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Using Cardio Training to Effectively Boost Your Metabolism

Metabolism Primer 2 of 3

Using Cardio Training to Effectively Boost Your Metabolism

by Pat Jak, BS, CPT, USAC II, USAC Power Based Training Coach

Continued from last month’s article – “If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It,” which reminded us if you want to reach your goals, you need to know your baseline numbers. And now that you know your numbers (… um, you HAVE gotten your metabolism tested, right?), it is time to change them. Yes, your metabolism (calories burned at rest or during exercise) is not static. It can change over time and you can improve it.

But metabolism isn’t improved by just burning more calories. It is about changing your body to be more efficient. That is, burning the fuel you want to and increasing your capacity for work. One of the best ways to do this is to follow a Cardiovascular Conditioning (a.k.a. Cardio) plan based on the numbers from your metabolic test. I can hear the groaning now: “I can’t stand Cardio; Cardio is boring; Cardio is a waste of time.” But what if I told you that people can’t stand it and find it boring or ineffective because they have been doing it wrong?

It is all in our approach. I see folks do their Cardio while staring at a TV, following the same preprogrammed workout every time. I see some plod along on an elliptical or treadmill for hours. Others sit on a stationary bike and move so slow they are not even challenging their cardiovascular system. Sometimes, people take a Cardio or fitness class where they always push intensity up to the same level. Other individuals complete their Cardio with no heart rate monitor to guide them. Or even if they have a heart rate monitor, they haven’t had their metabolism tested so they don’t know what numbers to follow.

These are Zombie workouts. No wonder we think Cardio is boring. Since doing the same thing over and over again leads to plateaus in fitness, no wonder we think Cardio is a waste of time. And if we aren’t tracking what we are doing with a heart rate monitor we never know if we are staying at the level we need to or if we are working too hard or too easy.

As a side note, I should warn you to be careful of “research” claiming Cardio has no training effect. All of these studies have massive flaws. They are based on max heart rate, which is a fallacy, and have subjects completing the same workout at the same intensities for 2, 3, 6, or even 12 months. Of course this training is ineffective. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is insane.

Remember training is a way of teaching the body to adapt to different loads placed on it. These loads force the body to use different energy systems and pathways, which recruit different muscle fibers, enzymes, hormones, fuels, and amounts of fuels, used. To simplify, at lower intensity, with ample oxygen present, we tend to rely on fat more than carbohydrate as our energy source. As intensity increases, our ability to process oxygen decreases and we rely on carbohydrate much more to help us release energy.

This is where training zones are so important. Luckily each training zone (I have found that 5 is most effective) is tied to each of the body’s energy systems, can be determined from metabolic test numbers. Each zone has a different purpose. Lower zones improve overall health, increase fat burning capacity, optimize calorie burn, and help recovery. Higher zones teach the body to tolerate lactic acid and improve speed and power, and increase the capacity for work.

Since each zone has a different function, this means we need to work in ALL of them to capitalize on all our body can do. We would never walk into a gym and do nothing but bench press and arm curls. So why would we always complete our Cardio in the same training zone? We need to run our system through all levels to keep it as healthy and efficient as possible.

Currently, the fitness industry is being a little rebellious. It has some evolving and changing views about the traditional Cardio Training approaches mentioned above. But most of these leading opinions may be unwarranted. Let’s examine some of the broad and more commonly published views.

Cardio Makes us Fat

Some people who do a lot of Cardio start to gain weight and body fat. How can this be? They are exercising. Well, the human body is intelligently stupid. It is intelligent enough to recognize stimulus. It is stupid enough to want to be lazy. And that laziness means if you are constantly doing the same thing over and over, the body will adapt. It will start storing energy (fat) because you have not presented it with anything new and challenging. It isn’t the Cardio that is making us fat it is our lack of change and lack of challenge.

Alternative Cardio

I have read many articles and blogs from trainers who are eschewing running and walking altogether and substituting things like complexes or circuits to increase breathing and heart rates under the pretense of burning more calories. You can definitely burn a lot of calories by swinging kettlebells, pushing a sled, throwing medicine balls, or working in circuits or complexes. Unfortunately, this effort typically falls in the middle zone and never challenges the body in lower or upper zones, a process I call “Zone 3 Quicksand.” Don’t get me wrong. Use alternative circuits and exercises on occasion. Swing kettlebells. But using this as your only source of Cardio limits developing metabolic efficiencies at all levels of effort.

Resistance Training in Place of Cardio

Resistance or weight training definitely has an aerobic component. When we push, pull, carry, or squat an object, our heart rate and breathing rate will increase. But weight training is not intended to replace focused heart and lung development. The purpose of strength training is to get strong. I’m still a huge proponent of strength training. Do it. Please do it. But weight training normally only works one training zone and it is difficult to get a true heart rate reading due to muscular contractility and shunting of blood while straining with a load. And for those making a case for Tabata-style efforts if you can handle it, do it. But you still need work at lower intensities.

Sprinting and HIT is All You Need

Sprinting and High Intensity Training (HIT) is perfectly fine. Include it in your training regimen. But again, these efforts only work certain energy systems and never help us teach the body to be efficient at using fat. Think about it like a car. Take a 2-cylinder straight off the assembly line and slam your foot on the gas. It will only have so much horsepower and speed. But if you fine tune the engine, improve air intake and output, you can help it perform like it is a V8 muscle car. Our bodies work the same way. Low intensity work (fine tuning the engine) perfects us so we can do more HIT and our sprinting gets even faster.

