CARDIO! – Are you seeing results or simply wasting your time?

4 July 2016

The  majority of people never get the results they want from their cardio sessions. This is mainly because nobody ever shows us what a proper cardio workout entails. If you want to get lean and fit then there are certain fundamentals that you need to understand and get to grips with if you want to start seeing results otherwise you could be wasting your time.

Cardio training

Understanding how your body burns fat and builds stamina will help you get the most out of your cardio sessions. Your body reacts differently to different training intensities or zones. The intensity of your session will influence what type of fuel you burn dramatically. If your end goal is to burn fat then it makes sense that your workout should be aimed at burning fat.

Knowing exactly how to get the results you want will give you a whole fresh outlook on your workouts. Start training effectively and enjoy those results rather than watching those TV screens which most cardio studios plonk right in front of you which are a good distraction from your goals. Ironic isn’t it? 

What do you want from your cardio sessions?

Cardio sessions should begin with an end goal in mind, you have to ask yourself what do I want to gain from these sessions? Most of us tend to keep the intensity constant throughout the programme and keep it the same “week in week out” kind of like a hamster in its wheel. This is okay for a beginner but once you can maintain a steady pace for at least 16 minutes then it’s time to increase the intensity if you want to start seeing results.

The key to fat loss and fitness gains is intensity change throughout your programme. Your body has three different energy supply systems that respond differently to different training intensities. Each energy system burns fuel at different rates but they all have a common goal. That is to break fats and carbohydrates down to produce ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Imagine your energy systems like gears in a car which you move in and out of. Your training intensity will dictate the gear that you are in. You must move in and out of those gears for your workouts to be effective. If you stay at the same pace you will stay in the same gear with very little results.  

ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate)

To make your muscles contract so that your body moves they need a constant supply of ATP. If ATP is in short supply we slow down. If there were no ATP we would come to a halt. ATP is a high energy molecule and it is the only molecule that your body recognises. 

When ATP becomes in short supply it must be replenished. You all have a small limited amount of ATP available in your ATP pool which is constantly being turned over throughout the day. When you need to move faster or work harder for longer periods your body then needs more ATP than what the pool can supply.

Your body’s energy systems then have to start breaking down fat and carbohydrate to keep a constant supply of ATP going. All three systems work simultaneously. The intensity of your workouts will govern which energy system is predominant at any one time. Energy systems can be quite complex little things therefore I’m going to simplify them and use the analogy of gears in your car to give you a simple overview. This should help you get a clearer picture of how you burn your fat and get fit effectively.

1st Gear (ATP-PC System)

When you move from a resting state your muscles instantly need ATP to contract. You set off in first gear for the first few seconds as your muscles draw ATP from its own pool. This system is also referred to as your anaerobic system as it is instant without oxygen as your body takes a few more seconds to process fats, carbohydrate, and oxygen for more ATP.

First gear is also used for fast powerful explosive movements such as a 100m sprint or Olympic weight lifting. Such events have a huge energy demand and deplete the ATP pool within 10 to 12 seconds of all out explosive exertion. Once the ATP pool has been depleted you will have to reduce the intensity and drop into second or third gear. Now you can start taking in and utilising oxygen and breaking down energy from food and body fat. This picture shows the different gears and the rates at which they burn fuel. First gear actually uses the most calories of all the gears but can only last for a few seconds which is why I have depicted it this way.

fat burning

2nd Gear (Glycolytic System)

When you are training at a very high intensity which could last more than 15 seconds but you could not endure longer that a couple of minutes, you are then in second gear. At this intense level your body becomes very fatigued, produces lots of lactic acid, and your muscles demands far more oxygen than you can deliver which causes a massive oxygen dept. You then have to drop the intensity and move into third gear which is a lighter pace. You need the lactic acid to subside and draw in lots of oxygen to clear the oxygen debt by breathing heavily – don’t worry! you don’t have to think about this, your body will just do it.

In second gear your body breaks down lots of carbohydrates and fats to produce ATP to fuel your working muscles. Second gear is where the magic happens, this is where all your results come from. You’ll burn lots of body fat and increase your fitness dramatically from working out in second gear. You need be focused and have the drive to push yourself at this intensity. Unfortunately many of us give up or lower the intensity before we really need to. If you work hard and condition yourself to train at this level you will get awesome results from your workouts.

3rd Gear (Oxidative System)

Third gear is your aerobic system which relies on oxygen as you break down fats and carbohydrates to obtain ATP. In this gear you can keep going for very long periods of time such as running long distance. This intensity does not take you towards lactate threshold nor does it create a large oxygen dept.

