Home Cardio The Definitive Guide to Cardio Exercises

The Definitive Guide to Cardio Exercises

by Steve Theunissen
cardio exercise

There’s a lot of confusion about cardio workouts. Many people think it’s what you do for 10 minutes before getting into the ‘serious’ training on the gym floor. Others see it as a means to burn calories so that you can burn fat faster. The reality is that a cardio workout plan is essential to your very functioning. In this article, we’ll unpack cardio training from the ground up. You’ll find out what it is, the best cardio workouts and how to incorporate cardio exercises into your fitness program.

What is Cardio workouts?

Cardio training is more properly known as aerobic training. It is one of only two ways of exercising your body, the other being anaerobic training (without air). The word aerobic means ‘with oxygen’. Aerobic fitness relates to how well your body is able to take in oxygen and put it to use.

Cardio exercises involve training large muscle groups for a prolonged period of time. When you do that, your cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels), along with your respiratory system (the lungs and air passages) need to combine to supply the working muscles and organs of your bodies with the oxygen they need.

Common cardio workout activities include walking, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, hiking and playing team sports like basketball or football.

Cardio Benefits

 When you engage in regular cardio fitness training you will improve your cardiorespiratory endurance. As a result, your heart, blood vessels, and lungs will get stronger. By forcing your cardiorespiratory system to work harder than it normally does, your cardiorespiratory functioning will improve and you will get fitter. If you are looking for ways to improve cardio endurance, then cardio workouts are the way to do it.

Here are 10 reasons why you should want a stronger cardio system:

·         You will find it easier to perform your everyday tasks at a higher level. If you need to run for a bus, you’ll be able to do it without feeling half dead!

·         Your risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, along with a host of other causes, will be diminished.

·         You will be more able to participate in recreational and sports activities

·         You will burn calories to help you to maintain your weight and/or lose body-fat. Depending on the type of exercise you choose, you can burn up to one thousand calories in an hour.

·         You will extend your life span. It has been estimated that every hour spent doing cardio exercise will add two hours to your life span!

·         You will have more energy for every activity you engage in.

·         Aerobic exercise has been referred to as ‘nature’s best tranquilizer.’ Research has found that people suffering from moderate to light depression for 15-30 minutes each day, generally experience a dramatic improvement in their condition.

·         Cardio workouts have been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers in both men and women.

·         Aerobic exercise improves sleep quality.

·         Cardio training increases the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in the body.

 Cardio VS Weights

 Many people consider cardio training to be less important than working out with weights.  Because weight training produces visible outcomes in terms of strength and muscle gains, a lot of trainers do it almost exclusively. However, if you were to ask a physician, he would probably rate aerobic fitness as more important. That’s because it more directly impacts the internal functioning of your body, making you healthier on the inside.

The reality is that neither one is more important than the other. We should all be doing a combination of weight training and cardiovascular exercise.

The difference is that, while your weight training will more than likely take place on the gym floor, your options for cardio are much broader. You can and should use the cardio section of your gym to get your aerobic workout in. But you should also extend your cardio beyond the gym walls. Go for walks in the evening. Play sport on the weekends and play with your kids in the backyard. All of these are forms of cardio that should become part of your lifestyle.

Cardio Before or After Workout?

The answer to the question of doing cardio or weights first depends on your training goals. Is your main goal to:

·         Improve cardio fitness

·         Lose Fat

·         Build Muscle

If your main goal is to build muscle do your weight training first. That way you’ll be able to hit the weights when you’re freshest. You’ll also be stronger. A study showed that muscle power decreased when lifting weights after running.

Cardio should also follow your weights workout if your main goal is fat loss. If you want to know how to get rid of hanging belly without surgery, read our article with top 5 easy exercises. Another study revealed that fat burning was increased during the first 15 minutes when cardio was performed after weight training.

If your main goal is cardio endurance, do your cardio workout before weight training.

Breaking Down Your Cardio Exercises

Your cardio workout should follow a consistent pattern. This will ensure your safety and increase your enjoyment of your workout. You should always start with a warm-up. Then move into the endurance phase of the session. Wrap it up with a warm-down.

cardiorespiratory exercises


The warm-up should consist of 5-10 minutes of low to moderate-intensity activity. This will increase the temperature of your muscles, preparing your body for what is to come. The warm-up will also prepare the heart, and lungs for the upcoming effort. The warm-up should gradually increase the intensity from resting levels to the level that you will be sustaining during the endurance phase.


