The Beginners Guide to “Cardio” Part 1

by on April 17, 2014

For anyone that is new to training, you’ve likely been told or have read somewhere that cardio is a crucial part of any training program. You might have read that you should walk a lot, that you need to do interval training, that cardio is awesome for fat loss, or terrible for muscle gain. If you read enough sources, you’ll begin to notice that cardio is actually somewhat controversial, and that people can’t seem to agree about how it should be done.

This guide is designed for you. And it’s not a guide that is going TELL you what you should do, but instead teach you about what you CAN do, and help you make an intelligent decision about what form of cardio would be most beneficial for you.
To start with, what defines something as being cardio?

Answer, ANYTHING that raises your heart rate. So literally any physical activity that has the effect of making your heart beat faster can be considered “cardio”. Yes, sex counts.

Depending on how fast your heart is beating, cardio can be divided in Aerobic and Anaerobic Cardio.

During Aerobic cardio, your body can keep moving simply by utilizing the oxygen you are breathing in for energy. So anything from walking to a moderate running pace is aerobic cardio.

During Anaerobic cardio, your body will need to utilize stored energy within your muscles, because oxygen is not supplying enough energy for the activity you are doing. Sprinting, pushing a sled, and even high rep squats are all anaerobic cardio.
So how do I measure what kind of cardio I am doing?

Cardio is measured by intensity. Depending on how high your heart rate elevates, the “intensity” of cardio will change. Intensity is based off your max heart rate, the same way weightlifting intensity is based off of your 1 Rep max. The intensity of cardio is divided into:

Low Intensity – up to 65% of max heart rate – So about 120-140 beats per minute for the average trainee that is between 18-40 years of age. This is where Low Intensity Steady State cardio is done.

Moderate Intensity-65-85% of max heart rate – So about 130 to 160 beats per minute. This is what most people would call aerobic training. This type of cardio is a bit more intense but still can be done for long periods of time.

High Intensity – 80-100% of max heart rate – So about 150 minutes and above. This is where interval training is done. This is anaerobic cardio..
If my heart rate goes up when I am lifting, am I doing cardio?

YES, lifting weights can be cardio if it makes your heart rate go up. And this usually depends on how intensely you train.

For beginners though, trying to get a cardiovascular effect out of weight lifting can be difficult and very draining. And while it’s normal for your heart rate to increase when lifting with intensity, this can be also be detrimental with your muscle gains if every workout turns into a “cardio weight lifting” session. Having your heart rate elevate while you train can be a nice side effect of lifting weights, but it shouldn’t be the goal. Your goal is to build muscle and strength.

Hence, your cardiovascular training should be done separately from your lifting.
What are the benefits of doing cardio though?

Elevating your heart rate, and keeping it elevated, has many beneficial effects that carry over to lifting and muscular growth. The primary adaptations that carry over

  • Increased cardiovascular Endurance-basically being able to keep your heart rate elevated without tiring out
  • Increased Physical Stamina – your nervous system can actually get stronger just like your muscles can. Doing cardio is an excellent way to build up your capacity for physical exertion (like lifting weights)
  • Improved blood flow and joint lubrication – This helps your muscles recover faster and keeps your joints healthy as well.
  • Improved heart health-Cardiovascular training has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure, resting heart rate, and improve HDL to LDL cholesterol ratios.
  • Decreased systemic inflammation – Simply, cardio helps reduce soreness and keeps your joints and muscles from getting stiff. If you are lifting weights, this will benefit your recovery and growth

So there are obvious and immediate health benefits that can be realized from doing cardio.

So where do I start for cardio?

If you are new to bodybuilding, the best form of cardio for you with the Low Intensity Stead State Cardio.

The Beginners Guide to Cardio, Part 2 – Low Intensity Steady State

Low intensity steady state cardio is the easiest and simplest version of cardio you can do, and requires no equipment of any kind. During LISS, your heart rate elevation will be moderate, and the duration can be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. During LISS, the pace will never be more than a fast walk, and you should always feel energetic after completing is, even if you are a little fatigued.

