Foundation Series: Training – What you need to know about cardio

“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear”

Buddha

Often those who are trying to improve their body composition (i.e lose fat, gain muscle and looking good naked) use lots of cardiovascular “cardio” activity to try and achieve this. This type of training is generally referred to as ‘conditioning’ as you are conditioning the heart, lungs and muscles to adapt and work at high intensity or for long durations of time. This does burn calories (during the workout)  and is hard work, but to improve your body composition you don’t need to do endless conditioning work as it can, in fact, be the limiting factor to your progress.

Typically when we do cardio or conditioning training we either do steady-state continuous exercise or we do interval training which involves working as hard as you can for a set time followed by a rest period. Both of which provide great adaptations to get fitter but neither are the best approach for improving body composition.

Role of Interval Training

Interval training can be part of a good training program, but it is important to understand how much to do (volume), how often (frequency) and how hard (intensity)

With body composition in mind, adding in some interval work 1-2 times per week can be a good frequency. For example at the end of your resistance training sessions, you could do 1 to 6 sets of a 20 or 30 or 60 or 120 or 180-second sprint on a Wattbike, Assault Bike or Spin Bike with 90-120 seconds of rest all depending on what your current phase of training is will determine what recovery you get. This would help body composition and condition the heart and lungs to keep you fit, but is also not overkill. 

I like to bring interval training on early on with my female clients, as females best respond to volume. With my male’s clients, I like using it as a finisher on the lower body workouts. As males, best respond to intensity. 

Too Much Conditioning?

The main issue with too much conditioning is the stress it can place on the body, particularly if it is high frequency and high intensity. When the body is stressed a hormone called cortisol is released and this can impair our ability to lose fat. Similarly, the levels of testosterone compared to the levels of cortisol is referred to as the T:C ratio, the more testosterone we have the more strength and muscle mass we likely have. Excessive conditioning can potentially reduce testosterone, increase cortisol and thus impair our body composition. 

In terms of body composition goals, too much conditioning would be determined by your recovery and skinfold measurements. With these measurements, you will be able to determine how much time spend if any is need on cardio work. Condition is the ability to repeat a certain load with minimal fatigue. Conditioning needs to be sustainable and if not, take a step back on things and see which are most important towards your body composition. 

What is most important for body composition?

For body composition weight training rules supreme. Resistance training will develop muscle tissue, develop strength, improve your metabolism, help your immune system and boost your hormonal profile. So there are numerous benefits to weight training which conditioning just doesn’t provide for body composition goals. 

Also, the stress and cortisol response will likely not be as high or as sustained from a weight training session compared to an intense conditioning session. Most people will agree that being heavily out of breath and working as hard as possible is much more stressful than doing multiple sets of 6-8 reps. This is often overlooked. 

Resistance Training Conditioning
Increased strength High metabolic cost during training (calories burned)
Increased muscle mass Heart adaptations (stronger heart pump)
Improved metabolism (calories burned) Respiratory adaptations (to utilise oxygen)
Improved anabolic hormone profile
Increased bone strength
  This shows basic adaptations between weight training and conditioning, whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it does show the main benefits to each and that type of training which will have a greater effect on your body will be the weight training. 

Conclusion

Conditioning can be part of a good program, but the devil is in the detail. The more you do the more you risk hindering your body composition goals through a less optimal situation with stress and hormones. However, if you are required to be very fit (i.e for sport or for your job…such as in the emergency services) then there is more of a need to have a structured conditioning plan for your needs. Future articles can expand on this in greater depth and explain how to program conditioning over the longer term and also the types of conditioning you can include and why they may be beneficial.

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Roan Author

About the author

Roan Heming is the founder of Human Performance Hub, as well as a Certified Personal Trainer, Coach and Fitness Nutrition Educator, and qualified chef based in Buckinghamshire, UK.

Roan is passionate about helping people improve their health and performance goals. Human Performance Hub is a labour of love because, from personal experience, Roan knows the right supplements work wonders and can mean all the difference for good health.

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Further Reading

  1. Foundation Series: Weight Training (even at Home)
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