Running out of cardio workout ideas? Sick of cycling through the same old sweat sessions? Starting to feel like skipping . . . okay, enough of that. If you’re looking for some training inspiration to spice up bland cardio workouts, this blog’s for you.
Below you’ll find four training plans that are chock full of cardio exercises. Each plan is organised around a theme. For example, your first cardio gym workout is based on a biathlon. Though the exercises are nothing new to you, the objective and structure will be. Instead of aimlessly sweating away, you’ll be pursuing the goal of getting the best possible time.
Shifting focus from ‘I’ve got to do 30 mins of cardio cuz the doc said so,’ to ‘I’ve got to get the best time because I’ll have achieved something to be proud of,’ can ignite training motivation. Plus, when you’re pursuing a target, you’ll find once monotonous workouts are all of a sudden engaging.
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Cardio gym workout benefits
The benefits of cardiovascular training are well understood. That’s why health professionals keep encouraging us to do it. The NHS prescribe a daily dose of aerobic activity because it can ‘help to protect and maintain heart, lung and circulatory health.’ This can ‘reduce your risk of ill health’ while also ‘enhancing your mental health and wellbeing,’ (NHS – 2023).
But we’re only into the first mile of a marathon of benefits associated with CV training. According to the WHO, cardio can improve bone and functional health’ as well as reducing your risk of
Coronary heart disease (CHD)
Diabetes (type 2)
Various types of cancer (including breast and colon cancer)
To reap the many rewards of cardio exercises, the WHO maintain that ‘more is better.’ They advocate ‘at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week,’ (WHO – 2023).
That’s perfect because the workouts in this blog will help you hit that target. Completing just two training plans across the week will bag you the minimum dose of 150 minutes. If you can find time for all four, you can confidently tick the more-is-better box!
Essential reading: Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health
There are more ways to get your cardio fix
Cardio is not all about running, rowing, and cycling. In answer to the question, What is the number 1 best cardio exercise? Medical News Today compiled a list of what they believe to be the six best exercises, some of which might surprise you.
For example, their top cardio exercises include
‘Running in place’
High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
A bit of an odd assortment I must admit. For starters, HIIT is not an exercise but a training methodology. And I don’t care what anyone says, there’s no way that jump jacks and burpees are aerobically superior to rowing, cycling, swimming, or airdyne cycling.
However, what the list does illustrate is that cardio exercises can involve bodyweight and resistance exercises. As long as the loads remain low, and the reps and volume high, you will remain within the aerobic training zone.
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The fact that some resistance exercises engage the aerobic system enables us to diversify our cardio workouts. Few people get excited at the prospect of an hour of rowing or running. But a light sprinkling of bodyweight exercises in your CV workouts can make a big difference. Most importantly, changing exercises breaks the monotony of steady-state training.
In addition, because emphasis is shifted from the heart and lungs to skeletal muscles, resistance exercises can provide ‘active recovery’ periods. You’ll still be engaging the CV system, just at a reduced intensity. Also, including bodyweight exercises in your cardio workouts help improve muscular endurance and tonality while burning fat.
Four cardio gym workouts
Now that we've considered the benefits of cardio training, and briefly reviewed methods of making aerobic exercise more enjoyable, it's time to crack on with the workouts. What follows is four session plans. Each plan features a training explanation, warm-up, and list of key points.
The cardio workouts were designed to be completed at the gym. However, many of them can be adapted for outdoor training. You can complete them on your tod or as part of a group.
Cardio gym workout #1: Biathlon and burpees
This workout is based on the biathlon endurance event. The biathlon, which is a watered-down triathlon (get it?), is comprised of the following two disciplines: running and cycling. Lycra-clad mesomorphs first complete a run, followed by a cycle, followed by another run. Nothing much interesting there – unless you like running and cycling of course.
However, to put a bit of flavour into that bland mix of exercises, I’ve stirred in a generous dollop of burpees. Also, to break up the monotony of long distances, the stations have been organised into short sets.
You’ll notice that there are three distinct levels to choose from. As well as accommodating a broad range of fitness abilities, the levels also make the workout more accessible for time-strapped trainers. For example, when I trialled the workouts, I completed level 1 in under 30 minutes, which is about perfect for a lunchtime pulse raise. Level 3, in contrast, took nearly an hour.
The objective for the workout is quite unambiguous: complete the specified number of sets in the level of choice in the shortest time possible. There are two ways to approach this workout. First, take short rests after each set. Second, don’t rest at all.
Biathlon key points
Warm up well before starting the workout: 2-minutes walking → 2-minutes cycling → 1-minute burpees → 2-minutes walking → 2-minutes cycling → 1-minute burpees → Get going! Select the level suitable for your fitness ability. Remember, you can reduce or increase the number of sets to suit your training goals.
Rotate through the three stations ensuring to stick to the prescribed ordering: run → cycle → burpees → repeat.
Use the session plan provided to keep track of your progress and to document your time. (Consider taking split times of each set. Such feedback is useful for improving performance during the workout and over time.)
Cardio gym workout #2: Run and squat jump ladder
Our next workout is considerably different to its predecessor. You’ll be progressing up a distance and repetition ladder. Each rung, as you’d expect, is marginally more challenging than the one previous. If you plan to climb competitively, you’ll have to consider tactics before stepping on the ladder. Start off too fast and run the risk of gassing. But play it safe and sacrifice precious seconds.
Comprised of two exercises, you’ll be hopping back and forth between running and squat jumps. The workout starts off deceptively easy: just a 100-metre run followed by 10 reps of squat jumps. But it doesn’t take long before your quads and lungs feel like they're going to burst.
You have two options to choose from. Option 1, climb to the top of the ladder, take your time, a quick summit selfie, and call it quits. And don’t forget to congratulate yourself for having ran 5500 metres and performed 550 squat jumps.
