Cardiovascular exercise (“Cardio” for short) is simply exercise that elevates your heartrate for an extended period of time and its more important for your general health than lifting weights. The best part is that cardio helps you lose fat, feel better, and look better! The quickest way to look like you have packed on 10lbs muscle is to lose 10lbs of fat, its a really cool bodybuilding illusion. It can take a years to add muscle but in a month you can look more muscular just by losing fat, it’s because bodyfat makes the body round and shapeless which hides the muscles.

Many people incorrectly avoid cardio thinking it will make them lose muscle or interfere with their ability to add muscle – this is a myth! Cardio does not burn muscle and in fact, it can help you gain muscle!

Cardio is a big topic and I cover it in detail here. I discuss how much cardio to do, when do cardio, how to know what is good cardio, and what type of cardio is best. I also cover how to buy cardio equipment if you need pointers on what to buy for home use. You can also watch my cardio videos if you would rather not read this information.

The Importance of Cardio

Here are some great reasons to do cardio:

  • To lose fat and look better! – want 6-pack abs? Only way is to lose fat thru cardio and proper nutrition.
  • Cardio can improve your mood and significantly reduce depression.  Its been proven by study after study, cardio can make you happier!
  • Perform better at school or work!  Daily cardio reduces mental fatigue and gives you more energy. A recent study from the U of G showed that daily cardio reduces fatigue by 65%
  • To live a longer, healthier life.
  • To help gain muscle.

Cardiovascular exercise should not be boring, if it is then you are doing something wrong!  There are many types of cardio, its not just traditional jogging! You can do interval training if you find jogging boring. You can find a team sport you love and do it with a friend or spouse and the time will fly by. If you are stuck indoors on a machine, then find a good book, listen to the radio, or watch TV – find a way to make it interesting and enjoyable.If you don’t have much time then jog to the gym, walk you kids to school, walk your dog, or start using your bike for transportation.

How much cardio?

If you are happy with your body fat percentage and just want to keep your heart healthy then follow the American Heart Association‘s guidelines and do 20 minutes of  light exercise (walking, gardening, etc) a day.  If you want to lose body fat then try and do 30-60 minutes of strenuous cardio (swimming, running, fast biking) every day. Remember, cardio will not burn muscle!

What if you just don’t have time for cardio? There are other types of cardio that require less time but they carry increased risk of injury, especially for beginners. Much better is if you can find some part of your week where you can bike or walk for transportation instead of driving.  Time sitting in traffic is not only expensive but it is a waste of time, try and find some way of biking or walking instead of driving the car.

When should you do your cardio?

There is a lot of confusion about when to do cardio, I get asked this question all the time! As many of you have heard, doing cardio before you eat in the morning burns off more calories so is that the best time? Lots believe that the right time to do cardio is before a weight workout to provide a warm up but just as many believe that the right time is afterward. Who is right? None of them! All of them!

The right time to do cardio is when you are most likely to do it! Cardio is very important and its 100x more important that you actually DO your cardio than when to do it! Lets look at some of the pros and cons of doing cardio at various times.

Doing Cardio And Weight Workouts Separately:

Its optimal to do your cardio and weight workouts completely separately, that is, with four or more hours of rest between them. This way, neither workout interferes with the other and you can give each 110% effort. For those of us who workout at home, this is easy to do. For those who go to gyms, its not as easy if you depend on the stationary equipment for your cardio because then you need to make a second trip to the gym. Now lets look at the non-optimal compromises.

Doing Cardio Before Breakfast:

Yes, studies have shown that you burn off more calories if you do cardio before breakfast, but its a lousy time to do cardio in my opinion because you wont do your cardio for nearly as long. Who can focus on cardio when your stomach is growling and you feel faint from lack of food? Not me! Besides, doing cardio before breakfast isn’t the most convenient time for most folks.

Doing Cardio Before A Weight Workout:

The fans of doing cardio before a weight workout point to its ability to help warm up your muscles to prevent injury, true it does this. For those who significantly overweight or are fitness beginners, walking or light jogging is the recommended cardio. For these people doing their walking or light jogging before their weight workout is perfect, it warms them up and doesn’t interfere with their weight workout. On the other hand, intermediate to advanced athletes need to push themselves much harder in their cardio workouts – they get their heartrate higher and keep it elevated for longer. Cardio workouts of this intensity will exhaust the body to the point where the weight workout will be lackluster at best reducing potential strength and mass gains. If you are an intermediate or advanced athlete whose time is at a premium and don’t feel its important to add more muscle mass then doing cardio before the weight workout is ok, otherwise find a better time to do cardio.

