Why Cardio Sucks And What You Should Do Instead

You can read the transcript of my interview with is one of the world’s leading authorities on alternative and functional medicine and natural health founder Dr. Peter Osborne. Listen to my full interview below:

Peter:           Hi everybody, it’s Dr. Peter Osborne with the Functional Health Summit 2015 and I’m super excited today about our interviewee, Craig Ballantyne, the founder of Turbulence Training. He’s an author for Men’s Health. He runs something called Internet Independence and he’s a very, very well-known and very well trusted health expert in the community. I’d like to welcome you, Craig. Thank you for being here with us today.

Craig:           Thank you, Peter. I really love talking to you and quite frankly, I wish I was asking you the questions because I’m always so excited to hear your passionate information and learn from you.

Peter:           Well, thanks for that. I appreciate it. I would love to get your take today on this call. So many people go to the gym. They burn treadmill for 30 minutes or 45 minutes and they do the standard, old-fashioned kind of weight training for another 30 to 60 minutes. Can we talk a little about the cardio myth?

Craig:           Yeah, I’d love to.

Peter:           Tell me a little bit about some of the research because I saw one of your posts the other day about how prolonged cardio can actually create the opposite impact of building muscle. Can you go into the science a little bit behind that?

Craig:           The biggest problems with cardiovascular exercise is that most people think that it’s really helpful for weight loss and it’s really not very effective for weight loss. There are three main studies that I always share with people. The first one is from 2007. It’s from the journal Obesity. It was a research study in America where they had men and women do an hour of cardio six days a week for 50 weeks, so that’s 300 hours of cardio, and they ended up losing on average 5 pounds. So that’s 50 hours or more to lose a pound of weight which is unacceptable for anybody. Nobody has that amount of time.

                    Now the second study found that some people even gained weight. This was a British study and they called these people compensators. A compensator is someone who goes and does a cardio workout and then eats an extra 300 calories per day because they’re so hungry from the cardiovascular exercise. This doesn’t seem to happen when people do short-burst workouts, which is the comparison they did in the third study which is an Australian study from Professor Steve Boucher. One of our friends, Kate Vidulich, a mutual friend of ours, was actually one of the research assistants in this study. I didn’t know that until recently but she monitored people’s training.

What they did was they had people do slow cardio or interval training for a short amount of time—I believe it was 12 to 15 weeks—3 workouts per week. The slow cardio did 40 minutes of cardio. The interval training did 20 minutes of interval training 3 times a week and only the interval training group was able to lose fat, specifically belly fat. That shows you the superiority of those short-burst workouts. What you mentioned before about muscle mass, I would love to talk about how important muscle mass is for everybody, not just for young men but how it’s absolutely essential for women and anybody getting older because that’s what determines your function and your health when you’re older, and your ability to stay out of the hospital.

Anyways, if you do long, slow cardiovascular exercise, that sends a signal to your body to impair your muscle growth and it makes it very, very difficult for somebody to gain lean muscle mass with cardiovascular exercise. That is the biggest—not to gainsay, those three studies and the fact that it’s just not conducive to building lean muscle mass and strength for people that they need when they’re 60, 70, 80 and 90 years old.

Peter:           That’s so amazing because so many people, especially the elderly, try to recapture their jogging days or they’ll buy the treadmill at academy or they’ll buy the elliptical runners and again, they’ll just be turning like a hamster in a wheel, expecting that they’re going to be gaining some benefits. What you’re saying is that research shows that not only were they not able to lose fat in these studies but it actually hampered or hindered their muscle. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I think that’s a great topic.

Craig:           Right. So when you do cardiovascular exercises, it increases a hormone in your body called cortisol. When you increase cortisol, that is a catabolic hormone and what that means is it’s the opposite of anabolic. People have heard the phrase “anabolic steroids” and what that means is anything that’s anabolic in your body means it builds up your body and anything that’s catabolic in your body breaks down your body. So cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and that’s what happens when you do cardiovascular exercise.

