But What Do You Do For Cardio?
A Look at MRT, Lifting Weights Faster, and 10 Cardio Protocols that Don’t Suck
Ah, the dreaded C-word: cardio.
It’s almost a dirty word in the fitness industry. Cardio is not quite, but nearly as bad as that other C-word. You know, the one that makes everyone look at you wide-eyed and think you’re a bad person. (No, not that C-word. I meant CrossFit.)
All joking aside, cardio really is regarded strangely in the fitness industry; coaches seem to hate on it specifically because your average, uninformed gym goers seems to love it and treat it like the only way to lose weight.
Smart trainees and educated peeps like you know that isn’t true, of course.
You probably also know that—if used correctly—cardio has a place. Depending on what you do, that place will vary…but there is always a place in a good fitness program.
There are a few reasons you should do cardiovascular exercise of some kind, not least of which is that it’s good for cardiovascular health. Sure, you can get that from weight training, but the benefits from cardio include increases to aerobic capacity, as well, which has a nice little bonus in terms of CV health—it’s easier to continue working on it. And, of course, cardio is an effective tool in terms of fat loss.
Having said all that, let me just go on record and say that I hate cardio. I detest it. I don’t like it, I don’t want to do it, and to be honest I suck at it. My conditioning and work capacity are both pretty decent, but neither is exceptional, especially compared to my strength levels and overall physique development.
But as much as I hate it, I need to do it, because I want to live longer—but only if I get to be lean. Thankfully, cardio does both.
In an effort to help you live longer and be leaner while doing it, I’ve compiled a list of my 9 favorite cardio methods—and by “favorites” I means the ones that I hate the least. I still hate doing these, but I hate it less than others I’ve tried. Further, to give you the most value, I’ve listed a workout for most of these methods, so you’ll have something to try, if any of these are new to you.
These are listed in the order they popped into my head, not in order of preference.
1. Slow Walking on a Treadmill
I’m starting with this one because I know that a lot of other fitness professionals are going to lambast me for it, so I figure if I put it early in the post, they might forget about it by the time they get to the comment section.
Alas, probably not. Haters gon’ hate. Just ask her:
In all seriousness, I’m not joking—I really enjoy treadmill walks for cardio. Sure, this isn’t intense by any stretch, but sometimes that is exactly what you need. Often, I feel that I’m too beat up from my 5-6 weekly weight-training workouts to do any type of intense conditioning like sprints. This is especially true if my recovery is compromised because I’m in a hefty caloric deficit while dieting down for a shoot.
This puts me in an awkward position: I need to get lean for the shoot, and to do that I need to reduce calories. But reducing calories compromises recovery, limiting my ability to do conditioning, which I need to use to get lean. Yikes. The answer, as you have no doubt deduced, is slow cardio, or low intensity steady state cardio (LISS).
Now, you don’t need to do cardio to diet down for a shoot, especially when you’re doing 5-6 weight-training sessions per week; however, it does speed things along. In addition, this will increase blood flow to the legs, which will speed up recovery; very important if you’re trying to keep your intensity up.
Some LISS cardio is a nice way to enhance recovery and get a little extra caloric expenditure—after all, as I said in a blog post, cardio is like ketchup, and adding a little in never hurts.
Now, one final complaint people often voice about LISS is that in order for it to really have any effect, you have to do it for a while, and that takes up a lot of time. Well, that part is true. For me, that’s actually a benefit—hanging out in the gym for an extra 45 minutes keeps me away from food for an extra 45 minutes. And when you’re dieting down, that helps. I do this listening to podcasts and audiobooks, so I don’t really consider it time wasted.
Anyway, my standard LISS workout is a 30 to 45-minute brisk walk on the mill o’ tread at 4.1mph and an incline of 9-12%.
2. Hill Sprints
Definitely my favorite method of intense cardio, hill sprints are nothing short of magic. They’ll make you leaner, faster, improve the look of your booty, and of course increase your conditioning.
Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton—who I consider to be the greatest running back of all time—did nearly all of his conditioning with hill sprints. In fact, the hill on which he ran came to be known as “Payton’s Hill” and was recently dedicated to him.
Because hills vary so much in length and slope, it’s hard to prescribe a workout for hill sprints and so I have just one rule: run as many sprints as you can before you feel your body ask you to stop.
