Best Cardio Workout – What Exercise Should You Do To Lose Fat?

(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think many people will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)

QUESTION: My main goal over the next year or so is to lose fat and keep it off, so I’m planning on doing some form of cardio workout on the days I don’t do any weight training. My question is, what form of cardio exercise should I do?

I find the treadmill to be very boring, but I have no problem using it if you think it’s best. I also love to ride my bike, but it gets too cold in the winter to be outside. I’ve heard swimming burns a lot of calories, and my gym has a nice pool I can use.

I guess I’m just wondering what form of cardio activity is best for losing fat?

ANSWER: Before we answer this one, let me quickly go over what this person isn’t asking and what I therefore won’t be answering in this article…

  • This has nothing to do with what type of cardio exercise should be done when you have a specific endurance or athletic goal in mind. This question isn’t about training for a specific sport or activity, nor is it about improving cardiovascular health. This is strictly about doing cardio for the sole purpose of burning calories and losing fat.
  • This also has nothing to do with whether this person (or you) actually needs to be doing any cardio in the first place, or if they (or you) should be doing it anyway even if it’s not truly “needed.” Basically, this isn’t about whether it should or should not be done. This person deems it necessary for their goal, so we’ll just assume it is. (More info here: Should I Do Cardio On My Rest Days?)
  • This also has nothing to do with the way this cardio activity will be performed. As in, steady state or high intensity interval training (HIIT) or whatever else. This is about choosing the activity itself.
  • And finally, this has nothing to do with how much cardio this person (or you) should do, what intensity it should be done at, and when and how often it should be done.

With me so far? Cool. These are all fantastic questions that I definitely plan to cover at some point, just not right now.

I bring this up because I seem to get asked these types of questions on an almost hourly basis, and since I rank writing about cardio somewhere between going to the dentist and going back to work or school after a long vacation on my list of things I’d much rather not do, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

But, I eventually will… I promise.

Now back to the specific question this person asked. What type of cardio activity is best for losing fat? Hmmm, that’s a tough one…

Do Whatever The Hell Activity You Like Best!

On second thought, that was quite easy.

Seriously. Just pick the cardio exercise you like best and will be most likely to do on a consistent basis.

Whatever best fits that description for you will be “the best” form of cardio for you to do to lose fat.

Wait, What?!? What About Calories Burned? Doesn’t That Matter?

For fat loss, of course it matters. That’s why many people deciding what activity they will do as their cardio workout will go straight to the various “calories burned” calculators and seek out the activity that burns the most calories.

This seems like an obviously good idea, but there are 2 flaws.

  1. First of all, with all else being equal (intensity, duration, frequency, etc.), you’re not going to find a massive variance between the different cardio options out there in terms of how many calories they burn. And any differences you do find are unlikely to be anywhere near significant enough to actually matter in the grand scheme of your fat loss results.
  2. The second flaw is that the activity that burns the most calories may be something you don’t like doing.

Now while #1 shows why this line of thinking is mostly pointless in the first place, #2 shows how it can be detrimental. How so, you ask?

Because you may be choosing a cardio activity that puts you in the best position to burn a few more calories, but the worst position to actually perform this activity on a regular basis since it is something you are going to dread doing.

And let me tell ya… that hypothetical small amount of extra calories burned won’t matter much when you’ve quit doing it because you can’t stand that activity.

So if you hate jogging on a treadmill (does anyone NOT hate jogging on a treadmill?) or you hate whatever other form of cardio, picking that as the cardio exercise you’re going to be doing means you’re forcing yourself to do something you hate on a regular basis.

Sticking with any form of workout program is already hard enough for most people as it is. Why make it even harder by picking a form of exercise you flat out hate?

The Bed Test

A few years back, someone asked me to help them pick out what their cardio activity should be. Due to their schedule, they’d be doing this cardio workout first thing in the morning as soon as they rolled out of bed.

Assuming of course they could make themselves actually roll out of bed to do it.

And so I developed “the bed test.” It’s easy. Picture yourself in bed in the morning. Your alarm rings off. What cardio activity is most likely to get you out of bed? Whatever it is, do that. What’s most likely to make you roll over and go back to sleep? Whatever it is, don’t do that.

