You walk into the gym and see it all the time: so many people treating the cardio area like a martini lounge. They’re reading newspapers, watching TV, or even talking on the phone — and this is while they are on a cardio machine attempting to increase their fitness level or lose fat.
Martinis anyone? A cosmopolitan, you say? Your server will be right over.
Seriously now, a great cardio session is efficient — meaning you acquire an enormous amount of cardiovascular benefit in a brief amount of time. Consequently, plodding along at 3.5 mph for what seems like an eternity just isn’t going to make the grade. If you aren’t busting tail, sweating bullets, and unable to talk, then you have not yet begun to labor.
Let’s face it — repetitive cardio exercise can be boring. Chances are, if your mind is languishing, then so is your body. Your body easily adapts to the daily grind you put it through as you trudge wearily along on another hour-long session doing the same thing on the same machine every time you go to the gym. All too often, people allow themselves to get sucked into boring and unproductive routines, and thus they procure no visible benefits. The cost-benefit decision, then, is predictable: give up and abandon the effort. I always try to emphasize to people that they need to have some fitness aspirations beyond the gym — do you want to cycle, hike/backpack, run 5k races, cross-country ski, play tennis, handball, or engage in some team sports? The cardio equipment in the gym should supplement other activities, not replace them. Nonetheless, if you must work out indoors on gym cardio equipment (as opposed to engaging in functional fitness), you have to shake up your lifeless routine and approach that familiar treadmill with something new-fangled and challenging. You have to strive to defeat boredom and routine. This is where the four u2018I’s of cardio fitness come into play: intensity, intervals, innovation, improvement.
Intensity is the key to achieving any fitness objective. Intensity is the engine that powers the mind toward peak performance and maximum achievement. But do you strive for it consistently, and accept nothing less than full effort? Or do you tell yourself you are doing the best you can do, even though you are topping out at half-speed? Remember that it’s far too easy to get caught up in a ho-hum cardio effort and forget that your engine is sputtering.
To measure intensity, you need to assess yourself honestly and objectively. If you’re not good at blunt self-assessment, let a heart rate monitor measure your intensity level for you. If your heart rate is unfailingly sticking in the 50—70% range while you’re on the treadmill turning the stale pages of a 1999 issue of Muscle & Fitness or Redbook, you are selling yourself short. That’s why interval training is the first and most critical step toward superior output.
Your intensity needs to be channeled effectively, so you need to develop an interval cardio program. Doing intervals means you need to get out of the comfort zone. The same level of effort, time after time, won’t get you performance results. But you only want to shed some fat, you say? The same logic applies. Your body, over time, adapts to your leisurely strolls and starts to get as bored as you do. Sameness is dullness, and both lead to lethargy as your body learns your predictable patterns and discovers how to keep its fat stores intact for survival. I don’t care what you read in the glossy fitness magazines: working at low intensity for long periods of time is not the ideal method for fat loss, and it certainly does not lead to cardiovascular improvement.
Intervals must include alternate bursts of energy between periods of rest or slowdown. The intervals must always be intense to be effective. Why spend 45 minutes, or even an hour, in the cardio area, when you can be in-and-out in a half-hour or less?
There are no strident rules for interval training, and in fact you might be better off devising your own set of guidelines. Remember that there is an inverse relation between intensity and interval duration. The higher your intensity, the shorter your workout time. If you’re not used to doing high-intensity workouts, you might want to make your intense spurts shorter than your low-intensity periods. This will allow you to gradually crank it up as your conditioning gets better. Any cardio machine in the gym is interval friendly. You simply pour on the intensity (speed or resistance level) for a set period, and then back off for a set period. The "rest" period is not a stopping point — it means to wind down to a much lesser level of intensity, letting your heart rate drop to "recover" for the next interval effort. Interval training teaches the body to recover quickly and return to full effort. The beauty of it is: it’s not so boring and time passes more quickly; your cardio session, with quality intervals, can be cut to 20—30 minutes; and you actually make real fitness gains.