Option 2, climb up and then back down the ladder. A point of note: if you select option 2, don’t forget to complete the final pairing twice on the bounce. Example: 900 metres run/90 squat jumps → 1000 metres run/100 squat jumps → 1000 metres run/100 squat jumps → 900 metres run/90 squat jumps → 800 . . . Totals for the second option are a heart palpitating 11,000 metres run (6.8 miles) and quad quacking 1100 squat jumps.
Cardio ladder key points
Complete this warm-up: 100m walk/5 air squats → 100m jog/5 air squats → 100m jog/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats →100m running/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → Ready! Get set! Go →
When the sweat starts pouring and the heart, lungs, and legs start burning, it’s easy to lose your position on the ladder. Was I on rung 4 or 5 last time? Must’ve been rung 5. To avoid skipping rungs, use the session plan to keep track of your progress. Tick off each rung after you’ve completed it.
Choose from the following options. Option 1: Climb up only. Option 2: Climb up and down.
Cardio gym workout #3: Cardio AMRAP
A common misunderstanding concerning the AMRAP training method is that it’s only suitable for resistance exercises. This is understandable, though, considering the objective is to complete as many reps as possible. However, as this workout will show, AMRAPs can just as effectively be applied to cardio exercises.
Of course, instead of accumulating as many reps as possible, the objective is to amass as many metres as possible. (In the case of skipping, as many jumps as possible.)
This workout, then, is comprised of three cardio exercises – running, rowing, and skipping. For 5 minutes at a time, you’ll visit each exercise twice – taking the cardio training total to 30 minutes.
Interspersed between the cardio stations is a cheeky bodyweight resistance exercise combo: barbell clean to press followed by a bar jump into a burpee. It sounds complicated but I assure you it isn’t. After performing a clean and press, jump over the barbell, drop straight into a burpee, spring back up then repeat 24 more times.
AMRAP key points
You know the drill: 100m walk/5 air squats → 100m jog/5 air squats → 100m jog/5 air squats → 100m running/5 air squats → repeat for 10-minutes.
Set a 5-minute countdown timer with, if possible, inner periodic alerts. Set these to sound every minute. This can help with motivation and pacing.
The first thing you should do on completion on completion of an AMRAP is document your distance/score.
Before progressing to the next 5-minute AMRAP, complete 25 barbell clean to press followed by a bar jump into burpee.
Complete all six AMRAPs ensuring to log your score.
Cardio gym workout #4: Cardio HIIT
If ever your cardio workouts are getting a bit bland, blend in some HIIT. Though seldom used (sadly), HIIT not only offers a simple way to reinvigorate a flagging cardio workout, but it also packs a serious health punch. According to Lee Driver, author of HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training, doctors are now routinely prescribing HIIT as a remedy for a wide range of ailments.
The move to medicate HIIT is driven by a slew of studies demonstrating its many benefits. Such studies have ‘investigated and confirmed’ that HIIT improves cardio fitness and metabolic function. Furthermore, regular HIIT has been shown to bring down blood pressure while burning fat, enhancing muscle function and stimulating ‘the production of growth factors that help protect the brain,’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & health).
But enough of the benefits of HIIT. Let’s have a look at the workout. In my experience, HIIT sessions are best kept simple. Complicated or elaborate interval structures can be confusing. And when you’re training close to your maximum threshold, the last thing you want is to expend mental energy trying to figure out what’s next.
To keep things simple, the plan features just three exercises. They are running, rowing and skipping (or cycling if you can’t skip). Each exercise begins with a ‘steady state’ section. This serves as a preparatory period before the HIIT bouts. Concluding the low-intensity phase, you will progress through a series of high-intensity intervals of equal duration. Once you complete an exercise, you will transition to the next in the plan.
HIIT key points
Warm-up: 1000m rowing → 100m @ 40% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 50% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 60% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 70% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 80% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 90% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → 100m @ 100% max effort → 100m @ 20% max effort → Start HIITing!
Select the level commensurate with your current fitness ability.
Starting with running, complete the steady-state section. The moment you’re done, punch the throttle and open up the intensity for the first interval.
Between intervals, you can either rest or sustain an active recovery pace – below 40% of maximum effort.
Cardio gym workouts hints and tips
Workout 1: The most challenging aspect of this workout is maintaining training consistency. A simple tactic to help with the first challenge is to set yourself a pace target. For example, on the treadmill you might try sustaining a speed of 14.5kph and on the stationary bike 85 to 90 rpm at a light to moderate resistance.
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Workout 2: If you’re pursuing a competitive time, it’s best to do this workout outside. Pace out a hundred-metre strip at your local part or sports club and progress up the ladder without the embuggerance of having to stop and start a treadmill. Running on a track (as opposed to a belt) allows you to get straight into the squat jump the moment you’ve covered the distance.
Essential reading: Kenneth Cooper's Guide To Aerobics Training
Workout 3: The key to achieving a good score on an AMRAP is consistency. Going ‘all out’ is not sustainable for five minutes – especially when there’s more to follow. As suggested for workout 1, setting a pacing target for each AMRAP is a good strategy. When you’re a couple of minutes in, you can assess your energy levels and decide if you can give a bit more.
Related: A complete Guide to AMRAP Training
Workout 4: During HIIT workouts it’s common practice to stop between high-intensity intervals. Stopping completely can make HIIT much harder: raising output from 0% of maximum effort (at rest) to 100% is a huge leap. It’s much less of a shock to the system if you tick over during the recovery intervals. Try sustaining an active recovery pace of about 20 to 40% of maximum effort.
Related: Discover the surprising health & fitness Benefits of HIIT
Enjoyed these CV workouts?
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