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Making Your Cardio Work

You will find people (and trainers, and magazine articles) tell you all the time about how you can lose weight without spending endless hours on the treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike by doing metabolic training or high-intensity intervals.  While this is true, often times some steady-state cardio is the right choice based on time of day, how you feel, and your energy levels.

What steady-state cardio does not mean is that it is leisurely.  You need to pick a level of intensity and stick with it.  I recommend 65-75% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate as a guide.  The math looks like this (uh oh, watch out):

( 220 – age ) * 0.65 = 65%

( 220 – age ) * 0.75 = 75%

Double-check yourself here:  I’m 35, so for me my 65-75% range would be 120-139.  I’d split the difference and say 130 is a reasonable target to maintain.  Now get yourself a continuous heart rate monitor (the kind with a chest strap) so you have at-a-glance access to your current heart rate.  Pick your favorite cardio apparatus, and get to work.

Now you may find yourself in a pickle – getting the machine to help you maintain that heart rate.  For example, I prefer to walk briskly rather than jog, but even at a steep incline it can be tricky to maintain a heart rate of 130.  I could temporarily bump it up to a jog to spike the heart rate and then resume my regular pace, but not only would I have to do that repeatedly, it’s a lot of button pushing and I’m not a fan of that.

So how do we make this work?  Time to get creative.

Ok, maybe not that creative.

There are many things you can do that are simple and effective to help keep your heart rate in the right zone:

  • Increase the pace.  If you’re walking, walk faster.  If you don’t feel you can sustain the faster pace long enough, reset your expectations and build up your time progressively.
  • Increase the resistance.  This could mean incline on the treadmill, or plain resistance on a bike or elliptical.
  • Incorporate an abdominal routine.  At specific intervals (60 seconds, 90 seconds, whatever), carefully dismount from your trusty steed and get down on the floor for some crunches, leg raises, full sit-ups, planks, side crunches, etc.  This spikes your heart rate AND gets your ab workout done at the same time.  Let’s hear it for efficiency!
  • Carefully dismount for pushups or burpees at pre-defined intervals, or as needed.  If I notice my heart rate dropping too low, I’ll jump off and knock out 5-10 burpees and viola, problem solved.
  • Isometrics.  Work through your upper body muscle groups and see how many you can isometrically flex at one time.  I’ll bring my hands in towards my chest and squeeze chest, shoulders, and biceps, then extend the arms and focus on triceps and my back.  This is a very quick, intense spike if you contract hard enough because of the blood flow these otherwise relaxing muscle groups are suddenly demanding.

Using these tricks you should have no problem keeping your heart rate in the right zone.  One of the biggest changes you can make to that end as well is ditching whatever book you’re reading and listen to some music instead.

Try out some of these tricks and let me know what you think!

About Darin Starr

Darin is an ACSM certified trainer in Asheville, North Carolina. He works with clients 1-on-1, with partners and small groups, and also teaches group fitness classes.
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  • Chrisk121

    I’ve got a question about cardio. I had a fitness eval done. Basically the old YMCA style. And I was told to stay between 154-166. Which is much higher than this formula. Is this ok?

    • Darin Starr

      Hey Chris – if you’re 30 (generic assumption), that puts you at about 85% of your age-predicted max. If your goal is to train for endurance, that’s great. Very difficult to sustain that for long and it’s less useful for weight loss, which is where working at a lower intensity or doing interval training would reign supreme.

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