For those just starting out, the Periodization model we will use for doing the cardio will be very simple. Periodization is simply the technical term for planning out training with a specific goal in mind. In this case, our goal is to increase our low intensity aerobic endurance.

For people who do not have access to cardio equipment, or do not prefer to use it, you will utilize the oldest form of cardio known to man, walking. Any of these programs can also be performed on a treadmill as well, if you have one available to you

A Basic 12 week Walking program

This program uses simple increases in time and frequency to gradually build up your endurance. This program can be used by any level of trainee.

Week # Frequency Duration Total Minutes
Week 1; 3 Times 20 Minutes 60
Week 2; 3 Times 20 Minutes 60
Week 3; 3 Times 25 Minutes 75
Week 4; 3 Times 30 Minutes 90
Week 5; 4 Times 30 Minutes 120
Week 6; 4 Times 35 Minutes 150
Week 7; 4 Times 35 Minutes 150
Week 8; 4 Times 40 Minutes 160
Week 9; 5 Times 40 Minutes 200
Week 10; 5 Times 40 Minutes 200
Week 11; 5 Times 45 Minutes 225
Week 12; 5 Times 45 Minutes 225

Another Basic 12 Week Walking Program

In this program, we are will be taking three daily walks a week. Every two weeks or so, we will increase the length of the walk by 5 minutes. This is a simple and minimalistic program, and could be used by any level of trainee. For someone that is already lean and has not been doing cardio of any kind, this could quite effective in creating a gradual and easy and deficit, assuming diet is accounted for as well.

Week # Duration of Walk Total Time
Week 1 30 Minutes 90 Minutes
Week 2 30 Minutes 90 Minutes
Week 3 35 Minutes 105 Minutes
Week 4 35 Minutes 105 Minutes
Week 5 40 Minutes 120 Minutes
Week 6 40 Minutes 120 Minutes
Week 7 45 Minutes 135 Minutes
Week 8 50 Minutes 150 Minutes
Week 9 50 Minutes 150 Minutes
Week 10 55 Minutes 165 Minutes
Week 11 55 Minutes 165 Minutes
Week 12 60 Minutes 180 Minutes

In this version of the program, you will be walking only 3 times weekly. Hence, progression will be based on simply increasing the time of your daily walks. This program is very foolproof, and can be used by any level of trainee

Notice that in the above programs, the speed of the walk is not a variable at all. Initially this is not an important factor when we first start any aerobic program, as we are simply base building. So do not worry about how fast you are walking, just walk in the designated amount of time
More than Basic, An 8 Week High Intensity Interval Hill Program

Now this program is a little bit harder, but it is equipment free, and it requires only 2 things

  • A Fairly steep hill
  • A watch or stopwatch of some kind

The program design is still very simple though. You will be jogging/power walking/sprinting up the hill for set amounts of time. As your conditioning improves, the length of the sprints and the number of sprints will increase.

If sprinting is too intense, you can lower the intensity to a jogging pace, or even a fast power walk, this is entirely up to you and what you feel you are ready for.

For each “ up the hill, you will then walk back down to the base, and then start over. The downhill walk will be easier than the uphill and will act as cooldown.

Week # Frequency Number of Sprints Duration of Sprints Total Time Sprinting
Week 1 2 Times 6 10 seconds 60 seconds
Week 2 2 Times 8 10 seconds 80 seconds
Week 3 2 Times 8 15 seconds 120 seconds
Week 4 2 Times 10 15 seconds 150 seconds
Week 5 3 Times 10 20 seconds 200 seconds
Week 6 3 Times 12 15 seconds 180 seconds
Week 7 3 Times 15 15 seconds 225 seconds
Week 8 3 Times 15 20 seconds 300 seconds

The above program is excellent for use in a fat loss phase of training, in combination with an appropriate lifting program, nutrition program, and a manageable deficit.

This program can also be done on a treadmill as well. In this case, you will be adjusting the incline as you go.

