Cardio and conditioning can be an arduous landscape to navigate for the everyday gym goer. There is Low Intensity Steady State cardio, High Intensity Interval Training, Circuit Training, Fasted Cardio, Cross Training… you get the picture. For someone who doesn’t know the specifics of energy systems and the adaptations that take place within them, how do we expect anyone to effectively implement them within their training regimen? When there is so much confusion and unknown surrounding conditioning and its different modalities, it becomes very easy to just ignore it altogether. Which is what most people end up doing.
Apart from endurance athletes, cardio is far down on the list of priorities for most gym goers. Those that have the goals of building muscle and/or increasing their strength look at cardio like its the IRS coming to take their gains. Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of the disconnect within the fitness community that takes place as it pertains to proper conditioning within a well-designed training program. When I was at my strongest and biggest (208 lbs), my training week consisted of 2-3 days of intensive conditioning work. Just do a google search of CrossFit athletes – cardio won’t rob you of gains. In fact, if you do it right, it will aid them.
It is my goal that by the end of this article, you will be armed with the knowledge to apply cardio practices properly and intentionally to your training that will enhance your level of fitness and accomplish your goals faster.
The first thing we need to cover is our heart rate zones. There are 5 zones that each have a different training effect. The athlete and their goal will dictate which zone they want to focus on with their conditioning workouts. Now each of the zones are not as cut-and-dry as we would like them to be. There will be some overlap from zone to zone and there will be slight variances person to person. But for a good baseline to start with, you can use the percentages below. A lot of apps and heart rate monitors that are available now will begin to personalize to your metrics as you use them over time.
Zone 1: 50-65% MHR
Zone 2: 60-75% MHR
Zone 3: 70-85% MHR
Zone 4: 85-90% MHR
Zone 5: 90% & above
Zones 4&5 will rarely be visited on a regular basis for your average everyday gym goer looking for general fitness - at least not intentionally. However, that doesn’t mean you should never push into them. It is not a bad idea to know you can get into 5th gear if needed, but unless you are an athlete needing to train in those zones regularly for your sport, save it for occasions you want to really get after it. Furthermore, you want to make sure you have built up a good foundation within a preceding zone before pushing into the one above it.
Zones 1-3 are what we will be concerned with on a weekly basis and what will constitute the majority of your conditioning regimen.
ZONE 1: The base of the pyramid. And much like the base of a pyramid, it will dictate how tall and secure the rest of your structure will be. This is lighter level exercise, thus, it can and should be done more frequently and for longer durations. If you have followed me and my content for any length of time, you know I am a huge fan of walking. I am a big proponent of walking anywhere from 30-60+ minutes every single day. This not only pushes blood through the body and helps with recovery, but it is also a great fat burning tool, thus improving body composition and tremendous for our cardiovascular health.
I always tell my clients and people I advise that this is not a grocery store walk. We are not casually strolling down the isles here. This should be a brisk walk – like you have somewhere to be. Now this is my preferred modality for Zone 1, but for others it might be a light jog, a bike ride, a rowing machine, etc. At the end of the day, your method of choice doesn’t really matter – you just must adhere to two things,
1. Your heart rate must stay within the given percentages to be classified as Zone 1. This is not intense cardio. In fact, it is also known as Low Intensity Steady State cardio (LISS). A big mistake people make is going too hard. This is also not a zone that should be used for intervals. You want to stay within the Zone 1 range for the duration of your cardio session which should be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
2. It cannot beat you down! Zone 1 should be restorative in nature. If jogging kills your knees, then don’t jog! As mentioned previously, this is a zone that should be trained often and for longer durations. This means we need to stick to methods that agree with our bodies and leave us feeling refreshed. These sessions should aid the recovery process – not take away from it.
ZONE 2: The secret weapon. Zone 2 cardio is one of the most underutilized training tools out there, and much like the middle child, is often overlooked. Zone 2 sits between the foundational Zone 1, and the ‘sexier’ Zone 3.
Zone 2 is not sexy. It’s most often boring and monotonous, - which is one of the big reasons people don’t like it. However, its benefits are anything but that! It will drastically improve your fitness, your ability to recover not only in between your workouts but also during them (once you improve your conditioning), and it has tremendous positive impact on cardiovascular health and is one of the biggest weapons in fighting things like high blood pressure.
