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All cardio is not the same. If you’d speak with an expert in cardiovascular training, chances are that you’ll learn there are different disciplines.
They are the following:
- Metabolic Conditioning
- Moderate Intensity Cardio
- Slow Long-Distance Cardio
- Interval Training
Though they belong in the same category, each cardio discipline has its own set of pros and cons, which I’ll be discussing below. More importantly, you will learn how each one may be used to burn stubborn fat or improve overall conditioning, for example.
Are you ready? Let’s begin.
Metabolic Conditioning or ‘Met-Con’ for short is a term you may have heard while working out at the gym or seen while browsing cardio exercises online. But what does it really mean?
While fitness experts can explain what the met-con is in greater detail, I prefer to keep it short and simple. Metabolic conditioning is when one does hard work using many muscle groups in a short period of time with little to no rest. The intended effect of the training is to ‘wake up’ one’s metabolism by putting on a demand that will exhaust both body and mind.
Broken down into modalities, met-con can be any of the following:
- Bodyweight exercises
- Battling rope
- Dumbbell and barbell complexes
- Interval training
It’s not uncommon for people to combine plyo with battling ropes, or bodyweight exercises with kettlebells as long as the idea of met-con remains.
Greg Glassman’s met-con is close to Cross-fit in several instances. His idea is more about pushing one’s mental toughness to its limits than the physical aspect of it. While this may sound very appealing to a number of people, I wouldn’t advocate CrossFit met-con as a must for everyone. Metabolic conditioning CrossFit style is a niche that may have its own crowd of followers, but it’s really not beneficial for beginners.
If you don’t have any injuries and have had some training experiences before, then CrossFit-style metabolic conditioning can be a viable option. Still, don’t treat it as your primary cardio discipline- it should be more of an occasional challenge that you do every now and then.
Metabolic conditioning are exercises that increase your energy delivery and storage for physical activities. All the movement you do in a met-con workout will improve your muscles in a way that it will become more efficient in using fuel by opening up different metabolic pathways.
Most people tend to think that ‘conditioning’ mostly refers to aerobics when they want to improve blood transport, condition the heart and improve endurance, but this is just part of the larger picture. Met-con is much bigger than that because it encompasses not just aerobics but other forms of movement as well.
For instance, sprinting and weight training are considered anaerobic exercises that can be more effective than cardio staples such as long-distance running or walking. Met-con is huge in the fat burning and weight loss department, as well as improving one’s cardio output but don’t forget the benefits of slow long-distance and interval training can bring.
Now, you may be wondering why met-con is a better option than slow long-distance exercise. There are actually four points I’d like to share with you:
- Met-con can make use of multi-planar, unilateral or corrective exercises to put greater metabolic demand as needed. Plus, it can correct functional movement patterns and asymmetries as well.
- A typical workout may consist of core, conditioning and power exercises.
- Met-con offers much more variety in terms of movement so you can ‘pick’ out what you like and enjoy the activity. It engages both body and mind and is fun once you’re used to it.
- Pound for pound, met-con works better in line with my client’s goals, e.g., core strength, weight loss, improved fitness levels and so on as compared to interval training.
A typical metabolic conditioning session may consist of the Kettlebell Complex, a CrossFit Triplet and an Extended Met-Con Circuit. Here’s how you can do them for the best results.
Do the following movement on each arm for five reps each. Remember, you are not allowed to rest or put the weights down!
- One-arm Kettlebell Swing
- One-arm Kettlebell Push Press
- One-arm Kettlebell Clean
- One arm Bent Over Kettlebell Row
- One-arm Kettlebell Snatch
Here’s a video to help you with the form and movement:
The CrossFit Triplet
Metabolic conditioning and CrossFit come together for an explosive workout package. The 21-15-9 movement is similar to what most CrossFit trainers use. What this means is completing a combination of bodyweight exercise, weight training exercise and a met-con exercise but in rapid succession and of course, with little rest as possible.
The first round should consist of 21 reps per movement, then 15 reps and finally 9 reps. I’d recommend doing Burpees, Barbell Thrusters and the Concept 2 Rower for burning stored calories.
Extended Met-Con Circuit
An extended circuit of metabolic conditioning is best for when you need a challenge in both physical and mental aspects. The concept behind the movement is that your body produces lots of lactic acid when you do the following:
- Carry moderate weights, which allows you to produce 10 to 15 reps.
- Work on large muscle groups with high rep exercises.
