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Should you do cardio first thing in the morning before eating?
By Tom Venuto
Even though morning cardio has been embraced by
bodybuilders as a "tried and true" fat loss technique, there is
definitely not a unanimous agreement about its effectiveness, especially
in the scientific community. Most competitive bodybuilders are die-hard
advocates of doing cardio first thing in the morning before eating their first
meal. They believe it will cause them to mobilize more stored body fat and
increase their metabolic rate all day long. There’s quite a bit of scientific
literature supporting the a.m. fasted cardio theory, but generally, the
exercise physiologists and scientists tend not to buy it. They subscribe to the
energy balance hypothesis, which states; as long as you burn more calories than
you consume in each 24 hour period, then the time of day you burn them doesn’t
matter, nor does whether you burn them from fat or carbohydrate.
If you have even the most rudimentary
understanding of human physiology and physics, you have to concede that the
timing of your cardio is not the most important factor in fat loss. When
you do your cardio won’t make or break you. Simply doing it whenever it’s
convenient and following a mildly calorie restricted diet is what’s important.
However, there’s a very strong case for doing fasted a.m. cardio and if you
want to gain every legal and ethical advantage possible in your quest to get
leaner then it’s definitely something you should take a closer look at.
The argument in favor of fasted early morning
cardio goes something like this:
1. When you wake up in the morning after an
overnight 8-12 hour fast, your body’s stores of glycogen are somewhat depleted.
Doing cardio in this state causes your body to mobilize more fat because of the
unavailability of glycogen.
2. Eating causes a release of insulin. Insulin
interferes with the mobilization of body fat. Less insulin is present in the
morning; therefore, more body fat is burned when cardio is done in the morning.
3. There is less carbohydrate (glucose)
"floating around" in the bloodstream when you wake up after an
overnight fast. With less glucose available, you will burn more fat.
4. If you eat immediately before a workout, you
have to burn off what you just ate first before tapping into stored body fat
(and insulin is elevated after a meal.)
5. When you do cardio in the morning, your
metabolism stays elevated for a period of time after the workout is over. If
you do cardio in the evening, you burn calories during the session so you
definitely benefit from it, but you fail to take advantage of the
"afterburn" effect because your metabolic rate drops dramatically as
soon as you go to sleep.
Research supports this theory. A study performed
at Kansas State University and published in Medicine and Science in Sports
and Exercise showed that a kilogram of fat is burned sooner when exercise
is done in the fasted state in the morning than when it’s done later in the
day. The researchers measured respiratory gas exchange, caloric expenditure and
carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism, and found that the amount of fat burned
during aerobic exercise amounted to 67% of the total energy expenditure in the
morning after a 12 hour fast. This is substantially higher than the 50%
expenditure achieved when the same exercise was done later in the day or after
eating. A similar study from The Journal of Applied Physiology
looked at the effects of aerobic exercise on lipid oxidation in fed versus
fasted states. The researchers concluded, "our results support the
hypothesis that endurance training enhances lipid oxidation in men after a 12
hour overnight fast." Yet another scientific paper, Optimizing Exercise
for Fat Loss," reports, "The ability of exercise to selectively
promote fat oxidation should be optimized if exercise is done during morning
Despite the fact that increased fat burning from
morning aerobics seems logical and is backed by research, the majority of
scientists and exercise physiologists vehemently deny its effectiveness. They
are quick to point out that you can find a study to support almost any theory
you want to advocate. Interestingly though, even the most dyed in the wool
academics agree that you’ll burn more fat in the fuel mix as compared to
sugars. The real controversy lies in whether this fact has any impact on
overall fat loss in the long run.
Exercise Physiologist Greg Landry, MS, author of
"The Metabolism System for Weight Loss and Fitness," explains,
"I agree that you burn a fuel mix that is a little higher in fat if you’re
exercising on an empty stomach. However, I think the real question is, does
that matter? I believe we have a ‘pool’ of calories stored in different forms
in the body (fat, glycogen, etc.), so ‘burned’ calories all come from the same
pool. Thus, it really doesn’t matter that the fuel mix has a little more fat in
it at a given time. If it’s pulling from fat stores at that time, then it’s
pulling less from glycogen stores and thus future consumed calories will be a
little more likely to be stored as fat because glycogen stores are a little
fuller. So it’s all a wash."
