Cardio is an important part of any well-rounded training program. Unfortunately, the dreaded “C” word is avoided like the plague by meatheads and gym rats around the world. Most fear that excess cardio will result in muscle loss (or they’re just lazy), so they tend to neglect it completely in their workout regimen. But not all cardio is out to “steal your gains”.
Here are 5 cardio exercises that burn fat and build muscle.
Muscle Building Cardio Exercises
✓ High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity interval training (HIIT) consists of short, all-out bursts of work followed by brief, timed rest periods. The goal is to get your heart rate up to near max levels quickly, allow your body to recover, and then do it again. HIIT can be used to target any muscle group based on exercise selection, and has been proven to preserve- and even build- muscle. This style of training is extremely efficient, and has a list of benefits including:
- Increased metabolism
- Increased anaerobic capacity
- Increased natural growth hormone production
- More fat burned after exercise than steady state cardio
HIIT is extremely versatile. You can use a variety of methods, exercises, and equipment to deliver a full fat burning and muscle building workout. Here are a few examples:
- EMOM: Perform 10 burpees every minute on the minute for 10 minutes.
- Tabata: Alternate 20 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times per exercise (4 minutes), for 4 different exercises (mountain climbers, jumping jacks, squat jumps, and plyo push ups).
- 1:1 Hard/Light Intervals: On the stairmaster, alternate 30 seconds of max effort work (fast pace), followed by 30 seconds of low effort work (slow pace) for 15 minutes.
✓ Walking Lunges
Walking lunges are a perfect blend of strength training and cardio, and correct so many health issues common in today’s society. They also increase metabolism and burn fat much more effectively than steady state cardio.
Most people have tight hip flexors, a weak core, and poor posture due to sitting behind a desk or steering wheel all day. Walking lunges stretch your hip flexors and actively engage the core, increasing flexibility and alleviating lower back pain. Most people also have an underdeveloped posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, back) as a result (again) of sitting all day and habitually emphasizing the “mirror muscles” (quads, chest) in training.
Lunges activate the posterior chain and really fire up the leg muscles that are typically neglected. Lower body strength will go through the roof. Lunges also build the musculature around the knee and further protect you from devastating injuries such as ACL tears. Implement walking lunges into your routine today by doing the following:
- 10 minutes of continuous walking lunges post-workout.
- Lunge 400 m (one lap around a track) as fast as possible.
- Between sets of any exercise, instead of a typical rest period, lunge to the end of the gym and back.
✓ Sled Drags/Pushes/Pulls
The sled is an incredible tool for piling on muscle and cutting fat. Sleds come in all shapes and sizes, and you can push, pull, or drag them in many ways to target different parts of the body. For example, pushing the sled forward works the glutes and hamstrings while pulling the sled backward fires up the quads. You can even attach straps to a sled and do rows (upper back), presses (chest), and more.
Sled training allows for maximum work with minimal recovery because there is no eccentric loading. With typical muscle building exercises, the eccentric portion of the lift is what creates the most stress to the muscle which leads to soreness. Sled exercises are also low-impact, and pose very little threat to joints and ligaments. Here’s how to use it:
- Push a heavy sled as fast as possible for 20-40m, rest for 1-2 minutes, and repeat for 5 sets.
- Push a heavy sled as far as possible in 10-20 seconds, rest for 1-2 minutes, and repeat for 5 sets.
- Alternate pushing and pulling a moderately light sled 50m continuously for 10 minutes.
✓ Loaded Carries
Loaded carries are an essential component of overall strength, and have a huge carryover to all styles of weight training and life in general. They can also be used for a killer cardio workout. The idea is pretty simple. Pick up something heavy and carry it somewhere. You can carry it at your sides, overhead, or even in front of you. You can also use a ton of different equipment including barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, and medicine balls.
Loaded carries build an iron-clad grip and a rock-solid core. They strengthen your forearms, biceps, triceps, shoulders, traps, upper back, abs, and obliques. Here’s how you can use them to burn calories while you build:
- Carry a heavy object 50-100 m, rest for 30 sec-1 min, and repeat for 10 sets.
- Carry a heavy object as far as possible in 15 seconds, rest for 15 seconds, and repeat for 10 minutes.
- 10 minutes of a continuous loaded carry variation with a relatively lighter object.
When you watch the Olympics, which athletes’ physique do you most admire? Most likely, it’s the sprinters. Sprinting is extremely effective for building fast-twitch muscle fibers while burning fat. It’s also a great way to build strong hamstrings and glutes and get ripped abs and obliques.
Step off of the treadmill and get outside to sprint, preferably on a field or track. Or, find a hill with a gentle slope. Here are are a few sprint workouts that you can start doing today:
- 5 sets: Sprint 50m-200m with a 1:4 work/rest ratio (Ex: Sprint 30 sec, rest 2 mins).
- Sprint 50m, then jog 50m, and repeat for one mile.
- Sprint up a hill, slowly walk down, and repeat for 10 rounds.
Take Home Message
Cardio doesn’t have to mean an hour on the elliptical or treadmill and it shouldn’t! Long bouts of steady state cardio have been proven to increase cortisol levels and break down muscle. Instead, opt for exercises such as high intensity interval training, walking lunges, sled drags/pushes/pulls, loaded carries, sprints that build muscle while burning fat.