Elements of a Great Workout: Cardio/Heart Strength

Do you love or hate cardio?  Do you avoid it and know you need to incorporate it?  Or are you stuck in the same pattern and need to mix it up? 

I have experienced all of these at different points in my life.  At one time, I was running constantly and training for my next race.  I was excited to up my mileage, but nervous at the same time.  Then out of nowhere, I would get tired of running and avoid it.  Next, I would miss the “high” my runs gave me and would start again.  After dabbling back and forth with running, I started having knee issues.  I knew I had to get into something else. 

So, I started trying Bootcamp and HIIT (high intensity interval training) type of workouts.  These incorporated strength and cardio in short intervals so boredom was kept at bay.  And I loved it.  But then I would see others excel at running or swimming and it made me want to get back into a cardio heavy activity.  I knew that my strength and cardio workouts were beneficial and working for my health, but they weren’t the same as running for miles and miles.  So I would try to run again, but it wasn’t like the old days.  I wasn’t in love with it like I was before, I was just trying to fit in. 

So I decided to keep doing my interval workouts and incorporate some runs on the side.  That turned out to be a good mix.  I realized I didn’t have to conform to what others thought exercise should be.  My training schedule could look different than other people’s schedule.  It makes sense when I said it out loud – different exercises fit different people.    

Why do you care about my cardio history?  It’s important to know that throughout your life, you may think you have to do a certain type of cardio forever because that’s what you have always done.  But if something happens and it’s not doable for you anymore, do you just quit? 

Well, you can do whatever you want.  But I recommend not getting your head too focused on what you were able to do, but not able to do now.  That’s futile and just leaves you frustrated.  What I suggest is to be open to change because we don’t have total control of the future.  And I’m here to load your toolbox with other ways to get your cardio “high”.

Before diving into the specifics, why should we even care about cardio and getting it into our lives?

Cardio health and fitness are linked to so many benefits.  The reasons to incorporate it into our daily lives never end. Even though I’m not a cardio junkie in this season of life, I do know that I need to keep it in my life for multiple health reasons.

Here are only a fraction of benefits to Cardio Fitness:

(American College of Sports Medicine. 2010. ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription, 8th Ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Reduced resting blood pressure
  • Reduced insulin needs and improved glucose tolerance
  • Increased stamina and energy
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved sleep
  • Stronger Heart & Lungs

I would be hard pressed to find someone that is not interested in at least one of these benefits.  Any takers out there??  If nothing speaks to you, did you even read, “Increased Energy And Stamina”??

Alright now that everyone is on board let’s list out different methods of cardio:

  • Running or Jogging
  • Walking
  • Bicycling
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Elliptical-ing
  • Jumping Rope
  • Boxing
  • Jumping (or Falling on Your Face)
  • Playing Sports (Basketball, Tennis, Raquetball, etc.)
  • Dancing
  • Straight Burpees!

If you do cardio regularly, you may have fitting it in your schedule mastered.  If you tend to avoid it, here is where you can sneak it in and get its benefits. 

A fun way to sneak it in my workout, is to incorporate moves that get my heart pumping and me out of breath.  Say I want to workout my entire body.  I’ll work on my arms and back and legs and glutes and then core (just to name a few) and then in between each exercise I add in some quick punching.  If I’m doing my interval workouts, I’ll have one interval for strength and then the next for cardio and keep alternating.  That way I break up the monotony!! 

If you want some added zing, make your cardio interval dual purpose. For instance, you don’t just want to run in place, but you want to work on your lower body as well.  Add in some jump squats and Boom you have your cardio element and it serves as a leg burner too!  Or you want to get out some aggression and you have some light weights (or soup cans – anyone remember Denise Austin??? One of my faves!) you can do some weighted punches.  That’ll get your heart rate up, so it’s working your heart and you have the weight adding resistance to your arms and shoulders.  There we go again, being efficient and savvy.

For those interested in some quick and dirty cardio that can function as strengthening too, here you go:

  • Jump Squats
  • Burpees
  • Weighted Punches
  • Jump Lunges
  • Plyo Pushups
  • Battle ropes
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Box Jumps
  • Mountain Climbers
  • High Knees with a weighted vest

*Any exercise that gets your heart pumping and makes you breathe harder is a cardio exercise.  Don’t let the jumping and the swinging exercises scare you off. Modify to your level always and listen to your body. You know it best!!

Alright, how does that sound? 

That’s a lot of info, so how are you going to implement it?

First, look at what you are currently do.  See if you need to incorporate more cardio or if you’re good.

Second, if you find that you may need more cardio in your life, look at ways to sneak it in.  Can you alternate your strength intervals with cardio intervals?  Can you add a cardio burn at the end of your workout by dancing to 2-3 songs?  What might be a continuation of your fitness routine or one step up from what you are currently doing?

Third, if you already have cardio in your life, but it’s not working for you, is there a way you can mix it up to get off that plateau?  What out of the list of cardio choices gets you excited?  Try that out!   

Comment below on your favorite cardio of choice.  For bonus points, name a dual cardio and strength exercise not listed here that you love or love to hate!

Join me next time as I wrap up the series “Elements of a Great Workout” by bringing it full circle with the aspect of sustainability.

