One subject that’s super important, but doesn’t always get a lot of love on this blog is cardio. I’m going to tell you how to make progress, how to track your progress, and what to do when progress stalls.
We’re going to use two different kinds of cardio as examples: Running and Kettlebell Swings.
This blog is going to be super dense with information. It isn’t going to be the most entertaining blog ever, but I’m going to give you a really clear understanding of exactly what to do, and a total cardio plan. I got to thinking about this because I’m raising money for the Denver Heart Walk. I hope if you get a really amazing plan from this blog, you might consider donating a few dollars to the American Heart Association.
Three Cardio Variables
1.) Volume (how much total work per workout)
2.) Density (work per minute, or how fast work is getting done)
3.) Quality (is movement getting better?)
This is an important variable to talk about, ’cause for most girls and dudes in the gym, it’s the ONLY one they ever think of. The only things they ever think are about if they can do more, or more often.
Now, steady state cardio isn’t the Holy Grail of fat loss – I think the last 20 years of people in the gym have established that. But that being said, we often find some of the extremely leanest and hottest people ever doing tons of long, steady cardio, what gives?
Long, slow cardio (or volume cardio) actually can totally work, IF you are getting stronger in your strength training. Said in reverse – if your strength training is on point, long slow cardio totally works.
Running Volume Cardio Workouts
With running, it’s pretty simple – total miles per workout. You should also track total miles per week.
Volume workouts are going to be slower in pace. The main thing you are working on is total mileage, not necessarily how fast you ran those miles.
You never want to increase your total miles per week more than 10%.
And usually, when you are working on volume, you want to do a three weeks up (increasing by 10%) followed by one week down (drop 10-30%).
While we would love for our volume of work to just shoot up every week forever, the reality is that the body REQUIRES rest weeks to continue making progress).
Kettlebell Volume Cardio Workouts
It’s pretty simple here too – total kettlebell swings per workout. And like running, you could also track your total kettlebell swings per week.
When doing volume kettlebell swing workouts, feel free to rest as much as you want between sets. The main thing you are training is total reps per workout – not how fast you can do those reps.
Again, I wouldn’t up the total volume more than 10% in a week.
This is the newest rage in cutting edge fat loss programs. ‘Course I’ve been talking about it for about 7 years, but that’s neither here nor there =)
It’s pretty simple – if there is a container for the work (like time, distance, or total work) then how fast can can we do that work?
Every measure of cardiovascular health prioritizes density cardio over volume cardio: “Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is widely accepted as the single best measure of cardiovascular fitness and maximal aerobic power.”
-Thomas E. Hyde and Marianne S. Gengenbach, Conservative Management of Sports Injuries (2nd ed; Sudbury, Mass.: Jones & Bartlett, 2007), 845.
We know that density cardio is awesome for getting fat loss results with less time in the gym, so lets take a look.
Running Density Cardio Workouts
It could look one of two ways:
1.) How many miles can I run in 20 minutes?
2.) How fast can I run 3 miles?
Either way, the emphasis is on faster work. If volume runing workouts are total mileage per workout, density running workouts are about pace – how fast per mile.
Kettlebell Density Cardio Workouts
Two ways to look at the density of a kettlebell swing workout:
1.) How many swings per minute?
2.) What weight kettlebell did I use?
So if you took a time frame like 20 minutes, and averaged 20 swings per minute on week 1. Then five weeks later you were averaging 35 swings per minute, you know that your cardiovascular fitness drastically improved.
The other way would be if on your first workout you did 20 swings per minute with an 18lb kettlebell, then on week five you were doing the same 20 swings per minute with a 26lb kettlebell, you would also know that your cardiovascular fitness improved.
If you ever needed to reconcile between the two variables, it’s pretty simple – how much weight did you move per minute.
(weight of the kettlebell x total reps) ÷ number of minutes in workout
Cardio Workout Quality
Wow, if ever there was a “lost” variable in cardio, this would be it.
With all the focus on just banging away at more or faster, quality is usually the first thing to suffer.
The bummer here is that if quality suffers, eventually you start get nagging pains and eventually injury (just ask any recreational runner).
I would say that if you are over 30 years old, one of the MOST IMPORTANT elements of your fat loss program is not hurting yourself. It sounds overly simplistic – but if you follow a good program and you don’t get hurt, you’ll make great progress.
Running Cardio Workout Quality
For all of my achievements as a high school runner (4:26 mile, thanks), I was never a very efficient runner. Because my stride sucked, I got hurt almost every season. And this was at 135lbs of bodyweight. If I was that skinny and that young and still getting over-use injuries and tendonitis, then I worry for people who have a few pounds to lose, are over 30, and are running.
I’m no expert on running form, but I hear there are a lot of great books on the subject.
If you do a lot of running for cardio, you owe it to yourself to get a book (or even a coach) and actually practice better running form.
One thing I do know – the quieter your running, the better. If you’re smacking hard on the ground, that’s always bad. Always work on running lighter, and with less tension.
Kettebell Swing Workout Quality
I did a series of blog posts on kettlebell swing form:
The quality of your swing form is actually more important than either the volume or the density of your workouts.
ALWAYS make sure you are doing it right before you do more or faster.
Putting It All Together
For fat loss, alternate between:
3-4 weeks of Volume Workouts
3-4 weeks of Density Workouts
*Never increase volume or density without first increasing quality
For cardiovascular fitness, do:
Monday: Volume Workout
Wednesday: Density Workout
Friday: Quality Practice
You won’t have to worry about plateauing or stalling out on progress if you are alternating phases of Volume and Density. For the folks that are doing Volume and Density in the same week, if you stall I’d have you switch to the other plan and work just Volume for a month, then just Density for a month, and then come back to the three day per week plan.
Also, one thing I always check is whether or not you’ve been doing your rest week. When people are constantly pushing and never have a rest week, progress eventually stalls. If you’ve run yourself into the ground, the fix to that is simple: add in a week where you cut the volume in half (half the mileage, half the swings, ect). Then enjoy it. Rest. Work on quality.
And it’s actually that simple. I know I’m going to get the question “What if I want both, cardiovascular fitness AND fat loss?!” and the answer is that you will actually get both with both of these plans.
I’ve just prioritized what’s most important with each one. For fat loss, you get more out of the jarring changes in phases. For cardio fitness, you get to maintain more qualities (speed and duration) by working on them every week.
If you liked this blog, and got a good running plan or kettlebell cardio plan from it, I hope you’ll consider donating to American Heart Association through the Denver Heart Walk.
The American Heart Association is all about fighting cardiovascular disease and disability through physical activity, nutrition, weight management, and getting non-athlete kids to learn to enjoy physical activity early on.
Josh Hillis, RKC2, CPT, PES, ZMIS