Admit it. A seed of doubt has crept into your mind on more than one occasion. The treadmill's set to 4.0 mph, the incline is at a reasonably challenging grade and there you are, pumping your arms to the rhythm of your iPod, taking in the gym atmosphere and keeping a close eye on the game on TV. You're exercising, yes, which beats sitting on your couch and watching said game with a bag of Fritos, but couldn't you be pushing yourself a little more? Couldn't you be engaging in an activity that's a bit more productive? A bit more, dare we say, manly?
We say it's time to rethink your cardio strategy. Because cardio doesn't have to be boring, and it sure as hell doesn't have to challenge your manhood.
To prove it, we've devised five workouts that'll fry calories without numbing your brain or taking your cojones to task. Our inspiration for these programs? Strongman competitors.
Get more features like this for free in the web version of the Muscle & Fitness 2014 Training Trends Special Digital Issue.
What Would Magnus Do?
Cardiovascular fitness may not be the first thing that pops into your head when you think about strongman contests. More like barrel-chested guys named Magnus lifting boulders and trucks. But strongman events can involve a good helping of cardio, too: They often take minutes, not seconds and require stamina as well as strength. "It's a pretty heavy-duty demand both for the cardiovascular system and the muscles," says David Sandler, MS, CSCS, director of Strength Pro, Inc. and trainer to professional strongmen.
Although lower-intensity cardio burns a higher percentage of calories from fat, total calories burned is what counts when it comes to shedding bodyfat. And high-intensity workouts are calorie carnivores. In a 2005 study, 16 overweight men were put on either a moderate-intensity cardio program or a shorter-duration, high-intensity routine. After 14 weeks of exercising three times a week, only the high-intensity group showed a significant drop in average bodyfat percentage -- almost 5% -- even though they exercised about 15 minutes less per session. Also, consider that the average 180-pound male burns 220 calories in 20 minutes performing moderate-intensity cardio on a treadmill. These workouts burn more calories in less time.
To ensure you tap into your cardio capacity with the following disciplines, you need to go light on the weight. "If you're trying to get that extra cardiovascular oomph, you have to use weights that'll allow you to do a sufficient number of repetitions and go for an extended period," says Sandler.
In general, steady-state, longer-duration cardio ultimately is more beneficial for heart health. Still, these activities present a new challenge to your cardiovascular system by recruiting more upper-body muscles than traditional cardio. You'll elevate your heart and breathing rates higher than during a normal jog, as well as increase the amount of blood your heart pumps per minute. You also need to have a good strength and cardio base before tackling these workouts: "These exercises are not for beginners," Sandler warns. "You should have a strong back and torso." In fact, anyone with back problems, no matter how minor, should keep away from them.