by Andrew Heffernan, CSCS T-Nation
You know you're supposed to do your cardio outside – studies show it, the guys at the gym tell you so. Besides, doing sprints and stair runs on a real trail, track, or stadium steps feels far more badass than doing them on a treadmill or stair climber, no matter what the blinking lights tell you about METS and calories.
Furthermore, it just feels wrong to lace up your running shoes, step out the door, and drive to the gym for an indoor run. Dress it up all you want, but a fake road is still a fake road.
Still, those whiny, cumbersome machines are just so damn convenient, aren't they? Especially when you're trying to sneak in a little cardio after a lifting session. Or when it's negative infinity outside. Or when, against your better judgment, you've laid down good money to own one of these things and you're tired of using it as a five thousand-dollar laundry rack.
But the last thing you want to do is some preprogrammed routine that's going to eat up twenty minutes of your life, burn negligible calories, and bore you so much that you throw your neck out trying to read subtitles on CNN.
What you need, my weight-heaving, muscle-minded brethren, is some cardio options you can do in your average commercial gym that are hard as hell, fun to do, and won't burn through all the strength and muscle tissue you've spent so much time building.
But when you're in a commercial gym, you have to play by the rules. Get too creative with your workout and you risk looking like the chalk-covered, screaming, weight-slamming tool who decided to turn the family friendly fitness center into his own private powerlifting Mecca.
This plan, on the other hand, will have you shaking things up in a commercial gym friendly way, one that starts positive trends and leads to newbies, and maybe even the occasional cardio bunny, striking up conversations with you about what you're doing and why. And that's a guy you want to be.
The treadmill is the most popular cardio machine in the gym, and, as these things go, it's still one of your better options. Your feet aren't locked into pedals or footpads that force your legs into movements they don't like; you can crank up the speed and incline to a pretty challenging level and the movement itself is about as functional as they come.
Downside? The natural hip-extending action that you normally do when you walk or run is partially taken over by the backward-moving belt so your butt doesn't have to work as hard on the treadmill as it does outside – a fact that is of some concern to some glute-centric trainees. And of course, the unchanging surface doesn't do much for the proprioception in your feet and ankles.
So how do you make the dreadmill less dreadful? One simple way is to grab some weights, crank up the incline, and do some fast, uphill, farmer's-style walking.
Weight vests are great if you own one and are willing and able to schlep it to the gym, but holding a heavy med-ball or weight plate is a tougher challenge – and of course that's what we're all looking for anyway, right?
So hold that sucker any way you can – up on a shoulder, against the front of your abs, in one hand down by your side, and shift positions whenever you get tired. You won't be using huge weights on this – you're on a moving treadmill after all – but this is a simple way of getting some "loaded carrying" into your workout, something the redoubtable Dan John, among many others, heartily recommends.
Again, use a steep incline, but keep your speed moderate. Walking fast with a 25-pound plate in your hands is one thing; running with it is quite another. Two-minute intervals should be about right on this one. If that's easy, go heavier and steeper before you go faster.
Stairway-to-Pain Tabata Intervals
Assuming you've figured out how to do Tabatas correctly (that is, at maximal intensity on each round), these things can be seriously humbling. If you've looked over the seminal, oft-quoted study, you'll remember that many of the Olympic speed skaters that were Tabata's original subjects could barely complete all eight twenty-second rounds, and most of them collapsed in a heap at the end of the allotted four-minute time period.
You may think you're a well-conditioned stud, Freckles, but you're no Olympic-caliber speed skater. So if there's a Tabata interval on your training docket for the day and you're not just a wee bit nervous about it, well, you're just not working hard enough.
Parenthetically, I'd note that the "Tabatas-are-too-easy" mentality is fairly common. Numerous times in my life as a trainer and fitness writer, studies have come out showing that one lifting or conditioning protocol or another results in unusual levels of fat loss, performance enhancement, or gains in muscle mass, and is quickly adopted by trainees the world over – who then complain that the 'scientifically-proven' program didn't work.
