The best types of cardio to aid in weight loss are either low-impact, low intensity cardio like rowing, incline walking, and biking, or HIIT workouts implemented in small doses such as kickboxing, interval training, and weight training.
It is important to note that cardio is the third most important variable during a weight loss phase. The most important variables are (1) eating so that you are in a slight calorie deficit and (2) weight training to increase your metabolism and prevent muscle loss.
In this article, we will first discuss if cardio is needed for your weight loss plan, and if so, what types of cardio are best for fat loss.
Is Cardio Necessary for Weight Loss?
No, performing cardio is not necessary for weight loss.
Being in a calorie deficit (mainly through diet) is by far the most effective way to lose weight, and is a necessary part of a weight loss plan. Check out our nutrition guide on weight loss.
If you are doing cardio, yet eating to put your body in a calorie surplus, your weight will not decrease. You may find that you can eat and workout, and lose fat and gain muscle (especially for beginners or individuals who have more body fat). However being in a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss.
Dieting is stressful on muscle tissue, and therefore, if you are aggressively dieting and also not training hard with weights, there is an increased likelihood that you will end up losing weight that is predominantly from muscle loss (and some fat).
This of course, is not ideal because the more muscle you lose, your appearance will still be soft and not toned, and your metabolism will drop due to muscle loss (making long term weight loss and keeping the lost weight off, increasingly more difficult).
Therefore, cardio can be used sparingly throughout a diet and workout regimen to aid in increasing calorie expenditure. However, it is not necessary — I lost almost 15lbs using Fitbod and got absolutely lean while doing minimal cardio.
By prioritizing eating properly and making sure you are in a SLIGHT calorie deficit that is progressively and conservatively increasing over a period of 8-12 weeks, and making sure to train hard with weights to not lose strength and muscle tissue, you could have amazing results.
If you find you need to still burn a little more calories and don’t want to cut out calories from your diet, you could add low-impact, lower intensity cardio to your training plan in small amounts.
Related Article: Cardio vs Weights: Which Is Better For Weight Loss?
Excessive Cardio Can Increase Muscle Loss
Cardio does little to help build muscle, and could actually lead to muscle loss when done in high volumes and/or at high intensities (if combined with a calorically restricted diet).
When looking to lose weight, you need to reframe your approach to try to lose as much body fat as you can, rather than scale weight (weight on the scale can come from fat loss, muscle loss, waste loss, and water loss).
Making sure to eat properly, stay hydrated, and lift weights as your primary weight loss training variable is most likely your best approach to losing fat and maintaining as much muscle as you can.
Related Article: Does Interval Training Burn More Fat? (Science-Backed)
10 Best Types of Cardio to Aid in Weight Loss
The 10 best types of cardio for weight loss are:
- Incline Walking
- Stair Climber
- Assault Bike
- Weight Training
- Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
- Increase Daily Steps Count
Note that many of them are low impact, and can be done at low intensity (this is actually recommended when you are looking to lose fat and preserve muscle mass).
However using HIIT in very small doses could be useful too. We’ve published several HIIT articles that you can check out for further reading:
- Should You Do HIIT Every Day? (5 things to Consider)
- 3 Differences Between LISS Cardio And HIIT (#3 Is Cool)
- Beginner HIIT Treadmill Workout: Starting With HIIT Cardio
- Can HIIT Make You Sick? (Yes, Here’s Why & How To Avoid)
- Can You Do HIIT And Weight Training On The Same Day?
- Can HIIT Be Done With Weights? (Yes, There Are 4 Rules)
1. Incline Walking
This is probably one of the best options for those who love running yet want to limit the amount of impact they are putting on their body.
Inclined walking can burn just as many calories as running, if not more, and can also improve running form and muscle endurance.
The incline forces you to lift your legs higher (increased leg drive) and can help prevent overreaching with your stride (can happen during running and result in knee pain).
You can even jog on an incline or do HIIT workouts in small doses if you want to get very similar training effects, if not more, than simply going out for a run.
Calories Burned Incline Walking
The average number of calories burned in 1-hour of brisk incline walking is between 224-310 calories.
Related Article: The Best 3 Days A Week Workout For Fat Loss
2. Stair Climber
The stair climber is a low impact form of cardio that can be a great way to improve muscle endurance of the legs, glutes, and calves.
For heavier individuals or those who wear weighted vests, this can also be a good way to increase strength endurance.
This can also make walking or hiking more enjoyable as you will develop greater leg endurance that you can unleash on the trails after training the stair climber.
Calories Burned Stair Climbing
The average number of calories burned in 1-hour of walking on the stairmaster is between 360-520 calories.
Related Article: 6 Best Cardio Machines To Tone Legs
Rowing is a low impact, high-intensity form of cardio that can increase leg endurance and pulling power.
Unlike other forms of cardio, rowing offers the added benefit of performing rows with the upper body making this a total body cardio movement that targets the legs, core, and back muscles (and some biceps).
While this doesn’t build muscle like weights, it can offer some muscle endurance if that is something you are after.
