Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Why Can’t I Just Do Cardio?

Q&A Wednesday: Why Can’t I Just Do Cardio?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: Erika, I see you always talking about lifting weights and muscle and yadda yadda… what’s so wrong with just doing cardio? Lots of people do cardio, lose weight and look fine. Am I missing something?

The good thing about becoming a trainer is the fact that I have my own experiences to use as a springboard for creating my training philosophy that I’ll share with clients.

The bad thing… is that when you have over 1,200 posts full of material for that philosophy… you get a little long-winded.

The best way for me to explain this, I’m sorry to say, requires that I sort of have to talk around your question to give you your answer.

Eating serves two purposes – energy and nourishment. All food contains components that regulate processes in the body – yes, even processed food… what? your body needs salt, too… just not that much – but the important part, at least in terms of weight loss, is that all food, when ingested, passes energy into the body. We measure that intake in terms of kilocalories… lovingly referred to as calories on our nutrition labels. From here on out, when I say “energy,” I’m referring to calories.

As many of us are aware, when we take in energy in excess of what we need, the body stores it for later use. Continuously taking in excess energy, among other things, results in weight gain.

Duh, right?

If weight gain is consistent, that means there’s a habit in place contributing to the consistent gain, and the more the weight you put on, the more likely it is that the habit has been thoroughly reinforced and become a part of you. Furthermore, the more the weight one has put on, the more likely it is that there are multiple habits and contributors, not just one – everything from doing “extra taste testing” during dinner to expecting your plate to look a certain way when you make it (read: full from rim to rim) to the kind of cereal to the snacks you keep in your car for your hellish commute – that’d need to be addressed.

Say your “comfy” weight is around 154, but you’ve shot up to 204 in the past year. No matter what weight you’re at now, you have something called a “basal metabolic rate,” which is the amount of calories your body burns by merely going through its regular systems – breathing, pumping oxygen and nutrients through the system, etc – each day. Let’s say that you’ve decided you want to work toward getting down to your “comfy” weight. That means you’ve set 50lbs as your goal to lose. At your height of 5’8″ and age of 30, you’re eating about a minimum of 1,700 calories each day, on average. Some days you might eat 2,000 and some days you might eat 1,300… but either way, you’re averaging about 1,700 calories a day. Once you get down to 154, you’ll need to get down to eating about 1,450 calories. That’s a 250 calorie difference. Keep that in mind.

Suppose you bust your tail doing cardio every day, and you burn those 50lbs off in a good six months. BOW! You come out looking and feeling even more fierce, fifty pounds lighter. Now what?

Well, for starters, you have to eat 250 calories less. Did you change your eating habits? Do you even know all of the times of day or random things you might be eating throughout the day that you might not be accounting for? Between the random snacking – tasting a co-worker’s food, the candy bowl at the office, the extra fries the cute fry attendant gave you because you smiled a little wider today – and the extra calories that come from life’s little unexpected happenings… what’s your maintenance strategy? Are you still going to do cardio with the same fervor that you had while you were losing? If the cardio was what was facilitating that weight loss, that means there might not be enough of a decrease in calories to ensure that weight gain doesn’t happen. What if you’re 254 and wanting to get down to 154? Then it drops from 1950 down to 1450. A four hundred calorie drop. The more weight you have to lose, the greater the decrease in how many calories you can eat without weight gain.

This is why muscle is important.

Developing and maintaining muscle is absolutely, without question, crucial to both weight loss and weight management, particularly because behavior modification is challenging for so many of us. Why? Simple: muscle weight alters your metabolism in a way that allows you to eat more calories without gaining weight.

Look at it like this – to carry each pound of fat on your body, requires an estimated 2 calories of energy per hour. To carry each pound of muscle on your body, organs included, your body requires an estimated 6 calories per hour. You can lose 30lbs of fat, build 10lbs of muscle across your body, and not lose the ability to eat a little more. Get my drift? (Also see why the natural inclination for women to shun the idea of lifting is so problematic?)