Elements of a Great Workout: Core Strength

The Core.  We hear all about it and how everyone wants to work their core or more specifically their abs.  But is it really important? 

Yes and No.

Most of the time people want to work on their abs for the aesthetics.  And to be honest so do I.  I’m not immune to these desires.  Do I want to have flatter abs and a slimmer waist?  Of course.  But do I know that having 6 pack abs won’t make me any more happy?  Again yes, but it is hard to remind myself with all the subliminal messages from media and society. 

On the other hand, having a strong core can make all the difference in enjoying your life a little more each day.  We use our core doing all sorts of daily activities.  Do you need to pick up something heavy?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to roll out of bed?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to cough or sneeze?  That’s using your core.  Do you need to stand or sit up straight?  That’s using your core. 

Rabbit Trail:  I want to take a quick moment to talk about Low Back Pain.  If you are experiencing a lot of low back pain it could be from a weak core. Not saying that’s the only reason, but it is common if you experience it on a daily basis.  When I was well into my pregnancy and my abs were useless, I experienced a lot of low back pain.  The effects of my enormous belly caused my body’s center of gravity to shift forward and my abs were stretched out to accommodate my growing baby.  This made my core work harder and inefficiently to hold everything together.  Other parts of my core had to work overtime to provide the same support I had experienced in the past.  My obliques and lower back over compensated since my abs were unable to do their job of pulling my organs close to the center of my body.  Keeping good posture and having your body in alignment allows your body to work efficiently and not over work certain muscles, like your low back.   So having a strong core is important in everyday living – I know this first hand!

So what are the core muscles?

  • Abs & Low Back
  • Obliques
  • Pelvic Floor & Diaphragm

Each part of the core is made up of multiple muscles.  The Abs are made up of the rectus abdominus (RA or the 6 pack abs) and the transverse abdominus (TA or internal abs not externally visible).  The Low Back is made up of multiple muscles such as the erector spinae, multifidus and quadratus lumborum.  (One little nugget of info is if you experience low back pain, engaging your abs and glutes/bum can help take pressure off your back and redistribute the load more evenly.  I know this is a common complaint and by being mindful about muscle engagement, it’s possible to reduce low back pain.)  Then the Obliques are made up of the external and internal obliques which are the sides of our torso.  Next we have the Pelvic Floor muscles located under the pelvis which are responsible for lifting and supporting pelvic organs, but also allowing waste to pass through our bodies.  And finally we have the Diaphragm or the top of the core separating the lungs from the stomach and intestines while also helping with our breath.  In addition, the Diaphragm and the Pelvic Floor muscles work together to regulate intra-abdominal pressure.    

Now what are some exercises for each of these parts of our core so we can stay nice and balanced?  Imbalance is the enemy!

The abs and the low back work in opposition.  A couple of exercises for the abs are the pilates roll-up and plank mountain climbers while the superman/locust pose and reverse plank are for the low back.  Moving on to the obliques which oppose each other (and the low back as well), we have exercises such as the bicycle abs and the side plank.  Then for the pelvic floor and diaphragm we can do what’s commonly called the “connection breath”.  On the inhale of the connection breath, the pelvic floor relaxes and the diaphragm contracts.  On the exhale, the opposite happens with the pelvic floor contracting and the diaphragm relaxing.  With the connection breath, the transverse abdominus is working too.  It works like a corset, so when we inhale deeply it relaxes and when we exhale fully it tightens. 

Some stabilizing exercises that work many of these muscles all at once are dead bugs and bird dogs.  These exercises help with stabilizing the torso, so it works the abs, obliques and low back.  These exercises might not feel like you are “working hard”, but they are the foundation to a solid core.  And when doing these stabilizing exercises (along with any other exercises), be sure to continue to breathe.  It is easy to hold our breath when trying to hold a pose, but be sure to breathe through the exercise so oxygen continues to circulate and the internal pressure in the core doesn’t increase.

For my bullet point people out there, I feel you!  Here they are:

  • Pilates Roll-up & Plank Mountain Climbers (Abs)
  • Superman/Locust Pose & Reverse Plank (Low Back)
  • Bicycle Abs & Side Plank (Obliques)
  • Connection Breath (Pelvic Floor, Diaphragm & TA)
  • Dead Bug & Bird Dog (Abs, Obliques & Low Back)

For those that like more detail, here is a breakdown of additional muscles worked with the previously listed exercises (not exhaustive):

  • Abs (RA & TA):
    • Pilates Roll-up – RA, TA & Obliques
    • Plank Mountain Climbers – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back
  • Low Back:
    • Superman/Locust Pose – Low Back & Glute Max
    • Reverse Plank – Low Back, Glute Max, RA, TA & Obliques
  • Obliques:
    • Bicycle Abs – RA, TA & Obliques
    • Side Plank – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back
  • Pelvic Floor & Diaphragm:
    • Connection Breath – Pelvic Floor, Diaphragm & TA
  • Stabilizing Muscles:
    • Dead Bug & Bird Dog – RA, TA, Obliques & Low Back

Shew, that was a jam-packed post!  Let me know what you think.  Did anything surprise you?  I want to know!

Stay tuned for next time -> We will be discussing the element of cardio and it’s importance in your workout line up.