What's the Best Cardio Workout for Weight Loss?

Are you going to the gym because you want to lose weight? Do you spend time doing cardio work, such as running on a treadmill, using a stair step machine, or working out on a elliptical machine?

If your goal is to lose weight by doing cardio, you might want to pay attention, because it's been my experience that the majority of the people who do cardio could burn more calories cleaning the house. Not only that, they'd have a clean house at the end of the hour, too.

Part of the problem is that the mainstream advice couldn't be more wrong about how to correctly workout to maximize fat loss. I did a little self experiment, though I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect, that will help shed some light on what the best approach to cardio is, if you want to lose weight.

My calorie burning cardio expirement.

Best Cardio Workout for Weight Loss

There is a better approach, and I want to show that approach to you. In this article, I will use a few of my workouts and the actual calories burned and fat calories burned to help demonstrate how to get the most from your workout.

Let me start by explaining what I did. I took three different kids of workouts and compared the results. The comparison was made between high intensity interval training (HIIT), long slow distance training (LSD), and medium distance interval training. I chose these three methods, because the first two, HIIT and LSD have been at the center of a debate over the last few years, and there is a great deal of controversy as to which is better for weight loss.

I also added middle distance interval training, so that we could see how this method to compared to the others. I recorded each session and wrote down the duration of the workout, my heart rate, how many calories I burned, and the total fat calories burned. I used my Polar FT60 heart rate monitor for this comparison test.

This experiment is not exact, but it doesn't need to be either. It just needs to be consistent, so we can make an intelligent comparison between the three workouts. The point is, don't worry about the exact numbers used here. Your caloric burn is different than mine, your heart rate is different than mine, and your fitness is different the mine. The conclusions that we draw are more important than the actual numbers used.

Fist, so we are all on the same page, let's take a look at what I mean when I say LSD, HIIT, and MDI.

Is HIIT The Best?

High Intensity Interval Training is akin to sprint training. Essentially, you run very "hard" and then you rest and repeat the effort. The important thing to remember when doing HIIT is that "hard" means at or close to your maximum effort. That's why I say it's like sprint training, you have to really bust your behind and work at your greatest potential. On level of 1-10 in terms of effort, HIIT is an 8-10, when done correctly.

One commonly used method of HIIT training is to work hard for 1 minute and then recover for 1 minute. For fat burning purposes, it is best to slow to a jog during your recovery period rather than stopping entirely. You will burn more calories this way. This work and recovery cycle gets repeated for the duration of the workout.

You can do HIIT training on a variety of exercise equipment, if you don't want to run. I like bikes and elliptical machine for this kind of workout. It's not important what piece of equipment you chose, it's only important that you reach a level of effort of 8-10.

A Benefit of HIIT Training

One thing that many people don't realize is that an intense workout causes the body to burn calories after the workout, which is often referred to as the after burn effect. Exercise is a process of breaking down the body and building it back up, but stronger. When you do intense exercise, the body break down effect is much greater and there is a greater need for repair. The energy that goes into this repairing process burns additional calories, so hard exercise can have a fat blasting effect for hours after your workout.

Both HIIT Training and middle distance interval training are intense enough to give a good afterburning effect.

The Bad About HIIT

Because of the intense nature of HIIT, your body will need time to recover afterwards. It is not practical to do HIIT everyday, and it's difficult, even for very fit people, to do HIIT for a long duration. So, to burn more calories, you cannot simply do more HIIT without overtraining. Because of this, there are calorie burning limits to HIIT.

Some very misinformed people will try to convince you that doing more HIIT is the answer to weight loss stalls, but they are sorely mistaken. Their recommendation will lead to overtraining and overtraining is counterproductive to fat loss.

How Did HIIT Score?

My HIIT workout followed this pattern: 1 minute of a hard run followed by 1 minute of an easy recovery jog. I did this for a total of 23 minutes.

Time: 23 minutes, no measured warm up

Heart rate average: 158

Heart rate max: 168

Calories burned: 315

Fat calories: 31

LSD for Fat Loss

Now, just to be clear, when I talk about LSD for fat loss, it has nothing to do with illegal drugs. So, I am not suggesting you find the local drug dealer and start doing drugs to lose weight. Rather, I am referring to long slow distance training (LSD).

