The Cardio Myth

If you’ve taken up running, biking or swimming to get rid of a bulging belly, you’re hardly alone. But you may be wasting your time. If you really want to lose weight, claims Alwyn Cosgrove -- a certified strength conditioning specialist who is also the co-author of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs and owner of one of Men’s Health magazine’s top 10 gyms in America, Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. -- standard aerobic conditioning is simply not the most effective way to do it.

All of the trainers at Results Fitness subscribe to the theory that cardio just doesn’t work that well for fat loss. To find out why, we spoke to two of them. “It doesn’t promote the lean tissue growth required to elevate your metabolism and turn your body into a fat-burning machine,” begins fitness coach Brian Gilbert. Fellow fitness coach and certified strength conditioning specialist Charles Chattong goes on to explain that though you do burn more fat during cardio as compared to strength training, the minute the cardio stops, so does the fat burn. In contrast, he continues, “following a bout of high-intensity metabolic training [like weight training], the body’s metabolism remains elevated for several hours.”

So while the scale might tell you that you’re losing weight doing cardio, Gilbert says a closer look at your body composition would reveal that hardly anything has changed. In fact, the weight loss you’re seeing is usually the result of muscle loss. “Long bouts of aerobic conditioning will actually become a muscle-wasting exercise, which will lower your basal metabolic rate [how many calories you burn a day] and hinder your ability to burn fat,” he says.

In other words, your body will actually begin to tap into your hard-won muscle stores in order to meet the energy demands of the exercise. In a nutshell, says Gilbert, “you weigh less, but you’ve simply become a smaller version of your previous self.” Ouch … not exactly the goal most guys have in mind.

What we want is less fat and leaner muscles, right? So after chucking the cardio (and suddenly having much more training time at your disposal), your next step is to incorporate what Gilbert says are the two key components of any great fat-loss program: 1) Excellent nutrition and 2) Strength training that will increase your lean tissue and kick that metabolic rate into high gear.

Specifically, Chattong recommends that you embark on a program with both full-body metabolic resistance training and high-intensity interval training -- a combination that places a significant anaerobic demand on the body. That demand, says Chattong, ramps your metabolism up without sacrificing lean muscle mass.

To shed the fat and begin to sculpt the physique you desire, follow the workout below, which was designed by Chattong:

  • Train four times a week.
  • Alternate between workout Nos. 1 and 2, but never work out three days in a row.
  • Warm up before every workout with arm swings, lunges, and downward-facing dog and upward-facing dog poses.
  • Superset the A and B moves (i.e., do them back-to-back, without any rest in between). The rest comes after each superset is completed.

 

WORKOUT No. 1

 

Sets

Reps

Rest

Core training




A) Front plank (demo)

1-2

45-60s

0

B) Tall kneeling cable chop (demo)

1-2

12 reps/side

45s





Power Training




Med ball chest pass (demo)

3-4

10 reps

45s





Resistance Training




A) KB/DB goblet squat (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) One-arm DB row on bench (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s





A) Sprinter step up (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) Cable pull down (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

 




Interval training




Sprint

6

60 yards

90s

 

WORKOUT No. 2

 

Sets

Reps

Rest

Core training




A) Side plank (demo)

1-2

20-30s

0

B) Stability ball jackknife (demo)

1-2

10 reps

45s





Combination Movement




Squat to DB press (demo)

2-3

10 reps

45s





Resistance Training




A) SHELC (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) T push-up (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s





A) Split squat (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

B) Alternating DB shoulder press (demo)

2-3

12-15 reps

60s

 




Interval training




Rowing machine (or sprint again)

6

15 seconds

90s

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

The Stubborn Belly-fat Solution

You've tried it all: cutting down the carbs, eating endless amounts of chicken breast, exercising like mad. So why are those infernal love handles -- not to mention that below-the-belly-button roll of fat -- still there?

In part, we (as in the fitness media) are to blame. There are hundreds of different ways to put muscle on the body, and these workouts are what fitness and muscle magazines love to feature; it sure beats snore-inducing cardio with another shot of someone running on the beach. But unless you want to look like a bodybuilder (and even those guys do plenty of cardio come cutting time), it’s time to step up the cardio. “You’ve got to train like an athlete to look like an athlete,” says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Northeast Texas Community College.

In other words, 30 minutes of slow cardio a few times a week is not enough -- unless you’re happy with your current level of fat stores. If you want to access that fat, says Seabourne, you’ve got to do the right kind of cardio (intervals twice a week), the right kind of weight training (focusing on each muscle group twice a week), and long slow distance (LSD) cardio two to three times a week -- all while eating enough to support your metabolism.

