The Best Cardio Workouts: Finding What You’ll Actually Do
Why Cardio is Not Completely Worthless
Cardio is hated by many people. They’d rather clean up roadkill or “crawl through 500 yards of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine” like Andy Dufresne did in the Shawshank Redemption than do cardio.
However, the benefits of cardio workouts are undeniable:
- Improved work capacity
- Lower body fat percentage
- Happier mood
- More energy
- Longer life
- A higher midi-cholorian count (Just kidding…well, maybe)
In a real life sense, that means you’ll be able to walk up stairs without having to catch your breath, run away from bears in the woods, have a better sex life, or you know, film epic chase scenes like this:
Damn. Let’s just say that cardio is worthwhile because it leads to a better life. Can’t argue with that.
Different Types of Cardio Workouts
You can’t skip cardio. Hopefully that is clear now. But, if you’re anything like me and hate most types of cardio, you do at least have plenty of options:
- Steady state cardio. This would be something like going for an hour walk at a consistent pace, riding a bike or using the elliptical. This type of cardio is low intensity in nature and is done by like 135.6% of people in commercial gyms. It’ll burn calories, but make sure you wear some sturdy undergarments because it may just bore the shit out of you. I do however find it valuable at times and personally use this type of cardio to answer emails and do some planning.
- Interval training. There are really two types of interval training – low intensity and high intensity. Low intensity intervals are easy and high intensity intervals are hard. Whoa, shocking I know. For low intensity intervals you may alternate jogging with walking while high intensity intervals would alternate sprinting with walking. There are many different modes, like jumping rope, cycling, medicine ball tosses and battle ropes, but you get the idea.
- Circuit training. Basically, you’d choose a few exercises and perform one after another with minimal rest. Lots of options for this type of cardio as well, my favorite being barbell complexes.
- Sports. Sorry, I’m not talking about golf here, the type of pickup basketball games where you walk down the court and don’t play any defense, or beer league softball. Those are not cardio. I’m talking about sports in the sense of playing a game of basketball where you run up and down the court and actually shuffle your feet while playing defense or MMA training or a pickup game of football where you run routes and cover people 1 on 1. Those are examples of cardio.
Improving your cardio can help your fitness in many ways, but the best cardio workouts fit into a bigger plan that helps you reach your specific goals.
The Best Cardio Workouts Help You Achieve Your Goals
Nobody does cardio because they like cardio. They may like the way it makes them feel or how it helps them get in better shape or the challenge, but not the actually doing of it. With that in mind, when you’re choosing your cardio, don’t you think it should help you…oh I don’t know…actually achieve your goals? Yes you do, of course.
So what are your goals?
If you’re trying to gain muscle mass, your cardio should be designed in a way that doesn’t hinder muscle growth. The best cardio workouts for you would be the low intensity variety like incline walking or cycling or a low volume of high intensity work like sprinting. If you’re trying to gain mass, the last thing you want to do is impair your ability to lift weights hard – your cardio should reflect this. More often than not, if you’re a hard gainer and really want to put on muscles mass, your cardio should be almost nothing.
If you’re training for a 1/2 marathon, marathon, triathlon or another endurance event you’re obviously going to need to do much more cardio than anyone else. Not to say you won’t weight train, because you most definitely should, but what is your main goal? To get better at your event. The best cardio workouts for you will be a combination of a high volume of low and medium intensity cardio exercises and a much lower volume of high intensity work like high intensity intervals. This group of people is one of the only ones who will have to do that thing called jogging. For most other people, jogging is completely unnecessary, but hey if you like it I can’t argue with that.
If you’re like most people who just want to lower their body fat and be in better overall shape, you have lots of options. The best cardio workouts for you could be high intensity intervals, low intensity slow and steady cardio, or some more unconventional cardio like battle ropes, sled pushes, jump rope or even just playing different sports.
Choosing the Best Cardio Workouts for YOU
Choose your cardio at your own risk.
The amount of time you’re willing to commit to training, your injury history, fitness level and current goals will all dictate what the best cardio workouts are for you. Most importantly, the best cardio workouts are the ones you’ll actually do. There are many different ways to get the results you want, but finding what will work for YOU in your specific situation ultimately matters most.
I have a client who is retired, walks 8 miles per day (low intensity, slow and steady cardio) and also does two 30-minute sessions of strength training each week. He’s been able to consistently lose weight and get in much better shape this way, but he’s exercising 10+ hours each week.
Another client of mine lifts weights hard 3x per week for 45 minutes, does more unconventional cardio at the end of each session and has also been able get in much better shape, but his total exercise time each week is more like 3 hours.
Personally, I’ll use some steady state cardio like incline walking to answer emails or do some planning on my phone. Also I’ll include basketball a couple times per week and a day of HIIT on the treadmill most weeks.
Decide on Your Parameters
How much time will you spend exercising each week? If you only have 2-3 hours per week, the best use of your time may be weight training with some high intensity intervals (Depending on your goal). If you have 4-5 hours you may add in more low intensity work as well a solid weight training regimen.
Are you a beginner? You’ll want to start with low intensity cardio or ease into high intensity intervals with a progressive program.
What type of cardio do you enjoy most? Put another way, what type of cardio do you hate least? Running? Biking? Swimming? Stairs? The elliptical? Non-conventional cardio like battle ropes? Nobody says you have to do a certain type of cardio. Decide on the place you’re going to start, don’t worry, you can switch things up each time if you’d like, but consistency is still key for getting the results you want.
