The cardio question

Cardio is a really mis-understood component of training. For some it’s all they do, and they wonder why progress is non-existent, for others it’s to be avoided at all costs because, “it’ll rob you of your gainz Bro!”

Both are wrong, but how should you add it to your training for the best results, particularly if you don’t have the luxury of being able to do them separately?

Athlete Running up Steps

Hate it or love it, cardiovascular training has a whole host of benefits including

  • Improved cardiovascular function – your heart and lungs work better
  • Better body composition – lower body fat
  • Improved recovery (both during and after training bouts) – allowing more training volume and intensity
  • Increased work capacity – you can work harder for longer without needing to reach for the nearest oxygen mask
  • Increased localised muscular endurance – the muscles worked in training can work for longer
  • Increased cardiac efficiency – lower resting heart rate and quicker recovery
  • Improved autonomic balance (parasympathetic/sympathetic balance) – being able to drop out of the fight or flight mode

Knowing what your desired outcome from the cardio option you put into training is also about knowing what energy system you are targeting with the training. You’ll sometimes see cardio training substituted with “energy system development.” It’s just a fancy way of saying cardio.

Energy systems

Energy systemType of activity
ATP-PCrVery high intensity, maintainable for <10s
Anaerobic glycolysisHigh intensity, 10-90s in duration
Oxidative phosphorylationLow to moderate intensity, >90s duration

These energy systems are “turned on” at all times. They work together to give you a steady source of energy, but depending on the intensity and duration of an activity, 1 energy system will be the main contributor. You should have a clear goal in mind with each cardio session, and not just randomly add bunches of stuff to your training. This means monitoring your intensity to ensure that you are training the actual energy system you want to train.

Goal specific

Desired outcomeTechniqueExample
Improved aerobic fitness and recovery Cardiac output>25 mins at 60-80% of max HR or 4-6/10 on the effort scale
Improvements in anaerobic fitness, increasing lactate thresholdIntervalWork periods dependant on energy system being targetted, work:rest can be 1:1, 1:2, 1:3 depending on work length.
Improvements in aerobic and anaerobic fitness, improved strength endurance and work capacityCircuits/ complexesComplexes or circuits with loads of around 60% of 1RM using exercises that are low skill and multi-joint, for 2-3 rounds of 12-20 reps.

So by looking at the desired outcome in the middle column we can decide on the best choice of cardio to complement our training and allow the best chance of positive adaptations.


  • If you want to maximise strength and cardio improvements, train them separately. You will be able to use higher intensity on both. If you don’t have that luxury, then make sure you use a training option that targets different musculature that the strength session targetted. For example, on a deadlift and back training day, you might go for bike sprints.
  • You will also need to be more focused on getting some calories around training to fuel and recover from the higher workload.
  • Running, while a good tool for cardio due to its relatively inexpensive nature, is high impact, high stress and can be harder to recover from. Lower impact options such as cycling and rowing will still give high levels of cardio training with less stress and muscle damage.
  • Longer aerobic training sessions (>40mins) more than 3 days per week may blunt muscle adaptations, and reduce muscular power. Recovery is more important here.
  • Nutrition, specifically protein intake and nutrient timing (fuelling and recovery), are of a greater importance when training concurrently than when training for strength or endurance alone.
  • In terms of fat loss, there is no significant difference between moderate intensity and high-intensity options. The option you choose is down to your preference.

So when it comes to adding conditioning to your program, consider your goals and pick accordingly. If you would like to get 20 cardio drills to use in your training, sign up for my newsletter here. Along with great info each week, you’ll also get a free download with 20 cardio options to suit any skill level and training goal!

Stay strong,


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