Cardiovascular exercise is the first thing most people think of when they want to “get in shape” or “lose a few pounds”. The most commonly desired effect of cardio is that it burns calories. Add to that, finishing an intense cardio workout leaves you feeling tired and accomplished, and like you’ve done something positive for yourself.
What if I told you that this approach to cardio is dead wrong, and that using cardio as your primary weight loss method will get you only temporary results? For the general population, cardio is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of fitness, and in this blog post I will explain why. Additionally, I’ll include several tips on how to properly implement cardio into your routine in order to really maximize your fitness goals.
Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss. Weight loss is self explanatory; the scale weight goes down. Fat loss is a bit more complicated in that the goal is to maintain as much muscle as possible and to only lose fat. Fat loss usually results in slower, more incremental weight loss on the scale (or sometimes even no change). In some cases, you could even gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
The benefits of fat loss vs weight loss is that you’re improving your body composition (fat % vs. muscle %), and not just becoming smaller. You’re also maintaining your metabolic rate, so you’re able to eat more while still in a calorie deficit.
If you’re only focusing on weight loss, and using cardio as your primary means, you’ll lose weight faster for sure, but at least half (often more) of that weight will be muscle. Essentially, you become a smaller version of your previous self but with just as much (or more) body fat. To add insult to injury, you’re left with a slower metabolism and only two options if you want to continue progress; Cut more calories or increase cardio.
What Is Cardio Good For?
While cardio can supplement a successful fat loss regimen, it should not be the primary focus. Prioritizing weight training while utilizing cardio properly will result in far more success than just doing endless bouts of cardio. Unless you have endurance performance goals, cardio does not need to be done every day, or even every other day.
If your goals are to look, feel and move better, cardio should be done for two main reasons; to improve your health (mental and physical), and to improve your overall work capacity, allowing you to weight train with more volume, intensity and frequency.
Health Benefits of Cardio
Most people are aware that cardio is healthy. It plays a significant role in improving heart, lung and circulatory function, and mental health. It can lower your blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce stress and decrease your chances of all-cause mortality.
While the Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, these time domains are certainly not required (or even realistic) for everyone. I prefer listening to experienced trainers and strength and conditioning coaches recommendations for cardio. You know, the people who have been there, done that. If you agree, keep reading to learn about what truly works best.
Types of Cardio
If you’re someone who “goes out for a run” until you’ve reached a certain distance or level of fatigue each and every time, you’re likely not improving your aerobic abilities nearly as much as you could be.
Generally speaking, low to moderate intensity cardio (zone 2) should make up the majority of your time spent doing cardio. Even the best endurance athletes in the world spend a majority (80+%) of their training time in zone 2. They just happen to run 6-minute miles in zone two because they’re so advanced. There are several reasons that zone 2 cardio is the most preferred method. They include but are not limited to:
- It doesn’t stress the nervous system or musculoskeletal system like higher zones
- This type of training is less mentally taxing than higher intensity training
- While in zone 2, all of your desired aerobic adaptations take place; develops your aerobic base
- Over time, your zone 2 pace increases, which results in your higher zone paces increasing
- Zone 2 significantly increases mitochondrial (energy powerhouse of all cells) density
- It utilizes primarily fat for fuel. * This doesn’t mean you’re burning more overall fat, but having the ability to utilize fat as a fuel source is highly advantageous for performance and everyday life
- It will result in faster recovery between sets and individual strength training sessions
- It will allow you to recover faster AND perform better for higher intensity cardio
- Zone 2 has several health benefits, including reduced resting heart rate, lowered blood pressure, improved insulin resistance, increased stroke volume, increased cardiac output and many more.
How to Determine Zone 2
Zone 2 refers to the heart rate you maintain throughout a training session in relation to your maximum heart rate. It’s usually prescribed as 60-70% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Your maximum heart rate can be determined by lab testing, but for simplicity’s sake, you can subtract your age from 220. For me, that would be 220-32, so my MHR is approximately 188 beats per minute (BPM). 60-70% of this would be 112-131 BPM.
If you’re not interested in tracking your heart rate to determine your zone 2 and you’d rather train by feel (my preferred method), you can use this technique: if you have the ability to say a 12-15 word sentence without needing a breath, you’re likely in zone 2. For the advanced trainee, 80% of your cardio time should be spent in zone 2. For the average person who just wants to reap the health benefits of cardio, 90-100% of it should be done in zone 2.
