Is there "good cardio" and "bad cardio"? Are there any other different kinds of "cardio"? I'm sure you're either shocked or puzzled to hear why I'm even asking these questions.
"Cardio" and "aerobics" have been wrongly used interchangeably, as synonyms for "endurance." "Cardio" should be used for any type of exercise that makes the heart and lungs work harder. "Cardio" describes any exercises that use the following three energy systems: phosphagen system, anaerobic glycolysis and aerobic metabolism. Your body uses a combination of these three energy systems in different ratios in different period of time depending on the type of activities involved.
Look around and ask around in your gym. You'll be surprised or you shouldn't be surprised to find out that some lean and muscular fitness buffs rarely do normal or "traditional cardio" workout. On the other hand, you know some people (perhaps yourself included) who are running on the treadmill one hour a day for six days a week, but cannot seem to lose enough weight to shape up or lose that perpetually stubborn 10 pounds.
The Long, Slow, Boring "Cardio"
In fact, when you're running the same routine day in and day out without changing up, you're prone to joint wear-and-tear and risk of overuse injury. You may actually start muscle wasting by subjecting your body to catabolic conditions. Not only that you don't burn fat efficiently as your body adapts to the same routine, but you may start to lose lean muscle mass. So you may actually get fat. This is absolutely not the ideal scenario for your weight loss effort.
Low Intensity Steady State (L.I.S.S.) Traditional Cardio
It's common for fitness and medical professionals to prescribe low to moderate intensity aerobic (cardio) training to overweight or deconditioned people in order to prevent heart disease or lose weight along the line of continous 30 to 60 minutes of steady pace cardio exercise 3 to 5 times a week maintaining heart rate at a certain level. This type of long and slow continuous training is a good starting point but not the end of it. It's easy to do but not the most effective cardio exercise to lose fat.
Yes, you do burn some calories during the period of time you're running on the treadmill in the L.I.S.S. type aerobic exercise. But as soon as you step off from the machine, your body stops burning calories after a few minutes. You'll need to run longer and longer in order to burn more calories because your body learns to get more efficient in burning calories using aerobic oxygen. Time is your most precious asset. In today's busy work-lifestyle, you'll be running out of time to run very soon!
Marathoners vs. Sprinters
Humans are probably the only creature in nature that attempt to do "endurance" type physical activities. Most competitive sports (except endurance running and cycling) are based on highly variable stop-and-go movements. Weight training naturally incorporates short bursts of exertion followed by recovery periods.
Look at the physiques of marathoners versus sprinters. Most sprinters (including football running backs and wide receivers) are lean, muscular and powerful whereas typical marathoners are thinner with less muscle. As a matter of fact, there are many fat marathoners crossing the finish line. But you rarely see fat sprinters, almost non-existent.
Gym Rat Cardio
Don't get me wrong. I like running as well, mostly outdoors. I'm not anti cardio but I want you to reconsider the so called traditional cardio for a moment. For "traditional" cardio I mean by performing aerobic activities such as running on a treadmill, riding a stationary bike or gliding on an elliptical machine in a low intensity steady state (L.I.S.S.) pace for longer than 30 to 60 minutes.
If you're one of the gym rats who do L.I.S.S. type "cardio" 5 times a week and you're proud to say that you've lost a lot of fat, are happy with your physique and have lean muscular body to show for, you can stop reading now.
What if you've spent so much time in the gym, worn out 5 pairs of running shoes a year, started having knee, shin and ankle aches, and still didn't see the results you've wanted to achieve, I have good news for you. Please read on.
High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.) Turbulence Cardio
Want to burn fat and get in shape quick? High intensity interval training (H.I.I.T) is a better and more effective training method to lose fat and condition your heart muscles. The concept of H.I.I.T. cardio workout involves repeated bouts of harder work phase interpersed with periods of easier recovery phase.