                    For men, if you do a lot of cardiovascular exercise, you also lower your testosterone levels which are anabolic, which help you build muscle. That’s why you see very skinny marathon runners. It’s because they have a very catabolic environment in their body. This extends, Peter, which is really important here, to beyond muscle tissue, to joint tissue as well which is why people get so many injuries from cardiovascular exercise and end up in the physiotherapy office all the time and why runners have bad knees at 55 or 60 years old and they can’t do this exercise anymore.

That’s why elliptical machines are so popular. It’s because people think they still need to do cardio but they can’t run because they’ve worn down their knees too much with catabolic exercise. So they’ve gone onto the elliptical machines because it’s easier. But that’s really just still not the best type of exercise that somebody should be doing.

Peter:           You hear so many kind of long distance trainers giving the advice of run through the pain. Run through the pain, it’ll go away. To me, that would be losing—

Craig:           Well, dangerous, too, to long, slow boring cardio and the number reason that I won’t do a marathon right now is because there’s research out that shows that the type of person who actually dies in a marathon—and the rate is 1 in 100,000 so it’s not like 5 people dropping dead in every marathon but there have been a couple of people dropping dead in Toronto—the average statistics for the person who drops dead at a marathon is a 39-year old man who is pushing hard at the end. I’m a 39-year old man and I would push really hard at the end so that’s one of the main reasons why I’m not going to do a marathon any time soon. It’s not on my bucket list but it can stay on there if it was for a while.

                    That goes back to what you’re saying. People at the end of a marathon are hobbling around like they’ve been injured and even in half marathons and 10-Ks. People that are listening have to understand that you’re doing the same thing over and over again for thousands of repetitions in one of these workouts. I use this analogy, Peter. It’s kind of like when you maybe saw a cartoon when you were a kid of somebody holding a magnifying glass up and directing and concentrating the sun’s rays on a little toy soldier and melting him. That’s what you do during exercise.

Let’s say you have a leg that’s slightly longer than the other. You have poor flexibility in your right hamstring and then you go and do thousands and thousands of repetitions in an exercise session where you’re magnifying that biomechanical problem. That’s why you’re going to end up in the physiotherapy office or in the chiropractor’s office getting treatment because you have taken a little injury and concentrated it into a big injury.

Runners, quite frankly, are borderline insane because I talked to my chiropractor and he’s like I can barely get these people to stop running. They’re running through Achilles tears. They’re running through bad knees. They’re running through everything and they would just go to a chiropractor or a physiotherapist to find a way to mask the symptoms so that they can go and keep on running and I wish people would reconsider.

Peter:           Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more with you. I see a lot of that in my own office. You try to have the conversation to convince them they need to make a change and they’re just so passionate about running that they refuse to listen to it and they end up not being able to run in the end anyway because they’ve become so injured that it’s become a hindrance to their ability overall.

Craig:           Absolutely. It’s either take three weeks off now or take three months off a month from now or even worse. People just won’t get it.

Peter:           You mentioned something a little bit ago about how important it is to maintain and build muscle, especially in women as we age. Can we dive a little bit into that whole conversation?

Craig:           For a long, long time, people have thought, when I was a trainer full time back in 2004, 2005, all these balance exercises were so popular, standing on this wobble board and this and that, taking that we were serving the 50 and older marketplace and people thinking that this is how you prevent losing your balance and how you prevent falls. What research shows that it’s simply strength, it’s the ability to squat up and down that helps people prevent falls.

So at the end of the day, I want my mom to get stronger. She’s 72 or 73 years old and I want her to use resistance training exercise because that is going to allow her to be most functional ten years from now. That’s going to allow her to walk the dog. That’s going to allow her to go outside and do her gardening. It’s not standing on a silly balance ball or something like that. It’s just getting strong.

So if someone has not taken up strength training yet, please do so. All you need is 10 to 15 minutes twice a week and you can make a dramatic improvement in your strength, in your balance, in your body composition and in your bone density when you choose the right exercises, when you choose what I call multi-muscle compound exercises such as squats. Those are the most important exercises that you could do. Yeah, they’re a little bit tough but you’re going to get the most bang for your buck from it. You’re not going to have to be in a gym for a long time. In fact, you can do your strength training at home with some dumbbells or a kettlebell and you can get incredible results even with bodyweight exercises.