Walking for Distance, a 12 week Power Walking Program

In this program you will be working on increasing the speed of your walks. This starts steady and gradually builds towards a very fast power walking pace. This frequency of these walks is three times weekly. This program can also very easily be done on a treadmill.

This program follows a very simple periodization scheme, in that you are simply increasing your speed week over week for the training cycle.

Week # Distance Walked Speed of Walk Duration of Walk
Week 1 2 Miles 3 mph 40 minutes
Week 2 2 Miles 3.1 mph 39 minutes
Week 3 2 Miles 3.2 mph 38 minutes
Week 4 2 Miles 3.3 mph 37 minutes
Week 5 2 Miles 3.4 mph 36 minutes
Week 6 2 Miles 3.5 mph 35 minutes
Week 7 2 Miles 3.6 mph 34 minutes
Week 8 2 Miles 3.7 mph 33 minutes
Week 9 2 Miles 3.8 mph 33 minutes
Week 10 2 Miles 3.9 mph 31 minutes
Week 11 2 Miles 4 mph 30 minutes
Week 12 2 Miles 4 mph 30 minutes

The Beginners Guide to Cardio: Cardio Equipment

Within a commercial gym, you will often have access to three or five common pieces of cardiovascular equipment. Let’s examine each of these individually, weigh the pros and cons of using them, and then look at some sample programs that can be used for each of them:

  • The Elliptical – The Elliptical comes in a number of different models, but they are all designed with the same intention, in that they attempt to mimic a running or sprint stride by having the feet slide forward and back. Some elliptical models have moving handles and the upper body works in concert with the lower body. Others are fixed though and are lower body only. Some elliptical models are unique in that they mimic a ski stride and can actually be fairly strenuous to use.

Pros -Very little joint impact, making them a joint friendly option for heavier or older lifters that may have beat up joints. These are fairly easy to use learning curve wise, and most have adjustable settings as well to increase the resistance and intensity

Cons – It can be very difficult to estimate accurate calorie burn, so that may be an issue when precisely programming a fat loss phase. It can also sometimes lead to repetitive stress on the knees, although this depends on the elliptical model being used. Can sometimes be difficult to increase the intensity as well, although again this depends on the make and model

Elliptical Training Programs – Because there are so many different models of elliptical, it can be difficult to recommend a specific workout without knowing the particulars of the model you are using. With that in mind, I would recommend simply experimenting a bit and finding a setting that is easy, medium, and hard for you. Easy would be a half hour sustainable pace, medium something that would be tiring after 15-20 minutes, and hard would something that you really couldn’t keep up past 3-5 minutes.

That established, the following are some simple programs that you can utilize in your training

Program 1. 5:00 easy warmup, 6 x 5:00hard/3:00 easy, 5:00 cooldown =50 minutes total

Program 2. 10:00 easy warmup, 2 minutes hard w/3:00 recovery between all for 20 minutes total, 5:00 easy cooldown =35 minutes total

Program 3. 5:00 easy warmup, 10 sets of 1:00 medium, 2:00 hard, 1:00 easy, 5:00 easy cooldown =40 minutes total

Program 4. 10:00 easy warmup, 1:00 hard, 1:00 minute medium for 20 minutes, 10:00 easy cooldown =40 minutes total

  • Stepmill/Stairmaster – the Stepmill is a repeating series of steps that you walk up. Stepmills tend to differ only in regards to the size of the steps, and all models are extremely similar. The stepmill really has only one adjustment to it, and that is increasing the speed, which typically goes in levels of 1-20. These levels correspond with the steps per minute. Stepmills are known for being brutally hard, and depending on how they are used can effectively burn off body fat or burn off muscle. Flat out, I would only ever use these a quick and easy warmup to get a sweat going, or for interval work. I’ve seen far too many competitors seemingly lose size in their legs from walking up the stepmill during their prep, and because of that I only suggest using it for interval work. Is this pure and utter broscience on my part? YES, without a doubt, and I certainly don’t have evidence to back this up past my own anecdotal experience. I still feel safe in making the recommendation that walking would be better.

