10 Great Ways To Makeover Your Cardio Routine (And Finally Get Lean)


If you swing by regularly you’ll know I’m not the hugest fan of cardio. This is not because I think cardio is without benefits, but because I so often see it performed in the wrong way. The result of which more than speaks for itself – I’ve literally watched people grow fatter on the cardio machines in my gym since it opened 4 or so years ago. And it’s been the same in every gym I’ve run my business out of. The long and short of it is that most cardio junkies do things completely wrong. And they have the saddlebags to show for it.

If you’re not sure whether your cardio routine is up to scratch then it’s probably not. And if you can’t understand why the weight simply won’t shift despite all the time and effort you put in, then it’s a safe bet that you’re stuck in a faulty cardio routine.

In which case it’s most definitely time to change your approach before you end up with chunky fat aerobics instructor syndrome. Here’s how – and trust me, this one’s worth a read even if it’s just for a refresher:

1. Cut out endurance cardio. Unless you’re a marathon runner in the making, there’s no call in your life for long bouts of low-intensity cardio. Many fitness experts will still tell you that low-intensity cardio is the best way to stay in the fat-burning zone, but I’m far more interested in the hormonal effects of that slow steady session. And the truth there is that although you may burn fat during the 40 or 60 or 90 minutes you work out for, your metabolism hasn’t been affected in any lasting way. Furthermore, your body adapts after about 6 weeks and then starts to store extra body fat as a means of being prepared for the predicted upcoming sessions.

2. Introduce (true) interval training. If you’re an avid exerciser you’re familiar with interval training – alternating periods of high intensity with periods of lower intensity or recovery. It’s a great idea in theory – interval training allows you to work much harder in a shorter period of time, burning off twice or more as much energy as you would with endurance cardio, and possibly even elevating your metabolism beyond the workout (if the resistance is high enough). The problem? Most people don’t know how to push themselves. Ideal interval training should last no longer than 20 minutes, and the high intensity part should be so extreme that you feel like you’re going to collapse as you watch the last few seconds count down. Your recovery should be true recovery – either a complete standstill, or very slow and relaxed. If you’re able to keep up a ‘decent’ pace then you definitely didn’t work hard enough earlier. Finally, it’s important to make sure you vary your approach. If you usually alternate minute to minute, try 30 second changes. Or 45 hard, 30 recovery. Variety is crucial if you want to achieve lasting results.

3. Try some sprints. Have you ever compared the body of a sprinter to a marathon runner? I’d say it’s a far prettier sight, wouldn’t you? We typically think of sprints as being running-based, but you can definitely use the bike or cross-trainer for sprints. While interval training can allow for increases in speed OR resistance (or both), sprint training is purely speed-based. And typically performed either over a set distance or for a given period of time, before being followed by a complete rest. The rest period should be around twice as long as the work period in order to continually perform at your best. I like to do sets of 10 sprints, timing myself for each. If you’re working with a treadmill it’s pretty tough to measure things precisely as it takes time for the treadmill to build speed and you’re forced to run as it does so. For this reason you may prefer outdoor runs (mark out a distance and then time yourself), or using the indoor bike. Aim to include sprint training at least once a fortnight for variety and a truly revolutionary lung burn.

4. And a few hills. Hills are a great way to build lean muscle on your gluts and legs, and to increase your overall metabolism. Most cardio doesn’t have a lasting effect on your metabolic rate (unlike weight training), but hills are a great exception to this rule. And definitely an excellent way to shake off some cardio cobwebs! Either set the treadmill to a decent incline (at least 8), or find a handy hill in your local park. You can start with brisk walking to begin with, but try to include some light running as well. Unless you really want to punish yourself use an interval or sprint based approach to hill training rather than just running straight uphill for 20 minutes. Mind you, that’d be a workout your body wouldn’t let you forget in a hurry!

