Not everyone likes cardio or metcon, but everyone needs some form of it. So what’s best for people who’d rather be lifting? We asked our pros.
What’s the best cardio or metabolic conditioning exercise for serious lifters?
When it comes to cardio I’m partial to pushing and pulling sleds every which way you can imagine: forward pushes, reverse drags, rows, presses, rope pulls. You name it, we do it.
Of course, lifting weights can be “cardio” too. I’ll frequently use circuits and complexes (basically a circuit where you only use one implement) comprised of 3-4 exercises at the end of workouts, or on days when I’m short on time. A sample complex might look something like this:
You have a lot of leeway as far as exercise selection, but with weight circuits or complexes, a few rules apply:
- Pick “self-limiting” exercises. This means choosing exercises you won’t screw up when you’re fatigued. Remember that self-limiting exercises are personal. So for an advanced lifter, a front squat or goblet squat may be an acceptable choice in a circuit, but for someone with iffy squat mechanics, it’s a poor choice.
- Pick the weight according to your weakest exercise. This is important if you’re doing a complex with one implement like a single bar. Try to choose exercises where the weights you’d use are somewhat close to each other so one exercise doesn’t suffer for the sake of the others. You can also modify the reps to make each exercise challenging.
- Put the hardest exercises first. Arrange it so that easier exercises come when you’re most fatigued. “Hard” can either mean heaviest or the most technically demanding. You don’t want to be doing technically demanding exercises at the end of a circuit when you’re smoked.
Let’s assume we’re talking mainly about having a positive impact on body composition while also getting in better shape. What are we looking for that’ll accomplish this?
- High intensity: You want something that delivers maximum results in minimal time. An exercise requiring 15 minutes or more of work can have a negative impact on muscle gains, especially if done in the same workout. So if you can’t go long, you need to be able to go hard.
- Sustained metabolic stress: You need to be able to sustain that high level of intensity long enough to cause metabolic stress and force adaptation. So we’re talking 60-90 seconds of very intense work, or up to 3 minutes at a high level of intensity. This should be the duration of a bout of conditioning work (you can do several bouts in a workout) for maximal impact on body comp.
- Whole body involvement: You want maximal efficiency: the more you can accomplish with the least amount of work, the more of a positive impact you’ll have on body comp (meaning that you have less of a chance of losing muscle or halting your gains). Involving the whole body also produces a much greater hormonal response and leads to a greater energy expenditure per unit of time.
- Resistance: While unloaded conditioning work can be effective for fat loss and get you in shape, it doesn’t do anything for muscle mass. Resisted metcon exercises will at the very least contribute to muscle maintenance and can even help you gain some muscle.
There are lots of exercises I like for conditioning, but by not respecting one or many of these guidelines they can’t be seen as “the best”.
The farmer’s walk and other loaded carries are very hard to do for 90 seconds to 3 minutes. You either lose your grip (even with straps) or your postural muscles fail. You can use much lighter weights, but that kinda defeats the purpose.
Prowler pushing is also effective but doesn’t involve the upper body that much. Because of the position, it’s hard to do for longer periods due to oxygen debt.
Sledgehammer striking is good but you’re limited in the resistance you can use. Same goes for sprinting. Battling ropes are almost impossible to do for a longer duration, and you can’t modulate resistance or involve the whole body. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great, but they’re not THE best.
But with a resistance bike, you can go really hard. The harder you go the more resistance you have. It also involves the whole body (these types of bikes have moving handles), and it can be done for the required time periods.
The rowing ergometer would be a close second, but only because the resistance felt is smaller.
Sure, battle ropes and sled work are great forms of metcon, but let’s focus on something most people have access to: stairs or a stairmill at the gym. And we’re not talking about the stair-stepper your mom bought at Target. We’re talking about that big revolving set of stairs from hell that makes even treadmill jockeys suck wind and hate life.
What’s awesome/awful about the stairmill is that there’s no way to sandbag it. If you go slow, you get a longer concentric action, making your muscles burn, scream for oxygen, and work harder. If you crank up the speed, your heart and lungs have to work double time. Fast or slow, your butt gets burnt.