Peter:           Let’s just take somebody who’s 50, 50+ and they’ve got an old knee injury and they have a hard time doing squats. What kind of a squat would you have them do? How would you have them scale that?

Craig:           Sure, that’s a great question. I’ve worked with people who’ve even busted their knee caps and coming back from rehabilitation on that. What we started with her were double-legged hip extensions lying on the ground. If someone is overweight, I can put them through such an intense workout with them lying on a mat. In 20 minutes, they’ll be sweating, they’ll have strengthened their entire body.

                    The very first exercise would be a double-legged hip extension where you bridge up, you really squeeze your glutes and you learn to activate those muscles which is really important for a lot of people that have never done any type of resistance training in the past. In fact, if you’re familiar at all with golf, Tiger Woods just recently returned and he hurt his back again. He just came back from a back surgery and he hurt his back again. The reason why he said he hurt his back in the latest tournament was because his glutes were not firing. He didn’t fire his glutes during the swing. When you do double-legged hip extensions, that’s what you’re doing. You’re firing your glutes but most people don’t know how to activate those muscles which are what we call our butt.

Then we’ll graduate into single-legged hip extensions. Then we’ll come up to do some type of assisted squat. We might reduce the range of motion. We might do a wall squat or put the ball in between our back and the wall, do a squat that way and just squat down as far as we can. At the same time, we’ll be doing stability ball leg curls to strengthen the hamstrings and help the person to lose weight because research shows that the number one factor in reducing knee pain is to lose weight. It’s to not have excess body weight. Those three things – increasing the range of motion, building the hamstrings and losing weight will help reduce people’s knee pain.

Then we’ll move into deeper and deeper squats until we get down to parallel. We might use a barbell if somebody’s strong. We might just have them pull the dumbbell to chest level in a goblet squat which is an exercises that I do when I travel to hotel gyms all the time. Then we will get into single-legged exercises. We will start with something called a split squat or a step-up. These are exercises you can do up against the wall so you can hold the wall for balance. We’ll just continue to build strength, particularly in the back of the body and the back of the legs which are so important because that’s where really our day to day strength comes from. It’s not our push-up muscles. It’s not our bicep curl muscles. It’s our hamstrings, our glutes, our low back and our upper back where we really want to be strong as we age.

Peter:           Those are great tips. I’m going to go back to kind of a similar question with the same kind of person. You would take somebody who doesn’t have any ability to squat and you would just kind of take them through some specialized exercises just to make them aware that their muscles can contract and to create body awareness. Then you just kind of advance them up through. What’s kind of the time frame that you might expect somebody who basically can’t do a squat to able to do a full squat, just a bodyweight squat, full squat, full range of motion?

Craig:           That’s a great question. It’s a little bit difficult to answer because it really depends on what is the body weight of the person, the body composition. If it’s a 50-year old woman with high body fat who’s never done any of these exercises before, it’s going to take her a little bit longer whereas an overweight male who has a very athletic background would obviously take a much shorter amount of time.

                    But it shouldn’t take too long. We should be able to move in the first session we would spend probably mostly on the mat. Here’s another cue for people, another really great tip. Research shows that if you touch the muscle that should be working—obviously, I wouldn’t touch a client’s glutes but I would instruct the client to touch their own glutes and when you do that, it increases the amount that you can activate those muscles. So you’re able to say now I feel that because there’s nothing more frustrating for me when I’m training a new client and they say where I should feel this exercise? That’s when I know that I failed. I did not properly explain to the client where they should be feeling it and how they should be activating particular muscles.

So we fix that. We go back and we say okay, touch these muscles and you’ll be able to get a good handle on it. By the end of the first session, someone who’s an overweight, untrained individual will be able to do the single-legged hip extensions. So the next time they come in, they’ll be a little bit sore in those glutes but we will probably do a very, very small range of motion bodyweight squatting and we really have to spend a lot of time on it because most people when they think of a squat exercise, they think of bending their knees but it’s really pushing their hips back first as if they were sitting back into a chair.

