How Much Cardio and How Much Is Too Much?

Women in fitness clothing running on treadmills in a gym and being timed by a trainer.

Cardio, short for cardiovascular exercise, is a subject that will spark a debate amongst gym-goers. A vast majority of women will swear by 30-60 minutes of cardio, while men will typically suggest less than 30 minutes and many will dismiss cardio altogether stating it hinders muscle gains. So who is right? How much cardio is needed? Everyone is right, but it all boils down to what your goals are.

Many women would like to lose weight, but what they are forgetting to mention is that they want this weight to come from fat, not muscle. When weight loss involves muscle loss, the end result is flabby, loose skin which in the gym world is referred to as “skinny fat”.

Skinny fat is when a person does an excessive amount of cardio without doing enough or any resistance training. They tend to lose fat, along with muscle, resulting in a thin, un-toned appearance. Walk into any gym at any given time and you will see the Skinny Fat population usually on the elliptical or treadmill, you may even see them on the stair master if they have been dedicated to their cardio-only routine for some time.

A man rolling a heavy boulder uphill.

As a personal trainer, I am not stating that all cardio is useless. There is a place for it in every workout routine regardless of your goals. Cardio does burn lots of calories and if you are not following a strict diet, then the extra cardio will help burn those calories and therefore keep weight gain at bay.

However, it is important to include resistance training in your routine for 3-4 days per week to preserve and build muscle, so that when you do lose fat, you will have nice toned muscles underneath.

If you are naturally very thin and have difficulty gaining weight or if you are trying to put on muscle mass in order to look more toned, enter a competition, or increase your strength, you need to limit your amount of cardio. Doing lots of cardio while trying to gain muscle will burn lots of calories and these calories are needed to build muscle.

Here is an analogy. If someone were trying to build one side of a house with bricks, but they kept taking bricks from the other side of the house, in the end all their work would produce no results and no gains.

Same theory applies here. By doing too much cardio without trying to put on a little muscle (or lots of muscle), your hard work won’t produce any results.

A woman in fitness clothing holding a rope-like fitness tool with both hands stretched outward.

Cardio Suggestions:

Work Your Cardio Into Your Weight Training

This is simple, effective, and will get you results. An example of this is to do a set of weights and instead of resting, jump rope for 45-60 seconds. Repeat.

This may not sound like much, but if you do a total of 20 sets during your weight training, this will be 15-20 minutes of cardio.

Before and After Weight Training

If you do too much cardio before hitting the weights, chances are you will not want to do weights or you will not be able to lift as heavy compared to if you had not done so much cardio.

A good solution is to do either an easy 10 minutes before your weights and another 10-20 minutes after your weights. By doing this you will save energy for the weight training and not tire yourself out.

Analyze

Take time to analyze your fitness goals and your schedule before you get into your routine of hitting the elliptical or running for an hour. If you only have 30 minutes to devote to working out each day, then a 30-minute routine that involves cardio with weights is ideal because you get the benefits of both.

If you are in the gym for just cardio, 20-minute high-intensity cardio is much more effective than 70 minutes of easy, nonsense cardio. Just keep in mind that when it comes to cardio, more is not necessarily better.

More Effective Weight Loss Options

One of the most under appreciated elements of losing weight is the importance of turning off your body’s craving for the empty calories that make you fat. Cardio or fad diets can’t do this. It goes much deeper than that.

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  • At 55, I decided enough was enough. I joined a gym and have lost 50 lbs. in 9 months. I control my diet, and have worked my way up to an hour of cardio 4-5 days per week. I also concentrate on core, mainly by doing a lot of planks. Recently, I have begun adding some modest weight training 3 times per week. Should I begin to cut back on cardio? I hope you say no, because I find it so relaxing and enjoyable.

  • Hi Matt,

    Congratulations on your progress. Really good job.

    When it comes to your training regime, you should continue doing the things you like to do and feel good. If you want to do cardio, don’t stop doing that because you want to start weight training as well. Just remember to give your body enough time to rest and have few off-days a week.

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