What is the Best Cardio Workout Routine?
Cardio. That word has been long used to define what people think they need for fat loss. But what is it really? With all our options out there, what is really the best “cardio” workout to do? Well we recently sent out a call to fitness blogger community to tell us a bit about how they do their “cardio”. We used an intentionally broad term to allow everyone to define it their own way. We received some really awesome responses.
So here you go, in alphabetical order (with Mike and I chiming in at the end):
Anna Dornier of Path To Fat Loss writes:
For me, the best form of cardio is with kettlebell or barbell complexes, especially if you are short on time. You can knock out strength and cardio in one workout with complexes. I actually created a video on YouTube to show how people can do kettlebell complexes that you can view here.
Jay Cohen writes:
Anything with the the word Sled or Prowler in the workout. End of story.
50 M drive forward with hands on low bar
50 M pull (backwards) with straps or rings
1 minute rest
Say a set of 5 w somewhat light weight so you can have rapid leg turnover, fast speed with sled.
JC of JCD Fitness writes:I am a keep-it-simple kind of guy. If I have a client who walks a lot at their job or at school, I count that as their steady state cardio training and call it a day.
When I have someone that isn’t quite as active, I still encourage steady state cardio for the most part, but suggest it be in the form of something enjoyable. Some examples are walking the dogs, hiking on a scenic trail, biking through the city or the woods. You could go to a park and participate in team sports such as soccer, basketball, ultimate Frisbee, etc.
I particularly don’t care too much for cardio in the traditional sense; therefore when I recommend it to someone, I suggest it be an activity one enjoys. This way, we get to have fun and reach our goals at the same time.
Karl Schnell of Longevity Personal Training writes:
A cardio routine I have been giving to my clients lately is a combination of speed intervals on the treadmill with alternating front lunges. So it goes like this. I will set the treadmill at a speed that is a little higher than what they can run a 1/4 mile in. Usually this is at 8.0mph. I’ll have my client run at this pace for 1 minute. After 1 minute they then come off of the treadmill and do a set of 15 reps of alternating front lunges. After the lunges they then get back on the treadmill and run for another minute at 8.0mph. They will follow this pattern for 3 – 5 sets. The only difference with each set is that I add weight to the lunges after the 1st set. The weights progress.
An example would be:
Set 1 – 0#
Set 2 – 12#
Set 3 – 15#
Set 4 – 20#
Set 5 – 25#
Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple writes:
My big problem with cardio is that it’s almost universally viewed as work, as something to be dreaded. When we think of our cardio as a chore, actually doing it becomes a negative experience: tedious, dull, and mind-numbing. Plus, the activities that we usually associate with “cardio” are pretty horrible, except for the select few endurance junkies who get off on running/cycling/swimming at high intensities for long distances. If you’re running ten miles a day because you love it, more power to you, but you’re a rare one. Most people feel like cardio has to be hard and it has to be grueling, or nothing’s getting done.
I say we should get out of that mindset. Stop thinking of “cardio” as some monolithic tool or a goal in and of itself, and start thinking of movement for pleasure’s sake instead. Moving is the real issue; we don’t do enough of it, and forcing oneself to move your body long distances at a fast pace until your joints hurt and you can’t control your heart rate isn’t a good, sustainable option. Make it fun. The human mind is a formidable opponent at times, but it can be tricked into working hard while having fun. When you’re having fun, you’re more likely to go hard without thinking about the pain involved with exertion. If you enjoy your “cardio,” you’re more likely to come back for more.
Play 18 holes of golf, but leave the cart and caddy back at the club. Lug your own bag across 18 holes and tell me you didn’t get a “cardio” workout.
Go for a hike. If you don’t have access to ample wilderness, go for an urban hike – walk from the Battery in NYC to Harlem, for example. Pause for occasional pull-ups on street lights and step-ups on park benches for a little extra oomph.
Take up a new sport or rediscover an old one. Gather some friends for a game of football (tackle, if you can manage it) or hit the park to scrounge up a pickup game of basketball.
Try walking to the store instead of driving. Or, if the store is a bit too far for that, ride your bike (and don’t avoid the hills!).
Take up paddle boarding. I’m biased, because this is a personal favorite of mine, but you can’t tell me that cruising the waves among frolicking dolphins doesn’t sound like a good way to get a cardio workout.
Sprint, don’t jog. If you still crave the thrill of exertion, and you want aerobic and anaerobic performance gains, sprinting will get you there in a fraction of the time.
I spent a good portion of my life running to excess and simultaneously hating/loving every minute/mile of it. All in all, I’m much happier, healthier, and (yes) fitter with a more easygoing approach to cardio.
