The Biggest Mistakes You’re Making With Cardio & How To Fix Them

By Meghan Callaway

10 biggest mistakes you're making with cardio

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The Ageless Cardio Debate

When it comes to cardio, most people think, operate and sweat profusely in completely black and white terms. As we’ve learned in the fitness industry, there are no absolute answers to heath and wellness, so why should cardio be any different?

Some steadfastly believe that doing steady state cardio, which in many instances involves jogging, or mindlessly coasting on the elliptical trainer, is the best way to achieve an optimal fitness level and physique. Others believe that doing any cardio whatsoever is completely detrimental as it will eat away their muscles, so they avoid it like the plague. Lets be clear, both of these beliefs are completely outdated, and will prevent you from looking, feeling, and performing your very best.

Unfortunately, many people are resistant to having their views challenged, and continue to perform the same tired routines, even if they are stuck in a major rut and are not seeing any results. 

Let me be blunt and get right to the point here… Anyone who tells you NOT to do cardio is a complete fool.

This cardio-phobic mentality is even more unacceptable when this individual just happens to be a fitness professional. If your coach tells you to avoid cardio, run for the hills and don’t look back as they clearly lack the knowledge and credibility to help you achieve your goals. Cardio has a multitude of benefits for every type of goal. It’s time we review the facts, and debunk some cardio myths while we’re at it!

The Benefits Of Cardio  

Cardio aka cardiovascular exercise, can be defined as any activity that elevates the heart rate and increases blood flow throughout the entire body. Never thought about it like that, have you?!

In this article, I will discuss methods of cardio that develop all of the different energy systems, including the ATP-CP energy system, the glycolytic energy system, and the oxidative energy system.

While most people do cardio for the goal of fat loss, this form of training also offers many other benefits, including: 

  • Improved health and function of the cardiovascular system 
  • Improved performance in the gym 
  • Improved sports specific performance
  • Stress relief 
  • Improved sleep
  • Feeling of empowerment
  • Reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, and other diseases/illnesses
  • Increased confidence 
  • AND… Fat Loss – this is likely the number one reason why most people do cardio. Keep in mind that strength training is a more effective way to lose body fat, and change the overall shape and composition of your body 

Common Mistakes That People Make With Cardio 

Needless to say, there are a tremendous number of benefits that are associated with cardiovascular training. Unfortunately, many people unknowingly end up butchering their cardio training, and make a tremendous number of mistakes that prevent them from not only achieving their overall goals, but hindering their progress along the way.

Some of the mistakes that are commonly made include: 

Zero Focus On Strength Training 

I’m sure I will ruffle some feathers in the running community by suggesting this, but many runners are notoriously weak and have no business running, at least until they prepare their body for the rigorous and repetitious nature of this activity.

In order to run (and successfully execute all forms of cardio), you need to be strong… end of story. Otherwise you will suffer from one injury after another, and your performance will suffer. All people should be participating in a well designed strength training program. This is non-negotiable.

Aiming To Burn As Many Calories As Possible 

Just like with any mode of exercise, more is NOT always better. Focus on making yourself better and on quality, instead of just mindlessly burning calories. Obsessively burning calories won’t achieve more than driving you crazy, and wasting your time. 

Doing Something That Hurts Your Body, Or Something You Don’t Enjoy 

When it comes to any form of exercise, if you do not enjoy what you are doing, or if it hurts your body, you will be much less likely to work out on a consistent basis, or at the very least, you will be miserable in the process. Choose a form of cardio that you enjoy, and that makes you feel good, both mentally and physically. Your cardio should not be soul zapping.

Aimlessly Coasting, aka Zero Intensity

I hate to break it to you, but hopping on an elliptical trainer, treadmill or bike, reading a magazine (I’ve actually seen someone reading a scientific document), and going on autopilot on level 1 for 30-60 minutes will not help you look, feel, or perform better.

Choose an intensity that will help you meet your goals. Unless you are going for a leisurely stroll, or are performing an active recovery workout, you should not be able to carry on a good conversation. In fact, if you are really pushing yourself, you should want to bite the head off of anyone who is clueless enough to interrupt you mid session to try and make small talk. I’m sure that many people know what I’m talking about.

Doing The Same Workout Indefinitely

Many people make the mistake of doing the same tired workout again and again. Weeks, or even months will pass, and no changes will be made. After you have been doing the same cardiovascular activity for a while, your body will become more efficient and will get used to it. You will burn fewer calories, will lose less body fat, and will experience fewer gains in fitness. 

Doing Fasted Cardio 

Sorry for some of you people in the bodybuilding crowd who live and die with this method, but many people people still believe the outdated myth that the best way to lose body fat is to do cardio on an empty stomach.

