Basic fitness and conditioning

The combination of both weight training (also known as resistance training) and cardiovascular exercise is paramount for those looking to improve their health and body composition.

Whilst muscle toning is not the correct term, a ‘toned look’ can be established with a basic fitness plan in combination with an appropriate diet.  Cardiovascular fitness and health benefits are also associated with such programs along with the aesthetic benefits many trainers strive for.

These benefits of resistance training and cardiovascular include lowered blood pressure and cholesterol, an increase in lung capacity and heart efficiency, and a reduction in body fat whilst on a calorie-controlled diet.

This article will provide an outline of beginner cardio workouts and will later incorporate a basic weight workout.

Beginner cardio workout

The definition of cardio training is “an activity that increases the output of the cardiovascular system”. Cardio is classified as anything that “gets the heart going” in layman’s terms. Simple examples will be power walking, cycling, jogging, rowing, or swimming. 

Many gyms now have equipment that strays away from these standard exercise choices and all are valid for those who wish to start cardio training.  Cross trainers and elliptical trainers are prime examples. 

Basic workout plan

The beginner or unconditioned trainer will be defined as somebody who has had minimal participation in physical activity within the last 6 months but is of sound health.

Initially, the unconditioned trainer will simply build up with three sessions of low to medium intensity cardiovascular activity for around 30 minutes. These sessions are labelled as ‘steady state’ since the intensity doesn’t change and the same pace is continued throughout the session.

Here is a detailed plan for a new trainer:

  • Monday: Stationary bike up to 30 minutes at a pace where you can talk but are giving more effort than walking
  • Wednesday: As above or power walk for the same time and intensity
  • Friday: As above or a cross trainer for the same time and intensity

In short, this is a simple introduction to cardiovascular training and it is in line with UK Government recommendations for exercise participation.

Some trainers may have to build up to the 30 minutes by increasing duration by 5 minutes each week. This is perfectly acceptable and at no point should the trainer try and go beyond their safety levels.

The intensity of the initial sessions is little more than a canter with heavy breathing forbidden. This is neither a run nor a sprint but at the same time slightly more than a leisurely walk.

For those with joint pains or previous injuries, the bike or cross trainer will offer a slightly more forgiving session as opposed to jogging or power walking, due to the low impact nature of the exercise. Find a piece of exercise equipment you enjoy and one which is ergonomically suitable.

Intermediate cardio workout plan

As the trainer adapts to the base schedule above there are three ways in which the program can be advanced:

  • Number of sessions
  • Length of session
  • Intensity of session

As the body adapts to the initial protocol the workload will become relatively easy and both fitness levels and weight loss can be accelerated by employing one of the methods above.

For the intermediate trainer, we have devised the schedule below which has incorporated all of the factors outlined above. The definition of an intermediate trainer would be someone who has competently completed the initial program for a minimum of 12 weeks.

The plan is advanced from the beginners' plan as follows:

  • Monday: Power walk up to 40 minutes with medium to heavy breathing
  • Wednesday: Same as Monday
  • Friday: 20 minutes slightly harder effort, the equipment choice is open
  • Saturday: Same as Monday or similar effort on any chosen equipment

As the intermediate trainer continues through the weeks, fitness levels will increase and body fat levels will decrease (whilst on a calorie-controlled diet) in response to the increased workload and frequency of the training sessions. Adaptation to cardiovascular training is fairly rapid and physically evident, with the benefits being experienced in other aspects of daily life too. 

As the trainer begins to find the intermediate plan less challenging, they can move onto an advanced plan. As a standard rule, we would advocate at least 16 weeks of the schedule outlined above before progressing onto the advanced plan.

Advanced cardio training

The advanced plan will now incorporate High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT workouts). Studies show that HIIT is great for fat burning and increasing metabolic output. This means you stay slim whilst becoming fitter!

It is a mixture of aerobic exercise (with oxygen) and anaerobic work (without oxygen). The steady-state cardio at lower intensity has previously been all aerobic, the intervals on HIIT may be anaerobic for some. 

HIIT is not for the unconditioned trainer and is far more intense than the steady-state training detailed above. For the advanced trainer, however, there will be no health risks for those who have been cleared by their GP or doctor. Fitness levels will now support the near maximum efforts.

