Cardio workouts are an excellent way to improve heart health, lose or maintain weight, and relieve stress.
But before you start a cardio routine, you’ll want to make sure you get started on the right foot so you can reduce your risk of injuries, prevent boredom, and keep your body fueled for your workouts.
Six common mistakes that beginners should avoid when doing cardio are:
- Focusing only on cardio
- Not eating beforehand
- Not warming up
- Doing too much cardio
- Only doing one type of exercise
- Not varying your intensity
In this article, I’ll discuss why you should avoid these mistakes when starting a cardio routine.
I’ll also define the meanings behind some common cardio terms, talk about whether beginners should do steady-state cardio or HIIT, show you how to do cardio with weights, and provide three examples of cardio workouts.
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Cardio Definitions Explained
When people say they’re doing cardio, what do they actually mean? As it turns out, there are many different ways to complete a cardio workout. How you choose to go about it depends on your goals, your experience level, and your personal preference.
Intensity refers to how hard your body is working during exercise. You can monitor your breathing rate, heart rate, how much you’re sweating, and how fatigued your muscles feel to determine how difficult a workout feels to you.
The easiest ways to track your exercise intensity are to use a heart rate monitor to track which heart rate zones you’re in or to measure your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), both of which I’ll talk about later.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor or you’re not familiar with RPE, you can gauge your exercise intensity by paying attention to how you feel. Here are some physical signs to look for to determine how intensely you’re exercising:
- Low intensity – you can talk during your activity, you don’t feel out of breath, and you’re not sweating a lot
- Moderate intensity – you can still talk even though it’s more challenging to do so, you feel slightly out of breath, and you’re only lightly sweating
- Vigorous – you can only speak a few words at a time, your heart beats rapidly, and you break a sweat after just a couple of minutes
Related Article: Cardio for Beginners: 6 Mistakes to Avoid (Plus 3 Workouts)
The duration of your cardio workout is how long it lasts. An effective cardio workout can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more depending on your goals and what kind of cardio you’re doing.
If you’re doing steady-state cardio — a workout where you move at a comfortable, steady pace the entire time — you’ll likely be able to sustain it for 30 minutes or longer.
If you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT), your workouts may only last 10-15 minutes. Even though HIIT workouts combine short periods of movement with recovery periods, the active periods require fast, intense bursts of activity that cause you to fatigue sooner.
Steady-state cardio and HIIT work your cardiovascular system in different ways, so it’s good to incorporate both types of workouts into your routine.
Related Article: 3 Differences Between HIIT and LISS Cardio
Exercise frequency is another way of talking about how often you work out.
It’s most often measured by how many days per week you work out, but if you work out twice in the same day, you can also count exercise frequency by the number of individual workouts you do each week.
4. Heart Rate Zones
Heart rate zones are a range of numbers that tell you how hard your heart is beating during exercise. Understanding heart rate zones is important because you can use them to achieve a different stimulus for each workout.
There are five heart rate zones. To determine which one you should be in during any given exercise, you first need to find your maximum heart rate (MHR), or the highest number of beats per minute that your heart can pump. A good way to estimate your MHR is to subtract your age from 220. So if you’re 30 years old, your maximum heart rate is 190.
From there, you can use percentages to determine which heart rate zone you should be in for a specific workout:
- Zone 1 – 50-60% of your MHR, very light activity
- Zone 2 – 60-70% of your MHR, light activity that doesn’t require much effort
- Zone 3 – 70-80% of your MHR, something that is challenging but still manageable
- Zone 4 – 80-90% of your MHR, a difficult activity where your heart rate is accelerated but you’re not going all-out
- Zone 5 – 90-100% of your MHR, max-effort bursts of activity that can only be sustained for short periods of time
The easiest way to determine your heart rate zone is to wear a heart rate monitor, but you can also calculate it manually.
Hold your index and middle fingers over the back of your wrist and count how many beats you feel in 60 seconds. Then divide that number by your MHR to come up with a percentage and determine which zone you’re in.
5. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is a measure of how easy or difficult you find certain exercises. It’s commonly used in powerlifting and other forms of strength training, but you can apply RPE to cardio exercises as well.
Exercising based on RPE allows for more flexibility in training. If you didn’t eat well the day before or you don’t feel recovered enough from your previous workout, you can train according to RPE rather than focusing on a certain distance or pace.
