How to make cardio work for you
Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 101. “100th EPISODE BEST OF: Cardio”. In today’s post, I’ll talk about what steady state cardio is, my suggestion on how to use it, the positives and negatives, and a general framework of how you can incorporate both steady state cardio and HIIT into your training.
I always like to say that this is HIGHLY individualized. We all know that person that exercises intensely everyday and seems to be totally fine. We also know that person, and maybe that person is you, that can hardly tolerate any super intense exercise without feeling extremely tired, being in immense pain, having sleep issues, etc.
We want to prioritize gaining muscle (or at least maintaining it). My philosophy is that cardio is always just a bonus add-on.
Cardio should not be the priority or overdone because too much of it can blunt your protein synthesis and get in the way of your recovery. This takes away from the effectiveness of your strength training sessions and can make you feel like you’re running in circles.
So although I’ll give you a framework for how to do cardio, know that this process may take trial and error and experimenting for you to figure out exactly how much is right for YOUR body.
Let’s dive into steady-state cardio.
Steady- State Cardio
Steady-state activity is a cardiovascular exercise that can be sustained for an extended period of time (up to 45 min-1 hour). This includes jogging, walking, swimming, biking, or an aerobics class. These types of activities do not place a high-intensity demand on the muscles, which is why it can be carried out for so long.
Within steady state cardio, there is LISS and MISS.
LISS is low-intensity steady-state cardio.
This is generally walking, hiking, or leisurely bike rides where your heart rate is 50-60% of your heart rate max. You can generally keep up a conversation or breathe in and out through your nose pretty easily while doing this type of exercise.
MISS is moderate-intensity steady-state cardio, which is usually 60-70% of your heart rate max. This heart rate range is where you land in a spin class, jogging, power walking, etc. This type of exercise will be more difficult to maintain a conversation.
Low-Intensity Steady-State Cardio
So let’s first talk about LISS, and if and when there is a place for LISS.
This is the type of steady-state cardio that I prefer to prioritize over lots of MISS.
LISS is easy on your central nervous system. It is a great way to keep your body moving for blood sugar regulation and for heart health, but isn’t likely to overstress your system.
LISS is less likely to turn off protein synthesis and, therefore, not as likely to impede the results from your strength workouts. It’s also easier on the joints since it’s generally walking, hiking, or gentle bike rides.
Moderate-Intensity Steady-State Cardio
Let’s next get into MISS- where you will land in most group fitness classes.
Doing too much MISS can actually inhibit you from seeing results from your resistance training workouts. MISS can blunt protein synthesis, which is the pathway that signals to your body to improve muscle size and strength.
When this pathway is turned off because of over-stressing your body with too much MISS, you inhibit your body from seeing the benefits from your strength training workouts. This is when your cardio can become counterproductive.
So how much steady-state cardio should you do?
Doing some steady-state cardio can be beneficial, but doing too much can be harmful.
Everyone will tolerate different doses of cardio alongside their strength routines.
I’ve had a lot of runners reach out who want to run and do our program, but they are worried they won’t see the same results.
I like to recommend doing our 3x/week track with no cardio. That is more than enough for hypertrophy given that you are getting close to failure in your sets and eating enough protein. Then you can run on the other days. I recommend leaving at least one, if not two, days for recovery where you’re walking or doing a super easy jog, staying in that LISS heart rate zone of 50-60%.
Track your recovery
You’ll know you need to adjust your routine when you are getting signs that you aren’t recovering.
Sometimes taking out a cardio workout or reducing your time can make everything else higher quality and therefore be MORE effective than doing more. You’ll have to tinker with it to find your own dosage.
Subjective signs you aren’t recovering:
- You’re super sore/tight/limbs will feel heavy
- You’re exhausted all the time
- You’re feeling progressively weaker in your strength workouts instead of stronger
Objective measures to test your recovery:
- CO2 tolerance test
- Grip strength
Incorporating HIIT with LISS/MISS cardio
Let’s go over a framework for how to incorporate HIIT and steady-state cardio, whether it’s LISS or MISS. I want to give what has worked best for my body, and options for you depending on your priorities.
I’m definitely not anti-cardio, but I do tend to think it’s overemphasized, and can be easily overdone in a stressed out, under-nourished, sleep-deprived woman.
If this sounds like you, my suggestion is to not even worry about moderate-intensity or high- intensity cardio. Just strength train, add in some walking, focus on your nutrition, get your joints healthy, and try to sleep well.
If you feel like you’re “falling apart,” getting your stress hormones in check by taking out the extra stress of lots of cardio could be exactly what you need for now.
But when you’re ready, feeling good, feeling like you have your stress hormones and joint health in check, you may be able to incorporate higher-intensity cardio in a way that will be effective and feel good.
There are endless combinations of how to incorporate cardio, and like I said, there is no one size fits all.
How to add in cardio
In general, follow these guidelines to establish the best routine for you.
- Prioritize strength training. If you only have time for cardio OR strength, choose strength. This is because strength training doubles as cardio.
- On top of strength training, shoot for 150 minutes/week of LISS where you’re at that 50-60% HRM. My low-impact cardio burst class generally falls into this category and is one you could take every day if you can’t get outside for a brisk walk. LISS may also be yoga flow or a dance class. It doesn’t have to be traditional “cardio.” As long as you’re getting your heart rate up, that’s what matters. Anything counts: walking faster at the grocery store, going up and down the stairs a few times, etc. We just want to get your body moving more often to encourage a less sedentary life. Don’t stress about hitting this number perfect, just ballpark it.
- If you’re a runner or love to take the occasional spin class, you could do MISS instead of LISS. Or a combo of both. Again, hitting about 150 minutes/week. If you’re adding more MISS, make sure to track your recovery and look for signs that you’re overdoing it. Take out cardio if you’re seeing signs like constant soreness, weakness, muscle loss, etc.
- Optional: HIIT 1-2x/week. That’s truly all you need. Keep the sessions short and all out effort. 15-20 minutes max. The cardio burst class on the membership is all I do for HIIT these days and it feels like more than enough for me.
I hope this feels empowering, informative, and helps you to add cardio into your routine in a sustainable way.