The Cardio Conundrum

Long duration, low intensity cardio. High intensity interval training (HIIT). Thirty to sixty minutes of moderate intensity work.

With all the options and opinions out there, is it any wonder that people are confused as to how they should incorporate cardio into their workouts?

Let me begin by saying that I hate the word cardio. Cardio sounds like something you do for your heart, not something you do to get lean. After all, the most important thing in life is getting uber jacked, right?

Okay I’m kidding. But only a little!

While “energy system training” (EST) may not sound as mainstream as “cardio” does, it has a cooler ring to it. If you tell people you have an intense EST workout, you just sound like you know what you’re doing!

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each type of EST available to us, along with ways to incorporate each to develop a superior fat burning protocol.

But first, a quick primer to get you up to speed.

The Cardio Continuum

If you recall from several of my articles, I’ve put the following continuum into the mix:

Cardio Conundrum

On the left hand side of the continuum we have training methods that are intensive with regards to the nervous system. These types of training methods are generally harder overall on the body and require greater recovery time.

On the right side of the equation, we have training methods that are more intensive with regards to the metabolic system. These types of methods are generally less stressful to the body and require less time to recovery from.

When examining energy system training, many of the same general rules apply. In this case, the continuum may look something like this:

Cardio Conundrum

Used in more practical setting, the left side of the continuum could be someone who’s performing sprints. On the right side of the continuum are the people who are plodding away for hours on end on the recumbent bike.

As a general rule the methods on the left side increase training intensity, and therefore take longer to recover from between workouts. In contrast, the methods on the right side are lower intensity in nature, and can be performed more often.

Once you understand this continuum, you’ll see that all training mediums fall somewhere along it. The goal is to determine not only which is more beneficial for you, but how to employ the cardio into overall training program to get maximal results.

Rather than droning on and on with endless theory, let’s focus on the practical side of the equation — how you can best utilize energy system training to help you shed body fat and get lean.

With that being said, I’m not even going to touch on low intensity, long duration cardio. While there are certain populations and instances where it may be appropriate, the bottom line is that for most, it’s a cop-out.

Yes, it’s true that low intensity workouts will burn the greatest percentage of fat; but that’s only because the intensity is so low! Following this line of thinking, lying on your couch is downright thermogenic! Instead of focusing solely on burning fat, I’d rather have someone work hard, burn a ton of calories, and let the chips fall where they may.

Let’s examine what I consider to be the three biggest exercise tools we have at our disposal: Strength training, interval training, and steady state work.

Strength Training

As I’m writing this, I’m going to assume you’re following a strength training program similar to the one I outlined here. If you’re not, or if you haven’t read the article first, definitely do that before moving on.

An intelligently designed weight training regimen should be the cornerstone of your fat loss program. A smart training program will not only crank up your metabolism within the workout, but aid you in building muscle to help you burn more fat outside of the workout, as well.

Cardio Conundrum

Molly knows all about the positive effects of lifting heavy; so should you!

Action Item: After you’ve designed your strength training program, commit to performing it at least two to three times per week, with at least one day of rest in between.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT, also known as interval training, is currently the hot topic when it comes to fat loss workouts — and for good reason. Intervals are in many ways superior to traditional steady-state training with regards to fat loss.

Due to the intensity of the workouts, chances are you’re going to be burning a ton of calories when you perform interval training. Couple that with the fact that your metabolism stays elevated for quite some time after you’re done training, and you have a very potent fat burning stimulus.

Unfortunately, intervals aren’t for everyone, especially in the beginning. I would never have someone who’s one hundred pounds overweight performing sprints or other high-impact activities.

However, there are tons of great options you can incorporate that will totally kick your butt! Here are a few ideas:

Kettlebell/Dumbbell Swings on the Minute

I got this from strength coach and good friend Geoff Neupert. Take a kettlebell, and when the second hand on a clock gets to “12”, perform 10 swings. When you’re done, you get the rest of the minute to rest. When the clock gets back to the “12”, you’ve got 10 more swings.

