For decades, women have been sold the “cardio only” pitch as the Holy Grail to getting the bodies we want. From aerobics classes to spinning—we’ve been told that doing hours of cardio every week is the key to a trim physique.
In just the last decade, however, we’ve seen a major backlash from the strength training community, demonizing endurance cardio and insisting that interval training is all you need for the physique and health you desire. Some even say that strength training is all you need.
So who’s right? Can you spin your way to your dream body? Or should you shy away from the bike and treadmill, and stick with the barbell and plates?
Would you believe us if we told you that they’re both (half) right? It’s true.
It’s not exactly sexy, but balance is the key to success when it comes to cardio — depending on your goals and how much time you have to devote to training, that is.
If you have a limited amount of time to train, say for example, 45 to 60 minutes, a couple of times a week, then we recommend prioritizing strength training, with possibly a quick, high-intensity interval training session or moderate-intensity cardio session at the end, and you’re done. However, if you have more time to devote to working out, then adding in a little more cardio can also be beneficial.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) vs. Moderate Intensity Cardio (MIC)
Before we go further, let’s define “high-intensity interval training” and “moderate-intensity cardio.” (Please keep in mind that this is an incredibly complex subject, so we’re giving you the 30,000-foot-view with only the need-to-know facts).
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is generally defined as an activity performed with very intense periods of work followed by periods of rest, performed for multiple sets or rounds. Hill sprints would be a good example of high-intensity interval training. On a perceived effort scale of 1 to 10, 1 being sleeping or watching TV, and 10 being maximum physical effort, your perceived effort should be an 8 to 10 during work periods (depending on how experienced you are), and a 4 to 6 during rest periods.
Moderate-intensity cardio (MIC), for our purposes, is any activity that keeps your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute, or falls approximately in the range of 6 to 7 on the perceived effort scale mentioned above.
Many people think of running or putting in 30 minutes on the elliptical as an example of moderate intensity cardio. While this is technically true, you can do any activity that keeps your heart rate in that 120 to 140 range. Of course, if you love running, who are we to make you stop? Just keep in mind that as “simple” as running seems, it’s an extremely advanced exercise that’s repetitive and high-impact. If it’s not done with great form, your likelihood of injury increases significantly (just like with lifting weights).
Check Your Heart Rate
So, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor, how do you know if your heart rate is in the 120 to 140 range? It’s easier than you think!
Place two fingers on the side of your neck and find your pulse. Start taking your pulse while looking at a clock or stopwatch. Your heart rate should be 20 to 23 beats in a 10-second period, because that would be 120 to 138 beats in a 60-second period.
Take this a couple of times during the rest periods of your workout to monitor your heart rate. If you don’t have a stopwatch handy, think of this as a perceived effort of 6 to 7, on that 1-10 effort scale described above. You should be breathing heavily, find some difficulty in holding a conversation (speaking just a few words or a sentence at a time), and on the verge of becoming uncomfortable.
Benefits Of HIIT And MIC
HIIT can be an effective method for burning a lot of calories quickly. In addition, for years, it was widely accepted that due to its intense nature, HIIT creates more of a metabolic disturbance than moderate-intensity cardio, leading to a large “after-burn” effect, also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC.
That is, after you perform an intense HIIT session, your body expends a lot of calories bringing all of your systems back to normal so you’re not just burning calories while you’re performing HIIT, but afterwards as well. However, more recent research has declared that the afterburn effects of HIIT are much smaller than once believed. HIIT can be performed immediately after your strength training workout, or on a separate day from strength training.
Moderate-intensity cardio is also important because it helps you build a solid aerobic base, which is critical to performing your best. Moreover, numerous studies has proven that low-to-moderate intensities of cardiovascular exercise 3-5 days per week for 30-50 minutes are sufficient to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Having a solid aerobic base allows you to recover more quickly during your strength training and HIIT sessions, allowing you to lift more weight for more reps and go harder during the “intense work” portion of your HIIT sessions. It also allows you to recover more quickly between workouts, so you feel fresher every time you step foot in the gym.
What’s more, moderate-intensity cardio helps increases parasympathetic drive.
To put it simply, it switches on your “rest and digest” nervous system allowing you to chill out and relax a bit. Most of us walk around in a sympathetic nervous system-dominant state (“fight or flight”) most of the day. It can be very hard to relax, and even harder for our body to recover since it’s always in this low-level panic mode.
Moderate-intensity cardio can be performed immediately after your strength training workout, or on a separate day from strength training.
Balancing Strength Training And Cardio
Of course, your workout plan should be individualized based on your specific goal, but we’ve found that most women, at their core, have the same goals. They want to look good, feel good, and feel healthy and strong.
In our experience, the best way to achieve this goal, is a balanced workout plan consisting of:
- 2-4 days a week of strength training
- 1-2 days a week of HIIT (high intensity interval training)
- 1-2 days a week of MIC (moderate intensity cardio)
- Restorative activity whenever possible
This workout plan should also fit into your schedule, and of course, it should be enjoyable for you.