Cardio Conditioning Workouts: More Fat Burning, Same Gym Time

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
June 10th, 2014
Updated: April 21st, 2021
238.9K Reads
Cardio Conditioning Workouts: More Fat Burning, Same Gym Time
Turn your resistance training workouts into muscle building and fat blasting sessions by integrating intense progression conditioning. 3 sample workouts are provided.
Workout Summary
  • Main Goal
    Lose Fat
  • Workout Type
  • Training Level
  • Program Duration8 weeks
  • Days Per Week
  • Time Per Workout30-45 minutes
  • Equipment Required
    Barbell, Bodyweight, Cables, Dumbbells, Kettle Bells, Other
  • Target Gender Male & Female
  • Recommended Supps
  • Workout PDF Download Workout

Workout Description

The old adage of separating your weights from your cardio is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Finding other, more effective strategies to stoke your metabolism and burn some body fat while saving you time is now “trending.” Not only can new programs fire up your furnace, they can also breathe new life into a somewhat dull training routine. Are you not yet on board? Old habits die hard.

As a child some of us would eat one thing at a time and try not to mix the food on our plate. Eating my favorite foods first and then relegating the vegetables to the end of my meal was a practice of mine for years as a kid. This childhood disdain for vegetables can be easily compared to cardio for the modern gym-goer – stuck at the end of the training session with little to no serious thought or reason applied. Seldom done, oftentimes skipped, cardio is the redheaded step child of the physique world. The vegetables, if you will.

With the goal of a v-tapered waist, washboard abs and a lean and muscular frame, cardiovascular conditioning must come into play somewhere on the road toward your physique goals. Without some sort of metabolic conditioning and the rare blessings of great genetics, staying lean and building muscle simultaneously can be something of an anomaly.

So where do you go from here? You want to stay lean or get leaner, and put on or at least keep the muscle you’ve built. But the thought of wearing yourself thin with countless hours on the mind-numbing, steady-state ride of the treadmill, stationary bike or other unwelcomed contraption gets you as excited as watching your fiber intake. So, what do you do? First, some understanding is in order.

Wide grip pull ups

What Happens When You Lose Fat?

Let’s change our mindset for a moment. Let’s throw out the old adage of (say it with me) “45 minutes of cardio four times per week at a slow and steady rate to burn fat.” Let’s adopt a new way of thinking about stripping fat off our frames and keeping, or even building some muscle.

First, let’s find out what’s really going on when you think you are burning fat. When you perform cardio at the gym, around your house or at an outdoor facility, you’re not really burning a whole lot of fat tissue. Your body will mostly resort to the readily available stores of glycogen in your muscles and liver (carbohydrate) before turning mostly to fat for energy. Depending on the level of intensity, more or less fat and more or less carbohydrate (glycogen) may be utilized for energy.

Remember that fat is simply stored energy that the body likes to hold onto for those prehistoric times of starvation and survival. Glycogen is used for quick bursts of intensity such as running from a saber toothed tiger, squatting 250 pounds for ten reps, or getting in that heated argument with your girlfriend.

As low intensity is applied, mostly aerobic processes (fat oxidation) is called into play. Walking is a low intensity activity that will mainly burn fat for fuel. As your intensity increases, the pendulum swings toward another energy source. If you start to increase that walk to a light jog, run and eventually a sprint, you will effectively call on more of the anaerobic process to take over and burn the local glycogen stores for a quick shot of energy.

So, I should keep walking?

Not necessarily. When talking about getting lean, higher intensity cardio is a better choice for several reasons – more on that latter. When you are actually performing cardio (whatever that intensity may be) you are burning very few calories and fat tissue to begin with. Have you ever looked down at the treadmill and noticed the calories burned after a gut-wrenching hour on the thing? Does it say something like 200 or 250? I know that most machines do a poor job of accurately counting calories burned, but anything even remotely around 300 is a drop in the bucket when you are trying to get lean.

