Cardio Exercises

Intro to Cardio Exercises

Here's a typical scenario...

You walk into the gym after work (and after your pre-workout snack!) to continue your strength training program. You notice all the big, burley men down at the bench press and squat racks grunting and sweating. Looking over towards the cardio machines, you see mostly women and some slender men. In fact, everyday you come to the gym you see the same people doing the same things. What's wrong with this picture?

It's great that people are setting goals for themselves and really going for it - I have no problems with that scenario. The only issue I have is the concept of general fitness that many people simply don't understand. This concept includes cardio exercises and strength training (not one or the other). What I mean is that you can hit the gym and pump iron until you've worked every single muscle in your body. But there's only one left out one muscle.

Your heart!

This is what makes your body go - it pumps blood to the very muscles you're trying to work and drives every single waking and sleeping moment you have in existence. Why neglect it? Having a strong heart is the absolute best way to ensure a long, healthy life. The benefits of cardio workouts are extensive.

This section is dedicated to cardio exercises and routines to help you achieve the greatest level of fitness possible for your body and your goals.

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Basics of Cardio Exercises

pumping heart Cardio exercises are obviously meant for your heart and lungs to work a bit harder to obtain a higher level of fitness. It's aerobic exercise! These are workouts that simply require a sustained amount of oxygen to support consistent movement. Anaerobic exercises are those that don't require a constant supply of oxygen - such as sprinting or lifting weights. The more energy you're putting out, the more anaerobic your workout is.

It's absolutely critical to remember that your heart is a muscle just like in your legs, arms and shoulders - although it works in a modified way.

Before you head to the gym to do heavy squats, what do you normally do first? That's right, warm up! (A cardio warm up is slightly different than a weight training warm up.) Your heart needs the same thing! It follows that you also need to cool down after your cardio exercises. Don't just show up to the park, run a 4-minute mile then immediately hop back into the car to head home.

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How Hard Should Your Cardio Exercises Be?

Well, everyone's different. It would be ridiculous for me to say that you need to hit the treadmill 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week if you want to be fit. Heck, I'd have nothing to write about then! If we're all the same, why bother? The point is that we're all different - we all have different needs, different metabolic rates and different resting heart rates. But, lucky for us, our hearts can tell us a great deal about what we're doing to our body. Are we working too hard? Are we doggin' it? Do we need more rest? Have we improved? Use your target heart rate to find these answers!

Keeping track of your heart rate can be an extremely beneficial thing for you to do, whether you're an advanced triathlete or a beginner who's never done any sort of cardio workout. Most of us, in fact, work too hard during our cardio exercises. The only way to see this is to actually monitor our heart rates continuously. Some merchants sell small watch-like devices that keep track of your heart rate.

Let's take the treadmill for instance. You've been running for 30 minutes at 7.0 mph. You've been breathing hard most of the time. The problem here is that you're judging how hard you're working based on the speed at which you're running. This is a no-no. Your heart is the only thing that'll tell you how hard you're actually working! The environment, daily stresses and eating habits can also change how much work you should be doing.

biking cardio exercises For example, mountain biking on a hot, muggy summer day requires a lot more work than biking on a cool morning in the fall. Just relying on your speed or time-trial result can cause you to overwork yourself. Your heart rate monitor will tell you when you need to slow down and pace yourself (since you'll already know your target heart rate). The same goes for sleepiness. If you simply don't have the energy to run up that steep hill, then don't. Don't force yourself to do more than you can handle. Your heart rate monitor can help make these decisions!

It's also useful to track your heart rate in your strength training journal. This allows you to see your progress and improvement, along with giving you workout adjustment options. For example, if you've been doing the same cardio exercises for a while with some variations, you may find that your heart rate has been dropping each time. This is a good thing (assuming you're doing each workout at the same intensity). It means you're heart health is improving! If this is the case, you may want to slightly ramp up the intensity to get your heart pumping a little harder. Keeping track of your heart rate can ensure that you keep improving!

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How Much Should You Do Cardio Exercises?

jogger This really depends on your fitness goals and current state of fitness. You don't want to do it all at once, yet you don't want to spread it out so much that it's relatively unhelpful. Do you want to be a triathlete, or just move up a little on the fitness scale?

For most individuals, the goal is striving for better health, reducing risk for diseases and generally reducing stress in their lives. With this goal in mind, it really doesn't take much cardio work at all (relatively speaking) to maintain your current weight and to strengthen your heart. For example, take a 20-30 minute walk 3-4 times a week. Go for a 30 minute bike ride with some intensity. Believe me, this little bit can really go a long way. Adding the smallest of c ardio exercises can dramatically reduce your risk for chronic disease along with providing some extra energy and endurance for other activities.

If 30 minutes of cardio work sounds like a tall order, then cut it down! Chop your cardio exercises into three 10-minute sections instead of one long 30-minute marathon. It's something a beginner can do to prevent discouragement. Believe me, 30 consecutive minutes of cardio work for a beginner is extremely difficult to maintain.

