You already have a ton of people who would rather chew their leg off than do cardio.
They’ll bench, squat, and kettlebell their way to fitness so long as they don’t have to put in any cardio work along the way (or as little as possible).
Those people are doing it wrong.
Cardio can not only be fun, but it’s a critical part of your overall health, and brings benefits that are sorely lacking in strength training-exclusive regimens.
In this guide to cardio, I’m going to break down all of the main ways that you can perform cardio, and go over a heap of cardio exercises that make the world of difference.
Before we do that, we’re going to go over the science-backed information that sustains the claim of cardio being not only good for you, but necessary for longevity and a healthy life.
I’m a transparent kind of guy, so with that, we’re also going to go over the cautionary tales about overdoing it, and how to find a balance with it.
- The Science Behind Cardiovascular Exercise
- Anaerobic vs Aerobic Exercises
- 14 Best Cardio Workouts for Effective Training
- How to Use All of These Cardio Moves?
- How Much Cardio Should You Do?
- Sleep is the Most Important Part of Recovering from Cardio Exercise
- Everything is a Balance
The Science Behind Cardiovascular Exercise
Cardio exercise is designed to aid your cardiovascular system, which is responsible for pumping blood to and from your heart, moving oxygen and nutrients through your blood, and what controls the flow of life to all of your vital organs.
Maintaining proper cardiovascular health is imperative for longevity, improved quality of life, and maintaining basic function over your body and organs.
We know how important it is, but now, we’re going to break down what cardio exercise does for it, and how you can continue to improve your cardiovascular health with a solid cardio regimen.
- Cardio exercise works effectively to combat the effects of high cholesterol. Cholesterol is associated with something that your blood produces, which is called LDL. When high levels of LDL move through your bloodstream, as a direct result of the foods you eat, it can stick like plaque to the walls of your veins and the exterior of your heart. While your body naturally cleans LDL from your circulatory system, cardio exercise expedites this process and improves its efficiency, removing more LDL from your blood than remaining sedentary possibly could.
- Through cardiovascular exercise, you are able to burn more calories than you would with standard day-to-day movements and motions. Calories are stored units of energy that typically cling to fat cells located in the body. These increase over time and a lack of exercise to increase your weight, adding pressure to your circulatory system as well as the blood flow to and from your vital organs. Cardiovascular exercise forces the body to take nutrients from stored fat cells and use them, reducing your weight and the strain on your circulatory system.
- By the process of physiological cardiac growth as a result of cardio exercise, the cardiac cellular and molecular structure of your heart changes to pump blood more efficiently. This improves the cell-by-cell makeup of your heart, optimizing it to its most healthy form.
- You can permanently increase your lung capacity (not just during exercise) by performing consistent cardiovascular exercises. On average, the human body will intake about 12 liters of air every single minute into the lungs. Because your lungs work directly with your heart by supplying it with oxygen, cardio exercise demands more from the lungs because of your increased blood flow and requirement for oxygen, pulling in an effective 100 liters of air per minute. This increase in air flow works out every available area of your lungs to intake as much oxygen as possible. So long as this isn’t abused repeatedly over the course of numerous hours, your lungs then rebuild and restructure with the expectation of using these tissue areas, working them all at the same time when you breathe normally.
- Cardio exercise will also reduce your risk of diabetes, and in some instances, make some symptoms of diabetes go away entirely due to weight loss. With additional strain on your body, your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin as well as it should. This can commonly be referred to as insulin resistance, which can be mistaken for actual diabetes (and can also lead to actual diabetes as well).
- Cardio workouts also help improve your mental state, which can reduce stress-inducing hormones in the brain. When you feel stressed out and think it’s all in your head, that tight feeling in the back of your brain (you know exactly what I’m talking about) is actually the physical manifestation of stress taking its toll on your body. Cardio exercise commonly reduces these symptoms of stress by ramping up production of serotonin in your brain, which can combat stress and even help fight against the symptoms of depression.
- Increases overall endurance levels. While there’s no clear-cut test for this, apart from adrenal gland screening, your stamina or endurance levels are used up a lot more when you have extra weight that could be shed with cardio exercise. The heavier you are, the more calories you expunge moving around every single day. This might sound like a good thing, but your body does most of its repairs and maintenance when you’re sleeping, so it’s just a guaranteed way to tire yourself out early in the morning and have little to no energy for the rest of the day.
