Cardio Progressions

Are you getting the most out of your cardio training?


The last time it happened I was getting changed in the locker room at my gym. Two pudgy-bellied gym members (PBGMs) were discussing the relative virtues and drawbacks of doing cardio as part of their training program.

PBGM #1: Man, I've gotta get my ass in shape for the summer. This gut has got to go!

PBGM #2: Yeah, I hear ya. I'm about to start doing cardio three or four times a week for 30 minutes. That should help me burn the fat.

PBGM #1: Cardio?! Haven't you heard that cardio isn't any good for fat loss? I read this one article suggesting cardio only makes you fatter by causing the body to store more fat... or something like that. To lean out, you need to do something called HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training.

PBGM #2: Come on now, cardio makes you fat? I doubt that. I heard that you burn more fat during low intensity exercise vs. high intensity exercise. And that's exactly what I'm looking for. I gotta get rid of this fat!

PBGM #1: No way man, regular cardio is garbage. Go ahead and waste your time if you want. I'll be doing HIIT instead. It burns way more fat, plus I read about this one workout that only lasts 10 to 12 minutes. That's what I'm talking about.

PBGM #2: Alright, how about this: You do your workout three times per week and I'll do mine three times per week and we'll see who gets leaner first!

Ugh. Another HIIT vs. low intensity cardio debate. Great. Now, on the outside, I was just getting changed and minding my own business. But on the inside, I was losing IQ points just listening to these two talk about losing their guts. That's when, disturbingly, they turned to me.

PBGM #2: So what do you think? You're in great shape. Who's gonna lose body fat the fastest?

Me: Uh... ah...

PBGM #2: Go ahead; tell him that you can't possibly get lean in 10 to 12 minutes!

Me: Right, well, guys, I've gotta go. Let me know how your challenge works out.

This low intensity vs. high intensity cardio debate is getting outta hand! So out of hand in fact that fat guys worldwide, fat guys who aren't doing anything right, are debating about the "perfect way" to expend energy and lose fat. What a stupid debate to be having when you're 30 pounds over-fat!

And the same goes for the second most frequent cardio debate. Can you guess what debate that is? If you guessed the fasted vs. non-fasted cardio debate, give yourself a gold star.

Don't get me wrong, there are relative merits to having these discussions for certain individuals at certain levels of development. In fact, myself, Dave Barr, Christian Thibaudeau, and Dr. Lonnie Lowery had a discussion about these very topics. (Check out the Fasted Cardio Roundtable for more.)

Unfortunately, amid all these debates, there's one cardio question that's being asked way too infrequently: What type of cardio progression are you using? You know, progression: how you're increasing the work you do from one cardio session to the next in order to ensure that you continue to improve your fitness and lose body fat.

Still confused? Well, let's take a look at the ways that exercisers increase their weight training demands from week-to-week in order to increase their probabilities of positive progress. Maybe that'll give ya some clues.

Weight Training Progressions

In our weight training arsenals there are several ways to design programs to ensure progress toward a variety of goals, including increased strength, increased power, increased muscle mass, etc. Here are a few examples of ways to design a progression:

#1 Simple Load Progression

Classic progressive resistance training (or simple load progression as I call it) relies on the necessity of increasing our load lifted over time, assuming the same repetition range.

Like Milo, the Greek wrestler who purportedly jogged around the perimeter of the Coliseum with a calf on his back, getting stronger and stronger as the calf slowly grew into a bull, we try to increase the weight lifted from one week to the next in order to continue to progress.

#2 Complex Load Progression

Periodization models have introduced the idea of systematically increasing our load lifted while decreasing our repetitions. This model uses gradually increasing loads (or intensities, defined as a percentage of 1 rep max) while using gradually decreasing volume (measured by the total number of repetitions performed during a workout). These types of sessions are called intensificationsessions.