Melissa “Melicious” Joulwan of The Clothes Make The Girl writes:
Since I became a CrossFit devotee, the idea of “cardio,” i.e., vanilla-flavored, long-form aerobic activity, has lost some of its previous charm. I still enjoy leisurely walks around the lake or a 5k run to clear my head, but when I’m ready to WORK, I’ve got a different definition of “cardio.”
A cardio workout needs to pass several criteria if it’s going to make it onto my training schedule:
It’s got to be functional. No treadmill running or walking; it’s got to be real work, on real terrain, done in real circumstances like fresh air or headwinds or glorious sunshine or maybe even some drizzle or flurries.
It’s got to include intervals. The intensity built into interval training delivers the best results, physically and mentally.
It’s got to be inspiring. Nothing is more satisfying than conquering a workout that seemed daunting at its start. Workouts should end with a feeling of accomplishment, rather than comfort.
It’s got to be fun. Working out should be among the best parts of your day.
It’s got to be simple. The fewer potential excuses for skipping it, the better.
It’s got to be scalable. Everyone needs to be able to work at their appropriate fitness level. If you’re doing your best — whatever “best” means for that day — you’re doing a good job.
Based on that definition, I like to put together met-con workouts (metabolic conditioning, a.k.a. cardio) that incorporate running/sprinting and body weight movements so no equipment is needed and the workout can be adapted for just about anyone.
Here’s an example of a workout designed for two people to do together — which takes care of that “fun” criteria. Because the runner is “timing” the workout, you don’t even need a stopwatch.
Round 1 – Partner 1: 400m run / Partner 2: squats
Round 2 – Partner 1: squats / Partner 2: 400m run
Round 3 – Partner 1: 400m run / Partner 2: situps
Round 4 – Partner 1: situps / Partner 2: 400m run
Round 5 – Partner 1: 400m run / Partner 2: box jumps
Round 6 – Partner 1: box jumps / Partner 2: 400m run
When I did this workout recently, I jumped on a big rock in the park instead of a plyo box. It was awesome for working balance and confidence while I also got cardiovascular benefits and focused on my core and legs.
To add variety, swap out the body weight exercises with other options. Good ones include walking lunges, broad jumps, burpees, squat jumps, and pushups. Pullups are great, too, but there’s that pesky need for equipment again.
To scale the workout, the running intervals can get shorter or longer. Changing the 400m run to a 100m sprint really changes the intensity of the workout.
To make the workout longer, do an additional round with another body weight exercise.
Don’t want to run? Swap swimming for the running and do the body weight exercises poolside. Or exchange the running for two minutes of jump rope — just don’t use “forgetting the jump rope” as an excuse to skip training.
Methuselah of Train Now, Live Later writes:
Biggest bang for the buck: rowing machine tabatas (20 secs of hard work, 10 seconds rest and repeat interval style). 5 minutes, in and out, total physical destruction!
I have always regarded correct Tabatas as each and every 20 second interval being done at 100% effort. There should be no ‘budgeting’ for later intervals; but there have been times I have chickened out of really applying this literally, and found myself not genuinely giving the first few intervals my all.
A Tabata row, and other than Tabata sprints, which I dare not do at all, it’s the most demanding thing I do. Perhaps it’s the very fact that my objective is to truly give 100% to each interval that makes it so scary. The pain is the objective so there seems to be no escaping it, however fit I am.
Nicole Gauvin of Trainer Confidential writes:
I teach a twice-weekly Boot Camp in which I intersperse cardio drills with strength training. I’ve found this technique extremely useful for increasing the calorie burn and intensity of the classes in a way that doesn’t really feel like a “cardio” workout.
These drills can be anything from 1- or 2-minute jump rope and step jumps to shuffle drills across the room. Of course, this being a “boot camp” and all, participants must drop down for push-ups each time they shuffle to one side of the room!
My classes also include a lot of plyometric work (squat jumps, lunge jumps, plyo push-ups, etc). Cardio drills, for me, are a great way to “sneak” cardio into a group class format.
Rusty Moore of Fitness Black Book writes:
First of all, I do believe in cardio year round. I know that cardio has fallen out of favor to other methods of getting lean. It was much bigger in the 70′s and 80′s, but it works well in helping people get lean…provided their diet is in order.
My favorite uses of cardio:
* 15 Minute HIIT Intervals: Year round after lifting for HGH increase and EPOC.
* 15-20 Minutes of Steady State Cardio: After HIIT during a fat loss phase.
* Moderate Intensity Steady State Cardio 30-60 Minutes: On Mondays to burn off weekend calories and carb deplete a bit during a fat loss phase.