Pretty simple.

This bed test can be adapted to any other time of the day, too. Picture yourself coming home from work or school. Picture yourself after a busy and tiring day with your kids. Picture yourself in whatever state you’re going to be in right before you think “alright, time to do some cardio.”

What activity at that moment is going to make you most likely to actually follow through and do it? And not just do it once or twice… but every F-ing time?

Whatever that activity is for you, that’s what your cardio workout should be.

For Fat Loss, Consistency > Everything Else

Choosing the best form of cardio for losing fat comes down to, above all else, consistency.

What’s going to make you actually do the cardio you need to do on a regular basis…

to burn the calories you need to burn…

to create the required caloric deficit you need to create…

to lose the fat you want to lose?

That’s what matters here. Not whether activity A burns 27 more calories per hour than activity B.

So if you like running outside, run outside. If you like riding a bike, ride a bike. If you like jogging on a treadmill while watching TV or listening to music, jog on a treadmill while you watch TV or listen to music.

If you like swimming and have access to a pool, swim. If there’s some kind of class at your gym that seems like fun, go for it. If you like dragging a sled, drag away. If you like burpees, or jumping jacks, or boxing, or jumping rope, or dancing, or walking, or whatever the hell else… go nuts.

And if you like them all, then definitely feel free to pick your favorites and alternate between them to keep things fun.

Because when things are fun (or at least as close to “fun” as cardio can get), things stay consistent. And when things stay consistent, fat is lost.

Which is why in my opinion, the primary decision maker here should be choosing the cardio activity you personally like the best and will be most likely to regularly do.

In the end, that’s going to be the key to your success (or lack thereof).

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44 Comments

  1. Gil says

    Notwithstanding all of the above exhaustingly answered (well done!), I thought that as a rule keeping the heart beat at a lower rate is the optimal way to exercise in order to burn fat. Assuming that most people who are doing cardio wish to burn fat and build muscle (ie: not burn off any muscle or excercise without decreasing muscle mass), then surely the answer to the above question would be “do a 40 minute brisk walk” in order to optimally burn fat?

    • says

      Like I mentioned above (and like Ryan mentions below), for fat loss it’s just a matter of consistently burning the amount of calories you need to burn (in conjunction with your diet) for a deficit to be present. That’s really the one and only “rule” that matters here.

      As for what needs to be done to optimally maintain muscle, strength and performance and ensure the cardio doesn’t interfere with weight training recovery… that’s a topic for another day.

      But until then, there really is no “sure” answer. People have successfully made this scenario happen with everything from low intensity walking, to moderate intensity steady state, to high intensity interval training.

      There’s a lot of workable options depending on the needs and preferences of the person.

      Is one way perhaps more likely to be ideal for most of the people equally (if not more so) interested in maintaining muscle and strength as they are with losing fat? In my opinion, yes. And it’s usually lower intensity stuff like walking.

      • Gil says

        It seems that there’s multiple ways to answer this question due to multiple expectations / approaches / needs. Yes of course the calorie deficit has to be there to lose fat. Without that, no fat loss is going to occur. Perhaps then its just a case of “context”. Those who are more educated in fat loss will apply more sophisticated ways of cardio. For those who are less aware of fat loss and fitness they often seem to need a quick fix “info right now” type of approach. So maybe for those people its good for them to choose cardio exercise that they enjoy. And for those that are able to be consistent in their discipline but still newbies one could tell them “go for lower intensity”.

        Its all varying info and opinions that we can discuss here without point scoring and sarcasm as long as we can all learn and help people get fit.

      • says

        The heart rate you need to do what?

        In my opinion, a brisk walk is the perfect form of cardio for burning a decent amount of calories while putting the least amount of stress on the body and therefore having the lowest potential of any form of cardio to cut into recovery and have a negative effect on strength/muscle maintenance.

  2. gerald mccaffery says

    Good article. My question. With cardio, what length do you suggest. I have been doing about 25 min. I have been doing about 25 in AM and then 20 min after weight session. Any comments.

