If you read my last article (Why we want to focus on “body recomposition” — NOT weight loss), you have a “broad-strokes” overview of how to achieve Body Recomposition. Now, maybe you took that, and ran with it - if so, kudos! Or, maybe you read that and walked away with an idea - but no plan… Well, this article will give you a blueprint for half of the strategy to achieve Body Recomposition: Cardiovascular Training.
You may be asking yourself, “why is cardio training part 1?” Or, maybe not… Either way, the answer to why is 3-fold:
For those of you who are beginners, starting with cardio training is a less daunting! You don’t need to buy a bunch of equipment, or go to a Gym. You can start with a stroll around the neighborhood.
Then, for those of you that are newer (but somewhat familiar) to exercise, building a strong cardiovascular base is going to help you as you transition into resistance training (i.e. using weights). After all, your heart and lungs need to pump for strength work too!
And, for those of you that are proficient weight-lifters, this is an easy way to add to your routine and take yourself to the next level. Have you ever been interested in leaning down (or “cutting”), without taking away from strength and power? Well, here’s part 1 of the puzzle…
Its common for people to choose one over the other; meaning cardio training OR resistance training. There are a million reasons why, but some of the common ones are: “Not enough time in the day/week”, “I’ve always done one or the other”, or maybe “I just plain don’t like one”. But, my hope is that by the end of this article, you’ll see the importance of a cardio program - and this is coming from someone who is an avid weightlifter himself, often finding excused to skip “cardio day”.
Yet, at the same time, as a former collegiate swimmer, cardio has been a very large part of my life. I have seen myself at an elite level with it (swimming ~4 hours for 6 days a week), to someone with a non-existent cardio routine. And, while I don’t plan to ever go back to doing 4 hours of cardio a day, I have rediscovered the true importance of it - even if it is a smaller part of my routine. Consider the recommendations in the article regarding cardio to be for the person interested in “Body Recomposition”
So, without further adieu…
Broadly, you can classify cardio into 3 categories:
Long, slow distance (abbreviated LSD, seriously.)
Metabolic Conditioning (MetCon)
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
These are on a “seesaw” scale, if you’ll humor me… More scientifically, they are negatively correlated to one another (as one goes up, the other goes down).
LSD training (seriously!) has duration on the “heavy” side of the seesaw, with intensity on the “light” side of the seesaw. Then, you have MetCon training: When the “seesaw” is fairly even; with favor on intensity being the heavier side. Finally, you have HIIT training - in which intensity is on the “heavy” side, and duration is on the “light” side.
What are the benefits of each, you ask?
Long Slow Distance Cardio: Best for improving the mechanical efficiency of the heart and lungs. And, for increasing the body’s capacity for storing and transporting oxygen and other nutrients needed to produce energy. Think of a cross-country skier.
Metabolic Conditioning: Drifts between your anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) systems that produce energy for all human movement, increasing your physical (and mental) ability to operate in both at a higher capacity. Think of a tennis player.
High Intensity Interval Training: Increases your ability to move at a high speed, deliver power, rate of metabolism and anaerobic (without oxygen) energy system capacity. In short, this training style increases your ability to move at your maximum speed and intensity for longer - think of a sprinter.
“So, tell me which I should do!!”
Stop yelling! The answer is: All of them… With favor in the direction of your goals (i.e. the skier, tennis player or sprinter)
Long Slow Distance Training
Now, if you are new to training, it is always a good idea to start slow. So early in your training, your goal will be to work on LSD (seriously!!). Don’t worry about how fast you go, or how high you get your heart rate — just get moving! This can encompass all of your cardio training in the beginning. I would recommend 2–3 days a week, trying to move for 20–30 straight minutes. After achieving 3 days at 30 minutes, increase it to 40 minutes. Then 50 minutes, and then a full hour.
After you you feel like you have a handle on this type of cardio, its time to change it up! Make 1 of those 3 days a metabolic conditioning day. Instead of just going for time, focus on what’s called your “Rate of Perceived Exertion” (RPE) - which is on a 1 to 10 scale; 1 being way too easy, to 10 being the very maximum you can work. Try to achieve a 8/10 on the RPE scale, and shorten the duration to 30 to 45-min total - meaning, you can break it up if you need to (such as 6 sets of 5 minutes with a 2 minute break in between).
Over time, see if you can keep the 8/10 going for longer durations (such as 3 sets of 10 minutes with 2 minute breaks). Then, see if you can increase your total workout time to 45 minutes. One of the great things about this style, is you can start to incorporate resistance training equipment; medicine balls, bands, battle ropes, sleds and even weights like dumbbells and barbells. Just remember: The goal is still cardio! Don’t turn it in to a strength workout.
High Intensity Interval Training
Once you’ve achieved that, it’s time to add some HIIT training. Therefore, you are now doing 1 day of LSD (SERIOUSLY), 1 day of MetCon and 1 day of HIIT. When we do a HIIT workout, we are trying to get as close to a 10/10 on the RPE scale as we possibly can. Don’t forget: RPE is relative to you — don’t try to match yourself to others! And, with such a high intensity level, we need to drastically shorten the duration AND increase the rest - this is KEY for HIIT training: Rest. This is also why we incorporate it last; until you truly know what 8/10 feels like, how can we even comprehend 10/10?
These workouts may last 20–40 minutes total (including rest); with sets that have a work time of 30–60 seconds, and a rest break 2–4 times as long. So, if you work for 30 seconds, you should rest for 1–2 minutes. But, you HAVE to push yourself to a 10/10 — or, you’re going to miss the benefits of this type of training… A big difference in progression of this style versus MetCon, is that you will not increase the duration of the sets (such as the example, 6 sets of 5 minutes to 3 sets of 10 minutes) - instead, increase the number of sets to increase your total workout time (i.e. increasing from 5 sets to 10 sets with the same time intervals). This is also a great style to incorporate resistance equipment to make it more fun, and gain some power benefits!
If you are familiar with cardio training, you can start incorporating 1 day of each now! From there you can focus on increasing the continuous duration on your lower intensity days, and your number of sets (total duration) on more intense days. And don’t forget to consider your goals! If you want to run a long race, it may be beneficial to have more Long Slow Distance Days. Or, if you play soccer at the rec center, consider making MetCon days your priority. Just don’t forget to have an element of each somewhere in your routine to achieve Body Recomposition.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Resistance Training…
Written by: Erin Lewis, MS, EP-C, CSCS, CES, Pn1, USAW
Owner of Lewis Performance Training