Every car needs tires. Every house needs foundation. And every well-balanced training routine requires cardio! You can lift weights, stretch, eat and sleep right, and take your supplements religious. But without the regular use of cardio, your overall fitness and muscle-building routine will be very much incomplete. There is no denying the importance of including cardiovascular exercise as part of your weekly workout regiment.
Why include cardio? Regular cardiovascular exercise is important for a few reasons. First of all, cardio helps us to burn body fat. We train year round, building up impressive looking and functional muscles. Wearing 20 pounds of fat over them does nothing but conceal them from the world! Cardio also boosts your body's metabolism. This is the fat burning furnace that is at work 24/7, making good use of the calories we consume. Above all, and most often forgotten, are the many positive health benefits of including cardio in your daily and weekly training systems. Boosting circulatory function results in better oxygen and blood flow, helping you to avoid cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes for decades to come. If you want to look good, feel good, and live longer, than cardio needs to be a regular part of your training. But what kind of cardio should be you using?
The machine that you choose is often a matter of personal choice. Walking is the choice most made by people in and out of the gym. The treadmill is a safe, easy, low-impact exercise which works for almost all trainers in the gym. The elliptical machine is another good option, although many find it to be a bit more intensive than the treadmill. Stationary bicycling is an easier option, but one which doesn't provide as high a level of caloric burning as the other options. Look around your gym, you'll likely to see a wealth of additional options for your cardio training. Choose the one that fits you best - the instinctive principle is a great one for choosing a daily cardio option that fits your current mood and energy levels.
Be careful with muscle group overlap. Most people can use the treadmill just about every day without interfering with any muscle group training. However, there are some cardiovascular training machines which leave you feeling sore the next day due to their muscle-specific requirements. You will want to avoid training with these devices the day before you target that muscle group. For example, rowing machines create a great deal of burn in the back muscles, which could interfere with your barbell rowing and chin-ups the next day. Likewise, the use of Jacob's Ladder the day before a heavy squat day may leave you too sore to seriously hit the weight the following day. Stick with a wide range of cardio options, but always be aware of potential overflow into your weight training.
Just as all cardio machines are not created equal, not all cardio intensities are equal as well. You should realize that all cardio boils down to only one of two types. Let's look at each of them which you should be using with your workouts, and the reasoning behind it.
LSC, or long-slow cardio, is what most trainers commonly refer to as "Low Intensity Cardio". If your goal is to lose body fat, improve your body's endurance ability and increase your aerobic capacity, then cardio of the low-intensity variety is right for you. Watch the early 2000s videos of Ronnie Coleman doing cardio before the Mr. Olympia show and you'll see perfect example of low intensity cardio. He would turn on SportsCenter twice a day for an hour and just walk at a casual pace. Nothing fancy, nothing complex. Just slowly walk to burn off the body fat.
If you have injuries to rehab, or if you're not in the world's best shape, then low-intensity cardio is the best bet for you. Blood flow is increased, metabolic byproducts are removed from the body, and the healing process is accelerated. You can be active and fit without killing yourself (figuratively!) using low-intensity cardio. For this reason, LSC is the most popular cardio choice for most lifters.
What is the best day to complete low-intensity cardio? Most people can use it most days. Sessions should last 30 to 45 minutes, and should be completed on a rest day or right after completing your daily weight training. Using LSC as an active recovery protocol is a good idea. Plug in the headphones and zone out, and without wearing yourself out too badly, you'll burn body fat and reach better shape in a matter of weeks.
The alternative to LSC is the use of HIIT, or High Intensity Cardio. This is the cardio option chosen by higher level elite athletes who wish to use their body's stored fats as energy for a workout. You're training at a high level, incinerating fat, while at the same time building up muscle. Your metabolism is kicked into high gear and you burn a lot of calories because, frankly, HIIT is very hard work!
You'll be training at 85 to 100% of your maximum heart rate during High Intensity Cardio. Interval training works well for this, alternating walking and full sprints for 30 to 60 seconds, for example. Your HIIT session should be completed in a half hour or so. If you're working at 85% of your maximum ability, then you aren't going to be able to last more than 20 to 30 minutes. Keep the HIIT training to non-lifting day, as it is very intense and a workout of its own. You should only be using HIIT training 1 to 3 times each week. Keep a close eye out for injuries, pulls, and strains. If you experience any of these things, it's time to bounce over to the low-intensity cardio for a while to let the body adapt to your new levels of training intensity.
Most successful lifters find they see their greatest results when combining the use of both high and low intensity cardio. They let their mood, their goals, and their weekly training momentum determine if a workout should be
Lower intensity cardio burns more fat, which higher intensity cardio builds up muscle. Using them together is a recipe for success, and one which you should be using on a regular basis. Good luck!