Each form of exercise is essential if you really want to chisel your body down. You need LSD cardio because after your body burns through the glycogen in your muscles, it burns your fat stores next. And while interval training doesn’t burn as much fat during exercise, it burns more calories afterward -- just like strength training does.

Seabourne points out that some guys over-train on LSD cardio while eating too little and neglecting intervals or weights -- therefore slowing their metabolisms and holding on to that stubborn fat. Other guys do a lot of weights and short bouts of cardio, then eat tons of food in order to build muscle -- so their fat stores remain steady or even increase.

The following program was designed by Seabourne to give you the best of both worlds (i.e., recruit more than enough muscle while forcing those stubborn fat stores to surrender, at last).

Follow this program six weeks on and one week off, depending on your body’s ability to avoid over-training mode (in which gains come to a screeching halt while muscle soreness and overall fatigue increase). For some, three weeks may be all you can handle without a break. For others, 12 weeks works.

Weights
You probably have this covered, but here’s a guideline: Lose the bodybuilding program with all the isolation lifts and the absurd amount of exercise sets per body part (e.g., 15 sets of chest). Instead, go with upper-body on Monday and Thursday, then lower-body on Tuesday and Friday -- but only with about 20-30 minutes for each weight-training workout. Aim for two to three sets of two exercises for the major body parts (chest, shoulders, back, quadriceps and core) and two to three sets of one exercise for the smaller body parts (triceps, biceps, hamstrings and calves).

Interval Cardio
Complete two 20- to 30-minute bouts of cardio per week. Always start with a warm-up and end with a cooldown. Examples include:

  • On a heavy bag: Three minutes of effort + one-minute recoveries
  • On a stationary cycle: 10 cycles of 15-second sprints + 45-second recoveries
  • On a treadmill or outside on a grass field: 10 cycles of 10-second sprints + 50-second recoveries

LSD Cardio
Because of the length of each session (60 to 90 minutes), Seabourne’s preference for LSD is nonimpact. “For some, impact LSD, like jogging, can cause unhelpful muscle breakdown -- whereas cycling will not,” he explains.

An LSD cycling, elliptical or stair-climbing program can begin with an hour. Add two minutes a week until you’re moving for 90 minutes. Any more than 90 minutes and you'll need a snack to replenish glycogen stores.

Get a Jump on Your Fitness with Plyometrics

Elite athletes know plyometrics. Simply put, they know it improves athletic performance by making them quicker and more explosive. Once used in a small percentage of athletic programs, plyometrics are now an integral part of the elite athlete’s regimen, with everyone from Drew Brees to Kevin Durant to Tiger Woods swearing by them.

But the average gym-goer, no matter how fit, probably doesn’t fully understand them. While a plyo program has tremendous value, it is a highly specialized fitness activity that needs to be done in tandem with an overall strengthening program, and it needs to be done right.

The Basics
“Plyometrics capitalizes on strength,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) Gregory Haff, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at West Virginia University who coaches Olympic weightlifters. In other words, make sure you have a strong base before embarking on a plyo program, especially in your legs, hips and core. If you’re doing plenty of power exercises like squats, lunges, leg presses, stiff-legged dead lifts, leg curls and core moves, then you’re ready.

For the beginner, Haff recommends doing plyos twice a week for 80-100 jumps (do cardio and weights on two to three other days). Your plyo program will consist of a 10- to 20-minute warm-up and only about 10 minutes of plyos. Haff advises a four-to-six week program before a sport season (not during one). If you’re not playing a sport, simply cycle in a month of plyometrics every three to four months.

Why So Limited?
According to Haff, fatigue cuts down your ability to engage the strength-shortening cycle, or SSC, which is what plyometrics is all about.

Any explosive movement involves the two phases of muscular contraction: the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening under tension) followed by the concentric phases (muscle being shortened). A pre-stretch of the muscle lengthens it and creates tension that can be used to increase the concentric contraction, which must immediately follow, or else the tension goes away as heat. Take, for example, the quick countermovement before jumping, when you rapidly switch from descending to ascending. The faster the muscle is stretched eccentrically, the greater the force on the subsequent concentric phase. In other words, the shortest amount of time spent on the ground (amortization) during a jump results in the greatest jumping performance.

Tire your muscles and you’ll lengthen the amortization, which then decreases the effectiveness of the plyometric exercise.

