“First of all, do I really have to do cardio?”
No matter who you are, the answer is YES.
Cardio-respiratory fitness is vital to your ability to live a happy, abundant life. It’s necessary for health, as well as your ability to complete simple day-to-day activities, such as climbing the stairs without running out of breath.
I know we all want to lose that extra fluff and get in shape like, yesterday, but rate of progression is critical to achieving your goals with the most effective use of time and energy.
Neglecting to consider your current level of fitness and diving head first into a strict HIIT (high intensity interval training) regimen, pushing your body through grueling spin classes or hours on the treadmill (like we’ve been told will help us lose weight the “fastest”) can easily result in injury and hold you back, derailing your progress for weeks.
In fact, HIIT isn’t even recommended for anyone who hasn’t been doing cardio training consistently for at least 6-8 weeks. But wee also don’t want to remain stagnant by opting for something moderate each time we work out simply assuming its the safer bet.
Although low-intensity cardio training will result in some improvements in health, you won’t get nearly as much significant change as compared with progressing your body into training at higher intensities.
Adhering to a cardio plan that is specific to you, your body and your current level of fitness is imperative.
Although it will require a little more effort than just being able to copy and paste a few recommendations from here, if you’re sincerely dedicated to improving the health and condition of your mind and body, it is well worth it to get this straight.
How to determine the perfect cardio prescription for you:
By following the steps laid out here, you’ll know exactly where you need to start to begin effectively changing your body, and how to build a cardio routine that will ensure continual, consistent and persistent improvement while minimizing the risk of overtraining and/or injury.
Effective cardio training can be broken down into 3 different stages specific to 3 heart rate training zones. In order to determine which stage is best for you, follow these 3 steps:
Just remember, safety reigns king! As always, you should consult with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen. Depending on the current condition of your health, some recommendations not may be appropriate for you (i.e. if you are on medication, are diabetic, have hypertension, etc).
1. DETERMINE YOUR MAXIMAL HEART RATE
This can be found on your fitness tracker if you have one, (such as a Fitbit or Mio SLICE) or by subtracting your age from the number 220. For example, I would subtract my age (26) from 220 and get a maximal heart rate of 194.
2. FIND YOUR HEART RATE TRAINING ZONE
- Perform the Walk Test. Walk as fast as you can control at a steady pace outside or on a treadmill for 1 mile. If you have a chest HR monitor or activity tracker (such as a fitbit), wear it! Record the time it takes you to complete the walk and immediately record heart rate at 1-mile mark. (If you don’t have a fitness tracker that displays heart rate, you can check your pulse by slightly tilting your head upward, placing 2 fingers off to the side of your windpipe, locating your pulse, and counting how many pulses you feel within 10 seconds. Then multiply that number by 6 to get your heart rate.)
- Determine your V02 Score by entering your recorded time and finishing heart rate from the Walk Test here into the VO2 calculator.
- Use your VO2 score calculated in step 2 and find your current fitness rating on the charts below. Fitness ratings of very poor, poor and fair fall into Zone 1, average and good fall into Zone 2, and an excellent rating puts you in Zone 3.
Zone 1 : 65% – 75% intensity. HRmax X 0.65 to HRmax X 0.75
Zone 2: 76% – 85% intensity. HRmax X 0.76 to HRmax X 0.85
Zone 3: 86% – 95% intensity. HRmax X 0.86 to HRmax X 0.95
3. DETERMINE WHICH STAGE YOU’RE IN
Stage 1: If you had a very poor, poor, or fair fitness rating, you should begin in Stage 1. Here, its recommend to start slowly and gradually work up to 30-60 minutes of continuous exercise in Zone 1. When you can maintain a Zone 1 heart rate for at least 30 minutes, 2-3x per week, you’re ready to progress to Stage 2.
Stage 2: If you fell within the average or good fitness ratings, you’re likely ready to begin training at higher intensities. The focus in this stage is pumping up the workload and increasing your cardio-respiratory capacity by altering the heart rate in and out of Zones 1 and 2.
