Welcome to your in-depth guide to cardio for beginners.
Cardiovascular training is an intentional exercise that improves the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Training the cardiovascular system can be done in an aerobic (with the presence of oxygen) or anaerobic manner (without the presence of oxygen).
This article has been written for people who are new to cardiovascular training and who would like to understand more about the best methods and practices available to succeed, while avoiding the most common mistakes people first make when training the cardiovascular system.
Table of Contents
A Trick Question
Let’s start with a trick question: Is the heart a muscle or an organ? The short answer is your heart is a muscular organ. An organ is a group of tissues that work together to perform a specific function.
In the case of your heart, this function is pumping blood throughout your body. Hearts are largely made up of a special type of muscle tissue called cardiac muscle.
Coordinated contractions of cardiac muscle, which are controlled by special cells called pacemaker cells, allow for your heart to pump blood as a single functional unit.
I feel it’s important to talk a little bit about the structure of the heart, as this is often neglected, forgotten about, and taken for granted. Inside your heart are four chambers.
The top two chambers are called atria. The atria receive blood from other parts of your body. The bottom two chambers are called ventricles. They pump blood to other parts of your body.
Because of this, the walls of the ventricles are thicker and contain more cardiac muscle. The interior of your heart also contains valves that help keep blood flowing in the correct direction.
A healthy heart is absolutely essential for your body’s overall health and function. It’s what I consider to be the most important muscle in the body. Blood provides the cells and tissues of your body with vital oxygen and nutrients.
Without the pumping action of your heart, blood would be unable to move through your circulatory system and other organs and tissues in your body wouldn’t function properly. Additionally, waste products like carbon dioxide get carried away by blood to be expelled from the body.
So why, oh why, do we get training this vital muscular organ so damn wrong? A bold claim, right? Where do I get off?
Well, for one thing, cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer claiming 17.9 million lives each year. That evidence enough for you?
To compound my claim, I feel we (fitness professionals) need to take some of the blame too.
Why Do People Hate Cardio?
Health and fitness trends are cyclical. For a few decades, it was common knowledge that fats killed us. Now that isn’t the case (keto!). On the exercise side of things, cardio used to be the training of choice – think about the 1970s running boom and the aerobics classes of the 1980s. Nowadays, hating on cardio is in vogue amongst most of the fitness community.
But why do people hate cardio? In the 70s and 80s, it was all the rage to run and do aerobics to lose weight, but people quickly caught on that, to reach their aesthetic goals, strength training was the way forward.
The fitness world started hating on cardio because a lot of people continued to believe that to get in shape all they had to do was go for a run. The downside of this was that some fitness professionals began demonizing the use of traditional cardio, and anyone who did it, in favor of their modality of choice for strength training.
I would also argue that the fitness community started hating on cardio for financial reasons: Cardio equipment and its upkeep is expensive.
It’s something a lot of fitness facilities are less than willing to invest in and, as a result, they convince their members and clients that they can get just as good of a workout with other gear.
So, while some trainers are against cardio to try to manage their business interests, others are so pro-weights that anything else is a waste of time and effort in their eyes.
Extolling the virtues of weights and the perceived failures of cardio is a somewhat slippery slope that can teeter between the intent to inform/ persuade and demeaning/embarrassing those who enjoy doing some form of cardio.
Newsflash! There is a moderate point of view to be had. Leading professionals now realize that cardio AND strength training both have their place in the quest for fat loss, strength gains, and a healthy heart.
I want to throw another two perspectives into the ring as to why people hate cardio so much. One, because it’s so damn hard. It takes time, patience, and commitment, which are all things society struggles with.
If we don’t find something easy, we tend to give up. And two, we simply do not know how to train the cardiovascular system properly. There’s just too much misinformation available online that health will often get sacrificed in the pursuit of body confidence and aesthetics.
My gift to you: The science behind how we at Strength Matters approach cardiovascular training.
What is Cardio Training?
Cardiovascular fitness is a good measure of the heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. We define cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, as exercising at a constant level of easy intensity for a specified duration, a minimum of 30 minutes and potentially lasting hours.
