written by Sean Hyson
You can’t JUST jog a long time and expect to get lean.
You can’t JUST do high-intensity interval training and expect to have tireless endurance.
You need to do both. The best, most durable athletes always combine long, slow cardio and brutal, short-duration interval work to get the best of both worlds. Although the fitness industry has really skewered the aerobics idea over the past decade, as with virtually everything else in life, the best results come with balance.
Intervals get your heart rate up faster and higher than a long jog does, but that’s part of the PROBLEM. When your heart beats much faster than 150 beats per minute, you lose much of the aerobic effect of the exercise. On the surface, most sports SEEM anaerobic because they have you start and stop (sprint a short distance, lift a weight, etc.). But the heart’s ability to beat at a steady rate and supply oxygen to the muscles is what supports all that activity. It REFUELS the anaerobic system. You can’t do high-intensity work exclusively or you’ll never develop that aerobic base.
You need to slow things down and put in longer workouts. No amount of interval training will compensate for that.
Years ago, I interviewed UFC champ Matt Hughes when he was probably the top welterweight fighter in the world. He told me that he ran around 10 miles a day, nearly every day. In addition to building his aerobic capacity, the running also gave him a mental edge. He said, “I feel like if I go out there and run and run and run, I’ll never feel tired in a fight.” It’s the old idea of making your training harder than the contest it’s being done for so that the latter seems easy by comparison.
As hard as intervals are, don’t forget the mental wear of long, boring workouts. That’s another kind of toughness you need to build.
Of course, Hughes was also doing interval training. In fact, his fight training alone was probably his biggest source—as wrestling and striking drills are what HIIT is designed to mimic. But he got phenomenal results by integrating both, not relying on one or the other.
Joel Jamieson is a very successful trainer of MMA fighters, including Tim Boetsch, Matt Hume, and Rich Franklin, and old-school cardio is the foundation of every program he writes. I interviewed him on this blog and he said the following:
“For fat loss and general health, you should be doing some form of aerobic work for 20 to 40 minutes, three to four days a week. It helps with active recovery and will allow you to train more.”
To make a long story short, do both aerobic and HIIT work every week to be lean and well-conditioned. You can do two to three days of each kind. If that sounds like too much of a time investment, the best thing to do would be to tack on the HIIT to the end of your weight workouts. Just 10–20 minutes would be enough to heighten the fat-burning effect of your lifting session (and the next two days following it).
This is what’s called a “finisher”, and my friend Jason Ferruggia (also training adviser to Men’s Fitness) just put out a great book containing 52 examples of how to do one.
I should note that Ferruggia is NOT a fan of aerobic work. He flat-out calls it “useless” in the book. While I don’t agree with this, he shows you how you can make the most of HIIT and continually challenge yourself with it.
You can set up a good weight-workout finisher a number of ways.
1. Pick an exercise and do as many reps as you can in a certain time. It’s best to make it a full-body move so you can burn the most calories, but it shouldn’t be so stressful that you risk overdoing what you just did with the weights. Something like a Turkish get-up, kettlebell snatch, or burpee oughta do it. Every week, try to improve your total number of reps while keeping your time constant.
2. Do sled/Prowler pushes. Obviously, this is only an option for those who have a weighted sled, although if you’re really ambitious and your gym’s parking lot is empty, you could apply the same idea to pushing your car around.
Load a sled with one to three 45-pound plates and sprint with it. The weight needs to be enough so that you feel some resistance, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re slogging through mud. Go as far as space permits (ideally around 40 yards) and then rest around 60 seconds. Repeat for as long as time allows.
3. Use battling ropes. Again, you need the right equipment, but many gyms have them now. Whip the ropes up and down or alternate arms (make a wave like motion). Keep it up for 10–20 seconds and then rest one to two times as long as your set and repeat.
4. Make a complex. This means a bunch of exercises that flow together and can be done with the same load. Barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells can be used. For example, do a snatch, then front squat, RDL, and bentover row. Keep the reps for each low, around 6, and use a light weight. Never put the bar down. If you’re going with a barbell, just the empty bar or maybe a 25 on each side is enough. You’re using the weight to get tired, not to stimulate muscle growth, so don’t load up.
5. Go back to body weight. Set up a circuit that covers every movement pattern—upper-body pulling, lower-body quad dominant, upper-body pushing, and lower-body hip dominant. You can throw some direct ab training in at the end. Keep the reps appropriate—lower for upper body exercises and higher for lower body (which has a greater endurance capacity) so you can repeat the circuit a bunch without gassing.
6. Build a pyramid. Choose an exercise and decrease the reps with every set as you fatigue. Start with 10–12 when you’re fresh, rest, then go to 8–10, 6–8, and so on down.
7. Play cards. Take a deck of cards to the gym and assign an exercise to each suit. Flip the cards over three at a time and follow the numbers on them (count up from 11 for face cards). Rest as needed.
Ferruggia gives sample workouts for all of these and many more in his new book, Renegade Cardio, so you’ll never get bored or adapt. Pick it up HERE.
But don’t forget to get your aerobic work in, too. It’s not as glorious, as quick, or as fun as intervals, but it can’t be denied.