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High Intensity Cardio vs. Low Intensity Cardio

By Tom Venuto

What is your view on Body For Life (BFL) cardio? I read in one of your articles that you recommend doing cardio for 40 minutes. Did you mean like BFL cardio: 2 minutes of warm-up, 40 minutes of interval cardio (lvl 6,7,8,9, repeat 10 times (and on the 10th time round don’t stop at level 9, go flat out and hit a level 10), then a 1 minute cool-down? That equals 41 minutes of interval cardio plus the warm-up and cool down. If I want to increase my fat burning process is this the way to go?

I don’t believe in prescribing the same cardio, weight training, or nutrition program for everyone. Generic programs are ultimately going to limit you, although they can be a good way to start. (It’s better to start something than sit around analyzing all your choices and doing nothing).

I believe in customization of nutrition and training. Initially, the customization is based on your goals, experience level, body type and metabolism. That gives you a starting point. Then you launch whether you think you’re ready or not. Your routine doesn’t have to be perfect - you can fine tune it later.

Once you’ve begun taking action, you must gather feedback on your progress (weight, measurements, body fat, lean body mass, photos, the mirror, etc). Once you start getting feedback, you decide whether you need to change your training and nutrition based on the results.

There are plenty of scientifically based guidelines for training intensity, frequency and duration for cardiovascular fitness and weight loss (for example, the American College of Sports Medicine and other health, fitness and medical organizations have their position stands and exercise prescription recommendations). There's also no shortage of authors and "experts" with personal opinions on the subject.

However, there’s no "best" duration, frequency or duration to do cardio, except the amount it takes you to get the results you want. That amount is not determined by opinion, committee, formula or even by scientific studies. That amount is dictated by results. Results are what count. Period. You are your own lab experiment and "scientific study."

I’m not an advocate of huge amounts of cardio or 40 minutes or an hour every day, or whatever. I’m an advocate of being willing to do the amount of cardio it takes for you to get the results you want. Results should come on a weekly basis if you’ve got it right. It makes no sense to continue with the same plan after a week of getting no results. "Do what you’ve always done and you’ll get what you’ve always gotten." If what you're doing isn't working, you have to try something else. When it comes to fat loss, I like to increase cardio first.

As for Bill Phillips' Body For Life (BFL) method of cardio, that is simply high intensity interval training, with an increasing peak interval as the workout progresses, ending with a maximum “10” effort (which Phillips calls the "high point").

There’s nothing wrong with the BFL method. It’s quite excellent actually. High intensity interval training is an effective method to get the most out of a brief workout. Another good thing about the BFL method is that it has built-in progression. Most people understand and use progression in their weight training workouts, but they completely forget to use progression in their cardio workouts.

The flaw in the BFL cardio method is the single frequency and duration prescription for everyone. Phillips writes, and I quote, “20 minutes of cardio, no more, no less.” That doesn’t allow any personalization according to goals, experience, body type, metabolism and actual weekly results. You should adjust your training volume, frequency, intensity, and type according to your actual real world results, not by some dogmatic "formula" written in a book.

What Phillips has successfully achieved by giving a single recommendation is to make things easy for his readers. He’s taken the decision-making element out of the program. Most beginners are so confused by all the training methods that they become paralyzed with fear and indecision and often don’t start at all. Sometimes people NEED someone to tell them EXACTLY what to do. Phillips made it black and white, leaving no grey area. That’s probably a good thing for a beginner who has no concept of program design and no intuitive sense of how their body responds to exercise. However, once you develop the innate bodily wisdom and sensory acuity to realize how your body is responding to various training and nutrition protocols, then you should free yourself from rigid and inflexible regimens and learn to adjust according to your results.

Regarding long interval workouts: Sure, you could do 40 minutes of intervals, but technically, they won’t be “high intensity” intervals. Intensity and duration are inversely related. You can do interval training for 40 minutes – and it’s a good method – but the intervals won’t be as high in intensity as the 20 minute workouts. If they were, you wouldn’t last 40 minutes.

The article of mine you referred to was the “fat loss success series.” The type of cardio I recommended in that article was not BFL-style cardio, nor was it necessarily interval training (although it could be). What I suggested was that you increase the intensity and duration of your cardio when you aren’t getting results.

Naturally, the longer the duration, the lower the intensity, but intensity is relative. I have seen astounding rates of fat loss (visible daily improvements, literally), by progressively pushing to the highest intensity you can sustain for up to 45 minutes. Long cardio sessions don’t have to be low in intensity; they can be moderate to moderately high.

Long duration and low intensity is NOT the best way to lose fat. Even though you burn a greater percentage of calories from fat with low intensity cardio, you don’t burn enough total calories to put a dent in your fat stores.

I also don’t recommend staying at 20 minutes three days a week and only manipulating diet to get increased fat loss. I prefer increased exercise frequency, duration and intensity first, then calorie reductions second. In short BURN THE FAT, don’t try to starve it.

If you put yourself into a feedback loop and let your results dictate your strategy, you can become your own expert and your own coach. You will learn a lot about your own body, you will get great results continuously on a weekly basis and you will never be confused about training methods again because each method will fail or prove itself in the real world. This feedback process is covered in detail in chapter 4 of my downloadable e-book Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle!

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

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.