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Using Cardio Exercises to Lose Weight

This is a different goal altogether than the one cited above. The fact is that you need to do more than a few 20 minute walks per week to burn fat and lose weight. In order to create a machine (your body) that will continuously burn calories and fat while you're resting, you need to start some sort of strength training program. Again, the more toned muscle you have, the more calories and fat you'll burn while you're resting!

Back to cardio exercises. The key here is to create a caloric deficit - to burn more calories than you take in. I'm always looking at magazine covers in line at the grocery store claiming to have the "secret" to weight loss. No, you can't healthily lose 17 lbs in a week, nor can you get ripped abs by only doing sit-ups and crunches. In order to lose 1 lb of body fat, you need to burn about 3,600 more calories than you take in. That's a lot! Multiply that by 17 and try to do that in a week. It's just not possible. Most of these weight loss "secrets" revolve around lost water weight and muscle wasting rather than actual fat loss.

Most people already realize they should cut calories and do cardio exercises to lose their belly fat. The problem is that they take this advice to the extreme! Diminishing your calories to less than 1,500 per day will do nothing but force your body to actually store more fat! The idea is to simply cut between 250 and 500 calories off your current diet and add in some cardio work. Losing weight overnight isn't the idea, nor is it recommended - it takes time and effort!

Learning how to eat healthy is also an extremely important part of weight loss that usually goes by the wayside. People say they ran on the treadmill today for 30 minutes, so it's O.K. to have this burger with a milkshake. Wrong! Then again, people also go to the other extreme and think they're having a great day since they only ate 500 calories, drank seven diet sodas and completed 20 minutes total of various cardio exercises.

Depriving your body of energy (as in high protein/extremely low carb diets) slows your metabolism and slows your weight loss efforts down to a crawl. You'll get cravings and urges all day long - it's not something that works! Frequent, small meals throughout the day is the best way to eat! This forces your body to use the energy you're taking in instead of storing it all as fat. This food story is for another page, however.

Changing your diet and doing cardio exercises still isn't the whole story. If you want the fat to "melt" off, as they say, you also need to start your own strength training program. Once again, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn while you're sitting and relaxing. Muscle takes a heck of a lot more energy to maintain than fat does!

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How Often Should You Do Strength Training and Cardio Exercises to Lose Weight?

weight scale Honestly? If you really want to lose weight successfully, and keep it off, you should shoot to exercise 4-6 days per week. Remember, don't start off at 100% intensity - work up to it! The more fit you get, the easier it'll be to kick your own butt and get into the gym. What I mean is, if it's your first week, don't try to force yourself into the gym 6 days of the week. Start off with 3 days for a few weeks, then try 4 days. See what works with your schedule and go with it! The more the better, but don't forget to rest and avoid overtraining! Exercising too much, too often isn't a good idea.

It's important to mix your strength training regimen with your cardio exercises. Some people like to jog after lifting weights, while others like to do a full cardio workout between lifting days. It's really up to you. One thing I would suggest not doing is to avoid cardio exercises immediately before lifting weights. You'll just burn yourself out and won't be able to push your muscles very hard at the gym. If you do this consistently, you'll quickly reach a weight plateau.

What About the Intensity of your Cardio Workout?

You may have noticed some exercise bikes or treadmills that have a low-intensity "fat-burner" mode. What's the reason for this? The fact is that the lower intensity your workout, the greater proportion of fat you're burning in your workout. But wait! Working at a low intensity doesn't burn many calories, so it's not all that helpful to continue with low intensity workouts. This simply isn't challenging! Your body simply remains in rest mode and continues burning fat. You want to burn more calories! This means you need to up the intensity.

As intensity increases, the proportion of carbohydrates being used for fuel dramatically increases. The result is improved metabolism and fat-burning capacity when you're resting. This doesn't mean you should really hoof it for an hour until you can't walk. Remember to remain in you target zone! The closer you get to the top of the zone, the more anaerobic your exercise becomes (e.g. sprinting!).

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Some Other Pointers About Cardio Exercises

treadmill Here're some other little things you should consider...

  • Cardio Exercises do not build muscles. In fact, if you don't eat enough carbs, your muscles can be broken down during aerobic workouts. But, cardio workouts will help you burn fat so you can show off the muscles you've been building at the gym!
  • Performing cardio exercises alone doesn't really boost your metabolism very much. When you stop your routines, your metabolism drops back to its normal rate. The key is strength training. Having more toned muscles is the key to dramatically increasing your metabolism and burning calories while you watch the game! This will continue 24 hours/day, 7 days a week when you include a strength training regimen in your program.
  • Running, jogging, biking - these are all pretty generic cardio exercises. Quite boring if you ask me. There're tons of things you can do that you'll probably enjoy! For example, I-ve been doing these karate-style workouts recently just for a change of pace. I've also been doing circuit training, which is a mix of cardio and weight lifting in the same workout. Be creative and find something you like!
  • Don't overdo it! Too much of anything is a bad thing. Overtraining is a serious issue!
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