Cardio, Do I Really Have To?
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
One of the most common questions I get as a trainer is how much cardio should I be doing? The answer is not one size fits all and should be based on your own goals. Often, people are either doing too much cardio and neglecting strength training or they aren’t doing it frequently enough. There is also a new trend where people are telling you to skip cardio all together
But guys, please don't be like Fat Amy. We might ask ourselves:
WHY DO I NEED TO DO CARDIO?
Cardio is a type of aerobic exercise that improves cardiovascular function, helping your heart to pump blood throughout your body more efficiently. It also raises your blood volume and helps to increase the intensity and volume you can perform strength (anaerobic) training.
Cardio helps to improve brain and memory function while also decreasing both your subcutaneous and visceral fat. Visceral fat is inside the abdominal cavity. We can’t see this fat but it surrounds your organs causing inflammation and plaque build up. High visceral fat is linked to increased risk of diabetes type II, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers. It is important to note that you can have a flat stomach and still have an unhealthy amount of visceral fat. Research shows that high intensity strength/resistance training, drinking enough water, and a balanced diet can also help reduce the amount of visceral fat in your abdomen!
Many of us complain about subcutaneous fat in our midsection, arms and back (the fat that lies right below the surface and you are able to pinch) however a well structured strength and conditioning program with added cardio is most beneficial for getting rid of this.
WHAT TYPE OF CARDIO SHOULD I DO?
I am a firm believer that cardio is not a “one size fits all” type of thing. Maybe you hate running on a treadmill and staring at a wall. Maybe you have knee or back issues and any type of running causes pain. If you absolutely hate something, don’t do it! (unless it’s lunges, ‘cause those are essential) because chances are you won’t stick with it long term. But I promise there is something out there for everyone- you just have to be open to trying it. Outdoor bike rides or indoor cycling, classes like HIIT, kickboxing and dance, even bodyweight interval style training… there is something out there for you!
Image by Supply Lab Media
OKAY, SO HOW MUCH CARDIO SHOULD I BE DOING?
I hear a lot of women say “I’m afraid to do cardio because I don’t want to lose my butt/curves.” It is true that doing too much will lead to this, but the right amount will help to enhance those curves while also slimming your waist and upper body!
There are a few different types of cardio training styles and your own personal goals will determine which is best (or what combination is preferred) for you.
Note: If you have any heart conditions or concerns that cardio may be unsafe for you, always check with your doctor before starting a program.
Less Intensity Steady-State (LISS) Cardio:
This type of cardio is what most people think of when I say the dreaded 6-letter word. A good example of this is when you get on the treadmill, put it at a comfortable speed and run for 20-40 minutes; or take a run through the park for a few miles. If you are new to exercise, have health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes, or are looking to really improve your heart and lung function this option is most likely best for you to start with.
How often? 3-5 times per week
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT):
Chances are you have seen some type of high endurance fitness class in your gym or on social media. These classes last anywhere from 30-45 minutes and alternate between high intensity movements that really get your heart pumping, to short recovery periods lasting 15-60 seconds. If you are trying to lose fat while building lean muscle and improving your endurance, you should focus primarily on this type of cardio.
If your goal is to lose inches in your mid-section and build or enhance curves in your lower body, doing 10-20 minutes of sprints (30-60 second work/recovery intervals) is my personal favorite type of cardio to focus on!
How often? 2-5 times per week
WHEN SHOULD I DO CARDIO? BEFORE OR AFTER STRENGTH TRAINING
Although it is hard to fit everyone into one category of what they should be doing, if your goal is to primarily focus on weight training and also incorporate cardio (best for most people) my preference is definitely A F T E R ! Switching the order that you do your cardio and weight training can really increase your overall performance in the gym. If you are doing cardio before you lift weights it is likely that you will be low on energy and fatigue much faster once you actually get to the weight lifting portion of the workout. It is best to use your strength where you need it (with the weights) and then power through 10-30 minutes of cardio afterwards!
A proper warm-up before strength training is still recommended but will be much less intense and last no longer than 10-12 minutes usually.
AT HOME CARDIO OPTIONS
COVID is really limiting our indoor cardio options in some states but that doesn’t mean we have to just skip it altogether. Luckily we have many other options aside from a traditional treadmill or elliptical you may be used to. Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Peloton are all now full of professionals giving you access to short workouts that can even be done in your living room. A few examples of my personal favorites include:
Jump Rope Intervals: 30-45 seconds of jumping rope followed by a 15-30 second rest. Start your timer and complete 10-15 rounds back-to-back!
Body-Weight Cardio Workout: Try a few of your favorite bodyweight exercises back-to-back for 30-45 second intervals. If you want to increase intensity, add resistance bands, ankle weights, or light dumbbells. An example of this would be:
45 second body-weight sumo squats
45 second mountain climbers
30 second lateral lunge to jump squat (each side)
30 second burpee
30 second elevated foot, single-leg glute bridge (each side)
30 second bicycles
Repeat x 4-5 rounds.
Combined Jump Rope and Strength Training:
Beginners: start with 30 seconds of jump rope followed by 30 seconds of a strength training exercise like squats, lunges, or push ups. Take 15-30 second rest between rounds only if needed.
Each round = 1 minute. Repeat x 5-10 rounds.
Intermediate/Advanced: 45-60 second jump rope followed by 30-45 second wall squat, lunge, glute bridge, push up, etc. (can add bands or dumbbells for resistance). Rest 15-30 seconds between each round
Each round = 1 minute 30 seconds - 2 minutes. Repeat x 5-10 rounds.
WAYS TO PASS THE TIME
Podcasts, Audible books, a class lecture, or your favorite artist's new album are all great ways to help distract yourself and power through your cardio session. Instead of thinking about it as if it were torture, try using it as “me time” and take a break from all of lifes busy work. After you start doing this for a few weeks, you may be surprised how great it makes you feel!