Your Cardio Ain’t Cuttin’ It

Among other things, we have a plague of cardio in America.  It’s a small time plague, and maybe more people should get up off the couch and go for a walk, or bike ride or jog, but in our active population, there is a steady-state plague.  In gyms across the country, people who are active are logging several hours a week on their treadmills, ellipticals, stairmasters, and whatever other cardio equipment is available, breathing in hot and stale air as they pray for the ‘calories burned’  number to grow higher and higher.  Despite their efforts, many people just don’t seem to lose the weight they want to lose, and end up entering a cycle of failed diets and exercise, even though they’re “trying”.  Stop putting your energy into the wrong forms of exercise, and start doing what actually works!

If you got a chance to read my Recap of The Perform Better Functional Training Summit, you saw the Hierarchy of Fat Loss that Alwyn Cosgrove laid out during his presentation.  If you missed it, I’ll go over it again:

  • Correct Nutrition is by far the most important fact of weight loss.  You need to replace the processed foods in your diet with fresh or minimally processed foods, and eat a variety of plant and animal products.
  • Outside of cleaning up your diet, you want to choose activities that burn calories, maintain/promote muscle mass and elevate metabolism.  This means strength training people!  Moving your body through space and lifting heavy shit is going to give you the best bang for your training buck.
  • Activities that burn calories and elevate metabolism should come next on your list, and these are anaerobic intervals.  This means brief periods of high-intensity, all out exercise, followed by the necessary recovery periods.  It’s not necessarily the most fun in the world, but I guess neither is repetitively failing at your goals.  You can decide.
  • Only after you’ve cleaned up your diet, scripted an organized strength training program, and are including high intensity anaerobic intervals in your exercise plan should you be performing any steady state work.  For the most part, I don’t think that including aerobic work is even necessary…when you’re doing everything else.

Even with this outline, plenty of people are going to skip out on the dietary modifications, strength training, and anaerobic intervals.  It might be because using a bike or elliptical is a mindless activity that doesn’t really require any thought, or because most media sources trick men and women into thinking that steady state training is the key to a clean bill of health, or that hours a week are necessary to burn fat.  Honestly, I think it’s just out of laziness.

Woah!  What?  You’re calling people who exercise lazy?  Well yes, if they know that there are healthier, more effective forms of exercise and forgo them for physically and cognitively easier methods, then you’re just lazy.  Come on people!

I have a little theory about steady state work in non-athletic populations.  It’s pretty simple, actually.  Aerobic work isn’t in our DNA, nobody naturally likes to do aerobic work.  We also don’t like doing things we don’t like, but if we convince ourselves that we like something, it makes it easier to tolerate.  Following me?  As children, we run around, take a break, move some more, take another break, run even faster, slow down, take a break, etc.  People don’t naturally say “Let’s move in a straight line, at a single speed, doing the same thing, for a designated period of time, and call it fun.”  Why do we think that’s a good investment of time then?  Well, if you tell yourself that it’s fun or you’re doing something super-duper healthy for yourself, you’ve just convinced yourself to go against your natural instincts.  Doesn’t sound too smart, does it?

I’m not saying that there aren’t any benefits to low-level aerobic work.  In fact, it’s great for recovery for your ‘real’ exercise, as well as your cardiac and mental health.  When used correctly, there is a place for aerobic work in your training programs.  Instead of dedicating hours to a machine though, why don’t you just try being active?  Shoot some hoops, play a round of golf, toss around a Frisbee at the beach.  Sure, it’s a form of aerobic interval training, but you won’t be bored out of your mind will you?

Fitness marketing has led people to believe that hours a week need to be dedicated to the gym to make a difference in their health and appearance.  I agree with this, but I don’t agree with the what we normally hear as the activity recommendations.  Considering a week long exercise program, you must include strength training and interval training into your schedule; there’s no way around that.  After you’ve taken care of those basics, if you absolutely insist on it, you could include some aerobic work.  I’ll hypothesize several different week long schedules for you in case you want some ideas for how to schedule everything.

