Oh cardio… many of us have a love hate relationship with it. You feel great after doing it, but often dread getting into your session. Some may have a completely negative view of cardio and want to avoid it at all costs, while others may overdo cardio for the sake of fat loss. In this post, I’m going to break down some of the benefits of cardiovascular training and how you can implement it based on your specific goals.
But first, let’s dive into some of the general benefits.
Increased blood flow.
Decreased chances of stroke.
Combat decline in brain function with age.
Improvements in mood and sleep.
Improvements in cholesterol.
…and the list goes on and on.
Regardless of your goals, every person reading can look at that list and appreciate the positive impact cardio can have on your health. And it doesn’t have to be a lot! I think a big problem is people often equate “doing cardio” to slaving away on machines for hours upon hours, or that if they do any type of cardio, they’re going to lose all their hard earned muscle mass. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Second, splitting the conversation into three distinct groups based on specific goal is very useful. For this article’s purposes, we’re going to discuss general health, sport performance and physique enhancement. Note: You can fit into all three categories! A large portion of people want to look, feel and perform great. But when we’re talking about the upper levels of physique and performance enhancement, something has to give – and no one will be able to balance all three perfectly.
Cardio for general health
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and other health science focused groups, recommend 150 minutes moderate intensity cardio/week. Based on their recommendations, you should also strength train at least twice per week, and you can substitute some moderate intensity cardio for vigorous cardio (for a shorter duration). As far as general guidelines are concerned, this covers a lot of bases. This is especially true if someone had been sedentary before. As always, context matters most.
While this might sound like a lot, it’s really not too daunting. Hit the gym 2-3 times per week, tack on cardio sessions post lift and maybe dedicate one day to a longer session or a class. Getting started is the hardest part but setting realistic goals and actually giving yourself targets to hit will greatly improve adherence. It’s never too late, either! Aging catches up to us all… quick. By taking care of yourself (or sharing this information with family or friends who might be sedentary) you will improve the quality of your life greatly.
Cardio for sport performance
This is going to be highly dependent on the sport you’re training in. Of course, if you’re a purely endurance athlete, cardiovascular training is going to be your primary training modality and lifting will be secondary. But with other sports that are a bit more of a blend like powerlifting and CrossFit, your cardio training will depend on where you’re lacking and where you are in your season.
Are you getting ready for a powerlifting comp? You likely just need light cardio to facilitate blood flow and recovery. But if you’re getting ready for a jiu jitsu tournament? You better come in with a solid cardio base! So, be smart about your cardio programming in-season and off so you can perform at your highest level.
Cardio for physique enhancement
Without this getting taken out of context, if you are purely looking for physique enhancement you don’t ‘need’ to do cardio. The proper training programming, diet and recovery will allow you to achieve the results you desire, but at what cost?
First, refer back to some of the benefits above. These are undeniable and even if you have a great physique, you should be prioritizing your health. I’d also argue without any cardio base (and trust me, I’ve been there!) you will be totally gassed from training and not able to get the most out of it. Your recovery will also be a lot worse. Second, if you’re in a calorie deficit for a competition prep or just with a fat loss goal in mind, unless you're a person with a lot of muscle mass and the best metabolism ever… you’ll probably want to add in cardio to facilitate a deeper deficit. Sure, you can eat 5 carbs but who wants to do that?
This doesn’t mean more cardio is better because some is good. It’s a tool. Too much cardio will interfere with muscle building or preservation and will typically keep cortisol in an elevated range. I’ve also seen worse rebounds when clients do very high amounts of cardio. So, this doesn’t mean to haphazardly add in hours of cardio; but it shouldn’t be avoided if you have physique goals in mind, either.
What this means for you
Take inventory on what your goals are currently and where you’re lacking. Find ways that you improve your daily activity and expenditure, create a lifting schedule that works for you and add in cardio as needed for your goals!