When deciding on your parameters remember this – Your actions have to reflect your desired outcome. Do you want quick results or results that are more maintainable? If you are only exercising 2 hours per week at a low intensity, but want insanely fast results, your expectations are way off. Could you make progress that way? Sure, but not to the level you probably want (Depending on your nutrition and exercise intensity of course).
The Best Cardio Workouts
Alright, here’s what you’ve been looking for – exact workout protocols. Try different ones out to see what you like most – or hate least. Yes, cardio can be difficult, but the harder you work, the better results you’ll get. Again, there is a time and place for low intensity cardio, but sometimes you just need suck it up and kick your own ass. These workouts will help.
These are one of my favorite forms of cardio by far. Hills vary in length and incline of course, but shoot for a 1:1 work:rest ratio. If the hill takes 15 seconds do sprint up then jog back down, rest 15 seconds at the bottom, and repeat. If you find this too difficult then simply try a little longer rest interval like 1:2 or 1:3.
One of my favorite hills takes around 20 or 25 seconds to sprint up and 10 of these sprints is plenty to get a kick-ass workout.
You hold a barbell and do a few exercises in a row with putting it down – simple, right? Yup, but it sure can suck. In a good and bad way. They can suck to do, but you get such a great workout from them and feel accomplished afterward. The exercises I choose most often are:
- Front Squat
- Bent Over Row
This sequence just makes sense and flows well which is why I use it. Typically I’ll do anywhere from 3-6 rounds performing 6-8 reps per set. The lady clients I have start with 45lbs working up to 55 or 65 while the gentlemen typically start with 65lbs working up to as much as 95lbs. After each round, rest 90-120s and repeat.
Every client I’ve had who has tried the battle ropes has said they are deceptively hard. At first glance you think there is no way these giant shoestring looking things will be tiring, but then you try them and your only thought is “HOLY SHIT!”
15-30 seconds per set is plenty, but on occasion I’ll have clients do them for 60 seconds. You know, like those days where they show up late 🙂
The great part about battle ropes is that anyone who has a lower body injury that would normally prevent them from doing many forms of higher intensity exercise can use battle ropes and not have to worry.
Here are 15 different battle rope exercises for you to try out:
High Intensity Intervals
In a gym setting, high intensity intervals can be used with any cardio equipment, but my go-to would be a spin bike or treadmill. Typically sets of 15 seconds of sprinting followed by 15 seconds of rest of 30 seconds of sprinting and 30 seconds of rest are best. Try doing 8-10 sprints per set with 2-3 minutes of active recovery between sets.
Dynamic Treadmill Sprints
The dynamic mode on Woodway treadmills is something many people don’t know about. You get to this magical place by pressing the on button and then holding down the – and + speed buttons at the same time until dynamic mode shows up on the screen. When this happens, the treadmill then becomes self propelled with the belt freely moving – let the fun begin.
At this point, set the incline between 5% and 7% and follow a similar protocol to high intensity intervals. The best (and worst) part about using dynamic mode is you are pushing the belt. That means you can run as fast as you can and not be bound by a speed you choose. As you fatigue, you can keep the same interval length and rest time, but you just won’t run as fast.
Another reason why dynamic mode sprints are amazing is that anyone can do them. Instead of having to worry about jumping on and off the treadmill at high speeds like you’ll do with high intensity intervals, you’ll simply slow down and the belt will slow down.
Incline Treadmill Walking
You can’t always train hard and when you’re not up for killing it with some sprints you can still make some progress with a little incline walking. For this, set the treadmill to a 10% incline and a speed of 3-4 mph and get to it. Nothing too complicated here, but you’ll burn calories, ease stress and feel better for it.
At the gym I train at there is one big set of stairs and I’ll have many of my clients use this. We’ll do anywhere from 3-10 stairs in a set, typically taking 30-60 seconds of rest after each set.
In my apartment, which has 8 floors, I’ll run the stairs as well, taking a similar amount of rest at the end of each set and repeating 4-6 times for a quick, intense cardio workout. The best part? The stairs are of course indoors, so during the frigid cold winter months in Wisconsin I can run them and not have to even leave my apartment. That’s what I like to call winning.
There is no other cardio workout I enjoy more than playing basketball and it just so happens to be one helluva workout when you actually play hard. The glorious thing is that is doesn’t even feel like working out! It’s simply fun, but by the end you’re dripping in sweat and feel completely drained.
Besides playing in the typical 5 on 5 full court game I’ve found that a great way to play basketball and ensure you get a great workout is to play full court 1 on 1. Seriously, try that out. You don’t have to be good at basketball to do it, but it will be one of the best cardio workouts of your life if you actually try.
You don’t have to love cardio – that would be asking way too much. However, with the incentive of a longer life and better health, do yourself a solid and do some cardio every week.
At least two days per week of cardio is a good start. Can you do that? Of course you can. I mean, basketball counts as cardio for goodness sake so it can’t be that hard. Find the method you’ll actually do and then GET IT DONE!
To help you organize not only your cardio workouts, but also your weight training and nutrition, apply for the Just Go Fitness Online Coaching Program where I help people like yourself lose body fat, gain muscle and get in amazing shape – without the headaches of doing it on your own.
Do me a favor, have a GREAT day and happy cardio-ing 🙂