The Different Types of Exercise

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013

man rides mountain-bikeThroughout this site, we will talk about exercise and fitness. But what does this mean exactly? A long distance runner would answer that question quite differently from a sprinter, a powerlifter, or an office worker who is looking to improve his/her general health. Below, I will briefly explore the different types of exercise and classify them into several broad groups.

The general categories of exercise are:

  1. Cardiovascular/aerobic exercise
  2. Resistance training
  3. Interval training
  4. Flexibility training
  5. Core/balance training

For each of these I will offer a description, short explanation of benefits, and general recommendations. Click here for a more in-depth discussion on the benefits of exercise.

1. Cardiovascular/aerobic exercise

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise (from here on referred to as cardios) is designed to improve general fitness and endurance. Cardios need to be carried out at a steady pace, generally between 60 and 80% of your maximum heart rate. Exercising at an intensity that is too low or too high could mean that the numerous health and fitness benefits are not achieved.

Cardio exercise includes jogging, swimming, biking, elliptical machines, stair climbing machines, etc. Walking may also be used, but for most people it will not be rigorous enough to elevate the heart rate into the cardio zone.

Cardio benefits: Improves endurance & fitness, burns fat, prevents various conditions & diseases (e.g. heart disease and type II diabetes), improves mental performance, relieves stress, etc.

Cardio duration: At least 20 minutes for the general health benefits and over 30 minutes for optimal weight loss effect. For most people, exceeding 90 minutes is not recommended.

Cardio frequency: The most common recommendations fall between 3-5 cardios per week.

Although recommendations vary, strength athletes, bodybuilders and similar may want to keep the cardio work on the lower end (i.e. 3 per week or so) so as not to have a negative effect on muscle growth.

Click here to learn more about cardiovascular training.

2. Resistance training

Resistance training refers to workouts where you work against some kind of resistance, e.g. weights, cables, your own bodyweight, etc. Resistance training can be targeted at increasing strength, size, and/or power. For more on this see training for strength vs training for size.


Benefits of resistance training: Increased strength, improved bone density (even as we age), fat burn, positive effect vs. type II diabetes, etc.

Duration and frequency: There are many factors that affect this, including goals, age, gender, muscle size, program design, etc. Generally, the larger your muscles and the older you are, the more recovery time you need. 2-5 times per week is most common. Sessions should generally be kept within one hour or so.

3. Interval training

Interval training is a type of training that alternates between periods of low and high intensity. It can be done by running, biking, rowing, stair climbing, elliptical machines, and so on. Many sports, e.g. soccer, tennis, basketball, boxing, are also examples of interval training.

Benefits: More effective cardiovascular fitness (than regular cardios), more effective fat burn than regular cardios, increased speed, helps prevent high cholesterol, helps prevent diabetes, etc.

Frequency: Interval training is very intense and for most people it should not be performed too frequently. A good general recommendation is 1-2 sessions per week.

Duration: Sessions should be kept short, no more than 30 minutes (not including a warm-up).

4. Flexibility training

When you use your muscles, they shorten and may lose elasticity. Stretching can be used to prevent this, to increase your general flexibility, and to help remove toxins.

There are many different kinds of stretching, including: static stretching, dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, and fascial stretching. A description of each is beyond the scope of this article.

Stretching sessions should take place several times per week.


5. Balance/core training

Balance training or core training improves the small muscles that are used to stabilize and enable all other fitness & sports movements. They stabilize the spine and pelvis and they help transfer energy and shift bodyweight. I believe it was Dr. Fred Hatfield who used the analogy that weight lifting without core training is like firing a cannon out of a canoe. Needless to say, a strong core not only improves performance, but it also reduces the change of injury.

The core consists of a large group of muscles from your shoulders to your hips, consisting of the erector spinae, the lower lats, the abdomials, and the obliques. There are countless examples and routines designed to improve balance and core strength. Examples include doing weight lifting exercises on the stability ball, tai-chi, yoga, numerous core-specific exercises for the abs, obliques, back, etc.

Frequency and duration: This varies very much depending on your goals. For strength athletes using periodization, it is common to have a core-intensive period at the start of the cycle and then some light regular core work thereafter. It is probably safe to say that everyone should have some sort of core training once or twice per week.

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