Outlined below is an example of HIIT for the advanced trainer:

  • 1-3 mins: Easy warm-up on a stationary bike at a very steady pace
  • 3:00 - 3:20 mins: Max out effort, no holding back
  • 3:20 - 4:00 mins: Cool down with minimal effort but keep pedalling
  • 4:00 - 4:20 mins: Max out effort, no holding back
  • 4:20 - 5:00 mins: Cool down with minimal effort but keep pedalling
  • 5:00 - 5:20 mins: Max out effort, no holding back
  • 5:20 - 6:00 mins: Cool down with minimal effort but keep pedalling
  • 6:00 - 6:20 mins: Max out effort, no holding back
  • 6:20 - 7:00 mins: Cool down with minimal effort but keep pedalling
  • 7:00 - 7:20 mins: Max out effort, no holding back
  • 7:20 - 13 mins: Cooldown

The session will last around 13 minutes with 5 maximal efforts. Many trainers liken these 20-second intervals to 100m track sprints in terms of the effort required.  Anything less than maximum effort will not prove beneficial.  Initially, there are 5 intervals, so 100 seconds of hard work.  This is everything you have and more to the point of exhaustion in the 20 second period, followed by a 40-second active rest.

The progression of HIIT is done through several intervals as opposed to the effort as the trainer will be at maximum intensity throughout.  Initially, this looks easy but I can assure you it is very challenging! For your first session simply establish an appreciation of the structure and approximate the effort required in each interval.

Heart rates for cardio

As the advanced trainer becomes more interested in cardio they may look to use their heart rate as an indication of effort.  The advanced training plan will include steady-state cardio at heart rate intensities (as a percentage of maximum).  For HIIT training, heart rate monitors offer little benefit.  It's either maximum perceived effort or warm down and light spin.

Maximum heart rate can be calculated by manual or theoretical equations and testing.

Manual testing

For those wishing to do the manual test simply sit on a bicycle and increase the intensity level every 2 minutes up to 15 minutes where you are performing an all-out sprint.  This progression must be a steady, linear effort as opposed to the maximum effort being put in too early or holding back and simply sprinting at the end.  See the test as a gradually increasing hill as opposed to a flat road with a sprint at the end.  The trainer should establish a figure within 5 beats of their maximum by doing this.

Theoretical testing

For the theoretical approach, the male trainer is to subtract his age from 220 whilst females minus age from 226. In theory, based on this calculation, the 40-year-old gent will have a maximum heart rate (MHR) of 180bpms.

Workout plan based on heart rate

We will take the maximum figure, whether it was established manually or theoretically and devise sessions to work in ‘zones’ whilst performing cardio.

The different zones will primarily provide different benefits from lower intensity efforts where fat burning is more prevalent to higher-end efforts where fitness levels and VO2 are increased. This will partner the HIIT trainer for a ‘steady-state and interval training’ combination.

The advanced trainer will incorporate both methods into 4-5 sessions per week as detailed below:

  • Monday: 40 minutes at 75-80% of MHR on any chosen cardio equipment
  • Tuesday: HIIT protocol above on stationary bike
  • Thursday: 45-50 minutes at 65-75% of MHR on the rowing machine
  • Friday: HIIT protocol above on stationary bike
  • Sunday: Optional 1-hour stationary cycle ride at 65% of MHR

This will provide the trainer with a challenging weekly training schedule. Progression for the steady-state training is simply increasing the duration or the intensity, whilst adding intervals to the HIIT will make it a more advanced plan. The advanced trainer may wish to detail their progression by noting distances, the achieved level of intensity, or completed sessions in a logbook to monitor their progress.  We strongly recommend this for motivation amongst other factors.

Sports based cardio

For those looking to progress beyond this level of sporting performance, we would suggest researching the sport you are interested in and the training principles associated with that particular sport.  The advanced trainers plan above will give a great base of endurance, speed and cardiovascular efficiency and you may also shed a pound or two on the way.

Sport-specific training will differ from the protocol above but the base established in the advanced plan will put the trainer in an advantageous position for entering the realms of sports training.

Weightlifting for beginners

The cardio schedule has now been established. To complete the plan, resistance training must be added. 

As the main focus is on health and an aesthetically pleasing body, weight training will be kept to a 2-day upper and lower body split. One session will be spent working from the waist up, the other from the waist down. There will be times when there are overlaps as the midsection is taxed in many lower body exercises.

Basic workout routine

All weight training sessions will be incorporated from week one and must be carried out before the cardiovascular workout or on off days (away from the cardiovascular session.

Examples are as follows:

  • Monday: Upper body weights session followed by the stationary bike up to 30 minutes at a pace where you can talk but are giving more effort than walking
  • Wednesday: Same as Monday or power walk for the same time and intensity
  • Friday: Lower body weights session followed by the stationary bike up to 30 minutes at a pace where you can talk but are giving more effort than walking.