Metabolism is complex, and there are many things that alter it… and even a few of them – like age, hormonal concerns, nutritional trauma at an early age – are beyond our control. None of this changes the fact that there are tons of things you can do, and muscle development is a huge one. As you can see, gaining 10lbs of muscle (in the same place, even) looks nothing like the 30, 20, or even 10lbs you might’ve lost.

Source: One More Bite

Truthfully speaking, it doesn’t require you to be bodybuilder-style cut to experience benefits. 10lbs spread across your body – a few pounds spread throughout each leg, a pound or three spread throughout your back, a pound throughout your abs and a pound in your arms – says and does a lot.

Whenever you create a plan for weight loss, you have to also create an “exit strategy.” What does the future look like at this weight? How do I plan to maintain it? Am I realistic about that maintenance plan and how that affects my life? Will I continue to do a cardio hour every day, even though I’ve lost the weight and I wanna go party? Lack of “exit strategy” almost always results in yo-yo weight gain, and very unhappy campers. Pick up a weight [repeatedly] and do yourself right!

(Oh, and I can assure you – you’re going to need to be lifting well into the 25lb and up range to bulk up. Those ten pounders won’t do it, but they’ll definitely help with your metabolism. Besides… squats count. Aren’t y’all soooo concerned with having fit booties?)

Help me out here, y’all!

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Robin November 28, 2012 - 2:22 PM

Another Great Blog. Quick Question is Resistance Training (Bands and Total Gym) equivalent to Weight Training?

Erika Nicole Kendall November 28, 2012 - 2:41 PM

In many ways, yes. Similar, not the same, IMO.

Young One November 28, 2012 - 4:11 PM

Erika, I second the weight training! I definitely feel like I can eat more (clean eating not a bunch or processed food) just more calories with weight training.

Also, in my weight loss journey with weight training, I started wearing my target size old clothes sooner than I thought I would. Even though the scale said I weighed more than what I thought my target weight was.

I realized before I started this journey, I use to do alot of cardio in the past…no weight training.

Because muscle is more dense than fat, I’m fitting in those old clothes even though I’m definitely about 7-8 lbs more now…

Savannah November 29, 2012 - 2:06 PM

I 2nd this wholeheartedly!! With weight training I have been able to get back into clothes that I haven’t worn in years even though I’m easily 10-15lbs heavier than I was the last time I wore them. Also I have noticed that my curves are becoming more pronounced. I am going to up my cardio a bit so I can see more of these muscles I’m getting!

sunrara November 28, 2012 - 4:14 PM

Erika- you are so fabulous. This is the first time this ACTUALLY made sense to me.

LaShawn November 28, 2012 - 4:28 PM

Lol! I was just asking myself this question. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

curlsz November 28, 2012 - 4:30 PM

we are creatures of comfort, when it comes to exercise it’s uncomfortable period when its not part of your routine and life, so we flock to what’s most comfortable – a treadmill is so much more comfortable and easier than learning how to use weights. my friends that want to work out with me typically quit after one workout b/c it’s too “hard” and “i prefer to go to classes or do the elliptical than weights, it’s more fun that way” I know the truth, it was uncomfortable and we don’t like to be uncomfortable.

also the bulk issue – have your diet in check – b/c if you are doing weights on a crappy diet you actually could end up looking a little bulky – you’ll have all this muscle mass under fat, that’s where that “myth” comes from I think, people see women that DO look bulky – well their diet isn’t in check.

ShantanaR November 28, 2012 - 7:06 PM

I will testify with you on this.

Perfect example 3yrs ago I weight 135-139 when I got married dress fit me flawlessly.
I am planning on getting it altered to a cocktail dress tried it on and the dress was hanging all weird…why bc I was the same weight but was lifting weights. I completely reshaped my body to a fit toned version same weight less space!

I am the smallest I have ever been since I have started lifting not to mentioned the 20plus inches off my body and going from a 37in waist to a 28.5in waist and still leaning out. All this with less cardio. Thats another thing not just the weight lost but the inches you loose when lifting. changed my world! Keep teaching and helping people learn things that need to be unlearned.

