Discover more from Strong As An Ox
Don't sweat it! The Ox has you covered!
Cardio is one of the most misunderstood domains of fitness. Beginners typically view cardio as the be-all and end-all solution for fat loss. This misunderstanding can limit success in health and fitness regimens, as diet is the primary catalyst for fat loss. Cardio is simply a tool that can expedite the process.
Cardio serves a much greater purpose in terms of overall health, mood, ability to workout harder, and also fat loss.
The good news is that there is an effective and practical approach to cardio instead of countless hours on the elliptical “trying to lose weight.”
Cardio is called “cardio” for a reason: it is the process of working out your cardiovascular system. The benefits are extensive, as it trains the most important muscle in your body, your heart. Training your heart can lower blood pressure, increase blood flow, improve aerobic/anaerobic performance, and increase VO2 Max.
Many people find cardio functions like a nootropic, from increased focus to profound effects on mood facilitated by the release of endorphins (the “feel good” chemicals in your brain that are produced during activities like exercise). The positive effects on focus, mood, and stress levels promote more creativity and cognitive function.
In terms of physical performance, improved cardiovascular fitness will improve one’s ability to lift weights by increasing overall work capacity. The healthier my cardiovascular system, the easier I’m able to push heavy sets in high rep ranges (15+ reps) without getting winded and stopping short of muscle failure. You do not want cardio to be the limiting factor in your weightlifting program. Don’t leave muscle growth on the table: make muscle growth the limiting factor.
Most people know cardio is effective for increasing one’s caloric deficit to lose body fat. Unfortunately, many also assume fat loss is exclusively predicated on cardio. The truth is you can lose weight without taking a single step on a treadmill. If you want to lose weight more efficiently, cardio can increase your caloric deficit without having to decrease your caloric input from food. Which makes dieting much easier. More food also makes it easier to maintain muscle mass (and even increase strength), which is your goal anytime you decide you cut, or diet down.
Forms of Cardio
User preferences and goals will determine the type of cardio employed. Some people love Low Intensity Steady State cardio (LISS), while others prefer to maximize efficiency with High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Others have specific goals that dictate their approach (e.g., training for a 5k, military physical tests, or sports performance). This guide will focus on LISS and HIIT strategies, as those training with specific goals in mind will tailor their plans to their specializations.
Low Intensity Steady State cardio is just that: low intensity (60-70% max heart rate) exercise for a duration of time at a constant rate. This exercise can be anything you enjoy, whether equipment (treadmill, elliptical, bike) or activity (walking, rucking, swimming).
For overall health, I suggest doing at least 20 minutes, three to seven days per week. Since I have a max heart rate in the 200-220 beats per minute (BPM) range, I try to target 130-140 BPM (60-70% of my max heart rate).
If dieting and trying to lose fat, the amount of LISS needed is dependent on caloric deficit and rate of fat loss. Heart rate should still be kept at 60-70% of max, as this zone is where the rate of fat loss is optimized. Calories in versus calories out will still drive fat loss — staying in the 60-70% range is simply the most optimal rate. If you choose to decrease caloric intake, be sure to maintain the suggested volume for general health (at least 20 minutes, three to seven days per week). If you maintain caloric intake and still want to maintain fat loss, add in five to ten minutes of extra cardio per session (or an additional session of the same duration) if and when fat loss starts to slow down or plateau.
I do not suggest more than 55 minutes of cardio per session, and no more than two sessions a day for those trying to get extremely shredded. Too much LISS will impact recovery and ability to maintain muscle while dieting.
High Intensity Interval Training is a cardio technique that involves short, intense bursts of activity, followed by a recovery period of much less intense activity. There are many ways to divide these intervals, as there are many different schools of thought on HIIT. Some prefer intervals of 30 seconds of intense activity with 30 seconds of recovery. Others like to go hard for a minute, with two minutes of recovery, and some utilize even shorter durations, at increased ratios, like 15 seconds on 45 seconds off. I have found a 1:3 or 1:2 interval ratio to be most effective.
The goal of HIIT is to get the heart rate as high a possible by applying maximum effort during the interval, then allowing the heart rate to drop back down so one can recover and repeat at the same high level of performance. This cycle forces your body to use the anaerobic pathway (breaking down glucose without the use of oxygen for short periods of time) to perform the exercise. HIIT is good for increasing VO2 max (how much oxygen your muscles can utilize during exercise).
I suggest keeping HIIT sessions around 15 minutes. Any more than 20 minutes and it’s not really HIIT: your intensity can’t be considered high if you’re able to go much longer. In terms of frequency, two to four times a week is enough, as anymore will be hard to recover from.
Pros and Cons
There is no denying that both forms of cardio are good for your overall health and fitness. Depending on your specific goals, one may work better for you.
The biggest advantage of LISS is that it’s easy on your body/joints and easy to recover from (assuming low impact exercise as opposed to frequent running or rucking). This approach is best for someone trying to build as much muscle as possible while staying fresh for the gym.
The issue with LISS is the amount of time a session can take, especially when deep into a fat loss phase spending 35+ minutes a day doing cardio.
The biggest advantages of HIIT is the efficiency and athletic performance gains. A typical HIIT session will last you only 10-15 minutes, burning the same amount of calories as a person doing LISS, but in a much shorter period of time. HIIT also translates directly to athletic performance improvements, especially in speed and explosiveness, as it builds the anaerobic system, which is heavily utilized in most sports.
Unfortunately, HIIT is harder on your body and can impact your ability to recover, which could hamper performance in the gym. HIIT is usually best for overall fitness rather than those looking to pack on the most size.
To capture the benefits of both approaches, one can incorporate LISS and HIIT into his or her fitness program. The exact balance will depend entirely on your goals and limits of recovery. Personally, I only use LISS, as my weight training is intense and I would not be able to recover from HIIT. Some may find HIIT more suited to their unique fitness goals. Because of the health benefits of either approach, I suggest prioritizing what you enjoy, then considering the specifics of your objective.
There is no reason to spend hours grinding on the elliptical if your goal is fat loss. Cardio is a tool that can increase the rate of that fat loss, but don’t forget a caloric deficit is still the primary mechanism of change.
The goal of my posts is to equip you with the information necessary to approach health and fitness with a plan. Real world knowledge brings real world results. So don’t hurt yourself listening to your uncle that “used to squat 500 pounds back in ’89."