Common Cardio Questions
Which is better: cardio or strength training?
I’ll come straight out and admit it: I’ve been both a cardio bunny and a cardio hater in my past.
A cardio bunny is someone (stereotypically female) who spends lots of time doing cardio. This could be in the form of fitness classes of all kinds, long sessions on the treadmill or elliptical, or following guided workout videos. Cardio bunnies typically eschew all strength training or stick exclusively to light dumbbells.
A cardio hater is the exact opposite; someone who focuses predominantly on strength training with the claim that cardio is overrated. Sometimes cardio haters will do some conditioning, but you’ll never catch them doing classic cardio of any kind...ever.
Back in my cardio bunny days, it was the only reality I knew. Sure, I was peripherally aware that some people - mostly men - would lift weights in the back corners of the gym. I had picked up a dumbbell here and there. And I suppose I knew about calisthenics from gym class in school. But beyond that, strength training wasn’t part of my understanding of the world.
Instead, I would run for hours on the treadmill. I would take every cardio-based fitness class under the sun, sometimes multiple classes in a day. I trained for and completed a half-marathon. I was a Spinning instructor for a brief point in college. But it wasn’t about training to be an endurance athlete, as it might be for some; it was about maintaining my weight and some vague concept of “health.” I thought cardio was the best, or rather only, way to achieve my goals. To make matters worse, I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I hated every minute of it.
Many years later, I discovered strength training. The story of how is one for another time, but for now let’s just say that I finally realized that - oh hey! - I could lift weights too. Once it was shown to me to be a possibility, I knew it was going to be a gamechanger. Finally, I found something I loved to do.
But, like any good convert, I went all-in when I discovered strength training. That is, I turned against all cardio because, obviously, if strength training was good then that meant cardio was bad, right? 🤔
The lifting world told me repeatedly that cardio was unnecessary; or, worse, a killer of all “gainz.” That I could and should achieve all my fitness goals through resistance training of some kind. That cardio was only a throwback to the aerobics craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That if I did cardio, I had clearly missed the memo.
Well...I was wrong. Both times.
I always say: When things start to look black and white, it is time to closely inspect the gray area for truth. Cardio is not a waste of time and actually has numerous benefits to both health and performance; at the same time, cardio alone isn’t an effective strategy for fat loss or any kind of endurance training. Strength training is excellent for both building muscle and burning fat, but to say that cardio is unnecessary as a result is shortsighted. Neither should be in excess, and (all things being equal) neither should displace the other.
Is it any real surprise that the answer lies in a moderate approach?
Of course, this seems obvious to me now, but for the first 15 years of my “fit life,” this understanding completely eluded me...and I am hardly alone in that.
With more knowledge and less bias, I now understand that both cardio and strength training have their place in a well-rounded fitness program. To be clear, I do emphasize strength training as the foundation of most fitness programs, because I do believe it can generally deliver more results for health, aesthetics, and performance - especially in limited time. That is not the same as saying it is more important or that cardio is superfluous, though. Both have their purpose and role, depending on the individual and their goals.
Okay, then. Next question.
What kind of cardio should I do, and how much?
There is no “should”...or at least, not a firm rule that applies for everyone. But there are some guidelines to define that can help you determine what kinds of cardio might be best for you.
There are three main categories of cardio, primarily defined by intensity and duration. Some cardio-type activities can fall into more than one category, depending on the style, so the boundaries are not hard and fast. How much of each style really depends on your goals, strength programming, and preferences, although I’ve provided basic guidelines here.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) - In HIIT, you alternate between periods of very high intensity with periods of very low intensity or pure rest. Examples of HIIT include Tabatas or sprints. Interval training became all the rage about 10 years ago, and for good reason: It is a highly effective and efficient method of cardio that yields results in minimal workout time. HIIT workouts should be short (20 minutes or less) and - you guessed it - intense. HIIT is especially good for fat loss or for those short on time, but should generally be kept to about 2 workouts per week.
Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) - LISS is the polar opposite of HIIT. No intervals, just one easy pace held for long duration. LISS is what most people think of when they hear the word “cardio”: jogging, bicycling, swimming, and walking all qualify. LISS has been written off a lot lately in favor of HIIT, but it can actually be an excellent complement to many training programs. It can provide an endurance stimulus, and can be excellent for active recovery. Because of the low intensity, LISS can be done for 20-60 minutes or more at a stretch.
Moderate-Intensity Steady State (MISS) - Not surprisingly, MISS is right in-between HIIT and LISS: a moderate steady state activity with no specific intervals. Activities like backpacking, dancing, and vinyasa yoga can sometimes fall into this category. It has similar benefits to LISS, simply at a different intensity and duration. Some fitpros joke that MISS is a “miss” because you could be doing more time-efficient cardio like HIIT, but I disagree and instead think that MISS has a role of its own...especially if it is an activity you genuinely enjoy. MISS tends to fall right in that 20-60 minute zone, before rest is required.
I generally recommend my clients to get in about 2 HIIT and 1-2 LISS and/or MISS workouts per week (more if you enjoy it or are training for an endurance goal), in addition to a sound strength training program.
Now, the final question:
Do I need to do cardio to be fit?
The answer is no. I always encourage my clients to find cardio activities that they enjoy, but if you don’t enjoy it at all, there are tons of ways to cover your bases through conditioning and metabolic resistance training.
The one exception to that, in my opinion, is walking. Unless you are physically unable, I think everyone should walk, every single day. Not for distance or time or speed - just WALK. It has numerous benefits for the mind, body, and spirit, and will help tremendously with recovery from more intense workouts. Remember: It isn't always about burning lots of calories.
Can't walk, or truly don't enjoy it? Find another leisurely form of movement that you can do routinely as part of your daily lifestyle - minus the expectation and stress of structured workouts. This type of movement is often what most people overlook, and could be the missing piece to your training plan.