Cardio exercise, to be truly innovative, must also involve using the muscles. It’s not enough to let the machine drag you along for the ride. Leaning on the handles and supporting yourself on the machine’s frame makes your workout a complete waste of your time. Innovation is originality. Moving from monotony to originality means change. Sometimes we need to drastically alter our routines in order to spur further development in our bodies. Attaching yourself to the same cardio machine, time after time, is a waste of your time. For starters, doing cardio on the bicycles should be ditched immediately. The bikes get you off of your feet and on your behind. It develops slow, lazy workout habits, and you’ll see that in the gym way too often.
In fact, anything that offers an authentic "stepping exercise" is worth its weight in gold. Versaclimbers and StepMills are both barnburners that offer marvelous workouts that can be done in a short period of time. Don’t be afraid of them — they don’t bite. Push through your glutes on these machines and make yourself work. The elliptical machines, like the bikes, are popular because they are easy. In fact, they are too easy unless you are doing interval work at a steep incline. But they are gentle on the legs for the elderly or those with nagging injuries. Look for a Precore EFX elliptical, where you can control the incline of the ramps. LifeFitness makes an elliptical with pedals that move freely, instead of within a fixed track. If your gym has a Concept2 rowing machine, you’re in luck. That machine is the premier workhorse of any gym, and it offers a way to hit new muscle groups while also engaging the heart.
Still convinced you need to get on that treadmill? How many people realize that a treadmill will incline? For something unique, try cranking up the incline, especially if you insist on walking slow. A 10% grade is a good start; 15% is even better. Don’t be afraid to crank the incline up into double-digits. Take long, slow strides at a high incline, and alternate that with a slow jog or a fast walk on a very mild incline. When you can work up to it, jog for short intervals on a higher incline. That hits the quads hard. For speed work, you need to alternate between hard sprints and walking (or a slow jog). The sprints can be at varied levels of effort, depending on your goal for that day. Or try slowing the treadmill way down and striding on each side — right side, left side, and so on. Walking sideways on a treadmill pushes through hip flexors and works the core. Farmer’s walks (carrying dumbbells at your side) and the treadmill make a good twosome. That is, carry dumbbells while walking the treadmill slowly, or use lighter dumbbells and stroke them upward and above your heart.
Mostly, if you must spend a lot of time doing cardio — intervals or not — don’t stay on the same machine. This is boring and inefficient, and uniformity confers no unique stimulation upon your body. Your feet are free to move, so move from one cardio machine to another. A forty-five minute workout is an opportunity to hash it out with three different machines. Even short, interval workouts need to be split up between machine types.
In any event, you should demand improvement from your cardio program, whatever it is that you choose. All too often, people spend a year — or more — on those machines and come away with little or no change in body composition. When the body doesn’t respond, it is trying to tell you something about how you are training it. Cardio machines don’t build muscle unless you dig in and work hard, and even then, they can only enhance what you’ve done elsewhere in your fitness program. Resistance training should be your main focus because that’s how you build up your body’s efficiency factor — without lean muscle mass, you’ll have problems shedding fat. As a matter of fact, a cardio-only agenda is the quickest way to siphon off what muscle you do have, while still retaining too much fat, which leads to that "skinny-fat" syndrome.
Above all, cardio should be about enthusiasm instead of boredom. Make it fun, short, intense, and effective. Onward now, and tilt that treadmill like you mean it.
This was adapted from an article written for a fitness magazine.
Karen De Coster [send her mail] is a natural and drug-free, functional athlete, and a former mountain bike racer and road/track rider trained in the art of intervals by the Wolverine Sports Club and coach Mike Walden. She prefers individual fitness activities such as cycling, Nordic skiing, sea kayaking, bodybuilding/powerlifting, and snowshoeing, along with Russian kettlebells and stair running. She has been accused of breaking the cardio equipment at her gym. See her website and her blog.