Ah cardio, one of the most disputed training modalities in the health and fitness world.
With questions such as “Is it necessary for fat loss?” or “Will I lose all my gains?” plaguing internet forums it’s probably no wonder why cardiovascular training is so misunderstood.
To jump right in I’ll say that cardio offers a plethora of health benefits to both the lifter and non-lifter alike and contrary to the broscience and I guess hate mongering being spread around the web, with a properly executed program and by using smart and sensible cardio you will not lose muscle mass. I think recently, incorporating cardio into your routine has become slightly more popular thanks to guys such as Alex Viada and his coaches at Completed Human Performance and furthermore thanks to Viadas book which I reviewed here a while ago.
I for one, do cardio most days, say 5/7 (a perfect score) and while considering my 5’5 frame you’re not gonna see me jogging anywhere or attempting a 10k. However my dwarven brethren and I do seem to have a slight knack for sprinting.
The overall direction of this article is going to be to explain why you should be doing cardio, to dispel the myths and fears of cardio and I’ll be listing some of my favourite forms as well as cardio options I think are either dangerous or just downright dumb.
Now when it comes to cardiovascular training we usually have two camps of people. On one side they believe cardio is the be all and end all and that doing steady state cardio is vital to sculpt the ideal physique. On the other side we have the guys that believe walking to the shops might tap into their muscle building processes, make them go catabolic and hence hinder their gains. Both of these camps are just downright daft. Recently I’ve seen it’s become “cool” or “popular” to avoid cardio, with the emergency of many online coaches spouting all sorts of rubbish about how they eat pizzas everyday and never do any cardio. These guys and anyone who tells you to avoid cardio is a moron, plain and simple. I’ll admit cardio isn’t “necessary” for weight loss, that can be achieved primarily by altering your diet. However, you need to be looking at the big picture here; which is health and longevity.
Cardiovascular exercise can come in many forms, technically anything that elevates the heart rate and thus promotes blood flow throughout the entire body for a variable period of time can be considered cardio. When we talk about the different forms we usually refer to the different energy systems each form utilizes primarily, those being; the ATP-CP, anaerobic and aerobic systems. I think each type has a time and a place for use and stresses the body in different manners. I firmly believe though, that the best way to do cardio is alongside a solid strength training program. Too many people gravitate to one or the other when in reality it would be wiser and healthier to incorporate both forms of training so that they may compliment one another.
I’ve worked/work in gyms and I’ve seen some mind boggling shit, and the most common issue I see with people doing cardio is a lack of drive or intention. I mean just the other night I saw a couple of girls jump on the treadmill for 20 minutes, then they jumped on the bike for another 20 minutes, then the rower, then the cross trainer, then the stepper and finished off with a final 20 minutes on the skier type thing for a total of 2 hours of zero intensity bullshit. Yes, I know anything is better than nothing but is it really? Another big issue I see is the lack of progression, people come in and repeat the same shit over and over. Progressive overload applies to more than strength training. If you’re doing cardiovascular exercise then you should really be getting fitter, for that is the overall goal. Get intense, challenge yourself, do something fun, bloody hell dare to enjoy your training! It’s like that saying about insanity; “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results”. Push yourself and make progress! Now another big issue, which I think was highly popularized by bodybuilders is the idea of fasted cardio. People who believe you’ll be burning more fat because you’re in a “fasted” state are probably the same people who don’t eat carbs after 6pm who need to read up on digestion rates. I’ve not heard much of it being spouted recently so I’m hoping this “advice” is starting to die down. My last issue is more centered towards the average gym goer, and that is playing it by ear. This applies to all aspects of training. Now if you wanna just piss around and just enjoy exercising then by all means go for it, but to actually train requires a goal and purpose.
