How Much Cardio is Too Much? Don't Sabotage Your Client's Fitness Goals

By Dominique Groom on October, 12 2020

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Dominique Groom

Dominique Groom is a certified ISSA trainer in personal training, youth fitness and corrective exercise, and adjunct professor for ISSA's College of Exercise Science and stay at home mother of three who strives to stay active as well as get others active. She has a Bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sports science with an emphasis in rehabilitation. Her passion is running and exercising and keeping her family active.

How much cardio is too much? It’s an age-old question that trainers and fitness enthusiasts have asked many times. While the benefits of cardiovascular exercise, also called aerobic exercise, are clear, can your clients get too much of a good thing? Can you be sabotaging your client's progress by adding too much cardio into their program? Can your clients be sabotaging your program if they do cardio outside of the program?

The answer isn’t as definite as you would think and understanding the many aspects of cardiovascular exercise can help you find the best answer for your clients.

 

The Benefits of Cardio-Based Fitness

Cardio is shown to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, and regulate blood sugar. Many people also add cardio into their regimen to help control their weight, reduce pain and boost their mood. 

Compared to a sedentary lifestyle, any cardio exercise is better than none at all. Incorporating cardio at the start of a program to get a client started can help a client lose weight and reverse common health problems. Cardio, in addition to weight training, can also aid fat loss and sometimes even be supportive for muscle recovery. 

These are all important benefits to consider, but often the lines are blurred when it comes to understanding how much cardio is too much. Can there be too much of a good thing? The answer is yes.

 

There Can Be Too Much Cardio

It can be tempting to double up on cardio to help a client see results faster, but too much cardio can lead to less than favorable outcomes. In general, overtraining with cardio, as with any form of exercise, can cause excessive stress on the body, muscles and tissues.

Chronic stress, whether from exercise or lifestyle, can cause cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, to be too high. This doesn’t happen to the detriment of your client when starting a program, or doing safe amounts of cardio, but it can be a hindrance to progress if your client is consistently relying solely on cardio. Here are the signs to look for if you’re wondering how much cardio is too much for your client. 

 

Weight Gain

Those elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, according to Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals? Weight gain can be caused by a number of factors, including increased appetite “with a preference for ‘comfort food’,” explain study authors. 

In addition, consistently high levels of cortisol can also lead to a compromised immune system and fatigue, suggests the Cleveland Health Clinic. This translates to less time at the gym, less motivation to keep up with the program, and ultimately, weight gain or lack of progress.

 

Lower Testosterone and Muscle Loss

Too much cardio can cause testosterone levels to drop. High levels of cortisol can lead to muscle mass loss and increased body fat in men, which works against their goals. 

This can also happen if the calorie deficit has been too big for too long. If your client is putting in a lot for cardio on top of the workouts they’re already doing, they’re likely burning extra calories. They need to be maintaining their caloric intake to counteract the calorie deficit to see progress. Lack of calories translates to greater challenges maintaining muscle.

 

General Health Issues

With extreme cardio—running multiple marathons back-to-back or training at a high level without rest days and weeks—your clients also run the risk of significant health issues. In fact, these are issues that typically improve at normal levels or cardiovascular exercise. 

Although cardio is touted to help your heart, this study found that overdoing extreme exercise like cardio can cause stress on the heart, leading to arrhythmias and atherosclerosis, while also increasing the risk of cardiac arrest. 

It’s also common for extreme endurance runners to have gastrointestinal issues. If you’re not eating and hydrating properly before, during and after intense cardio, clients may begin experiencing a variety of gut issues like inflammation and leaky gut.

Ultimately, when your client overtrains, there comes a point when your efforts start to work against you. This is the point of diminishing returns. They may begin to see a decrease in performance, start losing muscle, take longer to recover than usual, and find themselves in a state of constant soreness, I.E. unable to fully recover between sessions. 

If you allow clients to over-do it, their hard work, and the results that come from it, can quickly dissipate.

 

How to Balance Cardio for Clients

Cardio is beneficial and it can also make your client feel stronger, leaner and healthier. They may drop weight quickly and get the post-exercise high while also improving their health in many areas. The challenge for you, as a trainer, is maintaining these benefits while also increasing the challenge—without overdoing it.

The first aspect to understand about balancing the benefits and drawbacks of cardio is to know that not all cardio can be dangerous. Light walks after dinner and yoga practice a few days a week are not going to get your client in this bind. It’s the high-intensity, cardio-only training that is likely to cause these problems.

The old adage, “everything in moderation” is critical here. If your client isn’t doing two spin classes a day or running marathon-length routes multiple times a week, you likely have nothing to worry about. The average client following a well-made training program may not ever run into the problem of too much cardio.

 

The Value of Educating Your Clients

You may find it challenging to keep clients from focusing solely on cardio, and educating them on the benefits of blending cardio and weight training is key. For example, without weight training, they may struggle to maintain muscle. Some studies even show that cardio may not have the same fat loss benefits past a certain point. Not to mention, in some cases, women may see minimal fat loss with cardio alone. 

Strength training is needed to help your clients reach their goals. This form of exercise provides a more effective afterburn and can have added mental health benefits. For example, the stronger a client feels, the more likely that is to translate into every other area of their life. 

It’s also important to consider the cardio mentality, where clients think they burn more calories than they actually do. This gives them the false sense of calorie loss, giving them greater license to eat more. Educating your clients on these aspects of health and fitness can help them better adhere to your well-balanced program.

 

Tracking Cardio With Clients

There isn’t a number value that can tell you how much cardio is too much. This is why monitoring signs and symptoms is key as a trainer, starting with tracking the amount of cardio they’re doing each week. 

You should also check-in weekly on whether they’re feeling more fatigued than usual, getting sick more often, or experiencing any other overtraining symptoms. In addition, you can have the client monitor their resting heart rate. If their resting heart rate is rising and has been on the rise for multiple weeks, it may be time to back off.

 

How Much Cardio is Too Much? It Depends

Cardio is still a valuable training tool—so don’t write it off altogether. As a trainer, it’s important to know that many of these adverse effects are caused by hours and hours of chronic cardio each week. Cardio is beneficial for most clients and simply adding resistance training to their routine allows you to create a well-balanced program that supports weight loss, muscle building and overall better health. Finally, don’t forget to incorporate different types of cardio like HIIT and kettlebells while also ensuring proper rest after each session.

Cardio doesn’t have to be avoided or villainized, but knowing how much cardio is too much for each individual client ensures you help them reach their goals without harm.

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Dominique Groom

Dominique Groom is a certified ISSA trainer in personal training, youth fitness and corrective exercise, and adjunct professor for ISSA's College of Exercise Science and stay at home mother of three who strives to stay active as well as get others active. She has a Bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sports science with an emphasis in rehabilitation. Her passion is running and exercising and keeping her family active.

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