I have a hill near my old high school on Long Island that I use every single time I go home to visit. It’s a steep incline, and the distance from the base to the top is 34 yards—I normally get about 12 or 13 full out, balls-to-the-wall sprints before my hammies decide it’s quitting time.
Perhaps one day, they’ll call it Roman’s Hill. That would be sweet. Check out a full guide to getting the most out hill sprints here.
3. Jump Rope
If you watched Rocky when you were a kid, you grew up wanting to be a boxer—or, at least, wanting to jump rope like one.
Note: studies show that playing this song while jumping rope burns 11% more calories.
Hopefully, that desire has lasted into adulthood, and you’re somewhat proficient on a rope. If you are, you should use that awesome tool, because jumping rope burns more calories per minute than nearly any other physical activity.
There’s really nothing else I can say that is going to be as interesting or impressive as that Rocky video, so let’s just move on to the workouts.
There are two ways I like to use a rope for cardio:
- do as many jumps as you can in a 30 minute period
- intervals of one minute on, one minute off for a 10 minute period (done at a faster pace)
4. Kettlebell Swings
I’ve written about kettlebells before, and while I am not a kettlebell guy per se, over the past few months, I have been using them a lot more frequently, particularly for pressing and conditioning.
When it comes to conditioning and cardio, KBs are hard to beat in terms of their versatility—but, apparently, that is lost on me, because I’m boring and I just like to stick to swings. Again, I’m no KB expert.
A good swing is all hip hinge and power, and since mine isn’t pretty enough to film, here’s a video of Neghar Fonooni doing swings with a 48kg ‘bell:
For my swing workouts, I normally just do this:
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Do as many swings as you can in 10 minutes, split into as few sets as possible.
- Terminate any set when form degrades.
- Record the reps you did on your best set (usually anywhere between first and fifth set).
- Record the total number of reps that you did for the entire workout.
- The next time you perform this workout, try to beat the total number of reps that you do, as well as the number of reps you did on your best set.
Like Neghar in the video above, I have been doing this with a 48kg kettlebell, but I have no idea what that equals in pounds because I’m American and we fear the Metric System. (That’s a joke, but please don’t ruin it by doing the math and posting it in the comment section.)
5. Battling Ropes
Basically, long ropes that you use to…battle. Sort of. This is a hard one to describe, so here’s a video of my boy Jason Ferruggia doing his thang.
My favorite way to do this is 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. Simple but effective.
6. Stair Sprints
Stair sprints are one of my absolute favorite ways to do cardio in NYC. Generally, the streets are too crowded for sprints, and it’s too cold to run hills in the winter, so I like to stay indoors. And when I want to do some indoor cardio, I do sprints in the stairwell. Most people take the elevator, of course, so there are very few people on the stairs.
There are five floors in my apartment building, which means that there are eight short flights of stairs (two for each level, with a small landing that allows the stairs to turn) leading from the ground to the top. This is pretty much the perfect distance for sprints–enough to make it worth it, but not too much so much that you’ll lose speed.
I usually do these in an ascending/descending pyramid, for a total of 8 sets.
- Set 1: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back.
- Set 2: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back twice (no rest between).
- Set 3: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back three times (no rest between).
- Set 4: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back four times (no rest between).
- Set 5: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back four times (no rest between).
- Set 6: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back three times (no rest between).
- Set 7: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back twice (no rest between).
- Set 8: Sprint to the top of the stairs and come back.
Rest 30-60 seconds as needed between sets, but, as noted, do not rest between sprints up and down the stairs–that “rest” will come on your way down, which is easy enough to allow you to recover. I generally recommend resting an extra minute between sets 5 and 6, especially for beginners.
This is a lot of fun, and a great change of pace from most types of sprinting.
7. Sled Work
Pushing and pulling sleds serves two specific purposes:
- Helping you get lean while building your conditioning
- Making you look like a beast
Very few things look more badass than pushing a sled loaded with a few hundred pounds, or, if you don’t have a sled, pushing your car around the parking lot.
Sleds have risen to popularity of late, and for good reason: few conditioning tools give you the challenge of the effect of this full body beast. While the standard exercises are pushes, if you have rope attachments, you can do pulls and drags as well.