The Warm-up
Complete a dynamic 10- to 20-minute warm-up prior to plyos: high-knee walking, heels-to-butt walking, skipping, walking lunges, shuffling sideways, carioca (moving sideways in a grapevine movement of step, step behind, step in front), running backward with heels hitting butt, rope skipping, and finally dynamic stretches (neck rotations, shoulder rolls, arm rotations, trunk twists, hip rotations, knee rolls, ankle rotations and leg swings).

The Program
The following program was provided by Jim Radcliffe, CSCS, strength coach at the University of Oregon. Use a flat, cushioned surface, and rest for 30 to 60 seconds between each set.

Exercise

# Reps

# Sets

1. Pogo

10

3

2. Squat jump

4 to 6 (first 2 weeks); then 6 to 8

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

3. Rocket jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

4. Star jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

5. Galloping

10

3

6. Fast skipping

10

3

Pogo: Take upright stance with knees slightly bent, chest out and shoulders back. Jump straight up by projecting hips upward for height, using only lower portion of legs; you’ll resemble a pogo stick, with knees staying slightly bent throughout exercise. With arms bent at 90 degrees, swing them up for each jump to assist. Upon each takeoff, keep toes pointed up (instead of down).

Squat jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Interlock fingers, and place palms against back of head. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending hips, knees and ankles to maximum length as quickly as you can. For first two weeks, pause between each jump.

Rocket jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Slightly flex arms, and hold them close to body. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending whole body (including arms) vertically.

Star jump: Same as rocket jump, except extend limbs outward in all four directions away from body, arms pointed at 10 and 2 o’clock and legs at 7 and 5 o’clock.

Galloping: (For this and the following exercise, you'll need access to a large, open space.) Assume a standing position with one leg in front of the other. Gallop like a horse by pushing off with back leg and foot, and continue to keep same leg behind hips while maintaining other leg in forward position. One foot will always come off the ground before the other. Keep ankle locked to emphasize spring-loaded landing and takeoff. Switch position of legs after 10 gallops.

Fast skipping: Assume a relaxed standing position with one leg slightly forward. Skip as quickly as possible, maintaining close contact with the ground and eliminating air time.

Plan to Ski or Snowboard? Strengthen up Now!

Snowboard-and-ski season is fast upon us. And while your mind may be ready for the powder, chances are your body isn’t. That’s because skiing and snowboarding are sports that require a specific type of lower-body muscle strength, which you don’t typically get from summer activities. Fail to build up the right muscles -- primarily supporting the knees and lower back -- and you leave yourself open to some nasty injuries.

Think about your body when you ski: Your knees are absorbing all the impact from the terrain up through the body. “The knee gets tremendous overuse due to the forces placed on it,” says Mike Wunsch, CSCS, director of fitness at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. “And it has to take the slack from the now locked-in ankle.”

Weak quads and hamstrings can make the knee joint vulnerable to a ligament injury, such as an LCL or ACL tear, either from a fall or from ski tips running in opposite ways.

“The lower back is the other area that absorbs a lot of impact,” adds Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCA, co-owner of Body Results Fitness in Seattle and author of The Outdoor Athlete. “Since a downhill skier spends so much time in a crouch position, if he or she has a weak core, like the weakest link in any chain, that area runs the risk of injury.”

For a safe and successful winter-sports season, Wunsch recommends the following workout. Do two to three sets of eight to 12 reps of each exercise twice a week.

SNOW STRENGTH

Box step-down:
Stand on a box 12 to 24 inches high and step off, working on controlling your body’s downward movement and nailing the landing. Alternate the lead leg throughout the set.

Lateral hops: Keeping feet directly underneath you, quickly hop sideways without pausing during landing phases. After several hops one way, reverse direction. Keep chest up, and maintain good posture throughout.

Pause squats: Simply pause in the bottom squat position, keeping your muscles flexed, before coming up. You can use a light load (a bar or dumbbells held at the sides) and pause several seconds or go heavier and pause for just two seconds.

Single-leg balance: Snowboarders need to work on balance and building up endurance in the foot-stabilizing musculature. Work up to several minutes (as that’s how long a run can last) standing on one foot with the other lifted off the ground, knee up.

Lateral lunge: Step to the right with the right foot, keeping toes forward and your feet flat. Squat through the right hip while keeping the left leg straight. Squat as low as possible, holding this position for two seconds. Push back to the starting position and repeat to the opposite side.