If you've been cruising at L.I.S.S. on the treadlmill, stationary bike or elliptical machine while reading books, listening to your iPod workout music or watching sports on TV, challenge youself with the following H.I.I.T. treadmill routine.
H.I.I.T. Treadmill Running Routine by Pace
Warm up by fast walk or light jog for 5 minutes.
Run at 8 miles/hr pace for 2 minutes
Walk at 4 miles/hr pace for 3 minutes
Run at 10 miles/hr pace for 2 minutes
Walk at 4 miles/hr pace for 3 minutes
Repeat this cycle 2 to 3 times for a very intense H.I.I.T. "cardio" session followed by cool-down and stretching.
You got the idea? You can also change up the intensity or work-to-recovery ratio by modifying the pace and duration. If you increase the grade or incline level like running uphill, your cardio intensity increases as well.
Most people in the gym have no idea about their running pace. They probably don't care about their running pace in miles per hour or minutes per mile. Having a good sweat and calorie burn is their main cardio concern.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Another yardstick to measure the level of cardio intensity is the so called "talk test." It's based on "how you feel" about the level of intensity in a cardio exercise. A revised Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) on the scale of 1 to 10 is used to gauge the level of intensity. Scale "1" means at rest or no movement. Scale "3" is weak, easy and you can carry on a conversation and finish a sentence without problem. Scale "5" is moderate, strong and you're breathing a little harder and cannot complete a sentence without a break. Scale "7" is hard, very strong and you're breathing heavily and unable to speak in complete sentences. Scale "9" is very hard and extremely strong like you're sprinting 100 meters at full speed.
The RPE method takes out the guesswork of your running speed, grade or incline level and your actual physical condition. It can be used for people who are taking medications that are artificially altering their heart rates or blood pressures. It helps these people to "listen to their bodies."
Another advantage with RPE is that it can be applied to cardio programming on elliptical trainers and stationary bikes, both would otherwise have to use "stride per minute" and "resistance level" as the parameters. Here is an example of using RPE to prescribe an H.I.I.T. cardio routine.
H.I.I.T. Cardio Routine by RPE
Time by Minutes vs. RPE (scale 1-10)
0-5 at 1 up to 3 for warm-up
5-8 at 5
8-10 at 7
10-13 at 3
13-15 at 7
15-18 at 3
18-20 at 7
20-23 at 3
23-25 at 7
25-30 at 3 down to 1 for cool-down
This H.I.I.T. routine uses the RPE as the gauge for leve of intensity. It mainly alternates RPE intensity levels between 7 and 3 for a total of four intervals. The work to recovery ratio by time is 2:3; that is, 2 minutes of very strong intensity at scale 7 vs. 3 minutes of moderate intensity at scale 3.
Several training parameters can be varied to get different levels of H.I.I.T. cardio workout: the scale of intensity and duration in each work and recovey period (work-to-recovery ratio), the number of repeats (intervals) and interval programming/pattern.
There is a very distinct advantage of H.I.I.T. cardio over traditional L.I.S.S. aerobic exercise due to its anaerobic effect. You're burning calories during the H.I.I.T cardio exericse. Your body will be still in the calorie-burning mode for a few hours after you finish the H.I.I.T. Your metabolism is elevated to keep burning calories for a few more hours.
One thing to remember is that you should keep H.I.I.T. cardio exercise within 30 minutes. Keep it short but at very high level of intensity. Preferably you perform full H.I.I.T. cardio training sessions on non-strength training days. In this way, you can be more focused and devote your undivided energy to H.I.I.T. cardio.
By all means H.I.I.T cardio is very intense. It's a good training practice by limiting full H.I.I.T. cardio to not more than 3 sessions a week. This is a guideline, not a hard rule. You need good nutrients and rest to recover your body and mind from the high intensity strength and cardio training. Muscle growth and body transformation occur when you rest, repair and recover training stresses.
Maximize Your Strength Training with H.I.I.T. Cardio
One great way to fire up your fat-burning furnace and keep it burning is to do a brief 10- to 15- minute H.I.I.T. cardio at mostly RPE scale of 7 to 8 at the end of your strength training session.
