Why cardio may not be enough to reach your fitness goals

For the better part of the last decade I have been an avid cardio queen. What does that mean? Well, it means that I have probably scaled Mount Everest by way of the stair climber, and ellipticized my way from Nebraska to Arizona (and back again). No weights, no strength training, just cardio equipment and good ol’ fashioned running.

Here’s the problem with that equation; the results weren’t equaling what I was envisioning in my head (note that this a common problem if you are a lofty dreamer like me).  I wanted to be toned and firm, with a midsection that at least resembled pre-baby me, and for God’s sake I wanted that cellulite to get lost. Here’s what I didn’t know; those things were NEVER going to happen with just a cardio regime. Read that again ladies: Never. Gonna. Happen.

Enter strength training. Stop envisioning Arnold Schwatever, the Hulk, or even Rosie the Riveter (seriously, you don’t know who Rosie is?....click here). Strength training is one of the best ways to achieve the body you desire and deserve. Think: Ciara abs, Cameron Diaz arms, J Lo legs…you know, the random body parts you cut off of the celebs you see in magazines and post up on your dream board. All of these ladies have one thing in common (well, besides big bank accounts and being genetically blessed) … strength training.

Strength training is a broad term, used to refer to any exercise that uses some form of resistance to strengthen and build muscle. You create that resistance by using hand weights, weight machines, resistance bands, and even by just using your own body weight (i.e. Pilates and Yoga). Weight training is a form of strength training that helps strengthen your bones and muscles, and more importantly, will help tone you up and give you that firm body you’ve been searching for.

If you’re like I was, you probably have some reservations about weights if this is all new to you.


Here are the basics on what you need to know when considering if weight training is right for you.

The number on the scale doesn’t matter.

Just like age, weight is only a number. Stop measuring progress by the number of the scale. When you begin weight training, the number is not likely to go down right away. That’s because muscle weighs more than fat (you’ve heard this a thousand times). And as you build muscle and burn fat, the number may go up, while your waist size goes down. Judging progress via the scale is a sure-fire way to feel defeated when you are actually making forward progress! Instead, try basing your goals off of how your clothes fit or how you look and feel. Do yourself a favor and put that scale away. 

The gym is full of confused people.

Think you’re the only one who doesn’t know what they’re doing in the gym? Wrong. People in the gym are using the equipment incorrectly all the time. The gym is full of equipment with multiple ways to use it; it can be totally confusing! Don’t assume that everyone is an expert except you. If you forget what you’re doing, grab your phone and do a quick YouTube search. There are a bazillion videos that will guide you through the motions in 30 seconds or less. Start simple. Do dumbbell curls, push-ups, triceps dips... movements that you are familiar with. Grow the repository of exercises you know over time until you have a library of them to choose from. Very few people are experts. Many are in the process of learning, just like you.

Getting bulky won’t happen unless you want it to.

The number one excuse females give as to why they don’t lift is that they don’t want to “… get bulky.” Let me tell you what, those of us who lift regularly, take pre-workout in an attempt to improve performance, and consume protein drink after protein drink  in an attempt to gain muscle mass, will assure you that you will NOT get bulky. Not without serious effort to get there anyways. If it were that easy, we would all be flexing 24-7. Here’s an easy way to think about it: using less weight and doing higher repetitions will help you tone your physique. Using heavier weight and doing lower repetitions will help you to build your muscles. Do what works best for you. Or better yet, use a combination to keep your body guessing.

Weight training doesn’t require hours of time.

Depending on your goals, weight training does not have to take up anymore time in the gym than you currently put in (unless of course you are attempting to join the ranks of Paige Hathaway, my fitness idol). Depending on your fitness goals, the time you need to spend in the gym each week will vary. But as a good starting point for someone who is serious about making progress, aim for at least 45 minutes, three to four times a week.

Just because you can’t see caloric burn doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. 

