In Part 1 you learned why the commonly maligned “low-intensity” cardio is important. To recap:
- It can increase your stroke volume (heart health!).
- It can help you recover from high-intensity exercise, be it during the workout rest periods, as well as after the workout via recovery.
- It can help sleep and relaxation when combined with proper respiration patterns.
- It can help you live longer, as having a good Aerobic engine is correlated with longer life spans in various research studies.
- It’s fairly easy to do! It’s only a “6” on the RPE scale and UNLIMITED in creativity. Think of the possibilities!
- During this type of exercise, you can kill many birds with 1 stone via creative workout schemes, as specificity (i.e. lifting weights) is not as important.
But still, a lot of people hate cardio…
You also learned that your capacity for improving the Aerobic system is much greater than the Anaerobic system. So enough with the HIIT every.single.workout….that is no way to live man!
Instead, use a variety of intensities to develop your Aerobic system; some workouts will be long (lower intensities), while others will be shorter (higher intensities). Also, this will keep things fun and interesting, which is very underrated in terms of compliance.
Let’s dive in:
3 Ways to Improve Your Cardio
Remember how I said there were 3 ways to improve your Aerobic fitness? Here they are again:
- Increase Oxygen Supply
- Increase Oxygen Utilization by the muscles—so you can actually do stuff that involves movement!
- Increase Substrate Availability: calorie combustion to create ATP—think Food efficiency—-which is a topic for a Registered Dietitian—not a personal trainer. We can issue general guidelines here, but that’s about it. Also, there are tons of ways to do this, and volumes of books are written on it.
Today, we will talk about some methods and actual workout structures that achieve these; namely, the first 2 points above, as the 3rd is a topic well out of my scope of practice. In fact, any trainer who tries to put you on a diet plan who is not a certified Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian is likely winging it, or just putting you on their own diet, which may or may not work. So, tread carefully there folks!
In order to talk about training Aerobic fitness methods, we must broach the controversial topic of training intensity…
If you look at any research study cited in Men’s Health or Cosmo that make crazy claims like “up your cardio in weeks” or “blast your bodyfat in weeks”, it usually means the study was performed over a short period of time; and you likely will make gains in that short period of time, as the body adapts quicker to high-intensity training, because it provides a stronger initial stimulus.
The catch is that using solely high-intensity methods for weeks on end is futile, as there is less room for improvement specifically because of the high intensity and inflammation that comes with it! Again, you shouldn’t (and can’t) do this day in and day out without running yourself to the ground! For all you meatheads who only lift out there, you know this: can you do “leg day” every day? Exactly….
Think about it: How much better can you get crushing your high intensity circuits week after week…..the room for improvement is not as high as you think. Just look at the famed Tabata study that most people reference—what happened after those 6 weeks is a question you should ask, along with “did the low-intensity control group also make gains?”…I really hope you look this up on Google….do it
But week after week people engage in this, because of the faulty premise that More is Better….hence why I even wrote these 2 articles! So, I’m of the opinion that if you train beyond a 4-6 week period solely using high-intensity training, you are going to see higher rates of plateauing and overtraining.
“Moderate and low-intensity training produce less significant improvements in the short run but greater and longer-lasting improvements over the long run.”
Some Basic Aerobic Development Principles
When it comes to actual Aerobic training methods, there are a couple of basic principles:
1. Most of the time, your heart rate should be below your Anaerobic threshold (for most, this means the highest heart rate you could do an activity for say, 6 minutes, or simply a continuous “8” on a RPE intensity scale of 1-10. ) You will be huffing and puffing, not able to speak, but not keeling over as you would with very high intensities where the RPE is a 9 or 10 (suicide sprints, Tabata, etc). Note that there will be some methods that will break this rule occasionally (i.e. cardiac power method discussed below), but for the most part, we will be using a variety of intensities and a variety of heart rates, and most will fall around this intensity or less.
2. The lower the intensity, the higher the volume; yes, this kind of sucks—it means when you go easy, you have to do more of it in terms of actual workout days and/or time of the workout. But we will get creative with this. Circuits, bike rides, yard work, etc. all come into play here. (yes, yard work! Impress your wife or husband by “sneaking” in your cardio this way)
The reason higher volume is necessary is because of the adaptations that come with Aerobic work, such as improved mitochondrial function—higher volume is key to this. Mitochondrial adaptations happen fast and need continuued stimulus. (Btw, whenever you hear “mitochondria”, think cardio and healthier cells)
In general, you will follow what amounts to a “High/Low” model, with some “medium day” thrown in there if you are working out more than 4 days a week. Think alternating high-intensity days with low-intensity days. This is a perfect way to structure a week when you are in an Aerobic block of training; you are limiting excessive inflammation on the “low” day, since you did a “high” day with high inflammatory properties the day before.