No matter what anyone says, we STILL NEED CARDIO and we still need to work in ALL TRAINING ZONES. Besides, why shouldn’t we include walking and running at various speeds and intensities in our training? In active games, sports, and athletics we sprint, run, and jog more than we swing kettlebells. In life, we walk more than we perform power cleans. So don’t altogether avoid training how you would function in life and sport.

So What SHOULD We Do With Our Cardio?

1) Have a Plan – And FOLLOW IT

First, if you don’t have a plan you are wasting time. Second, if you have a plan you need to follow it. Don’t pick and choose the workouts you like and only do those. Give it time. A 12-week plan is an excellent time period with which to see change. It allows three 4-week phases of progression, each building on the previous. Once that plan is created, stick to it. In your life, you certainly have twelve weeks to stick to a plan. Discipline determines your success rate.

2) Progress

Take the time to build a foundation. This allows you to work on technique along with stamina and helps you avoid injury. An ultimate goal may be power. But if you want to be powerful, you need to be fast. To get fast, you need to be strong. And before you can get strong you need endurance. It is the base for everything we do. If the heart and lungs aren’t working, nothing else matters. In that 12-week plan, the first four weeks is a great time to work on your endurance. The second four weeks work on your strength. The final four weeks get fast. In twelve weeks, you become faster, stronger, and better able to function in all energy systems. You are capable of performing more work with less effort. More work with less effort in the final period of play separates champions from participants.

3) Get Intervals

When people think of intervals, they immediately think of HIT (High Intensity Training). Intervals don’t always have to be hard or high intensity. The purpose of intervals is to keep the body guessing with short duration at various intensities. So they can be designed to target systems that will result in beneficial changes. This means you can get a huge bang for your buck from Low Intensity Training or LIT. You should definitely get intervals. They are effective and they keep us engaged with our workout. But get BOTH types and get LIT BEFORE you get HIT.

4) Know How to Vary Intensity

Changing the level on an elliptical isn’t the only way to vary intensity. You can put your body into a different heart rate zone by changing resistance, incline, or miles per hour. But you can also do this by changing the number of foot strikes per minute while running, strides per minute on an elliptical, or revolutions per minute on a bike. Increase your cadence, challenge your central nervous system, and jump into a different heart rate zone without overtaxing your muscles and tendons with heavy resistance levels.

5) Balance

Get hard days. Get easy days. And make sure the hard days are hard enough and the easy days easy enough. This forces you to continually challenge your body by working in multiple systems. Get long days, but not too often. You don’t need four hours to teach the body to be more efficient. Just 30 minutes every few days can make a huge impact. After an hour of Pilates or a class, add 30 minutes of focused Cardio. After an hour strength workout add 30 minutes of Cardio. Do this three times a week and you are getting 4-5 hours of total exercise that is balanced, focused, specific to you and your needs and is completely doable even for an extremely busy person.

Favorite Cardio Workouts

Keep in mind there is no magic pill or one best workout. But these are some examples of workouts I have found to be very effective.

LIT – 2-4 minutes in Zone 1 followed by 1-2 minutes in Zone 2. Repeat for 30 minutes or more. Purpose is to push your fat burning efficiency to a higher zone. It also allows heart rate variability to keep the body guessing. Perfect workout for the first 4-week phase in a 12-week plan.

Endurance Burn – Steady in Zone 3 right after a high intense strength workout or class. The initial workout (if hard enough) can help deplete the body of glycogen and forces it to rely on fat at a higher level of intensity. Perfect workout for the second 4-week phase in a 12-week plan.

Bursts – Take a 10-minute block and for 15 seconds sprint all out then recover for 45 seconds in Zone 1 (walking steadily in active recovery). Repeat throughout the whole 10-minute block; then recover for another 10 minutes in Zone 1 or 2. If you have it in you, add a second 10-minute block of bursts. This is a hard workout and metabolically demanding. Perfect workout for the last 4-week phase in a 12-week plan.

No matter which way you slice it, you still need Cardio. For weight loss, fitness, and performance goals you want to lose fat and become efficient in how you process oxygen. And you can process oxygen best if you get Cardio training. Cardio is not limited by how many hours you have available during a week. It is limited by your current capabilities. This is discovered with a simple metabolic test. Know your capabilities and you can remove your limitations by training smarter and more effectively.


This is the second part of a three part series all about metabolism, how to test it, how to train it, and how to fuel it. If you haven’t, be sure to read

Metabolic Primer 1: If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It.

And come back next month for Metabolic Primer 3: Feeding Your Metabolism: The Truth About Food That Our Health System Is Afraid to Admit


About Pat Jak

For nearly a decade, Pat has worked with performance athletes, teams, and fitness conscious individuals from all walks of life. With one-on-one consultation and customized training plans, he coaches and trains cyclists, multi-sport, and endurance athletes including beginners, juniors, seniors, and masters, several of whom are World, National and State champions and medallists. His workouts have been featured in Bicycling Magazine and he is currently Director of Metabolic Testing at Fitness Quest 10, Team Coach for the Swami’s Pro Development Team, Head Coach of the UCSD Cycling Team, and Coach for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge.


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