Cardio Workouts That Backfire
When programmed intelligently, cardio workouts can fit into any fitness program. The problem is, four of the most popular choices kinda 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 waste time if your goal is to lose fat and keep it off.
Here are the top four dumbest forms of cardio and a few smarter, more effective alternatives.
Since its inception in the mid-90s, the elliptical has become one of the most popular cardio machines known to man. Walk into any gym today and you'll see a row of these self-proclaimed revolutionary machines. A better description for them? Time-wasting plastic prisons.
Primary Problem: It's Monotonous and Unchallenging
Back in the day, a few university studies said the elliptical was "more joint-friendly" than its vilified counterpart, the treadmill. Finally, gym addicts could justify their three-hour workouts consisting of monotonous, mind-numbing exercise!
Like many novelties, fitness society transformed a once noble idea – reducing joint stress – into pathological insanity. In today's dysfunctional fitness culture, hopping on the elliptical a few hours a week while catching up on Netflix has become the symbol of what fitness is not.
Why do people continue to flock to the elliptical? The answer is simple: The elliptical is inherently easy and unchallenging, both physically and mentally, for the person who likes to pretend to exercise.
When used as a singular fitness method, the elliptical provides self-justification for people who aren't 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
Try this circuit instead with 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 with 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, remember, the elliptical isn't going anywhere for at least another two decades. Fitness fads, no matter how damaging, are hard to kill.
If your goal is to quickly elicit knee pain while adding to your soft and jiggling midsection, there are more entertaining options 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 simple 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 the 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 steps. We need to focus on more attainable, long-term solutions to remain healthy and fit.
The "moderately slow jog" for health and body composition benefits defeats the purpose of training from both sides of the 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 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
Try incline treadmill sprints instead:
- Speed: 7.5 to 10.0 mph
- Incline: 3 to 8 degrees
- Sprint Time: 15 to 25 seconds
- Rest: 30 to 45 seconds
- Sets: 5 to 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 (walking) and metabolically challenging intensities (sprinting) provide the best bang for your buck.
And if you insist on racking up the miles, mix in a little speed work – intervals and sprints – to increase your work capacity. Quit killing yourself for subpar results.
The origin and treatment of lower back pain continue to be one of the most deeply rooted mysteries in medicine and orthopedics. The number of reported cases is 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.
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 Nikes 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
Try the inclined treadmill walk instead:
- Speed: 2.5 to 3.5 mph
- Incline: 5 to 10 degrees
- Time: 25 to 45 minutes
Monitor your heart rate every five minutes to ensure it stays where you want it – low and steady. Adjust the 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 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 and be a decent way to pack some muscle onto the ol' thighs. However, spin class is the nasty stepbrother of the traditional bike program.
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 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 "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
Hop on an Assault AirBike and try this instead:
- Resistance: Maximal
- Sprint Time: 15 to 30 seconds
- Rest: 30 to 45 seconds
- Sets: 5 to 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 heavy metabolic stress to the quads and glutes 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.
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