Here's what you need to know...
- A little intelligently-planned cardio or metcon is good. How most people go about doing it isn't.
- The elliptical machine is too easy. However, it's great for mental zombies who enjoy pretending to exercise.
- "Slogging" – slow jogging – is one of the most popular forms of exercise in America. And America is fat and injured. Coincidence?
- The stair mill is actually a pretty good machine. Problem is, people crank it up too high, hang on to the rails, and wreck their posture.
- Biking is fine, but modern spin classes have devolved into spine crunching, shoulder-pinching train wrecks.
The Bad Boys of Cardio
When programmed intelligently, certain forms of cardio can fit into any type of performance or aesthetics-based workout program. Problem is, four of the most popular choices, well, suck.
As a doctor of physical therapy, rehab specialist, and soft tissue therapist, I see what these types of cardio can do to the body. And it's not good. What's more, some of these activities are wastes of time if your goal is to lose fat and keep it off.
Here are the top four dumbest forms of cardio along with a few smarter, more effective alternatives.
Fourth Dumbest: The Elliptical
Since its inception in the mid 90s, the elliptical has become one of the most popular cardio machines known to man.
Today, you'd be hard pressed to walk into any type of training facility without seeing at least a handful of these self-proclaimed revolutionary machines. A better description for them? Time-wasting plastic prisons.
Primary Problem: It's Monotonous and Unchallenging
Finally, workout addicts from all walks of life, from cardio queens to beach bros, could justify their three-hour workouts consisting of monotonous, mind-numbing exercise because a few university studies concluded the elliptical to be "more joint friendly" than its vilified counterpart, the treadmill.
Like many novelties, we as a fitness society are capable of transforming a once noble idea of reducing joint stress into pathological insanity. In today's dysfunctional fitness culture, the idea of hopping on the elliptical a few hours a week while catching up on reality TV has become the single-minded symbol of what fitness actually is.
Why do people continue to flock to the elliptical at alarming rates? The answer is simple: The elliptical is inherently easy and unchallenging, both physically and mentally, for the person who's content to only pretend to exercise.
When used as a singular method of fitness, the elliptical provides self-justification for people who are not mentally or emotionally capable of training with passion, purpose, or focus.
Hitting autopilot and hanging on for the ride does not deliver life-changing health and fitness results. It's just not that simple.
The Alternative: Total Body HIIT 1-2 Times Per Week
Total Body HIIT Circuit
(no rest between exercises):
- Bodyweight Squat x 10
- Strict Push-Up x 10
- Alternating Reverse Lunge x 8 per leg
- Medium Grip Pull-Up x 6
- Single Leg Romanian Deadlift x 12 per leg
- RKC Plank, 15 seconds
Repeat 3-4 times through, 45 seconds between circuits.
Rage against the machine and retake your fitness! By diversifying your training routine, you'll not only be able to break through your fat loss plateau, but become more functional in the process.
And if you're worried about separation anxiety or missing primetime Bravo programming, remember, the elliptical isn't going anywhere for at least another two decades. Fitness fads, no matter how damaging, are hard to kill.
Third Dumbest: The Slow Jog (Slog)
Unless you're scuffing your Sketchers on the streets of Boston like Meb Keflezighi in late April, you are not, and will never be, considered a runner.
If your goal is quickly eliciting knee pain while adding to your soft and jiggling midsection, there are more amusing and entertaining activities other than slogging down the streets of your neighborhood.
Save yourself and your family the public humiliation. If you insist on slogging, do so in the confines of your own home. That ugly gait needs to remain private!
Primary Problem: Orthopedic Injury
Due to its highly simplified nature, running has been the world's most popular form of exercise. Today, more than a billion people worldwide use running as their primary form of fitness. That many people can't be wrong... right?
Based on evidence, it's clear that true runners are largely born to run. Those that aren't naturally blessed with perfect foot structure, stride control, and rhythmical movement capacity are behind the eight ball before they take their first true steps. We need to focus on more attainable, long-term solutions on how to remain healthy and fit.
The popularized idea of the "moderately slow jog" for health and body composition benefits defeats the purpose of training from both sides of equation. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in all of fitness.
Based on the foundational energy systems of your body (aerobic and anaerobic) and how and when these systems kick in to keep your butt plodding down the street, the moderate intensity (based on heart rate) of slow running actually yields a very small benefit compared to the time you're putting in.
This may be hard to accept for some lifelong running bandwagoners, but it's the truth.
