Understanding Cardio

Mission Statement
About Me
Taylored Nutrition Programs
Rehab Clinic
Client Results
Past Articles Section
Pro Shop

Understanding Cardio


A few things come to mind when you mention the word cardio. Some people cringe, some people salivate like a dog with a plate of food, and some people just avoid the subject. No matter how you look at it though cardio stirs some sort of reaction in anyone that has even just thought about working out. For most people cardio is like parts of a car engine. They know it helps things work but don’t really understand how or why. In this three part article we will look at what cardio is, some types of cardio, and ways to improve your cardio training.

Cardio simply put is the nickname for cardiovascular training. Cardio refers to types of exercise that involves or improves oxygen uptake by the body. It also means you are involved in an activity that raises your heart rate to a level that you are working within your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is the maximum number of times your heart can beat in a minute. Maximum heart rates are great tools to figure out training intensities, because they can be individually determined. By knowing your maximum heart rate you can determine what is called your target heart rate zone. Your target heart rate zone guides your workout by keeping your intensity levels between upper and lower heart rate limits. Once you know these intensity levels you can use them to alter your cardiovascular training to better suit your exercise goals. You can use these various levels to:

  • Maintain a healthy heart
  • Lose weight/ burn fat
  • Increase endurance
  • Maintain fitness
  • Maintain or improve athletic conditioning


*Find your target heart rate (click here)



Why is cardio training important? Cardio training is important for a number of reasons:

  • It makes your heart stronger so you do not have to work as hard to pump blood
  • It increases lung capacity
  • It helps reduce the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
  • It reduces stress
  • It helps put oxygen in your muscles
  • It helps remove toxins from the body
  • It boost metabolism
  • It can help you control bodyweight and reduce fat


Along with these benefits cardio has a host of other benefits also. Just remember like everything else, too much of a good thing can also be bad. Now that we understand cardio a little better, what type of things can we do to have a good cardio work out? In the next part we will look at types of cardio and their benefits.

Earlier we talked about the basics of cardio and some of its benefits, now let’s look at some types of cardio. Remember cardio is basically defined as any activity that raises your heart rate to a level that you are working within your maximum heart rate. There are so many things that you can do, you should easily be able to find something you enjoy. With a huge variety of choices, monotony and boredom should never be issues. If you’re a outdoors type person, running, cycling, hiking, playing sports or walking are all great choices. Walking or jogging with your dog, can also have great cardio benefits for the both of you. If you’re more of a gym rat like me, there usually is a wide variety of equipment for cardiovascular work. Stationary bikes, treadmills, elliptical machines, stair masters, step mills, and row machines are all excellent choices for cardio .A lot of these machines have added benefits because they can be adjusted to work in specific heart rates, hit certain body parts, work at certain elevations, and or certain intensity levels. Don’t like any of those choices, try one of your gym’s cardio or aerobic classes. With so many choices you would never have to do the same activity more than once a week if you did not want to. If you do not like something do not force yourself to do it. The true key to making cardio work is finding something you enjoy and making it work for you. Just about anything you do is acceptable long as you get up in your target heart rate zone.


Now that we have a variety of things that we can do, let’s look at some general cardio guidelines:


  • Always try to work within your target heart rate zone.
  • Learn to work within your capacity and not someone elses.
  • The best cardio workout is the one you actually do!!!!
  • To maintain your current fitness level, do cardio 2-3 days a week for at least 20 minutes a session.
  • To lose weight, do cardio 4 or more days a week for at least 30 minutes a session.
  • Do not do more than 60 minutes of cardio per session after 60 minutes cardio becomes catabolic.


In the next session we will look at ways to fine tune your cardio to be more beneficial to your goals. A few things we have determined so far is cardio is good for you, everyone should do some cardio, and it has a host of benefits for your body. The one thing we have not touched on though is all cardio is not created equal. Different ways of doing cardio can provide many different benefits. Now we are going to get more in depth about fine tuning your cardio for more benefits.



