The Good, Bad and the Ugly of Cardio
I want to preface this post by saying: yes, I believe it’s important to get your cardio in. Cardiovascular exercise increases your endurance, burns calories, etc. But cardio isn’t everything when it comes to burning fat, losing weight and building muscle to become a healthier person. Here are the basic ins and outs of cardio so you don’t waste your time or injure yourself by doing too much of the same thing:
- What you’d think of as traditional cardio, or low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, isn’t necessarily bad, but it won’t help you burn fat and gain lean muscle very efficiently. By low intensity cardio, we’re talking about running or walking on a treadmill, doing the elliptical, stationary bike, etc., consistently for a certain amount of time. Although this might be a good place to start for someone who has been sedentary for a long time and needs to gently ease into movement, for most of us it isn’t going to cut it. Your body will burn some calories during this kind of workout, but it will pretty much stop burning calories right after you finish. It is also very time-consuming, as you will need to do this type of cardio for 30–45 minutes in order for it to be effective.
- The alternative to the slow and repetitive LISS cardio is high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT cardio combines very high intensity cardio work with a short amount of rest in between sets in order to maximize cardiovascular performance. (Source) Working out this way is a lot more difficult at first, as you are exerting yourself 100% for a short amount of time, instead of 50–70% for a long time. However, it is much more effective in burning fat, increasing metabolism and increasing your body’s cardiovascular fitness. An easy-to-remember and very effective example of HIIT training is the tabata exercise. You can choose essentially any workout movement—burpees, sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, sprints, squats, whatever. You perform the movement for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds, repeating this cycle for eight rounds. You will get worn out very quickly, get your heart rate up and burn lots of fat with this kind of exercise. And the best part is, it only lasts for four minutes. Talk about efficient!
- If you’re not supplementing your cardio with strength training, you’re not going to get any stronger and gain muscle. You’ll burn some fat, but that’s it. So get with a trainer at your gym and go over some basic lifts like squats, deadlifts and shoulder presses. Use your body weight for resistance work by getting in some pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups (any of these can be modified to fit your current fitness abilities). Strength training is a crucial supplement to your cardio workout because it not only burns fat and builds muscle, but it also increases your metabolism after your workout so your body will continue to burn calories for hours afterward, instead of minutes, like it will with LISS cardio. It also decreases your chances of having joint problems, osteoporosis, heart disease and even diabetes.
- Remember to vary your movements. If you do the same workout all the time, your body will adapt, burn fewer calories and you’ll plateau. Switch it up and get creative for the best results from your workouts.
To conclude, cardio is definitely an important aspect of your workout. Just remember that for it to be effective, you must keep it varied, try it at high intensity intervals and mix in some strength training. Now hit the gym!