More and more research is revealing that this is not the case. Furthermore, when most people do not eat before they work out, they are incredibly lethargic, and train at a much lower level than if they had eaten first. Find something that agrees with your body, and have a small meal or snack prior to your workout.

Trying To Simultaneously ‘’Tone’’ While Doing Cardio 

This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and I am so perplexed as to why so many people think this is a good idea. When many people do cardio, and women are the usual culprits, they try to kill many birds with one stone. Don’t try and attempt to strengthen and tone at the same time.

A very popular female social media ‘’trainer’’ who prides herself on her glutes and achieves this look by doing everything with a insanely anteriorly tilted pelvis, is likely the reason why so many people have taken to this very ineffective trend. The stairmaster is notorious for this, and you will often see people doing glute kickbacks, or walking up the stairs sideways because they believe that they are toning their glutes. This could not be more incorrect.

Not only are you reinforcing absolutely horrible alignment and biomechanics, you are dramatically decreasing the intensity of your cardio, and your ability to lose body fat. Keep your strength training and cardio separate. Plus nobody enjoys getting kicked in the face when they unassumedly walk behind somebody who is doing glute kickbacks on the stairmaster. I’m speaking from experience!

The 3 Best Forms of Cardio You Should Be Doing

When it comes to cardio, I like to use a three pronged approach. The three methods (prongs) that I will discuss include: steady state cardio training (LISS), interval training (divided into high intensity and supramaximal), and metabolic conditioning.

While the bulk of my cardio (and the cardio I recommend doing) consists of interval training and metabolic conditioning as I believe that these methods give you a far superior bang for your buck, steady state cardio does provide some benefits, hence why I include it.

#1 Steady State Cardio Training 

Steady state cardio training is generally aerobic training that is low to medium in intensity, and longer in duration. While 30 minutes seems to be the average amount of time for this type of training, other people go for upwards of 60 minutes.

Some common modalities of steady state cardio include the:

  • Elliptical trainer
  • Treadmill
  • Bike
  • Rowing machine

And perhaps the most popular of all, and the one that makes me cringe more than anything…

  • Jogging

Let me be clear on one thing, I don’t have an issue with jogging itself. What I do have an issue with is that the majority of the people who jog do not have the requisite levels of strength, stability, or mobility to perform this high impact and extremely repetitive activity safely and effectively, which is why running is likely the most injurious method of exercise out there.

Just make sure not to mention this to the running community though!

Now let me get to the benefits of steady state cardio. This type of cardio is beneficial if you are beginner or are starting an exercise program after a lengthy layoff and are deconditioned. It will help build your aerobic base, and will get your body strong enough so you can withstand the more intense modes of cardio.

Steady state cardio can also be useful to add into your workout program if you need an easier day to recover between harder strength workouts or the more intense modes of conditioning.

I’m going to blow your mind here by showcasing one of my steady state favorites that doesn’t include riding a plastic machine!

Prowler Sled Push

The prowler sled is a great way to perform steady-state cardio. It is much more exciting than most forms of steady cardio, plus it is low impact and will not tax your body. Use a lighter weight, and continuously push the sled for your desired about a time.

I will perform this for 15-30 consecutive minutes and without taking any rest. I will also combine a 60 second prowler sled push with a 15 calorie row and will perform 30 minutes of this.

#2 Interval Training 

I like to break up my interval training into two categories: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and Supramaximal Interval Training. 

  • High Intensity Interval Training can be described as cardio that alternates high intensity work intervals with either an active recovery (low intensity intervals) or passive recovery intervals (complete rest). With HIIT, the high intensity work intervals are done at 100% of your VO2max. 
  • Supramaximal Interval Training is similar to HIIT as it involves high intensity work intervals that alternate with rest, but you will completely rest between the sets of high intensity intervals. Also, your work intervals will be done at more than 100% of your VO2Max. 

Both of these methods of interval training are extremely beneficial and offer you a huge bang for your buck. They take much less time to perform than steady-state cardio, and they will improve your power endurance, in other words, your ability to push yourself at a high intensity and for an extended amount of time. This will prevent you from getting winded when you strength train. 

Improving your power endurance will also improve your sports performance, as it is widely known that in order to make the most of the sport specific skills that you already possess, and limit mental errors that are often due to fatigue, you need to be highly conditioned. 

Lastly, and I’m sure in the minds of many most importantly, from a fat burning perspective, with interval training, not only are you burning body fat during the session, due to a phenomenon called excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), your metabolism will remain elevated long after the session has ended, possibly for upwards of 36 hours. EPOC will also increase the secretion of growth hormone and noradrenaline, both of which are responsible for breaking down stored body fat and will allow it to be used as fuel, which will help you shed stubborn body fat.