That’s something that we cue people on. We have them squat over a chair. Sit back into a chair. Sit back as if you’re sitting back onto the toilet. When you do that, you sit back and push your hips back first. You don’t bend your knees because if you bend your knees, your center of gravity goes forward and you lose your balance and you put excess stress on your knees. Now when you push your hips back, you put more of the load over those big muscle groups and a little bit more stress moves off of your knees and that’s really important. That’s why we do the wall squats. It’s easy to push your hips back, lean back and load the back of the body.

Now we can probably get through a bunch of the squats in the second session and therefore in the third session when they come in next week, they start again because we’ll probably just be on two sessions a week at the start for strength training, I’d say by the third session we’d be able to get in some nice bodyweight squats at almost every level.

Peter:           Wow, so that fast. The reason I asked you that question is because I get a lot of patients who come in and they’re trying to do things at home. Maybe they don’t have somebody guiding them and they’re maybe a couple of months in and they really haven’t still gotten a full range of motion to squat down. So you’re saying it could potentially happen in as little as three sessions if they have the right guidance.

Craig:           Absolutely. It really comes down to that perfect phrase, “the right guidance.” You just need someone who knows how to squat. In most cases, it’s going to be a good trainer but I know a lot of trainers who are just fresh out of the training certification that don’t know how to squat. If there are any trainers listening and you’ve never squatted before, you shouldn’t be teaching the squat. You should go back and learn from a good trainer. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a good trainer. It needs to be somebody who knows how to squat properly. They can show you.

Strength training is skill training. It’s like juggling. You learn how to juggle and you can probably do it pretty quickly but it does include a lot of neuromuscular coordination which means your brain controls your movement and the more athletic you are, the easier this is going to be because you have better awareness. But if you don’t have an athletic background, don’t be put off by it because again a good trainer can really get you up to speed quite quickly when they’re really interested in you and they care. There are so many great trainers out there that will be able to help people listening.

Peter:           Great points. I want to ask you another question kind of on a similar note in terms of timeframes. One of the things I see in a lot of females is they begin an exercise program, they might be doing high intensity interval training and they get frustrated because they’re not losing weight as fast as they should even though they’re implementing 10 to 15 minutes of high intensity exercise four to five days a week. Where would you guide that person? What would you say are things that you need to be focused on to break through that plateau?

Craig:           Well, here I’ve become very unpopular with my advice but the answer is we really need to look at somebody’s nutrition. We really need to take a look and have them do a nutrition journal. We need to make sure that they’re not forgetting anything because at the end day that’s the bottom line.

Even in research studies, and I just read a review of this on the weekend because I’m having the same conversation with one of my editors at Women’s Health where I write articles for them all the time, she asked pretty much the same question. I pointed her to a study that showed even in these nutrition studies where people are supposed to record their diet intake, the subjects always underreport how many calories they eat per day. These are people in the nutrition study doing a nutrition journal. They have them stay in the lab for 24 hours or something like that and they monitor them. They actually find they still underreport the number of calories that they’re eating.

So that’s really what it does come down to. You cannot out-train a bad diet unless you’re a young guy. What that means is you really have to be diligent and focused with your nutrition. You can still enjoy your favorite foods on a limited basis but you need to be honest and make sure that you are not having temptations that are throwing you off-track every day. So you need to find the obstacles in your way and come up with a couple of solutions to overcome whether it’s afternoon eating, night eating or sugar addiction, whatever it is. The bottom line is if someone is not losing weight and they’re exercising consistently then it is the nutrition that is the bottleneck.

Peter:           I don’t know who says that that’s unpopular advice. I think it’s probably the best and most sound advice I’ve heard.

Craig:           They already think they’re dieting hard and nobody likes to be told they’re going to have to cut back on a lot of those extra treats they’re giving themselves.

Peter:           Well, I like to say it’s okay to be hungry. Even if you’re trying to get to another level, it’s even especially okay to be hungry. We’ve kind of forgotten what that’s like with meals every few hours.

