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Spice Up Your Sweat Sessions With These Cardio Gym Workouts

A trainer completing cardio workouts at gym.

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Cardio workouts at the gym can quickly become boring. With only a limited range of exercise machines available (more limited still during peak times), training variation is constricted. It’s usually a toss-up between 20 begrudging minutes on the Stairmaster or a forced 3-mile march on the treadmill. Short bouts of either exercise can feel like a week in solitary confinement. (This probably explains the panoply of plasma screen TVs that plaster the walls of most gym CV rooms – a non-too-subtle means of distracting you from the mind-numbing monotony of cardio.)

Matters are made worse if your cardio workouts only consist of steady-state training (or 'LSD' – long slow distance). That is, exercising in the aerobic energy zone for a set duration – say, 45 minutes of running at 9.5kph. If this sounds like your cardio gym workouts, no wonder you’re searching for fresh training ideas!

Well, you’ve come to the right place.

This blog brings you three gym-based cardio workouts to try. And, as you’re soon to discover, these aren’t a collection of your run-of-the-mill steady-state sweat sessions. The workouts below feature fitness challenges, competitions, and cardio circuits comprised of callisthenics and functional resistance exercises.

In short, I’ve used every training tick in the book to spice up these cardio workouts at the gym. But, because I recognise that these will keep you entertained for only so long, I’ve outlined a few methods that you can use to keep your cardio sessions fresh in the future.

Tips to improve cardio workouts at gym

For the following few paragraphs, we’ll explore some simple strategies that can make your cardio workouts at the gym a bit more bearable. I’m certainly not claiming that these strategies will convert you into a passionate proponent of cardio exercise. However, they might enable you to tolerate cardio enough to stomach three weekly workouts. Why three weekly workouts?

According to the NSAC’s Essentials of Tactical Strength Training, ‘Most recommendations for continuous cardiopulmonary exercise for health-related benefits advocate a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per session three days per week.’

Tip #1: Mix ‘n match

One of the simplest ways to take the sting out of your CV workouts is to mix up the exercises. Staying glued to the same machine for a 30-minute stint is a sure-fire way to lull yourself to sleep. Keep yourself awake by changing exercises every 5 or 10 minutes (select the time appropriate for your attention span).

There’s no rule stating that the 20-minute minimum dosage has to be completed in one job lot. As suggested above, the time can be divided across multiple exercises. Just ensure that the transitions are brief.

Tip 2#: Compete against the clock

My go-to method for punching up protracted bouts of cardio is to compete against the clock. Here’s how it works. Select the CV exercise you dislike the least and, after, a good warm-up, set a 20- to 60-minute countdown time. Hit start! and see how many metres you can cover before you run out of ticks. (This is the cardio version of the CrossFit AMRAP training method.)

Once you’ve established a start distance, the objective is to try to advance it by 3 to 5% each week for the next month. A word of advice. Because you’re going to be competing against your previous score, be mindful of how high you set the initial bar.

Tip #3: Fitness test

Fitness testing can do more than reinvigorate a lifeless cardio routine. If used in conjunction with a training programme, tests are an effective method of monitoring physical progression. Once you set an initial time – for example, the time it takes to row 2000m – you can periodically retest throughout your programme.

In addition to providing you with a training focus, which is like motivational rocket fuel, pursuing a fitness goal imbues your workouts with purpose. This might just be the tactic that kindles your enthusiasm for cardio.

But if you’re still cold towards cardio, fitness testing can at least stop your workouts from going stale. As 6 times World Ironman Champion Mark Allen said, ‘If you don’t test, you stagnate.'

Related: Are you fit enough to be a Royal Marine?

Cardio workouts at gym

Now that we’ve reviewed a selection of strategies to take the sting out of your cardio sessions, we’re ready to turn our attention to the gym workouts. In a bid to create both a training and teaching resource, each workout is based on the tips outlined above.

Thus, as well as providing you with cardio workouts that you can complete at the gym, you’ll also be able to see how to apply the tips to the organisation of exercises and training tasks.

The following three plans feature an outline of the training method, key points, and suggested warm-up.


Cardio gym workout #1: Pick ‘n mix

Imagine going to a pick-and-mix dispenser only to be met with the nightmarish scenario of a single selection. Ten plastic tubs that all contain gummy worms! Anyone subjected to such a Soviet situation would soon stop going – even ardent gummy worm fans would get bored eventually (wouldn’t they?).

Cardio’s no different. If all that’s on the menu is monotonous five milers or dull 'LSD' bouts on the stationary bike, soon you’ll give CV the slip and head straight to the resistance room.

But why do you think the pick ‘n mix trade is still going strong after a billion years in business? That’s right, it’s because they stimulate novelty by mixing up the choice of chemically coloured confectionery. And that’ll never cease to draw a crowd.