Anaerobic vs Aerobic Exercises
Consider aerobic exercises to be dynamic movements at moderate intensity, performed over a long period of time.
The opposite of that, being anaerobic exercises, are short, quick bursts of exercise in small time blocks with breaks in the middle, similar to HIIT.
To put it plainly, aerobic exercises come with less risks and are more sustainable for long-term calorie burning, weight loss, and are generally more enjoyable to perform.
Anaerobic exercises might be difficult to perform, and very taxing on your respiratory system and heart, though you do save time doing them.
14 Best Cardio Workouts for Effective Training
1. Jumping Rope
Who didn’t love doing this as a kid?
We’re not children anymore, but jump rope is very much still a thing that we should all be doing.
Jumping rope can help you cut calories, enhance your lung capacity, and work out with dynamic movements that would otherwise elude you in different exercises.
Jumping rope is an excellent thing to include in a HIIT or VIIT training program.
You can use it to pass one or two minutes in between more intense elements of your workout plan.
On its own, jumping rope is pretty fun, and works well to maintain a steady and rapid heart rate.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even stow a jump rope with you when you go out on a run, and jump rope when you get to your destination as a way to enter a cooldown.
Because of its versatility, and technically being a piece of cardio gear that’s ultralight and portable, it’s one of the most effective cardio workouts you can do.
Whether you’re cycling out in the great outdoors or you’re in on a spin bike, cycling has proven to be one of the most effective ways to burn major amounts of calories through high intensity cardio training.
On a moderate to high intensity level, you can burn 700 to 900 calories on a spin bike in sixty minutes.
Depending on what type of indoor bike you choose, you can also engage your biceps, triceps, lower lumbar, glutes, thighs and calf muscles, while putting in a little bit of work on your lower abdominal muscles at the same time.
If you don’t already own an indoor bike, you should get one for those rainy days where you won’t be bringing your cycle out.
Indoors bikes are also a great way to save time while getting in quality cardio work, because there’s no travel or distance; you’re right where you need to be from start to finish.
Running is a bit of a double-edged sword. When it comes to impact, it’s extremely high and can cause long-term damage, even if you’re in a proper BMI and have running experience.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, you can still incur damage. Later on, when we talk about swimming, it’s basically the polar opposite of running (zero impact).
It’s a very difficult thing to balance, but it can be beneficial if you balance it properly.
High impact, high reward: you can cause a lot of damage to your joints and muscles, but you can also burn as many calories as cycling.
On average, you can cut about 600-800 calories from a good one-hour run, but with a price.
Rowing machines give you the ability to perform a full-body workout, and gives you a ton of cardio benefits at the same time.
When you row, you’re pulling and pushing muscles and engaging them in a different way than what you normally would.
Rowing counts as a full-body exercise that plenty of bodybuilders do, most of whom don’t know that it’s actually providing one of the best cardio exercises that they’re ever going to get.
With rowing, you can work out 7 to 10 different muscle groups all in one motion.
You can either do this with actual rowing, or you can work it into your training regimen and benefit from it that way.
Rowing machines give you the option to apply other intervals of different training in tandem, so you know you’re getting the best possible cardio workout that you can.
5. Running in Place
It may seem a bit tedious or a bit aggravating to do at first, but once you count your paces and get into it, running in place isn’t so bad.
It’s an excellent cardio workout that you can literally do anywhere, anytime, no matter what.
There isn’t much variation here, so if you’re finding that this is getting rather boring, you can switch to the next stop on our list: jumping jacks.
Just keep in mind that these, jumping jacks, and knee highs are all excellent to put in between other workouts in VIIT or HIIT.
6. Jumping Jacks
You probably still remember these from the earlier years of school.
While jumping jacks aren’t going to take you all the way in your fitness journey, they’re excellent in-betweens that get your heart pumping, and help stretch out your limbs in non-static ways that would otherwise lead to potential harm.
You only need about thirty seconds of jumping jacks to really start feeling the cardio surge within, which is what’s so great about them.
It’s another example of doing cardio any time, any place, and this one doesn’t require any equipment at all.
