In 2016, more than 64 million people went for a jog or a run in the United States, and approximately 1% of the American population go for a run on an average day. There are over 30,000 running events to accommodate them, yearly.
Then there are all the hardcore bikers and swimmers, and those that blend all three and pursue triathlons. Walk into any large gym, and chances are there’s a waiting list for the best ellipticals and other cardio machines. Class-based aerobics, Zumba, and other waves of fitness trends are focused primarily around the cardio aspect of fitness as well.
Cardio exercise, with its many variations, is arguably still the king of fitness within the minds of the general public. For many people, it makes up the bulk of their training. Or if it doesn’t, they feel guilty that they “should” be doing more.
There’s no question that training the cardiovascular system is important, but in this article we’re going to explore what’s really necessary for most people. No hype, no nonsense. And we’ll give you a routine that’s probably a lot different from the “cardio” routines you’re used to.
What “Counts” as Cardio?
“Cardio” is a pretty broad term, and people use it to refer to a lot of different things. There are four main categories of exercises that people usually associate with this broad term. Let’s define these terms and categories so we’re all on the same page.
1. Aerobic Training
Aerobic training refers to exercise targeting the circulatory system and the lungs, and it’s often used interchangeably with “cardio.” It does not have to be fast, nor does it have to be for any specific duration. If you are challenging your body’s ability to intake oxygen and distribute it to your cells, that’s cardio.
Or to put it differently: if your heart is thumpin’ and your breath is puffin’, you’re doing some cardio.
Even though there are obviously many ways to make that happen, such as a particularly enthusiastic session of flipping pancakes, cardio for most people tends to evoke images of running, biking, circuit training, swimming, and machines such as the elliptical or rower.
Now, let’s get a bit more specific and look at some of the different kinds of cardio training.
2. LSD (Long Slow Distance)
Long Slow Distance is the good ‘ole boy of cardio. Pick a pace, keep it mostly steady, and go a long time. This is often the approach taken by many marathon runners and hikers, as it follows the linear training mentality of “if you want to be able to do more of the thing, do more of the thing.”
This type of training is also sometimes called LISS (low-intensity, steady state) since it doesn’t necessarily pertain to distance-based training.
A big benefit of this style of training is that it’s relatively straightforward. You simply maintain a slow to moderate pace of whatever movement you’re practicing, and go for a set time at that pace. It doesn’t require a lot of thinking or planning.
One downside is that it can be a rut you fall into. After a stressful day, it’s often easier to lace up your shoes and go jogging than to strength train, or do something more specific to your goals.
Injuries are prevalent with this form of training, too–though statistics can vary widely on this point. Depending on who you ask, 30-75% of runners will get injured in their sport every year, and there are even estimates as high as 90%. No matter which estimate you’re looking at, though, it’s a lot.
3. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
High intensity interval training is definitely hot in the fitness world right now.
Interval training simply refers to a period of active work followed by a predetermined amount of rest, before repeating the active work portion. Beyond that, there’s a lot of variation.
Regular interval training can be as simple as doing one minute of jogging followed by one minute of walking until you make it around the block. But at a higher intensity, the goal would be to provide only enough rest to allow for another bout of near-max effort. It can also include higher-speed “finishers” or sprints.
Many of the benefits of LSD training can be found in HIIT, along with some additional ones:
- Less time needed to get in a workout
- Higher cardio payoff for the time invested (more work performed per minute)
- More sustained metabolic effect
- Improved VO2 max
On the downside, HIIT is often less enjoyable for those new to exercise, since the higher intensity portions of the workout can be quite taxing. But, of course, that’s a matter of preference.
4. Tabata Training
Named after Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata, the idea behind a Tabata workout is simple.
It is a very specifically structured variation of HIIT, intended to be the “ideal” interval for higher intensity work, usually sprints. Over the course of four minutes, you are performing active work for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. But during those 20 second blocks, the goal is to go as hard as possible. Pretty soon, those 10 seconds of rest feel almost evil.
The short duration can make Tabata-structured workouts very accessible and beneficial to all levels.
Autoregulation is made easier by the simple structure–simply go as hard as your current level allows, within the confines of decent form, and you will improve. Meaning each time you attempt the same Tabata workout, it’ll be similarly difficult because you’ll get further each time, but always be working hard.
