Go grab a heart rate monitor. Use the old school method of checking your pulse if you don’t have one.
Lay down on the floor. Relax.
Wait 3 minutes.
Check your heart rate. Mark it down.
Is it below 60 beats per minute?
Next, hop on a rower, stationary bike, or go outside. Perform an all out sprint for 1-2 minutes.
Check your heart rate. Mark it down.
Wait 1 minute. Check your heart rate. Mark it down.
Did your heart rate recover by at least 30 beats per minute?
Wait another 1 minute. Check your heart rate. Mark it down.
By now did it recover by at least 50 beats per minute?
If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, congratulations! You have room for improvement with regards to your cardiovascular health. Time to lace up those running shoes and hit the treadmill for about 30-45 minutes.
Check the title of this post again. Ain’t no way in hell I’m going to tell you to do that. Steady state cardio is now officially lumped into the same category as low fat diets and machine based resistance training programs. Old and outdated. Time wasters. Unfortunately, the majority of the health and fitness community still views long slow distance (LSD) exercise as one of, if not the primary method for improving cardiovascular health, losing weight, and improving body composition.
There is a better way to accomplish all of the things listed above, plus more, in a more efficient manner. And they’re called intervals. Now I’m sure most of you are thinking, “Oh high intensity interval training (HIIT), duh, we all know about that.” And maybe you do. But a lot of the stuff you see on social media from these Instagram models and ‘experts’ is more along the lines of SHIIT (credit to Mike Boyle for that term), or stupid high intensity interval training. It leaves you totally gassed and near vomiting, so it’s gotta be awesome, right? Maybe occasionally, but doing it all the time is just a “Shiit” program.
Let’s break things down just a little further and turn you into a cardiovascular monster, the right way.
The Downfalls of Steady State Cardio
- First and foremost, the amount of time necessary to complete a typical LSD session is fairly time consuming, ranging anywhere from 20-90 minutes depending on who you talk to. Done 3-7x per week and you’re looking at setting aside potentially 10.5 hours per week just to get these done. That is a sizable investment, with not a lot of return on said investment in the long run.
- Done repeatedly, LSD exercise will make you slower and weaker (everyone’s main health and fitness priority!). Your muscles literally atrophy with excessive steady state cardio because smaller muscles make for more efficient transport of oxygen within your cells. And since LSD requires a considerable amount of oxygen uptake and utilization at a constant rate, bigger muscles will just make this process more of a pain in the ass. So naturally your body adapts to make O2 transport easier, aka shrink the distance (your muscles) it needs to be transported within the body. Google ‘marathon runner’ and you will see countless images of skinny athletes who look, dare I say, frail. They might be able to run at a constant pace for hours on end, but I’d be willing to bet their 5 rep max on a deadlift will wow next to no one.
- Piggybacking off of #2, being slower and weaker puts you at more of a risk for sustaining injury. I love the quote “Lifting weights is not dangerous. Being weak is dangerous.” because it is 100% true. Weak muscles absolutely put you at risk for injury. Weak muscles can lead to lack of control at the joints, which leads to compromised stability and/or mobility, which affects how you move, which creates compensation during certain movement patterns, which in turn affects other muscles, which increases your risk for injury. Go to a physical therapist and 8/10 times they’re trying to increase the strength of muscle ‘x’ in a client because it was too damn weak in the first place. Why participate in a mode of exercise that only exacerbates this problem? It’s funny because I know/have known a lot of avid runners who are constantly suffering from achey (fill in the blank) or recovering from something-itis on a regular, almost constant basis. It can’t possibly be from the constant, slow paced, repetitive, low intensity exercise that they do for hours on end on a weekly basis because THAT’S JUST INSANE.
Avid Runner Reading This Who is Annoyed By Everything I’ve Written So Far: “But Chris, you can’t argue the fact that LSD exercise has its benefits for heart health, helping people lose weight, AND improving your Vo2 max.”
True. LSD exercise WILL improve heart health, WILL increase cardiac output, WILL help you lose weight, and WILL increase your Vo2 max. But is it the best way?
Enter Interval Training
In it’s simplest terms, interval training is the alternating of high intensity work with predetermined rest periods. There’s nothing steady or slow about it.
The main study that started the interval trend is the Tabata protocol. In a nutshell, the study had one group of people perform steady state cardio for 5 days a week for 6 weeks at 70% of their maximum oxygen intake. Another group, working for 5 days per week for 6 weeks, performed 8 sets of 20 second sprints with 10 second rest intervals at 170% of their Vo2 max.
Care to take a guess as to who improved their aerobic and anaerobic capacities the most?
I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t the steady state group.
In another study, the Gibala study, 20 min of interval training (30 second sprints/4 min rest) was compared to 90-120 minutes of steady state work utilizing ‘heart rate zones’. It was concluded that the same amount of improvement in oxygen utilization occurred between the two groups.
So much for the heart health and Vo2 improvement argument, I guess.
So the first glaring benefit of performing interval training is time spent training. In a day and age where no one has any time to do anything anymore, this is huge. The Gibala study participants showed you can work for a total of 2 minutes and get the same results from someone working for 90 minutes. Seriously, you must be smoking the dankest OG kush to not think that’s incredibly awesome.
Then there’s the injury side of things. Is there a risk for injury with intervals? Of course. But it’s far less than the risk that occurs during steady state work. Because intervals are done at higher speeds and with more intensity, the same type of gradual muscle degradation seen with LSD doesn’t really occur. Intervals are anaerobic in nature, meaning there’s not a lot of oxygen exchange happening, which means your muscles don’t shrink to make for more optimal O2 transport. And because intervals are intense and performed at fast speeds, your muscles will need to work harder which will do wonders for retaining strength levels. So if anything, you might suffer an acute injury like an ankle sprain if you trip or something, but you won’t encounter the same type of chronic why-the-hell-am-I-hurting nagging injuries seen with LSD exercise.