There are options when training in Zone 2. Unlike Zone 1, you can implore different methods such as circuits and interval-based workouts. If this is what you need to do to adhere to getting Zone 2 work into your regiment, then use them. However, I have found firsthand with myself and with my clients that the steady, boring, rhythmic work yields results that other methods just can’t replicate. It is for this reason that I strongly urge everyone I work with to try and make at least one of their Zone 2 sessions each week more of this rhythmic (boring) style (rhythmic just sounds better).
This could be done the same as a lot of the Zone 1 methods, just at higher intensities to get within the requisite heart zone range (jog, bike, row, etc.). But once again, it is advised to choose methods that don’t destroy our bodies. Shooting for 20-40 minutes per session, 1-3 times per week for Zone 2 work should be the goal.
ZONE 3: Kicking it up a notch. When I said Zone 3 was ‘sexier’ I meant it in the way that it is more often what people probably envision when they think of conditioning workouts. An Instagram reel of someone spinning an elliptical for 35 minutes for their Zone 2 session probably won’t get a ton of likes. But in Zone 3 we are working in higher heartrate ranges, and as a result, we can get a little more creative with our programming to achieve this. I love employing intervals and circuits when training for Zone 3. This could look like hard intervals done on a rowing machine or fan bike with a 1:1 work to rest ratio or a circuit of 3-5 full body, low-bearing exercises (such as burpees, sled work, medicine balls, kettle bells, etc.) done in succession with enough rest at the end of each round to allow for partial recovery so the next round can be repeated.
As you work up the pyramid of heart rate training zones, the frequency of which you train them drops as they become more specific to the individual and what they are shooting for. If you primarily focused your conditioning on the first 2 zones and hit them with the recommended frequency, then you will be in great shape. Overall, Zone 3 can be done 1-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes if general fitness is the goal.
clearing up the cardio confusion
At the end of the day, what a person's training week looks like will be dictated on the training goals of the individual. For example, a person looking for general health that also likes to run 5ks and similar events on the weekends will have a different training split than someone who is looking for general health that wants to recreationally compete in CrossFit competitions. Our 5k person may choose to rarely intentionally train Zone 3, whereas our CrossFit competitor might be on the higher end of the frequency range for training that same zone.
As you can see from that example, there are countless ways to put a training week together and it would be impossible to give a blanket statement or 'one-size-fits-all' conditioning program. With that being said, here are general recommendations as to the duration and frequency of each zone. It will be up to you to experiment with the ranges of each to see what fits your schedule as well as your training goals.
Daily (as often as possible)
Zone 4 & 5
1-2 Days/Week (Typically reserved for sport specific training)
It is also impossible to give universal “Zone 2” or “Zone 3” workouts because a workout that keeps Person A in Zone 3 might put Person B into Zone 5. This is why using devices that can track your heart rate are an invaluable tool if you are looking to take your conditioning work seriously. It is also important to keep in mind that if you are resistance training on a weekly basis, then you will also be accumulating time within these training zones. Depending on the style of which you lift, you could be reaching into the higher zones during your workouts without realizing it. For example, someone that uses super sets or set extending techniques or someone like a CrossFit athlete could easily accumulate time within Zone 4 during their main lifting sessions.
Tracking your training and being accountable to having a well-rounded program is key to making sure you are covering your basis and putting yourself in the best position to succeed. If you are still unsure as to how to do this, then hiring a professional is a great way to expose yourself to what that can look like.
Whether you work with me in-person in my facility or online, your programming is taken care of 100% and all your metrics are tracked within my training software. This allows for trackable progress as well as making sure you know what you need to do in order to get better week in and week out.
At the end of the day, you need to be doing some sort of cardio within your training regiment. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in America and has been for sometime. Doing conditioning work like I laid out for you here will not detract from any lifting gains or hinder your athleticism by making you slower - it will enhance them all! Being healthy and well rounded foundationally only raises the overall ceiling potential for what you can be capable of. Hopefully this article helped clear up some of the confusion commonly associated with adding cardio to your training routine.
If you need any help, as always, I got your back.
Now que the Rocky soundtrack!
Time to grind,