It'll help you melt away unwanted body fat faster than ever. The excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) demand due to high intensity strength training and H.I.I.T. cardio will fire up your metabolism and keep your body in fat-burning mode for good 24 to 48 hours.
You'll save time for separate cardio training sessions by integrating a brief H.I.I.T cadio into your strength training sessions. Not only does it save you time, H.I.I.T. cardio also helps you reap more benefits from your strength training.
The only exception to not doing H.I.I.T. cardio right after strength training is the day you've done "heavy" leg training. Your legs are pretty much fatigued. In this case, you can do low intensity walking or jogging to keep blood pumping. Stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, related muscle groups and any tight areas. This is the time you need to eat to replenish glycogen, refuel your body and repair muscle tissues.
H.I.I.T. Outdoor Hill Running Routine
Don't be despaired if you've been training and running for long distance races. You don't have to give up your running. Just train differently to reap the benefits.
Try hill running when you like to run outdoors. When you're in a race, the surface is never flat and straight. Think of hill training like a running-specific workout. Hill running is very simple to do.
Pick a hill in your neighborhood or in a park, perhaps 15 degrees grade and 100 yards long. Run uphill at a pace that you feel a RPE intensity level of 7 to 8. Catch your breath at the top of the hill. Walk down the hill to recover. Repeat the "running uphill and walking downhill" cycle a few more times. It is a similar H.I.I.T. routine that use running uphill as the work phase and walking downhill as the recovery phase.
Some treadmills or elliptical trainers have built-in Hill Interval program. Simply select a base resistance level. Adjust the level of intensity by changing the uphill and downhill time intervals. You can have a great indoor hill running.
Hill running is a very taxing cardio workout to your body. It's so hard to catch your breath when you reach the top of the hill. Your heart rate is racing to the roof trying to catch up with oxygen consumption in order to defy the gravity. Do it only once or twice a week as an integrated part of your running program. It will help you pass the speed bump around mile 21 on the Heartbreak hill in Boston Marathon.
H.I.I.T. Speedwork Track Running Routine
Another popular training program for endurance running is speedwork or distance repeat. This is typically done on a well-marked flat trail or a 400-meter track. The following is an example of H.I.I.T. routine on indoor or outdoor track.
After 10 minute light jogging warm-up, you can do one of the following routines followed by a 10-minute cool-down jog:
- 6 to 8 repeats x 400 meter with a two-minute recovery jog
- 3 to 4 repeats x 800 meter with a four-minute recovery jog
- 2 to 3 repeats x 1600 meter with a six-minute recovery jog
Here is another example of H.I.I.T. speedwork running routine that mixes different work-to- recovery ratios in one workout session.
H.I.I.T. Routine with Variable Work-to-Recovery Ratios
Run 400 meters
Jog for two minutes
Run 800 meters
Jog for four minutes
Run 1600 meters
Jog for six minutes
Sprint for 200 meters
Finish up with light jog, stretching and rest. Pack up, go home, you're done for the day. No more mindless running on the treadmill, reading newspapers or watching sports on the TV while riding a stationary bike. It will really challenge your cardiovascular system, elevate your metabolism and keep your body in a fat burning mode for a while.
40 Yard Dash - Sprint Interval
Have you ever seen fat, out-of-shape running backs and wide receivers in (American) football?
When the time strikes, they need to rush the last 40 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. They're highly paid athletes and they train hard to deliver the results. They look lean, strong, muscular and agile. They run with incredibly powerful dashing speed.
They don't jog at L.I.S.S. 5 times a week at low intensity of RPE 4 to get in shape, do they?
You don't need to do wind-sprint with a small parachute on your back or run with a weighted sleigh in the field. If you can get to the football field in high school or college, sprint for 40 yards then walk slowly on your way back to the starting line. You probably need to rest a few more minutes. Repeat a few times.