RPE is measured on a scale of 1-10:
- 1 means there’s little to no effort required
- 2-3 is a comfortable pace that allows you to hold a conversation without getting out of breath
- 4-5 is still comfortable, but your breathing becomes more labored and you can speak a few sentences without getting more out of breath
- 6-7 is a pace that is slightly uncomfortable and requires some effort, but you can sustain the activity for at least 30 minutes
- 8-9 is a pace that you can only maintain for 60 seconds, and you find it difficult to speak more than a few words
- 10 is an all-out sprint that is only sustainable for 20-30 seconds
RPE takes some time to figure out because you have to get used to how you feel when you’re doing cardio at different paces and intensities. But once you get the hang of it, RPE is an effective way to measure your effort during cardio exercises.
Should You Do HIIT or Steady-State Cardio As A Beginner?
If you’ve never done any cardio before, it’s best to start with steady-state workouts before trying HIIT.
When you’re new to cardio, you don’t have an established aerobic baseline and you aren’t yet familiar enough with how your body should feel when working at different intensities. This makes it difficult for you to understand what a max effort should feel like, and you may not achieve the desired stimulus from your workout.
Because HIIT workouts are fast and require powerful bursts of non-stop movement, it’s also more difficult to ensure you’re using proper form, especially if you’re not training with someone else who can coach you through your workout.
Once you’ve spent a couple of months working on your aerobic capacity and you know how to move with proper form, you can start to incorporate HIIT workouts.
Related Article: How Long Does It Take For HIIT Results (10+ Things To Know)
Can You Do Cardio Using Weights?
It is possible to do cardio while using weights. In CrossFit, for example, many of the workouts incorporate barbell cycling and dumbbell and kettlebell movements. They’re performed at a high intensity, which helps boost cardio fitness, but the addition of the weights provides some extra fat-burning and metabolism-boosting benefits.
If you want to do cardio with weights, it’s best to start with low weights. You can always increase the weight if you need to, but if you start too heavy, you’ll fatigue more quickly and spend more time resting than working out. If you’ve been strength training and know your 1RM’s, aiming for 60% of that is a good starting point for a cardio workout with weights.
If you’re completely new to fitness, I also recommend sticking with dumbbells or kettlebells unless you have access to a coach who can teach you the proper way to do barbell movements. Proper form is crucial regardless of which implement you use, but it’s usually easier for beginners to practice perfect technique with a dumbbell or kettlebell.
3 Beginner Cardio Examples
1. Steady-state cardio
Steady-state cardio can be done by running or cycling outside, using a cardio machine such as a treadmill or elliptical, or rowing. Beginners can start with 15 minutes of activity at a steady pace and gradually improve the workout duration over time.
If you have a heart rate monitor, you’ll also want to make sure you stay in heart rate zone 2 so you can sustain the activity for a longer period of time.
2. Bodyweight HIIT
One of my favorite ways to do HIIT workouts is to do Tabatas. They’re short but effective, and you can use nearly any kind of movement with them.
Tabata workouts involve 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest for a total of four minutes. You can alternate movements with each 20-second interval or do two or three Tabatas back-to-back with a variety of movements.
Here is an example of a full-body Tabata workout that requires no equipment:
- 20 seconds of air squats, 10 seconds of rest
- 20 seconds of pushups, 10 seconds of rest
- Repeat until you’ve reached a total of four minutes
- Rest 30-60 seconds before moving on to Tabata #2
- 20 seconds of lunges, 10 seconds of rest
- 20 seconds of tricep dips, 10 seconds of rest
- Repeat until you’ve reached a total of four minutes
- Rest 30-60 seconds before moving on to Tabata #3
- 20 seconds of high knees, 10 seconds of rest
- 20 seconds of mountain climbers, 10 seconds of rest
- Repeat until you’ve reached a total of four minutes
Related Article: Burn 500 Calories Working Out At Home
3. Weighted circuits
Circuit training is an effective way to do cardio with weights. It requires you to move quickly through various “stations” to get as many reps as possible within a specified time period. This not only keeps you from getting bored but also allows you to have a competition with yourself since you can keep track of your reps and try to beat your score with each round.
The circuit below can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells. You can also swap out these movements for other exercises such as lunges or bicep curls if you want to target different muscle groups.
- 30 seconds of goblet squats
- 30 seconds of overhead presses
- 30 seconds of deadlifts
- 30 seconds of bent-over rows
- 30 seconds of rest
- Repeat until you’ve reached a total of 20-30 minutes
Related Article: 10 Types of Cardio Workouts For Fat Loss
6 Mistakes To Avoid When Starting Cardio
1. Focusing only on cardio
While doing cardio is an excellent way to improve heart health and boost your endurance, it’s not the best way to improve your body composition or get stronger. For that, you need to do strength training as well.