During the Endurance phase of the workout, you should follow the FITT-VP principle. This stands for:

·         Frequency

·         Intensity

·         Time

·          Type

·         Volume

·         Progression


Frequency refers to the number of days per week you train. It is recommended that cardio exercise be performed 3-5 days per week.


Intensity reflects how hard you are working during the endurance phase. As the intensity of your cardio increases, so do the potential health benefits. Herat rate monitoring can help to assess your training intensity level. You can work out your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. You will be working out at a percentage of the maximum heart rate. That percentage will depend on your target intensity level. To work out your intensity level, multiply your max heart rate by the activity factor in the following table. This will give your target heart rate for that level.

Intensity Level %age of Max Heart Rate Activity Factor
Very Light 55% 0.55
Light 60% 0.60
Moderate 70% 0.70
Vigorous 85% 0.85


Time relates to the duration of the workout. Your training time should average about 30 minutes per day.


Type should focus on exercises that involve large muscle groups. When it comes to training modes, cardio activities are grouped into the following four categories:

·         Activities that can be done with minimal skill and fitness level (walking, cycling)

·         Activities that are more vigorous but don’t require a lot of skill (elliptical exercises, jogging)

·         Activities that require a certain skill level (swimming, skating)

·         Recreational sports (Basketball, tennis)

A well-rounded cardio program will select activities from each of these categories.


Volume is a measure of the total amount of exercise and is often expressed as total caloric output. Set an initial goal of burning 1,000 calories per week through cardio exercise.


Progression relates to how the workout is advanced from week to week to make it progressively more demanding as you get fitter. In order to keep making improvements, you need to progress your workout intensity as you get fitter. The key is to make these progressions gradual. Begin by increasing the time spent doing the activity. Then slightly increase your intensity level.

Though not officially part of the FITT-VP acronym, we suggest adding a final ‘E’. That stands for enjoyment. If you do not enjoy the type of cardio you are doing, you will find it very difficult to stick to!


The cool-down should mirror the warm-up. Spending 5-10 minutes cooling down gives your body the opportunity to gradually return to its pre-exercise state. The more intense your workout was, the longer your cool-down period needs to be.

Sample Beginner Cardio Workout Plan

Here is a progressive cardio exercise program for beginners that covers six weeks. It is designed to be done in the cardio section of the gym for 3-4 days per week.

Time Warm-up Workout Warm-down
1st Week Slow, gentle walking pace for 2 minutes Choose one activity each day from the treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical or rower. Exercise at Level 3 or 4 for 10 minutes at the beginning and end of your workout (with weights training in between). Slow, gentle walking pace for 2 minutes
Progression Slow, gentle walking pace for 5-10 minutes Each week add 10 minutes to your weekly total until you reach 100 minutes of activity (20 minutes per day, five times per week). Then stay at this duration and increase the intensity to Level; 5 & 6 for two weeks. Then add 10-15 minutes per week until you reach 150 minutes. Slow, gentle walking pace for 5-10 minutes
Final Week Slow, gentle walking pace for 5-10 minutes Exercise at an intensity level that involves a moderate level of exertion (Level 5 or 6) for 30-60 minutes three to five times per week. Your weekly total should be 150 minutes. Slow, gentle walking pace for 5-10 minutes

Cardio Training Myths

Only overweight people need to do cardio.

This is based on the idea that cardio’s main benefit is to burn calories for fat loss. As we’ve shown in this article, that is not the case. The internal health benefits of cardio are of benefit to all of us.

Cardio doesn’t work your muscles.

This is far from reality. Cardio training will increase the ability of your muscles to use fat as a source of energy. It also increases the size and number of mitochondria that produce energy.

More cardio is always better.

Research indicates that doing more than 45 minutes of cardio four times per week has limited value in terms of aerobic benefit. Doing cardio for more than 150 minutes per week may also begin to eat into muscle stores.

Running is the best form of cardio.

Running is a good form of cardio. However, people with joint problems may find other options, such as an elliptical trainer, to be better. The best form of cardio is the one that you enjoy the most, as this is the one that you are most likely to stick.  If your goal is fat loss, the best form of cardio is HIIT training [link to HIIT article].


Cardio exercise should form an integral part of everyone’s fitness routine. Don’t make the mistake of relegating its importance because its benefits are not as visible as those that come from weight training. Though you may not see it, Cardio training improves the efficiency of your most vital organs and systems. Use our beginner program to integrate cardio training into your lifestyle. By doing so you’ll be able to live both longer and better.

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