Just 15-20 minutes 2-3 times per week will really improve your conditioning. And because there’s little to no eccentric (negative) action, this won’t interfere with leg day. Here’s how you can ramp it up and make it “fun”:
- Take two steps at a time.
- Do the whole session without touching the handrails.
- Turn around backward. (You can hang on for this variation.)
- Hold a medicine ball any way you can, or wear a weight vest.
- Do intervals. Try 30 seconds fast, 60 seconds slow and repeat for a set amount of time.
Outside the gym, take the stairs as often as possible. Climbing just eight flights of stairs a day has been shown to lower average early mortality risk by 33 percent. And people who live in a house with stairs are generally leaner than those who don’t, even if they do no other forms of formal exercise.
Not only is this a great form of NEPA (non-exercise physical activity), a study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging showed that people who take at least one flight of stairs each day have “younger” brains, defined by having more gray matter, than other folks their age.
A younger brain, a younger looking butt, and the ability to tackle your next EMOM workout without tanking? Cool.
It depends on your goal, but generally, what will get you the biggest return on your workout is an interval-style cardio program that includes exercises which will increase your heart rate and metabolism using intervals of 20-30 seconds work with 40-60 seconds rest.
Look for ones that won’t create muscle damage. If you’re a serious lifter, be serious about your recovery. It’s the biggest key to adding workouts. It keeps the additional volume from eating away at your hard-earned muscle.
Using tools like kettlebells and sandbags can be excellent for this. Use different movements so you don’t end up fatiguing any one muscle group or movement and affect your next strength workout. Use multiple planes of motion and include dynamic movements.
Example: Try using a sandbag for push presses. Then move to a kettlebell swing working a completely different movement.
It’ll skyrocket your heart rate, create a huge metabolic demand, and it won’t cause a lot of muscle damage. By including all different movements, you never fatigue on any one of them and you still get the benefits you’re looking for.
Tie a long rope to a sled or Prowler. With your knees slightly bent (athletic position), begin pulling the sled towards you one hand at a time. The goal is speed, but it’s also full extension with each one-arm row and using the entire body (hips and trunk).
Row until the sled is in front of you, then perform a traditional sled push (feet outside the rope). Push the sled back to the start and then rest or perform additional sets.
This exercise hammers everything – upper body, lower body, push, pull, grip, core – and it allows you to increase the intensity with weight or speed without getting too sloppy on form.
As with most strongman exercises, it works best in a relay scenario, with people going back-to-back. But if duration is more important to you than intensity, you can also sprint back to the loose end of the rope after the push, and do consecutive sets.
The only downside to this exercise is that the rope can get bunched up as you’re rowing the sled towards you. So even if you’re performing it alone, you may want to ask a bro to jockey your rope for you.
I’ve done everything from Prowler pushing to sled pulling to hammering a tire, but I always find myself coming back to sprints, then doing a 15-20 minute walk afterwards. And never on the treadmill. Even in the winter with snow on the ground I still do my sprints outside.
For clients that need conditioning work, I start them out with walking to create the base of conditioning. Walking, and building up to a long, fast-paced walk, is really underrated. It’s easy on the joints, it’s a great “break in” for someone who hasn’t been doing any conditioning, and once someone can knock out 40+ minutes of a fast-paced walk fairly easily, they can go right into intervals without feeling like they’re going to pass out.
I also like a bodyweight circuit where you pyramid up in reps each round, then incrementally drop them back down. You can use push-ups, chins, dips, bodyweight squats, and sit-ups. The reps would increase based on the first set done, like this:
- Push-ups: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5
- Chins: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 12, 9, 6, 3
- Dips: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5
- Squats: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5
- Sit Ups: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5
First round would be 5 push-ups, 3 chins, 5 dips, 5 squats, and 5 sit-ups. Then a 60 second rest. The second round would be 10 push-ups, 6 chins, 10 dips, 10 squats, and 10 sit-ups, etc.