Diagonal wood chops: Keep legs shoulder-width apart, knees soft. Using both hands, hold a dumbbell alongside your right ear, with elbows slightly bent. (Picture yourself holding up an ax, ready to chop wood.) Flex abs and do a slight squat as you rotate and bring arms down to the side of your left knee. Slowly bring arms back up to starting position. Switch sides after each set.

The Pallof press: Standing with the side of your body next to a cable machine, hold the cable handle with both hands (one on top of the other) right in front of your chest. The cable pulley should be in the same horizontal plane as your abs, and the cable should be taut. Brace your abs and “press” the handle straight out in front of you. Then return the handle back to your chest. Keep moving the handle back and forth while trying to keep it in a straight line (indicating that you are stabilizing your torso well). Switch sides.

SNOW CARDIO
Cardio at the end of your workout should be in a similar ratio to the work/rest ratio for your sport. If your slope runs are short and sweet (like for rails, jumps, etc.), do several short, super-intense bursts followed by short rest periods (such as 15-second sprints followed by 30 seconds of rest). If you expect to do long runs, surfing and carving the mountain, do longer periods of medium-to-high intensity with longer rest periods (three-minute bouts on the elliptical, for example, and two-minute rests).

The Best Fall Sport for Cardio

Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

Fall sports season is kicking into gear, but you’ve committed to doing more than just watching sports on TV. You want to play ’em. Moreover, you want to participate in the ones that will actually be good for you. So which fall sports offer the best cardio workout?

There are countless pastimes to choose from -- everything from archery to wallyball. For our purposes, though, we’ve narrowed down the field (pun intended) to three top contenders, and from there, we’ll declare the best.

Contender No. 1: Soccer
While many red, white and blue-blooded Americans used this year’s World Cup as an excuse to go out and celebrate, most still don’t accept soccer as a real sport beyond the youth level. But the 6.39 billion people outside the U.S. do take the game seriously. Very seriously.

One of the great things about soccer is that it requires next to no equipment to play -- all you need is a ball and a couple of sticks to mark the perimeters of the goal. It also requires very little skill to get a good workout.

Now, before all you Cristiano Ronaldo fans start sending hate mail, we’re not saying soccer requires no skill. We’re saying anyone can run around for 90 minutes on a soccer field for the sake of a good workout -- and possibly have a little fun in the process!

As for the workout, soccer demands an hour and a half of starting, stopping, direction changing, sliding and jumping in the middle of an open field, all while you maneuver a ball with your feet (or at least try to). The near constant movement of soccer challenges your aerobic system, but the occasional bursts of speed can really push your anaerobic threshold to the max.

Note: If there’s one position you don’t want to play when a good cardio workout is your goal, it’s goalie. Sure, your heart rate will occasionally spike when you’re trying to stop a 1-pound, 70-mph bullet coming at you and the net. But you can get the same heart-pounding effect when you realize you just accidentally tipped over your friend’s 50-inch plasma TV.

Contender No. 2: Football
A typical game consists of approximately 125 plays, each lasting an average of seven seconds and distributed over four 15-minute quarters. Even if you play on both sides of the ball, you’ll still only get about 14 minutes of work before the final second ticks off the clock.

So why, then, is football such a good cardio workout?

For starters, wearing a helmet and shoulder pads adds close to 30 pounds to your weight load. Throw in highly intense, short blasts of activity requiring power and quick reaction time while simultaneously trying to avoid being tossed aside by one or more of the 11 adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled opponents, and you’ve got yourself some cardio!

Contender No. 3: Basketball
Take a constant action sport like soccer, make the playing field a lot smaller, toss in some aggressive physical contact like football, add a small steel rim at each end of the playing court, and what do you get?

Well, yeah, basketball obviously. But more important, you get a nice blend of the types of cardio workouts you’d get from soccer or football. Additionally, basketball can be played indoors or out, any time of year.

Even if you don’t boast the kind of ball-handling skills worthy of an hour-long circus-like ESPN press conference (cough ... LeBron ... cough), you can still get your cardio workout in by being Johnny Hustle and setting picks, going after rebounds and boxing out your opponent in the paint.

The Winner: Football

Basketball and soccer fans might be surprised when we say football is best for your heart. While the plays are relatively short, the sheer intensity of the game requires you to work your muscle fibers to the max -- all of which require oxygen. How does that oxygen get to your muscles? Via your cardiovascular system, of course!

With only 30 seconds or so of rest between each play, a gridiron workout may just be the ultimate in interval training.