Some say steady state, some says HIT, and some say none at all. There are literally dozens of different cardio methods that have been proposed by the experts throughout the last half century. To say that there’s a one size fits all cardiovascular program for each person is quite a big stretch to say the least. However, you should consider several key factors that can help design a routine that best suits your body and daily needs.
Before we even get to what your goals are it’s important to look at your body and does it have any limitations. For example, if you have knee, ankle, or hip problems then biking, sprinting, or steep stair climbing might be out of the question. Or, if you have shoulder issues then distance or sprint swimming might be too hard on the joints. For me, shorter walks or high intensity intervals on a bike give me a reprieve from my joint pain.
After you access if you have any physical ailments that might need to be factored in, I would then look at your diet. Anyone on a moderate to high carbohydrate meal plan should consider putting in a high intensity cardio workout 2-3 times per week. In my experience, very few people will burn off all of their dietary carbs during weight lifting alone to not necessitate adding it into a good routine. Those of you on low carb diets should obviously lean more towards steady-state cardio, but if you’re like me that just might mean that you do shorter sessions, but more frequently. It seems the status quo has always been to do at the max, two, 45 minute sessions. One in the morning and one before bed, but there’s no rule that says you can’t break that up into 3 half hour sessions if it is going to be less impactful on your body. Remember, if you can’t sustain doing something over the long haul, what good is it?
From there we have to look at your goals. Even you permabulkers out there need to do your cardio. Even if it’s just 3, 30 minute sessions while you walk your dog around your neighborhood. The health benefits are enormous, as are the superficial benefits you’ll notice in the gym. Minimal, low intensity cardio will increase your metabolism, lower blood pressure, and stimulate your appetite – things we all need while we’re growing.
If you’re seriously overweight, over 35% body fat, I would recommend steady-state cardio, 30 minute sessions, 6 days per week. The odds that you don’t have bad joints at that level of obesity is slim to none and any high intensity training will either have you feeling terrible or in severe pain. That isn’t to say it can’t be added once some of the fat is lost, but it needs to be monitored closely so you can make the right adjustments.
For average body fat or those looking to lose the arbitrary 10-15lb of fat you can never go wrong with doing cardio after your last meal before bed. Your body naturally slows down all of its processes before we go to sleep, but a quick 25-30 minute walk, an hour after your last meal can make a huge difference in your long term fat loss goals. Plus, it’s a lot better than having to wake up early before work or school to bang out a half asleep workout when you’d rather be eating breakfast or still in bed.
Now, that’s not to say that early in the morning cardio isn’t good for you early risers out there. If it’s the only time of the day you can squeeze it in then that’s great. However, I do feel early morning cardio needs to be well-planned or you can find yourself in a catabolic state very quick and as we all know, that’s not good.
If you insist on doing cardio upon waking up, then I do recommend doing HIT cardio. The reason for doing HIT instead of steady-state at this time of the day is for a few reasons. First, you’ve just fasted for 6-8 hours depending on how long you sleep. By the time you wake up and begin your workout and sit back down to eat breakfast it could be anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes after you’ve already been awake – that’s catabolic. First, when you do high intensity cardio sessions first thing in the morning it’s only going to last 15 to 20 minutes. Second, I recommended sipping on BCAA’s during your routine instead of plain water. Third, you’ll be home quicker after your workout to eat a real breakfast. And 4th, and quite possibly the most important, HIT cardio boosts your metabolism longer throughout the morning and afternoon compared to doing a longer, steady-state, low intensity cardio session.
As far as doing cardio before or after a workout, I’m not a huge fan of either. If you have a busy schedule and absolutely insist on doing it along with your weight lifting then I’d suggest doing it after your workout and post workout protein drink. If you do it before it’ll cut into your energy needed for lifting and that’s just a bad idea. Lifting should always be the most important part of your training regimen. As a side note, if you can structure your cardio inside of your weight training, for a “general physical preparedness” or GPP for short, routine, I think it’s an excellent option during a de-loading phase of training where you aren’t lifting heavy weights in the gym. It will really fuel your metabolism, but also keep injury risk at bay as opposed to doing it when you’re hitting heavy poundage’s.
Give some of these suggestions a try in your own routines and I promise you’ll find success!