Strength coach and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. has made a number of videos in which he shares advice on the best exercises and techniques which will help you get lean and build muscle, as well as some of the worst. Now he’s turning his attention to the cardio machines in your gym—the treadmills, exercise bikes, stepmills etc.—and all of the ways in which they might be giving you a skewed view of you progress.
Firstly, if a machine doesn’t require you to input any information, e.g. your weight, then it is going to be unable to calculate calorie burn in a remotely accurate way, as this is going to be different for each individual. “A heavier person is going to work harder to move their body through space, and therefore burn more calories,” explains Cavaliere. “Whereas someone who’s lighter is going to burn less calories in the same activity.”
So how do cardio machines calculate how many calories you’re burning? They use a measure called a met: this is the number of calories you burn while doing nothing. However, Cavaliere adds, most machines use a single bodyweight number as a basis for this: around 154 pounds. “If you don’t weigh 154 pounds, you’re not getting an accurate calorie output read back to you,” he says. This means that if you weigh under 154 pounds, you’re probably expending fewer calories than you think, and if you weigh more, then you’re actually underestimating your output.
Another flaw to these machines when counting calories burned, he continues, is that many of them will include the calories you’d be burning at rest, leading to an inflated number.
However, regardless of the number on the screen, there are ways you can maximize calories burned during a cardio session. For instance, Cavaliere points out that when you’re riding a stationary bike, posture is everything if you want to ensure you’re getting the most out of your workout. Leaning forward on the handlebars takes some of the weight off your body, decreasing the amount of effort you are having to put in by up to 50 percent. This is also true of treadmills and the Stairmaster.
And just as with weighted exercise, Cavaliere says that going through a full range of motion in cardio is going to be the best way to glean benefits: that means driving the stairs on the stepmill all the way down, standing up on the bike, and potentially finding an alternative to the elliptical machine which locks you into an abbreviated movement pattern.
Ultimately, though, if your goal in burning calories through cardio is to lose fat, then it’s only half of the equation.
“If you’re using cardio as a way of creating your caloric deficit to lose weight, you’re making a big mistake, because you’re never going to be able to outrun a bad diet,” says Cavaliere. “You need to make sure when trying to lose weight that your efforts are focused first and foremost on cleaning up the foods you’re eating right now. Make your caloric cuts there, and use the additional cardio to supplement those efforts, and that’s when the real results will happen.”
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