Strength training not only helps build and maintain muscle mass and strength but can also help you prevent injuries, develop explosive power, and improve your muscular endurance. This all carries over to your cardio workouts because you’ll be able to move your body more efficiently and work out for longer periods of time.
2. Not eating beforehand
You may have heard of people doing fasted cardio, which means working out on an empty stomach. But unless you’re working out first thing in the morning as soon as you roll out of bed, it’s best to eat something before your workout so you have enough energy.
You may have to experiment to find what foods make you feel your best during a cardio workout, but a high-carb, moderate-protein, low-fat meal is a good place to start. It’s also best to avoid foods with a lot of fiber, which can cause GI distress during your workout.
Examples of foods that are good to eat before a cardio workout include:
- A scoop of whey protein mixed with water and a banana
- Low-fat Greek yogurt mixed with berries
- Toast with hard-boiled eggs
- Grilled chicken and white rice
- Low-fat cottage cheese and rice cakes with one tablespoon of peanut butter
3. Not warming up
Just like you wouldn’t try to squat 200lbs without warming up first, you shouldn’t go out for a run or a bike ride without prepping your body first.
Warming up prepares your cardiovascular system for exercise and helps increase blood flow to your muscles, which makes them more mobile and pliable. This helps prevent injuries and allows you to perform better during your workout.
An effective warm-up only takes five to 10 minutes. You can warm up using dynamic stretches or performing gentle exercises that mimic the workout you’re about to do. For example, if you’re running, you can warm up by walking briskly and doing high knees, butt kickers, and calf raises to loosen up your quads, hamstrings, hips, and calves.
4. Doing too much cardio
If you start off a cardio routine by trying to do more than you’re currently capable of, or you refuse to take any rest days once you settle into a routine, you’re doing your body a disservice.
Doing too much cardio can be a detriment to your health. You’ll know you’re doing too much if you’re experiencing a lot of joint pain, you’re not sleeping well, and you start to dread your workouts. You may also become sick or injured more frequently and notice that an activity that used to feel easy starts to feel more difficult.
To prevent all of these issues, you should stick to 150-300 minutes of light or moderate activity per week or 75-150 minutes of high-intensity cardio per week.
5. Only doing one type of exercise
Doing different types of exercises helps prevent boredom and overuse injuries. It also allows you to use different muscle groups and challenge your body in different ways.
If you’re starting cardio workouts with a specific goal in mind, such as running a 5k, you should prioritize the type of cardio that will help you reach that goal.
But if you’re doing cardio for overall health benefits, it’s good to switch up your activity every once in a while. Cycling, using the elliptical machine, dancing, jumping rope, rowing, and swimming are all effective cardio exercises.
6. Not varying your intensity
If you hop on the treadmill or bike and set it to the same pace and resistance every time you work out, you’ll never improve because your body will eventually adapt and you’re no longer challenging yourself.
Doing cardio workouts at different intensity levels allows you to work your body in different ways. As I mentioned above, steady-state cardio is better for beginners than HIIT, but you can still switch up your intensity levels by using RPE or training in different heart rate zones.
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Cardio Progressions: How To Improve Over Time
1. Gradually increase your pace or distance each week
One of the best ways to improve your cardio over time is to slowly increase your pace or distance each week. For example, if you run, you can aim to run half a mile further or push yourself to reach your desired distance 15 seconds faster than the previous week.
2. Increase your exercise frequency
Once you’ve settled into a routine and your endurance and stamina have improved, you should bump up your exercise frequency. Doing cardio once or twice a week is certainly better than nothing, but if you want to keep getting better, you’ll need to do it more often.
You can start by adding one extra cardio day per week until you’re training four to five days per week. This will allow you to improve or maintain your fitness level while still giving you ample time for rest and recovery.
3. Incorporate light intervals
While it’s best to save HIIT workouts for when you’ve built up a solid endurance base over a couple of months, you can still incorporate intervals into your training without going all-out. If you’re using a cardio machine, you can move at a slightly faster pace for two minutes and spend one minute in recovery mode, alternating until you’ve reached 20 or 30 minutes total.
This will help you improve your cardio fitness because doing intervals works your heart in different ways and it allows you to get accustomed to working at a higher intensity. Over time, you’ll get a better understanding of how much you can push yourself so you can continue challenging your body.
There are many benefits to starting a cardio routine, but if you don’t do it properly, you can quickly become injured, bored, or unmotivated. By avoiding the six mistakes mentioned in this article and focusing on gradually progressing over time, you’ll be able to improve your cardiovascular fitness without burning yourself out.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.