Whether you’re aiming to lean down and lose body fat or bulk up and put on muscle size, including a few cardio sessions throughout the week is definitely a smart addition to your overall training plan.
It may not be the most enjoyable thing in the world for a lot of trainees, but performing regular cardio is an effective means of controlling body fat levels through additional calorie burning, improving metabolic conditioning, optimizing nutrient partitioning and even enhancing recovery in between weight training sessions in some cases.
There’s no end to the number of possible choices when it comes to effective cardio training, but what are the very best cardio exercises out there to burn fat and improve your overall conditioning in the most effective way possible?
Well, my suggestion here is very simple…
Instead of choosing your cardio exercises based on what will “burn the most calories”, just go with the ones that you enjoy the most and that maximize your chances of sticking to your cardio plan long term.
Now, just to be clear…
What I’m referring to here are the cardio exercises that you choose (such as a treadmill or bike) and not the specific cardio methodology (such as low intensity/long duration LISS cardio or high intensity/low duration HIIT cardio).
As I’ve covered in previous articles, both slower-paced cardio sessions in the 45-60 minute range and high intensity cardio in the 8-20 minute range have their own unique benefits, and most trainees will usually be best off performing a mix of both.
My basic recommendation for most people is to perform 1-2 low intensity sessions and 1-2 high intensity sessions throughout the week, with the specific amount being moderated based on one’s individual training goals and calorie intake.
However, assuming that you already have things laid out properly in terms of cardio frequency, intensity and duration, the specific cardio exercises that you use to meet those variables are really up to you and are typically best chosen with the primary goal of long term adherence in mind.
Fat loss and muscle growth are all about ongoing consistency, and when it all comes down to it, the “best cardio exercises” are simply the ones that you’ll be most likely to perform multiple days per week over the long term.
For example, if you absolutely hate running on a treadmill, there is NO need to unnecessarily torture yourself by using it as one of your cardio methods. If you seriously can’t envision yourself doing it 3 or 4 days a week on a continual basis, then you’re probably right.
Instead, go with a cardio machine that you better prefer, such as the stairstepper, stationary bike or rowing machine. Or, if you’re like me and can’t stand being in one spot for too long, then do what I do and rotate through 3 different machines in the same workout.
Can’t stand traditional cardio equipment altogether?
No problem, even that isn’t a necessity by any means.
Body weight intervals are also a perfectly viable choice, as are barbell complexes or even kettlebell work.
You could jump rope. You could hit a heavy bag. You could swim.
If you’d rather go outdoors, there’s no end to the possible choices there either, such as jogging, cycling, hiking or kayaking. Even things like surfing or rock climbing are completely acceptable choices as well.
If you’re into sports, then find a drop in league and use that as one of your cardio methods. A game of basketball, soccer, hockey, flag football etc. is a great way to get the fat burning and cardio conditioning benefits you’re after while having fun and meeting new people at the same time.
Or, take a look at the list of classes offered at your gym. If you see something that looks like it might be fun, give it a shot. Group cardio, a TRX class, spin or fast-paced yoga – there’s really nothing wrong with any of these choices.
So as you can see, the list of possible cardio exercises at your disposal is virtually endless, and the specific ones I’ve mentioned here are just a small fraction of what’s ultimately available to you.
If you just take some time and put a bit of thought into it, you should easily be able to come up with a list of different activities that you’d enjoy (or that would at least be tolerable) while still allowing you to get a good workout in.
Remember, the purpose of cardio is simply to burn additional calories, and ANY form of exercise that allows you to generate a sufficient amount of intensity is going to accomplish that.
Obviously there will be slight differences in overall calorie expenditure from exercise to exercise, but the overall variance will be negligible and it isn’t likely going to make much, if any difference in the grand scheme of things anyway.
Besides, would you rather burn a few percent of extra calories performing a cardio exercise that you can’t stand, or do something that is, at the very worst, only slightly less effective, but that you actually enjoy?
If you hate running but love kickboxing, which activity do you think you’ll be more likely to stick to over the long haul? If you can’t stand stationary bikes but really enjoy swimming, which one is more likely to get you out of bed in the morning on a consistent basis?
Trying to choose your cardio exercises based purely on what may or may not burn a few extra calories is really not the best way to go about things.
Instead, just find one or more activities that you enjoy the most, match them up with your cardio needs in terms of frequency, intensity and duration and you’ll be all set to go.
Now, the one caveat here is that if you’re someone who is looking to fully optimize their body composition and strength levels, you’ll obviously want to choose cardio exercises that don’t measurably interfere with your recovery in between weight training workouts.
It probably wouldn’t be wise, for example, to go rock climbing immediately before or after a back workout if you wanted to execute your chin ups and pulldowns with maximum intensity and recover from them as effectively as possible.
If you were training chest and triceps in the next 24 hours, then repetitive punching on a heavy bag wouldn’t be the smartest plan.
If you were on the first day or two of recovery from exhaustive squats and leg presses, then doing explosive plyometrics or uphill sprinting probably wouldn’t be ideal.
You get the idea here.
Just use some proper planning and common sense to make sure that you choose cardio exercises that don’t heavily involve the muscles you’ve just finished training or are about to train.
Again though, this assumes that you’re trying to squeeze out 100% of your possible muscular development and strength gains. If that’s not necessarily the case for you, then just schedule your cardio exercises however you’d prefer.
The Best Cardio Exercises For Fat Loss: The Bottom Line
Again, the basic underlying purpose of cardio is to generate enough overall intensity to burn a significant number of calories, and there are an endless number of different activities that will allow you to do that beyond traditional treadmill running and stationary biking.
For that reason, choosing your cardio exercises based on the activities that you most prefer will:
1) Maximize your chances of sticking to your cardio plan long term.
2) Make your day to day life more enjoyable in general.
3) Do both of the above while still delivering the same basic fat burning and cardio conditioning results that you’re after.
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