So here’s the three types of cardio you could and should be doing:
Steady State Cardio
People are probably quite familiar with this one. Most people automatically start doing this instinctively. I feel like 9/10 who decide they want to lose weight immediately take up jogging or walking which is fine, if you’re strong enough to do it. I might be being prejudice but I feel that the majority of people who take up jogging as a means of losing weight or to become healthier probably aren’t in the best shape and should probably learn to walk and squat before they jog. So steady state training is exactly what it sounds like, moving at a steady state at a relatively moderate to low intensity for an extended period of time (usually 30-60 minutes). You can do this with mostly anywhere and/or with any cardio machine you see such as the treadmill, cross trainer, bike, rowing machine, recumbent bike etc etc. This type of cardio is very easy on the body, really great for a beginner to build a solid aerobic base and general health but also great for lifters too. As I mentioned it’s easy on the body and easy on the CNS. If you lift heavy and intensely quite often (think strongmen, powerlifters, weightlifters etc) then you’ve little room for intense cardio sessions, that’ll only impede your recovery. Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio however, won’t impede your recovery and will most likely improve it.
I think in recent years this type of training has gained a lot of traction. People think it’s some revolutionary fat loss miracle (it isn’t) as you can be done with your cardio in as little as 4 minutes apparently! I’m gonna break this down into three types; standard intervals, high intensity intervals and supra-maximal intervals. The majority of articles you’ll read will probably focus more on High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and probably through the acronym EPOC around a lot (which stands for Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption by apparently PEOC was taken) which refers to the greater intake of oxygen after strenuous exercise which thus creates a so called “afterburn” effect that facilitates more energy expenditure and potentially fat loss. Now to breakdown the three types:
- Standard interval training is really a branch of LISS. I don’t even know if it’s a real subcategory as it’s just something I do occasionally to entertain myself. I’ve always found time goes a lot faster when you’re constantly changing something every minute or few minutes. As an example say I’m doing an incline walk on the treadmill (for some reason), I might go at a leisurely stroll for a minute then up the speed slightly for another couple minutes, then either increase the speed further or lower it again to leisurely stroll. The intensity is never exceedingly high like in HIIT but just enough to be a little bit more challenging than regular LISS and keep you a bit more entertained along the way.
- HIIT, everyone’s favourite. This type of training alternates bouts of high intensity work (e.g. sprinting) at around 100% of your VO2 max with bouts of lower intensity work used as recovery time, this could be at a lower intensity (e.g. jogging/walking) or complete rest periods. The great thing about HIIT is that it’s quick and dare I say it, fun to an extent. Hill sprinting is genuinely fun, you should try it, now! HIIT will also improve your power endurance and recovery rate between bouts of high intensity work, which is beyond beneficial for strength training. With HIIT though you need to go HARD, don’t wimp out on your intervals. If you’re supposed to be sprinting then you’d best be bloody sprinting!
- Supra-maximal Intervals are relatively new to me. I’ve known what they were for years but didn’t know they had a specific name. Supra-maximal intervals involve performing and all out, balls to the wall effort at above 100% of your VO2 max followed by a rest interval. And in that rest interval you simply rest, you do absolutely nothing besides catch your breath and prepare for the next round. This I feel will be the most mentally taxing and physically demanding and It’s not something I’d recommend to most people, especially not beginners.
The key with interval training is to pick what’s enjoyable for you. Jump on an Airdyne, sprint hills, push a prowler etc just do something you actually enjoy and can do. Start of light and progress gradually.
Ah, my favourite. To put it simply, this is the funnest type of cardio you can have hands down. It’s main draw is that it gives you the chance to be creative and offers endless variety. It’s similar to interval training but essentially with weight/resistance training movements, think (sensible) circuits and complexes. Cardio really doesn’t have to be boring.
Right so I’ve stated the various types of cardiovascular exercise, now I’m going to breakdown my four favourite types of cardio and four exercises which I believe people really butcher. So without further adieu here are my 4 favorite forms of cardio:
First on my list has got to be walking, but hiking to be more specific. I’ve found that when you don’t think of cardio as “cardio” and you’re able to get out and about and see some beautiful sights you simply forget that your lungs are caving in and your legs are on fire. Walking/Hiking is also something that can be done in a social environment with friends or loved ones, which is always a bonus. The main reason I chose walking though is due to its ridiculously low impact on both joints and performance/recovery and can be done by just about anyone, from beginner to advanced trainee.
At some point however, walking is going to get stupidly easy (which is fine, again this is a low intensity form of cardio) so quite often I’ll either walk up hills or throw a weighted vest on for some added difficulty and variety.
