What is the best cardio to do?

People love ‘best of’ lists. Whether it be when buying a car and picking up a copy of Consumer Reports or watching David Letterman’s Top 10 List we love to have things ranked for us.And a common question coaches and trainers get from their clients is ‘what is the best…’ and you can fill in the blank for whatever it is someone might  ask when working with a fitness professional.

For example, you might hear questions about what is the best stretch for this muscle group, or what is the best supplement I should take and another popular one is what is the best type of cardio I should be doing?

Let’s take a look at this last question, what is the best type of cardio I should be doing, and answer that one first.

Step #1 – What is the Purpose?

The first thing we need to know is why I are we choosing to do cardio in the first place? Is the end goal fitness or performance? Knowing the answer to this gives us a better idea of what the next step should be. Let me take a moment to explain.

Actually, I’ll back up another step here first as well. While the title and the body of this blog uses the term ‘cardio’ know that we mean energy system training (EST). When we say cardio, or cardiovascular, some people will understand this to mean aerobic training and not consider anaerobic types of training. However, fewer people will use the term energy system training, which includes aerobic and anaerobic training, so we are going with what most people are familiar with which is ‘cardio’.

Now to address the previous question are we looking to do some energy system training (EST) to get better for a sport or performance or are we looking it as a tool to achieve a fitness goal i.e. weight loss? If it is for sports performance than there a number of things to consider such as the demands of the game, whether the training is in-season, off-season, pre-season, the fitness and health of the athlete and where the athlete has gaps in their ability to produce energy.

However, 99% of people who ask the question about which type of cardio to do aren’t playing sports and competing. They are looking for the best, easiest, fastest, most-painless way to lose weight.

Step #2 – What is the Lowest Hanging Fruit?

I’m not sure if everyone is this way but I can sometimes over-invest in products and services that offer more than what I need. For example, I might buy an electronic gadget that does all these crazy and wonderful things that I’ll never need or use. Or we buy vehicles with the ability to pull other vehicles out of mud bogs or pull a huge boat when I don’t have a current need to do either of these things.

‘So what?’ you might be thinking. What does this have to do with EST? Well sometimes we get too cute with our choices as consumers. We think if something has more features and benefits listed than it has to be better, right?

Well it’s only better if those features and benefits apply to us. If they don’t than they’re simply a waste and a distraction. Consider for example how you might hear how cross country skiing is one of the hardest sports to do. Or how cross country skiers and sometimes cyclists have the highest VO2max scores.

Others may tell you that running is the best choice as you can do it anywhere and get quick results. And locally there is growing paddle centre where you could get into outrigger, kayak or SUP.

Rather than get too cute with looking up tables and charts as to what exercise burns the most calories or which one has the fittest athletes instead ask yourself ‘which one could I start today in my current condition?’. Cycling might be a great choice but only if you own a bike. And cross country skiing is excellent but if it’s an hour to the trails how often will you talk yourself out of going? And if you have a knee condition maybe pounding the pavement with nightly runs isn’t your best option either.

Take stock of what you have available in terms of space, equipment and your current health to decide what you should do first.

Step #3 – Most Inefficient

There is something to be said for doing inefficient exercise if the goal is weight loss. A couple of truths I have realized over the years of coaching are that larger clients will move external loads well but won’t move themselves very well. Consider the obese client pressing hundreds of pounds on the leg press but struggling to do an overweight squat using only their body-weight.

And on the flip side this analogy consider how smaller clients will struggle to move external loads but excel at moving their own body-weight. For example, the skinning high school student might get pinned under his body weight on the leg press but be able to rep out 10 pull ups.

The take home message here is that if the goal is weight loss sometimes we need to select activities that are a little bit unnatural and challenging for the client in order to maximize caloric expenditure. Continuing with the example above, getting up and down off the floor i.e. a body-weight get-up, would be more challenging for an obese client than riding a stationary bike.

Step #4 – What Do You Enjoy?

In the end though what it comes down to is as simple as picking an activity you enjoy doing and doing it. If the best type of EST ever was running and an individual hates running why would we as coaches prescribe running for them? Worse, as coaches we sometimes think that long, slow stead-state running is the not the answer and so we ask them to do Tabatas and other short sprints instead.

Usually our clients will do what we ask when we are right there asking them to do it. And sometimes it’s necessary for them to do things they don’t particularly enjoy. But if we’re talking about long, term sustained weight loss and health it has to eventually be determined by the activity they enjoy the most.

Next time you are out doing some EST make a mental note of how many times you laugh out loud while doing it? Or at minimum how many times did you smile while doing it? If the answer to both of these is zero I’m not saying you need to stop doing these sports all together but maybe try some other ones as well to see what you really enjoy.

Chris [fb-like]




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