5 ways to spice up your cardio

By now, we all know a combination of cardio and strength training is the best way to achieve and maintain a lean, healthy weight. However, a majority of recreational exercisers hate doing cardio. Many of us find it too boring and monotonous and just doesn’t yield the same high as a strength training session. Although gyms and health clubs are packed with tons of treadmills, only a select few, particularly avid runners, use them regularly. Elliptical machines, stair climber and bicycles are also utilized frequently by fitness enthusiasts but their usage pale in comparison to that of the treadmill. It’s important to point out the dislike associated with cardio is steady-state cardio, i.e. being on a cardio machine for a long time. Most people just don’t like the idea of being stuck on a treadmill or elliptical for 30 minutes.

So what exactly is cardio?

Simply put, cardio is any activity that is rhythmic in nature. The idea is to have the activity rhythmic enough to challenge the heart. Based on that theory, jumping jacks, walking up a flight of stairs, double dutch, and even gardening would be considered as cardio activities. All of the above will raise the heart rate up and require a moderate amount of effort and exertion. The heart rate and its beats per minute (bpm) is perhaps the most common way to measure how challenging a cardio activity is or any activity for that matter. This usually requires several formulas in which certain numbers are plugged in, with the most popular being the ‘220-age method‘ multiplied by a percentage. However, I believe the RPE scale is a better assessment since it takes into account the feel of the individual. You know when you’re working too hard, moderately or with little to no effort.

For those “I hate cardio” folks, there are a plethora of non-traditional cardio options you can consider. Here are 5 good ones:

Circuit Training: This is actually one of the most popular ways of training amongst fitness enthusiasts and has been around for quite some time. Not only is it a good way to save time and get more bang for your buck, it provides both aerobic and anaerobic benefits. You alternate between a minimum of 2 exercises without resting (also known as ‘super-setting’) , before resting briefly and repeating cycle for at least 2 more sets. It’s important that exercises selected for a circuit don’t require maximum effort and should allow for 8-15 reps at an RPE of between 11 and 15.  Below is an example of a sample circuit training program: Perform the exercises marked ‘a’ and ‘b’ consecutively without resting. Rest for 90 seconds after exercise ‘b’ then repeat for 2 more sets before moving on to the second circuit.

1a. Barbell Squat

1b. Push Ups

2a. Jumping Jacks

2b. Burpees

3a. Plank

3b. Side Bridge

HIIT: For those who want a quick cardio session rather than the usual steady-state stuff, High Intensity Interval Training is just that. HIIT gained mainstream several years ago and is a staple in many people’s cardio programs today. It is defined as alternating between bouts of high intensity and low intensity. The heart rate stays high enough during the ‘work’ portion so much that it doesn’t drop too low during the ‘recovery’ portion to yield sufficient fat burning. According to an ACSM study, HIIT has a number of benefits including increasing metabolism, burning more fat than steady state cardio, lowering blood pressure and shrinking abdominal/trunk fat at a faster rate.

There’s no ideal HIIT protocol but a sample HIIT workout I often use and recommend to my clients is running 1 minute hard followed by 1 minute easy/recovery, and repeating for 8 – 10 rounds. If you’re a beginner or your cardio conditioning isn’t as high, you can try 1 minute hard followed my 90 seconds easy/recovery.

TABATA:  An adapted version of HIIT is the Tabata protocol, popularized by exercise science professor, Izumi Tabata in the mid 90’s. Unlike HIIT, which is mostly running and in some cases cycling, Tabata uses whole body movements and exercises done at moderate to high intensity for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. This process is performed for a total of 8 rounds or 4 minutes. More than one exercise can be used for Tabata training or simply just one. For example you can set up 8 different stations for each round of Tabata, go through all 8 stations, rest 90 seconds and repeat for 2 more rounds. A single movement can also be used for Tabata providing that movement engages and challenges the whole body.

Some effective exercises for Tabata training are kettle bell swings, kettle bell snatch,  jump squats, high knees, burpees, push press, medicine ball slams, battle rope slams/waves, mountain climbers, sandbag cleans, to name a few.

Bootcamp: This is one of the premier methods of training, dating back to the 80’s. The early days of bootcamp utilized mostly your bodyweight. Exercises like jumping jacks, mountain climbers and burpees were birthed by bootcamp training. Perhaps the greatest perk about boot camp is it can be done just about anywhere, even in your living room. Nowadays, props like medicine balls, battle ropes, stairs and kettle bells are being incorporated for a more effective, fat-burning workout. There isn’t a preferred routine or format when it comes to bootcamp. It has been tried and tested over time and will continue to be effective.

There are thousands of bootcamp workouts to select from and even more bootcamp studios you can attend for a class. It doesn’t matter what you opt for because bootcamp isn’t fading anytime soon.

Jumping Rope: Just like bootcamp, jumping rope has been around for years and also demands a great deal from the body. Forget about the fact that you have to swing this light piece of string over your head and under your feet, simply jumping off the ground repeatedly is a surefire way to get your heart rate up. Everything from your arms, legs, core and trunk stabilizers are used while jumping rope. Most fitness enthusiasts use jump rope as a warm up before a big workout. But it can be utilized solely for a cardio workout. Other folks who jump rope don’t do it long enough or fail to do it well enough to yield benefits. Keep in mind that although the forward jump is the most basic and common jump, there are other jumps that can also be done. Examples are side-to-side jump, backward jump, single-leg jump-left, single-leg jump-right, double jump and  alternating jump to name a few.

Consider this basic jump rope routine: forward jump for 30 – 60 seconds; rest 60 seconds and repeat for a total of 10 rounds. More advanced people can jump for 60 seconds and rest for 30 – 60 seconds.

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