Pros-For High Intensity Intervals, these work wonders. Short of sprinting, I feel it’s the most effect form of cardio one can do for accelerated fat loss

Cons-Burns off muscle better than anything else short of a bad diet. Do not use stepmills for your LISS work.

Stepmill Training Programs-All of these are versions of HIIT training, and you can choose whichever one you want to attempt. If its your first time using a stepmill, start with a lower intensity

Program one

Warmup 3:00 at level 5, then increase to
30 sec.– Level 8
30 sec.– Level 9
30 sec.– Level 10
30 sec.– Level 11
30 sec.– Level 12
30 sec.– Level 13
Decrease to level 5 for 2:00 minutes, then repeat cycle once more

 Program 2 HIIT (16 minutes) Level
 1 minute  Level 5
 30 seconds  Level 12-15 (depending on current level of conditioning)
 Repeat 8 times through
  • Treadmill – The one and only. The treadmill can be used for everyone from walk to running to sprints, and every single gym is guaranteed to have one

Pros-extremely versatile and can be used for every form of cardio

Cons – Some people (like yours truly) just despise being on the things. I’d rather be outside than inside if I’m going to be running or walking. From a more biomechanical standpoint, running on a treadmill is a little different than on a regular surface, so that should be taken into consideration if you suddenly switch from one to the other.

HIIT Incline Walking Workout

Minutes Speed (mph) Incline (%)
0:00-5:00 4 3-3.5
5:00-7:00 4 8-10
7:00-8:00 4 4-6
8:00-10:00 4 10
10:00-11:00 4 5-7
11:00-13:00 4 12
13:00-14:00 4 10
14:00-15:00 4 12
15:00-20:00 4 2-4

Moderate-High Intensity Incline Aerobic Running Workout

Minutes Speed Incline
0-5 6 0
6 3.5 5
6-7 6.5 5
8 3.5 6
9 6.3 6
10 3.5 7
11 6.1 7
12 3 8
13 5.9 8
14 3 9
15 5.7 9
16 3 10
17 5.5 10
18 3 11
19 5.3 11
20 3 12
21 5.1 12
22 3 13
23 4.9 13
24 3 14
25 4.7 14
26 3 15
27 4.5 15
28-30 3.5 0

Simple Sprint Workout (Make sure you know how to sprint before trying this)

Time Speed
Warm up – walking or jogging for 5-10 minutes 8 for 30 seconds 3-4 mph
sprinting intervals 9-10 mph
Recovery – 1:30 3-4 mph
Repeat 5-10 times  

Other pieces of cardiovascular equipment:

  • Spin Bikes – These come in various different models, but they are all essentially just non moving bikes. The recumbent bike is the lean back version that the hold folks use, while the spin bike is the one you see in your local big box classes

Pros – Its just like riding a bicycle. These are very versatile and can be used for everything from LISS to Interval training. I think Spinning can actually induce hypertrophy in some people, and cyclists tend to have muscular quads. For the physique athlete though, its more than likely to just be used as a simple form of cardio. I cant promise that will actually build muscle to any significant degree.

Cons – The seats can be very uncomfortable at times. Some people feel that spinning BURNS off muscle from the legs (other people will say the complete opposite), though this depends on the context and volume in which you are using it. Spinning can cause stiffness in the ankles, quads, and hips, so some soft tissue work might be in order after using the bike.

  • Concept2 Rower – This particular machine is designed mimic the action of competitive rowing, and it actually can be a very excellent way to develop aerobic conditioning. Rowing machines have become more popular in recent years and can now be found at most commercial gyms

Pros – Little to no joint impact, fairly easy to use, and versatile for both aerobic and anaerobic interval cardio. If you don’t mind using it, it can be a very easy and effective to get your cardio in.

Cons – some people do find the seats uncomfortable, and if you are a bigger guy you might not fit that well on the rower. Similar to the spin bike, some people are simply prone to getting very stiff in the hips and low back from using the rower. And like any piece of equipment, some people just don’t like being on the things.

Finally, so what does John Meadows use for cardio? Well he actually does HIIT type swimming in a pool!!!

Thanks for reading!

— Alexander