For someone in decent shape, the first two rounds don’t feel like much. But by the time you hit the crest of the circuit you’re putting in some real work.
The simplest “Just do this and get into better shape” tip is to do maximum incline treadmill walking.
Not just walking outdoors, not even incline walking, but max incline walking. On most treadmills, it’ll be 12 or 15 percent incline. Take the first minute or so at 1 percent to warm-up, then crank it right up without dropping the speed. It should be a true walking pace the entire time. If it’s too tough, reduce the speed further instead of lowering the incline.
Also, natural arm swing is the only way to go. Using the handrails to counter-balance yourself makes it easy and defeats the purpose of the incline. If you find yourself mindlessly reaching for the side rails, hold a water bottle in one hand and your phone in the other.
Start with 10-minutes three days a week. That’s plenty to begin with, especially if you’re not used to doing 10 straight minutes of cardio. Add time and frequency, getting up to 20 minutes four or five days a week to improve conditioning, endurance, and fat loss without interfering with your current lifting plan.
Because they’re low-ish intensity and short duration, you can walk immediately after any lifting session without compromising strength progress and without interrupting recovery for next session.
The only issue that could possibly overlap with your weight training is when it comes to calves. Because of the super-high incline, your calves will be getting stretched and worked much more than you’re used to, so some calf DOMS wouldn’t be a surprise.
But if walking on a treadmill makes your calves so sore that you can’t squat properly a day later, you’re in exactly the kind of shape that needs to be on the treadmill. Chalk it up as punishment for every calf workout you ever bailed on, take the hit, and tough it out until you adapt in a week or two.
Think that’s too simple? Well, good. It ought to be. Since lifting is mostly a game of high intensity work, lifters often suck at aerobic work. If you get exhausted climbing stairs or walking up a hill, your aerobic conditioning sucks. This area is your weak link. And improving this weak link will boost your performance (more weight on the bar).
By improving your aerobic work capacity, your anaerobic threshold will increase, meaning you can perform more quality strength and muscle-building work. You’ll also experience improved recovery, both in between sets and between training sessions.
After you’ve loaded your rucksack, imagine you’re going into nature, enjoying fresh air for a change, and seeing living things instead of being surrounded by buildings and “attacked” by stress (a typical scenario for most people). Since you have some weight on your back, you have to brace your core to counter it, which is great for posture and low back problems.
Compared to walking, rucking is said to be about three times as effective for caloric expenditure – more if you increase the weight and go faster. Your heart and lungs will also let you know how effective it is.
Rucking is comparable to low-intensity strongman exercises like the farmer’s walk and yoke carries. The intensity is simply scaled down to target the aerobic system. If you’re new at it, a 20 minute walk with a 20 pound backpack will be a lot tougher to perform than a short distance of heavy farmer’s walks.
While HIIT certainly has its place for conditioning work, serious lifters are already living closer to that world, and hence, it’s more familiar. I recommend turning 180 degrees and improving what you’ve probably neglected the most – your aerobic system.
It’s simple, everyone can do it, and while I recommend going into nature to enjoy the silence and let the landscape dictate the intensity, you can do this anywhere.
Granted, I do HIIT on a stairmill alone these days. It’s fine for now, but it’s not optimal. If I had my way, I’d get my cardio on with other people. Why? Because there’s nothing like suffering together. And once you’re in the middle of it, it feels less like a burden and more like a challenge: something we must conquer together.
There’s a famous quote that goes something like this: “A burden shared is halved; but joy shared is doubled.” And when you do heart-pounding workouts with others, you get both of these.
It’s still physically agonizing in a group, but mentally it feels less burdensome. Maybe that’s because you can empathize with others, which creates a bit of a distraction. Or maybe it’s because going through it with them is just enough peer pressure to “just do it” without overthinking it. But then there’s the shared joy after tackling a steep hill, finishing a hard sprint, or completing a brutal barbell complex. You have people to celebrate with.