    • says

      Well, assuming the cardio is being done specifically for losing fat, then the best generic answer I can give is to do whatever amount is needed to burn the amount of calories you need to burn to be in a deficit.

      Tough to get any more specific than that because it really depends on the needs and preferences of each person. I’ll eventually write an article that explains this in detail. Stay tuned.

  3. Mohamad Atef says

    Cardio is the thing that I hate most in this world. I can’t do it and will never do it. I used to warm up on the treadmill for 10 minutes before weight training, then i cut it down to 7 then 5 then 3 and now 1 minute. This is how much I hate cardio. I’d rather not eat all day to achieve my deficit than do 5 minutes of cardio.

    Sorry for the rant, great article Jay.

    • Marc says

      I agree, I hate cardio as well and do not even use it to warm up. I find doing so low or near zero weight warm up reps quickly gets my blood pumping and after each set, no matter the muscle being trained my heart of pumping and my breathing is going as good as cardio. Within my 1 to 2 min rest period my breathing and heart rate are back to normal and then after the set pumping. I feel this is a nice way to train the heart, but I am not expert, it feels good.

      For me, cardio along with watching what I ate caused too much weight loss, I was not trying to loss weight, but gain lean mass and cardio was killing me.

      Cardio is a form of exercise, IMHO and it, like any other exercise is useless unless you put diet first. Can’t tell you how many people I know do an hour of low impact cardio and then eat half a pizza and drink 6 beers….yeah, they aren’t losing weight that way.

      • says

        Yup, people GREATLY overestimate how many calories they burn doing cardio.

        “I was on the treadmill for 25 minutes today, now I can surely afford to eat these 750 extra calories!!”

        • Marc says

          Agreed, I also think people see diet and exercise as temporary things. IMHO diet is not about losing that extra 10 pounds; you got those extra 10 pounds because you didn’t know how to eat right to begin with. Diet is about changing how you eat forever. It isn’t about not going to McDonalds three tiems a week for a month, it is about not going to McDonalds EVER. It is about eating normal sized portions and not cleaning your plate because it tastes good. It is about using low fat milk instead of 3 ounces of creame in your coffee.

          It is about making smart choices, I can go out to eat and I can chose the Mac and Cheese which is 1000 calories and who knows how many carbs and doesn’t fill me up or something lighter with half the calories and fats and perhaps a cup of black coffee and feel full and satisfied.

          The failing of diets IMHO is the false mindset that once some weight is off you can go back to bad eating habits and that exercise is a balance to poor eating.

          Diet and exercise is a lifestyle change. I’m not overweight but I was two years ago, 20 pounds over weight. I lost it and more and have not put an ounce back and it isn’t work for me. I know how to eat, I know how to calculate or ESTIMATE calories, carbs, fat, sodium, etc and I make my choices and portion sizes accordingly.

          A hint…it is OKAY to leave food on your plate and save it for later!!!! Stop eating when you feel full, not bloated and exercise of any type is in addition to smart food choices, not an excuse for bad ones.

          Whew, rant over…sorry.

          • martin says

            Not totally agree with the comment…McDonalds ( or any fastfood place) doesn’t make the greatest food, but they don’t make you fat…even if you go everyday of your life. Everything depends on what you choose on the menu. A cheeseburger with bacon with a small fries and a diet coke at McDo ( which was the normal portion at McDonalds 50 years ago) has around 560 calories ( diet coke has no calorie). But if you choose the quarterpound with cheese and big fries…1090 calorie!!! And don’t event think taking a classic Coke. Both are meat, cheese and bread, and both are fries…only portion are different. But now, we believe the normal portion is the quarterpound and the BIG fries. We need to stop to think junk food make you fat…maybe not the healtiest food but, depends on your choice, not fattier than any other food. At the end of the day, did you eat more calorie than you spend? That the real question, whatever the food you eat and the place it comes from. Even the 1090 calorie on one set won’t make you fat, if you just eat less the rest of the day…

          • Chris says

            As far as diet goes, I think of the human body as a type of ‘steam engine’ – like in the old steam trains. You need plenty of water to make the steam, and you need fuel to keep the furnace burning.
            The fuels you put in the ‘furnace’ (that is your stomach) all contain calories. If you put crap fuel in (think of newspaper going into a fire) it will burn very hot, create some heat, but it will die out very quickly. If you put good fuel in (like wood or coal) it will burn hot and for a long time.
            Newspaper = breakfast cereal with high sugar content.
            Wood/coal = porridge / oats.

