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Cardio: doing it right for a lean, strong body

Cardiovascular training seldom produces the intended results. This article explains what to do about that.

To most people, "cardio" means running on a treadmill before and/or after your weight workout. Except for beginners who are exercising at low intensity, this approach will limit both cardiovascular benefit and results from your weight training.

The many misunderstandings about cardiovascular training keep millions of exercisers from coming even close to their potential.

What is "cardio," anyhow? Well, if you are doing it to build vascularity or to reduce body fat, it is not running or walking on a treadmill for an hour. That kind of exercise will build your endurance, but it will also cause you to have elevated levels of cortisol, higher body fat, and less muscle than if you did no cardio at all.

For this article, let's say your goals are:

  • A leaner, more muscular physique.
  • A healthier heart.
  • Greater lung capacity.

I don't "do cardio" in the sense that most people do (running, jogging, treadmills, aerobics), yet I peg the spirometer quite impressively and have that "athlete's blood pressure profile." How do I do it?

A correct approach to "cardio" starts by redefining it. It's not working your legs so that you "work up a sweat." It's not necessary to even break a sweat. Nor is it necessary to track your target heart rate, etc. What is necessary is that you expend a huge amount of energy in a very short time. This is the essence of burst training.

For a performance athlete other than a long-distance runner or biker, this is the training that gives you the power to compete. In martial arts (boxing, karate, kung fu, wrestling), you can quickly tell you is well-conditioned and who is not. And that's true of most sports.

It's also true of most "workaday" activities, which is a key thing to remember.

When you expend a huge amount of energy in a very short time, you put a huge load on your cardiovascular system. This is why you can see mid-level and higher climbers panting heavily (with hearts racing) even several minutes after a difficult climb. This is also why someone who does front squats properly has a racing heart after each set.

This kind of training involves putting large muscle under high demand either in quick succession or simultaneously. A climber, for example, often places a heavy load on quads, abs, glutes, calves, and lats during a difficult climb. The whole climb may take less than five minutes, but the energy burn is super-high. A dedicated climber can burn 10,000 calories in one session, and continue to burn calories for the next several days.

By contrast, someone running on a treadmill might burn 300 calories in one session, but as soon as that session is over no more calories get burned as a result of that exercise.

For your cardiovascular training to work for you, it's got to be real work. If you do it before weight training, you are not going to have sufficient energy left for your weight workout to matter. The only way around that is to do a wimpy cardio workout--but why even bother?

Similarly, if you try to do cardio after your weight workout, well, how in the world do you have enough energy left? If you can do cardio after weights, you obviously slacked off during your weight training.


Many personal trainers have their clients do cardio work both before and after a weight session. Are they all wrong? Mostly, yes--we just addressed why.

But there are some exceptions, for example:

  • The trainee has flexibility issues. So the trainer puts "warmup work" into the program. Don't confuse that with cardio training.
  • A trainer may want to push the trainee exceptionally hard for a specific purpose. So twenty minutes of burst pattern running followed by, say, work on biceps can help overcome a "biceps plateau" by putting the body in an entirely different hormonal condition during the workout.
  • The trainee wants size. So the trainer develops a cardio program to hit one type of muscle fiber and a weight program to hit the other.

In general, these are compromise situations and not ideal for optimized training. What you want to do is treat "cardiovascular" like just another muscle group. Give it its own place in the rotation. Don't try to do two workouts on the same day, or they both suffer. Keep in mind, also, that you have limited recovery capacity. The more you cram into one workout day, the more likely you are to overtrain and end up with poor results.

Here are some good cardio exercises:

  • Burst pattern running. Run as hard as you can for one or two minutes, then rest a minute. Repeat. This is just like doing sets with weights.
  • Running bleachers. Run up, walk down.
  • Yardwork. Yes, that's right. "Put some English into it" and you optimize this. Things like mowing, raking, shoveling, sweeping--if you attack these with vigor, you will put a load on your cardiovascular system. If you are a homeowner, you have one or two good cardio sessions available to you every week of the year.
  • A sport that provides intensity. Almost any sport that involves major muscle groups can provide a great cardio workout. If a treadmill bores you to tears. join a basketball league, take up soccer, take up a martial art, look for a climbing gym in your area, take up swimming, or hike in the woods if there are hills.
  • Dancing. Some forms of dancing will give you a great workout. Scottish kilt dancing, line dancing, square dancing--any form of dancing that is lively and fast-paced will do the trick.

Don't limit cardio work to some mindless thing you do while watching an overhead television. Make it an intense activity that works and builds your cardiac tissue and moves some air through your lungs.

If you treat your heart as a muscle group unto itself and train it accordingly, you'll have an impressively high level of cardiovascular fitness.

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