First of all, during a lower intensity session of exercise, a higher percentage of fat is burned. For higher intensity cardio training more calories are burned, but a lower percentage of this is fat. The higher intensity, however, may actually burn more fat due to the total calories burned.

For example:

  Low Intensity High Intensity
Calories Burned 200 500
Fat Percentage Burned 70% 30%
Calories From Fat 140 150

Now, the above example is purely hypothetical and is only to show the point trying to be made so no hate mail please.

Abdominal knee raise

But why do so much high intensity cardio? I would burn out!

The other important factor to consider is that high-intensity cardio is not performed for the same length of time as low-intensity is. You’ve seen all the press that high intensity interval training (HIIT) has gotten lately for good reason. Shorter, more intense intervals are convenient, challenging and keep us engaged with our performance as much as a sets of curls do.

You would more than likely burn out very quickly if you performed high intensity cardio for long periods of time. By utilizing an interval-type cardio program you will increase your heart rate to a higher level than steady-state cardio. Your heart rate will stay elevated during the lower intensity portion of an interval allowing you to “recover” a bit before the next bout of high intensity. These intervals coax your metabolism into thinking it is training at a high intensity the entire time.

By increasing your cardiovascular conditioning intensity, applying an interval-type protocol and keeping each session relatively short in duration, you are creating a much more effective and time-saving way to burn fat while saving your hard-earned muscle from whittling away.

How you really burn fat

The truth is you are not burning a ton of fat in the gym. Most human beings have enough fat on their bodies to run across the entire country. So you have some to spare. Thankfully the reality of getting lean happens outside of the gym. Shift your belief from actually burning fat in the gym over to training your body to behave differently.

Much like muscle isn’t built in the gym, the same holds true for stripping fat. Think of your new cardio plan as coaxing your metabolism to burn more of a percentage of fat when you walk out the door and beyond. You will become a fat-burning furnace when sitting, talking and watching The Big Bang Theory.

High intensity cardio does just this. The higher intensity will, over time, shift your body into burning more calories and fat for 24 hours and longer after your training is over for the day. This is referred to as EPOC: Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. This can quickly add up if you perform several sessions each week. For the lower intensity crowd, the thermogenic (fat burning) effect is soon lost as the body quickly returns back to homeostasis (its baseline) shortly after your training session is over. Lower intensity equals less EPOC.

Non-Cardio Cardio

You may be thinking that we are back where we started from: Separate cardio performed after weight training at risk of being forgotten, neglected and possibly scorned once again.

Fear not. I propose this: Don’t do cardio. Yup, forget the treadmill, stair-step, elliptical and the other advanced pieces of science housed behind a bunch of TVs set up like a sea of office cubicles. Instead, look at your current training program and see how you can instill some cardio-burning effects without entering in your bodyweight to a machine.

Does your workout go something like this: Do a set, rest, do a set, rest, do a set, rest, etc.? Do you really need a full minute or two of complete rest after a set of curls? Can that time be utilized in a more effective way? The way I see it, that is precious time lost. Unless you are supersetting arm exercises or going for a new personal record on the squat, that time is yours to use – so let’s put it to good use.

Performing a cardio-based exercise during so called “rest periods” not only will save time but also jack up your metabolism and intensity in such a way that traditional cardio afterward isn’t necessary.

Bench dips

A few advantages you may encounter:

  • No additional time is necessary
  • Induce a high acute thermogenic effect
  • Increased cardiovascular endurance
  • Increased EPOC
  • Better mental focus on the training at hand
  • A virtual limitless number of variations
  • Increased muscular endurance
  • Improved bodyweight control and strength
  • Stave off boredom
  • Convenient with little equipment required

But won’t I get small?

The beauty of HIIT-style cardio conditioning is that since it is performed for short bursts of high intensity for short to moderate periods of time it won’t tap into your muscle tissue for needed fuel. Additionally, it will keep vital hormone levels such as testosterone and growth hormone at optimal levels. This is all, of course, pending on your diet being balanced and full of necessary macronutrients.

