Within the universe of a cardiovascular training plan, there should be different strategies and different types and kinds of cardio that are done on a rotating basis. This keeps the body off balance and guessing and keeps cardio training interesting.
In mainstream fitness and mainstream bodybuilding, aerobic exercise is done but with no overarching strategy. Mainstream experts champion “moderate intensity” cardio sessions to “work in the fat-burning zone,” thereby maximizing cardio results. This zone is considered as 55% to 70% of all out capacity. Consider periods of working at 85% to 90% of capacity. To monitor these heart rate changes a heart rate monitor is essential.
Intense and repeated aerobic exercise will literally reconfigure muscle fiber. Mitochondria cellular blast furnaces are constructed in muscles constantly worked intensely. More mitochondria make muscles stronger, increase muscular endurance and make muscles more adept at processing nutrients and expelling waste products. To build mitochondria aerobic capacity must be above 80% and done for increasingly longer and more frequent training sessions. I am a huge fan of the Polar H10 heart rate sensor for accuracy combined with Polar's phone app. For a fitness tracker I recommend the Fitbit 3 for its 24/7 heart rate monitoring and 15+ activity mode tracking feature.
The cardio spectrum spans from steady-state pacing to burst or interval pacing. Both types of cardiovascular exercise are required to have a comprehensive cardiovascular plan.
Establish a steady pace and maintain that pace for the duration of the session. Over time and with practice the pace naturally increases. Steady state pacing would be best exemplified by an experienced athlete running a 5K. The runner seeks to attain and maintain the fastest possible pace for the duration of the 5K without going into oxygen debt. When unable to supply working muscles with the requisite amount of oxygen, the runner “ties up” and is forced to slow down or stop to catch his breath.
Steady state cardio is optimally done with the mildest possible muscular contractions that require oxygen, ergo, the fewer and milder the muscle contractions the less the demands on oxygen. See Polar Steady State blog.
Burst or Interval
At the other cardio pacing extreme is burst cardio, or interval cardio. The burst cardio goal is to go as fast as possible for as long as possible before oxygen debt forces a halt to the effort. Burst cardio could be exemplified by 40-yard dash sprints, or a rapid-fire racquet ball game, or an extended session of heavy kettlebell lifting. Interval cardio purposefully injects muscle contraction and muscle stress into the cardio format. The typical burst cardio session is burst, recover, burst again, repeat for the duration of the training session. In the interval cardio the athlete exerts 80-100% of capacity, oxygen debt be damned. Over time and with practice, the length of time the athlete exerts 100% is lengthened
In the interval cardio the athlete exerts 80-100% of capacity, oxygen debt be damned. Over time and with practice, the length of time the athlete exerts 100% is lengthened. Take a look at Len Schwartz above, the inventor of heavyhands in his 70's.
Mix and Match Cardio Pacing
In between these two cardio extremes lie a limitless number of degrees. What are the implications? Serious athletes need to understand the shades, degrees and types of cardio activity and their respective intensities. The intelligent trainee rotates progressive resistance training routines, shifting back and forth between high intensity/low volume training and moderate intensity/high volume training. So too should the intelligent trainee shift back and forth between steady-state cardio and burst cardio. Those that insist on staying with the same modes, done in the same ways, are doomed to stagnation.
Every training routine, no matter how effective or productive will, at some point, cease delivering results. The human body, given time, will find a way to neutralize the positive effects derived from the finest routine. Cardio gains are a result of subjecting the body to stresses that force it to adapt. These adaptations are the results we seek from our cardio efforts: the oxidation of body fat, improved stamina and endurance, improved organ health and function are monumental benefits worthy of the sustained effort required. Pro bodybuilders will rotate cardio types and kinds on a regular and periodic basis in anticipation of stagnation. So should you!
In all forms of exercise, contrast is the progress stimulator. Create pendulum swings and alternate back and forth between burst and steady-state. You could alternate cardio pacing within the training week or you could concentrate solely on one cardio pacing type for weeks on end. Make like a cardio pro: periodically rotate training types and intensities. This keeps the body guessing and prevents it from attaining hemostasis – normalization of the training effect. Rotation of type, from burst to steady state, keeps training fresh and vibrant and provides the athlete with both pure endurance and strength endurance.
Tools can vary, from nothing, hands and feet, to aerobic machines as expensive as small cars and as plush as the best chairs in your living room…built in TVs, internet access, all while you ride a posh stationary bike, climb a stair-climber or a step-mill, pull on a rower or hoist kettlebells, whatever the cardio or mode, pick either burst or steady-state.
Within each cardio format establish personal best performances (PRs.) The athlete then seeks to better recent personal best performances. Limits are continually assaulted as this is where the cardio gains lie – attempt to improve performance in either burst style or steady-state mode.
Best of all, if this type of sophisticated aerobic exercise is done consistently and coordinated with an equally sophisticated diet, body fat is forcibly burned. When deprived of glycogen, emulsified carbohydrates, the body burns its second favored fuel source: stored body fat. Cardio done while glycogen stores are low or exhausted forced the body to burn its own fat. Bad diet blocks fat burning. There can be no fat burning if there is any insulin in the bloodstream. Body fat cannot be burned before insulin. Insulin spikes in response to sugar.
Coordinate your efforts with a solid diet and dissolve body fat. Leaner always equates to improved aerobic performance and improved performance equates to improve stamina, endurance and an improved (lower) body fat percentile.
The bottom line?
It is not so much the tool as the method; when you have an effective method, the tools can be varied.