I have been waiting to make this post for a very long time now.
My confession: I love cardio machines.
Any kind of cardio, really. Treadmill, stairmill, elliptical… well, I still haven’t signed onto those funny gazelle machines yet, but if I tried it, I’d probably love it, too. I love the feeling I get when I come off the treadmill after I’ve been on it for a long time – it’s like I’m floating across the ground, light on my feet. It’s some sort of physical “high” for my brain.
Let me tell you something: jumping on a machine and just going for an hour or more really has done nothing for me. It really does nothing for anybody. Steady-state cardio, where you select a setting (or don’t) on the machine and just go until it times out, seems to be the exercise du jour for most ladies who hit up the gym. But you know what? It’s easy. And you burn calories. And burning calories is good. And that’s why they do it – that’s why I did it.
Now, I’m not going to knock this method entirely, because it is a good first step for people who are starting out with an exercise routine – any kind of exercise is better than no exercise. But for people who are looking to get in shape (I’m looking at you, college-age girls), steady-state cardio is not the way to go. Time to quit it.
Listen, I am not asking you to quit exercising, or even quit the cardio machines at all! Cardiovascular exercise is an important part of a well-rounded exercise routine. Instead, I’d like to invite you to try a new method, instead.
Welcome to the wonderful world of INTERVALS!
Yes, this is the same method that’s employed by programs such as Couch To 5K, where you alternate between periods of working harder and working less hard. C25K is designed to get you running longer distances through intervals, and cardio machine intervals are designed to get you burning fat. Now don’t tell me that doesn’t sound good!
An easy interval program looks somewhat like this:
In this example, ‘intensity’ is on a scale 1-10. So, the 8 indicates a 30-second period wherein you push yourself to about 80% of the hardest you can push. The 60-second period is time to ‘rest’, but it’s not so slow where you are no longer working or you stop. You can adjust the time for either working or resting to your own desires.
When I do my intervals, I do them: walking on the treadmill and ramp up the incline and vary the speed, on the elliptical machine and ramp up the resistance and the crossramp (akin to incline) and physically push faster, or on the stairmill and vary the speed. All of these methods make it so I am still working even when I’m resting. And I know I’m working hard because I am sweating (yes, ladies, it’s OKAY to sweat), and my heart rate spikes.
Let me introduce you to my partner in crime, the Polar Heart Rate Monitor. This little contraption is worn as a watch, and is accompanied by a band that goes around your ribs (and if you’re a woman, directly under the breasts, where your bra band would go) and rests over the sternum. It picks up your heart rate and records it in the watch, and is also picked up by any modern cardio machine. This is what I use to determine just how hard I’m working when I do… most anything in the gym, really.
Through experimentation with this, I have figured out that there’s a correlation between the two parts of the Metabolic Effect mantra of “Work until you can’t, rest until you can”, and my heart rate. (Now, this is not going to be the same for everyone, because it depends on your own personal activity level and condition. Because I am in good shape and active, the heart rate where I start to feel my body working hard is probably going to be a bit higher than others.) Polar does a good job of tracking my optimal heart rate “zone”, depending on what kind of exercise I’ve been doing. For general weight lifting, it assumes my heart rate to be between about 135-150 bpm (beats per minute) or so, which is where it tends to be. However, to maximize fat burning during weight lifting and cardio, I want my heart rate between 160-185 bpm. I intentionally spike my heart rate during the ‘work’ interval, and allow it to drop back down in the ‘rest’ period. When it hits 160 bpm again, I know I’m ready for more ‘work’.
So there you go that is the secret to efficient cardio exercise – I suggest y’all give it a try sometime! If you have no experience with intervals, I recommend you start off with a longer ‘rest’ period (60-90 seconds) mixed with shorter ‘work’ periods (30 seconds), and slowly shorten your rest and lengthen your work periods as you become more accustomed to the system. If you’re more advanced and have already tried running/walking intervals, try a different machine, like the stair mill (killer) and vary the intensity of your intervals, or alter the incline on your treadmill in addition to the speed. But whatever you do, do NOT neglect your rest – the high intensity of the work period is not intended to be maintained for long periods of time.
Good luck and happy intervals!