The 8 Secrets to Ultra-Effective Cardio

By Jim F


Imagine losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time. It is very difficult, and not a typical result for most people – but in some situations it can be done.

Here is a summary of the very latest research into the best methods of cardio exercise.

1. If your primary goal is muscle gain with a secondary goal of fat loss, limit yourself to 3 days per week of cardio.
Research says that moderate amounts of cardio can actually help increase muscle growth. The key is to keep it to 2-3 days per week. Let the weight training and nutritional manipulation do the rest.

2. If your primary goal is fat loss with a secondary goal of concurrent muscle gain, start with 3 days of cardio.
Increase conservatively. When your primary goal is fat loss, longer and more frequent cardio sessions are helpful for increasing the weekly caloric deficit and burning fat faster. However, if your secondary goal is muscle gain, be alert to the impact this may have on strength and muscle retention. Increase cardio conservatively and use mostly nutritional manipulation to get the deficit you need.

3. If your goal is focused fat loss, higher cardio frequencies are helpful and sometimes necessary.
Bodybuilders typically do cardio 4-7 times per week during precontest training in addition to strength training as often as 4- 5 times per week. During any cutting program, gaining strength and muscle mass are no longer priorities, as the goal switches to getting lean while maintaining muscle. As long as you maintain your LBM [Lean Body Mass], the higher cardio frequency is not only acceptable, it is ideal for helping you get leaner faster.

4. Choose a cardio duration between 20 and 50 minutes.
You can start on the low end and increase duration or intensity based on your weekly progress. The duration will be dictated largely by your intensity level. The longer sessions will be low to moderate in intensity. The shorter sessions may be higher in intensity and could be performed as interval training (HIIT).

5. Use running or high impact cardio sparingly or not at all
Choose any type of cardio you want. However, keep in mind that the greatest area for concurrent training interference effects is in the legs. Cardio with high intensity, high impact or a strong eccentric component may place additional stress on the lower body and on your overall recovery capacity. Running has been shown to be particularly taxing on the lower body and is believed to increase risk of muscle loss more than other forms of cardio.

6. Restrict intense cardio to 2 days per week, 3 days max if you have good recovery ability
High intensity interval training (HIIT) has become popular as an effective and time-efficient way to do cardio, but too much intense cardio on top of intense weight training can easily lead to over training. I recommend no more than 2-3 HIIT sessions per week when concurrently doing 3 or more days per week of high intensity strength training. If you do additional cardio, make it lower intensity training or light activity like casual walking, which may even serve as active recovery while burning some calories.

7. Do cardio and weights separated into 2 sessions, if possible
If you do cardio and weight training in the same day, separating them into two sessions, at least 8 hours apart, may help you enhance recovery and avoid some of the residual fatigue where one interferes with the other. Be especially certain that your legs are recovering completely and that fatigue from cardio doesn’t interfere with your weight training workouts, especially on leg day.

8. Do weights first and cardio second
If you do cardio and weights in the same session, always do the weights first and cardio second. Endurance athletes are the exception to this rule, but when strength and muscle increase are primary goals, the strength training should go first.

About the author
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, nutrition researcher and freelance writer. Tom holds a bachelor of science degree in Adult health/fitness (exercise science) and is a long time member of the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

NOTE: This post is copyright 2010, and is reproduced with permission.
Photo credit: Christopher Nuzzaco / Photoxpress


  1. trix

    Do a guide for women? We tend to be more interested in weight loss without the corresponding muscle. So that’ll be lots of cardio I guess…

  2. karol

    Yes cardio such as running will get you strong legs for endurance wise, how ever if your trying to gain mass lots of cardio will prevent that as you lose fat and muscle while doing cardio. Which is a why 3 times a week is recommended if your trying to get bigger.

  3. Susan

    I disagree with the advice to minimize running. I run, and I have strong legs!

  4. ooooi

    I walk to and from work everyday, about 2.5km each trip and 25km for a normal work week. Thats on top of other walking to just do stuff and 40km of actual running. I do very minimal weights, but, my legs are pure muscle and i have a 6-pack. I think the secret is to just do lots of cardio… change isnt gonna happen overnight.

  5. Spectra

    I do cardio at a moderate intensity 6 days a week, but I’m thinking of switching it up to moderate intensity 3 days a week and HIIT 2 days a week, leaving 2 “rest” days.

  6. Jim F.

    Absolutely. I know Tom has a large amount of research material that went towards these conclusions. Much of his nutritrional advice is around zig-zagging calorie intake (low-intake days with a high-intake day every now and then).

  7. Scotty123

    This sounds similar to what I already do. The biggest thing is nutrition. If you eat junk food it can put a handicap on your workout.