The combination of an inadequate diet of negative calories and long-winded, drawn-out low intensity cardio performed for marathon sessions will wreak havoc on your hormone levels and pull your body down into a slippery slope of a stalled metabolism, hindered fat loss and burnt-out muscle gains. Couple those side effects with poor sleep habits and a resulting lack of motivation and you will have the perfect recipe for little to no results.

It is a no-brainer that cardio conditioning will improve overall health in many ways. It will also create new and vital blood flow to hungry muscle tissue enabling you to better recruit muscle fibers during strenuous workouts. So, the old belief that cardio will make your muscles shrink and disappear is a myth if done correctly.

Okay, so what do I do, how does this work?

The purpose here is to integrate a cardio component into your current training program without adding any additional time. In reality, it may reduce rest times a bit making your training sessions shorter and more efficient. This is good news when you have little time or more pressing things to get to instead of wasting valuable minutes in the gym.

You will be performing a cardio conditioning component in between each working set of your current training program. These components can include but are not limited to:

  • Burpees
  • Lunges (all directions)
  • Plyo push-ups
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Core movements
  • Prisoner squats
  • Box jumps
  • Jump squats
  • Mountain climbers
  • Outdoor sprints
  • Shuttle runs
  • And many more

You will execute a progressive conditioning program. What does that mean? It means you will start with a certain amount of time to perform your conditioning exercise during your “rest” periods and also a short actual rest period before moving on to your next set. The conditioning portion will then be gradually increased as your actual rest time decreases.

So, let’s say you have a total rest time of one minute between each set. Your graduation for conditioning will look something like this:

  • Level 1: 20 seconds of box jumps, 40 seconds of rest
  • Level 2: 30 seconds of box jumps, 30 seconds of rest
  • Level 3: 40 seconds of box jumps, 20 seconds of rest

This gradual shift over time will train your system to adapt but also present enough of a challenge to get your fat-burning furnace stoked.

Upper Body Cardio Conditioning Workout

Enough with all the explanation, let’s get to the program. Below is an example of a typical upper body program displaying all three levels of conditioning injected. As a side note, be sure to train in each level for a specific amount of time. In other words, allow your body to adapt to the rigors of one level before moving on to the next. This may take a few days, weeks or even a few months. The important thing is to challenge yourself and stay progressive. Oh, and having a watch handy doesn’t hurt either.

The 'Rest Ratio' column corresponds to the conditioning levels explained above. Let's look at the first exercise of the level 1 example workout. After you complete one set of incline bench dumbbell press, you'll do 20 seconds of box jumps followed by 40 seconds of rest. Once that 40 seconds of rest is complete, you'll do another set of incline bench dumbbell press. This is how you'll do each exercise and cardio movement.

Level 1 Example Workout

Traditional Exercise/Cardio Component Sets Reps Rest Ratio
Incline bench dumbbell press/box jump 3 6 20/40
Wide-grip pull-up/plyo push-up 3 AMRAP 20/40
Alternating dumbbell shoulder press/reverse lunge 3 6 20/40
Reverse-grip chin-up/kettlebell swing 3 AMRAP 20/40
Parallel dip/mountain climber 3 AMRAP 20/40
Bicycle crunch/hanging leg raise 3 15-20 20/40

Level 2 Example Workout

Traditional Exercise/Cardio Component Sets Reps Rest Ratio
Flat bench dumbbell press/jump squat 3 10 30/30
Inverted row/side lunge 3 AMRAP 30/30
Standing barbell push press/burpee 3 8 30/30
TRX curl/seated V-up 3 AMRAP 30/30
Diamond push-up/Kettlebell swing 3 AMAP 30/30
Windshield wiper/plank 3 10 30/30