LSD training is the most common approach to cardio training in most commercial gyms. It's often called steady state training, because you exercise at the same pace for your entire workout.

LSD training is not very intense. The goal of LSD training is to exercise for long periods of time, and to do this we need to avoid burning out, so training is slower and easier. It is best to do LSD training at an intensity level somewhere around the 4-7 range.

The Good About LSD

The best things about LSD is that most people can do some form of slow training. They can jog, walk, or even ride a bike for extended periods of time, once they have built up a little bit of strenghth and endurance.

Also, LSD is not terribly intense, so the it is much easier to recover from. In fact, many athletes use LSD training as a recovery workout after previous intense workouts.

The Bad About LSD

With the good comes the bad. Because LSD is not a high intensity exercise, there is less post workout repair needed. So, we will burn fewer calories post-training in the recovery process. The main benefit to LSD is the calories burned while doing the exercise, because relatively few are burned afterwards as a result of the workout.

How did LSD stack up?

Since this was an LSD workout, there was relatively small variation in pace and heart rate throughout the entire workout.

Time: 46 minutes, no measured warm up

Heart rate average: 122

Heart rate max: 131

Calories burned: 396

Fat calories: 99

Is MDI the best fat burning cardio exercise?

Middle distance intervals are not very popular with the fitness crowd. You are more likely to see track athletes and middle distance runners do these types of interval workouts. They are similar to HIIT in that there are work periods and rest periods, but different in that the work periods and rest periods are much longer. For example, a good program for soccer is 5 minutes of work with a 2 minute recovery jog.

When doing MDI, the important thing to remember is to try to maximize the effort during the work period. I do this by measuring the heart rate, but it can be done be estimating your work effort like we talked about with HIIT. An effort of 7-9 is the right range for MDI.

Benefits of MDI

You can burn a lot of calories with an MDI workout. Due to the pace, you wind up with a workout that is relatively short, but covers a pretty good distance.

Also, like HIIT, there is an afterburn effect from doing MDI. This means you will continue to burn calories during the post-workout "healing process".

Downside to MDI

The downside to MDI is that it's hard. Not many people like to push themselves that hard for that long.

How did middle distance intervals stack up?

I wanted to make sure the duration of the workout was exactly the same as the HIIT test, so this workout was done for exactly 23 minutes. That was a bit of an uneven number, so I did 4 sets of 4 minute intervals with a recovery jog of 1 minute between each set. I ended the session with a 3 minute interval, so that I finished exactly at the 23 minute mark.

Time: 23 minutes, no measured warm up

Heart rate average: 160

Heart rate max: 167

Calories burned: 321

Fat calories: 32

So what does this mean and how do we know which one is best for burning fat?

First, let me point out that each workout burned a lot of calories. However, the LSD workout was twice as long as the HIIT and MDI workouts, and that the results were not twice as good. In short, LSD is not an efficient workout.

There wasn't a whole lot of difference between HIIT and MDI. For athletic training purposes there are differences, but for fat loss, there aren't.

Also, since I cannot measure the calories burned in post exercise recovery, it is reasonable to assume that both HIIT and MDI workouts actually burned a few more calories than I show. This is due to the after burn effect. And while the numbers are not huge, it is safe to assume that so our total calories burned in the HIIT and MDI workouts are relatively similar, and close to the equivalent of what was burned in a much longer LSD workout.

LSD burned a higher percentage of fat. It burned 25% vs. the 10% burned by MDI and HIIT. But, you have to devote more time to an LSD workout to see the benefit. So, the question becomes is all that extra time worth burning a few more fat calories? In my mind, it's a rather small gain for all the extra time you have to spend to get the benefit.

Which brings us to the big conclusion: HIIT and MDI are more efficient and give us a great way to burn calories. But, they are too demanding to do everyday. LSD can be done everyday, but you better clear you schedule because you will need more time. Unfortunately for many people long workouts 6 days a week are not an option.


Ultimately, you have to ask yourself two questions. Can you convince yourself to do hard training like HIIT and MDI? And, do you have time to do long workouts like LSD? If you workout with weights, too, you probably don't. Combining weights with LSD makes for a very long workout.

Now that you know how to do cardio training to burn the most amount of fat possible, you are ready to become a fat burning furnace. Just pick an exercise you like, such as biking or running, and go out there and do it.


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