Today we’re coming back to our fitness topics. We need to talk about cardio training, and specifically what you should be doing or looking for in pursuit of your goals. I’m not here to tell you the benefits of cardiovascular training (CVT), you already know them. But my personal pet peeve on the subject is that people are thinking about it the wrong way.
So, in this post, I want to level set with you and discuss the why as well as provide some good options aside from running. Because I hate running.
So first off, let’s get the elephant out of the room.
Stop Doing Cardio for Fat Loss
Bottom line up front: You cannot out-exercise a bad diet. If you were metabolically lucky in your youth, maybe you thought you could. But all that did was build bad habits that will catch up to you.
Cardio training by itself just doesn’t do much.
Let’s look at the numbers. A steady 30-minute session of rowing in the “fat burning zone” of intensity burns about 300-400 calories. At the end of the day, that’s really not that much.
Those 300-400 calories are the equivalent of 1-2 pints of beer, a slice of pizza, or 1.5 snickers bars. That’s not even factoring in that most people tend to eat a little more, or move a little less overall when they start exercising regularly. It would all balance out.
Yes, bodybuilders use cardio for additional fat loss, but that’s because they are competing to eliminate every extra little trace of body fat after they’ve already been on disciplined caloric deficits for months. For average people, controlling what you eat is the primary method of shedding body fat and losing unwanted weight.
How to Use Cardiovascular Training
Think of CVT as training your body to efficiently use energy. It’s not necessarily about raw power output, it’s about movement. Your goal is training your heart, lungs, and metabolic systems to efficiently generate and deliver fuel to the muscles.
Like any other muscle, these systems require some stress to trigger adaptation. Stress is exercise.
One example of proper CVT training is the Maffetone Method, whereby you sustain a submaximal heart rate, 180 minus your age, for the duration of the session. This zone isn’t intense enough to force the muscles into using cheap & easy carbohydrates for fuel, but it’s enough to train the body to more efficiently metabolize fat stores.
I know I said cardio shouldn’t be used for extra calorie burning and fat reduction, but that’s not to say it can’t contribute. It’s just not the most efficient way.
The Science of Metabolism
A short tangent here to discuss energy systems. Stronger by Science did a great breakdown of this, so I’m just going to reference their work.
Your body’s No. 1 priority is staying alive. To do that, it has to produce energy at roughly the same rate you expend it. The metabolic currency of your body is ATP. There are two main ways your body regenerates ATP to produce energy: with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic).
Your body can produce energy much faster anaerobically. The fastest way is by using stored ATP, and replenishing ATP directly from phosphocreatine (PCr). However, this only lasts for 8-12 seconds. The next fastest way is by anaerobic glycolysis, which lasts for a few minutes, but which also causes acute muscular fatigue pretty quickly and doesn’t harvest very much ATP per molecule of glucose used.
Your body can produce energy aerobically for a very, very long time, getting every little bit of ATP out of each molecule of glucose or fat used. However, aerobic energy production is quite a bit slower than anaerobic energy production.– Greg Nuckols, Stronger by Science
Greg goes on to explain a ver important point: we often divide exercise arbitrarily between fat-burning aerobic and carbohydrate-burning anaerobic. The truth is that we’re doing a combination of both. The more intense the exercise, such as a particularly heavy lift or sprint, then the more anaerobic metabolism is involved.
However, the aerobic system is always involved.
Get to the point, Matt
Greg cites a 2001 study from the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Journal with some pretty important implications. Even during exercises traditionally thought of as purely anaerobic, such as sprinting, the fat-burning aerobic system is still contributing 30% to 50% of the energy. That proportion grows with every successive sprint in the set.
The same thing applies to weight lifting. Greg performs some mathematical magic to illustrate that a set of 8 deadlifts with 381 lb is 25% to 60% more taxing than the brutal cycling test use in these studies.
So, to summarize the key takeaway here, the stronger and more efficient you can make your aerobic system, then you will be able to sustain intense effort longer and recover from it faster.
Where to Go From Here
Ok, so you’re sold on the benefits of better cardiovascular training. Let’s talk about what a good system should look like.
First off, don’t ditch the weights. Weight lifting is still an extremely important component of a solid fitness plan. The stress created by heavy weights cannot be replicated anywhere else, and has fantastic long term impacts on your bone density, muscle retention, and hormone levels.
It also keeps your metabolism higher, which helps burn more calories.
There’s another component to this as well. Weight lifting and endurance training are like two opposite points on a spectrum. The more you do one, the more your body adapts to it at the expense of the other. Think of skinny professional marathon runners, who have monstrous endurance but can’t lift much. Compare that to strong man competitors who can lift huge amounts but would probably struggle to run more than a couple miles at speed.
Now think of sprinters. This group is both muscular, though not as strong as a power lifter, and has great endurance. This is your model.
A solid training program includes both cardiovascular training and weight lifting.
Outlining a Program
I’m going to refer back to Greg Nuckols, who has a great take on this.
The best conditioning plan for powerlifting will combine several different modalities (low intensity cardio, lifting to failure, and high intensity intervals) with an emphasis on minimizing the impact conditioning work will have on your heavy strength training.– Greg Nuckols
You might think the answer is high intensity interval training (HITT). And, truth be told, it is a useful tool for aerobic and anaerobic fitness, but it’s also costly in terms of energy and recovery time.
Greg’s recommendation looks something like this:
- Two low-intensity sessions per week, 20-30 minutes at your MAF heart rate (180 minus your age)
- Only increase the training load (more time or sessions) if you need to. You’ll know if you need to if your resting heart rate does not continue trending down or you are having trouble increasing your cardio work output without breaking the heart rate zone
- Increases should be slow and gradual, about 10 minutes per week. Once you hit three weekly sessions of 40 minutes each, then it might be time to try some interval training
Done correctly over time, this system will dramatically improve your aerobic capacity, reduce the rest you need between bouts of activity, and improve your health.
