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How Much Cardio vs. Strength Training Should I Do?

Is it OK to do cardio?
How much should I do?
What types are best?
Do I do it before or after I strength train?

We receive these questions on a daily basis from many of you in the Girls Gone Strong community, and we want to help you find the right balance of strength training and cardio that’s best for you.

Finding your personal balance of strength training workouts and cardio workouts depends largely on four things:

  • Goals
  • Ability level
  • Schedule
  • Preferences

Step 1: Identify your goals.

For most women, it’s to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong.  That type of programming is going to look different than someone who wants to run a marathon or compete in CrossFit. This article is going to focus on women who want to look and feel amazing, healthy and strong (otherwise known as, balance!)

Step 2: Be honest with yourself about your ability level.

how-much-cardio-vs-strength-molly-pushup-bench-450x338Are you new to strength training, or have you been training for a while?  If so, have you been training intelligently? Personally, I strength trained for six years before I learned how to train safely and intelligently, so don’t be too concerned about your ego here.

As a very general rule, these classifications are pretty solid.  Choose the ability level that sounds most like you.

Beginner

  • You have been strength training or exercising properly for less than a year.
  • Squat: 0 -.5x your bodyweight
  • Deadlift: 0 -.5x your bodyweight
  • Push-ups: 0 – 5
  • Chin-ups: 0 – 2

Intermediate

  • You have been strength training or exercising properly for one to three years.
  • Squat: .5x – 1x your bodyweight
  • Deadlift: .5 – 1.5x your bodyweight
  • Push-ups: 5 – 15
  • Chin-ups: 2 – 5

Advanced

  • You have been strength training or exercising properly for over three years.
  • Squat: 1x your bodyweight or more
  • Deadlift: 1.5x your bodyweight
  • Push-ups: 15+
  • Chin-ups: 5+

If you feel like this classification is incorrect for you, that’s fine. Choose the classification you think most closely describes your ability level, and if you’re wavering between two, choose the lower one just to be safe.

Step 3: Determine how much time you can devote to training each week.

It could be as few as 1-2 hours or as many as 5-6 hours. Be realistic so you can set yourself up for success.

Step 4: Don’t forget that what you enjoy doing matters.

If you don’t love lifting, but the chart says you’re supposed to do it four days a week, you might be better off just doing it twice.  Otherwise you may find yourself skipping sessions, feeling like a failure, and avoiding lifting altogether.

Today we’re going to outline how much of the following types of exercise you should do to reach your goals:

  1. Strength training
  2. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  3. Moderate Intensity Cardio (MIC)
  4. Low Intensity Steady State cardio (LISS)

First, let’s all get on the same page about what each category entails.

Strength Training

how-much-cardio-vs-strength-molly-1legRDL-450x338As a general guideline, for women who want to look and feel their best, I recommend push/pull/lower body, upper/lower, or full-body splits as opposed to body-part splits.

I usually pair 2-3 exercises together to save time, although occasionally I’ll choose one or two movements to do first by themselves so I can focus on going heavy and devote more time to recovery between sets instead of doing another exercise during that rest period.

I like to see women lifting moderate to heavy weights in the 5-12 rep range, although occasionally lifting in the 1-4 or 12-20 rep range can be very beneficial depending on your goals.

Sample Workout

Here’s a sample full-body strength training workout for an intermediate lifter:

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 1.29.16 PM

Program Notes:

  • Exercises with the same letter are performed in a superset (for example, A1 and A2 in the chart above) meaning you perform one set of the Front Squat, then move on to one set of the Lat Pull-down, then go back to the Front Squats until all sets are complete.
  • Follow the rest period recommendations listed. In this example you would rest 90 seconds between sets of Front Squats and Lat Pull-downs, and 60 seconds between sets of Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts and Push-ups.
  • Make sure you’re always challenging yourself with the weight you use, but always leave 1-2 reps “in the tank” meaning you could have done 1 to 2 more reps with good form.

High-Intensity Interval Training

how-much-cardio-vs-strength-molly-medball-327x341High intensity interval training (HIIT) is broadly defined as periods of intense work, followed by periods of rest, repeated for time or for a number of sets.

HIIT can be performed a number of ways using a number of work : rest ratios.  You can have set work : rest ratios, variable work : rest ratios, positive rest, negative rest, or any combination.

