. Does anybody have time for that? (Answer: No. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.)

Doing it to “tone up”.

“Oh, I have great legs and this fantastic rear because of all the miles I’ve been logging on my treadmill,” said no fitness model ever. The answer to that firm, curvy behind you’ve been seeking lies in the weight room. Thou shalt enter.

Punishment for overeating or laziness.

The worst of them all! Utilizing cardio as a form of compensatory behavior is incredibly dangerous and it can too easily become a slippery slope. You run because you ate too much pumpkin pie. Then because you ran so much, you now feel hungry and you convince yourself that you’ve earned yourself some tiramisu. Then you feel bad about what you just did (bad kitty, bad bad!) and you vow to log an extra hour on the bike tomorrow. Then before you know it, you’re miserable, you’re bloated, and you’re backpedaling.

How Much Cardio, Then?

The overarching answer: as little as you can get away with.

Oftentimes, that will mean starting off with zero steady-state cardio. And if you play your cards right, your fitness regimen can absolutely stay cardio-free.

I am living proof of that.

No cardio. Just say no! 
No cardio. Just say no!

My clients are living proof of that.

 A 10-week transformation with my rockstar client, Jenny D. 
A 10-week transformation with my rockstar client, Jenny D.

A Quick Tangent on Fat Loss

I want to take a minute to bring you briefly back to the hierarchy of fat loss principles. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this order. My recommendation is to focus on the first pillar and prioritize that above everything else before moving onto the rest.

1. Nutrition -

If your nutrition is not on point, then all the exercise in the world that you do will be for naught. People will tell you that during their marathon training, they actually gained weight (I have heard this time and time again). This is in part due to the fact that they likely grossly overestimated their caloric expenditure during their workouts and inadvertently overate in an effort to properly fuel themselves.

I love the following video that demonstrates just how important it is to be conscientious of what and how much you eat. I’ve posted this before in a previous article, but it’s worth posting over and over again.

A friend of mine really drove it home when she said to me, “Why would I bother wasting my time in the gym if I’m not even going to eat right?”

This means that if you’re ever stuck in a dilemma between being really hungry versus spending the extra hour to get your workout in before eating, I would say eat your food first. The longer you wait and the more you try to fight off your cravings, the higher the likelihood that you will become impatient and overeat the most convenient food you can find (this usually winds up being something like a baked good or a burrito).

Similarly, if you have a few hours on Sunday afternoon and your fridge is empty, my recommendation would be to take a trip to the grocery store to stock up on whole foods for the week and investing some time cooking your food in bulk. Or, you know, decide that it’s important enough and carve out time for that on a weekly basis.

Safety first. Nutrition first.

2. Heavy resistance training -

Most everyone’s favorite part about fitness.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s usually the best part of everyone’s day. What’s more, lifting heavy weights is important in the fat loss game because it will help retain muscle mass, and the caloric deficit will then lead to melting bodyfat instead.

Think hip thrusts, glute bridges, squats, deadlifts, and rows. The big compound movements will give you the most bang for your buck. After that, you can throw in some accessory movements and maybe some ab work at the end.

3. Metabolic conditioning -

How I love thee! Let me count the ways.

More on this in a second.

4. Steady-state cardio -

Most people will never have to venture down to this area, provided that the above three have been mastered. If anything, I’d sprinkle in maybe one or two 20-minute sessions a week and re-assess after two weeks or so – but again, only after everything else has been dealt with.

If there ever comes a point when you’re doing 45+ minutes a day for multiple days a week just to see a millimeter of progress, you knowit’s because one of the above priorities has not been maximized. So instead of thinking more, more, more, you should instead circle back to your nutrition and determine if you’re eating the right amount of proteins, carbs, and fats to support your goals.

Smarter, not harder.

Now, this is strictly speaking from an exercise and nutrition standpoint. There are necessarily a multitude of other factors that come into play here, including stress, sleep, and all the hormones important in the body-regulating process (that is to say, just about all of them).

Wrapping It Up

I’m in no way judging those of you who genuinely enjoy steady-state cardio and can’t imagine going more than a few days without a brisk run in the park. You are not a bad person, or a worse human being, or foolish or asinine or absurd.

Just different.

And I’m merely intrigued. Heh.

With that out of the way, then, let’s say you’re in a situation where you’ve been doing a bunch of steady-state cardio multiple times a week for months and months, and you’re looking for direction as to how to move forward.

Should you cut it out all out cold-turkey? You could, though I would recommend replacing it with a few days of brisk walking. Leash up your dog, grab that audiobook, or just get cozy with nature for a solid half hour or so.

Alternatively – or simultaneously – you can substitute a metabolic conditioning session or two in your program. Whether it be a five-minute finisher or a full-body workout in and of itself, I guarantee you’ll get so much more out of it, and you’ll leave the gym with a shit-eating grin (after you’ve picked your face off the floor).

Still lost? I’ve got you covered. Here are a few conditioning ideas you can throw into your regimen:

Hill sprints 

So simple and so, so effective. Great for blasting fat and sculpting that booty!

Find a hill. If you can jog 5-10 minutes out to it, perfect. Can be any incline, any length. Dirt or pavement, doesn’t matter. Just find a damn hill!

Sprint up for anywhere between 10-30 seconds. Give it all you’ve got.

Walk back down, wait until you’re feeling fresh again, and then repeat.

6-10 sets will be sufficient for this.

Wrap this up with a 5-10 minute cooldown.

Layne Norton’s best damn cardio routine

Try it. That’s all I’ll say about that. Ha!

Layne Norton's routine 
Layne Norton's routine

Kettlebell swing + goblet squat ladder

Grab a kettlebell (20-35lbs for females, 35-50lbs for males) and perform the following:

3 reps swings + squats
6 reps swings + squats
9 reps swings + squats
12 reps swings + squats
15 reps swings + squats
12 reps swings + squats
9 reps swings + squats
6 reps swings + squats
3 reps swings + squats

There should be no rest between movements. This is best done at the end of a lower body day.

(You may also want to check out a related article: Cardio Bunny?)

Sohee Lee, NSCA-CSCS is a personal trainer, online coach and writer. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in human biology from Stanford University, she interned at Cressey Performance before her current position at Peak Performance as a performance coach. She specializes in women’s fat loss and the fitness mindset.