7. Table Jumps
Table jumps are one of those aspects of cardio exercises that take a lot out of you, but also give you just as much at the same time.
For these, you put both hands in front of you with your elbows bent, and hold them steady.
In front of you, there will be a step or a hard surface at least 12” higher than where you’re standing.
Keeping your arms locked, you bend your knees and jump up onto the surface in front of you. While keeping that same position, you jump backwards and get back down.
Repeat this as many times as you see fit until there’s progress, and you can maintain this for a short burst of time without fail.
8. Knee Highs
Knee highs are a common activity that you perform in calisthenics or high intensity interval training.
Standing still, you pull your knees up into the air so that they’re level with your lower abdomen. Alternate between left and right and try to pick up speed when possible.
The key to doing these effectively is maintaining a good center of gravity.
You can hold our a double-handed fit in front of you, about eight inches away from your chest, to help balance while doing these.
If you start jittering around and ending up sliding to the side, you’re not doing them properly.
Like many cardio exercises, form is everything, and once you get that down pat you’ll be able to add whatever level of intensity you want to this.
You can include knee highs into your VIIT training for one or two minute intervals at a time, gradually working up to higher intensity and longer intervals.
It’s not uncommon to only dedicate about 30-45 seconds to each set before you let your legs rest.
Because of the way you have them positioned, you should break often so you don’t get lightheaded towards the end.
This isn’t something that you should ever do for too long. You want a good balance with moderate intensity for no more than two minutes at a time.
Breaking in the middle is going to help you feel your best without straining your system.
When your blood pressure is elevated—which it will be during knee highs—you’re going to feel like you’re king of the world.
Roll backs sound just like what you would expect them to actually be.
You have an exercise mat behind you, and you lean on your back, coming into a roll, and kick your feet up in the air.
When you do this, you keep them nice and steady, and make the kicking motion very stretched-out and long.
After this point, you bring your legs in a bit, and re-roll forward so you’re not on your back so much.
Then you simply go into another roll and do it all over again. These are good one to two minute in-betweens when you’re trying to get in some more serious, dynamic cardio.
You put both hands on your hips, and this one is all about the legs, and the resistance of your upper body.
You lean in as much as you can on one leg, balancing as you go and keeping your posture nice and straight, and then lean back to a full standing position.
Then you repeat everything on your other leg.
Lunges are a staple in most strength training and calisthenics workouts, as well as HIIT programs, because you’re using your entire body as a weight and resistance.
There’s no better way to train your calf muscles while engaging your core at the same time.
Swimming has nearly zero impact. It’s essentially a free workout if you do it correctly.
Because of the way your joints and muscles behave in the water, you’re not putting major strain on your knees, your wrists, or anything.
When swimming, it’s important to do laps, or at least short intervals where you get in a few solid minutes of exercise without being interrupted.
While this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, swimming would end up being your full-day, full-body workout.
You can’t exactly pair this with interval training by just getting out of the pool and hitting a treadmill for five minutes.
Time your laps, and in your own head, create intervals and different tasks you can do in the water.
If you do it properly, you’ll burn almost as many calories as using an exercise bike.
12. Jacob’s Ladder
These things are a riot. Think about a treadmill, except it’s ladder rungs.
A Jacob’s ladder is a very complex piece of cardio workout gear that just keeps bringing these rungs towards you on a constant basis.
They feed in through the bottom of a machine that’s tilted at a 45° angle, and come out on top.
The great thing is that these only work with the intensity that you’re applying.
If you want it to go slow, just go slow; they commonly feature air resistance settings that allow you to work off of your own resistance.
I will say, these are pretty easy to use at first, but eventually the resistance can get intense. These work out your glutes as well as your calf, thigh and back muscles.
While you’re using your arms here, it’s mostly just to hold on while your legs do most of the work. These build up quite a sweat and get your heart pumping.
13. Mountain Climbers
These are full-body workouts that come under the guise of cardio. You’re going to feel the burn just about everywhere, so I apologize in advance.
To do a mountain climber, you’re going to get down into a push-up position. Extend your arms so that your body is upright, with a very slight bend to your elbows.
From there, you’re not going to push up or lower your body: you’re going to hold it nice and tight, and bring one knee up towards your arms, stopping when it’s comfortable to do so. Then you alternate to the other leg.
