Did Cardio Make Me Fat?

March 6, 2019

A lean, toned physique is probably the most coveted fitness-related asset for men and women alike. Most of us have hear that in order to lose weight or get leaner, it's simply a matter of calories in versus calories out. This is certainly true for weight loss, but does that mean that the secret to your most toned, chiseled and aesthetically pleasing physique would be to perform workouts that burn as many calories as possible whilst eating relatively (or very) low calorie?

Many people seem to think so, and I completely get it. From an energy in, energy out standpoint, it seems to be a reasonable conclusion to draw.

 

This leads many people into an endless cycle of cardio-based or circuit style training with relatively light weights, little rest periods and a primary priority of burning a large number of calories as opposed to progressive overload (i.e. getting stronger/better over time). Most of the time, this bumps traditional weight training and strength based workouts pretty low down on the priority list (if they make it into the routine at all) for a lot of people.

 

Is making calorie burning, muscle pumping, heart racing workouts a top priority really the most efficient way to become leaner, increase muscle tone and drop unwanted fat to re-create your physique? If you ask any personal trainer, nutritionist or fitness professional you might find conflicting answers. I wanted to answer the question firsthand, so I set up a self-experiment to test the short-term effect that different styles of training would have on my physique. The results might surprise you.

 

The Experiment:

 

In an effort to test the result of two different types of training on short-term physique changes, I committed to performing two weeks of more traditional strength training workouts (these are primarily the types of workouts I perform on a year-round basis). For these workouts, I implemented little to no circuits/supersets, focused on progressive overload and resting appropriately (according to the current body of research) between each set to ensure optimal performance/strength. I performed a 5 day upper/lower body split routine with 3 lower body days and 2 upper body days each week, for a total of 5 strength training workouts each week. These workouts stayed the same for both weeks, and consisted of exercises I am familiar with so that I could be sure I was choosing an appropriate weight to adequately progress and challenge myself, and to be sure any changes I experienced (positive or negative) weren't a result of novelty. The second week I tried to beat my performance from the previous week by either increasing weight or slightly increasing reps with the same amount of weight (this is known as progressive overload).

 

The next two weeks, I committed to more circuit-syle and/or cardio based training. I tried to mimic what I see and note many people (primarily women) doing in the gym these days. For these workouts, I was still hitting the weights but I implemented more circuits, supersets and less rest overall (usually between 30-60 seconds between sets). I still performed a 5 day upper/lower split with 3 lower body days and 2 upper body days and tried to implement primarily exercises that I was familiar with for the same reasons as above. On my off days I also performed 40 minutes of steady state cardio either on the stairmaster or incline walking on the treadmill. I wanted to be sure I was still challenging myself during my workouts, so I chose a weight that 'felt' challenging for the given number of reps, but didn't pay much attention to increasing strength or weight from workout to workout (and quite frankly, I probably wouldn't have been able to without increasing rest times or decreasing the number of reps performed per set). I focused more on keeping my body moving the whole time, 'feeling' the workouts or getting a good pump/burn and burning more calories.

 

I had planned on performing two more weeks worth of workouts going back to the first style of strength training, but wound up injuring myself which limits my exercise selection and I feel would have the potential of skewing results for that reason so, unfortunately, what was intended to be a 6-week experiment ended in just 4 short weeks.

 

The Workouts

 

While the workouts changed throughout the week, I kept the same 5 workouts in rotation for both weeks of each method of training. I tracked my heart rate and 'calories burned' during each workout according to my FitBit Blaze watch. Each of the 5 days in a given week was a different workout, but here is a sample of what a day from each week might have looked like:

 

Weeks 1&2 (traditional strength training): 300-500 calories. 60-100 minutes.

Lower Body Day:

1. Kettlebell deadlift. 3 sets of 10. 3 minutes rest between sets

2. Smith machine reverse lunge. 4 sets of 10. 2 minutes of rest between sets (all sets performed on one leg before switching sides).

