Cardio is a topic of heated debate in the health and fitness world. Weight loss is without a doubt the most common fitness goal when it comes to the general population, and cardio seems to be everyone’s go-to answer for accomplishing it. However, with the emergence of HIIT (high intensity interval training), the tried and true “slow and steady”, and whatever else the latest craze is, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to which form of cardio is the best.
Well, have no fear. I am here to solve and answer all of your cardio woes….sort of.
If we are to begin to answer which form of cardio is the best, we must first look at and define cardio. In being in the health and fitness industry for as long as I have, I have come to the realization that people often misinterpret what cardio is.
Cardio is short for Cardiovascular; relating to the heart. Cardio in a fitness setting is referring to cardiovascular exercise. The heart is indeed a muscle, and like any other muscle, it can be trained and strengthened. However, when most people are asked what cardio is, they immediately refer to a piece of cardio equipment (treadmill, an elliptical, a stationary bike, a Stairmaster, etc.). While cardio can be done on these machines, it does not define what cardio is. This would be the equivalent of asking someone what the definition of biceps exercise is, and they simply reply, ‘dumbbell curls.’ While dumbbell curls work the biceps and is a form of biceps exercise, there are TONS of other options. You could do barbell curls, cable curls, chin ups, isometric holds, preacher curls, spider curls, the list goes on and on. The definition of biceps exercise, is any form of exercise that conditions the biceps. Could be for strength, for mass, for endurance, etc. Likewise, cardio is any form of exercise that conditions the heart. In case you haven’t seen where I’m going with this, there are TONS of ways to do cardio.
Yes, you could use one of the previously mentioned pieces of cardio equipment for your cardio. You could go slow and steady for an extended period, or you could do short and intense intervals. Both will condition the heart in separate ways. However, if my heart rate gets elevated in a strength training session and that elevation is purposely sustained, is that not cardio? If my heart rate gets elevated and stays elevated while I play pick up basketball for 60 minutes, is that not cardio? Your heart doesn’t know the difference between a treadmill and a basketball court. It knows effort. If the effort is there and the work is being done, then the adaptation will take place.
So which form of cardio is the best? Cardio is important and needs to be done by EVERYONE in some way, shape or form. Honestly, the best form of cardio is going to be the form that gets you to commit to doing it on a regular basis. If you HATE going to the gym and walking on a treadmill for 60 minutes, then chances are your not going to be doing it as often as you should. On that same note, if you enjoy running hill sprints outside or playing pickup basketball and can do it multiple times a week, then congratulations, you found your best form of cardio. If you are one of those people who can put the work in regardless of the form, then kudos to you, for you are one of the very few that don’t make excuses. However, if you are one of these few, then chances are you aren’t struggling with a fitness goal to begin with. And if you are, then I am fairly confidant that your chosen form of cardio is not the issue keeping you from achieving it.
The bottom line is there is no definitive “best form of cardio.” Cardio suggestions are goal specific. What is your primary objective? Burn fat, retain muscle, condition for an event or sport, increase V02 Max, maximize EPOC levels, etc. This is where you must ask yourself, “Why am I doing cardio?” If it is for a specific reason such as special training for an event or sport, then your cardio program needs to get you better for that event. However, if you are just an average everyday person looking to get and stay healthy, then your first objective is to pick a form of cardio you can do regularly. Outside of that, utilize them all. See what works for you, see what you enjoy and can commit to. People always want a universal answer to their questions or a plan for their goals because they are too damn lazy to put in the work to find the answer for themselves. Fact of the matter is that it doesn’t exist because everyone is different and at a different level of fitness. What works for one person may not work for another. Because one person may be conditioning for football, while another person may just be trying to trim body fat.
First thing you must do is create a goal. Without a goal you cannot have a plan. Without a plan, your training will have no direction. With no direction, you will simply wander around in circles and never experience any progress. If you want your universal answer and plan to put an end to your cardio confusion, then start experimenting and see what sticks. Instead of sitting there and analyzing if you should do slow and steady cardio, high intensity intervals, or running a 5k, get off your ass, pick one to try and GET MOVING.