Understanding working planes of movement-

Different planes of movement will provide different cardio benefits. The two planes of cardio are horizontal and vertical. Cardio on a horizontal plane is anything done on a flat surface. Walking, running, aerobics, and or playing sports are all good examples of this. Cardio on a vertical plane is anything that is elevated or going up and down. Stair Masters, Step Mills, Running hills, Wall climbing, running hills, and running stairs are all good examples of this. While both are great for your cardiovascular health there is a bit of a difference between the two. Since our bodies do not normally work on elevated or vertical planes, when we do this it causes the body to work harder. By working harder you will automatically burn more calories. Since the workload is much harder on a elevated plane you may have to decrease the intensity the more you increase the plane. I often see people elevate the treadmill up, hold on to the handles and try to sprint as fast as they can. They are holding on so tightly and moving so uncontrollably they are really not fully working. When working on elevated planes you want the movements to be as natural as if you were outdoors going up a hill on your own power. When moving on elevated planes you want to do most of the work yourself and if you have to use a ton of support  you need to lower the intensity. If you run on a treadmill, each 1 percent increases in elevation causes you to expend 4 percent more energy. Simply put the steeper the incline the more energy will be needed to work.

Moving on vertical planes also causes more explosive power. Running on an incline targets the legs a lot more. While horizontal plane movement tends to emphasize the quads more, inclined movements hit the butt and hamstrings really hard. The muscles you use to overcome inclines are almost exactly the same as the ones you use for sprinting. If you’re main cardio goal is to target the butt and hamstrings more work on elevated planes.



Understanding what heart rate works for your goal-

We now understand a little about target heart rates, but does working at different percentages of your target heart rate produce different results? The answer is a yes.

Once you determine your target heart rate you can tailor your cardio workouts better to suit your goals, by working in certain percentages of your heart rate.



*Find your target heart rate (click here)




Light Exercise

Active Rest Zone

Maintain Healthy Heart/Get Fit  Least Calories burnt

50% - 60%

Weight Management

Fat Burn Zone

Lose Weight/ Burn Fat                      Most calories burnt from fat

60% Fat Burning

60% - 70%

Aerobic Base Building

Aerobic Zone

 Increase Stamina Aerobic Endurance

Some fat burning but muscle glycogen also starts to be used

45% Fat Burning

70% - 80%

Optimal Conditioning

Anaerobic Zone

Maintain Excellent Fitness Condition 

Develops Lactic Acid System

Muscle Glycogen starts to become the primary fuel

30% Fat Burning

80% - 90%

Elite Athlete

Red Line Zone

 Maintain Superb Athletic Condition

Most calories burnt

Most Muscle Glycogen Used

15% Fat burning

More Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers used

Shortest exercise time

90% - 100%


Whether you want to be a better sprinter, improve your aerobic ability or just burn fat better, all these things can be accomplished through various levels of intensity. As shown by the chart above, depending on what percentage you want to work at can dramatically alter your fitness results.


Understanding not all cardio calories are created equally-

You now know that working in different percentages of your heart rate will yield different results but did you also know that they burn calories in a much different way also. At a lower intensity level the body is much more efficient at burning fat for fuel during cardio workouts. The best zone for this is right around 60-70 percent of your target heart rate. As you start to increase the percentage of your target heart rate you’re using you start to burn more total muscle glycogen and less total body fat. So why not avoid all high intensity training and stay in the fat burning zone if that is your goal? Well it is somewhat of a double edged sword. You burn more calories from fat in the 60-70 percent range but you burn few total calories. With higher intensity training you work a lot harder, forcing the body to burn more calories. You may burn fewer calories from fat but you would end up burning more overall calories. High intensity training works well for fat burning because you can burn more calories in much shorter amount of time. So which one is better??? Neither!!! The best one is the one that works best for you. How much better one works that the other is going to be based on how well it works for you. Based on your nutritional program, time constraints, individual needs, and just general preferences will be the determining factor on which works for you. Some people swear by high impact and some swear by low impact, the ones I have found most successful are the ones that do something no matter if it’s high, low, or both.


Understanding cardio is only as evil as you make it-

Some people swear cardio is the most evil thing invented to man. The question is why? Is it the cardio or what you’re doing for cardio. With the vast array of things you can do and the many pieces of equipment you can use why should cardio be viewed as torturous. If you don’t like doing things like the treadmill, then do not slave away for hours on one. You can get outside, swim, run, or even a pick up game of basketball.

“Well I don’t like cardio because when I do it I have to do it for hours at a time!!!” Well honestly you should not be doing that much cardio anyway. You want shorter more intense cardio workout look into things like high intensity training methods. People should and need to understand lots of cardio will not make up for poor nutritional and life practices. Cardio should be a tool to help you towards your goals and not a crutch to aid your bad habits.


No matter what your goal is or what type of cardio you like or do not like with a little planning and focus you can make cardio a handy tool to use toward your fitness goals.