Cardio Bunny? Stop It – Stop It Now!

My opinion on cardiovascular exercise has changed drastically in the years since I’ve become involved in fitness. For those of you familiar with my backstory, I was once the queen of all cardio bunnies – I was the Queen B, y’all! Starting in middle school, I was regularly running for an hour followed immediately with two hours of swimming almost everyday. I was burning through 15 miles a day either on the treadmill or outdoors by the time I hit high school. While I initially did it because I wanted to be a faster runner, my goals quickly deteriorated into “do it for the calorie burn, baby!”, all the while not seeing any visible changes in my physique.

For some of you, your beliefs on cardio to sculpt a rockin’ bod will be different from mine. Many of you think that you need to do 45 minutes of cardio day in and day out in order to be lean. A lot of you probably have once said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, that ice cream was so good; now it’s time to go run it off,” or, “I totally deserve that cream cheese bagel after biking for 30 minutes.” Cool story, brah. How’s that working out for you?

Today I want to share with you my personal philosophy on cardio. Because it pains me to see and hear about others – especially women, you elliptical worshippers, you! – who are disillusioned with cardio as the Holy Grail of the Ultimate Bikini Body.

Before I go on, though, a point of clarification:

I am referring only to aesthetic-oriented, steady-state cardio.

For all you performance goal folks and those interested in cardio for general health, shoo. This article isn’t for you 😉

(False) Reasons for Cardio

1. Cardio gets me lean.

Okay, I can understand the thinking here. Cardio burns calories, so obviously, the more you do, the better for you, right? Not so fast. The calorie counter on that treadmill you’re on spits out a grossly overestimated number. Honestly, it kind of makes me sick. I once had a machine tell me that I burned over 2,000 calories in an hour. Yeah, okay. And I’m Adriana Lima.

I think you’ll find yourself gravely disappointed to learn that the energy you expend plugging away at the hamster wheel is much, much less than you’ve been led to believe. You won’t get ripped abs; you won’t lose that arm flab. Sorry, buster. Not happening. Not today and not ever.

A recent study found that it takes an average of 86 hours’ worth of aerobic exercise to lose 1kg [1], and a meta-analysis pointed out that cardio itself is not an effective weight loss therapy [2]. Is that worth it to you?

Watch this enlightening video below to put it into perspective.

2. Cardio is a great lower body workout.

I have girlfriends who only perform upper body resistance training because, as they say, “Oh, I do so much with my legs when I run anyway.” Please show me a study that suggests that endurance cardio has the same physiological effects on your body as does lifting weights. Squats and deadlifts – do they do the same thing for your butt as pounding the pavement for miles?

Sohee Lee - Booty Sculpted

Booty sculpted with a steady prescription of red meat and squats.

I want to pull up this picture again to highlight the fact that I did next to no cardio to get to this point. Just a few years ago, I had no butt whatsoever. It just wasn’t there. But I learned how to squat, and squat I did – back squats, front squats, split squats, Bulgarian split squats, and now goblet squats, too. I had someone tell me that I had a black girl’s booty on an Asian body. Say what now? I guess that’s what squatting will do for ya.

3. Cardio is sufficient exercise.

I can kind of understand if you want to supplement your other physical activities – lifting weights or yoga, for example – with a little bit of cardio on the side if it makes you feel good. I can tolerate it. But if you’re going to pick one form of exercise, it should be weight lifting. Men and women alike.

Why? Well, cardio is a waste of time. There are much better things I can be doing during the hour that I’ve now lost. Also, it’s inefficient and it doesn’t do much. See point 1. If you only have 30 minutes a day to work out and you’re attempting to accomplish Operation Sexy, then hit the weight room.

4. Cardio as compensatory behavior.

This one is the unhealthiest and most dangerous of all, in my opinion. It’s too easy to become trapped into this mentality of cardio as punishment. If you have a yummy feast of some sort coming up, you peddle away for harder and longer at the bike in the days beforehand because you want to create a calorie buffer. And then after you’ve indulged in more slices of pecan pie (drool!) than you initially planned, you try to redeem yourself by hitting up the elliptical the next day.

This makes me nervous. Really, it does. And I see it happening far too often amongst laypeople and especially amongst competitors. Such behavior creates a negative association between exercise and poor eating, and then before you know it, you’ve slipped into a cycle of cardio, eat, cardio, eat. I’ve been in this situation and it doesn’t have a happy ending. It only reinforces bad habits and oftentimes exacerbates them. I found that my “indulgences” grew bigger and bigger, and I eventually came to think of cardio as something I had to do begrudgingly.  You also start making excuses as to why it’s okay to gorge on that extra junk food. It’s not okay.


I think most people perform cardio for any one of the four reasons above. Two exceptions I’ve found have been the following:

1. You really, really enjoy cardio. You love pedaling away on the bike. Something about lacing up your running shoes as you head out the door gets your heart racing with excitement. If you can inherently find joy in what you’re doing, then by all means, keep doing it. Also, what planet are you from?

2. You’re ridiculously tiny. If you’re very light and you’ve been nailing your nutrition for a while now and you’ve noticed that your progress has slowed down markedly, then maybe it’s time to sprinkle a little bit of cardio in there. There aren’t many of you who fall into this category – especially because most people don’t know what a proper diet looks like.

(3.) I know I said two exceptions, but I guess this counts as a pseudo-exception since I’m half-joking. If you actually want to go for that flat-butt, soft, doughy look – I mean if you find this sexy and irresistible – then alright. Go on with your ways.

Then what?

So how in the world do you get lean? My approach is as follows:

  • First off, you absolutely must, must, must have a solid nutrition plan. Don’t come complaining to me that everything I’ve said up to this point is a lie when you haven’t kept an honest food log and you can’t tell me how much you’re eating. “I’ve tried everything!” is a common excuse that I hear. Well, no, you probably haven’t. Increase your protein intake, stop eating cream puffs so often, and throw some fish oil in there.
  • Lift heavy weights. Heavy is a relative term, I know, but I will immediately discredit you as a knowledgeable “fitness buff” if you mention “pink weights” and “toning” in the same sentence. That’s old news – and it’s wrong news at that. And stick to the main, compound movements: squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, chin ups, etc.
  • Next in the order of importance is some type of metabolic work. This includes things like intervals, sprints, and complexes. These have a way of making curse words fly out of your mouth as you wonder if it’s possible for your heart to physically burst out of your chest. I actually do enjoy these workouts in a sick sort of way. Oh, the pain!
  • Last comes traditional cardio. Mehh.

The all-encompassing factor that you must have in order to be successful in your fat loss endeavors, however, is consistency. You won’t get anywhere without it. You may have the most perfect diet in the world (whatever that is), but if you’re only following it three days of the week, then it doesn’t mean much.

Too Long? Read This.

Former Queen B says: Cardio sucks. Lift instead.



1. Friedenreich CM, et al. Adiposity changes after a 1-year aerobic exercise intervention among postmenopausal women: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011;35:427-435

2. Thorogood A, et al. Isolated aerobic exercise and weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2011 Aug;124(8):747-55

About the author  ⁄ soheelee

I am a fitness buff with a Stanford B.A. in Human Biology – Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health. I’m also an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a nationally qualified NPC bikini competitor. I've written on, Greatist, and other awesome publications sharing tips on fitness, psychology, and motivation.

  • Daniel Kreger

    Spot. On. This should be posted on every cardio machine in every gym in America.

  • Jeff Britt

    Great article. Just recently been learning this for myself. It’s so true how people (including myself) overestimate the calories burned and underestimate the calorie taken in.

  • taranaki

    Thanks for the post. I do quite a lot of cardio, but with the goal of participating in a triathlon and most of the time I do enjoy it :). I do work in body weight exercises and weights at the gym… might try to do a bit more after reading this.

  • Brian Danley

    Well stated. I’ve been preaching more balance between cardio and resistance training with my clients. No doubt about it, heavy weight training stimulates the metabolic rate much more than cardio ever will long after the workout. The bonus is more growth hormone release as well when lifting heavy with relatively short rest periods between sets. More growth hormone release stimulates more fat burning.

    • Sohee Lee

      I don’t agree with having ‘relatively short rest periods’ for all lifts. I rest up to 7 minutes when I’m doing heavy deadlifts, for example.

      • Jason

        I agree. I think resting longer and being able to do more weight because of the longer rest is more effective than having a short rest and not being able to get as many reps. I usually take a 4-5 min rest when going heavy.

  • John B

    Bruce Lee famously said that he didn’t need to train his lower body because he spent enough time running and walking. Maybe they were listening to Bruce.

    • Sohee Lee

      Bruce Lee wasn’t always right, apparently 😉

      • Rob Umfress

        Bruce Lee also kicked. A lot. You throw your leg as fast as possible many times a day and you don’t have to do any lower body work either.

    • Sohee Lee

      Bruce Lee and I are actually distant cousins.

  • Torrello

    I watched a brilliant BBC documentary recently called “the Making of Us”, examining early homosapien fosils from Africa. It concluded that the human body is designed to run, and almost every part from the ankle to the big tendon attached to the back of your head has developed that way to facilitate running. Its how ancient people caught their prey on the plains – they ran it down.
    Reading this excellent article made me, at first, think that perhaps cardio isn’t as bad as you say. But then I thought again. If we’re made to be runners, that’s probably why it doesn’t work as well as we think it does. We’re too good at it, too efficient. We’re ment to do it.
    The article also reminded me of this article:
    Lifting would appear to be the best way to get fit and strong. Unfortunatley your gym doesn’t want you to know this!

    • Stephanie S

      Why wouldn’t the gym want you to know that? They are making their money no matter what you do in there. Plus people are more likely able to do cardio outside of the gym as opposed to lifting weights… not many people have access to weight machines or free weights outside of the gym.

      • Teo N.

        “They are making their money no matter what you do in there”
        That’s the point. Why would they want you to instruct you in 5-10 lifts that you can learn in a week, give you a plan, and let you go off on your own until your linear gains run out? Particularly scary to their commission is the reality that they could lose business by peddling heavy, difficult lifts while other trainers promise ideal results with easy, colorful routines that mix things up.

        And the majority of people go to the gym to lean up, not to get more muscular or stronger. The results kinda suck.

  • John Winter

    Eh. I’ve just been doing calisthenics for years. I enjoy heavy lifting occasionally but have that fear of granpa syndrome for future life, so I usually avoid trying to work it past the point of no return . Look at Arnold.

    • Sohee Lee

      Lifting weights isn’t something you absolutely HAVE to do. Again, different strokes for different folks. 😉

      • Shelley

        Arnold was a heavy user of steroids. Totally different long term effects.

  • Stephanie S

    Shouldn’t cardio be incorporated for cardiovascular health though? Is lifting weights just as good for your heart? Sorry if these have obvious answers, I’m sort of a beginner.

    • Sohee Lee

      Hey Steph – Sorry, I should have made it more clear. This article on cardio being unnecessary was meant for fat loss folks, not those who have their general health as their #1 priority. I’ll go back and edit. :)

  • M. Smith

    Oh, that was good–not at all condescending and totally chock full of actual studies.

    OH WAIT, you didn’t cite ANY studies? Hm. How about that. You’re recycling “common knowledge” that’s getting passed around a bunch of popular online trainers and saying in the same “hur hur women are stupid” voice that they all use, calculated to draw you into the “in crowd.” “Cardio bunnies”? Seriously?

    I’m tired of this attitude that lifting is the holy grail. People have different reasons for doing what they do. I’m a woman and I know how to lift weights (not just the pink ones either, though thank you for continuing to imply that women don’t “get it”). I run because I enjoy running. I do squats because they keep my knees healthy enough to run. Clearly your goal, to judge by your photos on this cite, is to look appealing in a bikini. Congratulations. But I don’t see anything on your site to change my mind on my workout schedule or, in fact, take you on as a coach. You have a long way to go.

    • Sohee Lee

      Anonymous, I intentionally did not cite any studies because I figured most people wouldn’t care for them. But thanks for the tip – I’ll go back and add them soon.

      Yes, I agree with you. People have different reasons for what they do. You run because you enjoy running – so keep running. Please go back and read more carefully. Never did I say that you can’t.

      I stand by my statement. Most women don’t get it.

      And no, my goal is not to look appealing in a bikini. Though it’s a kick-ass side effect of the way I eat and how I lift.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Ann

      I’ll make some cliffs for those who don’t want to read her entire comment:

      – I’m butthurt wahhhh

    • Rob Umfress

      M. Smith,

      There is no need to come here just to respond negatively. Why not offer up some constructive criticism to help the article or even offer a counter point to her argument instead of just displaying your frustrations? There are multiple studies that show that sustained “cardio” does very little for body composition changes without other changes made first. The biggest study was a year of doing 60 minutes a day for 5-6 days a week. Those participants lost on average, 3-4 lbs of fat. In a year.

      Do you work with people? Do you specifically work with fat loss clients? Can you honestly say you disagree with her approach to losing bodyfat? Have you even tried her methods? Diet, near maximal lifting, metabolic work, in that order?

      She listed this stuff out, because it works. It is tried and true. People use these methods, and obtain amazing transformations, without having to do 300 minutes of exercise a week. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t list research. Research is always playing catch up to the real world. If you want to talk more about this, I’d be happy to have an email correspondence with you, or you could come to the San Francisco Bay area and come workout with us, see it first hand.

      Hope to hear back from you soon!

  • Pam

    How does a person start out? Day 1? 54 years old. used weights a few years back.. ( Not much tho)

  • Pam

    How does a person get started? How heavy of weights,etc? I’m 54 years old.. I want to get FIT….

  • Anthony Elias

    Look Sohee i respect what you do but I think this is ridiculous. There are no shortcuts to a great physique. Do your cardio, Train hard, and eat clean. Thats what is going to make a champion.

    • Sohee Lee

      Anthony – First off, I know you didn’t read my article. I recommend that you read before making assumptions.

      Secondly, can you kindly point me to where I wrote in my article that I said there was a shortcut of any kind? Or implied that it was easy to achieve aesthetic goals?

    • ChrisNunz

      Yup, he clearly didn’t even read the article before posting.

      Awesome job Sohee. I like the long blog posts too.

  • Hailey

    Great article. I was just wondering if lifting weights at relativelly high body fat (25%) will help to lower it? Or will it just sculpt your muscles once you are already there? You mention that before you started lifting you had “no butt”. That makes me think you didnt have a lot of fat to lose to start with. So to drop 5-7% bf would it be better to do cardio or weights or both? Thanks!

    • Erica

      I’m curious about this too!

      • Sohee Lee

        Hailey and Erica,

        Lifting weights alone is not going to decrease your body fat; it’s the combination of that (which helps retain your muscle mass) + proper diet that will do it. If you nail everything right, you MIGHT be able to see a little bit of recomposition, which is when you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. It’s not easy, but it happens.

        I would start out by taking a good look at your current diet and seeing what you can fix there before moving onto anything else. You’re only wasting your time in the gym if you’re not eating properly. Think of weightlifting as a supplement to your eating :)

  • I Love Primal

    HIIT!!! need I say more?

  • Kim Miller

    Gotta admit Sohee, I’m kinda hooked on your blog. I don’t agree with everything but we see eye to eye on a lot. I love the candidness with which you write and you make me laugh. I appreciated your thoughts on competing. I had some of the same when I did Fitness America. For cardio, I happen to fall into one of your exception categories. I love to run. Nothing makes me feel better. I race and set goals for myself. Running provides me perspective. I trail run a lot which is uphill. It’s great for leg strength. That being set, I’ve been working very hard on also learning to love lifting and building my glute muscles, which by no means has been an easy task! I do appreciate how incorporating lifting has transformed my body. I’m also a big advocate for yoga and pilates mixed with these other forms of fitness, as I think they lend to core strength and balance. I’m going to continue to work on my glutes in the hopes that eventually my butt will resemble anything close to yours : ) Appreciate your thoughts. Keep writing!

    • Sohee Lee

      Hi Kim, thanks so much for your comment!

      Ugh, I wish I could get myself to like yoga. I’ve tried it multiple times but could never get into it. Oh and I agree – I LOVE running hills.

      Squat away 😉

      • Kim Miller

        Try power yoga in a class that plays good music if you haven’t. It moves much quicker, which is what Ilike about it. I had a really hard time with the other yoga classes at first as well. Now I can do them but I still prefer power yoga, more my speed. I still have to pair yoga with another fitness activity. Although I know some people do, I couldn’t do it exclusively.

      • carol

        Hill sprints are the fastest way to get in shape I’ve ever found.

        I agree with you about cardio. The cardio monkeys at my gym are an energetic but mostly misguided bunch.

  • dbt1959

    Good post.
    When I first got back into the gym seven years ago after a ten year hiatus, I did a lot of circuit training (pay a trainer people) and cardio. I dropped 45 pounds in about 14 months. The cardio helped a great deal with the initial weight loss.
    I gave it up entirely four years ago to focus on weight training (fair amount of kettlebells here) and yoga. Have added a lot of muscle, not gained a pound; changed body comp completely to the plus. Cardio alone is not an optimal use of time; there can be some initial benefit if it helps you get in the door. But its nothing like picking up heavy stuff and putting it overhead, rows, or squats with weight. That’s serious bang for the buck.

