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Cardio and Muscle Loss. How to burn calories & lose fat without losing muscle.

Updated on July 1, 2014

Cardio is for Losing

You probably associate cardio with burning calories, fat loss, weight loss and muscle loss. Weight lifters lose muscle, fat and weight when they start doing more cardio to become leaner. People that mainly do cardio exercises like running, biking and jumping rope are often skinny with very little muscle. Cardio is for losing or keeping it off. Weight lifting is for gaining or keeping muscle.

To burn calories and lose fat without losing muscle change why and how you do cardio. Do it because you want to get in better shape and exercise to build or maintain muscle like you would if you were weight lifting. Don't do it to lose weight unless you want to lose fat and muscle. The how and the why makes a huge difference.

Add weight to some cardio exercises.
Add weight to some cardio exercises. | Source

Weight Loss

I often do bodyweight exercises while wearing a heavy backpack or holding heavy weights. It does not matter if you are weight lifting or doing bodyweight exercises. The more weight you are lifting the better it is for building or maintaining the muscle you have. When you lose weight the amount of weight you are moving around decreases. If you don't compensate for the weight loss then you lose muscle.

Weight loss often leads to muscle loss simply because you are carrying around less weight. You can carry or wear more weight while doing cardio. Medicine balls, dumbbells, weight vests and weighted backpacks are a few of the things you can use to increase the weight.

Fat Loss

When you measure your muscles with a measuring tape you don't just measure your muscles. When you look at your muscles you don't just see your muscles. You have fat over top of the muscles. After doing a dumbbell curls routine for a while and increasing my strength I noticed my muscles seemed smaller, not bigger. I was not over training. The cardio I was doing was making me leaner. So I was getting skinnier instead of bigger. Lose fat and it will look like you lost muscle.

When I did cardio to lose fat I lost muscle.
When I did cardio to lose fat I lost muscle. | Source

Overtraining

People that do cardio often do too much of it. They workout too frequently or their workouts are too long. If you keep straining your muscles and don't give them time to fully recover then you are going to lose muscle and become weaker. It can happen if you are working out almost everyday or when you do a really long workout.

The main reason people often overtrain while doing cardio is because they are focused on burning calories. To burn a lot of calories they exercise a lot. People do it because it works. Overtraining can be a very effective way to lose weight but there is a cost. Some of the weight loss is the result losing muscle.

I don't undertrain when I have feedback.
I don't undertrain when I have feedback. | Source

Undertraining

While overtraining is a common problem so is undertraining. Undertraining is when the workout is too short or not intense enough. Ten minutes is long enough if you are lifting heavy weights or doing difficult bodyweight exercises. It is not usually long enough for a cardio workout.

With strength training you can see how heavy the weight is and you can tell if you were able to lift the weight or not. If you want an intense workout use heavy weights. When you do cardio exercises like running, biking or jumping rope there is less feedback. People often end up doing cardio workouts that are not long enough or intense enough to build or maintain muscle.

Without feedback most of my cardio workouts are not intense enough. I burn some calories but I waste a lot of time and lose muscle. That is why I like to use exercise machines that tell me my speed, the distance and the duration of the workout when I am inside. Outside I use Google maps to plan my routine and pay attention to my surroundings when I go for a run or a biking ride. Feedback is very important when you are exercising.

Neglecting Your Weight Lifting

By itself weight lifting is good for bulking up but not good for losing fat or keeping it off. If you want to have big muscles then do weight lifting and eat enough. You can use weights or your own body weight. If you want to be lean then you need to do cardio. The fastest way to bulk up is with weight lifting. So it is common for people to bulk up with weight lifting and then get rid of the fat by focusing on cardio. While they work at getting rid of the fat their muscles get smaller. Neglect your strength training and you are going to lose muscle.

Some of my weights.
Some of my weights. | Source

Endurance

If you want big muscles then focus on strength. Exercises that focus on endurance are not good for building or maintaining a lot of muscle. I switched from doing 100 push ups a day to trying to do 5 push ups with my legs in the air because I wanted bigger muscles. Switch from endurance workouts to strength workouts if you want bigger muscles. If you switch from strength workouts to endurance workouts then you are going to lose muscle.

I bike to far away beaches, run on my elliptical trainer and do bodyweight exercises. Mostly I focus on my endurance and being able to lift my body weight. I am lean and muscular but my muscles are not that big. If I focused more on my strength then my muscles would be bigger and I would weigh more.

Men vs Women

Cardio workouts are mainly done by women. Weight lifting workouts are mainly done by men. Men tend to have a lot more muscle than women. That means people that do cardio tend to have less muscle. However men naturally have more muscle than women, it is easier for men to build muscle and men are much more likely to try to increase their strength. Women are more likely to try to reduce their weight. Cardio is not bad for building or maintaining muscle. People just think it is because it is mainly done by women and men that want to be skinny.

Women walking along a beach.
Women walking along a beach. | Source

Weight Loss Diets

People often combine cardio with a strict diet. That is one of the main reasons cardio is associated with muscle loss. The person limits what they eat and the amount of food they eat because they want to lose fat. Weight loss diets cause people to lose fat and muscle. Thinking that weight loss and fat loss are the same thing is a mistake. If you want to lose fat and not muscle than go on a healthy fat loss diet.

Fat Loss Diets

Fat loss diets are significantly different than weigh loss diets. The focus is on consuming more, not less. Drink more water and eat more healthy food. If you get hungry between meals then have a snack. Satisfy your body by consuming the things it needs. Fill up on healthy food so you don't eat as much junk food. Drink mostly water when you get thirsty so you don't consume as many high calorie drinks.

When you are on a fat loss diet it is important to eat slowly, avoid stress and avoid being bored. Allow yourself to snack between meals so you don't feel you need to overeat to avoid becoming hungry later. You want to avoid doing things that can cause you to overeat. It is also important to make sure you are not missing something important. If I don't eat enough meat for supper than I don't feel satisfied. It causes me to want to overeat.

Being on a fat loss diet is one of the reasons people make comments about me eating a lot of food. They notice that I fill up on healthy food and snack between meals if I get hungry. They don't notice that I eat less junk food and drink fewer high calorie drinks than they do. Don't let people discourage you from maintaining a healthy diet.

Cardio Without Muscle Loss

  1. Eat as much healthy food as you need to feel satisfied.
  2. When exercising compete with yourself and try to do better every time.
  3. Give your muscles time to recover before straining them again.
  4. Pay close attention to the intensity and duration of the exercise.
  5. Hold or wear weights when possible. Make yourself heavier.
  6. Do enough upper body strength training to maintain your muscle.
  7. Do cardio strength exercises like hill sprints.
  8. Frequently change your cardio routine to keep it challenging.

My legs were skinny until I started biking once a week to parks with beaches.
My legs were skinny until I started biking once a week to parks with beaches. | Source

When I started doing a lot of cardio I was trying to increase my strength and endurance. That is why I gained muscle instead of losing it along with the fat. Even though I lost fat and became leaner my weight increased by 25 pounds. That was just from biking once a week.

If I do cardio to lose weight then I lose fat and muscle. If I do cardio to increase my strength and endurance I lose the fat without losing muscle.

© 2014 Michael H

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    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      4 years ago from India

      Very useful information. Thanks for sharing

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