3. Movement Quality is pivotal. If you read my article on the A,B,C’s of Exercise Selection, you understand that knowing how to do a movement correctly is key to making exercise safe and less inflammatory. It’s not all about heart rate….if you run incorrectly, you will get better at running incorrectly, and all the crap that comes with it, such as bad knees.
So whatever exercises you choose to use, know how to do them!
Methods to Increase the Supply of Oxygen (point #1)
Method 1: Cardiac Output: (Low-Intensity)–see Part 1, but here is a quick review…
Goal: Increase the left ventricle size of the heart and improve slow-twitch muscle fiber endurance (English: make the heart walls bigger versus thicker, which means a better stroke volume, and a happier doctor’s visit)
- HR in the 130-150 bpm range
- RPE of 5-6
- 30-90 minutes of continuous activity
- 2-minute jog
- 1-minute jumping jacks
- 1-minute housework/yardwork
- 1-minute Dancing like MJ (why not!?)
- 1-minute core exercise of your choosing
- 1-minute active mobility/flexibility exercise
- *repeat for 30-60 minutes
Method 2: Cardiac Power Intervals (High-Intensity):
Remember in Part 1 when I said your heart can increase its stroke volume by pumping more forcefully OR increasing the amount of blood that fills the left ventricle before it pumps (cardiac output method)? This method will help the heart pump more forcefully, using repeated efforts of max heart rate intervals that last about 1 minute, and taking a full rest in between. You would only do this training after several weeks of other methods of Aerobic training, and only for a week or 2 at that, as this method is as high intensity as it gets! It’s very similar to the Cardiac Output in that it helps achieve more Oxygen Supply, but achieved differently; and I promise you, this method makes you feel alive!
Goal: Increase the heart’s ability to contract harder and pump more blood out per beat
- Heart Rate at Maximum Intensity (9-10 on RPE scale)
- Full rest between sets – don’t screw this part up, or your repeated intensity will suffer!
- Never to be combined with High Intensity the day before or after due to the highly inflammatory properties of exercising like this
- Sets last about 60-90 seconds, with the goal of reaching your max heart rate and holding it for about 10 seconds
- During rest period, concentrate on lowering your heart rate to resting levels ASAP with focus on long exhaling (i.e. relaxing part of the breathe cycle)
- 10 Squat Jumps
- 25 Fast Mountain Climbers
- Sprint for 30 seconds up the Philly Art Museum Stairs
- Rest/Walk and Recover, and repeat 2 to 5 times with FULL Rest.
Cool, right? That should take you a hot 20-25 minutes total after a warm-up. Higher Intensity means shorter workouts. Win-Win!
Methods to Increase Utilization of Oxygen (point #2)
Method 1: Tempo Intervals: (Medium Intensity)
Goal: Increase capillary density and oxidative abilities of slow and some fast-twitch muscle fibers
English: just think “muscles’ efficiency at using Oxygen–remember it’s your muscles that make you move, not just your heart.
- 8-10 seconds work (70% of max intensity), 60-second rest
- 8-16 reps per series
- Moderate/medium intensity, about a 7-8 on RPE intensity scale
- Focus on bringing heart rate down quickly between reps
Example Workout using Running:
- Every Minute on the Minute Runs at 70%—that’s it! Just increase # of intervals each week
- Focus on bringing heart rate down quickly between reps with long exhales
- 10 second Squat Jump>Rest 60 seconds
- 10 Kettlebell Swings>Rest 60 seconds
- 10 Medicine Ball Throws>Rest 60 seconds
- Repeat entire circuit above 5-6 times
Method 2: High Resistance Intervals: (Medium intensity)
Goal: Improve the endurance of fast-twitch muscle fibers
- High Resistance (incline or load)
- Short work period of 5-6 sec
- Rest until heart rate is in the 130-160 range (or about a “6” on RPE scale)
- Moderate-to-high volume (8-12 sets)
- Heart Rate does not go over an “8” on a scale of 1-10, so no falling to the ground out of breathe!