Alternatively, the trainer could adopt the following protocol:

  • Monday: Stationary bike up to 30 minutes at a pace where you can talk but are giving more effort than walking
  • Tuesday: Upper body weights session
  • Wednesday: Same as Monday or power walk for the same time and intensity
  • Friday: Same as Monday as above or a cross trainer for the same time and intensity
  • Saturday: lower body weights session

Either framework or any adaptation of these will suffice as long as there are 2 weights sessions and 3 cardio sessions.  This runs true for the intermediate and advanced plans. The 2 weights sessions are never sacrificed for cardio or rest.  Alter the cardio to incorporate these if the workload proves excessive.

Resistance training is a much-maligned activity in media circles, especially for women looking to lose weight and ‘tone up’. The notion of training on cardio-based plans is suboptimal and weight training is paramount for improving body composition and maintaining a high metabolism, which in turn will burn fat.  Training with weights does in fact burn body fat during and after exercise, something the media again seems to forget. Weight training in this form will not make the trainer bulky, it will simply aid their attempt to create a ‘toned’ look.

Upper and lower body workouts

The two simple splits below will be performed at least 1 day apart and the exercise order, repetitions and sets will be adhered to.

The reps and sets are stated as 3 x 10. This means the trainer is to do 10 repetitions (full movement up and down) on completion of the 10 reps the trainer rests for 2-3 minutes before completing their two further sets.

Day 1 – Upper Body Workout

An example upper body workout should be completed as follows:

  • Dumbbell Bench press: 3 x 10
  • Lat Pull Down Machine: 3 x 10
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 x 10
  • Bicep Barbell Curl: 3 x 10
  • Tricep Cable Rope Pushdown: 3 x 10

The weight chosen should tax the muscle but not be too high that the 3 sets of 10 cannot be completed with the correct form.  This figure is to be noted by the trainer and increased weekly to aid muscle development and strength. An example of this progression can be seen below (please note this is merely an example as opposed to a prescribed working load).

An example of progression in barbell squats is as follows:

  • Week 1: 3 x 10 reps at 25kg
  • Week 2: 3 x 10 reps at 26.5kg
  • Week 3: 3 x 10 reps at 27.5kg
  • Week 4: 3 x 10 reps at 30kg
  • Week 5: 3 x 10 reps at 32.5kg
  • Week 6: 3 x 10 reps at 35kg

This progression will slow down after the initial jumps in weight.  Ensure correct form and technique are adhered to before moving up a weight.

Day 2 – Lower Body Workout

An example lower body workout should be completed as follows:

  • Barbell Squat: 3 x 10
  • Stiff Leg Barbell Deadlifts: 3 x 10
  • Leg Extension Machine or 45 Degree Leg Press: 3 x 10
  • Calf Raise (seated or standing): 3 x 10
  • Hanging Leg Raises or Cable Abdominal Crunches: 3 x 10

Abdominal work is kept to a minimum in terms of isolation as squats and deadlifts recruit the core (midsection) in the previous exercises. The perfect ‘6-pack’ is not created through thousands of sit-ups every day and this will simply lead to postural imbalances. Visible, toned midsections are a result of a calorie-controlled diet, cardiovascular work, and minimal total core recruitment. All of the components stated have been incorporated in this plan. Do not be tempted to thrash out crunches or sit-ups every morning, this is not productive.

Weightlifting equipment

The exercises stated above are a combination of free weight, cable and machine exercises that will be used in most commercial gyms.  If you do not have the equipment to replicate any of the movements consult your fitness instructor or gym owner for an alternative.

If you are unsure of the exercises listed, any qualified fitness instructor will be able to demonstrate (with good form) the technique, range, and speed of motion required to complete the exercise.  There are also online videos with training technique tips.

Ensure before progression you have mastered the technique. Poor form can lead to injury as well as taking the emphasis away from the target muscle groups. Excluding some of the exercises on either day will simply lead to postural imbalances.

If you are training at home ensure all safety facilities are in place and you have fully maintained and serviced equipment.

Safety of beginners’ workouts

Some general rules should be adhered to before and when performing the plans outlined above.  Primarily, ensure you are in good health and have been cleared by your GP or doctor before embarking on any fitness plan. This is paramount as your health comes first. 

Wear suitable clothing for the gym and ensure a full water bottle accompanies you during every session. If the intensity is too hard, appreciate your limits and put health before exercise. If you feel faint, light-headed, dizzy, or dehydrated, ease down to a canter and terminate the session. Remain seated until stable. If the symptoms persist, consult your GP or doctor for a health screening or similar assessment. For those looking to lose weight, it must be understood a calorie-controlled diet must be adhered to along with exercise to ensure optimal fat loss.

Final thoughts

Seeing the results of basic training and conditioning takes time and dedication. Ensure you exercise regularly and purposefully, in combination with a healthy and balanced diet.

Check out our diet packages to fuel your muscle growth and encourage fat loss. With meal plans for up to 30 days, you’ll smash through your first month’s target in no time – without feeling like you are on a diet!

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