Sophia November 29, 2012 - 10:24 AM


I love this blog post, and you are right. Gaining muscle is very important in not only losing weight, but it is to help maintain weight, too. I think that some who start getting fit have the misconception about using weights…the “urban legend” is…if I lift weights, I will bulk up (typically, most women think this…). But to maximize your fitness, lifting weights, I feel like, should be a must and included with other exercising that you are doing as well.

claudia November 30, 2012 - 2:01 AM

Erika, thanks so much for this post, this is so well explained, i think i finally get it!
And i really dig that horrible picture 🙂

Monica December 5, 2012 - 5:30 PM

So many years ago my doctor told me that strength training is good for your bones & muscles. She said it prevents bone and muscle loss. She recommended I add it to any exercise that I was doing.

Cat December 6, 2012 - 10:36 AM

This is super informative! Thank you!!

Rai December 7, 2012 - 1:46 AM

Wow, it looks like even though I’m doing most of the rest of it right, I’m going to have to go ahead and go back to the gym. The heaviest weights I have are ten pounders, and–I know this is wrong–I tend not to count the grocery runs with 35 lbs of food on each arm.

So a few questions until I can get to the place that has the heavy weights: is it a matter of intensity? Could I get comparable results with exhaust runs using my 10’s? And what about bodyweight exercises like wall-pushups, squats, chair dips and the like?

Erika Nicole Kendall December 7, 2012 - 8:27 AM

High reps of unchallenging weights builds endurance LONG before it builds a single muscle fiber. It would take an awful long time to see ANY kind of strength gain, and even then, it’d be minimal.

You can count those groceries if you curl ’em a few times before you set ’em down. 🙂

Calisthenics (body weight exercises) ALWAYS count.

Monique Rich January 6, 2013 - 2:31 AM

If I’m just starting out ,say at 250lb, when sld I start weight training. And what sld the ratio to cardio be. Also have u heard of Bodylastic resistance bands and do u think they wld be suitable for weight training. Thank you ,your blog is awesome.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 6, 2013 - 12:08 PM

Hey, Monique! Start here. 🙂

L. Woods January 9, 2013 - 2:06 PM

I used to weigh around 135-140. Now years later I am 100lbs heavier. Ive started back in the gym 3-4 days a week and do an hour of cardio and 30-45mins of weights but have stopped on the weight because Im afraid that if I do the weights, I’ll build muscle on top of the fat and look all bulky. Is this true, or should I go back to weights as well?

Erika Nicole Kendall January 9, 2013 - 2:11 PM

Well, who told you that? You obviously were doing your routine for a while… did you bulk up in any way?

If you’re doing cardio, you’re burning fat. Believe it or not, it takes much longer to build a pound of muscle than it does to burn a pound of fat, so muscle won’t grow in a way that’d result in what you’re thinking. It’s just not possible, even in a newbie (who are often the ones who have the easiest time building muscle.)

Sunshyne Smith January 30, 2013 - 5:05 PM

I love this blog it is informative! I do notice that when I lift weights during the week I do not loose the pounds that I would normally loose with just doing cardio. Is this just me?

Ldubya October 9, 2013 - 11:17 AM

I’ve always wondered how heavy should my weights be. I know what exercises 2 do but unsure as 2 whether they r 2 hevy/lite.

Melissa Craig June 17, 2014 - 4:00 PM

Erika!!! HELP!!

You said:

(Oh, and I can assure you – you’re going to need to be lifting well into the 25lb and up range to bulk up. Those ten pounders won’t do it, but they’ll definitely help with your metabolism. Besides… squats count. Aren’t y’all soooo concerned with having fit booties?)

I am lifting anywhere between 35 – 110 lbs, depending on the machine. I have about 140 lbs to lose. I am doing 5 sets of 12 on each machine. I rotate between a pull and a push machine and try to hit machines that use the most muscle groups at once. Am I going to look like a man? 🙁 I really enjoy arm day!!!

Leg day is all about squats +25-40lbs – step ups +10-25lbs & stair lunges with +10-25lbs and a few machines I like that I incorporate in there.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 17, 2014 - 4:07 PM

No. It literally – literally – takes years of increasing weights and heavy lifting.

I was referring to dumbbells and upper body moves when I said that. My bad for not being clearer! 🙁

Regina May 22, 2016 - 7:14 PM

Awesome post!

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