When it comes to cardio, most of us out there typically fit squarely into 2 camps of belief:
Both of these mentalities are old-school and have been passed down from generation to generation, producing mediocre results and plenty more frustrated followers.
Steady-state cardio is what most of us think of when we hear the word “cardio”. Walk into any local Globo Gym and this is what you’ll see 90% of the members doing. Some maybe be jogging away on a treadmill, pedaling away on a recumbent bike or ellipticalling away on an elliptical. Most people are resistant to the idea of cardio because they think that they have to jog or pedal or elliptical for hours at a time to get any results.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the continuum you have those that belief you shouldn’t do cardio because it’s going to tear away all of your muscle. We like to call these believers bodybuilders or (more often) gym rats. Bodybuilding has a lot of roots during the time when The Austrian Oak (Arnold) came over to the States and introduced weightlifting to America. Arnold and his buddies had a habit of not doing much cardio. Not because they believed it ate their muscle, but because, if they wanted to lean down, they simply reorganized their macronutrients. The idea of training their heart was simply foreign to them.
This mentality continues to carry forward into the current bodybuilding and gym rat world. The idea that cardio tears muscle away is old-school with no research to support it. The mentality that steady-state cardio is king is becoming more and more outdated by the second. It’s time to move into the new age and get things moving back in the right direction.
So, what should you do then? If steady-state cardio isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what other options do you have? Before we go into this, let’s look at what cardio bring us and what mistakes we might be making along the way.
The term “cardio” is short for cardiovascular. So, truly, when we talk about doing cardio, we are talking about doing cardiovascular exercise, or exercise that strengthen and improves the cardiovascular system (your heart!!). This is often overlooked when thinking about cardio and when implementing a proper cardio training routine (we’ll get to this in a second). To that point, there are many benefits to performing cardiovascular exercise, which include:
So there are many more reasons to incorporate cardio into your routine than simply burning calories.
Just like any other aspect of health, there are certain things that we should be doing to make sure we’re getting the most out of our cardio training. Also, there are plenty of things we shouldn’t do that may be holding us back and preventing us from achieving our goal.
Remember the good ol’ days? Back when you could run 10 miles without breaking a sweat, or do hill sprints all day long, or go for a 4-hour bike ride and be ready for more at the end of it. Well, reminiscing about previous performance when you’re trying to decide where to start now is a recipe for disaster. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to tell you that you can’t get back to the shape you were in “back in the day”. I truly believe that, no matter what age you’re starting your health journey, you can be in the best shape of your life whenever you’re ready to put in the effort.
The idea here is to start where you are NOW, not where you were THEN. Evaluate your current fitness level. Have you been sedentary for a month, 6 months, 6 years? This all plays a part in how long or how intense you should be doing your cardio.
This is a point where many runners will jump down my throat. No matter what you do, whether it’s being a stay-at-home parent or play intermural softball or run a business or run marathons, all of it takes strength to be able to perform efficiently and effectively. Yes, if you’re a runner you should strength train. I would venture to say that upwards of 70% of runners should NOT be running, because they don’t have the proper strength to do so.
Understand, strength is all relative. If you’re a heavy-weight powerlifter, deadlifting 300lbs is going to get you laughed off of the platform. However, if you’re a marathon runner, deadlifting 300lbs may knock 8 minutes off of your marathon time.
Most of us hate going to the dentist and will avoid them like the plague. We put it off and put it off and put it off, until we finally decide it’s best to get in before it’s too late. If I told you that going to the dentist 3 days a week would help you lose that 20lbs you’ve been losing, would you do it? Probably not (unless, of course, you’re a masochist…then we have other issues to worry about).
So why do you insist of doing certain forms of exercise because the world tells you that you should, even if it makes you miserable?!
Find something that it fun for YOU. It doesn’t matter what Sally next door did to lose 10lbs or what your Uncle Bob did to get shredded. Are there more efficient ways of doing things? Yes. Are there certain modalities that are more effective than others? Yes. This doesn’t mean you need to do them if you’re hating every minute of it. If it’s something you enjoy and love doing, you’re much more likely to be successful and stick with it in the long-run.
