With the primary goal of acquiring strength or size, a common secondary aim for most lifters is to manage their body composition by way of monitoring nutritional intake and caloric expenditure manipulation. You can’t be an athlete in strength sport without loving the weights (and probably the food), but it’s just as likely that you hate the cardio as well.
Sure, it’s possible for powerlifters, weightlifters, strongmen, and even some off-season bodybuilders to be just fine without performing any programmed cardio at all. But the reality is that almost every bodybuilder (and a good number of weight-class strength athletes) will at spend at least part of their athletic career having to endure a bit of hard times on one of the many hamster wheel machines sadly overlooking the playground of a free weight area at their local gym.
For some athletes, this is no big deal. Chilling on the elliptical is seen as a valuable good chunk of alone-time to collect thoughts, do some extra reading, make phone calls, or simply watch their favorite TV show without interruption.
For others, it can be the most soul-sucking activity that their coach or sport could ever ask them to endure. They do it because they know they have to, just like eating the occasional piece of bone-dry chicken to hit your protein intake for the day because you ran out of ketchup and the grocery store closed an hour ago. You are a true warrior and you got it done, but it doesn’t mean you liked it.
Either way, regardless of your emotional relationship with burning extra calories, I hope you find this article useful.
At the end of it I will present a number of unconventional cardio options for calculating or expending energy which you can integrate or add to your current regimen. Hopefully these ideas can freshen it up, simplify it, or make it more enjoyable.
But first, here are 6 disclaimers:
1 – None of this is necessary. As mentioned earlier, you can feel free to continue your standard “800 calories burned per week on the elliptical, bike, or Stair Master” if you prefer. Nothing in this article is “better” than what you are currently doing, nor is it “worse”. It is simply different.
2 – While the alternatives I will be mention below are calculable and easy to track, you should still recognize that validity is not the same as reliability. In other words, if you choose to implement one of the options below INSTEAD of your current regimen, some things might not equate or convert as precisely as you might think. If you are currently in a bodybuilding contest prep and you would like to integrate some of the methods in this article, please consult your coach ahead of time to see how much change they are comfortable with and how you can account for it. (Or, if you are on a short timeline, they might advise that you do not swap anything until after your season is complete, which is reasonable.)
3 – No method is 100% accurate. I know, I know…I just told you things would be trackable here. But it’s important to note that when a machine or tracking device says you burned “x” number of calories, it’s frankly just using math to make an educated guess. (My apologies for any OCD bubbles I may have just burst.) Even if you log your bodyweight into the machine, even if you are using an expensive piece of wearable tech that “knows your body”, it’s all still an estimation. Not to worry though. This isn’t a disaster and it doesn’t mean you are going into this whole thing blindly. It’s just a truth I wanted to throw out there so we’re on the same page going forth. If we can agree that all activity tracking is based on informed estimations, hopefully you won’t give me so much flack when I introduce some looser-than-normal ways to record your efforts further along down the page.
4 – You already know everything in this article. In the sport of bodybuilding, we like tracking hard numbers. We tend to like strict caloric assignments with our cardio in the same way we like strict macro assignments with our nutrition. We also like traditions, legacy, and anecdote. “If bodybuilder ‘x’ uses machine ‘y’ for cardio and only does low intensity steady state work to keep all his muscle, then that’s exactly what I should do too.” Or, “athlete ‘x’ does high intensity interval training twice per week and their legs look great so that’s what I will do too”. With our fancy bodybuilder goggles on, we expect complicated methodologies or specific calorie burning machines because it makes us feel special that we aren’t doing what “average” or “unserious” people do.
But the truth is that we are burning calories all day every day during all activities.Everyone inherently knows this, but yet somewhere in our special strength athlete snowflake brains we decided that the selected movement patterns or intensity levels matter so much more than they really do. If we were endurance athletes, the mode and method really would matter a lot more. But since we’re not, we have a lot of options. I’d like to use this article to simply remind you of those options.
5 – You have the power to decide what is ‘better’ for you. Because there will be a lot examples presented below, you might have some paralysis by analysis while you attempt to pick or create your own regimen. But honestly, there is no “best” option in terms of effectiveness. On the flip side, there canbe a “best” option for you at this current state of your athletic career because of who you are and where your priorities lie. So when evaluating what to try on here, consider what is most important to you. Here are some typical factors that can come into play: recovery, free time, machine availability, weather, joint pain, enjoyment, consistency, tracking equipment, commute, focus, skill development, weaknesses, etc. — And even once all those are considered, there’s no reason you have to pick just one method. Maybe you rotate through three of these during any given week. All I’m trying to say is that the world is your calorie-burning oyster 🙂
6 – There are only two things that matter more than your individual preferences…and they are your health and your sport-specific performance. I love being the myth-buster that tells you cardio doesn’t have to be slow, monostructural, and low-intensity, but I do think it would be remiss of me not to highlight the importance of keeping your strength-first mentality. Sure, barbell complexes look cool on the internet and doing a few sprints outside might seem like a fun idea when the weather is great, but neither of these would be awesome if you upset an angry hip or pull a hammy mid-stride that keeps you from squatting productively during your powerlifting meet prep. So yes, listen to your desires a bit here, but please don’t be dumb and forget priorities or progressions.
On Tracking Methods
Before we get to the example sessions themselves, we have to first open our mind up to the fact that accumulating calories on the digital dashboard of your gym’s cardio machine is not the only way that activity “counts”. This is one of those “this is how we’ve always done it” kind of things a lot of athletes get stuck into.
Remember that you are expending energy at all times while you are alive. There is an average baseline level of activity that you achieve on any given day or week dependent on your lifestyle.When we implement a cardio regimen, our only aim is to increase that level of activity above what you would typically perform otherwise.
(Again, this aim would be very different if you were an endurance or performance athlete. But since this article is strictly for strength athletes, we have the luxury of keeping it that simple.)
By mentally replacing the word “calories” with the word “activity”, it becomes a bit easier to reflect on the variety of ways we can easily measure movement in sports and fitness:
With a little creativity and a bit of basic math, we can now add a myriad of activities to our day while still achieving the basic goal of increasing expenditure in a calculated and repeatable manner.
And Finally, Here Is the List
Below is a short, unordered list of ideas from myself, my colleagues, and athletes across multiple sporting disciplines. Some of the prescriptions below are incredibly basic and require little thought, while others are more complex to illustrate how specific you can get if you really want to. You could do any of them exactly as listed, but I imagine they’d probably just serve as idea sparks or templates for you to interject with your favorite movements or activities.
As mentioned in Disclaimer 5 above, here are some typical considerations: recovery, free time, machine availability, weather, joint pain, enjoyment, consistency, tracking equipment, commute, focus, skill development, weaknesses, etc.
Choose your own adventure, friends. I hope you like it.
23 Unconventional Cardio Ideas for Individual Strength Athletes:
- Complete 800 calories per week on any cardio machine. Perform anywhere from 200 to 400 calories per session, meaning this will be 2 to 4 sessions per week.
- Perform the following complex 3 times per week with an empty barbell. Complete 5 rounds with 5 minutes of rest between rounds: 10 bent over rows, 10 Romanian deadlifts, 10 hang cleans, 10 front squats, 10 overhead presses, 10 back squats.
- Accumulate an average of 12,000 steps per day according to your activity-tracking watch, with a minimum of 8,000 steps per day and a maximum of 15,000.
- Take a spin class every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
- Perform the following “Bodyweight Circuit A” every Monday: 5 rounds of 10 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, and 30 walking lunges. (You might also have 300 calories of elliptical on Wednesdays and “Bodyweight Circuit B” on Fridays.)
- Every Tuesday and Thursday swim 20 laps in the pool.
- Every Tuesday and Thursday walk 10 city blocks.
- Complete 10 rounds of “1 min on / 1 min off” bike intervals 3 times per week. You will go hard at an 8/10 intensity for 1 minute, then ease off to a 4/10 for the following minute. With a 2-minute easy warm-up and cool-down, the entire session will take 24 minutes.
- After every weight training session (which is 6 days per week), accumulate 150 calories on the elliptical at a recovery pace.
- Complete 8 laps around your local track 4 times per week. Alternate between walking laps and running laps (3 of each).
- After every upper body day (twice per week), complete 6 rounds of: 100 jump ropes, 1 min plank, 400m jog at moderate pace.
- Find your favorite step aerobics video on YouTube and perform it 3 times per week in your living room.
- Mondays perform 5 rounds of 500m row with 2 min rest between sets. On Wednesdays perform 5 rounds of 400m jog with 2 min rest between sets. On Fridays perform 5 rounds of 20 calories on the elliptical with 2 min rest between sets.
- Start taking 1-hour dance lessons twice per week.
- Using your activity-tracking watch, accumulate 200 calories of any activity on any cardio machine before you go to work.
- On weekday evenings during your usual television-watching time, do 15 burpees during every commercial break until you have accumulated 10 sets.
- Start walking to work.
- Start biking to the gym.
- Change occupations from a having a desk job to working on your feet all day.
- Twice per week, perform as many rounds and reps as possible (AMRAP) in 20 minutes at a moderate pace: 15 calories elliptical, 30 mountain climbers, 15 lying leg lifts, 30 jumping jacks.
- Walk up and down your 5thstory apartment stairwell 5 times every other night.
- Perform the following complex 2 times per week. Complete 8 rounds with 3 minutes of rest between rounds: 20 kettlebell swings, 15 v-ups, 10 push-ups, 5 pull-ups.
- Start taking the Mon/Wed/Fri Zumba class at your local fitness center.
And there we have it. A good springboard, starting point, or template for your own ideas on how to add some freedom to your daily or weekly calorie-burning efforts.
You read that right…I sure did mention step-aerobics, Zumba, and dance lessons. And YES, they all count as activity.
But did you see the standard “masculine” classics like running, push-ups, and every cardio machine at your hardcore gym, too?
You’ll also probably notice some of those measurements were very specific (strict calorie assignments) while others were measured more broadly (classes attended or step-count averages). Sometimes we need increased precision for the deep stages of a bodybuilding contest prep, but most strength athletes most of the time would be fine with anything mentioned above.
There are thousand other things I could have added here, but I’m pretty sure you get the point.
Cardio, caloric expenditure, activity, or whatever you want to call it, can take on a variety of forms that can fit any personality, schedule, lifestyle, or preference.
If you’d like to hear some more in-depth discussions on this and related topics, please check out the following 3DMJ Podcast episodes:
Happy calorie-burning, ya’ll!