Cardio–Strength Combo: Maximizing the Benefits

by Amy Ashmore, PhD on Feb 16, 2018

In today’s marketplace, knowing how to offer combined training is a must-have skill. People want it all—cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training—in just 50 minutes.

It’s easy to design individual or small-group programs that combine several exercise modes so that clients can meet multiple goals in a single session. But there is one challenge to keep in mind: Doing cardio, strength and flexibility training during the same session seems to confuse muscles at the molecular level, in effect interfering with their ability to respond properly (Doma & Deakin 2013).

That interference can degrade strength and power gains (Doma & Deakin 2013; Jones et al. 2017), making combination training a poor fit for clients whose primary goal is to build muscle mass. However, research shows that combined training is one of the best options for clients seeking general fitness and weight loss (Wilson et al. 2012), so we’ll focus on these exercisers in this article.

Before we get to the specifics of combination programming, let’s look at the sample 50-minute session breakdown we’ll use throughout:

  • warmup/cardiovascular training: 5–20 minutes
  • strength training: 15–35 minutes
  • flexibility training: 5–10 minutes

This framework lets you customize programming to clients’ precise fitness levels, goals and needs.

Cardiovascular Programming

Cardio can be a brief warmup or a longer conditioning session, depending on the client. Traditional gym machines like treadmills, elliptical trainers, steppers, lateral trainers and bikes get your clients moving and ready to transition to the resistance and flexibility segments of the session.

Cardio Model Suggestion

Follow these steps to craft a cardio session for clients:

Choose mode(s). A popular best practice is to use 5-minute micro sessions on two or more modes to vary mechanics and loading forces.

Set the duration goal. Duration involves both intensity and frequency. Suggest clients get at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days per week or 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 days per week.

Set the intensity goal. Intensity should be 60%–80% of maximum heart rate for healthy adults, 50%–60% of HRmax for new exercisers and 40% of HRmax for deconditioned clients. After 3–4 weeks of progress, new and deconditioned clients can go up to 80% of HRmax (interval training is a good option here).

Strength Programming

For combined training, we’ll use a total-body conditioning model and foundation lifts because they work best for general fitness and weight loss goals.

Suggested Strength Exercises

Your main goal for each session is to choose a range of exercises that target all major muscle groups, with explosive lifts for intermediate to advanced clients (see Figure 1 for more details):

  • 2 exercises for bilateral and unilateral lower-body training
  • 2 exercises for upper-body training
  • 1–2 core exercises
  • 1 explosive lift (if appropriate)
  • 2–3 sets of each exercise

Advanced Training: Explosive Supersets

For intermediate to advanced clients, explosive superset training is a great way to combine cardiovascular and strength training. Using the suggested exercises in Figure 1, pair a traditional foundation lift with an explosive lift. Set up two or more stations and have clients rotate through them. A sample workout in Figure 2 suggests sets, reps and rest periods.

Training Tips

  • Because the intensity is higher during explosive lifts, they have fewer reps than foundation lifts. However, you can balance the sets.
  • Rest periods should be longer after explosive sets than after nonexplosive sets.
  • Where appropriate, you can add weight to explosive lifts, but first have clients complete at least 1 set without resistance while you check their mechanics.

Cardio and Strength Supersets

Supersets also offer a fun, efficient way to combine cardiovascular and strength exercise. This is a great way to train beginning to intermediate clients, especially if they are struggling to lose weight and/or develop a fitness habit. Using several stations, include cardiovascular and strength modes in supersets that keep clients working while allowing them adequate rest. Figure 3 includes suggestions on timing and rest periods.

Training Tips

  • For cardio training, duration and intensity are inversely related. Choose based on fitness level. For beginning clients, start out with longer durations at a less intense pace.
  • Any lower- or upper-body exercise can provide resistance, but it’s best to select options that keep the client standing, to avoid rapid decreases in heart rate.
  • Rest periods should be used when a client reports fatigue or when heart rate recovery is slow. For intermediate to advanced clients, continuous exercise is fine.

Circuit Sets

For small-group training, there’s nothing like an exercise circuit to keep clients engaged and moving. The trick lies in designing a circuit that doesn’t require your attention at all stations. It’s best to choose several exercises on the easier end of the spectrum and position yourself at the most advanced station. For example, a circuit might look like this:

  • lunge
  • bent-over row
  • dips
  • jump squat (trainer here)

Ask clients to do 10—15 reps at each station and complete the circuit 2—3 times before moving on. Include a transitional move, such as a dynamic stretch, which participants can do if they find themselves waiting between stations.

For flexibility programming and sample exercises, plus more tips on designing combination training, please see “Combined Training for Fitness and Weight Loss Clients” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2018 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Amy Ashmore, PhD

Amy Ashmore, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Amy Ashmore, PhD, is an online learning and program development expert based in Las Vegas, NV. She holds a doctorate in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin and is the former Program Director for Sports and Health Sciences & Sports Management for the American Military University. Currently, Amy is an active health coach with Provant Health Solutions, digital content developer, and consultant. She can be reached at amyashmorephd@gmail.com.