Of course, even within an overall periodized program that's focusing on intensification (heavier loads and fewer reps during a workout), the idea of simple load progression still stands. Obviously, if you're using a similar repetition range from week to week during an intensification phase, you should be increasing your load used, even if you're only using the same rep range during two consecutive training sessions for that movement.

#3 Simple Volume Progression

Compared to the simple load progression above, simple volume progression is pretty much the opposite. Instead of increasing the load from week to week, you keep the load the same while increasing the volume (measured by the total number of repetitions performed during a workout, whether that's adding a few reps to each set or adding a few total sets).

So, instead of doing 6 reps at 200lbs, as you did during week one, you'd be doing 7 reps at 200lbs during week two. Alternatively, instead of doing 3 sets of 6 reps at 200lbs, you might do 4 sets of 6 reps at 200lbs. Either way, volume progresses, load stays the same.

#4 Complex Volume Progression

Converse to the complex load progression above, complex volume progression is also pretty much the opposite. Instead of progressively increasing load lifted while decreasing the number of repetitions (intensification), you'd increase the volume (number of repetitions and/or sets) while decreasing the intensity (measured as a percentage of 1RM, otherwise known as load). This is commonly called accumulation.

#5 Other Progression Methods

These are just a few of the progression methods out there that vary load and volume systematically in order to stimulate progress. And, of course, when the time factors are introduced (time between sets, total workout duration, etc.), we have another set of variables ripe for manipulation.

Some examples include decreasing rest time from week to week in order to improve between-set recovery. Another variation of this theme is to increase rest time from week to week in order to handle heavier loads on subsequent sets. Depending on your goals, both can be viable methods of progression.

Another example of using time as a variable is Charles Staley's EDT. This style of training demands that, from one week to the next, you increase the number of reps you perform while keeping the total exercise time constant.

Cardio Progressions

So now that we've reviewed some of the possible weight training progressions, got any ideas on how to progress your cardio work in order to best stimulate progress and prevent stagnation? Let's discuss some of the variables available to you, whether your goals are improving overall fitness, improving your aerobic and/or anaerobic conditioning, and/or losing body fat.

#1 Volume Progression for Cardio

Volume progression is the most commonly used method with recreational exercisers. Time to get lean? Well then, it's time to start walking, jogging, or riding bike a few times a week.

Results stagnating? Time to do more. That is, if they actually bother to do more at all. There are still a lot of folks that sit back and bitch about how they're doing their X, Y, or Z minutes of cardio and aren't getting any leaner without ever considering that a progression may be necessary, just like with weight training.

What worked for the first few weeks might not exactly work for the next few. And if those X, Y, or Z minutes continue to work for 12 weeks, perhaps there was some element of overkill in the early weeks. You see, that same individual may have only needed X-60 minutes during the first few weeks, X-30 minutes during the next few weeks, and X minutes only during the last few weeks. And this isn't just about wasted time – it could mean wasted muscle if you're doing much more cardio than you need.

So make sure you at least consider the possibility of using a cardio volume progression rather than either just picking an arbitrary amount and sticking with it in spite of no progress or going overboard and doing a ton in the early phases when not necessary.

Here's an example of what your cardio volume progression might look like:

Weeks 1 and 2 – 60 total minutes
(1 x 60 minutes or 2 x 30 minutes or 3 x 20 minutes)

Weeks 3 and 4 – 90 total minutes
(2 x 45 minutes or 3 x 30 minutes or 4 x 22.5 minutes)

Week 5 and 6 – 120 total minutes
(2 x 60 minutes or 3 x 40 minutes or 4 x 30 minutes)

Weeks 7 and 8 – 150 total minutes
(3 x 50 minutes or 4 x 37.5 minutes or 5 x 30 minutes)

Note: Keep in mind that progression is dictated by results – if you're losing too fast or starting to feel run-down, slow down the progression. If you're not losing fast enough or not adapting as quickly, speed up the progression.

So what if you're doing HIIT? Does the same type of volume progression work? Of course it does.