The missing factor is always intensity, which is closely monitored in lab studies (hence the good results!) but is hard for the rest of us to measure. It's an age-old lesson, but it bears repeating: the best program in the world is only as good as the effort you put into it.
Now, back to the subject of the Tabata protocol. Although full-on, balls-out intensity during your work-sets is required for regular trainees, it's not for newbies. Newbies can still do a version of Tabatas, but keep your effort level at about 75% of your max, then ten seconds of rest, for three to four minutes. The purists will gripe, but you're just getting started, and you have plenty of time to get better. Plus, we don't want you barfing on the equipment.
But how do you work at maximal intensity on a piece of cardio equipment where the machine controls the speed? The answer is that unless you're on a stationary bike, you can't really, and that's yet another reason why cardio in the wilds of nature is usually preferable to cardio indoors: it's easier to go for it. But you can come close.
Enter the step-mill. Not the stairmaster – we're talking about the stair-treadmill that's like a miniature escalator forever propelling you downward. Tabatas on one of those devices will kick your butt, and the consistent speed will force you to stay focused all the way through each work set. Just don't touch those handrails, grandpa – they're for rest periods and emergencies only.
Set the thing for five minutes, do one minute of easy climbing, and then bring it up to a speed you can just barely handle for twenty seconds. Then grab the handrails and step off, straddling the moving stairs for a quick ten-second break. Repeat that work-rest interval for six to eight cycles. Crying like a little girl at this point isn't required, but since you'll be doing it anyway, let's just say it is.
If you want to make this tough routine even harder, grab a heavy med-ball and hold it while performing the above routine. Hold it any way you like: two hands, one hand, up high, down low. Between sets, you can dismount the machine or stay on, balancing the ball on the drink holder/instrument panel at the top of the device. This takes a little practice but it's doable and it forces you to repeatedly do something that requires control and coordination while you're tired – an added, real-world bonus to the workout and a good skill to have.
These workouts are tough. You've been warned.
No-Prowler Prowler Solution
T Nation guys love the Prowler. They give them fancy names and polish them daily. They forget anniversaries and birthdays, forget their wives' and girlfriends' mothers' names, but they never forget how awesome the Prowler is.
Too bad you can't find one in a commercial gym to save your life.
The reason is they require too much space. They scrape up the floor. They're too "hardcore." They scare the children. Who knows. Hopefully in ten years commercial gyms will clear out all the space-wasting, single-joint machines in favor of things like Prowlers and tires and trap bars. But I'm not holding my breath.
Everyone reading this probably owns, or has personally welded, their own weighted sled that they load up with odd-shaped stones and drag up Siberian mountains screaming "Drago!" But just in case you happen to find yourself in a commercial gym with no Prowler in sight, here's how to create one without getting management all up in your business.
Go to the aerobics room. That's the large, empty room with the hardwood floor and the rack of plastic weights that makes Hulk want to smash. Resist the urge. Instead, grab an exercise mat (one that will easily slide along the floor) or a thick towel and place it at one end of the room. Now gather up two to four 45-pound plates, stack them on the towel, and wrap the towel over the top of them so the weights can't slide off when you shove the stack across the room.
Now get down in a down-dog-like posture, brace your hands against the front edge of the plates, and drive forward with your legs as powerfully as possible, pushing the weight stack across the room, just as if you were using a sled. When you get to the end of the room, you can either take a break, or quickly scurry over to the other side of the weight stack and push the other way.
I hear the poison-pen emails flowing already. "You're not in the right position, isn't that hard on the lower back, I'm never giving up my sled for that kind of candy-ass nonsense," and on and on. Like anything you do in the gym, experiment and make sure it works for you before you go at it 100%.
I like this downward dog position because you get a little flexibility work in the shoulders, upper back, hamstrings, and calves that you don't get when you're more upright. And, like the mountain-climber exercise, it forces your hip flexors to contract more fully than usual, which can have some surprising benefits for posture and lower-back health.