  4. says

    Yep great article, all fat loss is just caloric restriction. With the addition of keeping protein high to maximize nutrient partitioning, so that the weight lost will be as little muscle and as much fat as possible

  5. Franco says

    I do badminton three times a week in between the ABA weight training scenario.
    If I don’t think I am in CALORIE DEFICIT I will do some cardio on the stepper/cross trainer.
    Lost most of my target weight 10kg prior starting resistance training. So weight will remain steady according to muscle weight gain etc.

    As for exercise selection – i ended up on stepper/cross trainer as it impacted less on my knees and gave me maximum movement for both ARMS and LEGS and was weight bearing.

    It also gives a pretty good return on calories burnt per time period eg 700 cals / 40 minutes as an average workout – either at constant 62/63 strides per minute and on a “good” day some HIT with 71/72 strides per minute for 40/60 secs every 4 minutes.

    But then I enjoy a heavy sweat session and don’t mind the hard work.

    The only truism among all this is NO PAIN, NO GAIN – good luck guys and gals.

    • says

      Good point about exercise selection. If activity A hurts your knees but activity B doesn’t, that’s a good reason to avoid activity A even if it supposedly burns a few more calories.

      Although, this is one of many reasons why your “no pain no gain” truism isn’t actually all that true. I’d say “no effort no gain” is more accurate.

  6. DeepRed says

    Hi !
    I am so glad that I came across this article.It explained to me exactly why I felt like crap when I was working with a PT on a “plan” that consisted of eating around 1200 cals a day and doing pretty tough workouts 5 days a week!! I could not continue and just gave up, ate whatever I wanted and did not exercise for a year :( At the moment being 5ft2in I am 147 pounds and need to lose at least 30 pounds. From the information here I know I should be eating around 1600 cals a day to maintain deficit and should be losing 2 pounds a week.But I have no idea how my workouts should be. I have very limited knowledge about weight lifting and am kind of scared to do it all on my own . Can you please help me ?Thanks.

  7. Ryryforshort says

    I apologize if this question is redundant, however I could not find any article specific to combining cardio w/ your workout routine. I was wondering if you could give me the link if there is such an article. I am currently doing what you would consider an intermediate workout routine but have recently started adding running to my cardio and was wondering if there is an optimum way to combine the two, if that makes sense? I do not want to be counter productive with my weight training by doing too much of either when combining them. Thanks.

    • says

      If cardio is going to be done, my general recommendation is to do it on your off days from weight training. If they need to be done on the same day, do the weight training first.

      As for whether or not you should be doing any cardio, how much you should do, how often you should do it, and what kind you should do… that kinda stuff will need a full article to properly cover. It’s on the to-do list.

  8. ladygray712 says

    I have read the article as well as other comments and maybe I am missing something. So I will just ask. Do I have to do any cardio for the workout routine to work? I hate cardio with all my heart. So if I follow the best diet plan and workout routine will I get the fat loss each week?

  9. Mark says

    Hi, Jay. I’ve probably read every article you wrote, great stuff. I’m trying to build muscle (using your workout for beginners) and I’m looking for a quick cardio workout just to warm myself up before stretching. I currently run for 10 min. on the elliptical. Is that any good? Would you suggest something else or is any cardio even necessary?

    • says

      A couple of minutes of light cardio before training just to slightly break a sweat is perfectly fine and usually a good idea. I tend to do this more in the winter when it’s colder than I do in the summer where I’m usually sweating pretty good just from the next stage of warm up stuff (mobility work, etc.).

