(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’m trying to lose weight, and I just wanted to know how much cardio you think I should do? How many times per week? How many minutes each time?
I’ve also been reading a lot of your articles and I’ve seen you mention that doing too much cardio can lead to muscle loss, so I was also wondering what you’d consider “too much” to be?
ANSWER: If you’re a regular reader of mine, then you probably know my general opinion of cardio. Which is… I think it sucks.
Especially as a tool for improving body composition (losing fat, building muscle). For that sort of thing, I actually think cardio is highly overrated and much less useful than most people think/hope it is.
I also don’t find typical forms of it (like jogging on a treadmill) to be all that fun or enjoyable. Plus, like the person asking this question mentioned, there is legit potential for cardio to negatively effect muscle maintenance.
So to recap, I think cardio is overrated, boring and doing too much has the potential to be problematic. Wow, sign me up!
Having said that, it CAN still be a useful fat loss tool. So if you’ve determined that you need/want to do some for that purpose, that’s totally fine and exactly what you should do. The question is, how much?
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
There’s two answers to this. Let’s start with the broader, simpler one…
You should do the exact amount necessary to accomplish the goal you’re doing this cardio for in the first place, but not so much that it has a negative impact on any other goals you may also have (assuming of course other goals exist beyond the goal the cardio is being done for).
Now let’s complicate things a bit by looking at the two most common people I get this question from…
An Athlete Training For Their Sport
In the case of some kind of athlete training for a specific sport or event who only really cares about that sport or event, they should simply do whatever amount of cardio activity is needed to support those goals. Not quite rocket science, I know.
But I obviously can’t you give an exact amount here because it will vary significantly from person to person based on their specific needs and the needs of the sport they’re training for. Not to mention, as someone who has little to no interest whatsoever in endurance sports, I probably wouldn’t be the best person to ask in the first place.
I point this out in a blatant attempt to hopefully start getting less emails from sprinters and marathon runners in the future.
Someone Trying To Lose Weight/Get Leaner
Now what about the case of someone who wants to lose weight while ensuring that “weight” is only body fat and not lean muscle. You know… the old lose fat without losing muscle goal. Which, by the way, should be the goal of everyone trying to lose fat (although the obese won’t need to worry until they’re leaner).
Well, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that unlike an athlete training for a sport where this sort of activity is a requirement, cardio is completely optional for losing fat.
Seriously. The one and only requirement for fat loss is a caloric deficit, and that can happen through diet alone with absolutely no cardio being done whatsoever.
For me personally, that’s my preferred way of doing it. If anything, I view cardio (and other forms of “fat burning” exercise like metabolic training) more as a last resort option to go to when I’m trying to get extra lean and my progress has stalled, but I’ve reached a point where I’d rather start increasing calorie output instead of reducing calorie intake.
Which is honestly rare as hell.
And generally speaking, that’s what I’d recommend to most people. It’s typically more efficient and sustainable to just eat a few hundred fewer calories per day than it is to burn those same few hundred calories every day through additional activity. So… my default advice is to let your diet set your deficit, continue/start weight training to maintain muscle (or in some cases simultaneously build muscle), and skip the cardio until you really need it. Or just skip it, period.
But hey, that’s just me, and I realize not everyone is like me.
It turns out some people prefer to use cardio to set/help set their deficit rather than just doing it through their diet alone. And that’s perfectly fine. More about that here: Should I Do Cardio On My Rest Days? and What Is The Best Way To Lose Weight
So now the question is, if a person will be doing cardio for the purpose of losing weight and getting leaner, how much should they do? Simple…
Do whatever amount is needed to put yourself in the required caloric deficit you need to be in for fat loss to occur.
So let’s pretend some example person figured out their maintenance level, created an ideal-sized deficit, and came to the conclusion that they need to be at about 2000 calories per day for fat loss to occur. (This is just an example amount, of course. To figure out your maintenance level and create your deficit, read the diet guide.)
To make this happen, our example person can:
- Consume 2000 calories per day and do no cardio whatsoever.
- Consume 2500 calories per day and do an amount of cardio that allows them to burn 500 additional calories thus ending up at the same 2000 they need to be at.
- Consume 2250 calories and do an amount of cardio that burns 250 additional calories, thus arriving at the same 2000 calories.