A great improvised-sled workout is to pick a number of times you plan to cross the room – say, twelve – and do it in as few sets, and as little time, as possible. On the first round you might get four or five crossings before you have to rest; the next, you might do three, and so on, until you reach your final goal, at which point you'll probably collapse in a sweaty pile, quads and glutes twitching like freshly caught fish.
If you like to keep track of such things, time the entire mini-workout and try to beat your total time the next time.
Cardio Machine Slam-Dance
As a T Nation reader, you're probably aware that most smart trainers these days are blurring the distinction between pure cardio and pure strength training. Hill sprints and barbell complexes are great examples of hybrid exercises that exist somewhere in the no man's land between heart-pumping cardio and muscle-building strength training. But as most readers know that no-man's land is fertile territory indeed for slicing off fat while maintaining and even building muscle.
Too bad no one bothered to tell the commercial gym folks, who often put cardio machines and weights on different floors of the same facility, for Pete's sake. It's as if your muscles and your cardiovascular system had nothing to do with one another.
But just because gym owners are confused doesn't mean you have to be. Grab some medium-weight dumbbells and farmer's walk them over to a treadmill, step-mill, or, god forbid, elliptical trainer.
On a cardio-centric day, alternate one-minute stride-outs on the cardio machines with 40 seconds of strength training for a half-hour or so (ten seconds are built in for mounting and dismounting the treadmill). For a simple, continuous-action cardio routine, you could do something like this:
One minute run
1. 40 seconds pushups
One minute run
2. 40-second reverse lunge
One minute run
3. 40-second Russian plank
One minute run
4. 40-second two-arm dumbbell row
One minute run
5. 40 seconds 1.5 squats
Repeat above three times.
You can also do corrective moves during your rest intervals, substituting bird-dogs, single-leg deadlifts, standing YTWL's, kneeling wall stretches, and crossover walks for the numbered exercises above.
The possibilities are endless, and these are just examples. The point is that just because no one else combines lifting and cardio machines in beneficial and intelligent ways doesn't mean you can't.
Stairwell Step Ups
Amidst all the talk of everyone's favorite leg exercises, almost no one mentions the step-up. Why's that? It's compound. It's functional. You can even use a pretty big weight. What's not to like?
If I had to guess, I'd say the rhythm turns guys off: step up, step up, step down, step down. Repeat, repeat, and on, and on. It feels inane, like a dance routine for the hopelessly uncoordinated. So here's my solution, adapted for the tough guy seeking a cardio stimulus.
Grab some heavy dumbbells, something of the order of 70% of your body weight combined. Find a stairwell – ideally not a super-narrow one where no one can get by you if they're in a hurry. Hold the dumbbells either at your side or in the rack position. Walk up the stairs. Walk down the stairs. Walk up the stairs again. Keep going. Get the picture? You're doing step-ups, but you're doing all the concentric work at once followed by all the eccentric work. Way more fun, way more satisfying.
You can break this up in any number of ways, but whether you do one trip up and down or several, it's best to finish each cycle at the bottom of the stairs so you start the next one going up, rather than coming down.
Like the sled push, this one is very versatile – you can go faster and heavier or lighter and a little slower. You can do one, two, or even three steps at a time. Any way you slice it, it's a killer, and beats being a cardio zombie by a long shot.
That's it friends – five new cardio options that you can do at any run-of-the-mill fitness emporium that won't shrink your muscles or get you kicked out permanently. I like using them as finishers, but some days when I'm feeling spry – usually a conditioning-based day – I'll alternate standard strength-building moves with work-intervals of one of these options for a seriously tough hybrid strength-and-cardio workout.
If enough of us start getting creative with cardio machines, weights, and med-balls in this way, soon commercial gyms will have to start rethinking their antiquated ways and reorganize their facilities for folks who actually want to do workouts that work.
We can always dream.