These are usually done in VIIT workouts, where you’re not going completely mental on them, but you’re including them in a well-balanced workout regimen.
You can take these slow if you want depending on the level of intensity that you’ve predetermined for your workout, which is what makes them so great.
14. Squat Jumps
I put these down here, because you’re not going to like me for suggesting them.
Squat jumps start out with you being completely straight and standing with your shoulders squared.
You raise both of your arms to the ceiling extending those fingers, and then you jump up into the air.
When you come down, you lower the impact by bending your knees while you bring your straightened arms down behind you.
You go into a full squat, and spring back up into another jump.
These are labor-intensive, and work out your glute muscles while also being effective at targeting your calf muscles as well as your lower abdomen.
They’re going to be intense at first, but you’ll get the hang of them after a while.
If you’re looking to upgrade at some point, you can do running squat jumps, where you land a bit forward each time (while maintaining proper form) and continually move forward with each jump.
How to Use All of These Cardio Moves?
I don’t think you can work all of these into a single day of working out.
If you can, you might be the next Iron Man, because it’s a lot on your body all at once.
You can find a way to incorporate all 14 of these cardio exercises into a single week’s worth of training if you really want to make a cardio cocktail, but keep in mind that because each of these are going to engage different muscle zones, you might feel sore and stiff the next day.
To use the most cardio routines and achieve excellent results, it’s important to study HIIT or VIIT cardio training.
These allow you to map out one, two, and three minute blocks of time to perform specific cardio exercises.
With this, you’re able to let your body rest in between three mini sets, and bring in tons of oxygen through your lungs.
This carries through your blood to your heart, which nourishes it right before you hit the ground running again.
Utilizing running cycling, jumping jacks, jumping rope and other aspects of cardio in a one-hour block of HIIT or VIIT can be a good thing, just don’t overdo it.
How Much Cardio Should You Do?
We know cardio is important for health, but as with anything good for you, there’s a way to overdo it.
If you do more than 90 minutes of cardio in a single day, you could encounter problems.
On average, you should get around 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate intensity cardio exercise in any given week.
However, plenty of people do 90 minute sessions five days a week, which equals about seven hours, and they are okay.
That’s at moderate intensity, and allowing two days for rest in between all of this exercise.
If you’re just looking to lose a little bit of weight, you can get away with 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio five days a week, and still see results on the scale, they just won’t be as slow.
As always, exercise with caution so you don’t overdo it and strain your body.
Failing to listen to your body can bring on cases of extreme fatigue, which could be extremely limiting in your everyday life.
These symptoms include unexplained fatigue, generally feeling sleepy, potential fever, short-term memory loss, feelings of depression and anxiety, and more.
You can basically overwork your heart and cardiovascular system to the point that it’s just uncomfortable to continue going on as a person.
You’re putting too much strain on your system without giving it time to rest and recover.
Speaking of which, before we wrap things up in this ultimate guide, I want to talk to you about the importance of sleep, and why you’re probably not getting enough of it.
Sleep is the Most Important Part of Recovering from Cardio Exercise
Not sleeping well has been linked directly to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems later in life.
It’s a common fact that men and women don’t brag about how much sleep they received in our overworked, crazy world—we all brag about how much sleep we didn’t get, as if it’s some sort of symbol or merit.
Adults who sleep less than seven hours a night stand at an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
If you’re getting excellent cardio exercise in, you also need to be sleeping at least seven or eight hours a night to really reap the rewards.
Otherwise you could actually be doing more damage to your body.
Thankfully, exercise lunges energy from your body, and sends signals to your brain that tell you it’s time to get some rest for the night.
It can make it easier to fall asleep in a distraction-filled area (like having your phone next to you bed), and help you stay asleep longer, hitting that REM sleep that’s so important for your brain health and cardiovascular system.
Everything is a Balance
Cardio needs to go hand-in-hand with strength training if you want a well-balanced physique at the end of the day.
Balancing different types of cardio, while keeping everything fresh, is all important.
Your physical fitness is an investment in time: you’re guaranteeing yourself more time later for a little bit of time spent now, but it’s still important to keep things interesting so you can maximize your enjoyment during all cardio exercise now, and in the future.