Hard workouts create bonds, even when you barely know who you’re working out with. All the things that might separate people become inconsequential. Your age, your appearance, your political leanings, your job, your socioeconomic status, your skin color, your gender, your clothes, your body composition, your social media posts – nobody cares, everybody just wants to finish, and they want to see you finish too.
I don’t have any studies to back this up, but I think this communal feeling that comes from training partners, group fitness classes, and CrossFit is just a small manifestation of a much bigger picture: Humans are designed for relationships… no matter where those relationships are started. Human connection is probably more important for your health and happiness than the workouts you meticulously schedule.
Slow and recuperative movement is also better with people. You listen, you talk. It’s basically free therapy. If you’re going to walk anyway, why not also satisfy that fundamental need for interaction?
Of course exercising alone is essential. You kind of have to if you want to be consistent. But you don’t get nearly the benefits that you would with others.
Let’s assume that you’re training largely for aesthetics: to get big, lean, and strong. The first place to look here is low-threshold aerobic work. This is generally neglected, but it offers the greatest long-term reward in terms of resilience and adaptability.
This varies from person to person, but we can generally say that this means work that puts your heart rate between 130 and 150 beats per minute. This is a relatively low level of intensity, but the important thing to keep in mind here is that through training you can drastically increase the amount of work you can do while staying at this low heart rate and low level of perceived intensity.
It’s a way of making hard things feel easy, which increases the total range of things you can do. This submax intensity level has a few specific benefits:
- Enables preferential development of the lipolytic power system, meaning that you’re relying primarily on fat as a fuel source over carbohydrate for lower-intensity work. This spares glycogen for more intensive efforts and increases fat-burning at rest.
- Develops eccentric hypertrophy of the left ventricle of the heart, which increases stroke volume or chamber size. This means that you can move more blood per heartbeat.
- Introduces movement variability, which creates more balanced structural adaptations and helps to build and maintain more adaptable motor patterns. That means that you’re able to handle movement and loading through a wide range of different angles and patterns without injury.
- When done effectively, it alters psychological associations made with physical output by manipulating something called the “central governor mechanism.” When this type of aerobic work is done in a way that’s inherently enjoyable and open-ended, you’re training your brain that your body is capable of working at this level of output for as long as it has to, and that it doesn’t require a significant stress response to do so. It’s the underpinning of “farmer strength.”
This doesn’t mean slogging away on some hamster wheel in the gym. That’s an ineffective way of getting this done. Rather, it means getting out of the gym (whenever possible) and finding open-ended things that can keep your heart rate around the right range without being face-stabbingly boring.
Go for a hike on a steep, hilly terrain. Go mountain biking or swimming. Take turns dragging a tire up and down the street with a buddy. Get a bunch of yard work done and carry rocks around for most of a day… whatever.
The point is that you’re moving your body roughly within this heart rate range in a way that doesn’t have a fixed endpoint (e.g. I will run on this treadmill for 20 minutes) and that you don’t hate every minute of it.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can gauge this by working about as hard as you can while breathing exclusively through your nose. As far as total duration, you can push this quite a ways and still benefit from it.
Humans weren’t meant to spend their entire day sitting in a chair staring at a glowing white square with a 60-minute break to do exercise. We’re built to move throughout much of our day. This is a way of restoring that. If you need a range, go for 30-90 minutes, at least 2-3 days a week.
The Assault AirBike is the modern day version of the old school Schwinn stationary bikes, whereby a fan increases resistance the faster you peddle. The handles add a push-pull element resulting in full-body stimulation.
Tabata simply means alternating between going balls-out for 10-seconds followed by 20-second rest breaks for a total of 8 rounds (4 minutes).
Why this method? Because it fits nicely with the make-up and goals of serious lifters. Serious lifters don’t need to spend hours a day increasing cortisol through extended cardio sessions. Tabata is knocked out in 8 minutes including warm-up and cool-down.
It jacks up EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) because of its intensity and the recruitment of all major muscle groups. I recommend no more than 3 days a week.