Make Cardio Fun Again – The Question
What’s your favorite “fun” cardio or metcon workout?
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
I call it the “ab-shredder.”
It’s not so much a specific workout as it is a concept. It consists of combining direct abdominal work with metabolic exercises. I started using the approach with figure competitors after reading an article by Dr. Lonnie Lowery.
By using an ab exercise to increase blood flow toward the region, you’ll increase fat mobilization and transport more of it away from that area. This will lead to using a little bit more fat from the abdominal area when you’re doing your cardio.
So you’ll do ab work, then do a bout of cardio, then go back to the ab work, then cardio again. Continue going back and forth for a specific amount of sets. I use several versions depending on the fitness level of the individual as well as his or her psychological profile. Here’s a hard one:
A1. Swiss ball crunches with a slow squeeze-rep style: Make each rep as hard as possible. Go up and down slowly, squeeze hard every inch of every rep. Do as many reps as you can. Then rest 20 seconds, do as many reps as you can again, rest one last time for 20 seconds, then do as many fast reps as possible. Take as little rest as possible.
A2. Farmer’s walk or Zercher carry: After the crunches, walk for 60 seconds holding dumbbells or a barbell Zercher-style, as shown below. The goal is not to cover max distance in that time period, it’s to walk while keeping the core as tight as possible; imagine getting punched in the stomach.
A3. Any cardio machine, all-out for 30 seconds.: Use the elliptical, stationary bike, Assault Bike, rowing ergometer, etc. After the 30 seconds are up, rest for a minute.
That’s one interval and you do 4-5 in a workout. It’s very effective and “non-boring” (as much as energy system work can be) with the added benefit of leading to slightly more abdominal fat loss.
Option for competitors: If you’re nearing a contest, try adding 20 minutes of steady state cardio at the end. If you do this, make the cardio its own workout since it’ll last around 40 minutes. If you’re doing it without the steady state cardio, you can do it at the end of a regular training session or in a separate workout. – Christian Thibaudeau
Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
A ladder bodyweight circuit.
This is fun and can be incredibly challenging depending on how you structure the rep pyramid for the circuit.
First choose your movements:
Upper body pushing movement 1: Push-ups, for example
Upper body pulling movement 1: A vertical pull like chins, pull-ups, etc
Lower body movement 1: Squats or lunges
Upper body pushing movement 2: Dips are a good option
Upper body pulling movement 2: Horizontal row
Lower body movement 2: Glute ham raise or back extensions
For each movement you’ll pick a rep scheme and double it on the next round. So if you’re doing dips and do 3 reps on the first round, then on the second round you’ll do 6 reps.
Rest after each round for 2 minutes or so, then go on to the next round of reps. I like to work up over five rounds, then go back down the pyramid. So the rounds and reps for your first move would look like this:
Upper body pushing movement 1 – Push-ups: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 12, 9, 6, 3
The first few rounds will feel easy, but start conservatively anyway because the difficulty will creep up on you in the middle, and you should never miss reps in a circuit. If it’s not hard enough, just begin with a greater amount of reps on your first round.
Don’t feel locked into these examples for lifts. You can use a myriad of movements. There are endless possibilities. You can implement barbells, dumbbells, or machines into the mix as well. I like bodyweight stuff because you can move through it faster and won’t have to worry about some gym bro stealing your equipment in the middle of a circuit. – Paul Carter
Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO
The “20 minutes of anything” workout.
Cardio is the one area of fitness where the fun stuff actually works better than not-fun stuff. For one thing, you’ll work harder, without realizing it, when you’re having fun. A few studies back this up… as if you need studies to know that.
Also, cardio for fat loss is all about being inefficient. If you get efficient – really good at one form of activity – you’ll burn less fat doing it. So cardio for health or fat loss really is where you want to “keep the body guessing.” That means that variety works best for metabolic conditioning.
I call one of my favorite cardio workouts “20 minutes of anything.” Set a timer for 20 minutes (or whatever time you want) and jump from one activity to the next until the timer goes off.
Since I have access to the T Nation Training Lab, I can choose Prowler and sled pushes and pulls, banging tires with a weighted club, battle ropes, kettlebells, etc. I usually pick two of these, toss some ab work between them, and keep going until the iPhone timer bings.
I used to train at a gym that was closed on Sundays. I’d take a suspension TRX-style device to the park along with a medball. The workout was:
Throw the ball behind me as hard as possible (scoop toss).
Sprint to the ball and do it again. Repeat until I couldn’t catch my breath.
Walk to the TRX and do push-ups, rows, and pull-ups. Go back to the medball tosses and repeat until the timer beeped.