Start off for 5 minutes and work your way up to 10. From there, you can increase the number of swings on the minute, which will alter the work to rest ratio.

Cardio Conundrum

Caroline Radway, UK-Based Personal Trainer

Airdyne Bike

People scoff at the Airdyne when they come into our gym, but they don’t laugh at it when they’re done!

Again, a work to rest ratio of 1 to 3 is the standard starting point, with people either going 20 on, 60 off or 30 on, 90 off. After a full-bore workout, no one wants to see the Airdyne!

Hopefully you ladies get the point here. It doesn’t matter what you do — kettlebell swings, bike or treadmill sprints, tire flips, or hitting the heavy bag. The key is it must be intense, and it must be brief.

Action Item: Following your strength training workouts, plan on incorporating several rounds of intervals into your programming. On the low end I’d start with 3 rounds, and on the high-end you can work up to 6 or 8. Another good rule of thumb is to begin with a 1:3 work:rest ratio, and over time decrease that to 1:2.

Moderate Intensity, Steady-State Work

Moderate intensity steady-state work has been thrown under the bus lately, and I’m not exactly sure why. Sure, it’s not as effective as intervals at burning body fat, but it still has its role.

First off, you simply can’t perform intervals every day. You will either burn out, get injured, or both. Moderate steady-state work, however, can be performed almost daily with minimal repercussions (outside of an overuse injury if you do the same thing time and again).

As well, it doesn’t take nearly as much “mental currency” to perform a steady state workout. Quite simply, it’s not as hard as hitting the iron or enduring an intense interval workout!

In the case of steady state work, we need to work at a relatively good intensity without killing ourselves. If you’re gasping for breath, can’t talk, and feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, you’re working too hard! A good way to think about this is the difference between breathing heavy and breathing hard.

The biggest issue most people have with steady-state work is that it gets boring. If this is the case with you, mix it up! You can jog, ride a bike, swim, and use a stairclimber or a rowing machine.

The limiting factor here is really just your imagination. If nothing else, throw your iPod on and listen to a good, informative podcast while training. You’ll get smarter and the time will go by faster to boot!

Action Item: Try and get a minimum of at least one steady state workout in per week on non-strength/interval days. Two is even better, if you can swing it.

While three may be “ideal” with regards to shedding body fat and burning calories, it can also be mentally draining getting into the gym six times per week. If your only goal is to get uber lean with quickness, though, this will serve you well.

Start with a minimum of twenty to thirty minutes and work up to sixty as your conditioning improves.

Bringing It All Together

Over the past two articles we’ve discussed both the strength training and cardio sides of the equation. Below is a sample program for someone who needs help getting started.

I like this program set-up because it allows someone plenty of time to train during the week, while giving them a mental break from the gym on the weekend. It’s intense, but not so intense that they risk burning out or totally hating the gym!

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Workout A


Steady State — Bike Workout B


Steady State – Jog Workout A


Off Off

Workout A

Dynamic Warm-up

1A) Squats, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
1B) Bench Press, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
2A) RDL’s, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
2B) Pull-ups, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
3A) Shoulder I, T, Y, 2×8 each, 30 seconds rest
3B) DB Curls, 2×10, 30 seconds rest
3C) Dead Bugs, 2×12, 30 seconds rest
KB Swings on the Minute, 10 swings for 5 minutes

Workout B

1A) Deadlifts, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
1B) DB Rows, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
2A) DB Lunges, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
2B) DB Overhead Press, 3×10, 90 seconds rest
3A) DB External Rotation, 2×12, 30 seconds rest
3B) Prone Scaptions,  2×12, 30 seconds rest
3B) Ab Wheel Rollouts, 2×8-10, 30 seconds rest
Airdyne Sprints, 20 on, 60 off, 3 rounds

Cardio Conundrum


I hope this article has shed some light on which energy system training methods are the most effective for getting super lean. While both intervals and steady state types of cardio have their pros and cons, the best game plan is to incorporate both in a holistic and balanced training program.

Now get off your butt, get to the gym, and start shedding some body fat!


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