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Fairytales from the gym: The Cardio camper

We haven't done gym myths for a bit, so lets have another look at one of our fairytale characters.
  • Do you spend 90% of your gym time on cardio machines?
  • Does your programme consist of a circuit of all the different cardio options?
  • Do you exercise at a consistent level, without harder or rest intervals?
Then you might be a Cardio Camper! The counterpart to All weights - no cardio!

Firstly, well done. You are in the gym, and the cardio fans are often amongst the most consistent and active gymgoers. I have no interest in criticising that at all. What I would like to do though, is to help you channel that dedication to get better results!

And who doesn't want that? What if you could spend the same, or less, time in the gym, but actually see faster and greater improvements in your cardiovascular fitness, lose weight faster, get stronger and improve your alignment and gait?

Getting the most out of your cardio gym workout.

The first thing you need to consider is why you are in the gym. I'm going to guess it's one of the following:
  • You want to improve your health
  • You want to lose weight
  • You are training or conditioning for sports/competition
So I'm going to break it down for you.

Cardio training for better health

Cardio training has all kinds of brilliant health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving mood through endorphin release, improving your muscle cells' ability to use fuels, promoting healthy fat storage...loads of things.  

In order to get these kinds of benefits you need to be active for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, or 25 minutes 3 times a week of intense activity. If you are going for this baseline, you don't really need to be in the gym, unless you just like it that way. A walk outdoors every day would be a great way to achieve this.

So I'm going to assume that you want better than healthy, you want to be fit. To improve your cardiovascular fitness you need to apply progressive overload. That is you exercise close to your limits, to challenge yourself. 

To challenge yourself at cardio you need to go for intervals of pushing yourself a bit harder for a short while, then backing off to recover. For instance you might change the speed or intensity for a minute, then slow it back down for 2 while you catch your breath again. 

In your hard work intervals, you should be really working, out of breath, you should feel like you couldn't go on for much longer at that pace by the end of the interval. Towards the end of your rest periods you should feel like you have caught your breath and are ready to go again. At no point after your warm up, should you feel like you could take part in a conversation!

Most cardio machines have interval workouts programmed in already. It's not quite as good as getting a trainer who has assessed your fitness to write something for you, but it's certainly better than no programme!

15-30 minutes of training like this will give you a great workout. You don't need to go longer unless you are training specifically for endurance. You also don't need to swap around the machines within a workout - the purpose of a cardio machine is to train your insides -your lungs, heart, vasculature and metabolism - if you want to effectively train specific muscles, then you need to hit the weights. Use the different machines for variety if you like, it's the spice of life!

Resistance training is also core to good health

Cardiovascular fitness is great, but if you want to keep your bones, joints and muscles strong and healthy for as long as possible, you need to try building some resistance training in. Even if it's just some basic bodyweight exercises.

Lots of cardio machine fans also do a little round of a few resistance machines, and that's a great start, check out this blog to move on from there a little.

You aren't going to get massive muscles unless you work specifically towards that goal, but you will be able to stabilise your joints, balance your muscle development and ultimately improve both your posture and your movement patterns.

Start out with a selection of 6-8 exercises that work the body in a balance way. 2-3 sets of around 15 reps is a good place to start. If in doubt, ask the staff at your gym to help you, or get in touch with me and I'll write you a programme.

Exercising for weight loss

It's true that cardio will burn through the calories. There's some debate about whether high intensity intervals are better than longer bouts of moderate cardio - the evidence generally suggests that in terms of calorie usage they are similar, but HIIT is over faster. 

Lifting weights is also great for weight loss. You will burn calories, you will also build muscle which makes you feel badass, helps you move with less effort, increases your resting metabolism and makes you firm and shapely if that's what you are up for (it also makes you firm and shapely sneakily, even if that's not your goal, roll with it, it's all cool).

Generally you will burn similar calories lifting weights for an hour, doing gentle-moderate cardio for an hour, or in about half an hour of HIIT. So it's really up to you which you would rather do. I would suggest a mix of the cardio of your choice and some resistance training.

What makes the biggest difference with weight loss, is diet and NEAT - the energy you burn through by being generally active. 200 calories of exercise at the gym is cool, but you could also burn that walking to work, or doing some housework. Exercise is about a whole load more than calorie burning, it's about building physical capability, releasing endorphins, taking a break from your obligations, getting funky muscles to poke at, keeping your heart healthy, warding off osteoporosis and taking your best butt selfies.

Cardio conditioning for performance

There is one group that does need to do long duration, steady state cardio. Endurance athletes.

If you are training for a 10k, half marathon, marathon, or more, you are going to need to practice running for a long amount of time. Of course you are. You aren't going to turn up on race day having only ever run for 20 minutes at a time! You need to train your mind to focus for the distance, and your body to manage itself for extended periods of exercise.

Equally however, that's not all you need. When I am coaching endurance runners I build in strength training, to balance and stabilise their joints, and give them that extra push for big hills! I also programme intervals to help them to learn how to run at higher levels of intensity, and thus nudge up their overall speed. My long distance stars will usually do one long run, one medium and one interval every week.

Cardio training is also useful for other sports. When I used to fight Tae Kwon Do, our coach made us to HIIT training to make sure we didn't run out of steam before the end of a bout. Most sports have some element to which cardio fitness applies - and like I said in my "All weights no cardio" post, even strength based athletes can benefit by training the appropriate energy system.

If you are doing your cardio to support your sport, think about how it applies. For instance, a football player needs to be able to put on short bursts of speed, inbetween slower recovery periods when the ball is elsewhere - sprint intervals (10sec or so of work) or Lactate fuelled intervals (a minute or so of heart pounding work) will help prepare for that.

If you love your cardio, go for it, do tonnes of cardio if it makes you happy! I hope I've given you some ideas that might make it even more satisfying. 


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