* Body Weight Intervals 3-4 months each year as a break from the gym. Serves as both resistance training and cardio during this time.
* Summer Time Cardio: As many activities as possible outdoors that don’t involve the gym.
Note: I like the precision of “old school” cardio machines. The nice thing about a cardio machine is that you can tweak the intensity up or down ever so slightly to get the exact desired effect. For instance, if you have been doing HIIT on level 11 for the sprint portion and it becomes too easy, you can push it to 11.2 the following workout.
I think it is the precision of cardio machines that allows you to develop an exact blueprint that you can duplicate each year to stay lean (once you find one that works). One more thing is that cardio machines don’t interfere as much with recovery to other muscle groups in the body compared to various circuits. So you can do the lifting routine you like for building or maintaining muscle and then just add a strategic cardio machine workout right after lifting.
Vic Magary of GymJunkies.com writes:
1. The 30-30 Drill. The 30-30 drill is simply 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 30 seconds of rest. The drill is best done with one exercise. The cycle is repeated 10 – 20 times, depending on the movement selected and the fitness level of the participant. Some of my personal favorite exercises to use with the 30-30 drill include rowing, sledge hammer work, burpees, kettlebell swings, and ball slams.
2. The Century Club. Select an exercise and do 100 repetitions as fast as you can. Rest as needed but no more than absolutely necessary, as you race the clock to 100 reps. Try to complete the drill faster with each subsequent session. Burpees and box jumps are my favorite exercises for this drill.
Scott Kustes of Fitness Spotlight writes:
My perspective is tainted by my competition in Master’s Track and Field. Since I run the sprints, short (60m, 100m, 200m) and long (400m), I need what’s known as “speed-endurance,” rather than the ability to run a bunch of miles at a rather slow pace. I get my “cardio” from high-intensity intervals known as “tempo”. This allows me to go out and get in several miles of work at a higher speed than I could go run continuous miles. It blurs the line between “anaerobic” and “aerobic,” letting me build endurance across a range of speeds and actually has carryover to longer efforts, up to about 5k.
The key to this kind of work is that it’s built on maintaining a set percentage of your max effort. For example, my 400m PR is 52.5. So let’s do a workout of 75% intensity for eight 400m repeats with a 3 minute rest. Divide 52.5 by .75 to get 70 seconds. So I go out and aim to run a 70-second 400m, then rest 3 minutes. The first couple are easy (note that the goal is to hit +/- a couple seconds of the goal time, not destroy it), but the lactate builds quickly and the short rest is insufficient to completely recover. By the last 3, you’ll find out how hard you can push yourself and learn just how short 3 minutes is.
For someone not used to doing something like this, I’d start with 4 intervals at 70% of your best 400m. As that becomes easy, add a couple intervals, then when that’s easy, increase your intensity to 75%.
Mike O’Donnell of Fitness Spotlight writes:
Cardio is such a broad term for people nowadays. Is it riding a bike in spin class? Doing step aerobics? Running sprints at the track? Or just going for a walk?
To me I would rather tell someone to be active in a lifestyle capacity, aka go out and play! But there is also nothing wrong with doing some steady state or interval based cardio in a gym IF you have your eating down right. I do not like it when people go to do hours of something, worry about how many calories they burn and only to just turn around and eat whatever they feel like. That is not the goal. Smarter, not longer when it comes to exercise planning.
So for me I would rather see people do more intense type of workouts 3x/week such as lifting weights, intervals and even bodyweight circuits (with little rest between sets). Then if you want to follow it up with some slow and steady enjoyable activity like walking, have at it. When people try and do too much (such as intense cardio 7x/week) they will only set themselves up for a high stress environment, increase inflammatory issues and lower immune function.
This also helps to put the focus where it needs to be, eating right! Excessive eating to just “fuel” more and more workouts will not get people the results they are after (and it usually will lead to eventual burnout and rebound weight gain down the road).
When dealing with clients I always go by their own level of intensity. The more intense they can make their workout in one short session (20-45min max), the more benefit they will get from it. But also doing more “lifestyle cardio” at an enjoyable pace leads to a good activity level without the excessive calorie recovery demand and stress load on the body. Walking is such a great stress relief as well, especially when you can do it outside and clear your mind (and if you want to get rid of that stubborn fat, you have to control your stress going on inside of you!).
So is there just one perfect cardio workout routine in my mind? Not really. Some love the interval style of training especially with weights and full body movements. Others do more slower strength work with some slow-go cardio after. Bodybuilders go low carb/cal and walk on treadmills to get rid of the last bit of fat before a show. I’d sum it up with short intense exercise several times per week with an enjoyable pace “lifestyle cardio” mindset (and eating responsibly of course) will get you far!