Doing Cardio After A Weight Workout:

Doing cardio after a weight workout is my personal favorite, its not optimal but its a very good use of time if you are doing your cardio at a gym because it eliminates the need for a second trip to the gym. I always find that even after an intense weight workout, I still can give cardio the intensity it needs. One thing I always do though is make sure to eat a small meal after lifting weights before starting the cardio. Meal timing is important and its important to get a meal right after weight lifting and waiting till after you do 45min of cardio, shower, and get home is too much of a delay. If you do your cardio after your weight workout, you need to find some alternative way to warm up your muscles before the weight workout, not a big deal.

What is “good cardio”?

There is a lot of confusion about cardio, its really quite simple.  Lets start with the basics.  My definition of cardio is that it elevates your heart rate to 50%-85% of your maximum and keep it there for at least 20 minutes.   What is your maximum?  Depends on your goal, your age, and your health.  If you have medical conditions, ask your doctor what is appropriate for you.  If you are in good health, you can use these charts from the AHA

Age Target HR Zone 50–85 % Avg Max Heart Rate 100 %
20 years 100–170 beats per minute 200 beats per minute
25 years 98–166 beats per minute 195 beats per minute
30 years 95–162 beats per minute 190 beats per minute
35 years 93–157 beats per minute 185 beats per minute
40 years 90–153 beats per minute 180 beats per minute
45 years 88–149 beats per minute 175 beats per minute
50 years 85–145 beats per minute 170 beats per minute
55 years 83–140 beats per minute 165 beats per minute
60 years 80–136 beats per minute 160 beats per minute
65 years 78–132 beats per minute 155 beats per minute
70 years 75–128 beats per minute 150 beats per minute


Source: American Heart Association

People often say their weight lifting workouts are exhausting and ask if they count as cardio. No! (The one exception is hybrid workouts) – lets look at why. Here is a typical weight workout:

Traditional Weight Lifting

Well, its longer than 20 minutes in duration so it satisfies the definition of cardio there, but look at the heartrate. In the rest between sets, its drops to almost the resting heartrate. To be cardio, the heartrate has got to stay above that 60% line for the entire 20 minutes!.

So if you are wondering if a particular activity is good cardio, its simple to find out.  Do it for a minimum of 20 minutes then measure your heart rate and compare it to the above chart.  If your heart rate is in the target zone (50%- 85%), then it’s good cardio – simple as that.   With many forms of cardio, like cycling or walking, its easy to get lazy and just lolli-gag along.  Its important that you monitor your heart rate during the cardio to make sure that you are not slacking off. People often ask me questions like this –

What if I run really, really fast. Can I just run a mile for my cardio?

I’m going to state this again because many people get really confused about what good cardio is. By my definition, cardio has two requirements:

  1. It elevates the heartrate to 50%-85% of your max heart rate
  2. It keeps the heartrate elevated above 50% for at least 20 minutes

If you run a 6 minute mile, your heartrate will hit 85% or more while running but within a few minutes of stopping it will be down to your resting heartrate again. It fails the second criteria because it will only elevate your heart rate about 8 minutes not the 20 minutes required- running a mile is not good cardio. If you find jogging boring, what you can do though is interval training (HIIT). Sprint a minute, rest 30s, repeat for 20 minutes or more. When you are resting, your heartrate slowly decreases but it stays above 60%. If you are doing HIIT and your heartrate is dropping below 60% at any point then you are resting too much. Since we brought up the subject of interval training, now is a good time to talk about the different kinds of cardio.

Different Types Of Cardio

If you are a beginner, don’t get bogged down in this stuff. For you cardio means walking, jogging, cycling or swimming 20-40 minutes every day – period. For advanced sports training, there are other types of cardiovascular workouts which involve intervals – repeated bursts of 100% effort punctuated by short rests. Interval training can increase your VO2 Max and increase your speed but for beginners, intermediates, or overweight people it often results in pulled muscles or joint injuries. Here are the basic types of cardio:

Description Total Duration Approximate Heartrate
Brisk walking 30+ min Brisk Walking
Steady cardio – jogging, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, etc) 30+ min Steady Cardio
Interval Training (HIIT). 60s max speed sprint followed by 30s rest. Activity can also be, swimming, rowing, cycling, jumping rope, etc. 10-20 min Interval Training
Tabata intervals 20s max speed sprint followed by 10s rest repeated 8 times 4 min Tabata Interval Training
Little method – 60s max speed sprint followed 75s rest repeated 8 to 12 times 18 – 27 min Little Method
Hybrid Workouts (complexes) – Interval training with powerlifting exercises. 20-40 min Hybrid Workouts
Team sports (constant sprinting)- soccer, basketball, water polo, etc. Not baseball or football. 60 min+ Running Team Sports

Please note that these heartrate charts are to help illustrate the duration and intensity of the cardio. They are only very rough approximations of what actually happens to your actual heartrate.