Cardio Training is Important (But it Doesn’t Have to Mean Hours on the Elliptical)
The fitness world is divided when it comes to cardio training. Some support the idea that cardio should be the primary part of your training, while others say you can skip it altogether.
Of course, like most things in life, the reality is more nuanced than that.
Getting your heart rate up and training your cardiovascular system is important for your health, and comes along with all sorts of benefits, including:
- Positive impacts on blood pressure
- Increased elasticity and resilience of the soft tissues
- Increased lifespan
- Improved sleep
- Boosted metabolism
- Better digestion
- Strengthened immune system
So there’s no doubt an emphasis on cardio training is important. But what that training looks like and how much you do of it will depend on your goals, preferences, and needs. And it doesn’t have to mean spending hours on the elliptical or treadmill.
How Cardio Might Look for You
We talk about goals a lot at GMB, and this is a point at which you’ll want to consider yours. If you’re not sure what you’re trying to do, then it’s going to be hard to figure out how to approach a topic as broad as cardio training.
If you’re training for a marathon, for instance, you will indeed need to spend some solid time doing LSD-style training, with a little strength training and intervals thrown in. If you’re planning to hike across a mountain range with a large pack, though, you’ll probably benefit more from training your endurance by carrying kettlebells in various configurations than by running for hours.
It all depends. So start with your goal, and build your training out from that.
For most people without specific endurance goals, any strenuous exercise that gets your heart pumping harder will be sufficient “cardio” training.
If you’re spending time on activities you enjoy, and you’re putting in a fair amount of hard work, you’re probably already doing enough cardio for your health. And if you’re not doing that just yet, you can start adding in a bit more targeted work.
Here’s a routine you can use to get your heart rate up. It’s probably pretty different than most cardio work you’ve done before, but you’ll get just as much benefit (if not more) than you would from a typical cardio routine.
Not Your Average Cardio Routine
For many people, cardio is just something they feel like they “have” to do. They dread that 30 minutes on the treadmill, and can’t wait for it to be over. And for good reason–it’s boring!
This routine is just one example of a fun alternative to get your heart pumping.
And beyond just being more interesting than the monotony of the treadmill, this routine will engage your entire body, giving you lot more benefit than most ways of doing cardio. It’ll help you build strength and control, giving you the benefits of cardiovascular training (without focusing so much on “cardio”).
For this routine, you will do 3 Bodyweight Squats in between the following movements:
- Jumps Forward and Back (3 reps)
- Alternating Single Leg Jumps to the Side (3 per side)
- Weight Shifted Push-Ups (3 per side)
- Alligator Rolls (3 reps)
Let’s look at each of these exercises in more detail:
This is a staple move and one that is guaranteed to get your heart rate up! In this routine, this will be the base movement that is performed in between all the others.
Keep your form impeccable by staying as upright as possible in your upper body, dropping your hips right between your legs and keeping your weight in the middle of your feet. Go as low as you are comfortable, while maintaining good form.
Control is the name of the game here, especially when you start feeling fatigued. Don’t force yourself to jump fast or far, and always land as softly as possible with great control. To do this, err on the side of feeling you could jump higher or further if you wanted.
The goal here is to keep moving, but to feel in control for the entire duration of your workout.
Weight Shifted Push-Ups
This is a great push-up variation that provides some good increased resistance to one side of the body if you are ready for it. This is the first step into one arm push-up territory! But since both hands are on the ground, you can adjust your weight shift to suit your capabilities and complete the repetition count that you desire.
If this is too much for you at the moment, then you can certainly perform regular push-ups (or on your knees as needed).
A fun core exercise, the alligator roll works not just your core, but your whole body in motion. Take your time on this one, working on keeping your body tight, but don’t hold your breath!
Focus on What You Need to
The key point I hope to drive home with this article is that how much cardio you need depends on your goals, situation, and needs.
Some people do enough heart pumping activity with whatever sports or training they do, that adding more “cardio” is unnecessary. For others, supplementing with some cardio training might be important at some times more than others.
Our approach is to focus on quality of movement, allowing your intensity to ramp up with time. When you take this approach, your “cardio” will take care of itself, but you’ll be getting a whole lot more from your training than you would from monotonous time on the treadmill.
Our free Bodyweight Circuit program is a great way to improve your overall strength, control, and conditioning, while getting the benefits of cardiovascular training.