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Do the Programs on Cardio Machines Affect Weight Loss?

Updated on June 28, 2019
Lorra Garrick profile image

Former ACE-certified personal trainer Lorra Garrick has trained men & women for fat loss, muscle building, more strength and more fitness.

If you were to design a piece of cardio equipment to sell in mass numbers – and you wanted to make the biggest profit possible – what features would you put in the machine?

If you wanted to appeal to the greatest number of consumers possible, including gyms that want to buy cardio equipment, your equipment should have several key features.

One of these is a variety of “programs” that the user can control.

Individual consumers really like this, and gyms also like this because they know that their members will like it.

The next thing you’d do is label the programs, such as “hills,” “intervals,” “athletic training,” “cardio zone” and “fat loss.”

Many people want to know: Which one of these programs on any given cardio machine burns the most fat for the fastest weight loss?

The answer surprises many: No one particular program is better for losing weight than another!

They’re there for appeal to the consumer as well as convenience for the user. If you don’t want to be bothered with continuously changing the speed, incline or pedal resistance, the various programs will do this for you.

That’s about all they’re good for. For instance, a program may steadily increase an incline or pedal resistance, then suddenly dip to a low grade or resistance for a recovery segment; back and forth.

This proves to be very convenient to users who don’t want to bother with frequently changing the settings.

So What Really Determines the Best Weight Loss Approach?

What determines maximal fat loss isn’t the program, but how hard you work. It’s really that simple.

Energy exerted = calories burned.

The “fat burn” program won’t make your body burn any more fat than will the “cardiovascular training” or “athletic test” programs.

The harder you work your butt off, the more calories you’ll burn.

Effort, Not Program, Matters for Weight Loss

If you’re lackadaisically working the “fat burn” program, you will not burn more fat (or lose more weight) than if you were rigorously using any other program.

To put this another way, suppose your perceived rate of exertion is 5 or 6 out of 10 (meaning, your respiration and heart rate are elevated, but you can speak and sustain the effort) – and you’re using a “fat burn” program on your favorite cardio machine.

Now let’s suppose a few days later you get on that same type of equipment and set the “interval” or “athletic training” program. And again, overall, your perceived rate of exertion is 5 to 6.

You will burn about the same number of calories with each program because your effort level (perceived exertion) is the same for the two.

Suppose next week you choose the “interval” program and this time, you’re going to go all-out on each interval to the point of breathlessness.

The low-level segments provide a chance to catch your breath. If you’re on a pedaling machine, you can slow down to 70 rpms.

What you’re doing – alternating brief, all-out or maximal effort with recovery intervals – is high intensity interval training (HIIT).

The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for each HIIT interval should be 9 or 10.

Over time, HIIT will cause much more weight loss than a same-length session in which your highest RPE is 6.

Don’t Obsess Over Cardio Machine Programs

They’re a manufacturer’s ploy to make the equipment more desirable. Some people do prefer the fat burning program simply because of its configuration.

Meanwhile, other users truly believe they’ll lose more weight with that program.

What you should do is choose the configuration you like the best, then work your butt off to the point where you’re feeling quite worked over.

HIIT can be applied to some programs, while other programs lend more to a steady state or fixed pace.

The ideal mode for maximal weight loss is that of applying HIIT to a manual control of the machine. This way you can have a dynamic peak-and-valley workout, in which the peaks are fierce grueling efforts, and the valleys are very easy and gentle.

What about the fat burning zone?

Below a certain exertion level, you will burn a higher percentage of fat vs. glucose (blood sugar).

Above that threshold (and it differs from person to person) you will burn more glucose than body fat.

This creates the illusion that the “fat burn” program is best for weight loss over time.

But there’s the thing: We’re talking about percentages here, not absolute amounts.

Below that threshold, your total calorie expenditure is LESS than what it would be for the same length of time above that threshold (such as during HIIT).

So even though a greater percentage of fat is being burned, this is relative to the total number of calories burned.

Though the percentage of fat being burned during HIIT is lower when compared to non-strenuous exertion, the absolute or total amount of fat being burned is higher because the TOTAL number of calories expended during HIIT is higher!

Here’s another way to understand this.

  • Total calories burned doing steady state, fixed-pace work with the “fat burn” program: 200
  • Total calories burned doing HIIT with a manual control: 300
  • Percentage of fat burned during the steady state: 50
  • Percentage of fat burned during HIIT: 40

Fifty percent is more than 40, but remember, these are not absolute values. They are relative. Check it out:

What’s 50% of 200? 100.

What’s 40% of 300? 120.

Which is greater? 100 or 120?

Though these numbers are arbitrary, they clearly illustrate the concept that more TOTAL or absolute fat is burned during HIIT.

The Biggest Benefit of HIIT: the After Burn

However, rather than get caught up in percentages, you should know that HIIT produces an after-burn that more conventional aerobic activity does not.

Though the after-burn over a 24-hour period is not significant, it becomes very meaningful the longer over time you employ HIIT, ultimately resulting in more weight loss than if you had just stuck to conventional training with the fat burn program or any other program.

Final Notes

Do HIIT, not steady-state or conventional training, using the manual control on your favorite cardio equipment. Aim for an RPE of 9 or 10 for each work interval (about 30 seconds), and set the recovery intervals (90-120 seconds) to super easy.

If you don’t like doing things manually, choose a program that most resembles HIIT, which is usually the “interval” program. Then aim for an RPE of 9 or 10 – though this usually isn’t possible because the easier segments of interval programs are not easy enough for a full recharge after an RPE of 9-10. Thus, your RPE may need to be 7 or 8.


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