When this happens, the accumulation of lactic acid equals a significant increase in the production of growth hormone. CrossFitters refer to this state as ‘chippers’. Done regularly, the conditioning component will constantly put your VO2 max into hyperdrive, which is similar to beating your cardio system at its own game!
So, here’s what you need to do- complete as many reps for each exercise shown below:
- Pull-ups (ten reps)
- Goblet Hold Lunges (thirty reps)
- Push-ups (thirty reps)
- Concept 2 rower (set at thirty calories)
- Push press (thirty reps)
- Sumo High Pull Deadlift (thirty reps)
- Wall Ball shots (thirty reps)
The challenge is that you must complete them within 20 minutes. Do them with as minimal rest as possible.
Moderate Intensity Cardio
Moderate intensity cardio is crucial if you’re looking to build your aerobic base. There’s a science behind the reasoning- your heart’s left ventricle is mainly responsible for pumping blood out and to the rest of your body.
Exercises that make this part strong equate to higher blood volume moving around, and that means more oxygen as well. It naturally follows that your body will be able to do more and tire less when you have higher O2 content.
The truth is, HIIT, or high-intensity interval training just won’t cut it. It’s actually counter-intuitive because your heart will be beating too fast (and you’ll tire yourself out sooner), and as such, it won’t produce the desired effect.
Moderate intensity cardio hits the sweet spot in strengthening your heart’s left ventricle. But what does it mean when you say ‘moderate’? The interpretation could be very different, but here’s the general rule of thumb- you should be able to do these things while exercising:
- You should still be able to hold a conversation.
- You’re sweating regularly.
- Your heart rate is rising significantly throughout the movement.
As long as you’re meeting these three, then you can choose from a variety of modalities, such as swimming, running, biking and even stair climbing.
Moderate intensity cardio also has an upside- it gives you a faster recovery time in-between high-intensity training, workouts and in reps too.
That said, if your goal is to improve your aerobic base then it’s in your best interests to stay off metabolic conditioning and HIIT (for the meantime) and divert all your attention to moderate-intensity cardio. Though it may sound like you’re slacking off, this isn’t the case. Embrace the discipline and you’ll find your aerobic base much improved after a few weeks.
Here are some of my favorite moderate-intensity cardio workouts which you can adapt as your own. If you have access to Airdyne Bikes and Concept 2 Rowers, then great- they’re great for both moderate-intensity and HIIT programs. Running, swimming are also sound alternatives.
Here are my recommended workouts. The rule is to choose any two that you want to do for the week. Track your progress and see if there have been any improvements.
- Go for three miles, then rest a minute
- Go for two miles, then rest a minute
- Go for a mile and you’re done
Concept 2 Rower
- Beginner? do 3K, or three thousand meters
- For Intermediate users, do 4K, or four thousand meters
- Advanced users should set their sights on 5K, or five thousand meters
- Beginners should aim for 3 miles
- Intermediate users should do 4 miles
- Advanced users should go for 5 miles
The Row Split
- Row for 2K, or two thousand meters then rest for a minute
- Row for a thousand meters then rest one minute
- Row five hundred meters then rest for a minute
- Row two hundred and fifty meters, then rest one minute
Airdyne Max Distance
- Go as far as you can for twenty minutes and try to beat your numbers.
For each selection
, you should always try to improve your splits or time.
Related: How to Increase Your Running Speed
Slow, Long Distance Cardio
Slow-Long Distance Cardio is sometimes referred to as ‘active play’. Think long and extended walks and similar movement types and you should be on the right track. Got nothing to do on your off days and weekends? Instead of sitting all day on that couch and watching TV, get up and be active!
Going for a bike ride and walks in the park sounds nice, and the truth is that they are. Plus, you get a gentle cardio workout that serves as the perfect complement to demanding training sessions. If there’s a flaw in slow long-distance cardio, it’s that it can’t burn fat efficiently as with other disciplines.
Moderate intensity, interval training and met-con are all above slow long-distance cardio in this regard. On the upside, it’s one of the best platforms to start your journey with if you’ve been out of the gym for too long.
Then again, you shouldn’t be complacent and do slow long-distance cardio for too long. Once you’re warmed up, you can begin adding more intense exercises to see results in the conditioning and fat loss aspects.
The Pros and Cons of Adopting Slow-Long Distance Cardio Training
Slow long distance cardio is best regarded as something you should do every now and then. However, it shouldn’t comprise a large percentage of your fitness program.
How is Slow-Long Distance Cardio Less Effective?