5. Make cardio the supplement to real training. It’s one thing to smarten up your cardio routine, but have you ever thought about whether you should be including the stuff at all? If you’re a very busy or stressed person, then cardio does little more than activate a deep-set stress hormone reaction, one result of which is increased fat storage. Pretty counter-productive, huh?! But even if you’re not overly stressed, excess cardio becomes a source of stress, causing the same hormonal activity. Excess is anything more than 2-3 times per week, and for any longer than an average of 20 minutes true work-time. The ONLY exceptions are if you’re training for an endurance event, and even then some experts insist that weight training has a greater effect on your long-term energy. Real training is training replicating movements that our bodies were designed to do. Bending, squatting, twisting, lunging, pushing, pulling. Usually involving some kind of heavy object. For more information on this, see my articles on functional fitness.

6. Pay attention and make your workout count. I can’t tell you how common it is to see people ‘workout’ on cardio machines with their head in the clouds and their body barely following commands. I sure hope that if you’re investing your precious time into hitting the gym you’re actually paying attention and pushing yourself to the point where you know you’re alive. And sure, occasionally it might be okay to just go through the motions, but if that’s the norm you’ve got problems. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re watching TV or reading a book, you’re not working as hard as you should be. Ditto for carrying on a conversation. I say make the choice – either train for results, or go home and relax.

7. Mix it up in the great outdoors. There’s no rule that says cardio training has to involve a specific machine or a set movement. Sometimes the best workouts are the ones that involve spontaneous activity, or some sort of sport – casual or organized. If you’re bored with doing the same thing over and over again, or if you’ve had enough of the gym, it could be time to mix it up in the great outdoors. Grab a frisbee, or some blades, try rock climbing (even if it’s indoors!), or get a group of like-minded friends together for some backyard football. I’m sure you can think of your own ideas. Who knows? You might even discover a new skill!

8. Turn your weight session into cardio. This is probably my favorite approach to cardio. Ever since I discovered how much more effective weight training is for keeping my clients and myself lean, I’ve looked for ways to avoid the stuff in its purest sense. Which is why I absolutely love love love circuit training. It’s time efficient, it sculpts your body, it gets you sweating like nothing else, and it most definitely takes care of cardio training without having to actually hit the cardio machines. The concept is very simple – just choose 3-8 weight-training exercises (I find bigger movements work best, as opposed to isolated), and perform them back to back, one set of each. Pause for 90 seconds (or don’t if you really want to challenge yourself), and repeat 3-5 times. Here’s an example.

Fitness Series

9. Use your upper body. Sometimes your legs just need a break. Or it could be that you’ve become such a ‘machine’ that traditional cardio has been well and truly conquered and no longer forces you to really get that heart rate climbing. This is the perfect time to include some upper body cardio. The most obvious choice is the rowing machine. And let me tell you – if you’ve never used this baby for more than a couple cruisy minutes than you’re not going to know what hit you. Even 5 solid minutes on the rower can be a killer if you really work at it. Personally I love to use the rower for sprint or interval training – 100 meters flat out, followed by 100 meters total recovery is probably my fave. If you can’t go flat out in the 20 or so seconds it takes to get through 100 meters, increase it to 150 or 200 to give yourself more time to work into it. But for truly exceptional fitness and a lasting fat loss effect, shorter and harder is better.

10. Just stop. Here’s a thought. What if you were to cut out cardio training altogether? Maybe not forever (don’t panic!), but even for a couple of weeks. Wouldn’t that be a great way to revolutionize the rest of your training? I’d even be willing to say that circuits could be kept on the agenda, but that’s it. Everybody needs a true break now and then from their standard activity(s), and by cutting out cardio altogether you will notice your performance in other areas improve dramatically. I can’t tell you how often people have told me they don’t give it 100% in the weights room because they know they need to save energy for their cardio – talk about shooting yourself in the foot. And believe me, I totally get how scary it can be to cut back or give up cardio. I was a cardio queen for years. But if there’s even the slightest chance that you could improve your overall training and your physical success by just saying no, then isn’t it worth it? I’d suggest at least three 2-4 week ‘no cardio’ periods each year for maximum results.

I’ll let you decide :-). But in the meantime, get to work on the other 9 points. And do it right away – I guarantee you’ll feel the benefits within just a week or two, and the visual results will soon follow.


