When people think about exercise, it draws up images of intense activity, elevated heart rate, profuse sweating, and feelings of exhaustion – in other words, picture running. Running is hard. It jacks up your heart-rate super high, super fast. It makes you gasp for air, makes your legs burn and feel like they are filled with lead, and usually leaves you dripping with sweat and exhausted for quite some time after.
Once this whole scenario from start to finish is played out in someone’s head and their life flashes before their eyes (by life, I mean a whole 10-minute run!), it’s no wonder some people consider cardio to be a four-letter word.?
WHAT IS CARDIO?
All kidding aside, cardio is just one form of exercise. Exercise doesn’t always encompass jacking up your heart rate or having it stay elevated for the duration of the workout. Nor does it always mean jumping around, require intense bursts of energy, gushing sweat, or feeling completely zapped when all is said and done.
Cardio, or more specifically aerobic exercise, literally means heart, according to Wikipedia. Cardio is being used more often these days than aerobic exercise, a term much more common in the 70’s and 80’s. Aerobic has to do with the oxygen demands of a particular exercise, whereas cardio refers to the heart rate demands of a particular exercise. When your heart rate increases, your need for oxygen increases. When your need for oxygen intake increases, your heart rate starts to elevate.
I make the distinction between cardio and aerobic exercise because while workouts such as CrossFit incorporate weights and lifting movements, I classify them more as aerobic workouts, similar to classifying Nicole’s Cardio Acceleration workouts as aerobic workouts, even though they incorporate weights and lifting movements.
If a workout is more cardio (or aerobic) driven, even if it incorporates weights and lifting movements, I classify it as cardio.
This is important because if you’re trying to build muscle, but your workouts consist of 3-4 CrossFit workouts per week, and you run a few times per week, you are doing a ton of cardio. You might want to replace some of your cardio workouts with heavier weight-lifting sessions and no cardio after. If, on the other hand, you did slow, heavy lifting sessions 3x’s per week and incorporated two 45-60 minute CrossFit workouts per week, the CrossFit workouts could count toward your cardio for the week.
TYPES OF CARDIO
1. Low Intensity, Long Duration (also known as Steady State)
This type of cardio involves intensities of around 40 to 60% of maximum heart rate. It is slow, easy, continuous, and long (over 40 minutes). This is generally limited to walking since most other forms of cardio may elevate your heart rate too high, but it can also include cycling or a slow jog depending on your fitness level. You should be able to carry on a conversation without feeling out of breath. This is ideal if you’re just starting out, or getting back into training after a break and trying to increase your exercise endurance. It also can be good for fat loss when incorporated in a weekly program with other forms of cardio.
2. Medium Intensity, Medium Duration
This involves aerobic work done at around 70% of max HR. It’s more difficult than low intensity, steady state, and therefore it cannot be done for as long, usually between 20 to 40 minutes. This type of training can be used for fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and exercise endurance. You should find it difficult to carry on a conversation without having to stop and take a few breaths.
3. High Intensity, Short Duration (also known as HIIT)
At 80 to 85% of your max HR, you are pretty much at your anaerobic threshold, though this can vary depending on your fitness level. This is the most demanding form of aerobic training. Workouts can last between 5 to 20 minutes, possibly 30 minutes with a few rest periods, depending on your fitness level and intensity of the exercises. High Intensity Interval Training (or HITT) is in this category and has become quite popular over the last 10 years. If you can talk at all during a high-intensity cardio session, you aren’t pushing hard enough.
4. Aerobic Interval Training
Aerobic interval training involves doing a period of moderate to high intensity aerobic work, alternated with a period of rest or low intensity work (3 minutes of fast running, then 1 minute of slow walking, repeated 4 times). You can vary the intervals and intensities, e.g. 10 minutes of moderate work, 2 minutes easy, 1 minute hard, or perhaps 5 minutes hard, 5 minutes easy. The key is variation, while not working so hard that you must stop completely.
5. Anaerobic Interval Training
This type of training involves going hard for short periods of time followed by a short rest period for several intervals or rounds. It is done at intensities of 85 to 100% of your max HR. A good example of this is Tabata training, which is 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest, for 8 rounds. You can use any exercise for a Tabata workout. For example, if you wanted to do a back and biceps Tabata workout, you could do bent-over barbell rows (20w/10r x 8 sets) followed by barbell biceps curls (20w/10r x 8 sets). Or, try this: Tabata jumping jacks: 20w/10r x 8 sets. You’re welcome.?
6. Circuit Training
Circuit training is basically aerobic weight training. One of the best examples, as mentioned above, is Nicole’s Cardio Acceleration Workouts. You can mix in treadmill work, jumping jacks, cycling, etc. to add variety. This is a good way to get an aerobic (cardio) workout and weight training workout (anaerobic) at the same time. It also has the advantage of working the entire body instead of 1-3 muscle groups, as most forms of aerobic training do.
CARDIO IS A VARIABLE
Cardio can be an incredible manipulation tool to fine-tune body composition. When to do cardio depends on your goals, nutrition, your other workouts, and how your body responds to the duration, frequency, and different types of cardio. Keep in mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean more is always better. My best recommendation is to:
• Work with a trusted coach or trainer.
• Follow one of Nicole’s challenges and see how your body responds (factoring in the workouts and nutrition).
• Experiment on yourself by slowly introducing specific cardio to your weekly program and recording your cardio type, frequency and duration.
• Keep track of your calories and macros, as well as the structure of your strength-training workouts. The only variable that should change from week-to-week is cardio. This is crucial because if you drop your calories and macros, or add a few circuit training workouts, you won’t know exactly what attributed to the changes in your body. Was it the cardio, nutrition, or the changes in strength-training workouts?
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Cardio can be applied in a million different ways. This is why it is so important to be very specific about your goals. Cardio workouts are one piece of the puzzle, along with strength-training and nutrition, to contribute to your fitness goals. Record your progress and adjust as necessary based on how your body responds.
1. Don’t Throw Caution To The Wind
Have a very specific reason for incorporating the type of cardio, duration of each session, and number of sessions you do per week. Don’t just do cardio for the sake of doing cardio and getting your exercise in. How much and what type you do can either help or prevent you from reaching your goals.
Variety is the spice of life and cardio is no different. I can run for a long period of time, and I can stay on the stair climber for an hour if I wanted to. But ask me to swim a lap and I’ll putter out halfway across the pool. Not all cardio is created equal. Adding a variety of cardio exercises prevents your body from plateauing, and you also avoid potential overuse injuries.
3. Know Why
You should always know why you are doing something, even if your reason is “because my coach said so.” As long as you trust your coach, that’s a good enough reason! ? If you are doing one of Nicole’s challenges, then Nicole is your coach and the cardio protocol is outlined to help you reach the goal for the challenge. If you don’t have a coach, or you aren’t doing a challenge, the last thing you should do is cardio just because you think you’re supposed to do 30-minutes after strength training. Ask yourself how it fits into your overall fitness program.
4. Maximize Cardio By Elimination
It is OK to drastically reduce or even completely omit cardio for short periods of time during a muscle-building phase. Actually, it’s a really, REALLY good thing to do oddly enough. Why? Because your body will most likely respond much better to cardio once it is reintroduced. If you’ve been doing a ton of cardio, however, you really can only increase your cardio so much. So backing off or eliminating it for short periods of time is ideal in order to keep cardio as an affective fitness tool.
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ABOUT NAOMI RABON
One of the trainers on Nicole’s elite NW Fitness Training Team, Naomi is a certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is a NPC Figure competitor who has been involved in the health and fitness industry for over 12 years.