Calories Burned Rowing
The average number of calories burned in 1-hour of brisk rowing is between 420-623 calories.
Related Article: How To Lose A Pound A Day: 10 Ways To Achieve This
4. Assault Bike
This low impact, varied intensity type of cardio is a great option for all levels of lifters.
The low impact nature of this exercise makes it great for beginners and individuals who may have knee or lower back issues.
It’s also a great way to decrease muscle loss potentially caused by higher impact exercises (when done in volumes that impede recovery and weight training progressions).
You can do long slow steady state work, or you can incorporate HIIT to help burn more calories in less time, build leg power output, and increase muscle endurance of the lower body and arms (shoulders and chest).
Calories Burned Assault Bike
The average number of calories burned on the assault bike is between 20-30 calories per minute if you’re doing a moderate-fast pace, which is far higher than other forms of cardio.
Related Article: Are Exercise Bikes Good For Weight Loss?
5. Weight Training
Resistance training is an essential part of losing weight, and increasing the likelihood that the weight you lose is predominantly body fat (as opposed to muscle loss).
When weight training, you build muscle which can help increasing your metabolism, which means you’ll be able to eat more during your diet and lose weight (as opposed to not weight training).
Calories Burned Weight Training
The average number of calories burned in 1-hour of weight training is between 360-504 calories.
Related Article: Cutting Without Cardio: Is It Possible? (Yes, Here’s 8 Tips)
Boxing is a great way to burn calories, increase shoulder, back, and core endurance, while also limiting the amount of impact on the lower body.
This is also a more interactive cardio workout than running on a treadmill, which may help you enjoy your workouts more if you find sitting on a bike or running impalpable.
Calories Burned Boxing
The average number of calories burned in a high intensity 1-hour boxing class is between 600-800 calories.
Related Article: Cardio for Beginners: 6 Mistakes to Avoid (Plus 3 Workouts)
This is a great form of total-body high intensity, high impact cardiovascular training.
Like boxing, this can help increase core strength, muscle endurance of the shoulders, legs, backs, and core, and also help you increase power production when throwing with maximal or near maximal intensity.
This is also a multi-planar form of cardio, which can help increase athleticism and movement; in addition to also doubling as a great form of self-defense training.
Calories Burned Kickboxing
The average number of calories burned in a high intensity 1-hour kickboxing class is between 600-800 calories.
8. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
BJJ can be both low intensity or high intensity depending on the level you are training.
For many beginners, this can be a great way to increase movement, help address basic conditioning, and can be a good way to get “cardio” in while also learning a new skill.
Increased strength (from grappling) and body control are also added benefits of BJJ, in addition to burning a ton of calories.
Calories Burned BJJ
The average number of calories burned in an average BJJ class is 706 calories, so long as it includes constant movement and not practicing technique.
Related Article: How Long Does It Take To Get A Flat Stomach (Science-Backed)
9. Increase Daily Steps Count
While this may seem basic, this is one of the most effective ways to increase calorie expenditure.
By increasing your non-exercise activities (walking more, taking the stairs, riding bikes, increasing daily step counts) you can increase your daily calorie expenditure without needing to slave away at the gym as much.
This is something anyone can do, doesn’t require you to sweat, and can help improve mood, not increase appetite (unlike hard workouts, and decrease stress (unlike hard workouts).
Calories Burned Increasing Daily Step Count
Most people burn 30-40 calories per 1,000 steps they walk, meaning they’ll burn 300 to 400 calories by walking 10,000 steps.
Related Article: Are Exercise Bikes Good For Weight Loss? (Yes, Here’s Why)
I listed running last because this may be one of the most overused and abused forms of cardio out there. Running isn’t bad, however it can be when people first aim to lose weight and go from the couch to running 5 miles a day.
Running has a high impact, and can lead to injuries if someone is not ready for the impact or stress of the body pounding the pavement. Additionally, running is high-impact and could increase muscle loss, especially in the lower body.
Lastly, running is not any more effective at burning calories than any other of these forms above when you standardize the intensity at which they are performed.
If your heart rate gets to 160 while running, rowing, or biking, the calorie expense is very similar (however the risk of muscle loss and stress to the body is much higher in running due to the high impact nature of running).
If you maintain a six-mile per hour pace, then the average person will burn up to 557 calories in one hour of running.
When looking to lose weight, it is first important to recognize the role of cardio in the weight loss formula.
When weight loss and fat loss is the name of the game, you need to first get on a sound diet program that places you in a slight calorie deficit over the course of 6-12 weeks. This deficit should be paired with a weight training program that trains most muscle groups twice per week to ensure minimal muscle loss.
Cardio can be used to help increase calorie expenditure if you are needing to lose weight with the current routine, and do not want to manipulate calories eaten yet.
Like anything, if you begin to perform excessive cardio, especially high impact cardio, and are doing this instead of weight training, you will shift most of your weight loss to higher proportion of muscle loss rather than solely fat loss.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.