Cardiovascular Training

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

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From a health perspective, cardiovascular training is perhaps the most important kind of training you can do. No other kind of training has quite as profound an impact on our lives. Cardio helps ward off heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, it improves our mental acuity, relieves depression, and burns body fat. You can read more about this in the Benefits of Exercise. Just to recap from earlier articles, the recommendation is that virtually everyone should do 3-5 moderate pace, steady cardio sessions per week.

This is not to say that cardio covers everything, since there are numerous benefits from workouts like weight training, which cardio cannot match. However, as a single form of exercise, it is the most indispensable when it comes to our long-term physical and mental health. But what exactly do we mean by cardiovascular training?

… virtually everyone should do 3-5 moderate pace, steady cardio sessions per week

Heart Rate and Perceived Exertion

When we refer to cardios or cardiovascular training, we mean a very specific kind of workout where your heart rate is elevated to between 50-85% of your maximum heart rate. You can calculate your maximum heart rate either by estimating it using the basic formula 220 - age. So, the maximum heart rate of a 20 year old would be 200, while for a 50 year old it would be 170. Then, the cardiovascular zone is 50-85% of that figure. This however is just an estimate, and one that does not quite hold for many people.

Venice Nutrition and other reputable organizations dealing with fitness and health recommend using perceived exertion. The idea is simply that if it feels too hard, it probably is. A good guideline that I used with my clients was to exercise at a pace where you can just carry out a normal conversation.

Now, a quick note on the myth of the "fat burning" zone. Some people think — and this is supported by the machine manufacturers — that if you train at a very low intensity you burn more fat. This is partially true. Yes, you burn a greater proportion of fat from the calories you burn, but you burn far fewer calories. Do not determine the intensity of training based on this myth. Instead, determine the intensity (within the cardio zone) by how physically fit you are.

The easiest way to estimate intensity is perceived exertion. Aim for a pace where you can still carry out a conversation

Duration and Frequency

The ideal number of cardios is 3-5 per week and they should be at least 30 minutes long (though some will argue that 20 minutes is enough for the most of the health benefits). For weight loss or weight management I normally recommend 45-60 minute sessions.

Naturally, I do NOT mean that everyone should go to the gym and implement this program tomorrow. Assess your own fitness level, determine what exercises you are comfortable doing, and then slowly work your way up. Even if all you can do is 5 minutes, just focus on adding a little bit of time each session. You will be surprised how adaptable the body is if the mental resolve is there.

To this, you can add a short warm-up though it is not strictly necessary because the intensity is quite low. However, it is still a good idea to work your way up to your desired intensity gradually. Following the work-out take a 5-10 minute cool down period to bring your body's systems slowly back to normal.

Optimal cardio duration is at least 20-30 minutes for general health and longer for weight loss.

Proper Form - Maximizing Cardiovascular Training Results

In order to get the most out of your workouts, you need use proper form so as to avoid injury and recruit as many muscles as possible.

The first two points are of interest here. In Part 2 of this article (Cardiovascular Exercises), I will talk about the technique involved in each kind of exercise. At this stage I will just make a few general comments. For exercise machines with handrails, leaning against them is entirely counterproductive. If you have ever been to a gym, you will have seen dozens of people apparently trying to hug the heck out of their stair-climber or holding themselves upright by pushing against the handrails of their treadmill. This reduces exercise effectiveness and the general posture is terrible — which in a worst case scenario could lead to injury.

To get the most out of the routines, try not touching the handrails at all. However, if you have balance issues and you need to steady yourself on the stair-climber for example, then maintain the ideal form (back straight) and just touch the handrails lightly. Most machines have handrails along the side and at the front. If possible, use the ones at the front to avoid the temptation to support your bodyweight.

Proper form is essential in all kinds of exercise, from cardio to weight lifting to sports. Sometimes bad form leads "only" to inefficient transfer of energy (e.g. as is the case with most bad swimmers), sometimes it can seriously hinder progress, and other times it may lead to injury. So, research the exercise that you do and never let your ego get in the way of having your form criticized.

Proper form is crucial for getting the most out of your workout and avoiding injury.

What is the Best Cardiovascular Training?

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This is a very common question and one that is tricky to answer. Fundamentally, there are three factors to consider:

  • The health benefits
  • The strain the exercise puts on your body and joints
  • Your ability to perform the exercise correctly
  • Your ability to stick to the exercise

In terms of health benefits, exercises differ in the way they recruit muscles and put strain on the body. As will be discussed in part 2, there are pros and cons to most machines and exercise types. There is however one recommendations that is worth noting:

  • ISSA (Peterson, 2004; p. 303-305) states that the stair-climbing machine is the most effective exercise. This is because of the weight bearing effect, which is not duplicated on a treadmill even on the highest incline. The idea is that this effect will strengthen the lower body muscles and bone health in a way no other piece of equipment can do at the gym. At the same time, the stair-climbing machine is both safer and places less strain on the joints than a treadmill.
  • Venice Nutrition uses a number of factors including recruitment of the most number of muscle fibers in the lower body, low strain on the joints, some gravity resistance, and consisting of familiar movement. They arrive at a recommendation of: Walking on an inclined treadmill, walking in sand, hiking, using a step-mill, climbing stairs, and jogging on a soft surface.
  • Dr. Jacob Wilson (2013) when discussing cardio training for athletes interested in preserving muscle mass (e.g. bodybuilders) recommends biking as superior to running or uphill walking.

In the end, the best exercise is the one that you can do week in and week out. That said, given no particular disabilities or preferences, I do recommend the stair-machine for the reasons stated above. It must however be an independent action machine (i.e. the two steps act independently, so when you push one foot down, the other does not automatically get pushed up).

There are pros and cons to different cardio equipment, and some certainly have advantages over others. In the end though, the best cardio is the one you can stick to day in and day out.

Variation and Cross-Training

Some people prefer to engage in cross-training, i.e. incorporating different kinds of cardio into the same workout. Whether or not this has any physical advantages is questionable, and there do not appear to be any big downfalls to just sticking to one piece of equipment. That being said, some people find it more motivating, so from that point of view it can be very beneficial. In the end, it is really down to what you prefer.


Macdonald M. & the IBNFC, Nutrition Coach Certification Course Manual (copyright 2004-2013), Venice Nutrition

Peterson JA (2004), Cardiovascular Training, in Fitness The Complete Guide edition 8.6.6 by Hatfield FC, International Sports Science Association's Certified Fitness Trainer Program

Wilson J (2013), Ask The Muscle Prof: What's The Best Cardio For Preserving Mass?,,

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