Level 3 Example Workout

Traditional Exercise/Cardio Component Sets Reps Rest Ratio
Feet-elevated push-up/jump split squat 3 AMRAP 40/20
Bent-over two-arm row/reverse lunge 3 12 40/20
Wide-grip upright row/Turkish get-up 3 12 40/20
Lying dumbbell extension/bench step-up 3 12 40/20
Incline bench curl/ab crunch 3 12 40/20
Sit-up/hanging knee-up 3 15-20 40/20

AMRAP = As many reps as possible

Posted on: Sun, 10/08/2017 - 08:02

Thank you for the Informative article! Learn a lot. Been looking for how, what and when conditing information like this. When signing up it only allows one option, I selected fat loss but I also want to build or tone muscle. I want to stay thick fit if you will but can I do one (fat/muscle) with out losing the other?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 10/10/2017 - 09:36

Hi Trina,

Building muscle and losing fat are conflicting goals. To build muscle you must be in a caloric surplus which will lead to minor fat gain. You can monitor this by only being in a slight surplus.

To lose fat you must be in a calorie deficit which will lead to minor muscle loss. You can monitor this by making sure you are eating enough protein to preserve muscle mass.

Hope this helps!

Lito Serrano
Posted on: Mon, 10/27/2014 - 04:14

Great workout!

Posted on: Tue, 09/23/2014 - 06:46

Wicked article! ! This is exactly what I have been looking for. I only get 45 mins at the gym a day for cardio and after I take a "break" so to speak I feel unfocused this will help a lot. Keep up the good work and thanks again.

Vicente Covarrubias
Posted on: Tue, 08/26/2014 - 14:24

hey man is this a 3 day work out i just want to know will it help me lose weight and get good muscle tone

Lito Serrano
Posted on: Thu, 08/07/2014 - 04:02

Hi Brad! I have one clarification with this workout. If I workout 3 times a week lets say Monday, Wednesday, and Friday does that mean I do your workout 1 on Monday, workout 2 on Wednesday and workout 3 on Friday?


Lito Serrano
Posted on: Sun, 07/20/2014 - 02:09

Great workout!

Alejandro A. Aguilar
Posted on: Thu, 07/17/2014 - 10:25

I really like this idea and I find it at a perfect time. I've really love the Power, Muscle, Burn (PMB) workout routine but I also really want to cut more fat. I have returned to a better diet and staying on it more consistantly too!! But I wanted to try and fit in more cardio, but it's hard since I only have 1 hour to use in the gym every morning since afternoon/evening is out of the question.

One question I have is what is the best HIIT exercise to match up with the PMB workout/exercise?
Monday - Shoulders/Biceps
Tuesday - Legs (Quads/Hamstrings)
Wednesday - rest
Thursday - Shoulders/Triceps
Friday - Back/Calves/Abs

I pretty much follow what Steve's routine is on the workout page other than swapping exercises occasionally.

Thanks again for this great idea. Can't wait to implement it!!

Posted on: Wed, 07/02/2014 - 23:37

Hey, can I use this with Jason Blaha's Ice Cream Fitness program?

Posted on: Mon, 06/16/2014 - 10:56

My lower body is not functional . Can you suggest how to use upper body for cardio in between sets If possible?

Posted on: Sun, 06/15/2014 - 16:05

This is the type article I've been looking for! I've come to the point in my fitness journey that I've whittled away what fat I can with dieting and moderate exercise, and now it's time to rev it up with a more intense cardio workout to get the rest of the unwanted fat off my body. Thank you so much for such a great article!

Posted on: Sun, 06/15/2014 - 23:22

Hi Carly, I am glad you found it helpful!


Posted on: Tue, 06/10/2014 - 13:24

Great article Brad. Been doin this style of training for awhile. It takes some time to adapt but wen u do its crazy!! Wat I really like bout the conditioning in between sets is, like u described, it really gives me a mental focus at the task at hand. Killin two birds with one stone!! Keep up the good work man!

Posted on: Tue, 06/10/2014 - 14:26

Hi Brandon, thanks so much for the kind words. I am so glad you are finding results and, yes, you are right, it does make us focus more!