But Where do Weights Fit In?
Greg’s system calls for 2-3 sets to failure per muscle group, per week. He recommends doing this outside of the major lifts like squats or deadlifts, as going to failure on those has safety concerns.
Ask me how I know.
You can still do these big lifts, but do them fresh for your normal repetitions. Then switch to isolation exercises done to failure.
The goal here is not maximal strength and power. Remember, we’re looking for a balance. What have you got to lose by trying?
So What’s the Best Cardio?
And now we’re to the crux of the matter. What is the best way to get your cardio sessions in?
First off, it’s not running. Nearly all of the research I found says running is terrible. The issues I mentioned with cardio training interfering with strength training was particularly prevalent with running. A study done in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research highlighted that, Interestingly, it also showed that the interference was minimal to non-existent when the cardiovascular training was based on power generation.
So, with that, here are my top 5 cardio methods for this kind of activity:
The Rowing Ergometer
This if my favorite by far. Done correctly, rowing involves your entire body and has almost no impact on your joints. It’s easy to monitor your heart rate and control it by watching your stroke-to-stroke output.
You can really go a few ways on the machine. You can have a high stroke rate with relatively little power, a slower stroke rate with high power output, or the very difficult high stroke rate and high power output. The machine doesn’t care, as the only thing I’m looking at is the 500-meter time. That’s a handy estimate of how long it would take you to row 500 meters at your current stroke rate and power level. The ergometer recalculates that split time with every stroke.
The trouble with rowers is that they are somewhat technique intensive. There is definitely a more efficient way to do it, so do your homework.
I usually see at least one ergometer sitting in a corner at most gyms. Crossfit brought some popularity back to them, but they tend to use them in short sprints rather than longer 20-30 minute sessions.
There are few cardio workouts that get me as sweaty or as fatigued over my entire body as a rower.
The Resistance Bike
I’m not talking explicitly about the kind of bike you see in a spin class here. Rather something like an Airdyne. These things have been around forever, you might remember one in your grandmothers house.
You hop on the seat and start pedaling. The pedals crank a fan-like mechanism inside a cage that provides resistance and blows a lot of air at you. The two handlebars move independently back and forth.
This is also a total body exercise, though I don’t think it hits as much as a good rowing session. To control your heart rate, manage your speed.
You know it had to be here. I’m a big fan of rucking, for a lot of reasons that I mentioned in the linked article.
Adding additional weight and walking with a purpose definitely increases your heart rate into the desired zone. Though I’ve found with myself that it tends to take longer to get there than with either rowing or cycling.
To control your heart rate, you need to monitor your pace. Unlike a rowing machine or bike, there isn’t a digital readout providing your stats, so you’ll have to use some other method. I wear a Garmin Fenix 5 most days, which covers both my heart rate as well as gives me real-time rucking performance feedback based on GPS. It’s a handy device, for sure.
This is a butt kicker for sure. I think we’re all pretty familiar with the stair climber by this point. You can speed it up or slow it down, but you still have to climb.
Add some extra challenge by going two steps at a time.
I haven’t done it in a long time, but swimming is actually a fantastic cardio training tool. You have the power generation aspect because you have to pull yourself through the water, but you also have to work on your breath control since you can’t continuously suck and blow air.
Well, this went on a bit longer than I intended.
The big takeaway I want you to have is that cardio training is about more than just your heart. It’s about training your body to sustain effort over time as well as recover more quickly from exertion.
Don’t think of cardio only as a fat burning tool, since it’s honestly not the best way to go about it.
The best forms of cardio come from movements requiring you to generate power, such as rowing, cycling, or swimming. Do this a couple times per week for 20-30 minutes and stay within your aerobic training heart rate zone (180 minus your age).
Over to You
Did I miss anything? What’s your preferred cardio routine? Let me know in the comments.
This blog made my heart rate go up just reading it. Personally, I like heavy bag work. Hitting the heavy bag is good for warming up, increasing speed and strength and, depending on the room you have to work with, can be a good reactive tool to move around if you really get it going. I can smoke myself in 2 minutes if I’m not careful. **Use hand wraps and use the appropriate gloves because you can hurt yourself** The rowing machine makes me cry, every time. All of it makes me cry….but I’m starting to respect it more and… Read more »
I, too, am a huge fan of heavy bag work and boxing in general. I almost added it to the article, in fact. The only reason I didn’t was that I thought it was a little too technique-intensive and the risk of injury goes up quite a bit if you do it wrong. I used to go to a boxing gym at Vandenberg Air Force Base way back in the day. It was a killer workout, and going for 3 minutes on/ 1 minute off for eight rounds destroyed me. The rower is a beast, honestly. I think it’s far… Read more »
I’ve heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say that back in his day, bodybuilders did no cardio work at all. Their weight was controlled strictly through diet discipline, and that in their world cardio is a relative newcomer. I don’t think I can verify this info, as I wasn’t in the SoCal bodybuilding scene in the 70s, but it seems likely to me. I joined a new gym right around the biginning of the year and it’s within 5 minutes’ driving of my day job. I’ve spent a lot of my lunch breaks getting a solid 20-minute swim in their indoor pool. Pretty… Read more »
The thinking then, and somewhat still today, was that doing cardio killed your gains. When the goal was to be massive, then it made sense to skip it. But that was the bodybuilding scene, which is much more about aesthetics than functionality.
That’s awesome that your new gym has a pool. There’s a rec center very close to my house with an indoor one, but I haven’t taken advantage of it.