Using my wife as added resistance.
In addition to that, there are ways to use sleds for variations of traditional exercises like chest presses and rows–these allow you to get the benefit of the concentric while eliminating the eccentric; overall, this allows you to recover faster.
Here’s a beginner sled workout:
- Load a sled up with the equivalent of your body weight.
- Push it as far as you can. If you’re in a gym, push till the end of the lane; if you’re outside, push until you hit the end of the parking lot/road/etc.
- Rest 45 seconds. Push back to the starting point.
- Repeat for a total of 3 pushes in each direction.
Many people experience something called “prowler flu” or sled flu, which essentially means you might puke. Happens to the best of us, I’m afraid.
Sometimes, it’s a marathon; other times, a sprint. No matter how you do it or how long it takes, sex is probably the most fun way you can break a sweat. Except laser tag. Nothing beats laser tag–that shit is boss.
I don’t have any articles about laser tag, but here’s one about sex.
9. Barbell Complexes
Complexes, for those who do not know, are exercises done back to back with the same piece of equipment, generally done without putting it down. They can be done with any piece of equipment, but I almost always choose to do these with a barbell, as that generally allows me to do a number of exercises that I enjoy.
I wrote an entire article on how to make complexes even more potent, so there’s no need to rehash overmuch in this piece.
However, in the interest of making this post more awesome, here is complex I default to most time:
- Hang Clean
- Front Squat
- Push Press
- Bent Over Row
- Romanian Deadlift
Each of the exercises is for 8 reps, and you transition from one to another without resting. Perform 5 total complexes, resting 120 seconds between each.
If you’ve never done complexes before, be fairly conservative with the weight – dudes don’t generally need to go above 95 pounds.
10. Beach Sprints
In general, sprints are pretty damn boss for fat loss. Doing them on a beach makes them even more so.
And not just because you can do them shirtless with impunity. The real reason is that beach sprints allow you to reenact the most bromoerotic training scene in the history of cinema.
OMG I want to run on the beach so bad right now.
Beach sprints are also great because the sand forces your calves, legs, and the everything in the foot-ankle complex to work different than the traditional sprint. The slightly unstable surface can have pretty profound effects; after a few sets of beach springs, you’ll be sore in ways you can’t imagine.
But, it’s worth the tradeoff, because beach sprints can actually make you faster. And then, when you race people, they’ll be like:
BONUS – The Cardio Method That Sucks the Most: Jogging. Or Joging. Or Yogging.
This is a new fad where you run for an extended period of time. I first heard about this from my Ron. Please see below:
Now, look, for my part, I personally hate jogging. Running for an extended period of time seems like just about the worst fucking thing on the planet, second only to being forced to read Twilight again. Or, even worse, being forced to listen to Twilight on audiobook while jogging. Holy shit that’s a terrifying thought.
Long, boring cardio like jogging is, for most people, unnecessary. Further to that, if it’s done too often, in can lead to some catabolism. Jogging is what we call “moderate intensity steady state” cardio, or, appropriately enough, MISS.
This is a strange inverse-Goldilocks situation where the extremes on either end (high and low intensity) are kinda awesome for their respective purposes, and the one in the middle, instead of being just right is actually way wrong.
For most people.
There are people, however, who can benefit from doing MISS cardio at least somewhat regularly. If you ever need to run or maintain an activity for an extended period of time, then MISS has a place in your training. For example, if you are training for a Tough Mudder (some other relatively steady duration contest), you should do some yogging.
The main reason for this is simply that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it–it being your muscular endurance. Put simply, if you don’t occasionally run for an extended period of time, you’re going to have a hard time running for an extended period of time.
I learned this the hard way: after doing HIIT exclusively for three years, I decided to run a charity 5K. I thought I would breeze through and perhaps even win. Embarrassingly, though, I had to stop every half miles or so because the muscles in my legs (particularly my hip flexors) just didn’t have the endurance for any distance above 200 yards or so.
It was ridiculous. Resultantly, at least once every two weeks, I go for a brisk jog of about a mile. In the summer, I try to hit a 3-mile run once a month or so. Keeps you honest.
That said, if you never plan on running again, skip it. Either way, this should be something you do for general fitness, not as your primary means of fat loss.
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About the Author
John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.