Steady-state. HIIT. Low-impact.
Suffering from cardio think-piece burn-out?
We hear you.
Discover your perfect cardio routine for once and all with our ultimate guide:
What’s the Best Cardio? That Depends on You
Unless you’re a long-distance, endurance athlete, chances are you use cardio to keep the pounds off.
And for good reason - minute for minute, cardio is the most effective way to burn calories. If you’re working hard enough - at 75% of your Maximum Heart Rate, or MHR - you’re using up stored fat calories, too.
“Oxygen is the ingredient muscles need to convert carbs and fat into fuel for muscles,” explains Amy Gallo at Self. “To get more air, you start breathing faster, going from 12 to 15 breaths a minute at rest to up to 35 to 45 at max effort levels.”
“Tell yourself it's all good because the harder you go at it, the faster you'll burn off calories,” she adds.
If you’re a weightlifter, though, the question of regular cardio gets a little tricky.
Unlike weight training, cardio won’t do much to help you maintain your mass, and can even make you lose muscle. Take this Penn State study on fat loss described in Women’s Health, for example:
“In one Penn State study, dieters lost 21 pounds whether they performed cardio or strength training,” reports K. Aleisha Fetters.
“But for the cardio group, six of those pounds came from muscle, while the lifters lost almost pure fat—and probably fit into their skinny jeans better because of it.”
Weightlifters don’t want to lose pounds of muscle - they want to keep muscle, while burning fat. But does that mean they’re justified in skipping cardio entirely?
Not exactly, says certified personal trainer Mike Wunsch.
“Make traditional strength training your bread and butter and end with cardio,” Wunsch suggests at Men’s Fitness.
“Close out a 40-minute workout session with 5 to 10 minutes of post-workout anaerobic conditioning. For example, consider 30-second sprints on the bike followed by a minute of rest. Repeat three times and you’re done,” he outlines.
Adding cardio to your weight training will help keep your heart healthy and improve your endurance - yes, even in the weight room!
You can also think about which forms of cardio - like swimming, rowing, and cycling - help you build or shape lean muscle.
Depending on your fitness goals, each of the four strategies below can take you exactly where you want to go:
Strategy 1: Spin
Whether you hit the trails or reserve a bike at your local SpinCycle, cycling is an incredible low-impact cardio option that builds muscle, bone density, and improves your endurance.
“A 135-pound woman can blast nearly 500 calories in an hour of cycling at a comfortable clip. And each pedal stroke works your entire lower body and your core, sculpting a tight body,” she adds.
If you push yourself, you can even reach a similar aerobic threshold to runners, burning up to 600 calories an hour according to Bodybuilding.com.
The trick, especially with spinning, is to focus on the entire motion of your feet on the pedals - not just the downward push, says Holly Rillinger, an instructor at Flywheel Sports.
“Most times [when spinning] we are only pushing down with our quads, but when you’re clipped in [to a spin bike’s pedals], you have the advantage of using the full stroke,” Rillinger told DailyBurn.
Best for: Those with joint pain, or weightlifters who want to maintain muscle mass and gain definition.
Strategy 2: Run
Nothing uses up fat calories quite like hitting the treadmill. The trick? You actually have to sustain 75-80% of your MHR for at least 20 minutes to burn those pesky pockets of fat.
For lots of people, that’s no easy feat, which is probably why high-intensity interval training - working at maximum intensity for short bursts - has become so popular.
“That means you burn more fat and calories in the 24 hours after a HIIT workout than you do after, say, a steady-pace run.”
Worried about losing muscle mass? Try an HIIT workout or use short steady-state cardio sessions to speed your recovery after leg day.
Best for: Endurance athletes
Who else benefits: In smaller doses, steady-state cardio can help athletes with recovery, while intense HIIT workouts can blast fat. Interval training works best for people who want to lose weight, while longer runs help athletes build endurance.
Your workout: Balance weight training with HIIT or a steady-state cardio sesh - but give yourself plenty of recovery time if you want to lift and interval train in the same week.
Strategy 3: Row
If you’re looking for a major metabolism boost and a full-body workout, look no further than the rowing machine.
“A great non-weight-bearing exercise machine, a rowing machine uses both your upper- and lower-body muscles to increase cardiovascular conditioning,” explains Mark Barroso at Men’s Fitness.
In fact, “every stroke you take incorporates about 84 percent of your muscles,” Helaine Knapp, founder of CITYROW, told DailyBurn.
We told you it would work your entire body!
The trick to a successful workout, according to Knapp, is to focus on form and power - pushing from your legs will help you overcome resistance in the water and on the erg.
“Most of the power should come from your legs as you push back, hinging forward at your hips,” Knapp explains. “Your arms move last, pulling in, and are also first to release as you return to starting position.”
Once you’ve gained power in your lower body - and mastered the form - then you can fulfill your need for speed.
Best for: Athletes looking for a muscle-building, calorie-burning one-two punch.
Your workout: New to rowing? Check out Greatist’s incredible tips for rowing newbies.
Strategy 4: Swim
Want to give your knees a break? Doing your best Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky impression is also a perfect low-impact way to train major muscle groups.
“[Because] water is nearly 800 times denser than air, each kick, push, and pull is like a mini resistance workout for your entire body—especially your core, hips, arms, shoulders, and glutes,” explains Selene Yeager at Women’s Health.
“So in addition to blasting calories as you swim, you build lean muscle, which ignites your metabolism so that you burn more calories once you've showered and dried off,” she adds.
While swimming won’t burn calories as fast as a hard run will, it’s an amazing aerobic conditioner and a kick-butt full-body workout all rolled into one - plus, you won’t risk rolling your ankles or suffering from a Charlie Horse.
"You can swim almost every day without risking injury," Dr. Joel Stager told Women’s Health. "You can't say the same for running or strength training."
Best for: Athletes who want to build endurance and gain muscle.
Your workout: New to the pool? Try this 650-yard workout from Men’s Fitness to build your stamina.
Whether you decide to hit the trail - or the pool - there’s a cardio routine out there that will work for you.
Clarify your fitness goals, balance your weekly routine with strength and endurance training, make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of time for recovery - and jump on in.
Do you stick to one kind of cardio or switch it up? Tell us what your training program looks like in the comments below :