Guide to Cardio
Which of these are you?
“You have to do cardio to get lean”
“Cardio sucks – don’t do any”
It seems that these two approaches dominate the fitness industry, and divide the community completely down the middle.
Half the people out there are still convinced that cardio is the be all and end all in losing fat.
I’m not even just talking about your average people in a typical commercial gym either, who spend hour upon hour on the elliptical and treadmill. I’m referring just as much to comp prep coaches who have clients perform fasted cardio every morning for 90 minutes. As well as the competitors who do their double daily dose of incline walking or stationary cycling.
Then you get others who despise cardio.
For them, anything over 8 reps is considered an aerobic workout, and they’ll drive around the parking lot, looking for the closest space to the gym doors just to avoid burning any extra calories.
So, who’s right?
Dude – Do Some Damn Cardio…(But not too much)
I’m going to be the boring guy here.
And once again, come across as “Mr Uncontroversial” by saying that when it comes to cardio, a middle-ground approach is almost always best.
There’s certainly a lot to be said for cardio burning calories and accelerating fat loss, but it needn’t (and shouldn’t) be the primary focus in anyone’s workout. (Unless you’re an endurance athlete that is, but I’m guessing you’re more worried about being lean, strong and muscular?)
Likewise, you’re a fool if you refuse point blank to do any kind of aerobic work.
Sure, you CAN create a calorie deficit through diet alone, but do you really want to?
A few higher-intensity sessions and a little LISS (low-intensity steady state) each week can burn off 1,000-1,500 calories, which equates to being able to eat an extra 150 to 200 calories per day.
I know that I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more activity if it meant I could have a little more frozen yoghurt, a few pieces of fruit, or a sandwich for lunch every day.
People also forget the fitness and general health benefits that cardio brings.
If you’re fitter, you’ll need to rest less, have a greater work capacity, and be able to give more in your weights workouts.
So in summary, SOME cardio is probably a good idea.
Not doing any is likely selling yourself short, and doing too much is needless and may impact your recovery.
With that settled, the question remains…
What Cardio Should You Do?
I’ll be honest – I do generally favour HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) over steady cardio like jogging and cycling.
The reason comes down mainly to efficiency.
The biggest driver in cardio for fat loss is calorie burn, and if you can burn, say, 300 calories in 20 minutes of HIIT, why would you bother taking twice as long to burn the same amount with a low to medium intensity session?
Additionally, there is some evidence that shows HIIT to have slightly more of an effect on metabolism and post-workout calorie burn, plus it tends to be more muscle-sparing.
That’s why HIIT is always my first port of call with my clients, and when getting myself into contest-ready condition.
Here are some of the protocols I like to employ…
* See notes section below for guides on warming up and exercise selection
15 seconds maximum
45 seconds steady
Repeated 10 times
20 seconds maximum
60 seconds steady
Repeated 8 times
30 seconds maximum
90 seconds steady
Repeated 6 times
40 seconds maximum
140 seconds steady
Repeated 4 times
For all the above, I’d take 5 minutes to warm up at a moderate intensity, and another 5 minutes at the end.
You can pick whatever cardio machine you like for these, but the main thing to think about is how quickly and easily you can change speed or intensity, especially if you’re choosing the shorter intervals.
You can also try sprints or hill sprints outside, but if you’re not used to sprinting, or are overweight, a low-impact machine may be a better option.
Other choices for HIIT cardio include:
- Prowler pushes
- Sled drags
- Jumping rope/ skipping
- Performing exercises as your “interval” and then some moderate activity for your “steady” period. Such an example would be kettlebell swings, burpees, dumbbell snatches or thrusters, interspersed with a brisk walk or steady jog.
What You’re “MISS”ing
Just because I think HIIT is a better choice for most people – especially anyone who wants to spend less time in the gym and still get results – doesn’t mean I’m against other forms of cardio.
MISS and LISS (moderate and low intensity steady state) cardio have a place too.
For instance, toward the end of a diet, when your strength is dropping, you may find that performing HIIT is just too much to recover from.
Or you might just prefer to take things steady and train a little longer. And just like with diet, personal preference definitely plays a big role in training.
To determine intensity, use the RPE scale.
An effort level of 6-7 out of 10 would be classed as low-intensity – so a brisk walk, or gentle bike ride.
An effort level 7-8 out of 10 would be MISS – a fast walk, steady jog, a tough hike, or even a dance class would count.
For every 10 minutes of HIIT, you’d need roughly 20 minutes of MISS and 30 minutes of LISS to get the same benefits.
When to Add Cardio
As a baseline, I would start out with 1 to 2 (preferably HIIT) cardio per sessions per week in a fat loss phase.
As you progress, you may find you hit plateaus.
Cardio can then be added either along with a cut in calories, or instead of cutting macros.
Do this sensibly so the split between the two remains balanced.
If you do have a week where everything stays the same and you need to shake things up a bit, try cutting a few calories and adding 1 to 2 extra intervals into each of your cardio workouts, or tacking on another 20 minutes of MISS/LISS.
If you’d rather not touch your calorie intake, you can get a bit more aggressive by adding a whole extra interval workout in, or an additional 60 minutes of steady state.
The take home here is that cardio is just one other variable you can monitor to help you stay on track towards your goals, get fitter, drop body fat and get lean.