Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top 6 Cardio Exercises of all Time!

Everything comes full circle. 30 years ago it was all about aerobic exercise. Then in the last 10 years there was a backlash - anything above 5 reps was cardio, and there was no need to do steady state cardio. Then all you needed was HIIT and Tabatas. And now LISS is back being mentioned by strength coaches.

As always, the truth lies in the middle way. There are numerous benefits to cardio exercises and doing some is a good thing. In fact the number one thing you can do for your brain health and memory is aerobic exercise, it's way better than any smart drug.

So without further ado here is my top 6 cardio exercise choices. I have tried to have a selection that incorporates things that require no equipment, and things you can do in the gym (depending on how well equipped your gym is). These happen to be the things I like.

Number 1: Walking.

Walking is the best exercise you can do for your health. It is good for heart and lung function, improves blood sugar levels and even more impressively

Walking also

You can walk 20-30mins a days, it requires no special equipment.

If you are a beginner or looking for something with all round benefits and low injury risk then walking should be your number one choice.

Top Tips: 

Walking in nature has been shown to improve cognitive function (memory) and has a calming and peaceful effect. It improves memory over and above walking in an urban environment.

Also walking on uneven ground will help strengthen ankles, proprioception and is therapeutic for the lower back, and is a more interesting than pounding the pavement.

Stuart McGill (2002; 83) has shown that walking with a backpack weighing 10kg on uneven ground has actually been shown to REDUCE compression on the spine and relieve symptoms of certain types of back pain.

Make sure you swing the arm from the shoulders and no window shopping walking!

Number 2: Stairmill.

Aka stairmaster.

I made sure we got a couple of these for our gym 4 or 5 years ago. Now I see they are becoming more popular for good reason.

This is my number one choice for gym based cardio exercise. There is nowhere to hide on the stairmill, you can't drift off or coast. You are relentlessly walking up stairs. Your heart rate goes up with very little impact on knees and hips.

When training for long ultraruns the stairmill was part of my cross training.  As anyone who has run an ultra in a mountain environment knows at some point you are going to hit a hill that you are going to have to walk up. I would say it prepared me for long power hikes up hills and mountains better than almost anything else.

Top Tips:

Try not to hold on. This may be difficult at first as you have to concentrate on not missing a step. Or try not holding on for a minute at a time at lower levels.

To increase difficulty and to prepare for mountain races where you are carrying your gear try it with a weighted vest; 30 mins with a 10kg vest on will make you a believer!

Number 3: Hill sprints.

I think I first got these from running coach Brad Hudson, where he uses them at a start of a running phase to build strength.

Go for very short sprints, 8-10 secs.  Start with 5 sets, build up to 10. After a warm up jog to the hill, start with some build up sprints. Recovery is a slow walk back to the start. All you need to do is find a steep hill.

The mechanics of sprinting are much improved for most people uphill compared to the flat. The chance of muscle pull or injury sprinting up hill are much lower. Lets face it, most of us (including me) haven't been coached to sprint, and running uphill helps you to engage posterior chain muscles and drive hard.

Top Tips: 

Find a hill outside. You can do these on a treadmill, but the time it takes you to increase and decrease speed on a treadmill is not conducive to short sprints. If you are using a treadmill go for 5-10% gradient.

If outside, find a hill, if you can find a long hill, 1 mile or longer, you can gradually make your way up the hill.

Number 4: Ski Erg.

From the people who brought you the most reliable piece of cardio equipment ever, the Concept 2 Rower, comes the Ski Erg.

Cross country skiing is a phenomenal cardio exercise, and in fact the only winter sport I can do without falling over every 10 seconds, and the only one I've ever received any coaching for. But unless you live in Norway actual cross country skiing is not a cardio option.

Not many gyms have Ski Ergs yet, and I've only just used one, but it is well worth it. One of the few cardio exercises that truly is hitting the upper body, I actually got a tricep pump!

It's a good finisher after a workout, seems to help to get the blood flowing in the upper body.

Or do some intervals, 10-15 secs with 45-50 sec recovery. 5-10mins on this machine is enough, unlike walking or the stairmill I wouldn't be doing this for 30-60 minutes.

Top tips:

If you don't know how to cross country ski, watch some technique videos online of the Ski Erg or even some pro skiers using the double pole technique. You can vary the technique on the machine, one leg at a time like skater technique of cross country, alternate arms like classic cross country or double pole for maximum power.

Get a full body extension and hinge at the hips.

Number 5: Versaclimber.

A total body exercise. They haven't changed the design of this machine since the original Robocop was released, and it is over priced if you are going to buy one, but nothing takes your heart rate up like this.

A cross crawl movement pattern, engaging upper and lower body. This is hard, use as a finisher or in a conditioning workout or at the start of a stubborn fat loss protocol workout, anymore than 5-7 mins and you are doing well.

Top tips:

The handles adjust. Try different lengths of pull and stride to see what works best for you.

Number 6: What you enjoy.

Of course, the best cardio exercise is the one you enjoy and have access to. If you like mountain biking or rowing do those. Or it could be badminton or a studio class like spinning.

The best exercise is the one you do.

Nearly made the top 6:

Other things to consider.


Didn't make the top 6, as some people don't seem to be able to skip, therefore they don't really get any cardio benefit from it. I guess that's why Gray Cook called it a 'self limiting exercise'. If you can skip and have access to an area with a good surface to skip on, it's a great exercise.

Prowlers and sleds: 

If you have access to these with an indoor track I would definitely use them. If you don't, hill sprints are the way forward. These days it is more likely that your gym has a prowler or sled than it does a Versaclimber or Ski Erg.

Also I would consider prowlers and sleds hybrid exercises. Go light and explosive or go heavy and use them as a strength exercise or hypetrophy training.

Get moving.

Your body doesn't know how you got your heart rate up. As long as you are using a mixture of some low intensity longer and higher intensity shorter work you'll be covered.

What's your favourite cardio exercise, is it something I haven't thought of? Let me know.









McGill S (2002) Low Back Disorders. Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation.

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