This can be done in a commercial gym too and you’re only limited by your imagination. But try to pick things you’re not very efficient at. If you can kick ass on the rower, use the stairmill instead.
Heck, you could choose four cardio machines and do about 6 hard minutes on each one.
This isn’t exactly “fun” but it’s not boring either, and the countdown clock helps to keep you moving. – Chris Shugart
Dr Chad Waterbury – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Do long duration cardio.
In the 1990s, two key pieces of research headed by Dr. Izumi Tabata and Dr. Angelo Tremblay on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) were the impetus for a dramatic shift in the way people perform “cardio.” Long, slow jogs were quickly replaced by nausea-inducing, high-intensity intervals.
Since HIIT is relatively new in the research world, we don’t yet know what, if any, long-term health ramifications could come from consistently putting the body into metabolic acidosis. But there are some strong indicators suggesting that if you need a puke bucket next to you during a HIIT protocol it might contribute to heart arrhythmias and damage your otherwise healthy muscle proteins. Not good.
For years, I was as guilty as any performance coach for elevating the popularity of HIIT. Those workouts take less time, and the fatigue they create definitely makes you feel like you did something beneficial. But over the last year I’ve switched back to lower-intensity cardio workouts for my clients. I noticed two essential improvements:
They felt better overall, meaning they had more energy during the day and slept better at night.
They recovered faster from their weight-training workouts.
Long-duration cardio performed at a low intensity upregulates hormones and neurotransmitters that are conducive to the recovery state. Conversely, the high-threshold motor unit recruitment and joint strain that accompanies HIIT is like adding another weight training session, which can often drain the athlete’s recovery capacity.
But if you’re anything like me, the idea of jogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes is as appealing as eating dinner in a gas station bathroom. Furthermore, if you’re an explosive athlete, it’s likely that spending hours each week doing leisurely jogs, or pedaling an exercise bike, will lead to muscle fiber conversions that make you slower and weaker. Your hip and knee extensors need to be as fast-twitch as possible to keep your vertical jump, deadlift, and sprint velocity at their peak.
So what can you do to get the benefits of long-duration cardio without the boredom and muscle fiber conversions? Kickboxing.
It perfectly targets all the elements any athlete should seek, for these four reasons:
It builds athleticism because it challenges your balance, agility, and reflexes.
By constantly switching between punches and kicks, you’re not overworking any single muscle group, minimizing muscle fiber conversions.
You don’t need to be good at kickboxing for it to be an effective cardio-booster.
It’s anything but boring.
Find a reputable kickboxing coach that can show you a few combinations to practice at home (shadowboxing) or with a punching bag. The key is to do it at an intensity you can sustain for 30 minutes or more.
How do you know if you’re working at the right intensity? I recommend the heart rate formula popularized by endurance expert, Dr. Phil Maffetone: 180 minus your age.
So a 30 year-old guy should perform the vast majority of his cardio at a heart rate of around 150 beats per minute. Let’s call it 145-155 beats per minute if you’re fit, or 140-150 if you’re not. At that range you’ll get maximum oxygen uptake, which is your primary goal, while avoiding metabolic acidosis. – Chad Waterbury
Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author
Try a reaction ball.
The reaction ball is rubber, usually has six sides, and looks like a dog toy that’s around the size of a tennis ball. Due to its shape, when the ball lands on the ground it makes an unpredictable bounce, forcing you to make quick decisions and multi-directional movements to catch the ball. This makes the reaction ball a fun and athletic version of cardio-conditioning.
With at least 10-feet of open space around you, hold the reaction ball in one hand while standing in an athletic stance with knees slightly bent and feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
Drop the reaction ball onto the ground and allow it to bounce. Try to catch it with one hand after the first bounce. If you’re unable to catch it on the first bounce, chase the ball down and attempt to catch it in as few bounces as possible. After you’ve caught the ball, return to the starting position and repeat. Try to perform as many catch and release reps as possible for 2 to 3 minute rounds. Rest 1 to 2 minutes between each round.
Begin every rep from an athletic stance and stay light on your feet. Sometimes the reaction ball will bounce straight back to you. Other times it will take odd bounces and force you to constantly change direction in order to catch it. So, make sure you’re ready to move fast each time you drop it. – Nick Tumminello
Eric Bach – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Use conditioning complexes.
As an athlete, conditioning was often used as a punishment as commonly as it was a training variable. With this in mind, running still feels like punishment, even when it’s incredibly useful as a fat burner. A more enjoyable fat incinerating option? Conditioning complexes.
Now, these aren’t the heavy complex pairs like a squat and a squat jump used for athletic performance. These are brutal exercise combinations done in succession to send your heart rate through the roof and body fat running for the hills.