These 3 scenarios (and other similar ones that use numbers different than the example ‘500’ and ‘250’ I happened to use because they’re nice and even) will all have the exact same fat loss effect for this example person. As long as the same deficit ends up being there in the end, that’s really all that matters.
Your goal is to figure out which scenario is most efficient, convenient, preferable and sustainable for you… and do it. Simple as that.
If that happens to be the first scenario (my personal preference), that’s fine. How much cardio should you do? Zero.
If it happens to be the second or third scenario, that’s fine too. How much cardio should you do then? That depends on your specific needs.
As much as you want me to just say “do X minutes of cardio Y days per week,” I hope you see that it’s a bit more complicated than that and the exact amounts for X and Y will vary based on exactly how much cardio you require — in conjunction with your diet — for your deficit to exist.
So one person might need to do 600 calories worth of cardio 3 times per week. Maybe 5 times per week. Maybe 325 calories worth 4 times per week. Maybe dozens of other amounts dozens of other frequencies. Basically, whatever amount you need to be doing to burn the calories you need to burn to create your deficit and cause fat loss… that’s the amount you should do.
If you’re looking for an estimate of how many calories various forms of cardio actually burn in a given period of time, Google is your friend. Search for something like “calories burned” and get a few million answers.
And don’t worry, as long as the amount of cardio being done isn’t too much, you’ll be just fine.
What? What’s that you’re yelling at your screen? Oh, I hear ya…
But How Much Cardio Is Too Much?
As mentioned earlier, one of the downsides to cardio (besides how boring traditional forms of it are and how it burns less calories than we wish it did) is that doing too much of it has the potential to be problematic.
How so? By negatively affecting weight training performance, recovery and your ability to maintain muscle and strength in a deficit.
The higher the frequency (2-4 days per week or 7 days per week?), duration (20-30 minutes or 60-90 minutes?) and/or intensity (walking or HIIT?), the higher that potential risk is.
To eliminate this risk, you just need to put together a combination of these 3 factors that doesn’t add up to being “too much.” And so the question is… just how much is too much?
Unfortunately, there is once again no exact answer to give you. Why? Because what constitutes “too much cardio” will vary from person to person based on everything from individual work capacity and recovery capabilities to sleep, stress and age.
Plus, how your weight training program is designed. For example, are you training with some kind of idiotic high volume bodybuilding routine, or something more ideal for deficit conditions? You know, like my Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance program from The Best Workout Routines.
It all plays a role. So, what might be too much cardio for one person could be perfectly fine for another.
For this reason, I still can’t provide the exact X and Y figures you’re looking for. What I can do however is help you know when it’s happening…
What “Too Much” Looks And Feels Like
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to pay close attention to everything. Then, I want you to answer the following sets of questions:
- Is weight training performance going well? Are you maintaining (or possibly improving) your strength levels? Are those workouts feeling okay overall? If so, that’s a very good sign that everything is probably fine.
- Is weight training performance starting to drop off quite a bit? Are your strength levels beginning to decrease? Are you feeling borderline dead during those workouts? If so, that’s a very good sign that everything is not fine.
Similarly, you should also pay attention to how you’re feeling outside of the gym and answer another set of questions:
- Are you feeling good? Does everything seem fairly normal and typical for what comes with being in a deficit for the purpose of losing fat? If so, awesome… you’re probably just fine.
- Are you noticeably more tired, run down and just “out of it” than usual? Are you having trouble sleeping or maybe getting sick more often than normal? Does your body and/or mind feel as though you just might be doing a bit too much training? If so, that’s a damn good sign that you probably are.
Basically, if everything seems to be going well and you feel pretty good, I’d say keep on doing what you’re doing.
On the other hand, if you’re starting to feel like crap and weight training performance isn’t going well (or at least as well as one should realistically expect in a deficit), I’d take that as a sign that it’s time to adjust and reduce something somewhere.
And assuming you’re already doing everything else right (e.g. weight training is adjusted properly, deficit isn’t excessively large, etc.), cardio would be the first place I’d look to for making that reduction. This doesn’t mean doing none whatsoever. It could just mean cutting back on the total number of days you’re doing it, or the duration you’re doing it for each time, or how intense your chosen form of it is.
Just keep in mind however that reducing any aspect of cardio means you’re reducing calories burned, so your diet will need to make up the difference in order for your deficit to continue to be present.
Which, in my opinion, is the ideal way for most people to be approaching fat loss anyway.