A Lifters Guide to Bearable Cardio

A Lifters Guide to Bearable Cardio

Posted by Ben Crowley on Jan 15, 2017

Since beginning to lift weights at around the age of 20, I’ve never been a fan of cardio. But over the past six months I have found a cardio regime that is simple, very time efficient and actually works. I’m now such a convert that I’d like to share my experiences with you.

An investment of just over 30 minutes a week – that’s each week, not each day – can massively improve your fitness, which will have a clear, positive crossover to your everyday life. Plus, your recovery in weight sessions will be quicker and it will have no negative impact on your strength and/or growth goals, in fact it may improve them!

Personally, I never bothered with cardio in the past. For athletes, it’s obviously a must as you can’t develop a level of fitness and athletic performance without it. But for casual gym goers, cardio is often considered a waste of time as it can eat away at the clock, at your calorie intake and can slow your recovery. If you look at it scientifically, a strong cardiovascular base, which comes from long sessions, is directly opposed to the mechanisms which build muscle. So, there is a clear link between the duration of an athlete’s activity and their muscle mass. Just think of marathon runners, who have next to no muscle. On the other hand, explosive moment athletes like sprinters and weight lifters look strong and muscular. This explosive characteristic is key to the effectiveness of my cardio regime.

When is cardio a good idea?

I’m now convinced that cardio is an awesome tool for increasing workout performance, but more importantly, it’s an excellent time investment for improving your overall health. In fact as you age, I think it’s much better time wise than resistance training.

While weight training has a minor impact on cardiovascular health and maintains our muscular and skeletal systems as we age, it does have its drawbacks. Any long-term trainer who’s built a good base of muscle over the years really needs to put in hour long sessions three to five times a week to continue to see results or even just for maintenance in many cases. Plus, as we get older these sessions tend to get a bit longer, with breaks between sets extending and warm-ups being mandatory.

So, adding cardio can be a very useful addition to your weight training. When done right, it can improve your overall fitness, decrease the need for extended rest periods and help you push out extra reps.

What is the program?

My program combines principles of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) with general high intensity training. It not only takes up very little time, but these kinds of high intensity programs are backed by research from various sources. See studies from The Journal of Physiology and The US National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health.

It’s quite simple, with just one short session to be performed before breakfast every weekday. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I do my “cruise” days on the Assault bike and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I do my “sprint days” on the erg (rowing machine).

The Cruise Sessions

The cruise sessions are ten minute long sessions on the assault bike. I currently maintain a pace of just under 60 RPM and hit around 125 calories in that time. This pace would have been impossible six months ago when my efforts were probably about two-thirds of my current effort.

The idea of these sessions is to get the heart rate up to around 140 and put in a decent effort, without feeling like you’re at death’s door when you finish. It should be well above the pace you can comfortably maintain a conversation at. As your fitness improves I’d suggest increasing your goals each week. for example, ramping up the number of calories you’re hitting in a set time frame or increasing the RPM you maintain.

The Sprint Sessions

The sprint sessions on the rowing machine are next and I won’t lie, these are hard. In fact these are the collapsing to the ground once it’s over kind of hard. You should be out of breath and your heart should be pounding when you finish. The good news is the duration of these sessions is just over three minutes, twice a week.

For the sprint, I complete a one kilometre row in around three to three and a half minutes, opposed to smashing out a 500 metre row in one and a half minutes. This is an ideal distance and pace as my heart rate is high the entire time. I can put in 100 per cent and I feel that the slightly increased time frame places less stress on the adrenal system than full on sprints, meaning less chance of burnout over time.

The Benefits

I have seen a huge improvement in my cardiovascular fitness, which I notice when climbing stairs, carrying my kids for hours on walks (which all parents inevitably do), riding my motorbike and especially when playing sport with others. I’m at a point that for the first time in over a decade (despite very regular weight training), that I’d consider myself genuinely fit. I can tackle a ten kilometre run, all day cycle, or multiple day bush walks with no specific preparation.

My recovery is also very quick, especially when doing semi-challenging activities. My resting pulse rate is now around 54, down from about 70 where it sat for years when I only did resistance training. I expect my blood pressure would be down too, and my cholesterol levels improved.

The program itself is very manageable to implement everyday. For me, it needs to be challenging enough to create motivation and allow goal setting, but not so difficult that you begrudge doing it all the time. Alternating cruise days with tougher sprint days gives me variety and allows me to set goals for improvement over time.

Why have both sprint and cruise days, why not do intervals of both?

I previously did classic interval training, but I found doing interval training every day very taxing, especially when I was trying to ensure progression. This was doing the typical two minute cruise, twenty second recovery for a total of eight minutes, which many studies are based on. Perhaps if you want to set weekly targets this would work well, however, if you’re really putting in on the sprints every session this gets very challenging.

Being able to alternate between cruise days and sprint days provides some diversity and stops the body getting too used to the program and thus plateauing.

I don’t have access to that particular equipment, can I do these sessions with any equipment?

I’m a big fan of both the assault bike and erg (rowing machine) for good reason. They’re not just different to regular cardio machines, they’re much harder! In my experience (which I’ve regularly tested on holidays in hotel gyms), using regular exercise bikes and treadmills just can’t replicate the intensity required.

Recently I used treadmills for sprints, which provided comic relief for other people in the gym. It was better than nothing, but far from ideal. Regular exercise bikes really aren’t a patch on the assault bike, which works the whole body. Next time I have no access to my equipment, I’ll likely use a public space like a park for running to replicate the sprint sessions, and perhaps use the comfort of a treadmill for cruise sessions.

This may be tricky in the middle of a city and running often makes those leg days tough. If you’re in a situation where you’re looking to buy one piece of equipment for a cardio program, then the assault bike would be my suggestion. It takes up less room than the erg, and I think it has a slight edge in both sprints and cruise days where limited to the one piece of equipment.

For those on a complete budget, I’d suggest a skipping rope for cruise days and running in a park for the sprint days. If your local gym has this equipment then you could incorporate this type of program into your normal gym sessions, however, that may create a compromise in effort – I certainly wouldn’t want to do legs directly after sprinting on the erg.

But I don’t want to give up my weights training!

By doing quick morning cardio and my weight sessions in the evenings, there’s no sacrificing one over the other. For me it’s been about creating a program which is practical, quick, effective and where I continue to see benefits.

If you’re not currently doing any cardio and continue to push it back due to time issues or are not yet convinced of the benefits, I can’t recommend this program enough.

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