The latest themes in bodybuilding seem to be “more is better”, “science says this works, so that can’t work!”, and “man, Justine Munro is hot!” I agree with one of these statements, but the other two I’m not completely sold on. Just so we are all on-track, I think Justine Munro is hot. That being said, let's dive into the hows and whys of the way I like to set up cardio for fat loss.

In a world of absolutes, everyone is wrong. This article is meant to be a guide to maximize results for losing fat and creating a better environment for muscle maintenance/gain. It is not the only way, and I won't argue that it is the absolute best way, but it is very effective and may well be better than what you are currently doing.

I believe in cycling cardio type, intensity, duration, and deloading. Let's do a little biology review.

Your body loves you just the way you are; homeostasis is the name of the game. Unlike everyone you have ever dated, your body wants you to stay exactly the same, and has set up a lot of measures to keep you from physically changing in any way. Knowing this, it would only make sense that whatever we are going to do in order to elicit a change is going to have to be discrete enough so that the body doesn’t notice. Just like every relationship you have been in, you are going to have to do everything behind your partner's back, or else you are gonna get in trouble.

Any major decrease in calories, restriction of a macronutrient, or increase in energy expenditure over an extended period of time will cause the body to go into a type of starvation mode, in which it makes self-preservation a priority. This means that excess muscle becomes a luxury, not a necessity, and metabolic rate will be slowed down to maintain homeostasis. Basically, your muscle is more likely to become food, and your newly-slowed metabolism means you now have to cut calories even further to keep fat loss going. It is very important to take into consideration the effect dietary restrictions have on metabolic and anabolic hormone levels. To make a long story short, long term hypocaloric diets decrease most of the fat loss friendly hormones that you should be looking to increase and take advantage of. As you can see, this can become a vicious cycle, and may be the reason for all the stupidity with competitors on extreme restriction diets coupled with hours of cardio every day.

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Before we go on, I have to note that all of my opinions on cardio are based on a model that has proper nutrition and some type of intense resistance training in play. Solid nutrition and heavy weight training will never be outdone or replaced by cardio. For my examples I am going to refer to low days from a carb rotation template made popular by Justin Harris. The carb rotation type diet is excellent for keeping the metabolism stoked, and the body unaware of the slight changes that can be made. Another reason I am using a carb rotation diet as the example is—you guessed right—it pairs up perfectly with cardio cycling. I tend to schedule cardio on the low carb/lower calorie days (and medium days if necessary).

What kind of cardio is best?

For every proponent of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), there is someone else screaming that steady state rocks way harder, and two others scoffing that cardio is stupid and you shouldn’t do it. I agree. Using a blend of HIIT, Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio, and taking breaks from cardio altogether, you can create a great environment for fat loss, not send your body into a state of panic, and get lean without losing all that hard earned mass on your legs. Ahem, sorry. Your biceps.

Start Low

Add cardio at the bare minimum to produce results when you're first starting. Slowly adding to allows for small increases as the prep goes on.

Make the Most of Your Diet

Do your cardio on lower calorie or lower carbohydrate days. Combining cardio with lower calorie days to help get your body into a caloric deficit. If your metabolism is humming right along, then these deficit days will be very effective at burning off those love handles. Try to maintain an overall calorie intake that is close to isocaloric, with lower carb/calorie days sprinkled in during the cardio intensive weeks. Long term hypocaloric diets have been shown to decrease many of the hormones that are beneficial to fat loss.

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Time Correctly

Do your cardio in a fasted state. The hormonal environment after fasting (overnight) is ideal for fat loss. First thing in the morning, when glucose levels are low, lypolylsis (the breakdown of lipids into free fatty acids and glycerol) from adipocytes is increased. The hypothalamus activates both the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands, causing an increase in the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine, which suppresses insulin and increases glucagon release, stimulating gluconeogenisis. The catecholamines also increase adipocyte sensitivity to the thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3). Take home point is that this cocktail of hormones increases lypolysis and fatty acid oxidation.

Use the Right Stimulants

If you are planning on using stimulants such as caffeine or other fat burners, use them only on the low/cardio days. This will just increase effectiveness of your cardio session, and by not using stims every day, you can keep your body sensitive to their effects. Not to mention the money you save by using less of your megaburnXL titanium yellow edition.

Caffeine use may increase fat utilization and decrease glycogen utilization. Caffeine mobilizes free fatty acids from adipocytes and intramuscular triglycerides by increasing circulating epinephrine levels. By using caffeine in the fasted state, you could possibly piggyback onto the already elevated levels of catecholamines. The increased availability of free fatty acids increases fat oxidation and spares muscle glycogen. Since the end-goal of our cardio work is to reduce visible fat, it’s much better to oxidize fat rather than use muscle glycogen to get through our stairmill session.



HIIT is very effective, and can increase calorie expenditure for hours after the session is over. It can also be pretty taxing, and for those who are prone to losing leg size, lots of HIIT makes the size fall off. Keeping it to a week keeps you from going into the danger zones. LISS works, it is less taxing on the body, and the further you get into a diet, the less you feel like sprinting, and/or doing anything. Even though I say low intensity, some moderate effort needs to be put into it. This type of cardio burns a significant percentage of fats as an energy source, and also causes an increase in circulating catecholamines and hGH, aka the Batman and Robin of lipid metabolism. Keeping this type of cardio to a one-week time frame allows for calories to still be burned on our fat burning days, and isn't long enough for the body to catch on and adjust the metabolic rate downward to cancel out the excess energy expenditure.

Time off gives your legs a break, allows them to fill back up with glycogen, and keeps the body from thinking that it needs to adjust to a new constant energy drain. If dietary adjustments need to be made, the off week would be an excellent time to do it.

Contrary to how quite a few folks think about cardio and “gettin’ shredded, brah”, we want to let the metabolism to take care of the majority of fat loss. The major consideration for cardio should therefore be to avoid negatively affecting the resting metabolic rate. If cardio is a tool, it is a chisel or a flat head screwdriver at best. Work with the metabolic jackhammers, use the cardio chisel like it was intended, and a leaner physique will be the resulting sculpture.

Brad is passionate about nutrition and helping others; as the owner/operator of “War nutrition” he provides online nutrition and training consultations to athletes ranging from little old ladies, nationally ranked cyclists and rowers, to IFBB and IFPA pro’s. He trains at Raw workouts gym in Ventura, CA, and credits Justin Harris (, J.L. Holdsworth (the Spot athletics), and John Meadows (Mountaindog diet) as mentors who have not only “passed on” to him but have also helped him to “learn” and “pass on”. Brad is currently completing his pre-medical coursework with a bachelors in psychology and plans to pursue a career as a physician, in order to give back and help the bodybuilding and strength community. He can be reached at and