What Actually Is “Cardio Training”?

There are many overused words and phrases in the gym.  If you have ever spent any significant time in one you know exactly what I’m talking about.  You know, stuff like “chest day”, “back day”,” bi’s and tri’s day”. But the one  that is not only vastly overused but  is also often misused is “cardio day”.  Cardio by the way stands for Cardiovascular Training.   So what the heck does cardio really mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t necessarily mean.  Aerobic does not always mean cardio.  Endurance training does not always mean cardio.  Traditional resistance training for strength or hypertrophy is very rarely cardio.  So what is cardio?  Well, to begin we need to start thinking of the heart(cardio) the way we do other muscles.  The heart is not only a muscle, it happens to be the one muscle in your body that makes you dead if it doesn’t work.  Cardiovascular health essentially means that your heart, lungs, and arteries are strong and efficient.  The more healthy and strong your cardiovascular system is means that you are able to pump more oxygenated blood from your heart,through your arteries, and out to every area of your body that needs it in order to function.  And the more healthy this system becomes the more efficient your body becomes in doing it, requiring a smaller number of heart pumps per minute to get the job done.  This is why some of the most elite athletes have such a low resting heart rate.  For the average healthy person  the average resting heart rate is about 68-75 beats per minute. Elite athletes such as triathletes, marathoners, world class cyclists and swimmers can be as low as 40 heart beats per minute.  This is because their heart is so strong that it is pumping the same amount of oxygen filled blood throughout their bodies requiring far fewer beats.

This my friends is what fitness should really be about.  The stronger your cardiovascular system is, the more able you are to prevent chronic diseases.  You know the pesky ones like coronary heart disease, hypertension(high blood pressure), diabetes, cancer, stroke, and obesity.  Most of the conditions I just mentioned are now epidemics in America, which is exactly why I train differently today.  Exercise has become a way for me to avoid sickness, gain energy, feel lighter, prevent injuries,  and live longer.  I no longer go to the gym or the park to see how good I can look in the mirror or to see how much weight I can lift or how big I can get my arms. In the long run that kind of training, unless you are a competitive athlete with supervision, actually creates long term joint injuries and does very little to actually improve your heart health.  So, what does?

Get your heart rate up and keep it up! Long slow distance running, weight training for strength and size and the such can be beneficial for people, but usually only for those  who were unhealthy and sedentary to begin with.  For them, those activities are a starting point.  As our bodies adjust they become far more efficient.  Our bodies are always striving to do things the most efficient way.  Therefore, I’m sorry to break the news to some of you but if you are getting on an elliptical machine or treadmill etc. for 30-45 minutes at an average intensity or speed a couple times a week and calling it your cardio day it’s not really doing you the good you think it is.  After you did it a couple of times your body figured out the most efficient way to get through it while conserving energy(calories).  Now, as soon as you mount that machine and get rolling into that same routine it knows exactly what you’re doing and requires very little energy to accomplish it.  Pick up the pace!  Alternate intensity!  Get your heart rate way up there and then bring it down a bit. Use different modes, don’t always do the same things. Experiment wit HIIT training.  Incorporate cardio into your weight training by lowering the weight and doing a lot more repetitions and going in 2-4 exercise cycles without stopping.  Anything that will get that heart rate up there and keep it there for a bit.  I strongly recommend that people purchase a heart rate monitor.  You can find them at any sporting goods store.  Look up the formulas for your “target heart rates” and then keep track of yourself.  This is the best way to know how hard you are actually working.  I know that a client can tell me “I’m definitely at 90% now, really”, but if the heart rate monitor says they are at 50% I can push them a little harder.  We are exercising for results after all, right?

All in all, getting at least some exercise is better than getting none.  I think we all know that.  But why not try to incorporate some things into your routine that will actually help make you more healthy, prevent disease, increase your energy, and just overall make you feel better instead of always just hitting the weights and getting “bigger”.  Just a thought.  And if you need some assistance in creating a program tailored just for you, just go to my contact page.


Brian Lamphier  CPT, ACSM, CHHC, AADP