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20 responses to “10 Great Ways To Makeover Your Cardio Routine (And Finally Get Lean)”

  1. John says:

    Great post, makes a lot of sense even will try the lay off cardio and see how it goes! thanks

  2. Carla says:

    How often do you recommend we should do HIIT cardio? I try to do it ever other day unless I’m totally out of it due to MS. Is 3-4 times a week too much?

  3. Kat (from Guam) says:

    Very right on. Keep it short, intense and effective (for both cardio and circuit resistance training.)
    I took a month off from running not too long ago since I’m always looking for changing variables in my training to both keep things interesting and my body constantly challenged. Results– no fat gains, more muscle gains. I kept to a real clean diet, added in some short fasts (ESE) and mixed weight training w/ bodyweight training for about 6 days per week.

    Sometimes long cardio just makes me more hungry so keeping it short w/ intervals & sprints is more effective for me for sure. Also I notice after a good sprinting session the next day my abs & legs are sore, even more so sometimes than w/ resistance training! So there are definitely great results.

  4. Kat Eden says:

    @ Kat – definitely sounds like you have the right idea, keep up the great work!

    @ Carla – I would say it is too much, yes, and likely to cause a stress response. Particularly if your body is already under existing stress. I’d recommend 3 times max, with 2 being preferable, and 1 still enough. Use weights circuits instead!

  5. gmoney says:

    great article! thanks so much for writing it!

  6. mika says:

    Interesting article!

    Couple months ago, i stopped doing cardio, because it just didn’t feel right anymore. Suddenly my body fat dropped 3,5 percent, just changing my cardio workouts to German Body Comp Program.
    I guess you know this one, if you are a Poliquin fan 😀

  7. Kat Eden says:

    @Mika GBC is the best!

  8. Meri says:


    and thanks for a great, great post! I’m also familiar with the Poliquin stuff as well as the downsides of doing cardio. I also had to give up cardio for other reasons (a back injury and rotten weather, couldn’t bike to work!) this spring and it made my appetite sink as well as my fat%, which went down to 15,3. That was 2-3 months ago. And now, when I’ve been able to bike to work almost every day, I’m eating like a pig and my weight’s gone up and prolly my fat% as well.

    Could it really be that my relatively easy 25 minutes a day (sometimes twice, sometimes not at all) by bike might cause that? I’ve also seemed to gather some fat on my belly which is unsual for me. Running I haven’t added back if couple of 10K runs don’t count, I just do hills and tabata intervals.

    So would you suggest I give up the biking to work? It really is not nice, not because I’d be attached to cardio but because it’s so nice, being out and all…

    But anyway, I really, really want to get lean again! Glad if you can shed some light on this 🙂 Best wishes from Helsinki!

    • Kat says:

      Hi Meri
      If your body is under excessive stress then yes,even that small amount of cardio could do it! Keep it to a minimum and your body will thank you 🙂

  9. Meri says:

    Kat, well, during those two months I was really, really stressed but not anymore, maybe two weeks of being more relaxed now. So hard to say what to do… I’ll just try eating less and cut down the cardio whenever I feel like I can 🙂 Thank you for replying so quickly! 🙂

  10. Iris says:

    I hope my question is not stupid…You say that walking hills builds muscle in the legs/butt. However, I am a bit sceptical for I think I have learned that the only way building muscle is to lift heavy weights. Anyway I know many people who`d agree with you and swear that biking/walking or running hills did the job for them. Would you be so kind and explain this to me?
    Thank you so much!

    • Kat says:

      I just mean it builds more muscle than standard walking! I certainly don’t mean it’s enough or that it can replace weight training.

  11. Alex says:

    Hi there,

    What are your thoughts on weight programs like Body Pump and Body Power? Being a mum I don’t get a lot of time to get into the weights room but I do enjoy these programs when I can get there.

    • Kat says:

      If you enjoy them then I would keep doing them for sure, but to be honest you’ll get more bang for your buck from full-body weight training in the weights room or even at home! These classes use too-high reps and too-fast tempos; that’s why they don’t work ongoing …