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Guide To Cardio Workout Progressions

One of the most common questions I get from people is what’s the best way to do cardio if your goal is to lose weight?

The truth of the matter is the answer really depends on your level of cardiovascular fitness and overall health.

In short, for best results your cardio prescription should be personalized for you by a fitness professional.

In this blog post I’m going to share with you the three phases of cardio prescription we issue clients at Shaping Concepts. If you’re new to exercise you would simply start at phase one and work your way through the progessions.

The end goal for a healthy individual is to progress into phase three where you complete “interval training.” This is the most effective form of cardiovascular exercise for fat loss but you must have a strong enough base of conditioning.

Never-the-less, you’ll find this guide to be helpful in establishing a gameplan for your cardio that will produce the results you’ve been looking for. Feel free to leave me any questions in the comments section at the end of this post.

Phase One: Complete 30-45 minutes of low-moderate intensity “aerobic base” training for a total of 3-5 x per week.

walking_treadmil1

The objective of Phase one is aerobic conditioning and this will be accomplished by completing low-moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise for 30-45 minutes.

You’ll want to keep your intensity in the low-moderate range in order to develop what’s called an “aerobic base.”

In short, you’ll be getting your body more efficient at bringing in and using oxygen. The duration of how long you should be in this phase really depends on your fitness level and overall health.

For a beginner exerciser with no health concerns it will be around the first 4-6 weeks. Consult with your personal trainer on how long you should stay in this phase and with help determining your target heart rate zones.

It’s important to note that some individuals may be advised to stay in this phase one longer if not indefinitely due to health issues. Not everyone is able or should progress towards completing higher intensity “interval training” workouts… and that’s ok.

Individuals who have health concerns like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, are advised to stay in phase one. If you have any medical conditions obviously consult with your physician before starting any exercise program (you know I have to say that).

Duration & Frequency
Although I’m recommending 30-45 minutes of aerobic activity, if you can’t do that much in the beginning that’s ok. You can still receive benefits from as little as 12 minutes of aerobic activity when starting out.

If you’re unable to do 30 minutes of walking for example, break it down to 10-12 minutes periods and allow rest in between. Bottom line is over time your conditioning will improve and you’ll want to just keep increasing your duration until you get to the 30-45 minute range.

After a few weeks of being able to do that kind of duration at 70-75% estimated max heart rate you’ll be ready to progress to “staggered intensity” workouts.

In regards to the frequency, the same conditions apply. If you’re just starting out and you’re new to exercise, give yourself time to ease into it. If you start out trying to force yourself to exercise 5 x week you may struggle and be tempted to quit.

You’re better off from a positive reinforcement/ habit building basis to start with cardio 3 x week when first starting out then progress to 5 x week over time. I’d be remiss though if I didn’t emphasize to you that experience has overwhelming shown me that you’ll simply see the BEST fat loss results when you’re doing cardio 5 x week.

I’ve found that doing cardio Monday-Friday and using the weekends for rest-recovery is an effective and doable strategy for a lot of people.

Phase One: Aerobic Conditioning
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Frequency: 3-5 x per week
Target Heart Rate Zones: 60-75% Estimated Max Heart Rate
Activities: walking, elliptical, stationary bike, bicycle, swimming, jogging, etc.

Phase Two: Complete “staggered intensity” cardio workouts for 30 minutes at 3 x per week and “aerobic” cardio workouts at 2 x per week for 30-45 minutes.

running_treadmill1

Phase two is the progression into staggered intensity workouts to start working the anaerobic energy systems.

You’ll obviously want to be able to physically complete higher intensity exercise in order to progress into this phase. Avoid doing so if you suffer from hypertension or have other cardiovascular health concerns.

In this phase you’ll begin jogging or doing brief periods of higher intensity exercise on the equipment of your choice. This will be followed with periods of recovery. Think of it as alternating between walk, run, walk, run, walk, run.

If you’re not able to run, that’s ok. You can still do staggered intensity workouts on most any piece of cardio equipment. The idea is simply going harder, working at a higher intensity for a brief period of time, then slowing down and recovering.