You can also choose any cardio modality you’d like for your zone 2 work, and even switch between multiple different machines or modalities.
My personal favorites are rucking, airbike, rower, incline walking, and sled work. I also like doing zone 2 circuits (JUST MAKE SURE YOU'RE STAYING IN ZONE 2) where I’ll set up heavy farmer's carries, sled pushes and pulls, and a piece of cardio equipment like a rower or airbike and rotate between all of them for a given amount of time. Regardless of what you choose to do, the most important factor is that you’re in zone 2 throughout and not crossing into zone 3 (very common).
High intensity interval training (HIIT) has been a long standing buzz word in the fitness industry. When it first was introduced, it was believed that HIIT burned significantly more calories in far less time than traditional cardio because of the “afterburn” effect. While this has been debunked, people still use it to promote their exercise modalities and sell programs.
The problem is, HIIT is done totally incorrectly by 99% (and that is being generous) of people who promote it. Properly programmed HIIT is an effective tool for some of the population, and can be a little too much for others. If you’re an advanced lifter or trainee, doing HIIT 1-2 times per week can really round out your cardio training and lifting routine.
If you’re going to do HIIT, DO NOT LOOK FOR HIIT WORKOUTS ON INSTAGRAM! Influencer HIIT is not HIIT. They choose the wrong exercises, have inaccurate work to rest intervals, and don’t actually understand how to properly do HIIT (for more examples, check out this IG post caption).
Follow these guidelines instead:
*Before we begin- understand that lifting intensity and cardio/conditioning intensity are two totally different things. Cardio intensity is the % of maximum heart rate, lifting intensity is proximity to failure or % of 1 rep max. BOTH can be gauged using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) -RPE 1 being sitting around doing nothing, RPE 10 being all out effort. When doing HIIT, your RPE should be a 9 or a 10 for each interval.
- Pick an exercise that lends itself well to high intensity AND is safe- Running sprints are great for HIIT, but not the safest for most people. Do hill sprints or sled push sprints and they become far safer. Airbikes, Rowers, Ski Ergs, Jacob’s Ladders and curved treadmill sprints are great options.
- Perform a 5-10 minute warm up on the piece of equipment/modaily you’re using.
- Interval parameters:
- 10-30 seconds of all out effort or RPE 9-10 (30 seconds if you’re an animal, but remember you need to sustain the effort of interval #1 for several more intervals. I cannot do 30 seconds for more than a few rounds, and I’ve been doing HIIT consistently for over a decade)
- Rest (walk, pedal easy and slow, totally rest) for :50-2:00 OR until you’ve recovered enough for another effort of the same intensity- usually the rest periods will increase in length throughout the workout (I cannot stress this point enough, you shouldn’t be sucking wind before you start an interval)
- Repeat for 4-12 rounds
- To progress, start with 4 rounds of 10 seconds and EITHER add length to the interval, add another interval, or reduce the rest time each week. Don’t do it all at once.
Don't Forget About Walking
While walking isn’t considered true cardio by most people, it is extremely healthy and something more people need to prioritize. You should be looking to walk every chance you get, especially if you’re sedentary for most of the day. Read more about the great benefits of walking in this blog post.
To Sum It Up
Cardio is all too often either abused (done too much), done at the wrong intensity, done for fat loss purposes, or (usually) a combination of all of them. Cardio should make you feel great, and should supplement a healthy fitness routine.
For a normal everyday person, a good week of training looks like 2-3 strength training sessions, and 2-3 low intensity cardio sessions (you can do strength and cardio on the same day). For a more advanced trainee, a week would look something like 4-5 strength training sessions and 3-4 cardio sessions (1 of them being HIIT). For the highly advanced, 4-5 lifting sessions and 4-5 cardio sessions (2 of them being HIIT).
As a general rule, for body composition and muscle preservation (whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainee), a 2:1 ratio of lifting to cardio is the sweet spot. So, if you spend 4 hours per week lifting, spend no more than 2 hours doing cardio.
Although using cardio as the primary means to getting lean or “toned” is not advised, improving your heart and lung health, recovery between strength training sets and sessions, improving your mental wellbeing, and being better at daily activities will likely result in better body composition (less fat, more muscle) by default. Follow the guidelines in this post and you’ll be well on your way to a better life.
Thank you for reading! What is your favorite way to incorporate cardio? Be sure to leave your questions or comments in the comments section below.