Now that we understand the importance of cardiovascular exercise and see some of the mistakes we make, let’s look at what cardio we should be doing and how we should be doing each one.
These are in a certain order. They are not in order of importance. They are in order of implementation. So you should implement #1 first, then #2 and finally #3. There is a rhyme and reason for everything.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m totally contradicting everything I said in the beginning. What was all of that “steady-state cardio isn’t king” stuff?! Yes, I said all of that and I stick by it. However, I never said you shouldn’t do steady-state cardio.
First, steady state cardio is the act of doing cardio at a certain intensity for an amount of time. The intensity never changes, or doesn’t change much. The average steady-state cardio session is about 30 minutes. Some modalities of steady-state cardio include:
The popular of these, of course, is jogging. Like I said before, upwards of 70% of people of who jog, shouldn’t jog. This activity is very repetitive and high impact, which takes strength and stability. The lack of strength stability that most joggers have is what makes this a high injurious activity.
Steady-state cardio is important because it allows you to build a solid aerobic base. With a quality aerobic base, you can move into more high-intense cardio and continue to grow from there. Remember, your heart is a muscle, too. Going straight into the intense stuff may lead to more pain than benefit.
A quality modality of steady-state cardio to consider is sled pushing. Instead of mindlessly pounding away on a treadmill or powering away on the elliptical, find a sled and about 50 feet of runway and push away for 20-30 minutes.
Tiring? Yes. Take effort? Yes. Effective? Yes.
Not to be confused with HIT training (High Intensity Training), HIIT training has been around for a long time. HIIT training is more efficient than steady-state cardio because it takes less time to achieve the same amount of work. It helps improve your anaerobic capacity, which is the total amount of energy you expend during a bout of exercise.
Most importantly, at least to most of us, HIIT training is better at burning fat than steady-state cardio. Not during exercise, necessarily, but after exercise. After a bout of HIIT, our body’s experience this phenomenon called Excess Post Exercise Consumption (EPOC). Basically, EPOC is the amount of energy your body will continue to burn AFTER exercise. So, although you may burn 300 calories during a nice jog, the amount of calories you will burn in the subsequent 24 hours because of that jog will be minimal at best. Conversely, when you perform a HIIT session, you can continue to burn calories for up to 36 hours after the bout of exercise.
HIIT works by performing an exercise for an amount of time at 100% effort, followed by a set amount of rest (actually, to be optimally effective, wear a heart rate monitor to know when your heartrate gets to your optimal resting state). For instance, you may do a sprint for 20 seconds, then rest for 1 minute. This would be a work to rest ratio of 1:3. It’s best to start with a high work:rest ratio (1:4) and build towards a lower ratio (1:2).
A great way to implement HIIT into your routine is using an Airdyne bike:
This is a great piece of equipment when used properly. Notice how Sharon speeds up a couple seconds, then slows down and speeds up again. That is her active rest.
Anyone who lived through the 80s remembers HIT training (referenced above). This was a form of training championed by the inventor of Nautilus equipment, Arthur Jones. With HIT, you performed an exercise to a point of momentary muscular failure (in other words, you were almost ready to drop the weight you’re holding). This was the beginning of MRT.
If you combine HIIT and HIT (confused yet?), you would basically get MRT. MRT is performing a group of exercises, back to back to back, at maximal effort and resting for a given amount of time.
Like interval training, MRT is great for anaerobic endurance, is efficient and is great losing fat. Use the same type of protocol with MRT as you would with HIIT, work to rest ratio of 1:4 to 1:2. MRT also offer the most variety of any type of cardio discussed above.
A great way to implement MRT into your routine is with complexes. An exercise complex is when you perform exercises, one after another, without putting your weight down to rest:
Okay, I’m moving a little slower than you should, but you get the point. I move from swings to split squats to kettlebell rows. That’s the set and the rest be 2-4x as long, depending on your level of cardiovascular endurance.
So now that you have an idea on how you can effective implement cardio into your routine, you’ll be able to safely get yourself moving into the direction of your goal. The guess work is gone, now all you have to do is…well, do.