If you’re outside you can do things like run to a marker and then walk to the next. This is a gradual progression to higher intensity “interval training” sessions. If you’re on a bike, elliptical or other equipment you’ll want to speed it up and go harder for 1-2 minutes (not “all out” though- that’s for interval training to come later) and then slow back down for a recovery period.

As a general rule of thumb you’ll want to double the time for recovery as you did for the higher effort work during staggered intensity workouts. You’ll want to stay in this phase for approximately four weeks if you’re a beginner before progressing to interval training workouts.

Also look to complete your staggered intensity workouts on the days you’re doing resistance training and complete your aerobic workouts on the days you’re NOT doing the resistance training. This is assuming you’re following the recommend protocol of doing resistance training 3 x per week.

For best results complete your staggered intensity workouts AFTER your resistance training workouts.

Phase Two:  Staggered Intensity & Aerobic Workouts
Duration: 30 minutes- Staggered Intensity / 30-45 minutes- Aerobic Workouts
Frequency: 3 x per week- Staggered Intensity / 2 x per week – Aerobic Workouts
Target Heart Rate Zones: 75-90% Estimated Max Heart Rate during higher intensity phases of staggered intensity and 60-70% Estimated Max Heart Rate for recovery periods.
Activities: walking, elliptical, stationary bike, bicycle, swimming, jogging, rowing machine, stair climber, etc.

Phase Three: Complete Interval Training for 30 minutes (2) x per week and moderate intensity aerobic exercise on the other (3) days per week at 30 minutes.

interval-training-treadmill1

After you’ve developed a higher level of cardiovascular conditioning with the staggered intensity workouts you’ll be ready for phase three where we’ll incorporate “interval training.”

There are many types of interval workouts but the most common workout for an individual looking to burn fat will entail completing approximately 30 seconds of high intensity exercise followed by 1:30 of recovery.

This is also referred to as “Sprint 8” training which is available exclusively on Vision Treadmills (my personal favorite due to this feature). You’ll want to warm-up by walking for 5 minutes then progress into your intervals.

You’ll complete approximately eight intervals (increasing the speed and intensity of each one). During your intervals you’ll be working at a high level of intensity (approximately 90-100% of your estimated maximum heart rate). You’ll recover during the next 1:30 slowing down to lower your heart rate and the repeating.

Today, the best heart rate monitors can be a very useful tool (although not essential) during Interval Training in order to monitor your intensity.

Make sure you allow 3-5 minutes of cool down when you’re done with the intervals. You never want to stop “cold” at a high heart rate as this could case blood pooling in the legs and result in dizziness, fainting or even heart failure.

Completing a cardiovascular exercise routine that includes interval training is a very effective means of losing body fat. This has numerous benefits including the increase in HGH (human growth hormone), adrenaline, and other fat burning hormones.

As a general rule of thumb, look to complete your interval training workouts on the days you’re NOT doing resistance training and complete your aerobic workouts on the days you’re doing the resistance training.

For best results complete your aerobic workouts AFTER your resistance training workouts.

Phase Three:  Interval Training & Aerobic Workouts
Duration: 30 minutes- Interval Training / 30 minutes- Aerobic Workouts
Frequency: 2 x per week- Interval Training / 3 x per week – Aerobic Workouts
Target Heart Rate Zones: 90-100% Estimated Max Heart Rate during higher intensity phases of interval training and 60-75% Estimated Max Heart Rate for recovery periods.
Activities: walking, elliptical, stationary bike, bicycle, swimming, jogging, rowing machine, stair climber, etc.

Overview

The best approach for maximizing fat loss with cardiovascular training is to work ALL the energy systems. That is why we work on a progression model that gradually increases the workload intensity. The outline for progression I’ve given you allows you to efficiently work all these energy systems as your conditioning improves.

Consult with your personal trainer regarding progression and assistance with determining your target heart rate zones.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. You can recieve a FREE no-obligations trial to his Charleston personal training programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.