With interval training, I like to use a 1:2 to 1:4 work to rest ratio (when you are first starting out), and I will typically perform work intervals that range from 10 to 120 seconds in duration. As your conditioning improves, you can increase the intensity of the workout by either increasing the length of the work interval (I usually don’t go over 2 minutes), or decreasing the length of the rest interval. But make sure that your work interval is an all out burst, or at least as hard as you can go for the given length of time.

Here are three great interval training workouts that I like to do: 

Full Field Sprints

Here is a great on-field workout that I recently did. Get on a grass or turf soccer field (100-110 yards).  I use this to condition myself for soccer. While I did all three of these in one workout, you can break it into three separate workouts as it is quite intense. 

Interval Cardio Workout #1

Sprint from goal to goal (should take around 15-25 seconds to complete). Rest for 30-120 seconds, and repeat for 10-20 rounds. Initially, give yourself the higher end rest interval, and start out at just 10 rounds. 

Interval Cardio Workout #2

4 sets of: Full field sprint, fast jog back, 3/4 field sprint, fast jog back, half field sprint, fast jog back, 1/4 field sprint, fast jog back. 

**The work interval took about 2:00 and I gave myself 60 seconds rest between sets.

Interval Cardio Workout #3

5 sets of: 1/4 field sprint + 1/4 field sprint backwards to half, 1/4 field sprint + 1/4 sprint backwards return to goal line  (the video is of this)

**The work interval took 18-20 seconds and I gave myself 60 seconds rest between sets.

Airdyne Bike + Rowing Machine (HIIT)

Perform an all out sprint for 10 seconds, using both your legs, and propelling with your arms. Immediately get on the rower and perform a 15 calorie row, using a low to medium intensity. Repeat this combination for 20-30 minutes without taking any rest. The bike is when you really push it, and use the rower as your recovery interval.

#3 Metabolic Conditioning (Met-Con) Training 

Metabolic conditioning training increases the storage and delivery of energy for any activity. Metabolic conditioning training is my favourite modality of cardio as it definitely offers the most variety, and allows me to be extremely creative. 

Like interval training, metabolic conditioning is beneficial as it takes very little time to do, increases power endurance, has a high EPOC, and hence improves your ability to lose body fat, and offers much more variety and excitement than other forms of cardio. 

With metabolic conditioning training, I like to use a 2:1 to 4:1 work to rest ratio, and will typically perform work intervals that range from 1-4 minutes in duration. As your conditioning improves, you can increase the intensity of the workout by either increasing the length of the work interval (but don’t go over 4 minutes), or decreasing the length of the rest interval. But make sure that your work intervals are extremely intense! 

Here are two great metabolic conditioning workouts that I have had a great amount of success with both personally and professionally with my clients: 

Met-Con Workout #1
  1. Landmine Squat – 10 reps
  2. Med Ball Slam – 10 reps
  3. Skipping – 30 seconds
  4. Airdyne Sprint – 10 seconds

**Rest for 60-120 seconds between rounds and repeat 4-10 times 

Met-Con Workout #2
  1. Landmine Jump Squat – 10 reps
  2. Chin-Up – 5 reps
  3. Airdyne Sprint – 15 seconds
  4. Rowing Machine Sprint – 30 seconds

**Rest for 60-120 seconds between rounds and repeat 4-10 times 

The End To Mindless Cardio!

While cardio training might not be as glamorous or exciting as strength training, if you are serious about achieving your peak potential in the gym, in your sport, aesthetically, and kicking ass in your everyday life, it is an important component to have as part of a well rounded workout program.

As I have made it painfully clear, the cardio you do does not have to be boring, repetitive, or overly time consuming. Cardio training that is done the right way should make you feel good, empowered, and build you up, not break you down. 

About The Author

meghan callaway

Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches.  Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics.

Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between.  She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.

With a unquenchable thirst for learning about the human body and movement, Meghan spends her time broadening her knowledge base as a trainer and coach, and truly practices what she preaches in her own fitness and life.

Learn more about Meghan on her:  Website     Facebook      Instagram    Twitter     YouTube

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  1. Steve September 14, 2016 at 11:52 pm - Reply

    TABATA with medium weights would fall under HIIT?

  2. Kathleen July 9, 2017 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Good info, but never judge. I have had two hip replacements and avoid any ballistic movements. No running, no jumping, sub-maximal effort on cardio machines.

    I knew a trainer who instructed a middle-age man to pick up his intensity/do interval training on the treadmill. This man had very high blood pressure and was on medication.

    I have learned never to judge when people are doing less than what I think they could be doing.

  3. Anthony July 17, 2017 at 10:58 am - Reply

    As a teacher, I do not work in the summers. Because I am not as active, there are days which I will walk to and from the gym. It is about 1 mile or slightly under. Would this lead to increase injury, fat gain, etc?

  4. Mathew October 10, 2018 at 11:10 pm - Reply

    Good stuff! Best write up here so far! Thank you for all the great suggestions and cardio combos!

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