The last alternative to outdoor walking (mainly for when the weather sucks) is finding a treadmill with an incline and using that. Sure it’s a lot less scenic (and a lot more boring) but if you do some mild intervals at different inclines or speeds it seems to make the time go just that little bit faster. Additionally if you can find a gym with a stepmill you’re onto a winner.
Another favorite of mine is indoor cycling for the sole reason that I can do it from the comfort of my own home while playing video games or watching tv. Now before you begin to judge my lack of effort let me say that I use the stationary bike for low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio only. I’ll usually rotate between cycling for time (30-60 minutes) or distance (20km+) which, while possibly inaccurate keeps things slightly more interesting. So, since I’m only performing LISS cardio I feel the slight dip in effort due to being focused on playing games is more than accounted for. Additionally watching tv or more specifically playing games takes my mind off the boredom of cardio and allows me to kill two birds with one stone.
If indoor cycling isn’t your thing however, you can actually go “real” cycling outdoors. I imagine mountain biking is on par with hiking in its enjoyment.
The benefits with cycling as a whole is that by its very nature it is a very low impact exercise, making it great for heavier individuals.
Heavy Bag Work
Nothing is more stress relieving than going all out on a heavy punchbag. Now i’m far from an experienced fighter but as long as you can punch and kick properly you’re probably good to go. Aside from the obvious stress relieving and cardiovascular benefits gained from heavy bag training, learning to punch properly will teach you how to generate power from your glutes and transferring it through your torso and into your arms.
As a side note I remember the first time I ever did a heavy bag session. I was fairly untrained and definitely unprepared. The following day I had terrible DOMS in my lats!
With heavy bag training I usually do a set number of rounds (between 1 and 3 minutes) with varying rest times between each round. If you’re feeling adventurous feel free to add in some additional exercises in between rounds like slams, skipping, burpees or sandbag work.
Strongman and Popularized Conditioning Work
This type of training is by far my favorite and anyone who’s done this type of work can attest to the absolute painstaking effort required and the breathless aftermath that follows. Strongman is built upon moving heavy objects over certain distances and for that I tend to think of stuff like this as “muscle building cardio” as opposed to LISS which I guess I’d call either “fat loss cardio” or “heart/general health cardio”.
The movements I’ll be listing below are probably things you’ve come across in articles bashing LISS training in favor of metabolic conditioning but as I’ve mentioned before and in previous articles, a combination of both is ideal, both have pros and cons.
The movements that I most often use, in no particular order are:
- Prowler push w/ both low and high handles
- Backwards sled drags
- Forward sled drags w/ a harness
- Farmers Walks (undisputed king of carries)
- Sandbag carries w/ varying grips
- Arm over arm pulls
- Suitcase carries
- Waiters walks
- Yoke carry (bit of a big requirement for Strongman)
- Zercher carry
- Front rack carry
- Overhead carry w/barbell
- Keg carry (can be replicated similarly with a sandbag)
In short, any movement in where you must travel a certain distance while carrying a heavy weight is going to tax your whole body. Legendary coach Dan John advises combing various carries together, but I’m not at that stage yet. Make loaded carries a part of your routine.
Furthermore, as stated in the Metabollic Conditioning section above I absolute low complexes. A complex is a series of barbell exercises performed back to back without dropping the bar, as an example;
Bent Over Rows, Romanian Deadlifts, Hang Cleans, Overhead Presses, Good Mornings, Squats
All done back to back for a set number of reps with one barbell.
So I’ve touched on my favorite forms of cardio training above. Now I’m going to dive into what I consider the worst types of cardio and how you can rectify these errors or choose alternatives.
In short, the elliptical and those skier type machines are just s**t. People love them because they’re easy so they create this illusion that you’ve done plenty of work yet all the while you’ve probably accomplished very little. I feel the elliptical is one of those machines that seem like a good idea in theory, as in it has handles so your whole body moves (like a rower) and it’s very low impact which reduces joint stress but practically just doesn’t deliver.
The only benefit or use I can see in using the elliptical is for an extremely heavy individual or one with brittle joints due to the essentially no impact force, but there are far better options out there.
Botched Incline Walks and Stepmill Climbs
But Louis, you said earlier that you’re a fan of walking and stair climbing!
