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Cardiovascular Workouts and Equipment

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

woman on row machine

In this article, I will go over the most popular cardiovascular workouts and discuss their advantages and disadvantages. I will also compare indoor vs outdoor workouts where applicable, offering tips along the way. This article deals exclusively with moderate pace cardio workouts (for intensive workouts see the article on interval workouts). This article continues from Cardiovascular Training, where you can find information on how to calculate your heart rate, how often you should train, etc. I will however offer a very brief recap below.

Brief Recap — Intensity & Duration

Cardiovascular workouts offer countless health benefits, ranging from prevention of heart disease to relieving depression. Pretty much everyone should do 3-5 steady pace cardios per week, at 50-85% of their max heart rate. A good way to approximate your heart rate is to use perceived exertion, and to aim for an intensity where you can still just carry out a conversation.

The minimum duration to obtain the health benefits is 20-30 minutes. However, for weight loss, it is best to go beyond 30 minutes (45-60 is a great target). Conversely, if your goal is to build muscle mass through resistance training, you should keep your cardios on the lower end of the scale in terms of duration and frequency.

The best kind of cardiovascular workout is undoubtedly the one that you can stick to day in and day out. However, from a more objective perspective, some workouts may be better than others. For example, the stair machine is particularly beneficial due to its use of gravity (more on this below), while being much easier on your joints than the treadmill for example. Similarly, if you suffer from injuries then the elliptical trainer or swimming might be the best choices.

20-30 minutes, 3-5 times per week is enough to get most of the cardio health benefits.

Walking, Jogging, and the Treadmill

Walking and jogging are probably the most common kinds of exercise.

treadmill

Walking: As a form of cardio, walking is usually inadequate. The problem is that unless you are very out of shape, very heavy, and/or a senior, it is unlikely that walking will elevate your heart rate into the cardio zone. Without that, you will not reap all the health benefits from your workout. Moreover, it is also not ideal for weight loss, since it takes much longer to burn a substantial amount of calories.

Some people still cling on to the misguided notion that less intense exercise burns more fat… while that is technically true as a percentage of calories, the problem is that you burn far fewer calories overall and the effect on your metabolism is not as profound as with more intensive training.

There are however more effective alternatives. Walking at a steep incline on a treadmill (or a hill) may well be intense enough to elevate your heart rate to the cardio zone. Similarly, walking in sand is a very effective alternative. Walking in sand also has the benefit of recruiting more muscles.

Jogging: This is a great form of cardio. There are a few things to consider however. First, jogging can be hard on the joints relative to other workouts. Make sure that if you are jogging outdoors, you are running on a soft surface (e.g. grass, dirt, sand, etc.). If you have problems with your joints that will not go away, consider one of the other kinds of cardio. Secondly, outdoor jogging may involve bad weather and pollution. Inhaling car fumes during rush hour is not going to benefit your health. Thirdly, jogging for 20-30 minutes may simply be too difficult for some people. If this is the case, try mixing jogging with walking, and focus on improving the amount of time you can jog. Finally, make sure you have good form, i.e. look straight ahead, keep your back straight and your head up, relax your shoulders, and keep your feet pointed straight ahead.

The treadmill: Use good form as indicated above. However, if it is your first time using a treadmill, start slowly and give yourself time to get accustomed to keeping your balance. Use the rails or simply step off the moving band and onto the platform if you are having problems. It is even more important to look straight ahead while on the treadmill in order to maintain your balance. Implement any changes to your speed or elevation gradually so as to avoid unpleasant surprises.

When compared to outdoor jogging, the treadmill offers a good surface to run on, and it may help you avoid bad weather and pollutants. However, it is harder to learn good form and the boredom factor is definitely higher.

Jogging is a great exercise but it is harder on the joints than other exercises and may also be too difficult for some people to sustain for over 20 minutes.

Indoor & Outdoor Biking

cyclist riding mountain bike

Biking is a very popular form of exercise. The advantages of biking (both indoor and outdoor) include low joint stress and an easy movement that most people are familiar with. Using an indoor bicycle does not even require that you actually know how to bike, so it is quite possibly the easiest form of cardio. It also offers an advantage for muscle athletes (e.g. bodybuilders, powerlifters, and other people for whom building muscle is important) since, in a recent study, biking was shown to have less of a negative effect on muscle growth than running (Wilson et al., 2012).

For both indoor and outdoor biking, make sure your seat is in at the right height (i.e. where your leg is still slightly bent when you push all the way down). For indoor bikes, beware the types of bicycles where the pedals are placed in a forward position, i.e. further away from the seat, so that the user's legs point forwards. These types of machines strain the knees unnecessarily and may cause pain or injury.

Indoor vs outdoor biking:

  • Indoor biking is safer, more controllable in terms of intensity & time, and keeps you out of bad weather and pollution. The controllability is very important, because you can tailor each workout to suit your needs.
  • Outdoor biking is usually more fun (time flies by faster) and, if done in the right places, the fresh air is more invigorating.
  • Indoor biking can get your heart rate up more easily if you are a beginner, since the technique is easier and you do not have to contend with anything other than pushing the pedals.
  • Outdoor biking requires greater technique and the ability to contend with multiple factors (balance, traffic, etc.). However, for skilled cyclists, reaching the right heart rate is no problem. Furthermore, outdoor biking uses more muscle groups because the bike itself moves and the riding position changes — particularly in the case of off-road mountain biking.
  • Indoor biking is usually — though not always — more convenient.
  • Outdoor biking can be more practical — i.e. you can actually go somewhere.