Which Type Of Cardio Is Best?

That’s a loaded question!! Heated arguments go on and on in the fitness and bodybuilding community about what is the “best” type of cardio. What they fail to realize is that the reason they are disagreeing is that their goals are different! There is no cardio which is perfect for everyone. The below chart attempts to help you find the type of cardio that is right for you.

walking jogging HIIT Tabata Little Hybrid Sports
reduce risk of heart disease Excellent Excellent Unknown Unknown Excellent Excellent Excellent
reduce risk of diabetes Excellent Excellent Unknown Unknown Excellent Excellent Excellent
reduce risk of osteoporosis Excellent Excellent Unknown Unknown Excellent Excellent Excellent
strengthening heart muscle Good Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent
reducing blood pressure Excellent Excellent Unknown Unknown Excellent Excellent Excellent
increase aerobic capacity (VO2 max) Fair Good Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent
burning off calories Good Excellent Fair Fair Excellent Excellent Excellent
reduce stress Excellent Excellent Excellent Bad Excellent Good Excellent
time efficiency Bad Fair Good Excellent Good Excellent Fair
increasing mental health Excellent Excellent Unknown Fair Excellent Excellent Excellent
minimize chance of joint injury Excellent Good Bad Bad Bad Bad Bad
minimize chance of muscle pull Excellent Good Bad Bad Bad  Bad Bad
increase strength Fair Fair Fair Fair Fair Excellent Fair
increase endurance Good Excellent Good Fair Excellent Good Excellent
increase speed Fair Good Excellent Excellent Excellent Fair Excellent
speed up recovery from DOMS Excellent Excellent Good Good Good Bad Bad



So what kind of cardio is best?

It depends on your goals!!! For 90% of you, just walking, jogging, or biking is best – all the weight loss and health benefits without injury. Its why many studies have shown walking as the best form of cardio, because people are more likely to keep up walking day after day, month after month than any other form of exercise – why? Because its easy to do, enjoyable, and virtually injury free. Intervals have their benefits for performance athletes but if beginners or overweight people try them, they will most likely get injured and set their fitness programs back six months or more. Hybrid workouts are the ultimate in time efficiency and performance enhancement for the elite athlete – you can lift weights and do your cardio at the same time! If you are young athlete, have lots of homework, and in excellent health then maybe 4min a day of tabata intervals is the best choice. If you are clinically obese and have high blood pressure then walking 30-40 minutes a day is the best form of cardio. There is one truth to be shared, doing some form of cardio regularly is very important!

Buying Cardio Equipment

OK, now lets talk about cardio equipment. I get lots of questions asking if a particular kind of cardio equipment is good.   First of all, I don’t recommend buying ANY equipment.  I’d much rather see you get exercise outdoors by cycling, jogging, or playing soccer, its cheaper and more enjoyable.  If you have to workout in your home, I would recommend a cheap jump rope.   Jumping rope is an amazingly intense aerobic workout, in fact, you will probably have to start with just a few minutes and work up to 20-30 minutes a day.  Jumping rope is not only an amazing aerobic workout but is great at increasing coordination.  Contrary to popular belief, jumping rope is not monotonous either if done properly and takes a lot of concentration.  One drawback is that you need a room with high ceilings to jump rope or you need to do it outside.  If you still want to buy a piece of cardio equipment, here is how you can tell if a piece of equipment is good.  First of all, good cardio equipment is very expensive and typically costs over a thousand dollars and has four main characteristics:

  • It gets your heart rate into the target zone. The infomercial devices fail here, they cant work you hard enough to elevate your heart rate sufficiently (up to 85% of your max).
  • Adjustable speed, very important. Different RPMs for different folks. You should determine the speed, not the machine.
  • Sturdy = heavy. I’ve never seen a quality piece of cardio equipment that weighed under 50lbs. Most good treadmills weigh over a hundred pounds.
  • Sufficient adjustable resistance. You should be able to make it so difficult that you can reach 85% of your max heart rate in 5 minutes or so easy that you can talk on the phone while using it.

Don’t buy new cardio equipment, well made cardio equipment will last for years. Buy it used on for a small fraction of the price you would pay for new machines. Consumer Reports Magazine is a great place for unbiased reviews of fitness equipment. Whatever you do, do not buy any cardio equipment from an infomercial – they are complete garbage.

What is “good cardio”?

Best time to do cardio

Some important references:

Exercise and Depression
Psychosomatic Medicine
Science Daily