Lyle McDonald, an expert on bodybuilding nutrition
and author of "The Ketogenic Diet," agrees. He argues that the
body will compensate later in the day and is simply "too smart" for
strategies like this to ever work: "All that research says is that you
burn a greater proportion of fat this way, which I agree with
100%," says Lyle. "The majority of research shows that as far as real
world fat loss goes, it doesn’t really matter what you burn. Rather, 24-hour
calorie balance is what matters. Because if you burn glucose during exercise,
you tend to burn more fat the rest of the day. If you burn fat during exercise,
you burn more glucose during the day. The end result is identical. If that
weren’t the case, then athletes like sprinters who never ‘burn fat’ during
exercise wouldn’t be shredded. Basically, they burn so many calories that they
remain in balance and don’t gain any fat. So, while morning cardio probably
provides some psychological benefits to bodybuilders who are programmed to do
it that way, I can’t say that I think it will result in greater ‘real world’
fat loss, which is what matters."
When it comes to "real world" fat loss,
few people have more experience than Chris Aceto. A successful bodybuilder and
nutritionist to some of the top pro bodybuilders in the world, Aceto is a firm
believer in morning cardio. He unequivocally states, "The fastest way to
tap stored body fat is to do cardio first thing in the morning on an empty
Aceto believes that looking at calories only in
terms of energy in vs. energy out is "limited thinking." He asserts
that there are more factors involved in "real world" results than
just energy balance. This all comes back to the old argument, are all calories
created equal? "Absolutely not!" Aceto declares. "A calorie is not
just a calorie and exercise physiologists ‘freak out’ when they hear
"These guys are working from the assumption
that it’s just a matter of calories in vs. calories out, period," Chris continued.
"With that line of reasoning, they’d be forced to say that if I consume
nothing but candy bars and Coca-Cola, and take in 100 calories less than
maintenance, I’d lose weight. We know it’s not that simple. You also have to
account for ratios of carbs, protein, and fat. Then there’s meal frequency too:
From real world results we know you put down more muscle mass from 5 or 6 meals
a day than from 3 meals a day. There are more things involved than just
Whether or not morning cardio in the fasted state
increases "real world" fat loss is still the subject of controversy,
but there are many other reasons you might want to consider making it a part of
your daily routine. Landry, despite his doubts about whether the fuel source
matters, admits, "If I had to pick a single factor I thought was most
important in a successful weight loss program, it would have to be to exercise
first thing in the morning."
Here are some of the additional benefits of doing
cardio early in the morning:
1.It makes you feel great all day by releasing
2. It "energizes" you and "wakes
3. It may help regulate your appetite for the rest
of the day.
4. Your body’s circadian rhythm adjusts to your
morning routine, making it easier to wake up at the same time every day.
5. You’ll be less likely to "blow off"
your workout when it’s out of the way early (like when you’re exhausted after
work or when friends ask you to join them at the pub for happy hour).
6. You can always "make time" for exercise
by setting your alarm earlier in the morning.
7. It increases your metabolic rate for hours
after the session is over.
Of all these benefits, the post-exercise increase
in your metabolic rate is one of the most talked about. Scientists call this
"afterburn" effect the "excess post-exercise oxygen
consumption" or EPOC for short.
Looking only at the number of calories and the
type of calories burned during the session doesn’t give you the full
picture. You also need to look at the increased number of calories you continue
to burn after the workout is over. That’s right - work out in the
morning and you burn calories all day long. Imagine burning extra fat as you
sit at your desk at work! That’s the good news. The bad news is, the degree of
EPOC is not as great as most people think. It’s a myth that your metabolism
stays elevated for 24 hours after a regular aerobic workout. That only happens
after extremely intense and/or prolonged exercise such as running a marathon.
After low intensity exercise, the magnitude of the
EPOC is so small that its impact on fat loss is negligible. Somewhere between 9
and 30 extra calories are burned after exercise at an intensity of less than
60-65% of maximal heart rate. In other words, a casual stroll on the treadmill
will do next to nothing to increase your metabolism.
However, EPOC does increase with the intensity
(and duration) of the exercise. According to Wilmore and Costill in
"Physiology of Sport and Exercise," the EPOC after moderate
exercise (75-80%) will amount to approximately .25 kcal/min or 15 kcal/hour.
This would provide an additional expenditure of 75 kcal that would not normally
be calculated in the total energy expended for that activity. An extra 75
calories is definitely nothing Earth shattering. However, it does add up over
time. In a year that would mean (in theory) you would burn an extra 5.2 lbs of
fat from the additional calories expended after the workout.