In the end, the point here isn't necessarily to follow exactly what I've laid out above or to suggest that volume progression is the only way to schedule your cardio sessions. The point is that you shouldn't just lock into one baseline set of volume parameters and stick with them. Just like with weight training, if you want to progress in the fitness and/or fat loss departments, you'll need to use some sort of cardio progression too.

#2 Intensity Progression for Cardio

So what if you've used a volume progression and simply can't afford any more time? Or what if you just want to use an intensity progression instead of a volume progression? Or what if you want a combination of both?

Well, let's start with intensity progression alone. Rather than increasing the number of minutes spent exercising, when targeting intensity progression you'd increase the average intensity of those same minutes.

In this case, during steady state cardio, you'll want to gradually increase the intensity of your efforts by speeding up. For example, if you're getting comfortable biking three times a week for 30 minutes at level 5 on the stationary bike, you can pick up the intensity of your ride by increasing the level to 6. And, as discussed above, the progression should be systematic. Here's an example:

Week 1 – 3 x 30 minutes at level 5

Week 2 – 3 x 30 minutes at level 6

Week 3 – 3 x 30 minutes at level 7

Week 4 – 3 x 30 minutes at level 8

Note: Again, progression is dictated by results – if you're losing too fast or starting to feel run-down, slow down the progression. If you're not losing fast enough or not adapting as quickly, speed up the progression.

And don't be afraid to mix progression techniques. If, during week 3 you can't get 3 x 30 minutes at level 7, perhaps starting at 3 x 20 minutes at level 7 and working your way up to 3 x 30 minutes at this level is the best strategy.

And, again, does this work for HIIT training? Can you use these intensity progressions for this type of cardio? Yes again!

With HIIT you can increase the mean intensity of your workouts one of two ways. First, you can keep your work-to-rest ratios the same and boost the intensity of the work interval. Secondly, you can reduce your rest interval while keeping your work interval at the same intensity. Either way, your average intensity for the session will be higher and you'll be using a cardio progression to ensure steady results.

#3 Load Progression for Cardio

Another relatively unheralded way of progressing is to increase your cardio load. Cardio load? Yep, that's the amount of weight you're carrying around when you're doing weight-bearing cardio.

I use an X-vest (a weighted vest) for this purpose. To use a load progression for cardio, you'd simply add small amounts of weight to the vest over time while walking, stair-climbing, etc. in order to provide more total resistance. This is the whole Milo thing discussed above.

This strategy is especially useful during periods of weight loss. Technically, rather than actually loading your cardio, you're actually replacing the load that you've lost. And this is a huge asset as the same amount of cardio, once you've lost weight, is much less effective.

After all, 30 minutes of walking done four times per week at 200 pounds is more calorie-costly vs. 30 minutes of walking done four times per week at 185 dieted-down pounds. So why not walk at 200 pounds for a few weeks, then 210 pounds, and so on – regardless of how much body weight you're carrying?

(Interestingly, the same goes for body weight exercises when losing weight – unweighted chins at 185 pounds are much less of a challenge than unweighted chins at 200 pounds.)

Be careful with high-impact activities, however. You don't want to tear up your joints with heavy loads strapped to you during activities like running. Also, athletes shouldn't use this type of load progression during most agility drills or top-end speed work as they're likely to teach themselves to be slower.

And again, rather than using the example above as gospel, the point here is that you can alter your cardio load just like you can alter your cardio intensity and duration.


Hopefully you're now wise to a variety of parameters you can alter to make your cardio work more effective, whether you're looking for increased fitness or better fat loss. Just like weight trainers regularly use progressions with their lifting, in many cases, they should be doing the same for their cardio work.

So, if your fat loss efforts just aren't what you expected them to be, give some of these cardio progression strategies a try!

John Berardi, PhD, is the founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest nutrition coaching and education company. Berardi advises organizations like Apple, Equinox, and Nike. He's coached the San Antonio Spurs, the Carolina Panthers, US Open Champ Sloane Stephens, and 2-division UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre.