Cardio Essentials: What You Need to Know to Construct the Perfect Plan

Of all fitness training modalities, including the vast array of new and improved methods for getting in shape, there is one activity that has stood the test of time and can be adapted to all fitness levels and used to achieve any training goal: cardiovascular exercise.

The Importance of Cardio


An activity which elevates our heart rate (and keeps it that way for extended periods), improves the efficiency of our lungs, boosts our metabolic rate (both during and after its completion), promotes a lean appearance by aiding in fat loss, mentally recharges us, and improves blood cholesterol levels and heart function. Cardio (or aerobic) training should be considered a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle.

While intensive bodybuilding-style resistance workouts, ultra grueling boot camp classes, and CrossFit circuits may have a cardiovascular component and may also enhance health and fitness on multiple levels, such advanced systems of training may not be suitable for everyone, at least not initially.

Cardio training, with its emphasis on long-duration/moderate intensity activity can be used by almost anyone to achieve optimal fitness, excellent health and an improved physique.

Types of cardio training include running, skipping, walking, rowing, cycling, and swimming, so long as these are sustained for at least 20 minutes as a recommended average; as our joints, heart and lungs become stronger we may adjust our aerobic training intensity (in one of more of the above) to accommodate our new-found fitness, to spark further gains. Also, by periodically boosting cardio intensity to just below the anaerobic threshold (the point at which the body switches from working aerobically by using oxygen and fat as a primary fuel source to where it begins to draw from glucose, and stored muscle glycogen, to sustain short-burst activities such as sprinting – thus employing the anaerobic system) we may further elevate our cardiovascular fitness levels, and, as an added side effect, burn more fat.

In the following article I’ll outline three of the most effective types of cardio activities and how they may benefit you.

A Note on Intensity & Duration

Whichever cardio method is used, two variables that must be considered when planning your aerobic workouts are intensity and duration. For beginners, a lower intensity is best; for those more experienced, a combination of high, moderate and lower intensities appears to work well. Whether one is experienced or not, cardio training duration should begin at 20 minutes and may last anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour (it usually takes 20 minutes to adjust to moderate cardiovascular workloads; higher intensity cardio may be undertaken over a shorter period).

To achieve optimal aerobic intensity to target body fat and boost cardio-respiratory efficiency, we should determine our target heart rate (THR), and work within it to achieve our goals. For example, to improve our aerobic endurance to compete in sporting events may require us to work at the upper limit of our THR whereas to stay in decent shape and maintain our present cardio status we may choose to work at the lower end of this range.

Calculate Your THR (Karvonen Formula)

  1. Determine your resting heart rate (RHR) by taking your pulse for one minute on three successive mornings upon waking, use the average: for example, 65 + 68 + 65 = 66
  2. Subtract your age from 220. A 30 year old man: 220 – 30 = 190
  3. Subtract your RHR from the result: 190 – 66 = 124
  4. The lower end of your THR is 50% of this, plus your resting heart rate: (124 x .5) + 66 =128
  5. The upper end of your THR is 85% of this, plus your resting heart rate: (124 x .85) + 66 =171



Though there are almost as many cardio methods today as there are combined Mr. Olympia winners, one form is as effective and popular now as it has been for decades: good old walking. Whether on a flat surface, up and down hills, on a treadmill, or through the uneven terrain of a forest, walking can be done by virtually anyone. It’s safe, productive, and we can vary its intensity by either changing the environment, the efficiency of our stride, or both.

For pure fat burning, fast walking (a so called steady-state, moderate intensity cardio) is one of the most preferred cardio options – it allows us to stay within our fat burning zone, smack in the middle of our target heart rate, and ensures that fat is used as a primary fuel source. However, for the more advanced athlete, other cardio methods may also be incorporated to further elevate our metabolic rate (walking confers most of its metabolic advantages during the act; the so called after-burn effect, where fat is obliterated at a faster rate, may best be achieved through more intensive cardio methods – discussed below).

Steady State – Low Intensity, Long Duration

A form of cardio that can be safely undertaken by almost anyone – the seriously unfit, pregnant women, people recovering from injury, older populations – steady state aerobic activity can also be completed on a variety of machines and is done at an intensity which targets our body fat reserves, making it an excellent companion for those wanting to lose the flab while retaining muscle mass. Because of its low impact, moderate intensity (the lowest end of THR) steady state cardio may not unduly stress our joints and should be done for 30 minutes, or longer.

Because steady state cardio utilizes oxygen while drawing directly from fat stores to sustain energy output, and is thus easier to perform and less physically taxing, the significantly overweight may use this form of cardio several times a week (even twice daily) to burn excess weight.  Similarly, the pre contest bodybuilder low on energy may use state cardio to further define their muscles.

Although steady state cardio can burn up to 10 calories per minute, making it an effective weight loss tool, its fat burning benefits may not, by comparison to other cardio methods extend far beyond a given session. For a faster metabolism, and optimal fat loss, use HIIT in conjunction with steady state cardio.

HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training

hiit high intensity interval training

It is often thought that physique athletes such as bodybuilders require little, if any, cardiovascular activity. That engaging in aerobic work may be counter-intuitive to the more sport-specific muscle building they routinely seek to achieve through resistance training. Cardio, the critics say, may interfere with our recovery from intense weight training sessions, may compromise the laying down of new muscle tissue. Not true.

All bodybuilders need some form of cardio – a muscular physique can be built bigger and faster when our blood circulation and oxygen and nutrient intake are optimal, all of which can be achieved through aerobic training.

However, it is true that excessive cardio may deplete muscle reserves and leave us feeling flat. One aerobic method that has become popular among bodybuilders for its ability to shred without promoting muscle loss is HIIT. Though equally, if not more, demanding than the aerobic style interval training (the completion of several resistance training movements back to back for one minute or more per exercise for a total of anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes without resting), HIIT typically requires us to employ traditional aerobic training methods (walking, running, cycling etc), but with a twist.

How To Perform HIIT Cardio

Typically shorter in duration compared to more traditional cardio options, HIIT requires us to periodically elevate our intensity to the highest possible levels while staying within the aerobic zone. HIIT is only recommended for those that can maintain a steady state workout for 30 minutes at the mid-range of their THR. Typical HIIT cardio sessions last from 20 – 25 minutes 2 – 3 times per week. Longer sessions are recommended only for the very highest level athletes.

  1. Warm Up – on a stationary bike warm up for 3 minutes
  2. Intervals (beginner) – peddle for 1 minute at the high end of you THR. Reduce intensity to the low end of your THR for 2 minutes. Repeat.
  3. Intervals (advanced) – peddle for 1 minute at the high end of you THR. Reduce intensity to the low end of your THR for 30 seconds. Repeat.
  4. Warm Down – 3 minutes at successively lower intensities every 30 seconds.

Because HIIT significantly elevates the heart rate periodically, and boosts our body’s repair cycle in the hours after a session, each bout will continue to burn calories for 24 hours following a workout, an effect steady state cardio cannot replicate.

Cardio: The Essential Fitness Component

As a fundamentally important cornerstone of any good fitness plan, cardiovascular training confers many health benefits. From fat burning, better digestion and nutrient assimilation, improved blood circulation, and cardio-respiratory efficiency, aerobic training offers something for everyone.

For beginners, a good cardio strategy may include 5 x 30 minute steady state sessions per week for 6 weeks (at the lower end of THR). Followed by 4 x 45 minute sessions per week working at 70% – 75% of THR for 6 weeks. After this has been completed, start replacing 2 steady state sessions a week with HIIT sessions until desired fitness levels are achieved.

For rapid fat loss among those at a more advanced training level, HIIT cardio may be most effective as it produces tremendous metabolic elevation both during, and after, training, and its high intensity nature can easily be managed by those with a good fitness base. 3 x 20 minute HIIT sessions per week, with 1-2 further early morning steady state sessions to be completed throughout the week, is one possible option for the serious athlete or seasoned bodybuilder.

David Robson

A respected health and fitness writer, David has been published in industry publications such as Status Fitness Magazine, Muscle & Fitness and With 20 years in the personal training trenches, the insights he has gained through practical experience, alongside degrees in psychology and sports science, have enabled him to go beyond the surface to provide educational articles that have informed thousands of health and fitness devotees the world over. Contact David at: and at

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