The bandwagon is lead by blind horses
Many trainees pigeonhole weight training as an activity exclusively for building muscle, and cardio exclusively for burning fat. On the contrary, weight training can yield very similar results to cardio of similar intensity when 24-hr energy expenditure and macronutrient oxidation is measured . The obvious advantage of weight training is the higher potential for lean mass and strength gains. In the bodybuilding context, cardio should be viewed as merely an adjunctive training mode to further energy expenditure and cross-complement the adaptations specific to weight training. As far as cardio being absolutely necessary for cardiovascular health, well, that depends upon the overall volume and magnitude of your weight training - another topic for another time.
Chaos theory strikes again
On the surface, it seems logical to separate carbs from cardio if you want a maximal degree of fat oxidation to occur during training. But, there’s the underlying mistake - focusing on stored fuel usage during training instead of focusing on optimally partitioning exogenous fuel for maximal lipolytic effect around the clock. Put another way, it’s a better objective to coincide your carb intake with your day’s thermic peaks, where insulin sensitivity & lean tissue reception to carbs is highest. For some reason, this logic is not easily accepted, nor understood. As we know, human physiology doesn’t always cooperate with logic or popular opinion, so let’s scrutinize the science behind the claims.
Let The Research Speak
Carbohydrate ingestion during low-intensity exercise reduces fat oxidation
As far as 3 decades back, Ahlborg’s team observed that carb ingestion during low-intensity exercise (25-45% VO2 max) reduced fat oxidation compared to fasted levels . More recently, De Glisezinski’s team observed similar results in trained men at 50% VO2 max . Efforts to determine the mechanism behind this phenomenon have been made. Coyle’s team observed that at 50% VO2 max, carbohydrate availability can directly regulate fat oxidation by coordinating hyperinsulinemia to inhibit long-chain fatty acid transport into mitochondria .
Carbohydrate’s effect on fat oxidation during moderate-intensity exercise depends on conditioning level
Civitarese’s team found glucose ingestion during exercise to blunt lipolysis via decreasing the gene expression involved in fat oxidation in untrained men . Wallis’ team saw suppressed fat oxidation in moderately trained men & women when glucose was ingested during exercise .
In contrast to the above trials on beginning and intermediate trainees, Coyle’s team repeatedly showed that carb ingestion during moderate-intensity (65-75% VO2 max) does not reduce fat oxidation during the first 120 min of exercise in trained men [7,8]. Interestingly, the intensity margin proximal to where fat oxidation is highest was unaffected by carb ingestion, and remained so for the first 2 hours of exercise.
Horowitz’ team examined the effect of a during-training solution of high-glycemic carbs on moderately trained men undergoing either low intensity exercise (25% VO2 max) or high-moderate intensity (68% VO2 max) . Similar results to Coyle’s work were seen. Subjects completed a 2-hr cycling bout, and ingested the carb solution at 30, 60, and 90 minutes in. In the low-intensity treatment, fat oxidation was not reduced below fasted-state control group’s levels until 80-90 min of exercise. In the 68% group, no difference in fat oxidation was seen whether subjects were fasted or fed throughout the trial.
Further supporting the evidence in favour of fed cardio in trained men, Febbraio’s team investigated the effects of carb ingestion pre & during training in easily one of the best-designed trials on this topic . Subjects exercised for 2 hrs at an intensity level of 63% VO2 max, which is now known as the point of maximal fat oxidation during exercise. Result? Pre & during-training carbs increased performance - and there was no difference in total fat oxidation between the fasted and fed subjects. Despite the elevated insulin levels in the carb-fuelled groups, there was no difference in fat availability or fat utilization.
Summing Up the Research Findings
• At low intensities (25-50% VO2 max), carbs during exercise reduce fat oxidation compared to fasted trainees.
• At moderate intensities (63-68% VO2 max) carbs during exercise may reduce fat oxidation in untrained subjects, but do not reduce fat oxidation in trained subjects for at least the first 80-120 minutes of exercise.
• Carbohydrate during exercise spares liver glycogen, which is among the most critical factors for anticatabolism during hypocaloric & other conditions of metabolic stress. This protective hepatic effect is absent in fasted cardio.
• At the established intensity level of peak fat oxidation (~63% VO2 max), carbohydrate increases performance without any suppression of fat oxidation in trained subjects.
Melanson EL, et al. Resistance and aerobic exercise have similar effects on 24-h nutrient oxidation.. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Nov;34(11):1793-800.
- Ahlborg, G., and P. Felig. Influence of glucose ingestion on fuel-hormone response during prolonged exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 1976;41:683-688.
- De Glisezinski I, et al. Effect of carbohydrate ingestion on adipose tissue lipolysis during long-lasting exercise in trained men. J Appl Physiol. 1998 May;84(5):1627-32.
- Coyle EF, et al. Fatty acid oxidation is directly regulated by carbohydrate metabolism during exercise. Am J Physiol. 1997 Aug;273(2 Pt 1):E268-75.
- Civitarese AE, et al. Glucose ingestion during exercise blunts exercise-induced gene expression of skeletal muscle fat oxidative genes. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Dec;289(6):E1023-9.
- Wallis GA, et al. Metabolic response to carbohydrate ingestion during exercise in males and females. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Apr;290(4):E708-15.
- Coyle, et al. Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrate. J. Appl. Physiol. 1986;6:165-172.
- Coyle, et al.. Carbohydrates during prolonged strenuous exercise can delay fatigue. J. Appl. Physiol. 59: 429-433, 1983.
- Horowitz JF, et al. Substrate metabolism when subjects are fed carbohydrate during exercise. Am J Physiol. 1999 May;276(5 Pt 1):E828-35.
- Febbraio MA, et al. Effects of carbohydrate ingestion before and during exercise on glucose kinetics and exercise performance. J Appl Physiol. 2000 Dec;89(6):2220-6.
This article was written by Alan Aragon who has over 13 years experience as a lecturer in the fitness industry. Check out his website at http://www.alanaragon.com