Although body fat is the predominant fuel that is burned in third gear which is why people often mistakenly think that low intensity training such as a steady jog or long walk is the best type of exercise for burning body fat. But of you look at the Glycolytic system (2nd gear) above you can see that even though the main fuel burned is carbohydrate you still burns a lot more body fat than the oxidative system (3rd gear). You would have to do hours and hours of steady exercise to see significant results here. This is why it is good to move up to second gear and use third gear to recover after you have done a minute or so in second. If you are new to exercise it is good to build up some endurance by training in third gear for up to 20 minutes.

What Cardio programme should I choose?

At beginner level you have to start at a steady manageable pace on the flat which is generally the default program for most cardio machines. Continue at a steady pace until you can complete 16 to 20 minutes without stopping. You must choose a speed that is quite challenging to push your heart rate up. When you have worked at this level for a few weeks it is time to start introducing some hills or intervals and venture up into second gear. You will often see people stay at a comfortable pace in third gear for the whole session which is why they never get any measurable results

Choose a programme that has hills or intervals in it if you want to burn body fat and get fitter. When you hit those hills or intervals your heart and lungs will start to race and you’re breathing will become laboured as your muscles demand large amounts oxygen. Your muscles will progressively become fatigued as the lactic acid builds up and you get closer to lactate threshold. You are now in second gear. Remember to keep your speed up or even increase it to get the best results.

weight loss

Regardless of where you train, all cardio equipment should have hills and interval programs of some kind. Different brands may be visually different but all work on the same principle. This picture for example shows a hill program. If you increase the level the hills will get steeper. Keeping the speed constant will automatically increase the intensity as you start the hill. You will then move up into second gear because your muscles have to work harder to run up the hill. At this level you burn a lot more fat and carbohydrate to supply your muscles with the extra ATP. Then after a minute or so you will have to drop back down to third to recover.

Benefits of Intervals?

Interval programs generally will look something like this. You will see hills and dips.

interval trainingThe dips represent recovery periods and hills put you into second gear. Remember you will only be able to stay at this level for a minute or so if you have the intensity right. You will then have to drop into third gear to recover before you move back up. For best results you want to put as much effort into those intervals as you can. If the speed is too slow then you will never leave third gear even though you are on a interval or hill program. If you feel that you could keep going for longer than 2 minutes on the interval then you’re not really in second gear. Keeping your speed constant increases the intensity as you climb the hills. Some people make the mistake of reducing the speed as you go up the hill which totally defeats the object.

As your body becomes more conditioned you may even want to try speeding up on the intervals. This would burn even more body fat and increase your level of fitness. Compared to steady state training, interval and hill training have far greater benefits including health, fitness, and BMI reduction. Doing an interval program correctly will also take the boredom away from your cardio sessions as you have something to focus on rather than being board. Learn and apply the fundamentals of interval training to your workouts.


You can progress your workouts 3 ways. The length of your session, the intensity of the session, or the frequency of your workouts. Increasing any one of these will progress you towards your goals. Your workouts may be challenging at first but they will get easier in time as you become fitter. When you progress over the weeks you must keep increasing your levels and keep out of that comfort zone otherwise you will begin to plateau. If you’re not sure if you are training hard enough a heart rate monitor or RPE chart can be great tools to check if your intensity. Remember consistency over time is the key to achieving your goals.

A Word on Diet

We have talked a lot about effective training for burning body fat and becoming leaner. However you must remember that no matter how often and how hard you train, if you eat more calories that what you burn you going to get fat. It doesn’t matter what foods you eat, if you eat too much your training will not always compensate those calories. I recommend that you eat a healthy balanced diet that includes all your essential nutrients which are low in fats and sugars. Eating healthy will keep your metabolism burning, your body healthy, and your workouts fuelled.

Putting it all together

Your cardio sessions should always have your goal in mind. To get results fast you have to be motivated and hit those hills and intervals whilst keeping your speed up. Don’t fall into the trap of keeping the pace the same for 20 minutes whilst watching the TV screens. Set yourself targets and monitor your progression. Steady state training is fine for beginners and older adults just wanting to tick over. But if you’re are under 60 years old and free from illness then you need to get out of your comfort zone and move in and out of those energy systems. Push yourself into second gear for up to 2 minute intervals. If you haven’t been training very long then you may only be able to do 30 seconds. Don’t worry the key to results is not to become complacent but to keep progressing by increasing your intensity. Keep moving in and out of second gear. If you have been doing the same flat routine at the same pace for months on end, try introducing some interval training or hill programs to your workouts. This really will take your workouts and your results to a whole new level. 

Paul Sebo M.Sc




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