Depending on your goals and body type, different amounts of cardio may be required. A lean “weight gainer” trying to add mass may benefit from just one or two cardio sessions per week. On the other hand, someone like me, who is extremely prone to fat storage and sensitive to carbohydrates, may need 3 or more sessions to maintain his physical performance. Since you can only get better at a particular exercise by performing it, those interested in running marathons or participating in endurance events like a triathlon should increase their cardio frequency to prepare for the event.
MAXIM 1: Your body type and training goal will dictate the type, frequency and duration of your cardiovascular exercise
When your goal for cardiovascular exercise is general health, you need to make some decisions about the type of cardiovascular exercise you will be doing. Many people enjoy doing long, slow runs. Enjoying cardio is important, so if you find an enjoyable method of cardio, there’s no reason you should rule it out. The same decision should influence your choice of time. Many people state that you should do cardio first thing in the morning and/or on an empty stomach to get the maximum benefit. I disagree. If you have trouble waking up or going to full effort in your morning cardio, and you’ll get a much more vigorous workout in the evening, why not do it then? Do cardio when you feel your best, when you’re ready and know you’re going to stick with it and give it 100%.
MAXIM 2: Find cardio you enjoy and do it when you feel like you have the most energy
There are many styles of cardio. There is some debate as to which cardio is best for you. People preach about training in the “zone” of a particular heart rate for maximum fat burning benefit. While it is true that your body will use more fat for energy during this period, this is not the whole picture. Moderate cardio means your body will recover quickly – your heart rate will return to normal within a short period. Intense cardiovascular exercise, which raises your heart rate beyond the “zone,” may not burn as much fat during exercise, but it will take longer for your body to recover. Your body must process the waste, and your heart rate will stay elevated for hours after your exercise session. You will burn more calories throughout the day, and therefore you will receive a greater benefit.
To better understand this, let’s consider a situation where you burn 200 calories during exercise. You have a choice: you can burn those calories by walking briskly and reading a book, and it will take you 1 hour. However, you can burn those calories by doing short sprints followed by bouts of moderate jogging, and you’ll burn those calories in 20 minutes. While the “hour” cardio kept you in the “zone” to burn fat, guess what? The 20-minute cardio lifted your heart rate and pushed you into an anaerobic zone where your body built up an “oxygen debt” — a need for oxygen and fat burning to help flush waste out of your system and recover from intense exercise. . So, during a 24-hour window, he’ll burn MORE than 200 calories and therefore be closer to his fat loss goal.
While there is no solid scientific evidence to support this next maxim, I truly believe in it. I have witnessed this not only in my own transformation, but in many others as well.
MAXIM 3: The less time it takes to burn the same number of calories, the more calories you’ll expend later that day
This maxim may seem confusing, but it is very simple. It means that if you are going to burn 200 calories, when you burn those 200 calories in 20 minutes instead of 1 hour, your metabolism will increase throughout the day and you will end up burning OVER 200 hours by the end of that day. This is why high-intensity cardiovascular exercises, such as those recommended in David Greenwalt’s book, The Leanness Lifestyle, or the “20-Minute Aerobic Solution(TM)” recommended by Bill Phillips at Body-for-LIFE(TM) ) are so effective: burn the most fat in the shortest time
The fact that high-intensity cardio can burn more calories doesn’t make it superior to moderate cardio, except with respect to calories burned. There is some evidence that you can improve your cardiovascular health faster with high-intensity cardio, but this is no reason to rule out long runs. If you have a busy schedule and want to do 3 short 20 minute sessions then intensity is the way to go. However, if you really enjoy your long bike ride or jog on the weekends, then go ahead and do it – you’ll still improve your health and burn calories, and if it’s something you enjoy, you’ll maintain it! Remember, too, that if you’re training for a marathon, all the 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio in the world won’t fully prepare you to run more than 20 miles. You should do the moderate, long-duration cardio to prepare your body for the event.
This brings us to another maxim. Your heart rate can give you a lot of information about your training. Over time, your resting heart rate should decrease. Mine went from the high 60s to a current value of 48 due to my cardio conditioning. When you weight train, you can use a heart rate monitor to see what your target heart rate is (weight training will bring you up to anaerobic levels, or roughly the maximum heart rate you’d like to train at); this will give you much better feedback than a generic formula. By tracking your heart rate, you can monitor your effort. If you’re training at 160 bpm today, then you’re having a lousy day and don’t feel like you’re getting any benefit, use your heart rate as a guide. As long as you push hard enough to hit that 160 bmp mark again, you know you’re getting at least the same intensity out of your workout as the previous time.
MAXIM 4: Use your heart rate as a tool to gain insight into your progress, not a “RULE” for fat loss (i.e. “zone” etc.)
Many people are very intrigued by machine readouts when doing cardiovascular exercises. Unfortunately, those numbers are based on generic equations that fit the “general population” rather than you as an individual. For example, calories burned are based on your weight. A 200 pound person with 8% body fat will be given the same formula as a 200 pound person with 30% body fat. However, the harder you train and the leaner you get, the fewer calories you’ll burn during the same activity. In this example, the 8% person will actually burn fewer calories than the 30% person, due to their level of health and amount of lean mass. There are also problems with metabolism, activity throughout the day, nutrition, and many other factors that are not taken into account.
Does this mean that the reads are useless? Not at all. In fact, they are very useful. When I did my morning run this morning, the readout said I burned 610 calories in 30 minutes. While I may not have actually expended that much energy, it’s a great reference for me. Why? Because the next time I do cardio on that machine, I’m going to push myself harder and try to burn 650 calories. Again, I may not actually be burning 650 calories, but rest assured that if the reading gives me that number, I’ll be working harder next week than today. Therefore, it is a great tool to measure your own progress. It’s also a great tool for mixing up your training style. If I do a high intensity workout and burn “400” calories, I know that if I go back and do a moderate workout, I can aim for “400” calories and expend about the same amount of energy during the activity.
MAXIM 5: Don’t take readings from cardio machines literally, use them as a scale to measure your own progress
It’s interesting to learn the various ways that different styles of cardio expend energy. A slow moderate run can take 45 minutes to burn 400 calories. However, the same number of calories could be expended in a 15-minute high-intensity run. This is due to the fact that your heart rate becomes extremely elevated and your muscles start to put in extreme work to help you accelerate during intense periods. Similarly, a “slow” jog up a steep incline can burn the same number of calories. In this situation, your body is fighting gravity, so you’re still putting in a “high intensity” effort despite the slower pace.
As a final ingredient, consider variety. I can guarantee that if you always use the treadmill, your body will become so efficient at using the treadmill that you will start to burn fewer calories doing the same workout. On the other hand, if you do treadmill work one session, climb stairs another session, and then go jogging, you’ll still see the benefit of increased calorie expenditure. If your training allows it, try to incorporate as much variety as possible. This will keep the fat from melting away and continually improve your cardiovascular fitness.
MAXIM 6: Variety is key: Whenever possible, vary not only your training style (ie moderate, high intensity, etc.) but also the terrain or equipment you train on.
I often have clients complain that they don’t have access to the proper equipment to perform a wide variety of cardio exercises. If you simply buy an inexpensive jump rope, you can easily train two different exercises: jogging and jumping rope. Now consider different training styles: moderate (low intensity), high intensity interval training, and only high intensity training (where you try to get your heart rate up and maintain it for the duration of the exercise). This alone provides 6 different possibilities for a cardio session, which is more than enough variety to change things up throughout your training cycles.
Cardiovascular exercise is an important component of general health. While certain people may require different amounts and types of cardio, everyone should get at least some cardio each week. There are many training methods and they all have their advantages. You need to learn what works for you and what you really enjoy in order to continue cardio and reap the benefits of good health.
Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking cardio isn’t necessary. Even if you’re in top shape, a little cardio can benefit your overall health. The key is to change the style and frequency of your cardio exercises to fit your lifestyle and fitness goals. Consider various training styles, different terrains, and new types of equipment to train on. As always, learn your body and don’t use anyone else’s rules to dictate your training. Keep a good journal and find out what works for you. Peak cardio is a safe way to get closer to your natural peak physique.