Craig:           Yeah, I’m a big fan of the morning fast. It’s the easiest for me personally just because I’m just so busy in the morning so I like that approach for losing body weight.

Peter:           What do you think about intermittent fasting as a tool to accelerate body fat loss?

Craig:           I think it’s fantastic because we’ve run 22 transformation contests in my business at Turbulence Training and we have had most of our winners use something called Eat. Stop. Eat. which is an intermittent fasting program by my friend, Brad Pilon. But there are so many other popular ones out there these days and what I didn’t realize was how much people were going to love it because it just made their days less busy. They didn’t have to prepare six meals like the bodybuilders recommended. They don’t have to wash dishes from six meals, all the Tupperware and that stuff.

So people just loved it for the convenience. They’re able to get more done in their day at work and in their home life and they were able to lose more body fat with the intermittent fasting. So provided somebody has no contraindications for it, it’s one of my favorite approaches for weight loss.

Peter:           Can you give us the five-minute elevator speech of what exactly intermittent fasting is for those who don’t know that are listening? Can you kind of go into that a little bit?

Craig:           There are actually quite a few variations of it and my friend, Brad Pilon, his Eat. Stop. Eat. is one 24-hour fast per week where you are one, if you want to maintain body weight or two, if you want to lose body weight. What that means is you would have dinner at 6:00 on a Wednesday night and then you wouldn’t eat any food until dinner on Thursday night at 6:00. So you still eat every day but you just go for a 24-period where you do not consume any calories but you drink water, tea and coffee and that sort of stuff. That is one version.

                    Then there’s another one. Again, with Brad’s you only do it once per week if you want to maintain weight and up to twice a week if you want to lose weight. Then there’s the everyday 16-hour fast and 8-hour eating window which is the popular 16:8 approach. That’s probably even more common because people will again like me, they’ll maybe have dinner. If you have a decently early dinner and you’re up for a couple of hours after that and then you sleep eight hours and then you’re only up for two to three hours in the morning and then you can eat, that’s really quite convenient. So that’s a 16-hour period before your dinner and your breakfast.

I don’t love to try and fast during the day when I’m awake as the afternoon goes on but I can be up for six or seven hours in the morning before I really need something to eat. I can even have my exercise session right before that. I don’t need to lose weight so I don’t do it very often but on a regular basis even I probably go 14 hours between dinner and my breakfast.

That is intermittent fasting and it’s so different from the 1990s approach of six meals per day and you need to be regimented with your eating. But I think the proof is in the numbers. It has just become so popular. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. There’s a really popular book in the UK called the 5:2 Diet which is very similar to Brad Pilon’s. There’s an 8-hour diet from Men’s Health. So you’re just seeing this stuff everywhere and it wouldn’t still be around this many years after it became popular if it didn’t work. It really just is convenient for a lot of people. It’s almost like this sigh of relief. It’s like oh, now I don’t have to be so obsessive-compulsive with eating on an alarm clock. That just doesn’t work for people in today’s day and age.

Peter:           Yeah, I personally follow the 16-hour, 8-hour kind of guide because it’s easy for me to do. I get up in the morning and I go work out first before I do anything else and by that time, it’s been 16 hours. I find it extremely effective. I never battle weight and I’ve had a history of that. I was actually one of the people you mentioned earlier who doing long bouts of cardio, actually I gained. I had love handles the first time I ever tried to marathon train.

Craig:           Oh wow.

Peter:           Yeah, it was because I lost 20 pounds of muscle in the six months that I spent training for the half marathon. My love handles grew to great proportions and it took me a year to recover from that whole ordeal. So for me, I’m the opposite of a marathon runner for sure.

Craig:           Yeah and you’re fit, man. I love hanging around you and being inspired by your fitness level.

Peter:           Thanks. What is it you would say are top three things that a person really should be focused on if they’re trying to break through a weight loss plateau? You’re in charge of Turbulence Training which is one of my favorite online programs for home exercise workouts. I recommend it to a lot of my patients. What are the three things that you see typically in your industry and your business that you see people are messing up with that if you could just share with our audience, hopefully it will give them something to think about to improve what they’re doing?

