Cardiovascular training involves any form of exercise that increases your heart rate in order to improve your body’s ability to use oxygen. While typically performed in a dedicated exercise setting such as a gym, track or field, any sustained level of physical activity can boast brilliant heart-healthy benefits.
The most common forms of cardio are low-intensity steady state (LISS) and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). LISS involves performing an exercise over a long duration, at a relatively low level of intensity (about 45-60% of your maximum heart rate).
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HIIT, on the other hand, means cardiovascular exercise that involves stages of maximum effort followed by short rest periods, repeated for a shorter duration than seen in LISS activity.
What Are The Benefits Of Cardio?
The benefits of cardiovascular training are significant. For starters, improving your fitness levels through cardiovascular activity can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of contracting serious conditions such as coronary heart disease.
It also helps you boost your work capacity – a foundation of general fitness on which your more specific fitness goals can be built. Whether you’re an aspiring bodybuilder, a casual football or rugby player, or just someone who trains for fun, being able to increasingly handle a greater workload can be of huge benefit.
An increased level of cardiovascular fitness can also improve your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute of exercise, per kilo of bodyweight). When your fitness levels improve, so does your VO2 max, meaning you can therefore exercise with a much greater intensity. Lifting heavier weights for more reps, prolonging a run, increasing stamina for sports – all these activities will benefit.
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
Experts recommend that most people perform cardiovascular training three to five times a week, with a level of intensity that raises maximum heart rate to between 65-85%.
Six Quick Cardio Workouts
Forget the hour-long grind. Here’s how to make conditioning more efficient – and more fun
Step up to stair runs
Office block, train station or town centre – it doesn’t really matter. “Warm up with some walking lunges and bounds to get the quads and glutes firing,” says trainer Mark Briant. “Then complete ten lots of stair runs, sprinting up and walking down to recover. For added intensity try and take two steps at a time.”
Why it works Even the sternest hill won’t match the incline on a set of stairs: you’ll accelerate your heart rate in seconds, improving VO2 max.
Go complex at the bar
“To combine strength with cardio, do barbell complexes,” says Briant. “Try one power clean, two front squats and three push presses – all without resting or putting the bar down. Rest for 90 seconds, then repeat four times. Start light and build strength and confidence in the movements.”
Why it works A complex will tax every muscle in your body, making oxygen intake – rather than muscular fatigue – the limiting factor. Plus you’ll get better at every movement.
Paddle to the metal
Instead of doing long, steady rowing sessions, switch to intervals. “A good way to pace is to aim for a consistent 500m split time,” says Briant. “Complete eight sets of 250m rowing sprints, with an equal work to rest ratio, aiming for a 500m split of 1min 45sec or below.”
Why it works The rower is equally taxing on your lower and upper body – and if you keep your strokes-per-minute rate low, it’ll give you an upper back workout as well as testing your lungs.
Invert your Tabatas
Tabatas are the quintessential high-intensity intervals: 20 seconds’ work, ten seconds’ rest, repeated eight times. For ultra-high intensity, flip the script: do just ten seconds of work with 20 seconds of rest. Save it for the toughest exercises, such as battle ropes.
Why it works “With HIIT the key is to keep the intensity high across every interval,” says Briant. In traditional Tabatas, it’s tempting to slow down for the last couple of intervals – here, you can go full blast throughout.
Revisit the classics
“Burpees are great in a HIIT workout because you’re using your whole body,” says HIIT instructor Jamie Ray. The downside? They’re notoriously hard, so you’ll want to be creative. Do one, rest for 10 seconds, then do two and rest for 20, all the way to ten, then back down. That’s 100.
Why it works In scientific tests, burpees beat every other bodyweight move for post-exercise oxygen consumption, making them ideal for fat loss as well as cardio.
Slam the pedals
“When you’re on the Wattbike, try using a higher resistance at an explosive pace at 30-second intervals,” says Ray. “This will help your lung capacity, raise your cardio level and improve your recovery rate.”