Sprint interval is similar to the H.I.I.T. routine of speedwork or distance repeat. In this case, the distance is 40 yards. The RPE intensity level is at least on the scale of 9 for sprinting speed. The football field is well marked with a white line in very 10 yards with a number. You can't miss it.
The work-to-recovery ratio in 40-yard dash repeat is very low. Even it takes 10 seconds for you to sprint the 40 yards, it may take 5 minutes of rest for your to be able to sprint again. However, the level of intensity is extremely high. The anaerobic effect and after-burn will help you burn fat for a few more hours. Record your sprint time, rest periods and number of repeats.
Just visualize that now you've got the ball. It's 4th quarter, 10 seconds left on the ticking clock. Your team is 14 vs. 21 behind your opponent. You need a touchdown plus a kick to tie for overtime. Sprint as fast as possible, straight through to the end zone for a touchdown. Close your eyes and feel the thrill when tens of thousands of audience are cheering for you!
Stadium Stair Running Interval
If you've been able to do your H.I.I.T. running on the 400-meter track in a high school or college, why not try stair running on the stadium stairs.
It's similar to hill running by running upstairs at RPE intensity level of 7 to 8. Then walk downstairs slowly to recover. Repeat a few times. Your heart rate will be racing all the way up.
Be Creative and Have Fun
Working out is supposed to fun; otherwise you won't stick to it for the long run. Be creative about your cardio training routine. Mix it up by cross training with a variety of cardiovascular exercises in a range of intensity levels. You won't get bored from the same old routine or get injuried from wear-and-tear and overtraining.
When the weather is nice and sunny outside, enjoy running in the park with your family or try dirt-road trail running with your more competitive training buddies.
If you like to run outdoors around your neighborhood, why not mix and match different H.I.I.T. routines on different terrains. Jog or run slowly on curvy or uneven roads. Run fast or sprint on straight, unobstructed sections. Run uphill for your hill training. Walk downhill to recover and catch your breath. Take a break for water and do some light stretching at the cul-de-sac. Turn around to follow the same path or take a different route back home.
Why not "run" your dog next time? Your poodle wouldn't mind running and getting some exercise. In fact, approximately 40 percent of dogs in the U.S. now are considered overweight! People cause pets' obesity.
Too Much Cardio to Burn off Hard Trained Lean Muscle?
What if you're just doing strength or weight training, do you need cardio exercises? Are you worried that too much cardio will catabolize your hard-trained lean muscle? Consider this again, as long as an exercise keeps your heart pumping, and pumping harder, and you're huffing and puffing, you have done a "cardio" exercise to strengthen your cardiovascular system.
You probably have heard about "circuit training" by way of doing 5 to 10 exercises one after each other without rest (or with very little rest) in a circuit fashion. You can perform a strength and cardio circuit training with your own bodyweight, on Cybex strength machines, or with barbells or dumbbells.
You get the rewards from both strength and cardio training by keeping your heart rate up using light to moderate weight or resistance. Do it when you're pressed for time to get out of the gym or use it as a cross training routine to add variety to your workout.
The potential benefits of high intensity interval training over the traditional slow steady state aerobic training are:
- Improved cardiovascular fitness, particularly anaerobic conditioning.
- Elevated VO2 max and lactate threshold
- Increased anti-oxidant protection
- Reduced risk for joint wear and tear
- Reduced muscle wasting
- Increased work capacity for the heart to handle life's up-and-down stress cycle.
It will kick your fitness level up another notch. You may start to burn the fat more efficiently while preserving your lean muscle mass.
Lean, Strong, High-Performance Body
- Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism. 43(7):814-8, July 1994.
- Tabata et al. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and [spacing dot above]VO2max, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28(10):1327-1330, October 1996.
- Talanian, Galloway et al., Two weeks of High-Intensity Aerobic Interval Training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. J Appl Physiol, 102: 1439-1447, 2007.
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