The Great Cardio Debate: Long and Easy or Short and Hard?

The Great Cardio Debate: Long and Easy or Short and Hard?
Even if you've got the greatest abdominal workout in the world, it's not going to slim your waist unless you also burn off the fat. There are many of people out there who have great muscular tone and balance in the mid-section, but don't even know it because those nice abs are covered by a layer of fat.

Remember, a combination of three factors is necessary for a slim waistline: a good abdominal workout, smart cardiovascular exercise and proper nutrition (which could include supplementing with necessary dietary factors such as magnesium citrate powder, fish oil, or vitamin D). Keep reading to find out how to choose the proper cardio workout structure for burning the most calories and burning the proper ratio of carbohydrates and fat.

When it comes to cardio, the question I probably receive most is: long and easy or short and hard? This question actually reflects the most important concept behind a good cardio routine. The truth is, the answer depends. Let’s begin by looking at total amount of calories burnt with either approach.
Say I ask you to travel a mile on foot. It doesn’t matter how you do it – walk, jog or run. Many exercise professionals will tell you that you’ll burn the same number of calories any way you do it, as long as you’re covering the same distance. But this is simply not true. Studies have shown that the faster you cover any distance, the more calories you burn, period. This is because there is a higher metabolic cost to moving quickly than to moving slowly. So you’re going to burn the most calories by pedaling, running, rowing, swimming, or doing any other cardio you do as fast as possible, because you use bigger muscles, more muscles, and require more blood flow and energy production. The added bonus is that the faster you move, the higher your post-exercise metabolism becomes, meaning that you burn more calories throughout the day after your workout than if you had moved at a slower pace.
But here’s the catch that confuses many people – the faster you "move" across that mile, the more you rely on carbohydrates for energy, and the less you rely on fat. Although burning carbohydrates is beneficial, your body should also be learning how to efficiently use fat as an energy source. The "fat-burning" zone varies from person to person, but a good rule is that when breathing becomes labored or the muscles begin to burn, you’ve crossed the threshold to utilizing carbohydrate as a primary energy source. The basic science behind this is that it takes more oxygen to burn one calorie from fat than it takes to burn one calorie from carbohydrate, so as your body begins to work harder and get lower on oxygen, it turns more to carbohydrate as an energy source.
Alright, now that you’ve gotten through the nitty-gritty science, here’s the application part. If you are pressed for time in your workout, go short and fast (i.e. 10-20 minutes, at a high intensity level). You will burn more calories, both in your workout and throughout the rest of the day. Ideally, however, if you have the time, you should also be incorporating long and slow cardio workouts into your routine (i.e. 20-60 minutes, at an easy intensity), essentially "training" your body to burn fat as a fuel. Often, I have my clients work in both zones by performing their short and hard cardio efforts prior to weight training on their "difficult" days, then performing their slow and long cardio efforts on their "easy" days. The added bonus is that the slow and long cardio efforts allow the body to recover more quickly from the previous day's difficult efforts, which means better results.
Let's finish with a sample workout that will keep you in both hard and easy zones during the same workout. This is called an "interval" routine. Here's how it works:
5 minute graded warm-up, gradually working up to a hard intensity by minute 5
1 minute hard-fast effort (labored breathing)
2 minutes easy-medium effort (conversation possible)
2 minutes hard-fast effort
1 minute easy-medium effort
Repeat 1x
3 minutes hard-fast effort
3 minutes easy-medium effort
4 minutes hard-fast effort
4 minutes easy-medium effort
Repeat 1x
5 minute cool-down, gradually working down to a very easy effort by minute 5.

For even more information and workouts just like this, you can visit Ben’s free blog and audio podcast, at He is a member of the non-profit Nutritional Magnesium Association.

Bio: Ben Greenfield, M.A. Sports Science and Exercise Physiology - Mr. Greenfield was voted the 2008 Personal Trainer of the Year, by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is the author of “Shape21 -- The Complete 21 Day Lean Body Manual” along with several other books including “Top 12 Resistance Training Routines for Triathletes”, “Run With No Pain”, and “100 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism”. Ben is also the Director of Sports Performance and oversees the physiology and biomechanics laboratory at Champions Sports Medicine in Spokane, WA, which offers metabolic-based weight loss, bicycle fitting, running gait analysis, swim stroke analysis, VO2 max testing, blood lactate testing, resting metabolic rate analysis, and other cutting-edge procedures for weight loss and performance.

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