What Cardio Really Means and Do You Even Need It?

It should be pretty easy to know when you’re doing cardio, it’s when your heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of your chest and you are gasping for breath wondering why you make all these bad choices in life.

Oh is that just me?

I know that earlier in my life that’s exactly what I thought.

But thankfully I learned later on that when it comes to cardiovascular training, there are specific qualities that go beyond a high heart rate and always trying to catch my breath.

🎙️ Related Podcast: Smart Cardio: Finding the Low Hanging Fruit for Efficient Gains

4 Essential Qualities of Effective Cardio Training

While these factors certainly happen with increased exertion and can indicate a positive stimulus, they alone don’t qualify an activity as effective cardiovascular training. To truly engage in cardiovascular training, you have to consider the activity itself and the physiological responses it elicits.

Activity-Specific Heart Rate ElevationMore Than Half Your Body is at WorkHigh Cycle RateFatigue Not Limited By Muscles

Let’s go over the essential qualities that define cardiovascular training and more specifically what that means for you and your own fitness regimen.

1. Activity-Specific Heart Rate Elevation

Elevated heart rate by itself does not constitute cardiovascular training. Instead heart rate serves as a proxy measurement for the physiological changes happening in our bodies. For instance, during an anxiety attack or a moment of fear, the heart rate can spike. But I’m sure you can see that this situation doesn’t mean you are training your cardiovascular system! The crucial aspect is the nature of the activity and situation itself. Merely having an elevated heart rate due to anxiety or fear does not mean that you are working within the optimal cardiovascular training zone.

But put this in the context of walking at a brisk pace or biking around town and the higher heart rate is a more accurate indicator that you are stimulating adaptations. Heart rate is an easy way to measure how hard you are working, but the context of your work is key.

2. More Than Half Your Body is at Work

For an activity to stimulate cardiovascular adaptations, it should engage more than 50% of the body’s muscle mass. While it may be challenging and leave you out of breath, solely utilizing your arms, for example, will not be enough to elicit the desired cardiovascular response.

Optimal oxygen uptake and utilization occur when a significant portion of your body’s muscle mass is involved. Simply, get your whole body moving at a good steady effort and you’re working on your cardio.

3. High Cycle Rate

Another essential factor is the cycle rate, or the rate of muscular contractions; revolutions per minute (rpm) on a bike, cadence in jogging, steps per minute on the stairmaster, etc.,

So now our rules for cardio are you’re working most of your body at good level of exertion at a brisk pace.  The pace is important because activities that involve prolonged muscle contractions, to the extent that they obstruct the venous return to the heart, can impede cardiac output and vessel perfusion.

It can be pretty complicated but the gist of it is that too intense of a muscular activity creates a “back pressure” of blood flow in the system and that changes the nature of the stimulus to the heart. So even though your heart rate and breath can increase dramatically during strength training, it’s not truly cardiovascular training. Not that it’s bad, it’s just if your goal is cardio effectiveness it shouldn’t be your choice in that moment.

4. Fatigue Not Limited by Muscles

This relates to the requirement of a quicker muscular contraction rate. Let’s use the example of being on an exercise bike. If you crank up the resistance dial so much that you can only turn the pedals at a rate of 20 revolutions per minute (rpm), you can feel that your legs are working so hard and likely you won’t be able to keep this up very long. Reduce the resistance so that you can hit 80 rpm at a low to moderate effort and you’ll be able to do this for much longer, 30 minutes to hours at a time.

This is what is meant by not being limited by muscular fatigue, it will certainly happen with longer bouts of cardio but it won’t be the primary reason you’ll have to end your session.

This along with the blood pressure limiting vascular return is why strength training “faster” is not really cardio. Your heart rate may be high and you may be out of breath but that is not improving your heart health. It can make you better at that type of work and improve performance but that is distinctly different. You are stressing the heart differently and this creates different effects.

“Pure” cardiovascular training is then using most of your body at good level of exertion at a brisk pace that you can do for a long enough time.

Strength-Endurance is Different Than Cardio

With all this said, it becomes more clear now that there is reasonable confusion surrounding cardiovascular training. High-repetition bodyweight exercises, circuit training, or other “metabolic conditioning” routines are often considered cardio. While these activities do make you breathe heavily and elevate your heart rate significantly, they primarily target your muscular endurance and overall tolerance for moderate to high level exertion, rather than purely stimulating the cardiovascular system. Understanding this difference is crucial to designing a well-rounded fitness program that meets your specific goals.

Strength-endurance training, such as high-repetition bodyweight exercises or circuit training (as taught in our program Integral Strength), have numerous benefits. They enhance your conditioning and allow you to perform greater amounts of work over extended periods. This improvement in “work capacity” is valuable for individuals looking to build stamina and endurance. However, it’s important to recognize that this type of training does not have the same effect on the cardiovascular system as traditional cardio training.

