Skip to content

The Cardio Component

Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is critical to the long term success of your fitness program and to your overall health. It will also dramatically improve your results, helping you lose the fat much more rapidly. The goal is to get as many large muscles as possible working together in order to burn the greatest amount of calories during and after the exercise. Your cardiovascular or aerobic program should consist of the least amount of work necessary to initiate a change. It should not be changed until the body adapts (no longer losing fat). Once your body adapts, you will need to alter your workout by:

1) Increasing the intensity,
2) Changing the mode (bike, treadmill, etc.),
3) Increasing the frequency (days per week), and
4) Increasing the amount of time per session.

More is not necessarily better when it comes to cardiovascular exercise for fat loss. If you do too much too soon, you can actually cause your body to hit a plateau. The key to adhering to your cardiovascular program is choosing machines or activities that you enjoy. For example, you may choose to take your dog for an intense walk rather than getting on a treadmill.


Cardio Starting Recommendations
When starting a cardiovascular exercise program, it is important to determine what level of intensity will be most appropriate for you. Intensity is determined by the speed and/or resistance of the activity and is can be measured by your heart rate. Intensity is one of the most important components of a successful cardiovascular program. Higher intensity levels of cardiovascular exercise result in burning greater amounts of calories and absolute fat in shorter periods of time. If you are attempting to lose fat, cardiovascular intensity should be increased only as necessary. Be sure to consistently monitor your intensity by checking your heart rate.

For a beginner exercising at a low cardiovascular fitness level, low to moderate intensity (50 to 60% of Maximum Heart Rate) is considered a safe and effective starting point. The ultimate goal for a person who wants to decrease body fat is to gradually progress to a higher cardiovascular intensity level (65 to 85% of MHR).

If you are already exercising at a high level of intensity, you may be able to begin your cardiovascular program at 65 to 85% of MHR.


Cardio Adjustments

When you have been doing the recommended amount of cardiovascular activity consistently for at least three weeks and your fat loss has slowed significantly or stopped completely, it is time to make some adjustments.

Adjust Intensity
The first adjustment you should make is to increase the intensity of the activity. Intensity can be increased by increasing the speed, resistance or both. The first step in increasing intensity should be an increase in speed. This will keep you in the aerobic zone, where you burn a higher percentage of fat, without crossing your anaerobic threshold. After you have increased the speed, the next step will be to increase the resistance (i.e., level 1 to 2, 3 to 4, etc.).

Adjust Mode
The next adjustment will be to start altering the “mode” of exercise. For example, if you have been using a treadmill four days per week, you may want to switch to using the Elliptical Trainer two days and the treadmill two days per week.

Adjust Duration
The next adjustment will be to increase the duration of cardiovascular activity (i.e., 20 minutes to 30 minutes). Remember, you want to do the least amount of work necessary to initiate a change. If you increase duration too much, you may cause your body to adapt sooner and hit a plateau. The average increase in duration is 10 minutes. You may want to start with a lower intensity for this 10 minute increase.
For example, you were originally doing 4 days of cardio for 30 minutes per session at 70% MHR. You hit a plateau and increased your intensity to 85% MHR. Now, you have hit another plateau and need to increase the duration to 40 minutes. You will want to do the first 30 minutes at 85% MHR and the additional 10 minutes at 70% MHR or less. If at any point during the exercise you feel uncomfortable, stop the activity immediately or reduce your intensity level.

Adjust Frequency
The next adjustment will be to increase the frequency of cardiovascular activity (i.e., 4 days to 5 days). On this additional day, you will begin your activity at a lower intensity. Remember, only increase levels when absolutely necessary. The maximum number of days you should do this intense activity is six days per week.

Adjust Everything
If you have hit a plateau at 60 minutes six days per week, it is time to take one week off from all activities. Start over at 4 days per week at 30 minutes per session. The reason for this is that further increasing the amount of activity at this point will most likely be counter productive. Your body will try to protect itself from burning anymore fat. By taking one week off, you cause your body to lower its protective mechanisms. This will allow you to start the whole process over, reigniting your body’s fat burning furnace.

Heart Rate Measurement

To determine your intensity level, you will need to know your heart rate. Many cardio machines can measure your heart rate while you exercise. You can also purchase a personal heart rate monitor to accurately and conveniently measure your heart rate. They are as inexpensive as $35. However, if neither of these options is available, you can always measure your heart rate the old-school way.

Begin by placing your palm facing upward. Rest your index and middle finger around the top of your wrist just below the hand
Lightly apply pressure in order to locate your pulse. Be certain not to apply excessive pressure, as this may impede your results.
Count the number of beats in a six second period and add a zero to that number.
Example: If you count 7 beats in six seconds, add a 0 to give you 70. Your heart rate is 70 beats per minute.

See the "Cardio Intensity: Maximum Heart Rate Chart" above.

This section introduces general concepts of the Cardio Component. We have a simple step-by-step process for setting up your profile and cardio schedule. See the “Cardiovascular/Aerobic Starting Recommendations” Section. We will apply these concepts during the process of setting up your profile and evaluating your progress. You may also want to refer back to this section as you progress towards your goal to help you make changes to your program.


NEXT: The Weight Training Component

*See Also: Workout Programs