Pick a handful of exercises from each primary movement pattern and one tool, whether it’s a kettlebell, barbell, or dumbbells. Perform each movement for 6-8 reps, moving from one exercise to the next without rest until the complex is complete.
Dumbbell bent over row
Dumbbell step-back lunge
Dumbbell goblet squat
Pick one complex to do at the end of a workout twice per week.
Set a timer for 12 minutes.
Do six reps of each exercise without a break. Rest 90 seconds when all movements are complete, not after each one.
Do three rounds of your chosen complex.
Each week decrease your rest by 15 seconds. Once your rest periods drop to 45 seconds after four weeks, increase the weight by 5-10 pounds.
Start light. About 65-85 pounds is plenty with a barbell for most lifters, while 30-40 pound dumbbells will do the trick for dumbbell complexes. Kettlebells from 16-24kg are a good bet as well.
Your forearms will get torched with muscle-building metabolic stress. You may notice bigger forearms within a few weeks of adding complexes to your workouts.
If you’re like most lifters who view cardio as punishment rather than a vital part of building a high-performance body, give complexes a shot. They feel more like lifting than anything else, but they’ll torch fat and keep you coming back for more. – Eric Bach
Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor
Try a less-popular cardio machine.
I like to take an inverse approach with cardio and dieting: Eat as much as possible without getting fat, and do as little cardio as possible to maintain leanness.
For cardio, this means frequent walks with the dogs, and two (very brief) bouts of high-intensity work with my trainer, Aaron White. He doesn’t even call it “cardio” because these bouts are woven into our workouts with all the other lifts. He’s allowed me to share these with you. Here they are:
Leg Day Cardio
Get on the recumbent bike… the machine you think is for old people, right?
Put the resistance on a moderate level. Hit an uncomfortable speed and maintain it. Pedal for two minutes.
Raise the resistance at the one-minute mark, and then raise it to the hardest level the machine allows for the last 10 seconds. Try to maintain your speed throughout the whole two minutes (you shouldn’t be able to, but try).
Get off the bike and while you’re gasping for air, do 10 walking lunges, each leg.
Turn around and recover while walking back to the bike. Get a sip of water. Do it two more times. Rest as needed, but don’t stall.
Shoulder Day Cardio
Sit in the hand-crank machine. It’s the piece of cardio equipment that makes you pedal with your arms. You might see it in a physical therapy office, but commercial gyms often have at least one.
Test the resistance to know how much to use. You’ll be going as hard as you can for a minute. We use the highest resistance the machine allows.
Hit an uncomfortable speed and maintain it. Pedal with your hands all-out for one minute. Don’t auto-pilot this or let your speed decrease too much; pretend like you’re sprinting… but with your hands.
Get off the machine and, without rest, grab a pair of dumbbells one step lighter than what you usually use for lateral raises. Do a lateral raise then go directly into a front raise with both arms. That’s one rep. Do 15 lateral-to-front raise combos. Focus on getting a solid mind-muscle connection with your delts.
Set the dumbbells down, curse as much as necessary, catch your breath, then do it two more times.
For either of these, you can increase the pedal/cardio time, just remember to find a pace you can maintain for the duration of time.
These mini-cardio sessions are as hard as you make them depending what resistance you use and how fast you pedal. Difficulty is up to you. Work harder for a harder workout.
Another way to increase the challenge is by reducing your rest between rounds. So instead of taking a two minute break before your next round, take just one. – Dani Shugart
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Take it outside.
I do very little cardio. I weight train to build muscle and moderate my fuel intake to stay in shape, however there’s value, health-wise, to cardio. If I’m going to do cardio I prefer to get outside. Depending on your location, the outdoors offer additional benefits of fresh air and nature.
I’m not inclined towards leisurely walks and low intensity cardio. I prefer the gasp-for-breathe type. One of my favorite hikes this past summer took place while on vacation in Hawaii. We got up early and hiked the Koko Crater Railway Trail Stairs, a 1.8 miles up-and-back jaunt with a 1,092 foot elevation gain and over 1,000 steps. Burning lunges and quads ensued.
Seattle is notorious for the rain, but in the winter that usually means snow in the mountains. I’m an adrenaline junkie so racing down a mountain with my quads on fire ranks at the top of my list for outdoor cardio as well.
There’s nothing wrong with sprinting the straights and walking the curves at a local track. If you’re a heavy lifter just be sure to properly warm-up or you’ll risk pulling a hamstring.
Finally, there’s no better time to burn off that last bit of glycogen post-workout with sex in the back seat of my 4Runner in the dark corner of a neighboring empty warehouse parking lot. I know, not really an outside activity, but who cares when you’re having sex with your hot wife of 20 years. – Mark Dugdale