The word cardio alone makes most people cringe. They associate cardiovascular training with lengthy, boring sessions on the elliptical or treadmill (read: dreadmill). It doesn’t have to be that way, unless you enjoy that kind of thing of course. For most people, cardio is just something you do to stay ‘in shape’ (WTF does that even mean?) or lose weight. Unfortunately for them, cardio is fairly useless for fat loss by itself, especially low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio.
Most people looking to lose fat want to spare muscle tissue, but this is much easier to achieve by lifting heavy weights (signaling to your body that muscle is important) and eating adequate amounts of protein. The cardio you do is just going to be ‘icing on the cake’.
When you have a solid training and nutritional program that includes cardio in some form you actually enjoy, it turns from a thing you hate to something that genuinely enhances your workout routine. It can help you burn extra calories, improve your conditioning, and… well, improve your cardiovascular health. A healthy heart is important for anyone without the goal of dying.
Cardio That Doesn’t Suck
If you truly enjoy running for long periods of time on a treadmill, ‘sliding’ along on the elliptical, or pedaling away on the stationary bike, have at it. If you hate it like me, the following may be some options for you. They will all improve your heart health, while improving your conditioning to varying degrees. I’m just going to list them categorized by intensity. That seems like the most reasonable approach. If you’re an athlete, obviously train for your sport.
Very low intensity: This type of cardio is great as an active recovery method (i.e. if you’re sore the day after a hard lifting session). Activities: Walking, golf, baseball, softball, and gardening. Possibly hiking, depending on how hard it is. You might also count things like yoga, pilates, foam rolling, and stretching as very low intensity cardio. Basically, something you could do for well over an hour without it affecting your recovery (and possibly enhancing it). You’re still moving though. Humans were built to move. I think walking is the most underrated activity. It has so many benefits without any negative effects I can think of.
Low intensity: Brisk walking, power walking, walking with a weighted vest or backpack, hiking, light jogging (outside or on the treadmill), slow biking, slow swimming, slow rowing, yard work, rollerblading, frisbee, ice skating (unless you’re speed skating), and light sled dragging. Just about anything you can do fairly easily for 30-40mins, while breaking a bit of a sweat. You shouldn’t be breathing heavy the entire time, but rhythmic breathing is what you want to achieve. This is stuff you can do 2-3 times per week without having it really affect your lifting (provided you’re eating and resting properly). It will burn some extra calories, but use it to enhance your lifting routine. I would advise against replacing lifting with cardio. Endurance athletes might have to do more of this.
Moderate intensity: Any activity that gets you breathing fairly hard. If you can last for more than 30 minutes, you’re either in great shape or it’s more toward low intensity. Jogging, swimming at a medium pace, climbing (unless you’re doing it fast), biking, some agility work, (pole) dancing, sled dragging, mobility work, soccer, tennis, roller derby, and dancing (faster pace). This will benefit endurance athletes mostly. It can definitely affect your energy and strength levels for lifting weights.
High intensity: The most brutal type of cardio. Probably the most effective at getting you better conditioned as well, especially if your goal is to be strong and/or fast for short bursts. Workouts are quick and tough. Usually no more than 20 minutes will leave you destroyed. It’s great for fat loss, conditioning, etc., but it may leave you drained and could carry over to a lack of energy with lifting. If you need to be very well conditioned (i.e. for football or strongman), working up to doing this 3+ times per week might make sense. Most people can start off by doing this once per week, then working up to 2-3 times per week. I would strongly advise against doing high intensity cardio (or any cardio other than very low intensity) before a heavy lower body training session. Do this stuff after a leg workout or on a day when you aren’t lifting. Try to avoid it the day before a leg workout.
High intensity activities: Heavy prowler (or car) pushing, heavy sled dragging, tire flips, beating on a tire with a hammer, chopping wood quickly, hacking down a tree with an axe, farmer’s walk, yoke walk, hard agility work (i.e. ladder and cone drills), barbell complexes/circuits, carrying something heavy for distance, strongman training in general, sprints, and… my ‘favorite’… hill sprints. Anything that taxes you close to maximally. Nothing you can really do for more than a minute at a time. Mostly less than that.
Hope that helps you find some activities to get your cardio in without hating it. As always, it’s just my opinion… so make up your own mind about it.