Easy intensity is the maximum effort at which the cardiovascular system can replenish oxygen to working muscles. Cardiovascular training improves the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body.
There are two facets of cardiovascular fitness:
- Aerobic (with the presence of oxygen)
- Anaerobic (without the presence of oxygen)
Aerobic training, when done correctly, is sustainable and repeatable in nature. Typical activities include walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, stair climbing, and rowing.
Anaerobic training, in a cardiovascular sense, when done correctly, is unsustainable and survival-based in nature. Typical activities could be short all-out bursts in rowing, running, and swimming that last no more than four minutes.
Aerobic training uses the aerobic energy system as its primary source of fuel, and anaerobic training will recruit the alactic and lactic energy systems.
It is a common misconception that anything that raises the heart rate is cardio. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The heart adapts differently to weight training activities than it does to endurance training.
During strength training, blood flow in the working muscles is restricted until the working muscles relax. This forces the heart to work anaerobically (without the presence of oxygen) meaning the heart works harder to pump more oxygen-filled blood to the working muscles, which causes an increase in heart rate but DOES NOT get more oxygen into those working muscles.
The heart must contract forcefully to do this, causing blood pressure to increase and ultimately concentric hypertrophy (the heart growing inwards) occurs. This is not a desirable effect for a healthy heart.
Strength training without a good cardiovascular plan can lead to a stiffer, less pliable heart. It makes the workload that much greater, increasing overall stress on the heart.
In stark contrast, endurance athletes who perform for long intervals have a consistent and regular supply of oxygen flowing to their working muscles. The heart grows both in thickness AND internal diameter.
It remains stretchy and pliable, which ultimately leads to an increased capacity to hold and pump blood around the body. This is eccentric hypertrophy of the heart, and is a very good thing.
Strength training and cardio training are two very different animals. We are not saying strength training is bad and you should stop immediately. Far from it. Remember, Strength does Matter!
I’m just highlighting the fact that the heart needs to be trained differently based on your fitness goals, and the type of exercises you choose significantly affects how your cardiovascular system improves.
That means you need to look at dynamic, low weight-bearing exercises such as running, rowing, and cycling as your go-to methods of cardiovascular development.
How Do You Improve the Cardiovascular System?
When training the cardiovascular system, we want to:
- Increase the amount of blood pumped by the heart in one contraction.
- Increase the efficiency of the heart to deliver oxygen to the working muscles and remove carbon dioxide.
- Improve aerobic and anaerobic energy turnover.
To do this, we have to understand the three factors that determine cardiovascular endurance:
- VO2 Max
- Movement Economy
- Anaerobic Threshold
VO2 Max is defined as the maximum volume of oxygen you are capable of taking in and using during intense exercise. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen used in a minute divided by the body weight in kilograms (ml/kg/min).
It provides an aerobic power-to-weight ratio. As you now know how the heart responds to different training methods, it is no surprise that those athletes with the highest reported VO2 Max in the world are endurance athletes, specifically cross-country skiers, runners, and cyclists.
In untrained men and women, their VO2 Max typically shows values in the range of 25-40 ml/kg/ min. In elite athletes, these values will be between 80-95 ml/kg/min. This is a considerable difference. The more oxygen you supply to the working muscles with each contraction of the heart, the harder, faster, and longer you can perform.
How much energy does it cost you to move your body a certain distance? There are two elements to movement economy:
- Technical proficiency (how well you perform the movement)
- Metabolic economy (the fuel source you use [fat or glucose])
With technical proficiency, you simply have to look at how a sub-2:30 marathon runner runs in comparison to someone who completes the race in over 5 hours. They glide through, while the latter struggles. They use less energy to cover the same distance, with better technique, and go faster for longer before tiring.
Metabolic economy is different. For sporting endeavors lasting more than sixty minutes, fuel stores become the major limiter. Two metabolic pathways create fuel for the body: aerobic metabolism and anaerobic glycolysis.