Stage 2 workouts should start relatively brief as demonstrated below with a hard-to-easy ratio of 1:3. As your conditioning improves, you can progress you program using 1:2 and eventually 1:1 ratios. An example of a Stage 2 cardio workout might look like this:
- Warm-up in Zone 1 for 5-10 minutes
- Move into a 1 minute interval in Zone 2, gradually increasing the heart rate from Zone 1 to Zone 2 in that minute and keeping it in Zone 2 once you reach up to it for the rest of that minute.
- Return to Zone 1 for 3 minutes
- Repeating this cycle of 1 minute intervals in Zone 2 and 3 minute intervals in Zone 1.
Stage 3: If you’ve been consistently active and have landed within the excellent fitness rating, you’ll be able to further challenge your cardio capacity by altering your heart rate in and out of all 3 zones.
An example of a Stage 3 cardio workout might look like this:
- Warm up in Zone 1 for up to 10 minutes
- Increase workload every 60 seconds until reaching Zone 3. This will call for a slow climb through Zone 2 for at least 2 minutes.
- After another minute in Zone 3, decrease the workload and allow your heart rate to drop down to Zone 2 for 1 minute. (If your heart rate doesn’t drop to Zone 2 within that minute, you are about to overtrain. This may happen if you’re not well rested or because of poor nutrition. Stay in Zone 1 or 2 the rest of the workout)
- If heart rate drops at a normal rate, then move back up to Zone 3 for 30- 60 seconds
- Go back to Zone 1 for 5- 10 minutes and repeat.
INCORPORATING YOUR CARDIO PRESCRIPTION INTO YOUR WORKOUT PROGRAM
“HOW OFTEN SHOULD DO CARDIO?”
To improve your current level of fitness, train cardio 3 to 5 days per week.
The bare minimum recommended is 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking). But to get real benefits, you’ll want to reach for at least 300 minutes of moderate- intensity exercise, or 150 minutes per week of a combination of vigorous and moderate-intensity activity.
You can break exercise down into 30 minute workouts 5 days per week, or increase the time and get your recommended exercise in 3-4 days per week. Just don’t exceed 60-90 minutes per day (not including warm-up & cool-down).
In Stage 1, train cardio in Zone 1 each day you exercise. In Stage 2, its important to alternate days of the week with Stage 1 training. And in Stage 3, you’ll want to alternate all three training zones.
“HOW CAN I INCORPORATE CARDIO INTO MY WORKOUTS?”
Incorporate cardio into your resistance training routine by including circuit training, where you perform a series of strength-training exercises on after the other with minimal rest.
Another alternative to fitting your cardio training into your routine is by adding in 5-10 minutes of cardio between warm-up and strength training, and another 5-10 minutes immediately following strength training, before your cool-down.
“WHAT’S THE BEST FORM OF CARDIO TO LOSE WEIGHT?”
If your goal is to lose fat, hopefully we all know by now that fat is most readily lost through improvements in the diet, but the best way to increase calories burned is through a combination of resistance and cardio training.
Resistance training is important as it sculpts you lean muscles that in turn become calorie-burning machines, increasing metabolic rate and helping you consistently burn more calories, on the regular (not just when you’re working out).
Overall one of the best forms of cardio for weight loss is circuit training, or as previously mentioned, performing one strength exercise immediately after another without rest.
As long as you’re well nourished and follow proper nutrition needed to give you the energy needed to sustain exercise, you can bump training up to 60 minutes, 5 days per week for maximum calorie burn. Just keep in mind what cardio zone you’re training in, and keep an eye on your heart-rate to be sure you’re not over-training.
The best place to add in some extra burn time is after your resistance training workouts (which are recommended 3-5 days per week).
Push for another 30 minutes of dancing, jogging, using the stairstepper, or whatever form of getting your heart rate up you prefer to see fat loss even sooner.
“SHOULD I STILL DO CARDIO IF I WANT TO GAIN WEIGHT?”
Cardio training should still be performed even when your goal is to put on some lean muscle. This ensures your cardio-respiratory system is efficient and promotes optimal tissue recovery.
If you have any more questions beyond what I’ve recommended, suggestions or thangs you’d like to know, don’t forget to drop a line in the comments down below!