One of the hardest parts about switching from cardio to weights was that I could no longer see the calories I was burning. But did you know that many of the cardio machines overestimate caloric burn… by a lot. The machines don’t account for your gender, height, body fat percentage and fitness level; all of the things that determine how many calories you are actually burning. Some studies show that equipment overestimates caloric burn by anywhere from 13 – 42% (depending on the equipment... elliptical machines tend to fare the worst). In a 1000 calorie burn sesh, that can be almost a 400 calorie difference. Put that doughnut back where you got it! Transitioning to weights means you will not be able to directly see your caloric burn, so you will need to start monitoring by how you feel (i.e. your heart rate and how out of breath you are). This is a much better predictor of exertion level than a digital, neon number on a screen anyways. And remember, as the amount of muscle mass you have increases, the higher your caloric burn will be throughout the entire day, not just when you are exercising.   

You don’t need to change your diet, but you’ll probably want to.

With a new fitness regimen, you are smart to consider your diet. If you are used to super intense cardio sessions that burn a ton of calories, you will want to consider how decreasing these sweat sessions will affect your waistline in the short term. For the most part, your caloric intake may only need to go down slightly, if at all. But more importantly, what you may want to pay attention to, is  protein consumption. When you switch from cardio to weights, remember that your body needs protein in order to fuel muscle growth. Figuring out the number of macronutrients (calories, fat, carbs, protein) to shoot for each day is complicated and varies greatly, depending on your body, your fitness, and the goals you are looking to achieve. For protein specifically, as a very standard rule, aim for 0.8 gams of protein per pound of weight when looking to tighten and tone your body (i.e. a female weighing 120 pounds should aim for 96 grams of protein each day). As you get more serious about your training, up that amount to 1 gram of protein per pound of weight. Take it slow.

You will look better naked.

Have you ever seen people who are skinny fat? You know, they are super slim but don’t appear to have much muscle tone at all? That’s not what we’re going for here. Weight training may add a few pounds to the scale, but it will also totally change the shape of your body… for the better. Your arms and legs will be leaner and toner. Your midsection will slowly be taking shape (weight training strengthens the core), and you will likely be feeling better all around. There is no substitute for hard work in the gym. There is no magic pill, and no way to buy a lean and fit body. Go ahead, take a second look. Appreciate the hard work you’ve done. And for the first time ever, look forward to swimsuit (or bedroom) season. You WILL look better naked. Guaranteed.

Making the transition from a cardio regime to weight training can be more difficult than just the physical switch. For better or for worse, us cardio queens get addicted to the feeling of an intense sweat session with an 800 calorie/hour burn, and little else can compare. So instead of jumping cannonball style into the deep end, make it a slow to moderate transition. Start off by dedicating just a couple days a week to weight training, for at least thirty minutes. Continue to do your regular cardio as usual. As time goes by, slowly decrease your cardio sessions and increase your weight training sessions. Never completely eliminate cardio from your regime though! Cardiovascular exercise has excellent health benefits too.

Do what works best for your body and your fitness goals. For those who need something more concrete, here is where I started and where I am currently.

Previous: Cardio 4 – 5 days per week, for 40 -60 minutes.

Current: Weight training 5 days per week, for 45 - 60 minutes.  On shorter days, I do 15 minutes of cardio before or after a session, twice per week. On occasional “good” weeks, I put in a sixth cardio-only session. It just depends on my mood.

Results: Body fat percentage decrease from 'average' range to 'excellent' range. Weight increase by five pounds overall (did you hear that?... INcrease). Waist decrease by one inch.

Start strength training. Period. It will change your body (and life) for the better! I devoted an entire year to the process to see if it was right for me (that was four years ago), and there is no way I’m ever making the switch back. Find what feels right for you and what makes your soul happy. Maybe it’s morning yoga, maybe it’s pilates, maybe it’s weight training, or maybe it’s a combination. Your body is uniquely yours.

See also: Fat Burning Workouts for Women