Craig:           At the basic level, it’s not having intense training, relying on slow cardio, relying on really high repetition resistance training which is not going to give you the strength, the bone density and the fat-burning results. Even in New York Times just recently on the 28th of January, they did a review of a research study. The research study was done at the University of Alabama. They had three groups of women. One did cardio, one didn’t do any exercise at all and one did resistance training and the resistance training group had the greatest results in weight loss and in maintaining their metabolism.

                    So people need to switch over from low intensity exercise to high intensity exercise, both interval training and resistance training. You can do that in a hybrid of bodyweight training which is what we do in our Home Workout Revolution program.

Now on the diet side, it is probably cutting back liquid calories because most people consume so many hidden liquid calories. They just don’t know about it and if they don’t then it’s probably cutting back on sugar which not only needs to increased calorie intake but also leads to people eating more. Once people gets started eating some sugar, it’s so difficult for so many people to stop. But the calorie amount in stuff at Starbucks is just outrageous and also in the large sodas that are now available.

I remember when I was a kid coming from Canada when we had these little cans of soda, they were not like the cans of soda that they have now in Canada and that they’ve always had in America. We had 280 ml sodas which is just over a cup and in America they had 330 ml of soda, these bigger cans. Now everything is almost a litter and if you’re drinking a liter, four cups of soda a day, that is probably about 500 calories and you are just really going to be in a lot of trouble that way. That is the second thing. It’s cutting liquid calories and/or sugar out of your diet. That really will just help people accelerate their fat loss quickly.

The third thing is having social support and accountability. This is actually one of my five pillars of transformation. People need to have other people supporting them. There are really good people out there in the world. I know in this media negativity world that we live in where everything is bad news, bad news, bad news, there are so many good people out there who want to help and support you. Research shows that if you check into a weight loss forum online, the more often you do so the better results you’re going to get. Research shows that if you work out and exercise with a partner who’s getting the same results that you want then you have a better chance of getting results.

So you really need to put yourself in an environment and that’s why Fit Body Boot Camp and boot camps in general are so effective for many people because there’s this camaraderie. If you train at CrossFit, I believe, you know the camaraderie of people in there. It keeps people motivated. It keeps people coming back and stops them from dropping out. So there are all sorts of ways. Even if you want to exercise at home, you can exercise with my follow-along videos where it’s like having me in your house and me as your social support every day. That’s like kind of this hidden thing that people don’t recognize. They try and do it all on their own and it’s very, very difficult and they drop out. But if they have some type of social support or accountability, they’re going to have better results.

Peter:           Excellent advice. You mentioned something for me. If I don’t have the support, it’s going to be a much weaker workout. I just won’t work as hard. I won’t push as hard and I won’t get out of it what I would typically get if I were around a couple of other guys who I typically work out with, who push me to make me work harder and challenge me every day.

Craig:           Right, they bring out the honesty in you, the honest effort.

Peter:           Absolutely. Well, this has been really great, Craig. I really do appreciate you sharing your wisdom and knowledge with the audience. If people want to find a little bit more about Turbulence Training or Home Workout Revolution or any of the other programs you have, where’s the best place that we can send them to find you?

Craig:           I think the best place to find me and ask me any question is on my Facebook page. We have over 250,000 fans there. It’s at TurbulenceTrainingFanpage.com. And if somebody wants a bodyweight exercise program which is the most convenient and they’re our follow-along videos, they can go to HomeWorkoutRevolution.com and we will show you how to do these high-intensity exercise workouts in just a few minutes a day with absolutely no equipment.

Peter:           Awesome. Well, we’re going to put a link underneath the interview for anybody who wants to go and check those things out. Again, Craig, thank you again for being here and sharing what you know.

Craig:           I appreciate it, Peter. I look forward to doing another call like this and I look forward to turning the tables and asking you a lot of questions because I have quite a few for you.

Peter:           All right, any time, my friend.

Craig:           Great stuff.

Peter:           All right, take care.

Craig:           Thank you.