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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5 Ways To Make Your Workouts More Fun And Challenging

If you’ve been an avid exerciser for more than a year, chances are you’ve occasionally gotten bored with some of your routines and wished for new ones. There are some dedicated fitness enthusiasts that use workout programs designed by famous strength coaches and keep daily logs of their workouts. At the health club I work, I frequently see members bring fitness magazines with them and follow customized workout plans written in some of the sections. If you belong to either of these groups of people, give yourself a pat on the back. Your brilliance and creativity is an obvious sign of your commitment to your health and fitness and your constant push for new challenges and upward progressions.

I applaud your efforts!

However, what if I told you that you could embrace new challenges without doing any of the above? What if I told you your workouts can become much more exciting without changing anything in your routine? Sounds hard to believe right? Well, the thing is the human body is designed to respond to any physiological demands placed on it and can handle a lot of stress providing good form, appropriate load and proper mechanics are up to par. Whether the goal is strength, lean muscle gain or fat loss, you can avoid complacency, boredom and minimal results from your workouts by simply making a few minor adjustments.

Here are 5 ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging:

1. Increase The Volume: So many gym folks, guys especially, feel as if they have to continually increase the weight between sets to achieve or maintain their size and strength. I also know of several women looking to sculpt and lose weight who stick the the old 3×15 rule of thumb for every exercise. When I began to earn my stripes as a lad in the weight room, I was told by some of the older folks that 3×10 was the blueprint for everything. I’m sure some of you heard that at some point as well. It’s true. It does work. But only for a while before the body demands for a new challenge. Simply adding more reps and sets to your workout is a surefire way to continue to keep your body guessing. If you’re looking to get bigger and stronger, there’s only so much weight your body can handle before your joints start to scream. Squatting 225 pounds for 10 reps can be made more challenging by squatting185lbs for 15 reps. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 15 reps of reverse crunches for a month, increase the challenge by adding a fourth set or an additional 5 reps. In both examples, the body will respond because a new stimuli has been placed on it. Trust me when I say you’re going to hate me when you’re done!

2. Take Shorter Rest Periods: If there’s one cardinal sin I commit occasionally during my workouts, it’s that I often get carried away by conversations with buddies and colleagues and end up resting too long. So many of us are guilty of doing this even if we have workout partners. Because the gym can be looked at as a social gathering of people with a common interest, it’s easy for this to happen. Our muscles can get cold over a prolonged rest which can hamper our goals and efforts and even lead to injury. Now I don’t necessarily believe in designating rest periods except unless you’re a powerlifter where the all-out maximal effort requires rest periods of up to five minutes. However 60 seconds to 2 minutes seems to be recommended norm for the majority of us. So let’s assume you’ve been resting 90 seconds between your sets, increase the challenge next time by resting 75 seconds. It’ll be much harder initially but the good news is that your muscles will stay under tension and contracted for a very long time which means stronger and leaner muscles.

3. Stop Doing All That Cardio And HIIT It: We all need cardio to stay lean and live an optimal lifestyle. We know that. But so many of us (even myself once upon a time) continue to spend endless amount of time on cardio machines. What if I told you that you could burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time? Recent studies have endorsed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as the most effective cardio method to burn fat. Simply put, HIIT is performed by alternating short bouts of high intensity activities with moderate-to-long bouts of very low intensity recovery periods. An example would be to run at your fastest speed on the treadmill for 30 seconds to 1 minute followed immediately by a slow, mild walk for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. That process would be repeated at least 6 to 8 times. HIIT has also been associated with increased EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) in which the body stays in a fat-burning metabolic zone for 24 to 48 hours afterwards! HIIT is the best way to burn fat which for a lot of us living in this country will continue to be a priority. But steady-state cardio can be incorporated occasionally for those interested in improving cardiovascular endurance. For a deeper insight on HIIT, read this blog I wrote a while back.

4. Change The Sequence Of Your Exercises: This basically refers to the order in which you perform your exercises. One major reason our workouts become so redundant and uninspiring is because we perform particular exercises at certain junctures and on certain days. Monday has been universally dubbed ‘Chest Day’ by an overwhelming majority of guys who workout. Some people like to do cardio before weights or vice versa on the same day. Others simply do a collection of exercises in a particular order (barbell squats, leg press, lunges, leg extensions, etc). Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with this format but its predictability by the body’s central nervous system can cause the body to plateau and stop responding to these exercises. It inevitably makes workouts drag and as a result takes the fun out of it. Try switching things up a bit. Rather than start your chest workout with flat barbell bench press, start with incline dumbbell chest press or weighted push-ups. If you’ve been doing a push-pull superset for a few weeks, try a lower body-upper body superset or simply reverse the push-pull format to a pull-push.

5. Learn A New Craft: Those that know me well know how much I love, enjoy and embrace exercise-related challenges. It is a huge reason why my workouts never get boring because I’m always looking to learn a new skill that can enhance my workouts. Resistance training will continue to be the template for a lengthy, healthy lifestyle. It’ll be that way forever and will not change. But there are days when you just can’t push your body to get under the bar, run on the treadmill or even do some core work on the mat. Fitness accessory tools like the TRX, Kettlebells, Medicine and BOSU Balls, Battle Ropes and Prowler Sleds can add some spice to your workouts. These tools have the ability to strengthen the body and build lean muscle while additionally emphasizing core and cardio work. The TRX and Kettlebell alone allow for hundreds of exercises that will target virtually every part of the human anatomy. If you’re proficient with any of the aforementioned tools, I’d suggest you routinely incorporate them into your workouts. If you have no knowledge on how to use these workout accessories, leave a comment at the bottom of this blog and I’ll be of assistance.

Stop doing all that cardio and HIIT it!

Right from the first time we picked up a set of dumbbells, we were told and reminded time and time again that cardio is a vital part of training that must be routinely performed conventionally on cardio machines to burn fat and build lean muscle. Treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes have become staples for cardio training in commercial gyms. It isn’t unusual to see people run on the treadmill for over an hour! I’m about to tell you why doing that much cardio could be a complete waste of time.

For the majority of us (competitive seasoned runners excluded), we do cardio to burn fat and improve endurance. Our bodies produce fuel via 3 energy systems: the ATP-CP (activities lasting 10-15 seconds), Anaerobic (activities lasting 10 seconds to 2 minutes) and Aerobic (activities lasting longer than 2 minutes) energy systems. All 3 systems are utilized in our daily physical activities. The aerobic and anaerobic systems uses the body’s stored fuels (glucose, glycogen and fat) when we perform steady-state cardio sessions lasting anywhere from 15 to 45 or more minutes and yields a ton of burned fat calories. An average 130-pound person can burn up to 250 calories of fat running on the treadmill at 6 miles per hour.

Great, right?

Well, what if I told you that you could burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time? Recent studies have endorsed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as the most effective cardio method to burn fat. Simply put, HIIT is defined as alternating short bouts of high intensity activities with moderate-to-long bouts of very low intensity recovery periods. An example would be to run at your fastest speed on the treadmill for 30 seconds to 1 minute followed immediately by a slow, mild walk for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. That process would be repeated 6 to 8 times. HIIT has also been associated with increased EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) in which the body stays in a fat-burning metabolic zone for 24 to 48 hours afterwards!

HIIT can also be performed with traditional exercises like kettlebell swings, clean & press, burpees and squat jumps. Just like the name, it can be quite intense especially if you’re a first-timer so don’t be discouraged if you struggle initially. Due to its taxing nature, HIIT should not be performed no more than twice a week with at least 48 hours apart. Do not perform HIIT if you have a preexisting heart, chronic and/or cardiovascular condition. Always check with your doctor first.