- The ratio of time spent to calories burned is very inefficient. You could be walking for hours and will have torched only a few calories.
- Walking is an excellent active play option on your days off, but it does very little to improve your cardio makeup or burn fat.
- You’ll burn anywhere from a hundred to 300 calories when jogging or running, depending on your age, weight and other factors. But completing the task will put about 1,500 plyometric reps’ worth of force, multiplied by about two to four times your bodyweight.
- Your joints will take the brunt of the exercise, which increases the risk of getting injured. For that risk and burning only 300 calories maximum, it’s just not worth it.
- Your oxygen debt and heart rate won’t become raised, and as such your metabolic rate won’t be improved based on EPOC, or excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption.
- Your body will adapt to the routine and quickly plateau.
- Sprinters have only four to nine percent body fat, whereas walkers and runners have about twelve to twenty-five percent body fat. (On average, of course)
How is Slow Long Distance Cardio Good?
- Helps with faster recovery between workouts, between sets of high-intensity exercise, and even reps.
- Arguably the best form of active play on off days and during weekends.
- Good training when you’re going on a triathlon, half-marathon or full marathon.
- Great launching pad for those who are just starting out, severely overweight, recovered from an injury or have serious health conditions.
Related: How to Run Your Fastest 5k EVER
Last but certainly not least, we have interval training. By definition, interval training is conditioning that’s made up of work and rest sessions done in an alternate manner.
It’s flexible enough to allow the practitioner to choose from various modalities, including the stepmill, Concept 2 Rower, sprinting, treadmill and Airdyne Bike, among others.
The simplest form of interval training is doing a hard and fast sprint for half a minute, then taking a break anywhere between 30 to 90 seconds, depending on your condition.
Interval training also takes into account your fitness level and your end goal.
Why Should You Take Up Interval Training?
Interval training is the go-to discipline of fitness buffs and athletes when they want to get in the best possible shape. It’s even assumed a new moniker- the HIIT, or high-intensity interval training.
You enjoy an increase in metabolic rate in twelve to twenty four hours after a good workout session. Interval training is not only great for conditioning the body, but also for losing weight and torching unwanted fat.
In today’s fast-paced society, not everyone will have time to complete training sessions that take 40 to 60 minutes. The answer? According to science, less is more when you want to get slimmer.
One of the best ways to increase workout intensity is to switch to interval training. Instead of being on ‘beast mode’ 100% of the time, you alternate between low or medium intensity and high intensity. Science has proved that interval training is better than anaerobic and aerobic fitness for fat-burning purposes.
Why Not Do High-Intensity Interval Training All The Time?
Although the media has long since hyped HIIT as the ‘next best thing’, they’re sadly mistaken. It’s not the ultimate silver bullet for those who want a great physique and conditioning. In truth, HIIT is so physically demanding and complex that not alot of people will know what to do, which results in wasted movement and time.
When is Interval Training NOT For You?
- Most interval training movements work the knee, hip and ankles, which could cause asymmetrical and muscular imbalances.
- Working a machine is boring and gets old fast. You won’t have as much motivation and engagement as other forms of exercise.
- It’s much more difficult when put on a side by side versus running, jogging and walking. Then you have the boredom aspect, which further discourages people from investing their time and effort in it.
Once you shift your mindset to gaining future results you’ll find interval training very appealing. Yes, you won’t get as much feedback as with other cardio disciplines but it’s pound for pound an excellent program for those who are serious about their conditioning and cardio health.
That said, here’s how you can start your workout.
- Start with the Concept 2 Rower and do five rounds three hundred meters each. You can rest for as long as needed to make the succeeding three hundred meter reps in-between.
- Get on the Airdyne Bike and do six rounds on half-minute on and off intervals.
- Perform the Sled Push by loading up weights on the equipment, then pushing it for half a minute in a forty-meter distance. Do this for four to eight rounds with one minute rests each round.
Combine metabolic conditioning and interval training to get in the best possible shape in the soonest possible time. Once a while, change up your routine and do slow-long distance cardio and moderate-intensity cardio to recover and strengthen your aerobic base.
Ryan is a former college wrestler and lifelong fitness fanatic. He has run half marathons, done mud runs, placed in body transformation contests, coached wrestling and now coaches girls soccer. Not to mention he has also tried literally hundreds of supplements over the years and has a vast and thorough supplement knowledge. He has written for Muscle & Strength, Testosterone Junkie, The Sport Review and other publications. He is also the editor in chief of this website. Feel free connect with him on his LinkedIn page below.