3. Booty Builder (for those of you who aren't familiar with this machine, it's essentially a hip thrust with a cable weight stack as opposed to a barbell with plates). 5 sets of 10. 2 minutes rest between sets.

4. Kneeling cable kickback. 3 sets of 15. 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

5. Seated hip abduction machine. 3 sets of 15/15 (each set was a drop-set with 15 reps at the heaviest weight I could perform, followed by 15 reps with about 60% of the first weight). 2-3 minutes rest between each set.

Upper Body Day:

1. Chin-up. 4 sets of as many reps as possible. 2 minutes rest between sets.

2. Barbell incline press. 3 sets of 8. 2 minutes rest between sets.

3. One-arm dumbbell row. 3 sets of 10. 1 minute rest between sides (perform 10 reps on one side, rest 1 minute, perform 10 reps on the other side, then repeat).

4. Dips. 3 sets of 10. 2 minutes rest between sets.

5. Overhand grip lat pulldown. 3 sets of 15. 2 minutes rest between sets.

6. Dumbbell lateral raises. 3 sets of 15. 2 minutes rest between sets.

 

Off days: naps, chores, daily activity.

 

Weeks 3&4 (calorie-blasting workouts) : 450-750 calories. 60-90 minutes.

Lower Body Day:

1. Kettlebell deadlift. 3 sets of 15 supersetted with...

2. Walking lunges. 3 sets of 20 steps. Rest 1 minute before returning to kettlebell deadlifts.

3. Knee-banded Smith machine squats. 3 sets of 15. 30 seconds rest between sets.

4. Barbell hip thrust. 4 sets of 15 supersetted with...

5. Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts. 4 sets of 20. Rest 1 minute before returning to hip thrusts.

6. Standing cable kickback. 4 sets of 20. 30 seconds rest between sets.

7. Seated hip abduction machine. 3 sets of 20 supersetted with...

8. Band kneeling kickback. 3 sets of 20. Rest 30-60 seconds before returning to seated hip abduction.

Upper Body Day:

Circuit 1: 3 rounds

1. Seated dumbbell shoulder press. 15 reps.

2. Dumbbell lateral raise. 15 reps.

3. Dumbbell front raise. 20 reps.

1 minute rest between rounds.

Circuit 2: 3 rounds

4. Underhand grip lat pulldown. 20 reps.

5. Machine cable row. 15 reps.

6. Burpees. 10 reps.

1 minute rest between rounds.

7. Barbell incline press. 20 reps superset with 10 burpees. 1 minute rest between sets.

8. One arm lat pulldown. 15 reps. 30 seconds rest between sets.

9. Cable lateral raise. 15 reps. 30 seconds rest between sets.

10-20 minutes on the stairmaster.

 

Off days: 40 minutes steady state cardio.

 

I noted that although I was in the gym for almost the same amount of time each week, my heart rate monitored clocked me in at significantly more calories burned during the circuit style training, which I would have expected. I also usually wasn't able to maintain my strength during these workouts for all of the given sets and usually had to drop down in weight going into the second or 3rd sets because my muscles were burning so badly. These workouts were definitely not 'easy' despite the fact that I wasn't lifting as much weights. My heart rate was elevated to a significant degree during my workouts and by the end I was panting and dripping sweat. On most upper body days, I rounded the workout off with some cardio on the stairmaster or treadmill primarily to try to hit a minimum of 500 calories per workout (although there was one day where I ended around 450).

Despite the increased volume (due to completing more sets in less time) on weeks 3&4, I wasn't any notably more sore.

 

On weeks 1&2, I burned far less calories according to my FitBit per workout and didn't have any 'calorie target' by the end of the workout, so I didn't perform any cardio. I didn't experience any crippling amounts of soreness, though there were a few days where I could definitely sense minor soreness the next day if I were to forcefully contract a muscle that I had worked the day prior.

