I am not shy when it comes to saying how much I hate cardio. I think it’s terrible. I just cannot identify with people who go on multiple-mile runs and say they actually enjoy it. I just don’t think I’ll ever understand. Having said that though, I can’t deny that it does legitimately have its benefits. However, the way you do cardio can have a really huge impact on your physique, and you might be surprised that the kind of cardio you’re doing may be sabotaging your goals.
Steady-state cardio is exactly what it sounds like. This is the type of cardio that involves low-to-moderate intensity for 20+ minutes. I’m sure you’ve seen the cardio bunnies in the gym jogging along for 45 minutes or more. This aerobic exercise obviously does burn calories, but in my opinion, it’s a massive waste of time. It only burns calories while you’re doing the exercise, it takes you a long time, and worst of all, it eats away at the hard-earned muscle you’ve built. After only 20 minutes of cardio, your body begins to break down muscle as an energy source. This, to me, is reason alone not to do steady-state cardio.
There’s also research showing that steady-state cardio increases appetite and does little to burn adipose fat tissue (the kind you can see and pinch).
So what are the benefits of steady-state? Well, if you’re training for an
endurance race (marathon, triathalon, etc.), then there’s no replacement for endurance training, which is basically constant steady-state cardio. Also, if you’ve got some really ambitious fat-loss goals and you want to exercise six or seven times a week, then you can’t only do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), because it’s hard on the body. You’ll need to sprinkle steady-state in there if you’re determined to work out in order to give your body a break.
So, what’s HIIT?
High-intensity interval training is, in my opinion (and many leading experts’ opinions), the best way to do cardio. It involves short bursts of all-out effort (think sprints, burpees, etc.) with short rest periods at maximum effort for fewer than 20 minutes. These workouts are tough as hell, but they’re short, many don’t involve equipment and they can be added onto weight-lifting routines for maximum efficiency. Best of all, because they’re kept under 20 minutes and often include multiple muscle groups, so they won’t break down your muscle gains. In fact, they might add to them. Sprints are a known way to grow your booty actually. Plus, they have an “afterburn” effect, which means that your body has worked so hard that it continues to burn calories while it recovers for hours after you’ve finished the workout.
There are a ton of variations of HIIT. I’m sure you’ve heard of circuit training or CrossFit. I’m not a huge fan of CrossFit, and I’ll explain why in a blog entry another time, but there are positive aspects of circuit training and CrossFit that reflect HIIT. They involve resistance training with back-to-back exercises coupled with one short rest break. Then you start over again with a number of rounds of these exercises. Essentially, the idea is to use weight training as your cardio, because you’re not giving your body time to rest in between exercises – you’re keeping your heart rate elevated. The end result is simultaneous resistance training and cardio.
Personally, I think I eat well enough and weight train often enough that I don’t usually need to do cardio on its own after all that. I find that I can keep my body fat relatively low enough with diet and weight lifting alone. For some people, they find they have to do cardio in order to stay as lean as they’d like. Everyone is different. Usually, when summer is almost here, I’ll sprinkle in some cardio to lean down a bit. Right now, actually, I’ve started incorporating some cardio into my workouts, because my man and I are headed to Mexico in a few weeks (woohoo!). I like to do the stationary bike, because I like that it works my quads and has minimal impact on my knees, which can start to hurt with too much repetitive stress.
Here’s what I’ve been doing after weight lifting:
Ten minutes on the stationary bike:
Two minutes at a moderate resistance – level 9 at the equipment at my gym
30 seconds at a full-out sprint – level 14
Repeat four times.
Some trainers call cardio like this “fat burners,” because they have the afterburn effect , they’re fast and efficient and they don’t affect muscle mass.
So, get off that silly elliptical for an hour a day. You have better things to do and precious muscle to preserve!