One way to get a significant post exercise
"afterburn" is high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is done
by alternating brief periods of high intensity work (85% or more) with brief
periods of lower intensity work. Studies on the effects of HIIT have
demonstrated a much higher EPOC, which can add substantially to the day’s
calorie expenditure. In one study, scientists from the University of Alabama
compared the effects of two exercise protocols on 24-hour energy expenditure.
The first group cycled for 60 minutes at a moderate intensity. The second group
performed HIIT, cycling for two minutes at high intensity followed by two
minutes at a low intensity. The group that performed the HIIT burned 160 more
calories in 24 hours than the low intensity group. That means the HIIT group
would burn an extra 11.8 pounds of fat in one year if they did HIIT five days a
week instead of conventional training.
Ironically, weight training has a much higher
magnitude of EPOC than aerobic training. Studies have shown increases in
metabolic rate of as much as 4-7% over a 24-hour period from resistance
training. Yes - that means bodybuilding does burn fat – albeit through an
indirect mechanism. For someone with an expenditure of 2500 calories per day,
that could add up to 100 - 175 extra calories burned after your weight training
workout is over. The lesson is simple: Anyone interested in losing body fat who
is not lifting weights should first take up a regimen of bodybuilding, then –
and only then – start thinking about the morning cardio!
A common concern about doing cardio in the fasted
state, especially if it’s done with high intensity, is the possibility of
losing muscle. After an overnight fast, glycogen, blood glucose and insulin are
all low. As we’ve already concluded, this is an optimum environment for burning
fat. Unfortunately, it may also be an optimum environment for burning muscle
because carbohydrate fuel sources are low and levels of the catabolic stress
hormone cortisol are high. It sounds like morning cardio might be a
double-edged sword, but there are ways to avert muscle loss.
All aerobic exercise will have some effect on
building muscle, but as long as you don’t overdo it, you shouldn’t worry about
losing muscle. It's a fact that muscle proteins are broken down and used for
energy during aerobic exercise. But you are constantly breaking down and
re-building muscle tissue anyway. This process is called "protein
turnover" and it’s a daily fact of life. Your goal is to tip the scales
slightly in favor of increasing the anabolic side and reducing the catabolic
side just enough so you stay anabolic and you gain or at least maintain muscle.
How do you build up more muscle than you break
down? First, avoid excessive cardio. Aceto suggests limiting your cardio on an
empty stomach to 30 minutes, and then it would be "highly unlikely that
amino acids will be burned as fuel." He also mentions that "a strong
cup of coffee should facilitate a shifting to burn more fat and less glycogen.
If you can spare glycogen, you’ll ultimately spare protein too." You might
also want to consider experimenting with the thermogenic
ephedrine-caffeine-aspirin stack (or it’s herbal equivalent).
Second, give your body the proper nutritional
support. Losing muscle probably has more to do with inadequate nutrition than
with excessive aerobics. Provide yourself with the proper nutritional support
for the rest of the day, including adequate meal frequency, protein,
carbohydrates and total calories, and it’s not as likely that there will be a
net loss of muscle tissue over each 24-hour period.
Third, keep training with heavy weights, even during
a fat loss phase. Using light weights and higher reps thinking that it will
help you get more "cut" is a mistake: What put the muscle on in the
first place is likely to help you keep it there.
Still petrified of losing your hard-earned muscle,
but you’d like to take advantage of the fat-burning and metabolism-boosting
effects of morning cardio? One strategy many bodybuilders use is to drink a
protein shake or eat a protein only meal 30-60 minutes prior to the morning
session. The protein without the carbs will minimize the insulin response and
allow you to mobilize fat while providing amino acids to prevent muscle
In conclusion, it seems that morning cardio has
enough indisputable benefits to motivate most people to set their alarms early.
But let’s talk bottom line results here: Does it really result in more
"real world fat loss" than aerobics performed at other times of the
day or after eating? I have to believe it does. Experience, common sense and
research all tell me so. Nevertheless, this will obviously continue to be an
area of much debate, and clearly, more research is needed. In the meantime,
while the scientists are busy in their labs measuring respiratory exchange
ratios, caloric expenditures and rates of substrate utilization, I’m going to
keep waking up at 6:00 AM every morning to get on my Stairmaster.
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer,
gym owner, freelance writer, and author of “Burn The Fat, Feed
The Muscle”: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders
and Fitness Models. Click here to visit Tom's Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle website.