Yes, you’re right, I did. However, my main gripe when I see people using an incline on the treadmill or using a stepmill is when they approach it with terrible posture or hold onto the machine. Just think about the treadmill, when you set an incline you’re trying to replicate walking uphill, right?
So when you do that and then hold onto the front of the machine you’re altering the angle in which you’re walking, essentially negating the incline and making it like a flat walk. Absolutely stupid.
Similarly with the stepmill, I see people holding the side rails and hunching over like Quasimodo which obviously isn’t going to be appreciated by your back.
The key with these two exercises is to leave your ego at the door and maintain good posture. Nobody cares how long you walked on a treadmill at full incline and no one’s bothered by how many flights of stairs you climbed. These movements are supposed to be used to enhance your health and/or physique, not hinder it. If you feel the need to use the handles on either of these machines then you should either lower the speed and/or lower the incline.
Again Louis, you said you liked bike riding!
Right again, but here I’m talking about spin classes and my peeve with these is pretty similar to the one mentioned above, posture!
Ever looked over and watched a spin class?
A bunch of people mindlessly hunched over a bike pedaling away at the will of an over excited instructor. Not for me, thanks.
Now this is the one I might get the most flak for from Crossfits legion of cultists, but hear me out. I really have nothing against Crossfit, when it’s instructed well. I know of a few decent instructors that have backgrounds in Olympic Weightlifting and so teach the correct executions of these movements. I’m sure there are a lot of decent Crossfit boxes and instructors out there (well I’m not sure, but I hope), but sadly that’s all over shadowed by the influx or crappy coaches with cereal box certifications that charge ridiculous sums to their clients.
The issue with Crossfit is that it tries to incorporate all manner of sports like Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Strongman, Athletics and often times made up exercises but fails miserably at producing anything productive. Plus as a “sport” it has one of the highest injury rates going!
Now, in before someone references Rich Froning. I don’t care if a handful of people excel at Crossfit and don’t get injured, I’m not Rich Froning and neither are you (also I’m pretty sure the top Crossfitters don’t actually train Crossfit style).
My biggest concern with using Crossfit style workouts is getting injured. Most, if not all Crossfit programs involve doing the Olympic lifts for high repetitions which to me is simply absurd. These movements aren’t do be done for high reps or when really fatigued due to their technicality and high risk. You can probably get away with doing high reps on other compound lifts but things like Olympic lifts, their variations and deadlifts aren’t really suitable in my opinion, nor are ballistic and plyometric movements. High rep box jumps aren’t “good for conditioning” they’re good for getting a knee injury.
If you want to do Crossfit then by all means go for it, but find yourself a decent box with a seasoned coach that has a wider background that just his overpriced Crossfit certification.
So there you have it, my favorite forms of cardio and types that I believe are inherently awful or need refining. I believe cardio should be done by everyone regardless of your sport. Training specificity however, will come into play here. For example a competitive Strongman probably won’t be doing similar cardio work as someone training for a triathlon and similarly these two athletes won’t be training like your average Joe who just wants to get fitter. That’s not to say a Strongman couldn’t also train for a triathlon, with proper programming this can be possible. Also, please don’t be put off by internet rumors spouting dribble such as “cardio eats muscle” as this is absolutely false. Only by doing excessive amounts of cardio (note that 30-60 minutes a day is not excessive), being in a calorie deficit or in my opinion regularly performing high intensity cardio (such as HIIT) are you likely to eat into your recovery and therefore hinder your progress. I believe for most people, LISS cardio is superior as its low intensity nature means it’s far less likely to affect your “gainz” and will most likely help with recovery. I’m not totally against HIIT though, I believe thrown in now and again this type of cardio can be extremely useful, if not just for variation and to prevent boredom.
The take home point here is that everyone will benefit from having a decent aerobic base, you don’t have to be capable of running marathons or sprinting on par with Usain Bolt but strengthening your cardiovascular system will have absolutely zero drawbacks. Additionally find a form of cardio you actually enjoy! If you like swimming then go swimming! If you enjoy cycling then do that! Just remember to do it properly! Do not let your ego take over and end up overcompensating, this is stupid and unnecessary, be smarter than that.
Lift Strong and Conquer!