Aerobic metabolism is the most efficient because it primarily uses fat as the fuel source, which has a virtually unlimited supply of energy. This takes place below the aerobic threshold (the point at which the levels of lactate in the body start to increase above homeostasis).
Once you go above the aerobic threshold, you start to use a mixture of fat and glucose (sugar) as your primary fuel source. Once you go above the anaerobic threshold, it primarily becomes glucose. Glucose is not in plentiful supply, which can quickly lead to exhaustion.
When training the cardiovascular system, we have to think about the efficiency of the fuel source we are using just as much as how we improve movement techniques.
The Anaerobic Threshold
The anaerobic threshold is the maximum intensity at which lactate levels will remain elevated but stable for up to an hour. This is the point where lactate removal from the body cannot keep pace with the speed at which it is created.
Once above this threshold, you begin to slow down dramatically or even stop. Out of the three qualities, the anaerobic threshold is the easiest to train. However, as you will soon learn, to truly maximize your anaerobic threshold you need to have a great aerobic threshold and be strong enough.
The Strength Matters approach to cardiovascular training is underpinned by the concept that, if you don’t maximally develop your aerobic energy system first, and have sufficient levels of strength, you will never truly maximize your anaerobic threshold.
How Do I Assess for Cardio?
As with everything else that we do at Strength Matters, we start with an assessment. We need to know where you’re actually at, not where you think you’re at.
Otherwise, we’re just guessing. So, assuming you can move well and have the basics of strength all dialed in, here’s how we approach the cardio assessments:
As we just covered, there are two sides to cardio: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic capacity is a Layer 2 component in the Strength Matters Hierarchy of Athletic Development. Anaerobic capacity is in Layer 3.
You need to earn the right to start testing for Layer 3 and, from experience, less than 5% of people ever make it to Layer 3. So today we’ll be focusing on just aerobic capacity in Layer 2. [If you’re not sure about our hierarchy of athletic development, refer back to Issue 2 of Fit Over Thirty]
Aerobic capacity is divided further into sub-layers – we refer to them as Layer 2.1 and Layer 2.2. You have to pass all the standards in Layer 2.1 before progressing to 2.2; you have to be able to walk, quite literally, before you can run.
|Aerobic Capacity Test||Standard||Achieved|
|20-Minute Walk Test||1.5 miles/2.41km||Yes/No|
|2,000m Row||Men: < 7:50 |
Women: < 8:55
|5km Run||Men: < 31 minutes |
Women: < 36 minutes
Layer 2.1 Aerobic Capacity Standards
The way it works here is simple: Everyone will attempt the 20-minute walk test. If they successfully complete the standard, they will then be prescribed, based on their competency, either the 2000m row test or 5km run test (we also have a 10-minute assault bike test, but there’s a little more to it than the row/run).
For those savvy enough to recognize, these are not true aerobic tests; they are merely work capacity snapshots. They give us an insight into the cardiovascular development of an individual. If people struggle here, we know there’s work to be done. You’ll be surprised at how many people can’t walk 1.5 miles in 20 minutes.
If you meet the minimum requirements in Layer 2.1, we progress to Layer 2.2, which is a far better indication of someone’s aerobic capacity. Testing at this stage is sustained activity around the 60-minute mark.
|Aerobic Capacity Test||Standard||Achieved|
|10km Run||Men: < 48 minutes |
Women: < 55 minutes
|60-Minute Row||Men: < 7:50 |
Women: < 8:55
|60-Minute Assault Bike||Max calories (unique to each individual)||N/A|
Layer 2.2 Aerobic Capacity Standards
The standards listed above are what you need to achieve to progress to Layer 3 and begin anaerobic training. Can you see now why so few people ever achieve Layer 3 status?
This doesn’t even include the ability to move well or strength standards. The 10km run and 60-minute row each have standards attached. This is based on thousands and thousands of data points from across the globe in both running and rowing events.
The assault bike and cycling time trial are unique to the individuals involved. People will excel at one and maybe not another. It’s about choosing the right modality for the person we’re working with.
As a Beginner, How Do I Start Training Cardio?