That very same tactic has been applied to our first cardio workout. There’s a mix of exercises which are organised into a circuit. The process is simple. Grab a pink and white paper bag, select the station duration most suited to your current level of fitness, and aim to taste test each exercise. Enjoy!

Key points

  • Before filling up your bag, complete this warm-up: 5 min cardio → 1 up to 5 reps air squats and press-ups → 3 min cardio → 1 up to 5 reps lunges and press-ups → 2 min cardio → 1 up to 5 reps burpees to press-ups → Start the workout.

  • Decide on the training timings. They are: Level 1) 5 minutes; Level 2) 7:30; Level 3) 10 minutes.

Cardio workouts at gym session plan #1.

Cardio workouts at gym #2: Compete against the clock

If you are familiar with the CrossFit AMRAP training method, you already know how to compete against the clock. (So, stop procrastinating and skip to the workout.) But if you’re scratching your head over that abbreviation, let me briefly explain the process.

The objective of an AMRAP is to amass as many repetitions as possible on a given exercise (usually a compound movement) in a specific time (usually 5 or 10 mins). Once a rep score has been established – say, 50 power cleans on a 60kg Olympic barbell in 5 minutes – you would attempt to advance the score at some point in the future. Perhaps during your next AMRAP, you might set your sights on 55 reps.

With that explanation in mind, change the exercises from resistance to cardio, expand the time exposure (20-plus-minutes) and replace reps for metres. Now you’re competing against the clock.


Key points

  • Ensure to complete a vigorous warm-up. The warmer you are, the better you’ll perform.

  • Select the CV exercise and duration of choice.

  • Start the countdown timer, then aim to cover as many metres as possible.

  • Document your score.

  • After a couple of weeks of training, come back and see if you can beat your previous personal best. Good luck! 

Cardio workouts at gym session plan #2.

Cardio workouts at gym #3: Fitness tests

Fitness testing is one of the most potent training tools for promoting participation and improving performance. I don’t know what it is about tests, but whenever I pit myself against one it’s like a switch is flicked and I become focused. And even if I fail to exceed my personal best, I inevitably push myself far harder than I would through one of my normal workouts. That’s the power of fitness testing.

But the explosive potential of fitness tests becomes atomic if you can recruit a training partner to compete against. Conduct a fitness test on your tod and you’ll put in a Dr Jackyll performance – sleek, but not super. Get yourself a competitor and I give you two minutes before you morph into Mr Hyde. Your performance will be transformative, that I can almost promise.

Key points

  • Warm up well before testing. If you manage to enlist a partner whom you plan to compete against, ensure that they complete the exact same warm-up as you.

  • Select the test of choice.

  • Calibrate the exercise machines and, if you’re using an outdoor track, timing devices.

  • Have paper and a pencil to hand so that you can record your score. (Better still, use the space provided in the training plan.)

Cardio workouts at gym session plan #3.

Cardio workouts at gym hints and tips

Hints and tips for workout #1:

You can further mix up workout one by interspersing the cardio stations with resistance exercises. A common misunderstanding is that cardio only comes in the form of running and . . . running. However, any exercise that engages one or more major muscle groups and can be sustained for protracted periods would constitute cardio. So, between CV stations, consider working through 100 reps of any of these Bodyweight Exercises >

Hints and tips for workout #2:

The workout explanation suggests that you can only compete against the clock for one cardio exercise. This is misleading as you could just as well apply the method to Workout #1. Having selected a suitable duration for each station (5 to 10 minutes is optimal for AMRAPing), attempt to cover as many metres as possible (‘jumps’ for skipping). Take a short break before transitioning to the next exercise. (Try this Skipping HIIT Workout.)

Hints and tips for workout #3:

Other than warming up, the most important part of a fitness test is the process you implement prior to conducting it. For example, you could put maximum effort into achieving a personal best only for your labours to be thwarted because the machine wasn’t correctly calibrated, or the distance was counted in a different metric. Ridiculous as it sounds, but the most common disruption I’ve encountered when facilitating group fitness tests is shoelaces unfastening. If this happens during a treadmill test – such as the 1.5-mile or 12-minute Cooper run – the participant either must start again or is disqualified.

To improve fitness test reliability and performance outcomes, follow the process below.

How to fitness test

  • Complete a 5- to 10-minute progressive-intensity warm-up. (Document your warm-up process so that you can perform it the same each time you test.)

  • Ensure the exercise machine is accurately calibrated. Also, check if the distance is counted in kilometres or metres.

  • Have a pencil and paper to hand so that you can make a note of your score. Take your score immediately after the test.

  • Before setting off, check your shoelaces are tightly fastened.

  • Avoid eating an hour before you plan to conduct the test.

For a comprehensive introduction into fitness testing, I recommend the NSCA's Guide to Tests And Assessments >


Enjoyed these workouts?

Then get your hands on 80 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 3 >

Cardio workouts at gym conclude with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits.


About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing coach. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at

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