Because cardiovascular training involves activities that engage over 50% of your body mass, have a high cycle rate, and can sustain a prolonged period of elevated heart rate, it enables you to reach higher percentages of your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during intense exercise. Stressing the cardiovascular system in this way leads to specific adaptations in your heart structure, circulatory system function, and metabolic processes.

This specificity of cardiovascular training is crucial to understanding the distinction between it and strength-endurance exercise. Each type of training has its own distinct benefits, and it’s essential to incorporate both into your fitness routine for a comprehensive approach.

Also it’s easier to achieve higher levels of oxygen uptake during activities such as running, cycling, or rowing compared to circuit training or kettlebell workouts. These traditional cardio activities allow you to accumulate more time spent at higher oxygen uptake levels with less perceived effort and lower overall recovery costs. This makes them more efficient in terms of stimulating the cardiovascular system.

However, this doesn’t mean that this specific cardiovascular training is an absolute requirement for everyone. Depending on your goals and preferences, you may achieve satisfactory cardiovascular fitness through other forms of exercise. For example, if you enjoy circuit training or kettlebell workouts, these activities can still provide significant fitness benefits. It’s about finding a balance that suits your individual needs and preferences.

Whether you choose to focus on specific cardio activities or other forms of exercise, what matters most is understanding what they are actually giving you and what you want out of them.

Is What You are Already Doing Enough? Health Benefits vs Peak Performance

When it comes to cardiovascular training, there can often be a dismissive attitude towards the recommended guidelines provided by government and health professionals. Some fitness enthusiasts poop on the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise/75 minutes of vigorous exercise, claiming they do that much exercise in a single day!

However, these recommendations are well-founded, and backed by objective data from numerous longitudinal studies conducted over decades. These aren’t abstract theoretical finding, they are objective findings in decreased disease and death for all individuals. The difference between this research and the IG fitness pro is comparing six pack abs to a significantly decreased risk of premature death.

It’s also important to understand the distinction between moderate exercise and vigorous effort and recognize the significant health benefits associated with even the minimum recommended levels of cardiovascular training.

Moderate exercise, as defined by the guidelines, includes activities such as walking at a speed of 3 miles per hour. Walking for just 22 minutes a day at this pace or jogging for 11 minutes a day can significantly reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes. In fact, a study revealed that the majority of health benefits can be achieved with as little as 7 minutes of jogging at a speed of 5 to 6 miles per hour. This demonstrates that even relatively short periods of cardiovascular exercise can have a profound impact on our health and well-being.

Engaging in regular cardiovascular training, even at the minimum recommended levels, yields a range of health benefits. Firstly, it improves heart health by increasing cardiac output and stroke volume, resulting in more blood pumped per heart beat. As a result, resting heart rate decreases, indicating improved heart strength and elasticity. Moreover, cardiovascular training contributes to decreased blood pressure and improved peripheral vasculature, including capillarization to body tissues. These adaptations promote better glucose clearance, lower blood sugar levels, and improved energy utilization. Additionally, cardiovascular training aids in fat clearance and lowers blood lipid levels.

These health benefits extend to addressing metabolic syndrome, a term used by health experts to describe a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. While strength and resistance training contribute to improving these conditions, cardiovascular training provides even greater benefits.

The varying recommendations for the amount of cardio training needed stem from the primary goals of the person giving the advice. If patients already suffer from metabolic disorders, a relatively high amount of cardiovascular training may be required to reverse these conditions. This could involve several hours of cardio exercise per week. However, for individuals who are generally healthy, data shows that a smaller amount of cardio exercise is sufficient to maintain good health and reduce the risk of developing metabolic disorders.

What about Zone 2 and V02 Max?

Zone 2 work is the current trendy buzzword, and it’s great! Primarily because the range at the low end qualifies as the moderate intensity, and the high end corresponds with the vigorous level of activity.

There are a lot of markers that people espouse for Zone 2 training; heart rate between 60 and 75% of your maximum, lactate levels below 2 mmols, rate of exertion at 5 out of 10, and breathing rate where you can speak a few sentences easily. So complex! Which should you choose?

Well, we’ve found that the “talk test” and rate of exertion works just as well, if not better, than drawing blood every few minutes or constantly checking your heart rate monitor. Zone 2 isn’t magical but it’s a nice heuristic because it offers an excellent effort-to-recovery ratio, allowing for prolonged training without overtaxing the body.

While VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during activity) is often discussed in studies and research, it is not the sole determinant of healthy longevity. Striving for higher levels of activity and meeting recommended exercise durations yields similar benefits. VO2 max naturally declines by approximately 1-2% per year from its peak, similar to strength levels. However, it’s important to note that “peak” is a relative term and varies depending on an individual’s training background. Beginners in their 40s, 50s, or 60s can still experience significant improvements in fitness and overall health.