Busy Work Week.  If you have a busy work week, you’ll probably want to avoid spending every day of the week in the gym.  That leaves the weekend for two workouts, and let’s hope that you can commit a couple hours during the week to exercise.  Let’s consider this a ‘minimalist’ routine, shall we?  During the week, two simple (yet strenuous) strength training sessions will keep your metabolism roaring and your body happy.  Remember, focus on compound, full body movements, to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.  On the weekends, you can try a strength training day and a dedicated ‘conditioning’ day, comprised of anaerobic interval training.

Sunday – Conditioning

Monday – Case of the Monday’s.

Tuesday – Full Body Strength Training

Wednesday – Hump Day.

Thursday – Full Body Strength Training

Friday – TGIF!

Saturday – Full Body Strength Training

Shift Work.  Some of you might have schedules that vary, and you work on an irregular schedule.  For that schedule, I’d recommend a more intermittent program, that allows you to maximize your ‘off’ time from work.  Base your workouts around the number of days off you have.  One day off?  Full body workout.  Two days off?  Upper/Lower workouts.  On those Upper/Lower days, you can integrate interval training at the end of the workout, and keep it related to what you trained on that day.  After lower body work, go ahead and run some sprints.  After upper body work, try a body weight circuit or a dumbbell complex.  If you can, you might include some extra sessions of activity as well, to increase your activity levels, so I’ll put those in (Parenthesis).

Sunday – Work  – (Conditioning)

Monday – Work

Tuesday – Off – Lower Body Strength Training & Conditioning

Wednesday – Off – Upper Body Strength Training & Conditioning

Thursday – Work – (Conditioning or Aerobic Intervals)

Friday – Work

Saturday – Off – Full Body Strength Training

Overachiever?  There are just some people who for the life of them can’t get off of the idea that they need to spend hours every day in the gym.  If you’re trying to break your daily hour of cardio habit, and are struggling with the idea of working out less frequently, there’s hope for you too.  This one might get tricky, because it’s tough to balance a persons want to exercise every day, and their need to include some recovery time.  If this is you, try planning workouts of various intensities throughout the week, so that you don’t compromise your energy levels for each of your strength training workouts.  Start the week off right on Sunday with a strength training workout.  On Monday, you’ll use some high intensity intervals, but you’ll go easy here; enough to make it count, but not enough so that your strength training workout on Tuesday is comprised.  Capishe?  Wednesday is another day of intervals, and you can spend some time on a more difficult workout, because you’ll have some extra recovery time tomorrow.  On Thursday, you can include some low-level aerobic work, which is preferably you outside playing with your friends or your dog, and not on sitting on a bike or elliptical.  Hit the weights again on Friday, and go hard; Thursday was a re-energizing day, wasn’t it?  On Saturday, you perform some aerobic intervals, which leaves you a sweaty mess without making you want an extra lung; you should be fresh for Sunday’s workout.

Sunday – Full Body Strength Training

Monday – 1/2 Conditioning.  Go enough to make it count, but not enough so that you can’t perform the next day.

Tuesday – Full Body Strength Training

Wednesday – Conditioning.  This would be your highest intensity conditioning day for the week.

Thursday – Aerobic Steady State to help you recover. Try having some fun playing outside, will ya?

Friday – Full Body Strength Training.  This is your highest intensity lifting day for the week.  Who likes PR’s?

Saturday – Aerobic Intervals, so you can still perform on Sunday.

Does one of those models work for you?

Hopefully one of them does, and it gives you some ideas about how to maximize the effectiveness of the time you spend in the gym.  Plenty of people dedicate hours of their lives to improving their health, performance, and aesthetics, but many continually come up empty handed.  Please, don’t be one of those people.  Steady state aerobic is not the best way to lose weight and it’s not the best way to condition the body.  Unfortunately, it prevails as the most utilized method of body transformation, and many people never achieve the results that they want.  Your cardio ain’t cuttin’ it, and that’s okay, as long as you plan our and execute a better training program.  Got any questions?  Let me know!

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