 

The Diet:

 

I really wanted to make a huge point to keep my diet almost exactly the same for all 4 weeks of the experiment so that I could rule out any changes being due to differences in caloric or nutrient consumption. I diligently tracked my macros everyday and stayed at maintenance calories. I ate similar foods every week (though I don't follow a strict meal plan and sometimes my actual food choices change from day to day) and stuck to my allotted calories and macros everyday. I typically maintain a slightly higher caloric intake on more demanding or intense training days, and a slightly lower intake on less intense and rest days. I stuck with this method for the entire 4 weeks of this experiment as well. For every week, my macros were as follows:

 

Upper Body Days:

2,290 calories

50 grams of fat

300 grams of carbs

160 grams of protein

 

Lower Body Days:

2,490 calories

50 grams of fat

350 grams of carbs

160 grams of protein

 

Rest Days:

2,090 calories

50 grams of fat

250 grams of carbs

160 grams of protein

 

I utilized a food scale and was sure to measure accurate portion sizes to ensure the same macros were being hit everyday. I didn't introduce any new or unfamiliar foods during this time in an effort to eliminate the possibility of indigestion, bloating and/or water retention.

 

The Results:

 

I documented my scale weight every morning with the same attire, after peeing and before eating or drinking anything. Here are the results:

                Monday        Tuesday       Wednesday      Thursday        Friday       Saturday      Sunday 

Week 1: 115.8lbs          115.6lbs       116.2lbs         116.4lbs      116.0lbs      116.8lbs      115.8lbs

Week 2: 116.2lbs         115.8lbs        116.6lbs         116.4lbs       115.6lbs      116.4lbs     115.6lbs

 

Week 3: 116.0lbs        115.4lbs         116.6lbs        116.2lbs        117.0lbs      116.8lbs     115.8lbs

Week 4: 116.4lbs       116.0lbs          116.6lbs        116.4lbs       116.2lbs       116.8lbs     116.0lbs

 

I was actually very surprised to see my scale weight remain the same (and even climb slightly higher on a few days) during weeks 3&4. This was despite my FitBit calculating that I had burned more calories per day on average during weeks 3&4 (albeit only by about 100 calories overall) AND clocked in about 2,000-4,000 more steps. I averaged about 10,000-13,000 steps per day for weeks 1&2 and about 14,000-16,000 steps per day for weeks 3&4.

 

Measurements: I took a few girth measurements with a standard measuring tape at the end of each week. My measurements were as follows for each week:

 

Week 1: 23.5 in waist.  35.5 in hips.  18.5 in thigh.

Week 2: 23.5 in waist.  35.5 in hips.  18.75 in thigh.

Week 3: 23.5 in waist.  35.25 in hips. 18.5 in thigh

Week 4: 24 in waist.  35.25 in hips.  18.25 in thigh

 

I only took a few measurements because I wasn't confident in my ability to consistently be able to measure other areas of my body without assistance.

My waist measurement actually progressively increased during the higher calorie-burning weeks, while my hip (glute) measurement slightly decreased suggesting a decrease in muscle mass (or intracellular fluid within the muscle). Remember that my scale weight changes were very minimal, meaning that if I was losing muscle (or appeared to be), I was also probably gaining body-fat in order to maintain my weight. I feel that was consistent with what was reflected in my progress photos as well.

 

Progress photos: I took photos at the end of each phase upon waking, before eating or drinking and after using the restroom. Although it was a similar time of day, I realize that the lighting is slightly different, but I tried to replicate each pose to the best of my ability. The photos were taken with the same camera and settings, but I believe the lighting also may have slightly blurred the photos at the end of week 4. Still, I feel the changes are notable regardless. Note that my scale weight is very similar in both photos (about .4lbs up in the second photos).