  10. Emil says

    Hey man, love your articles!
    My question is: I have time for workouts for only three times a week, so i decided to to do your beginner workout program. But also, i need cardio for fat burning. I wanted to ask, is it ok to do cardio at the same day, right after weight training? Like i said above, i only have time for 3 days per week workout, so i’ll have to do my cardio in same workouts.
    Thanks in advanced for your response.

  11. Mr.X 734 says

    This might be the best freaking advice on cardio I have ever heard in my life,with thousands of hours and years of “experimenting” done on “best cardio” exercises,the best is ultimately the one you will be doing 3 times a week or more constantly for months

    Losing fat takes time,and doing something that is fun is going to make it wayyyyyyy more tolerable.I find that my “best cardios” are swimming, badminton, and football.100% percent true, I can’t agree more.

    And for those whom are planning to check out other “tips” forget about it.This will be the only advice you need.

  12. Norma says

    Hi Jay. I am still progressing and still reading your stuff. Deficit and beginner program. It’s working great and I am at a third of the way to my goal having now lost 28.5lbs. I do cardio too, primarily walking with occasionally jogging alternating with the walk. When at the gym on bad days I do that treadmill .. I know you have this somewhere but just double checking…..i
    Does it matter in any way whether I do cardio before or after my weight circuit. I am doing fine either way but curious. Also I swear 20 of the 28 lbs came off my boobs (the last place I needed to lose) and a lot in my arms. Everywhere else too but most noticeable upper body. Now I have skin hanging on triceps (I know….really gross) but you r the only one I trust to say the truth. Is this going to eventually tone up or tighten up or is it a surgery thing I need to start saving for?

    Norma

    • says

      Glad to hear it Norma!

      As for when to do cardio… after weight training is usually ideal for most people because you’ll be mentally/physically fresher for whatever you do first and a bit more fatigued for whatever you do second. So, it just makes sense to start with weights first because it’s usually the more demanding and technical of the two.

      And as for loose skin, if it’s a very tiny amount of it, building some muscle may help quite a bit. But, if it’s a significant amount of loose skin, surgery is the only true option. An AWR reader named Tiffany actually mentioned having that surgery done in her transformation story: http://www.aworkoutroutine.com/meet-tina/

      • Norma says

        Wow! Just read it. What an amazing, incredible transformation and huge inspiration. I know she’s half my age but I hope to have dramatic results as well and be the inspiration for 60 year olds! Thanks for sharing her story and quite amazing photos. It does inspire. Talk to you soon….

          • Norma says

            Hi Jay. It’s been awhile and I always come back and read your stuff to keep motivated didn’t want you thinking I gave up or anything! It’s been soooo slow but I have finally reached my halfway point of 42 lbs lost. Have lost lots of inches and down two sizes. Feel stronger, off all meds except thyroid med and cholesterol pill. Discovered I have sleep apnea and doc said that contributes to slow weight loss or even to weight gain. (I have all the luck). But at least it (combined with thyroid issues) explains why it’s harder for me to lose and I’m just pushing through all those barriers. Feeling great and feel like I owe it all to you. Your articles changed everything for me. Take care, Norma

            • says

              Hell yeah! That’s 12lbs lost since your previous update. Awesome! Slow or not, the fact that it’s clearly happening is what matters most. Plus, it works out to be a little under 1lb per week, which is right within the ideal range you want to be in.

              Keep it up, and keep the updates coming!

  13. Ramafrancesco says

    I have read your stuff and it is awesome and I think for some reason from what you say … yeah I feel you hate cardio (lol) yeah I’m sure of it. BUT , let’s say someone like me who loves cardio and needs to build muscle and tone…. where does that put me? I”m a runner, I love running.T here is no better high than to run 3 to 5 miles and get that completely wasted high feeling, it’s like heroine for me. But because of this I am a 44 year old 165 pound 5″10 dude with skinny arms and legs and a bit of a pooch belly. I just started lifting at least for strength gain and hopefully tone a little. My questions is, what if I can’t stop running 3x a week cus I love it? What can I do to still get Spartan hard and actually experience muscle gain and growth? Am I just screwed? I”ve tried i the past but never saw any change and I know it’s from running…. help me!!

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