The Alternative: Energy System Training
Treadmill Incline Sprints
- Speed: 7.5-10.0 mph
- Incline: 3.0-8.0 degrees
- Sprint Time: 15-25 seconds
- Rest: 30-45 seconds
- Sets: 5-8
Tip: Sprint in front of a mirror. It will clean up your pitiful gait pretty damn quick!
Your training plan should largely reflect your goals. If your primary goal is fat loss, stick to either end of the heart-rate spectrum. Extremely low intensity exercise and metabolically challenging intensities provide the best bang for your buck.
And if you insist on continuing to tally the miles, mix in a little speed work – intervals and sprints – to increase your work capacity. Quit killing yourself for subpar results.
Second Dumbest: The Slumped Stair Climber
The origin and treatment of lower back pain continues to be one of the most deeply rooted mysteries in medicine and orthopedics. The numbers of reported cases are climbing. Sadly, one normally effective form of exercise – stair climbing – may be contributing to this among the gym-going population.
Primary Problems: Holding On and Slumping
The stair climber has been turned into the primary form of exercise for too many people wasting $10 a month on a gym membership. True, the stair climber is responsible for carving out some of the tightest asses in fitness. That's not the problem. I think we all enjoy the benefits of step training.
Once again, the problem can be attributed to those who put their egos above their physical capabilities. Ramping up the speed of the stair mill doesn't enhance your workout. It limits your ability to maintain some semblance of not looking like an idiot.
With the speed cranked up, it amazes me the types of compensation patterns people will fall into, all in an attempt to keep those little Nike's pumping. This list includes, but isn't limited to:
- The traditional slouch
- The arm contortionist
- The upper-body hour long iso-hold
- The side and back step
The Alternative: Incline, Hand-Free Walking
Treadmill Incline Walk
- Speed: 2.5-3.5 mph
- Incline: 5.0-10.0 degrees
- Time: 25-45 minutes
Monitor your heart rate every 5 minutes to ensure it stays where you want it – low and steady. Adapt incline and speed accordingly.
This fix is simple, so quit complicating things. Not everyone has the endurance or testicular fortitude to refrain from unloading the stair climber by hanging on to it for dear life. If you fall into this category, switch over to the treadmill for incline walks. This isn't an excuse to hang on either, so hands off the rails!
If you can keep your hands off the stair climber for the full duration of your workout, fine, carry on and reap the benefits of building that backside.
Ah, spin class, where posture goes to die a slow, painful death! We've turned this once respectable and effective form of exercise into a spine crunching, shoulder-pinching train wreck all in the name of sweat and skull-shaking techno.
Primary Problem: Stupidity
Cycling itself can decrease hip and knee joint stresses, along with being a decent way to pack some muscle on to the ol' thighs. However, spin class is the nasty stepbrother of the traditional bike program, intensifying stupidity to new heights in the form of painful, ass-crack-of-the-morning classes.
Spin class should only include what the name advertises, pedaling tirelessly until either the class is over or the sound system blows a speaker. Veterans of the dark room look forward to both ass-saving options.
However, at the same time that spin classes were already in full, painful swing, the faddists began to hype high-intensity intervals. Unfortunately, some "pioneer" decided to mesh the two and create arguably the most damaging cardiovascular training method of all time.
The idiocy started the instant atrocious "strengthening" movements were mindlessly added to an already insane class full of out-of-the-seat joint crushing sprints. Biceps curls times a thousand with the pink five-pounders, while pumping your cankles at a fiercely ineffective rate, doesn't produce results – it produces tendonitis.
But this isn't even the worst. I've personally witnessed a class of 75 cyclists, all wearing their $200-plus clip-in bike shoes, being forced to complete sets of 30 burpees between bike sprints while being verbally abused by a metabolically challenged instructor on a microphone. That was the worst.
The Alternative: Intelligently Programmed Bike Sprints
Airdyne Bike Sprints
- Resistance: Maximal
- Sprint Time: 15-30 seconds
- Rest: 30-45 seconds
- Sets: 5-8
Keep the trashcan handy. You may need it if you're pushing your intensity to the limits.
If your goals are hypertrophy based, bike sprints cause a heavy metabolic stress to the quads and glutes that's necessary for anabolic growth.
Is your program more focused on conditioning? Good for you. Longer duration sprints, while decreasing rest periods, can skyrocket your heart rate and increase the rate of vascularization that will enhance endurance performance. You can't go wrong with bike sprints. They simply work. Enough said.