 

                                             End of week 2                            End of week 4

 

                                            End of week 2                                End of week 4

                                            End of week 2                                 End of week 4

 

                    

                                            End of week 2                               End of week 4

 

I typically don't enjoy training the way that I did during weeks 3&4 as much as I did during weeks 1&2. I was reminded of why during this experiment. On days where my workouts were very cardio-heavy, I was noticeably more tired throughout the rest of the day (I workout in the mornings). Despite feeling more fatigued overall, I also felt a great deal softer (even more so than is displayed in the photos) and when it was actually time to wind down and get some shut eye, I had a hard time falling asleep. I was more tempted to overeat and experienced more food cravings during weeks 3&4 as well (although this may very well just have been coincidence).

 

Conclusions

 

Although the training was tough throughout each week of this experiment, based on my measurements and progress photos, I feel that my physique responds better to more traditional strength training methods with a focus on progressive overload and little to no emphasis on cardio. I will be returning to the training style performed in weeks 1&2 at this point to continue with my personal physique related fitness goals.

 

As I mentioned, I made a big effort to maintain a consistent diet throughout all 4 weeks of my experiment. However, had I not been tracking my intake and been going more off of hunger signals, or 'intuitive' eating, I hypothesize that I would have ended up eating more calories during weeks 3&4 as the training made me feel more fatigued and caused greater feelings of hunger as well as increased cravings. I also didn't really feel like doing much outside of my normal routine when my training was more fatiguing and my hunger levels were elevated. This meant I spend less time with friends and family, wasn't as motivated for tasks outside of the gym and work, and was less efficient around the house and in my daily life due to these things. Over a long period of time, this may have lead to a decreased quality of life for me.

 

I would also conclude that if you are in a caloric deficit, you WILL lose weight. This may be confusing as although my diet stayed the same, my FitBit calculated that I burned slightly more calories per day during weeks 3&4, putting me in a slight deficit. However, I didn't lose weight, so what gives? It's possible that I was holding water due to engaging in a training method that I wasn't accustomed to. It's even more likely that heart-rate tracking devices such as fitness watches may not be as accurate as we would like to think when calculating caloric expenditure, and don't take into account various metabolic processes that take place within the body during a 24-hour period (with and without intense training).

 

Additional Notes

 

It's important to note that two weeks of performing any type of training is a VERY short amount of time, and not significant enough to qualify as quality evidence under most scientific settings. Most people might not notice any changes at all within this amount of time, especially with little to no relative changes in nutrition. This was the acute, very short-term response that I experienced from the two types of training performed in this experiment. The results may have been different or more drastic if I had continued for a longer duration with each type of training. I began this experiment being pretty lean which makes subtle changes far easier to detect whereas the changes may have been even less noticeable (if at all) had I been even slightly less lean.

 

I also do not want to give of the impression that I think cardiovascular exercise is bad or not beneficial at all under any circumstances. Surely, if your goals are more related to aspects of cardiovascular performance, and/or if you're relatively sedentary during your day-to-day life (note that I easily hit 10,000 steps per day on the low end), you might benefit from moderate amounts of cardio activity. Surely, any exercise is better than none at all and if you aren't able to hit the weights for whatever reason, getting your body moving in some other way will still be of benefit to both your short-term and long-term health. Had I performed an additional two weeks with NO exercise at all and an equal caloric intake, I'm sure my physique would have been worse. If you truly feel better and live a happier life when incorporating more cardio, then by all means, you absolutely should. 

 

Everyone has personal biases, and going into this experiment, I was no different. I hypothesized that my weight would probably decrease during weeks 3&4 due to higher caloric expenditure, but my physique probably wouldn't look any better as a result. I did as much as I could to not allow this personal bias to influence my methods and/or results.

 

The purpose of this experiment was to hopefully provide some tangible evidence that strength training and progressive overload may be a very underestimated element to improving physique and body composition. If you have been spinning your wheels on the treadmill, in circuit training classes, or spending all of your time and effort in the gym trying to burn calories as opposed to trying to get strong and efficiently train your muscles to shape your physique, it might be worth it to step back and re-evaluate your training regimen.

 

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