  • Eric

    Please re-post this on a monthly basis and spam the crap out of random people. Make short booklets and stick them in the fitness section of all bookstores across America. Thank you.

  • JJ

    Hi Sohee,

    What’s your take on HIIT?

    • Sohee Lee

      Love it! I’m a huge fan. I’d limit it to 2-3x/week though at 10-20 minutes a session.

  • Pingback: Miscellaneous Musings of the Month: July 2012 Edition | Sohee Lee Fitness

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  • Bianca

    There is a reason why some women don’t want to lift. Lift heavy weights increases the size of your muscle. Yes, I know, women have less testosterone than men so they won’t end up with a female professional bodybuilder’s legs (unless they work hard to achieve that result, and maybe are under stheroyds); but they’ll end up with legs like yours. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying your legs are huge or ugly or something like that, of course they’re not… but if I should wake up tomorrow with legs like yours I wouldn’t be happy. It’s not the kind of body every woman want to have. There are women who like to be muscular and others that are happy with another type of body. That’s simple. There are women who don’t lift heavy and are not flabby… no “flat-butt, soft, doughy look”. It’s not like, “this or that”. Maybe it’s hard to understand, but some women have more the type of a VS models and are happy with it, and don’t struggle to have more muscular legs.
    Oh, I totally agree that cardio’s results may be perfectioned with something else, but it doesn’t have to be lift heavy weights. I enjoy a lot my daily run, and I’m from planet earth. What planet are *you* from? :)
    Anyway, nice blog. And excuse me for my broken english.

    • cg26

      Eh? Most normal, slim women will have legs a similar size to the author, but less firm, more flab. It’s fair enough to want non-flabby thin legs like a VS model, but here’s the secret: they are genetically very unusual. Durr, that’s why they’re models. The other point: they don’t do tons of cardio to acheive that (or some of them do, they don’t need to), they just don’t eat. Your un-muscled leg girth is basically determined by genetics and body fat % (oh, and photoshop). You can’t change your genetics, and you can change your body fat % much more effectively by diet than by cardio. So what’s the third option? Make your legs and butt firmer with more muscle so fat isn’t just sitting flabby over the bones.

      Basically, you may well think the author’s body is not perfect according to your standard of aesthetics. But it’s probably the best she can do with her genetics, and the best you can do with yours is probably not a VS model body either. It’s just never going to happen. Learn to love real bodies.

      • Bianca

        Sure, I totally agree! I wasn’t talking about woman genetically predisposed to have larger legs. I just don’t understand the “every woman should lift heavy” thing. Re-read my comment, I didn’t say “every woman want her legs more slim than muscular, and can achieve that”. On the other hand, reading Sohee Lee’s post I understand that she thinks that *every* woman who want improve her legs’ appearence should lift, hence my comment.

  • Andrea
  • Aimee

    Following a lifting heavy programme I got bigger legs. After reading Rusty’s post on Fitness Black Book and dropping all lower body resistance training (so hard to do as I was sure I would lose definition), my legs are the leanest they have ever been but still muscular and in the best shape as a result of high intensity cardio on the treadmill and spin bike. I often get asked what I do to get them like that. That didn’t used to happen.

  • afsdfs

    did you even read those articles you cited? the meta analysis explicitly states one of the limitations is the degree of heterogeneity of the studies. don’t just quote shit to make your articles seem like they’ve been validated by science.

  • Tyler

    Completely agree with this article 100%….I used to run about 15 miles 5 days a week. While my genetics helped me hold decent muscle mass, it wasn’t until I cut the running down to 0 and kept it to 10 minutes on a treadmill for heart rate purposes before my lifting that my abs went from flat to full with an a great v taper at the bottom and my chest went from lower heavy to full and thick. If your diet is straight and disciplined, you can maintain 8-12% body fat year round with 0 cardio.

  • Dana Ron

    Bianca, you’re from planet earth.. most ordinary and there is nothing wrong with that. I love her strong back and body. You are ordinary and that is fine but strong heavy weighht womenen lifters are EXTRAORDINARY..they have beautiful bodies which are strong and beautifully toned and they are gorgeous..sexier and definately have wayyt more
    endurance than your ordinary variety fun hamsters on their gym wheel. Because women lifters usually have more endurance i would bet my life they also have more stamina when it comes to sex.A runners body is not usually toned. Being skinny without being toned (to me) looks ugly!!

  • pretty simple to stay in shape

    seriously it’s 2013 are people this stupid. do some light weight training and cardio. duhhhh.