- Focus on bringing heart rate down quickly between reps
Example: Any of the below by themselves, or done in circuit fashion:
- Uphill Sprint for 6 seconds—repeat 10 times
- Sled Pushes
- Spin Bike Intervals using speed adjustments for intensity
- Repeat above 3-5 times.
Increasing Oxygen Supply and Utilization at the same time
Method: Threshold Training (High Intensity)
Goal: Increase your power output Aerobically; This is fairly miserable work, and is exactly what you see in something like a typical Crossfit WOD—hard, fast, long. This method works by increasing your Aerobic power output using a constant supply of Oxygen, and at high intensities, hence why it only lasts from 3-12 minutes, depending on fitness level. This is your Capacity training–how hard can you go, and how long can you keep it up. As you now know if you have been reading my articles, the more you can rely on your Aerobic system to create and use ATP, the longer you can do it for! Duh….
*Recap: The term Threshold refers to Anaerobic Threshold: this is the point where you go from Aerobic Energy production to Anaerobic Energy Production, which simply means your Oxygen Supply is not meeting Oxygen Demand, so you either have to slow down/drop intensity, or take a rest. You can train your ability to lengthen this process, which is obviously why you are training with this method anyway!
What is my Anaerobic Threshold?
Tricky to measure, but here is a hack: Pick your “test activity”, which will be the exercise or exercises you’re using in your program that you want to improve, and perform them as hard and fast as you can for 6 minutes. (i.e. How fast you can run without slowing down for 6 minutes, or a circuit of multiple exercises done at a high intensity of about an 8 on the RPE scale); whatever that speed is, or how many circuits you did in that 6 minutes, is your Anaerobic Threshold for those activities. Each week with training, extend the duration. So if I was on a running program, my 6 minute speed should become my 10-12 minute speed as I add minutes each week at that speed. That is exactly what should happen after you add a few weeks of this method in your program.
- RPE 8
- Same Speed or Power Output (intensity), but longer duration each week
- Long rest (2-3+min after each interval, or until heart rate around 130 or RPE of 5-6)
- 3-5 sets (program using overload progression each week)
- Do not combine back to back days. Ensure this is sandwiched between lower intensity days; think a “High” day if you are using the High/Low model
Example using a single exercise:
- Any classic Cardio Method (running, cycling, swimming, or combo of all)
- Finding our your 6 min speed for an RPE of 8, and adding 1 minute each week for 3-4 weeks
- For me, this would mean running at my “RPE 8” speed to the Wells Fargo, about about a mile away, and then extending my run past the bank each week at that same speed
3 sets of 6 minutes of continuous circuit:
- 1 pull up
- 3 push-ups
- 5 jump squats
- 7 kettlebell swings
- Repeated over and over for 6 minutes, then 7 minutes in Week 2, 8 minutes in Week 3, etc.
*Add time each week at the same intensity, and reduce the number of sets, with the goal of taking your 6-minute intensity to be able to keep that up for a single set of 12+ minutes, and as high as up to 20 minutes. Anything above 20 minutes at this intensity and you will be miserable, trust me!
When you begin training, you will stick with more of the low/medium intensity methods, and depending on your recovery, you will start upping the ante with the more intense methods. That is to say, as your Aerobic system improves its ability to Supply and Endure muscular work using oxygen and chemicals from food combustion, you should be improving your ability to recover faster—-a benefit of enhanced Aerobic capacity—so you an handle more intense days! It’s like a natural steroid and allows you even more wiggle room with your programming.
Here is an example training block, and remember, you can lift heavy weights during this, but not as much as you will during a strength/hypertrophy weight training block, because of that damn inflammation issue again!
- Weeks 1-2: 3 days Cardiac Output, 1-2 days Tempo Intervals
- Weeks 3-4: 2 days Cardiac Output, 1-day Tempo, 1 day High Resistance Intervals
- Weeks 5-6: 2 days Cardiac Output, 1-day Tempo (optional), 2 days Threshold
- Weeks 7-8: 2 Days Cardiac Output, 1-day Threshold, 1-day Cardiac Power, 1-day Tempo Intervals
- Week 9: Taper, and Re-test your Aerobic Function, which will be an article for another day! But simply testing your Resting Heart Rate or your Heart Rate Recovery will be suffice for us Average Joe’s…
Then, either change your focus to a Strength/Hypertrophy block, or Rinse and Repeat your Aerobic block and start with a heightened baseline of Aerobic ability in Week 1. That’s the point of working out for fitness–make what was once your high intensity your new low intensity! Bing!
Regardless of the route you choose, be principled!