Timing Cardio to Optimize Fat Burning

Timing Cardio to Optimize Fat Burning

By Dr. David Ryan

What is the best way to lose weight?  I get asked this question all the time.  This is such a simple question, but it has many answers and all can be correct.  Tied up in this question is the timing of doing cardio or aerobic training in conjunction with other training.

Cardiac and Muscle Physiology

Let’s start with a quick look at cardiac and muscle physiology.  When you do more than 12-15 repetitions, the human muscle produces lactic acid as waste product as we exercise.  This toxic waste causes muscle pain and delays recovery.  Any time you start exercising and perform any activity longer than 30 seconds without stopping, your body produces lactic acid.

Luckily, the human heart burns lactic acid as a fuel and does this efficiently with ample heat and oxygen.  Your heart actually loves lactic acid, and it removes it very effectively as we do our cardio session within limits.  Doing cardio prior to training removes energy stored on your muscles and lowers your ability to perform heavier lifting or a more intense workout.

Best Time for Cardio

Based on the information above, the best time to do cardio is after lifting weights.  Some cardio can help us become warmed up, but it only takes approximately 5 minutes to achieve that level.

Doing excessive cardio training prior to lifting weights is also counterproductive.  You burn energy storage that normally would be available to lift weights more efficiently.

Plus, you want to have some energy left in the muscle to allow for a quicker recovery.

Another great time to do cardio in order to optimize fat burning is first thing in the morning.  Once you consume some calories, your body will use these calories first and then attack the fat storage.  Eating prior to cardiovascular training will delay the use of fat burning for fuel.  Make sure that you drink at least 8 ounces of water prior to the cardiovascular training as it offers a “boost” to kick-start the fat burning process.

Train More or Eat Less: Which One Is Better for Fat Loss?

Many people train to lose maximum amounts of body fat.  Keep in mind that eating less is a much more efficient and healthier way to reduce body fat.  You can run like a racehorse for a mile and still only burn 400 calories; that is equal to a bagel.  Avoid the extra calories and save yourself the pain of training excessively to remove the extra calories.

Too many people think, I will train hard and eat what I want.  As many dead athletes have learned, “You can’t out train bad eating habits.”

Cardiovascular Training Length

Limiting your cardio session to no more than 45 minutes is also important.  Longer sessions of cardio will cause chemical reactions in your body (such as raised cortisol levels) that will lead to an increased storage of the fats that you eat.  For example, marathon runners can often have a reverse reaction on fat burning and actually gain fat mass in a reaction to store more fat as fuel. To prevent this fat storage from occurring, eat 40% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 20% Omega 3 fats.

Cardio For Advanced Competitive Bodybuilding and Fitness Athletes

The most efficient form of cardio is associated with doing 3 separate cardio sessions of 30 minutes daily. This protocol constantly burns fuel and suppresses the fat hormone thermostat called cortisol.

Scientists measure fat burning in direct relationship to oxygen consumption.  The harder you breathe the more fat you burn.  It is possible to burn more fat lifting weights than running.  Imagine how much more work you would be doing and how much more fat you would burn if you ran a marathon carrying someone on your back or pulling a sled.

To Summarize, Maximum Fat Burning Relates To Some Simple Steps:

For advanced competitive athletes:

1-Early morning cardio: First, get up first thing in the morning, put on some sweats (hence the name), drink a glass of water and do 30 minutes of cardio.

2-Cardio after weight training: Later that day, warm up and train with weight resistance and keep your time between sets down to a minimum. Follow your lifting with some simple cardio to help your heart health.

3-Cardio at night: Finish the day with cardio performed at least 2 hours prior to bed.

For the those with limited time:

If time is an issue, then focus on only 10 minutes of cardio directly after you finish lifting weights with an additional 15-20 minutes of cardio done first thing in the morning before breakfast.

Say your prayers and get exactly 6, 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep.  Recover and start over the next morning.

Consistency is the key to success.

Dr. David Ryan
Columbus Chiropractic Center Director

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6 Responses for Timing Cardio to Optimize Fat Burning

  1. September 5, 2011 8:21 pm

    I’ve experimented with cardio before and after working out and your article is spot on. I do approx 5-10 minutes of cardio prior to workout because I’m middle aged and sit at a desk at work all day and need to warm up before I hit the weights. Any other cardio is done after weight training.

  2. September 6, 2011 8:44 am

    Thanks for your comments. I hope this helps you know you are on the right track.

  3. Jeremy P. Jones


    October 12, 2011 9:12 pm

    I work a 12 hour night shift and I get my workout in when I wake up in the morning, usually about 11 am. I generally eat 3 eggs and oatmeal, wait an hour or so and then hit the gym. When is my optimal time for doing cardio?

  4. October 12, 2011 9:58 pm

    I hope this offers information to the two last leads.

    First, it doesn’t matter if you take protein in prior to working out if you are talking a whey protein drink that is an isolate. Usually takes around 30 minutes for a 30mg drink to digest. You want to be careful and not have food in your stomach while you train. Food in your stomach will cause your blood to stay in the stomach area and not in your muscle to allow a pump. The other concern is that your muscles will take the blood and not allow for proper digestion.

    Secondly, no matter what shift, you should wake up and do cardio on an empty stomach for the best fat burning. Your body will no burn protein, but again you have the whole blood shuntting issue. Typically, it is suggested that you drink only 8 oz of water prior to exercise to allow for fluids to help out with metabolism.

    I hope that helps.

  5. Mauricio M


    October 13, 2011 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the info on fat burning. Couple of questions: you mentioned to sleep exactly 6, 7.5 or 9hrs, can you please elaborate on it and also is there added benefits to do cardio after a workout or is it just when you don’t have the time to do it first thing in the morning and when you do cardio after a workout wouldn’t you miss the 30-45 min. window when you should be drinking your protein shake after your workout?

  6. October 13, 2011 2:40 pm

    Best thing to do is google my name Dr. David Ryan and Getting better between the sheets. That article is full of the sleep information.