We know cardio is essential to improve the cardiovascular system. This goes without saying. When many people don’t realize, is that cardiovascular exercise can be useful for losing weight as well as gaining weight; for increasing endurance as well as increasing power, size, and strength. The difference is in training energy systems. You can train your anaerobic energy system (builds power and strength) while participating in a cardio workout, just as easily as training you can train your aerobic energy system by performing super-high-rep circuit training on the weight machines (boo).
When trying to determine which form of cardio you should do, you need to evaluate your goals. Are you trying to:
- Lose as much weight as possible without regard for muscle or strength?
- Train for a specific athletic event such as track or a marathon?
- Improve leg power and leg speed along with cardiovascular endurance?
- Build as much muscle as possible in the shortest amount of time?
If you want to be skinny and have high endurance but very little muscle you will probably want to do endurance running; long distance cycling; or use the elliptical trainer to prevent wear and tear on your ankles, knees, and hips. Other monotonous exercise equipment includes rowing machines, treadmills, stair climbers, and stationary bikes. These are all OK for burning calories and ‘toning’ but they will not make you stronger, faster, or more muscular.
If you want to be thicker, stronger, more powerful, and develop aesthetically pleasing muscle tone, you should give interval sprints or weightlifting complexes a try. When you use maximal force in your cardio workout, as you do with sprints, you are training the anaerobic energy system and facilitating neurological efficiency to those muscles. This will increase speed and strength, and will ultimately help you gain muscle. For you women out there, this will do a better job of ‘toning’ than those treadmills and stationary bikes.
With interval sprints, you can sprint on a flat surface, up hills, or up stairs. Sprint for 30 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, repeat 10 times. On your first sprint workout you might want to consider sprinting for 20 seconds, walking for 180 seconds, and repeating only 5 times. Each workout should become progressively harder. At one point in my training, I was sprinting stairs, timed by a stopwatch, for between 50-70 seconds and only resting enough to walk back down the stairs.
Complexes with Weights
With complexes, you will want to string together several compound exercises like deadlift, hang cleans, push press, and back squats, into one constant exercise. Do 5-7 reps with perfect form, rest 30-60 seconds and repeat 5 times. I talk about this complex all the time in this blog. There are about 1000 different exercise combinations that you can turn into complexes so be creative.
If you get tired of all this stuff, give thai kickboxing or jumping rope a try.
Don’t forget to stretch and drink lots of fluids. I recommend Gatorade.
I have read that cardio is best for the heart; sprinting anything to keep the heart rate up. It’s also best to train on a machine because it doesn’t cause the same amount of stress on your knees and you can monitor your work out more on a machine than just running outside. If you are looking for more resources on keeping a healthy heart I would recommend the Harmony Heart Group website; they have information on overall heart health that I have found useful.
Nice article. I do a lot of swimming but not much cardio.
I’m sure the ‘stairmill’ is a great cardiovascular workout. Your legs and bum probably burn, you probably work up a serious sweat, and that’s great! But you definitely are not taking advantage of the muscle building effects of HIIT training.
If you MUST train on a machine, you can probably find a pre-set interval workout program. I know this exists on most treadmills, but I’m not sure about stair machines.
If you continue to use the stairclimber for cardio, don’t expect that it will contribute very much to muscle gain. To ‘maintain muscle tone’, it will probably be fine.
I’ve always heard that slow and steady is good for losing weight (and potentially muscle mass), and that HIIT is great for both losing weight in terms of fat and building muscle mass. I would like to do HIIT, but it seems impossible to do it in the gym as one’s fumbling with speed adjustments on the treadmill, and I am not yet confident enough to risk sprinting outside and collapsing in a red-faced mess.
I’ve started using the stairmill at my gym. It looks like a mini escalator and I feel that it’s both aerobic and anaerobic. Two days later my butt is slightly sore, but I’m not sure if this qualifies as “intense” training… on a level of 10 (out of 20) I’m breathing hard, I feel my lungs straining, and my legs burning for the 30 minutes or so I do it. Do you think this is an effective form of cardio to cut down on my body fat while maintaining muscle tone? I really would like to do both.
Hey! Nice post. I personally feel that interval training is the best form of cardiovascular exercise one can get.
I also thought you might be interested in voicing your opinion on my Cardio vs. Interval Training debate: