Contemporary Cardio

If you had asked me about a year or so ago what my thoughts were on cardio, I would have told you most of the the following…….
1) Just go hard, and you’ll be fine.
I would have gone on to say I’m sure there is a lot more to it than that, but as long as you push yourself, you’ll be fine.
2) Always intervals.
Look at the big cats.  They run and stop.  They run some more and stop.  It’s not about max HR.  It’s about HRV, how fast you can get your HR back down to resting when you rest.  Intervals are how you should train.
3) You can still go long distances and do intervals.
If you insist on running 5 miles, how about you show me 2 intervals of 14 minute 2.5 miles.  Just give me a rest during each of them and tell me which one was harder.
4)  Train slow, be slow.
Enough said.
This article by Dr. Mark Smith sums it all up.

Who do you want on your side?

So to say any of these are wildly off base or that I’ve done a 180 on anything would not be correct.
However, from a combination from recently reading Joel Jamieson’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning, spending a day with David Tenney in Seattle, nad always communicating with Dr. Michael Martino, who has about as good a cardio as anyone 40+ not named Randy Couture, I feel a lot better and refined about some of the how’s and why’s to cardio training.

The following are some of the turns in what I’ve learned and a little bit of exposure/explanation from the 3 folks above that are a lot smarter than me in terms of cardio.


206 I think

I got there over a year ago with 1-4) above, and I did it with nutrition guided by Thomas Phillips’ Ultimate Transformation Challenge.  Honestly, I got on board simply because I thought I was going to have shoulder surgery, and I was trying to get into the best shape of my life.  Low and behold, 4 months later there was no surgery.  I used pretty much exclusively ropes, sprints, prowler, and sled for my HIIT.
The program that Tom has can be dialed up or down in levels of specificity, but for the key is HIIT and coupling it with different nutrition plans on the day(s) you go hard for hormone optimization.
The point is that I wasn’t particularly specific in my intervals or even HR, and I got the job done.  The progression was the poster child for HIIT being ideal for fat loss.

Overall, I haven’t really hasn’t changed my thought process, but keep in mind that my primary athletic endeavor is powerlifting where the capacities of the different metabolic systems, are not part of my regular challenges.  I really didn’t need to become more specific because my goals were not particular specific or even really movement or performance-based.
Also during my times in basketball, I was always skewed towards movement and strength rather than speed and endurance.  They were already maximally explosive, at least most players, and I felt that cardio was drawn out of the practices during the season.  In rehabbing folks, cardio would typically take a back seat to pain and movement or at least not warrant specific programming when restoring the body was the priority.
But when I moved on to the Marine Corps, I recognized that the basics probably weren’t going to be good enough, but I still didn’t really have a recipe for more than short-order cook work.  I needed to figure some things out.

Taking in all of the limiting factors in developing a program really forced me to become more cerebral and just flat out get smarter at training for cardio.  And all the while keeping in mind that ALL training is cardio at some level.  Everything from foam rolling to huge doubles with 5 wheels on your back all fit into “metabolic” factors.  Everything is cardio when it comes down to it.  It’s just which system dominates the activity of choice, and how do you bundle them together.  Some situations are much easier than others depending on the schedule and definable events.

Here’s what I’ve learned…………..

What a loaded picture.

Aerobic Training
The aerobic system is very important.  Plenty of people are going to read that, and be like, “Oh, I’ve been saying that the whole time.”
Well I was not saying it the whole time, and being a powerlifter and HIIT guy as well as a believer in the Gibala study, I probably really did push the aerobic piece to the side.
So I don’t think I was totally wrong.  If you are looking to be healthy, lose weight, and in a sport that is relatively one and done, the stuff I used in my training was the answer.  And using speed of recovery of HR in terms of HRV is clearly the best way to measure out intervals.
But in appreciating the message from Joel, Martino, and David Tenney, the expression of the HRV, the rest of the interval, is a function of the aerobic system, not anaerobic.  You can’t get better at the recovery part quickly without having a great aerobic piece.  That aerobic piece comes from when you’re breathing hard in the off interval, trying to use oxygen to refuel the system.  And when you are in an activity or sport that requires longer duration of action and shorter to no rest periods, there is more to it that just quick bursts.  Just like we have slow and fast strength, we can also have slow and fast cardio.
Using me as an example, particularly before training for the RKC, using some of Joel’s terminologies in his book, I would have great Lactic Power, but very poor Lactic Capacity.  I can go hard for a few intervals before I lose power performance second to limited recovery.
So in order to improve my anaerobic tolerance, to do more intervals, or harder intervals, or take less time to recovery, I would need a better aerobic system.
And training the aerobic system uses a different complement of exercises that keep the HR to lower levels.  Higher HR likely shifts to the lactic and alactic systems.
But with the different exercises and HR, I don’t think there is a dismissal of intervals.  The intervals are just longer.  The key is continuous training to train the aerobic system, but still not “going out for a run.”  If you can go 10 miles in under 60 minutes, then you are in some nice condition, and you should be working other systems.  It’s not go slow and long.  It’s still not LSD; it’s still intervals simply at a different capacity.
So the answer that I employed at MARSOC was 2x/week HIIT using balls out bodyweight and KB training progressing from 30/45, 30/30, 30/20, and 20/10 and then 2x/week of reps of 400s and 800s getting down to 1:1 and 25yd shuttles starting @ 1000 yds progressing down to 300 for testing.
The keys for me were 1) long-chain movements that disallow plodding and short ranges, 2) 2 weekly efforts of lactic capacity, and 3) 2 weekly efforts of lactic power.  These guys already proved on a regular basis that they can go out and run a marathon with a full kit.  They had some level of the “aerobic base” in slow efforts like long runs.
So when I talk about this kind of stuff with Dr. Martino, he’s like duh, but as a PhD in this stuff AND a trainer of others and himself, he’s had this put together for some time.  The biggest piece that you get from the longer or more continuous intervals is the vascular changes at the celluar level that don’t occur during anaerobic training.

Try max effort 800 intervals to see what kind of lactic capacity you have.

Anaerobic Training
Something that clicked enormously for me was when I understood what David Tenney meant when he said you really don’t want glycolysis (or glycogenolysis) during “glycolytic” training.
It’s obviously an oxymoron, but I think the key is the appreciation that aerobic efficiency pushes the anaerobic threshold to the right.  This allows for greater duration and/or intensity before anaerobic systems dominate.  The less we have to rely on the anaerobic system, the less demand for recovery, yielding a quicker return to baseline and ready to go again.  There will be less of a refractory period, better HRV, when the threshold is pushed right.
I think the basic premise is that the best way to improve recovery in anaerobic-style intervals that train lactic capacity is through showing up for those intervals with a very well trained aerobic capacity.  And again, you get that with different kinds of intervals.

Joel’s book has specific recommendations and even further breakdowns of each system (aerobic, lactic, and alactic).  They apply to a typical MMA training schedule, but just appreciating the specific differences in targeting a weak link allows the information to translate to other sports.  This book was the kicker for me to appreciate how to map things out in terms of cardio.
What I’m actually really struggling with is separating the metabolic demands of the movement and strength training with the goals of the cardiovascular training for each workout.  They can’t be separated, and I think if they’re antagonistic, the end product is cheapened.  I know landscapes and practical limiting factors will prevail, but I do think you need to know all the rules before you start to break the rules.

This makes things very easy to understand.

Ever since I became exposed to DNS, breathing has been on the forefront of how I think about everything from getting rid of pain to lifting very heavy things and putting them down.
But well before that, as a powerlifter, learning to hold your breath and push the belly out brought about great lifts.  And being out of breath after some type of event meant that the activity you just did had to be anaerobic.
When you look at folks that are supposed to be in great condition, look at how they breath when they are “out of breath.”  When you see the folks that breath through their belly, you’ll see someone with more gas in the tank.  When you see someone breathing up high with their shoulders and in a labored position, that person is going to need some minutes before he delivers again.
The breathing has a whole host of inputs in terms of spinal stability and the autonomic nervous system, and it is no coincidence that this trainable ability to breath as a skill pushes overall capacity.  I suspect it’s a combination of pushing the threshold to the right and managing the governor the entire neuromuscular system.  I think chemo- and baroreception in an environment of improved removal of CO2 is somewhere in the scientific explanation, but that’s something for Martino to study.
Practical example: RKC Snatch Test
Synchronizing the breathing technique on each rep leaves you fatigued, but not mortally gassed.  I’ve seen studs curl up on the floor gasping for air after piss poor 70+ reps and then work on breathing, which begets technique, and nail the 100.  In my case, someone who is not to be confused with incredible lactic capacity, I have never walked away from the test like I was going to die, but I have felt like that after 60 some reps early on in my training when I was leaning on poor form and longer rests to catch my breath.  I found when you nail the breath the whole way, you don’t really need to recover.  You just go.
The more autonomous this breathing pattern becomes, I think all 3 systems are pushed to the right.

The most redeeming quality of the RKC Snatch Test? The fact that you have to learn how to snatch a KB.

The Omegawave
I would really like to use the Omegawave.  If I had enough of some kind of data that could show a head coach that maybe a bench guy should get 32 minutes on a given night, or if a Marine should feel good about a workout that doesn’t leave them thrashed, then that’s something that could make my job better.
The Omegawave measures for a whole mess of things, Heart Rate Variability being just one of them.  I won’t dare give it justice to try to explain because bottom line, I’m not even sure even the most experienced users that I’ve encountered know how every piece is measured or how the device reads the body and spits back data.  What I am confident of is that the information I am hearing from folks like David and Joel is that this thing works.
What leaves me sold is less about how the machine works, but that I think the Omegawave is measuring an expression of the Autonomic nervous system, which is exactly the same thing that the DNS tests measure, and what I believe the the FMS and SFMA to measuring.
For each of the profiles Tim Vagen and I looked at on David’s computers in Seattle that demonstrated injury when a player kept up intensity despite poor Omegawave profiles, there was an injury.  David didn’t have an FMS on every single player, but he was very clear that this player “is always tight,” and this player “doesn’t move well.”
The Omegawave is like a report card on the programming you’re doing, and it allows you to change on the fly if you need to go to Plan B.  The problem is that the athlete doesn’t always feel sympathetic or parasympathetic despite measuring in the red.
So even the best laid out aerobic-anaerobic stuff from above along with the strength and speed training can have a tool to check against them.
And it seems to me that it is a tool that measures the same expressions, just through a different viewer.  Recovery can always be manipulated by your programming, but when you can keep a temporal tab on it, it’s worth the time to measure it.
Options to do this include the Omegawave, %max HR during a given training intensity, simpler measures of HRV, testing out for >90% lifts on a Tendo or other similar device, lunge matrix testing, the RKC Snatch Test, and the FMS w/HR measures.  Obviously some of these tests apply more to a daily basis and others to a 3-6 time frame.


In summary………..
1) Performing short bursts of HIIT all the time will help you lose fat and be healthy, but it may leave quick recovery with preserved power output during sport-based time frames.
2) Improving the aerobic system will push the effectiveness of anaerobic training.  These are intervals of movements that support longer time and lower heart rate.  This is not LSD training.
3) Breathing diaphragmatically will support movement/tone, strength, cardio, and long-chain technique.
4) Measuring for recovery can tell you when it’s really time for Plan B.

The talk on Trying to Define the Core this summer has really been all about how “the core” can have so many different definitions partly based on what is the expertise of the individual looking at the system.  Regardless of the angle you look, all measures of training and recovery, inputs and outputs, track back to the autonomic nervous system.
I think these cardiovascular training methods have gravity to me because it’s just looking through a different pair of glasses at the same things I already value in putting together the pieces of Training and Rehab.

Lots of ways to look at the brain. It's still the brain.

  • August 14, 2011

Leave a Reply 18 comments

tyrone Reply

This is a great read charlie. Running and training for the 400m is a great challenge when trying to get the right mix of the different enery systems. A new study has just shown there is a greater aerobic capacity than once thought to be in running the 400. In my opinion the greatest results come from working anearobic system….in my race anyway.

Charlie Reply

Based on the big picture, you are probably correct because you already have the aerobic piece in place. Reply

Good article Charlie and I have been re-thinking my view of “cardio” as well lately spurred by Joel’s book and other reading as well. Not a wholesale shift but a subtle one.

Greg Reply

Great read Charlie, the verbiage is good and the concepts/science is bang on. I think one thing that is often forgotten about is “building a base”. I’m sure you didn’t just pick up a kb and start the rkc test. You lifted for a number of years, practiced the movement and built up some specific strength. It’s the same with cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary training. I think if you just start on the HIIT without a base you will be less well served than doing some longer type (not necessarily LSD) training. The oxygen uptake kinetics (measures of the efficiency of the aerobic system) in the on-transient and off-transient are well served by this baseline training and have some impact on recovery between bouts or HRV. Of course HIIT improves this as well, but the post workout recovery seems a lot more arduous without the base. I think this is quite apparent in your MARSOC guys… Big diesel engines that you are now turning into faster machines. I think if we paid a bit more attention to “building a base”
In its simplicity we may not have as much difficulty with utilizing some of the more aerobic type of training.
Anyways, well done my friend. Glad to see a true strength guy giving aerobic-anaerobic conditioning some deeper reflection

Jon Rimmer Reply

Charlie, this discussion seems to usually revolve around athletics and different sports/applications, etc. Has your opinion changed in what you would say to a regular person who exercises looking to improve health and lose body fat? Because I too read Jamieson’s book and followed all of Dave Tenney’s input on and it hasn’t made me change anything (yet) in dealing with general population folks. I’m still recalling stuff by Cosgrove, Pavel, and Boyle about how anaerobic training will improve aerobic capacity and more importantly perhaps, in dealing with regular people there is the time issue: unlike professional athletes, they (we) don’t have 12-15 hours per week to exercise, so I’m still with the “maximum disturbance in shortest time” mindest.

Brian Robinson Reply


I’m not familiar with the acronym, “DNS”. Reply


My opinion is, yes, the information of said individuals 100% can and should change what we do with general population folks. From an energy system standpoint especially if they are already unfit.

I’m not opposed to keeping the mindset of “maximum disturbance in shortest time” but nowadays I apply that mentality a lot less and ONLY if someones systems are up to snuff via the keyholes discussed by Jamieson, Tenney, Verk, etc.

Once there, I’d be down for the HIIT style of thing because I know that I’ve buffered their ability to cope with the physiological stress created by that style of trying.

Just my thoughts.

All the best,

Tyler Simmons Reply

Hi Charlie,

I got a lot out of Joel’s book too, especially the part on aerobic systems.

Something I think is really interesting is that the mitochondrial biogenesis that we get from aerobic training is not only beneficial for sports but for longevity and health in general.

Having many well-functioning mitochondria is incredibly important for processing calories in to energy and keeping the body healthy and efficient.

Another great piece of info I pulled from the book was how having more mitochondria allows muscles to relax faster, thus increasing our ability for explosive movements. Aerobic training helps explosive movements… WHAT!


Charlie Reply

Jon – I think that on the surface, yes, it does seem to apply more to sports.

But here’s what I know. The vascular changes as a result of ~140bpm in terms of cappilarization and cellular changes only happen @ the “aerobic” intensities.
The threshold of improving the aerobic system is far reaching, where many of us are much closer to the lactic and alactic maximums that we have.
These are accepted as facts.

What I am not as sure about in going back and reevaluating the Gibala study, do we think the results extrapolate to HRV? HRV is the measure I think we are after, not pure aerobic measures.

The HRV part of the HIIT is the rest portion, and that is where we need the aerobic system plays in.


great article charlie right on the money.
thank you. marc

Mark McGrath Reply

I liked the way you have linked your experiments back into first-hand knowledge, backed by the best available science.
Another piece of the pie is the ‘Bohr Effect’ which states that the lower partial pressure of CO2 in arterial blood, the tighter the bond between haemoglobin and O2. In other words the amount of residual CO2 in the lungs and in arterial blood determines whether or not oxygen gets to the cell. This principle forms the basis for Buteyko Breathing and Breathing re-education using biofeedback. CO2 is also essential to prevent smooth muscle spasm.

I have had similar experiences as you in terms of DNS improvements, and now link nasal breathing as much as possible into intervals and other training to retain and build CO2 levels. Essentially we need an adaptation at the Respiratory Centre in the Medulla to accept higher tolerance of CO2.
Dysfunctional and over-breathing is a huge problem that is incredibly poorly understood.
Thanks Charlie

Carl Valle Reply

Can anyone share how mitochondria allows for higher relaxation rates?

Charlie Reply


Carl Valle Reply

Any good research to learn more?

Charlie Reply


Colin Reply

Not much to add, but the part about longer intervals (800s, 400s, etc) reminds me a bit of Clyde Hart’s work and how he trained his track athletes (most famously Michael Johnson). He skewed his 800 and 400 athletes much more to the aerobic side than most. His reasoning sounds similar to what you talk about with regards to change at the vascular and cellular level, improving recovery times, etc.

“Time has shown me that the aerobic benefits far outweigh the anaerobic benefits,” he said. “You put money in the bank when you train. To me, anaerobic is withdrawing money from the bank and aerobic is putting it back in.”

Greg S. Reply

Like the article. Love the focus on a DNS style philosphy to “the core” and breathing properly to recruit what we want. Would like to see more and more people focus in this direction.

Brian Robinson – DNS = Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization. Comes from the Czech Republic…

Braedan@PhysioSurrey Reply

I really appreciated the personal nature of your summary. Aside from the science and insights, people need to see that best practice in the clinic or the gym is:
– always evolving from what we learn and what we experience
– not cut and dry, but instead a sliding scale of right and wrong based on the individual athlete and training goals
– a pursuit of the “ideal”, even when what you already have is pretty damn good. (My business name is Total Outcomes, as in total and complete, so this idea is pretty close to the heart for me). We need to raise the bar on what we believe we can accomplish, and keep raising it

Good post (I’m standing and clapping right now … Not really 🙂 )

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