And lastly, (but probably most importantly if you’re the average joe who doesn’t really care about performance metrics), intervals do a MUCH better job of improving body composition than steady state cardio does. I feel like that’s really the point 98% of people care about. Want a 6 pack? Fix your diet, lift weights, and perform intervals. There, one sentence summarizes my whole post.
So let’s review. Intervals, when compared to LSD exercise…
- Improve anaerobic capacity better.
- Improve aerobic capacity just the same, if not better.
- Decrease your risk of sustaining chronic injuries by eliminating repetitive motions done in partial ranges of motion.
- Allow you to obtain all these benefits in literally a fraction of the time.
- Decrease body fat more effectively.
- Help preserve muscle size.
- Help preserve muscle strength and power.
So why does anyone continue to do LSD training? There is one simple explanation.
It’s human nature to do what’s easiest. Intervals are not really enjoyable and they’re not really easy. For this reason people skip them for the comfort of that wonderful elliptical with the TV mounted on it so they can watch TV while they ‘workout’.
So whats the best way to go about doing interval training? There’s two ways. Tempo work and high intensity intervals.
Tempo work can be considered low intensity interval training. These are ideal for helping you build up to higher intensity work, but can also be done for some recovery work on your off days. During tempo runs, you want to run/work at a pace that resembles a sprint without the sprint speed. It’s not a jog, but it’s not your max speed either. Somewhere right in the middle is where you want to be. Maintain this pace for about 15-20 seconds, then rest for 45-60 seconds. Repeat. Your work to rest ratio will be right around 1:3, but these are general guidelines and there’s plenty of room to adjust. As a general rule, the longer the work interval, the shorter the rest interval. Longer work periods = less intensity = no extensive recovery needed.
Tempo work is ideally done while running, but don’t think it can’t be done on any other type of cardio equipment. Bikes, rowers, and even ellipticals can work as long as you’re pretty good at maintaining the right pace.
Once you’ve done 2-3 weeks of tempo work, now you can start to incorporate some higher intensity intervals. These are the intense, leave you gasping type of intervals that social media just loves because it shows how hard people ‘grind’. You can do these in a variety of ways with running again being the go-to method assuming you’re capable of physically performing sprints. But bikes, rowers, sideboards, etc. can all work just as well. The key to high intensity intervals though, is, well, high intensity. You can’t really walk or jog these and expect to see any appreciable type of results. Sprint. Push yourself. Make it hard. Make it uncomfortable. You’ll thank yourself in the long run. 1:3, 1:4, 1:5, and even 1:6 work to rest ratios can all work for these intervals. (Ex: 1:4 work to rest ratio would be a 15 second sprint followed by 60 seconds rest). Since these are high intensity, make sure these workouts last no longer than 20 minutes.
The most important thing to consider out of all this is that if you don’t have a heart rate monitor, invest in one. Basing your rest intervals off of your individual heart rate is much more optimal compared to timed intervals. Everyone has a unique blend of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers which can affect how quickly recovery actually occurs. Someone with a higher percentage of slow twitch (endurance) fibers will likely recover more quickly than someone who has a larger percentage of fast twitch (sprint, explosive) fibers. Timed based rest intervals won’t take this into account and you may or may not work harder than what’s necessary. With the heart rate method, perform your interval and then monitor your heart rate. Once it drops back down to *120 beats per minute, perform another interval. Repeat.
*120-150 beats per minute is right around the intensity needed to improve cardiac output, similar to your heart rate during steady state cardio. This is why you wait until it returns to 120 when using a heart rate monitor *
General Guidelines for Interval Work
- Tempo work should not leave you floored, but it shouldn’t be a walk in the park. 1:2 – 1:3 work/rest ratio should be fine.
- High intensity intervals should be hard and uncomfortable. 1:3-1:8 work/rest ratios are all acceptable.
- Follow the 10% rule. Never increase volume or intensity of your conditioning by more than 10% on a weekly basis.
- Never increase volume AND intensity at the same time.
- Invest in a heart rate monitor. Intervals based on your heart rate work much better than predetermined timed intervals. But if you can’t get one, timed intervals will get the job done.
- When using a heart rate monitor, perform your intervals and wait until your heart rate drops back down to 120bpm before starting your next set.
- Know your audience and know yourself. Is it wise to tell a 280lb client to perform tempo work or high intensity intervals on a treadmill? Probably not. Have them perform their conditioning work with a method that is appropriate for them (stationary bike, elliptical, etc). Safety first.
- Never perform high intensity interval workouts back to back. These are taxing to your body and nervous system so repeatedly doing them will only result in burnout and less than optimal results. Alternate between tempo work and intervals, and try not to exceed more than 3 interval workouts in a week.
Sample Program Template
Week 1: Tempo runs x10 (3-4 days/ week)
Week 2: Tempo runs x12 (3-4 days/ week)
Week 3: Tempo runs x14 (3-4 days/ week)
Week 4: HIIT 1:3 or 1:4 work/rest ratio, 10 min total (2 non consecutive days/ week), tempo runs x14 (1-2 days/ week)
Week 5: HIIT 1:3 or 1:4 work/rest ratio, 11-12 min total (2 non consecutive days/ week), tempo runs x14 (1-2 days/ week)
Week 6: HIIT 1:3 or 1:4 work/rest ratio, 12-13 min total (2 non consecutive days/ week), tempo run x14 (1-2 days/ week)
If you’re interested in learning about this topic more in depth, I highly recommend checking out www.completeconditioning.com by Mike Boyle. He dives MUCH deeper into this topic with a very well put together product. I highly recommend it.