Why it works Regular bouts of high-intensity cycling can increase VO2 max as well as stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by each heartbeat). They can also reduce blood lactate levels while improving muscular efficiency. Rotate them in with your other moves.
Cardio Machine Mistakes To Avoid
There’s a tendency among “serious” gym-goers to look down on the use of cardio machines. The banks of bikes and treadmills are where the clueless often gather because they feel like they know how to use the equipment (in fairness, it is quite hard to fall off an stationary bike).
But if you know – really know – what you’re doing, you can use cardio kit effectively to help you reach a range of goals. Take the following expert advice to get the most out of your heart rate-raising efforts and show the new guys how it’s supposed to be done.
Don’t set the rower resistance to ten because it’s not effective
“The rowing machine is one of the best bits of cardio gym kit because it works your upper and lower body as well as your cardiovascular system,” says Jamie Lloyd. “But there’s not much point starting out at damper level ten, especially if you’re not an experienced rower and haven’t nailed the form. You’ll get a better workout using a setting between three and five. It may feel too easy at first, but it’s better to perfect your form and get the wheel spinning faster, which will provide more resistance.”
Don’t run on a flat treadmill because it’s too easy
“When running on a flat treadmill you only ever have to move upwards, not upwards and forwards like you do when running outside. So set the incline to 1-3% to replicate running on the road as realistically as possible.”
Don’t forget to adjust the bike seat because it will put stress on your joints
“Although it can be tempting to just hop on and start pedalling, you should adjust the seat height so that it reaches hip level when you’re standing next to it. Too high and you’ll constantly overreach to complete each stroke, making your action inefficient. Too low will put pressure on your knee joints.”
Don’t hold the treadmill handrails because if you can do this, you’re not running fast enough
“Include your arms in the movement. The more you can swing your arms, the faster your legs move.”
Don’t use cardio machines before weights because you’ll be too tired to lift well
“If you’re training to lose fat and build muscle, you should do weights first when you’re fresh so you can lift hard and heavy. This will deplete glycogen levels, so when you do some intense cardio afterwards you will tap into fat stores for fuel. But if you do cardio first, you won’t be able to lift as effectively on low energy levels.”
Don’t do the same workout every session because you’ll get bored and want to give up
“Vary your workouts – some high-intensity intervals, short, fast sessions and easier recovery sessions – to keep your muscles guessing and your mind from getting bored so you’re not tempted to quit. You need to push yourself in every session, otherwise your body quickly adjusts to the training stimulus and it becomes too easy.”
Don’t skip the warm-up because it can lead to injury
“Always do five minutes of light training on your machine of choice before ramping up the intensity, then do it again for the same period of time at the end of the session to gradually reduce your efforts. Taking the time to get your body into and out of exercising mode is vital to prevent injury.”
Don’t pay attention to the “calories burned” counter because they’re unreliable
“If you’re concerned about your results, get a personal trainer to assess you. Calorie counters can’t give more than a rough guide because everyone burns calories at different rates depending on their weight, muscle mass, exercise experience and fitness.” Fitness bands are more accurate at tracking your calorie expenditure than cardio machines. Some brands average a calories-burned error of just 9.3% (the same as under lab conditions), according to the Journal Of Medicine And Science In Sports And Exercise.
Best Bike Sessions
Get more from the gym’s bikes with this programme from elite coach Nick Morgan
Conquer the hills
What? A steady, gradual increase of intensity to replicate a long hill climb.
Why? “Hills build leg strength. The harder you can pedal for longer, the faster you’ll be on both the hills and the flats,” says Morgan.
Climb the pyramid
What? Gradually increasing the intensity to a climax and then reducing it again.
Why? “Pyramids put the benefits of the hill programme into action. After working hard on the ascent, the slow reduction in difficulty means you can stay at a higher cadence to get more out of each level.”
Up the threshold
What? Training near your maximum aerobic capacity for as long as you can sustain it.
Why? “Normally 20 to 30 minutes long, this type of session creates a build-up of lactic acid that causes fatigue. Training outside your comfort zone is the most effective way of getting fitter and stronger.”