Stair Climbing and the Stair Machine

cyclist riding mountain bike

Stair climbing, if done properly, is a great form of exercise. Whether climbing real stairs or using the stair machine, stair climbing can burn a lot of calories and it strengthens your lower body (muscles and bones) to an extent other cardio exercises cannot do. This is an effect of exercising against gravity, i.e. weight bearing (even when you incline the treadmill, it will not produce the same effect). It is also a relatively low impact exercise. The stair machine only stresses the joints a fraction of what a jogger experiences on the treadmill. For real stairs, proper technique is more important to protect the joints, particularly on the way down the stairs when damage can be done by going too fast or jumping from one step to the next.

All in all, the stair machine is probably the best piece of cardio equipment at the gym. It only generates a fraction of the joint stress of the treadmill, while burning a comparative number of calories, and strengthening your lower body more effectively. That said, proper form is key to get these benefits. Those people who lean on the machine or push down with their arms enjoy few of these benefits (and may even risk injury). To use the stair machine properly, keep your back straight, look straight ahead, and either do not hold the handrails or just touch them lightly to help keep your balance.

Between real stairs and the stair machine, I would recommend the latter for most people. Training on real stairs can quickly become too intense if the goal is to stay in the cardio zone. The stair machine has different levels to let you adjust your training to your fitness level and body weight. The stair machine is also lower impact and more convenient.

One important note: make sure you only use an independent action stair machine (i.e. when you push down with one foot, the other foot is not automatically pushed up). Even though you do not see them very often any more, dependent action stair machines are bad for your joints.

The weight bearing effect of exercising on the stair machine, combined with its extremely low impact, makes it the best cardio equipment at the gym in most cases.

The Elliptical Machine

This elliptical is my personal favorite cardiovascular workout because I sustain so many injuries from playing soccer. The beauty of this machine is that it is so low impact that I could use it when other kinds of exercise (except biking and swimming) were out of the question.

Elliptical Machines

Another interesting advantage of the elliptical is that apparently it has a lower perceived exertion rate. At least one study has shown that people think they are exercising less than they actually are (Batte et al, 2003).

The down side with the elliptical is that it has very little weight bearing effect, and will therefore not strengthen your bones and muscles like weight bearing workouts.

Proper form on the elliptical means maintaining a proper posture, not leaning against the stationary hand rails (if you use them), not bouncing (this is something many people do – make sure your head height stays relatively level), and placing your weight on your heels rather than your toes. Using the moveable handles brings your upper body into the workout, albeit only slightly, resulting in a small advantage. An even better alternative is to go hands free, assuming you can do so safely. This will use more of your core to stabilize your body and give you a better cardiovascular workout.

All in all, this is my recommended piece of equipment if you require an effective but extremely low impact machine, e.g. due to injury or some other condition.

The elliptical is incredibly low impact, thus making it ideal for people with injuries.

The Rowing Machine

Rowing is also a very effective cardiovascular workout, and one that incorporates more muscle groups than most other forms of exercise. It is great as a tool for improving fitness and also strengthening the body. The down side to this exercise is that it is not weight bearing, and in that way it cannot replicate some of the advantages that other equipment (in particular the stair climber) can. Also, the technique is harder to master, making it more difficult for beginners; using poor technique can cause injury of the lower back.

Proper form on the rowing machine involves not rounding the back in the forward position. By keeping a straight lower back you will decrease your chance of injury. Then, push with your legs until the point when they are almost entirely straight, leaning your torso back slightly, and pull the handle to your sternum.

Rowing uses more muscle groups than other types of cardio. However, it has the disadvantage of not being weight bearing.

Swimming

man swimming in ocean

There are several benefits and disadvantages to using swimming as your choice of cardio.

On the plus side, it is the most low impact form of exercise you can do and it uses muscles in both the upper and lower body. Swimming is also great for people with asthma.

On the down side, it is not weight bearing and therefore does not offer the same benefits as other exercises (e.g. towards your bone strength). It also focuses very much on the upper body, so your legs do not get that great a workout. Another issue is appetite. It has long been discussed that swimming in cold water increases your appetite more post-workout than other forms of exercise. This is why swimming for weight loss may not be the ideal choice. Finally, it has been argued that swimming in chlorinated pools may have adverse health effects. It is in particular when contaminants (e.g. urine, makeup, etc.) combine with the chlorine that you get a strong chemical smell and potentially harmful fumes.

Overall, swimming is a good form of cardio, but it is probably best to supplement it with other kinds of cardiovascular workouts. Also, if your goal is weight loss, be mindful of the effects it might have on your appetite. Regarding where to swim, if you can swim in a clean source of water (e.g. the sea) you are probably much better off. For chlorinated pools, outdoor pools are better than indoor pools (less fumes), and it is best to avoid pools with a strong chemical smell.

Swimming can be a great form of exercise, but there are many factors you should consider first…

References:

Batté AL, Darling J, Evans J, Lance LM, Olson EI, Pincivero DM; Physiologic response to a prescribed rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical fitness cross-trainer; The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; September 2003

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, Jacob M.; Marin, Pedro J.; Rhea, Matthew R.; Wilson, Stephanie M.C.; Loenneke, Jeremy P.; Anderson, Jody C., Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2012. 26(8): p. 2293-307.

Wilson J (2013), Ask The Muscle Prof: What's The Best Cardio For Preserving Mass?, bodybuilding.com, http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/ask-the-muscle-prof-best-cardio-for-preserving-mass.html



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