In general, the longer you have been training, and the more fit you are, the more work you can do with less rest.  Try a few combinations and see what works for you:

Set Work:Rest Ratios

15 seconds : 45 seconds (positive rest, as you rest more than you work)
20 seconds : 40 seconds (positive rest, as you rest more than you work)
30 seconds : 30 seconds (equal rest)
40 seconds : 20 seconds (negative rest, you rest less than you work)
45 seconds : 15 seconds (negative rest, you rest less than you work)

Variable Work:Rest Ratios

Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest twice as long (positive rest)
Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest exactly as long  (equal rest)
Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest half as long  (negative rest)
Work as long as it takes you complete an exercise or set of exercises: rest until your heart rate drops to 120 bpm

Sample Workout: Rope Slams and Medicine Ball Slams

This workout has variable work periods (as the amount of time that it takes to perform the slams will change as you get tired) with set rest periods (this never changes).

Equipment needed: Battling Ropes and a Medicine Ball

Instructions:

  1. Perform 20 Rope Slams
  2. Rest 30 seconds
  3. Perform 8 Medicine Ball Slams
  4. Rest 30 seconds
  5. Perform 20 Rope Slams
  6. Rest 30 seconds
  7. Perform 8 Medicine Ball Slams
  8. Rest 30 seconds
  9. Repeat until you’ve performed 10 rounds (5 rounds of Rope Slams, and 5 rounds of Medicine Ball Slams)

Moderate Intensity Cardio

how-much-cardio-vs-strength-molly-prowler-450x338When people think of moderate intensity cardio (MIC), they always think of running or plodding away on the elliptical, but there are tons of options for this type of workout.  As long as your heart rate stays in the 120-140 bpm range, you’re good to go.  This can be hiking, biking, swimming, fast-paced yoga, or circuit training.

Here is one of my favorite workouts (if you’re not wearing a heart rate monitor, simply stop and take your heart rate every few minutes during a rest period – it should be 20-25 beats in a 10 second period).

Sample Workout (Manual Labor Circuit)

Equipment needed: Weight Plate and Dumbbells
If you have access to a sled or prowler you can push that instead of a weight plate.

Instructions:

  1. Push a weight plate 20-30 yards
  2. Rest 30 seconds
  3. Perform a 30-yard Farmer’s Carry
  4. Rest 30 seconds
  5. Push a weight plate 20-30 yards
  6. Rest 30 seconds
  7. Perform a 30-yard Farmer’s Carry
  8. Rest 30 seconds (during this time, take your heart rate and ensure that it’s between 120-140 bpm. Adjust your workout accordingly as necessary to maintain this heart rate.)
  9. Repeat for 30 minutes or the amount of time you’ve allotted for your moderate intensity cardio training.

Lower Intensity Steady State Cardio

This can be any kind of leisure movement you enjoy—from walking to hiking to biking to yoga—and should be restorative, not strenuous. Your heart rate should remain below 120 bpm, and this activity should be relaxing, and not stressful to your body.

Putting It All Together

Here is a good template for women to follow in order to look and feel her best. Keep in mind that I recommend as much LISS cardio (i.e. movement) as someone has the time and desire to do each week, so I’m not including it in this chart, because the recommendations is always the same: move as often as you can.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 2.07.03 PM

Example: A beginner who has up to 2 hours a week to devote to exercise.

Sample Week

  • Monday: 40 minutes strength training
  • Tuesday: OFF
  • Wednesday: 30 minutes MIC
  • Thursday: OFF
  • Friday: 40 minutes strength training
  • Saturday: OFF
  • Sunday: OFF

TOTAL TRAINING TIME: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Example: An intermediate trainee who has up to 3.5 hours a week to devote to exercise.

Sample Week

  • Monday: 40 minutes strength training + 10 minutes HIIT
  • Tuesday: OFF
  • Wednesday: 40 minutes strength training + 30 minutes MIC
  • Thursday: OFF
  • Friday: 40 minutes strength training + 10 minutes HIIT
  • Saturday: 30 minutes MIC
  • Sunday: OFF

TOTAL TRAINING TIME: 3 hours and 20 minutes

Example: An advanced trainee who has up to 5.5 hours a week to devote to exercise.

Sample Week

  • Monday: 50 minutes strength training + 15 minutes HIIT
  • Tuesday: 50 minutes strength training + 40 minutes MIC
  • Wednesday: OFF
  • Thursday: 50 minutes strength training
  • Friday: 50 minutes strength training + 15 minutes HIIT
  • Saturday: 40 minutes  MIC
  • Sunday: OFF

TOTAL TRAINING TIME: 5 hours and 10 minutes

We hope you find this information useful for helping you figure out how to achieve balance with your training, without ending up doing too much!

 

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About The Author: Molly Galbraith

Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and woman-in-charge at Girls Gone Strong, and creator of The Coaching & Training Women Academy, home for the world's most comprehensive, evidence-based, women-specific coaching certifications. A former figure competitor and powerlifter who has dedicated the last 15 years of her life to helping women achieve their goals and feel more comfortable and at home in their bodies. Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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