Cardiovascular training is hard but the issue I see with most people is that they start doing cardio workouts that far exceed their own ability. Most people shouldn’t go anywhere near high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
You need to start training within your means and then slowly and progressively build up volume. This is both for biological benefits and enjoyment – you won’t continue what you don’t enjoy!
Often, it starts with good old-fashioned walking. If you’re not walking at least 7,000 steps a day, this is your cardio starting point. You would then build it up to 10,000 and maybe 15,000 steps a day.
Both are easily achievable if you schedule a 30-minute walk into your routine every day. Scheduling a daily walk is key if you can’t hit the 1.5-mile walking standard in 20 minutes.
Once you hit the walking standards, you can then start to tackle some of the other tests – the row or even the run. Both require a similar approach: We need to train the aerobic system NOT the anaerobic system.
This means working below 70% of your max effort (Zone 2 heart rate training, if you’re a geek like me). This is how we understand the relationship between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and know where you currently are on the cardio training spectrum.
Volume, consistency, and patience are key to cardiovascular success, combined with the working knowledge of the importance of strength training and the development of the aerobic energy system prior to working the anaerobic energy system.
You’d be best served spending more time doing higher volume at a lower rate of perceived effort. Over time, you’ll get faster and it’ll become easier. Then you can tackle some of the harder tests with an even bigger smile on your face because guess what? When it’s easy, it’s a lot more fun.
Until you can hit those baseline standards outlined in Layer 2.1 and Layer 2.2, aerobic threshold work is where you need to spend most of your time. Having a high aerobic threshold allows you to perform more tasks, better and faster, and enables a faster recovery. It’s preparing you for the anaerobic work in Layer 3.
The simplest way to train your aerobic threshold is to use the MAF method. Start by subtracting your age from 180 (180 minus age). Then, whilst performing aerobic activities (running, walking, rowing, swimming, cycling, etc.), the goal is always to keep your heart below that level, easily observed with a smartwatch or heart rate monitor.
The easiest way to get started with this method is, at the end of your current workout, add five minutes of aerobic threshold work – either on a rower, assault bike, or going for a walk. Keep your heart rate at your MAF and progressively do more over time, building up to 15 minutes of work.
Then, when you feel comfortable, maybe supplement an entire day to just cardio training, using the same method. Start at 10 minutes and gradually add five minutes each week until you can hit 60 minutes of continuous work.
Your results will be directly proportional to the amount of work you put in. Building the cardiovascular engine and developing your aerobic threshold takes time, effort, and dedication. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.
How to Start Cardio for Beginners?
Starting cardio as a beginner involves first setting realistic goals, followed by picking an activity you enjoy. Start slow, gradually increasing your time and intensity as your fitness improves. Remember, it’s essential to warm up before each session and cool down afterwards.
How to Start Cardio for People Who Haven’t Worked Out in Months?
If you haven’t worked out in months, start slow. Walking or slow jogging could be a good start. As your stamina builds, increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. Always remember to listen to your body and rest if needed.
How to Build Cardio for Beginners?
Building cardio as a beginner is a gradual process. Start with low-intensity workouts like brisk walking or cycling, and gradually increase duration and intensity. Mixing up your workouts can also help prevent boredom and work different muscle groups.
How to Start Cardio Training for Beginners?
Start cardio training by picking an activity you enjoy. Begin with short sessions of around 10-15 minutes, gradually increasing duration as your fitness improves. Make sure to include a warm-up and cool-down in every session.
How to Teach Cardio to Beginner Clients?
To teach cardio to beginner clients, start by encouraging them to walk daily. Walking is a low-impact exercise that can significantly improve cardiovascular health. Also, you can introduce the Strength Matters 20-minute walk test. This is a great way for clients to gauge their initial fitness level and monitor their progress over time. Remember, consistency is key, and small steps lead to significant improvements.
What is the Best Cardio for Beginners?
The best cardio for beginners is walking. It’s low-impact, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere. Walking is an excellent way for beginners to improve cardiovascular health and stamina, preparing the body for more intense cardio exercises later on.