VO2 max is just one chosen metric among many. Individuals can set their own meaningful metrics based on their personal goals. For example, being able to climb five flights of stairs while carrying 20 pounds of groceries might be a more relevant measure of fitness for someone. The key is to find meaningful goals that match what you want to be able to do.

I always think about a commercial (though I forget the product it was for!) showing a man using a kettlebell to exercise, with the ultimate goal of being able to lift his granddaughter up to place an ornament on top of a Christmas tree. Tear-jerking and also really pertinent to what we’re talking about here. We are all exercising and training because we want to be able to live our lives with autonomy and grace, not to just get better at exercising.

Training at higher intensity levels within Zone 2 (75% of the maximum heart rate) qualifies as vigorous exercise. However, even low Zone 2 (60-65%) provides substantial health benefits, albeit requiring longer duration to achieve the same effects as higher intensities. It’s worth noting that this type of training may not significantly increase VO2 max. But it’s important to understand that improved health markers, such as decreased blood pressure, improved blood sugar regulation, and decreased lipid levels, do not necessarily translate to noticeable performance increases.

This distinction between training for cardiovascular health and training for performance is critical. Performance-oriented conditioning is aimed at improving athletic abilities and excelling in specific sports or physical activities. The amount of time and intensity required for these goals differs significantly from what is needed for overall cardiovascular health.

At GMB Fitness one of our primary concepts is placed on consistency as a primary driver for improvement in all aspects of fitness. Even doing a small amount of exercise consistently is exponentially better than doing nothing at all. This principle aligns with the research on physical activity levels, which reveals a significant spike in benefits from engaging in any form of physical activity.

Yes you’ll have to do a lot more if you want to win races and climb Mt. Everest, but if those aren’t your goals please don’t get caught up in what others are saying and doing. Their goals are theirs, and yours are yours.

Personalizing Your Fitness Training: Addressing Your Limiting Factors for Optimal Results

When it comes to improving our fitness and overall health, it’s common to hear people say that they need to “work on their cardio” or simply state that they need to “get in shape.” However, these statements often reflect a sense that something is lacking in their capacity to perform daily activities or pursue their desired lifestyle. This could manifest as cardiovascular limitations, such as getting winded after a short 5-minute walk, or difficulties in moving efficiently in various situations. To truly address these concerns and make meaningful progress, it’s crucial to personalize your fitness training to account for your own specific limiting factors.

Identifying your individual limiting factors is a massive part in designing an effective and efficient exercise program. These factors could include joint mobility, overall strength, cardiovascular capacity, or strength endurance. It’s important not to blindly assume that getting out of breath automatically means you should embark on a Couch to 5K program, unless, of course, your goal is to run a 5K race.

Instead, take the time to assess your specific needs and tailor your training accordingly.

Joint mobility is a common limiting factor that can impact overall fitness and movement capabilities. If you find yourself struggling with range of motion or experiencing discomfort during certain movements, focusing on improving joint mobility through targeted exercises and stretching routines might be your best bet.

Strength endurance, or the ability to sustain effort over an extended period. Building strength endurance involves incorporating exercises that challenge your muscles to perform repetitive movements over time. Strength plays a significant role in our ability to perform daily tasks and engage in various physical activities. Whether it’s lifting heavy objects, climbing stairs, or participating in sports, having a solid foundation of strength is crucial. Identifying any strength limitations and incorporating appropriate strength training exercises into your routine will help you overcome these barriers and improve your functional abilities.

Cardiovascular capacity is just one of many limiting factors that can impact overall fitness and stamina. While running programs can be effective for some individuals, they may not be the best approach for everyone. Instead, consider alternative cardiovascular activities that align with your interests and goals. It could be cycling, swimming, dancing, circuit training, etc. What’s the level of cardiovascular fitness that you need? It matters quite a bit whether you want to train for a triathlon or want to improve your heart health. Both are valid goals, and both have different requirements.

By personalizing your fitness training to address your specific limiting factors, you can achieve optimal results in terms of consistency, enjoyment, and long-term progress. Instead of conforming to another person’s idea of fitness, you’ll be focusing on what truly matters to you and your individual needs. This personalized approach not only ensures that your exercise regimen aligns with your goals but also enhances motivation and adherence to the program.

Remember, fitness is a highly individual journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. Embrace the process of self-discovery and explore different activities and training modalities to find what resonates with you. By understanding and addressing your specific needs, you can unlock your true potential, overcome limitations, and achieve your desired level of fitness and well-being.

Build A Resilient Capable Body

Our Elements program is designed to address all aspects of your functional fitness capacity. The program helps you quickly identify your personal limiting factors and gets you leveling them up right away. Improve your overall strength, control, and mobility, while getting the benefits of cardiovascular training.

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