Cardio often comes up as a buzzword in the fitness industry, demonized by anyone looking to gain muscle. Doing aerobic work is seen as a step backwards as opposed to adding in another lifting session. In reality, some sort of cardio training is necessary in any program. However, the duration and intensity of the sessions should be dictated by training goals and aspirations. Someone looking to increase their powerlifting total has far different demands than the weekend warrior looking to attempt their first marathon. No matter the goal, there are smarter and more efficient ways to work your cardiovascular system without compromising your entire weekend.

Many fitness enthusiasts in the gym lack specificity within their cardio program. When it comes to lifting weights, they have detailed notes of sets, reps, personal records, and arm growth progressions. For cardio, they slough off the numbers and progressions in favor of 20-30 minutes at a moderate intensity. Your cardio training should be approached with the same precision and details as a well-executed weight training program. By paying closer attention to intensity levels and duration, gym-goers can reap the benefits of an intense session without wasting away their day slogging miles on the treadmill.

1) Track Your Heart Rate

Doing cardio without a heart rate monitor is akin to driving your car without a speedometer. You may have a general idea of how hard you’re working out, but without a heart rate strap, it’s hard to put a number to your intensity. A heart rate monitor allows you to track changes in your cardio and make your workouts more structured. Rather than just hopping on a piece of equipment and chugging along, you now have an idea of just how hard you should be working. The right heart rate monitor can tell you when to go harder and when to cut your workout short.

2) Focus on Heart Rate Recovery

Just like a high-performance car that can stop on a dime, a heart that is in shape can slow down quicker after a hard bout of effort. This heart rate drop after an intense interval can be used to gauge fitness level. Rather than just focusing on how your body reacts during an intense interval, track how quickly your heart rate drops one and two minutes post-exercise. Aim for a drop of at least 10 beats at the minute mark and 20 beats or more at the two-minute mark.

3) Build Cardiac Strength

Similar to a sports car that can go from 0-60 mph in a matter of seconds, a highly conditioned cardiac system can quickly adapt to any exercise intensity. Intervals are a terrific way to work on cardiac strength. Set a treadmill for a quick pace, one that will leave you gassed after 20-30 seconds. Watch your heart rate rise. When you hit 85-90% of your estimated peak heart rate, slow down to a light walking pace to allow yourself time to recover. Walk until your heart rate drops down below 60% of your peak heart rate value and repeat. By driving your heart rate up high, you’ll focus on building cardiac strength.

4) Train Your Threshold

Your anaerobic threshold refers to the heart rate at which you no longer can bring in enough oxygen to support the exercise intensity. For simplicity sake, it marks an intensity that’s tough to maintain for an extended period of time. It usually appears around 85% of your max heart rate. Rather than focusing on the exact numbers, estimate it with the talk test. At your anaerobic threshold, you should be able to mutter 3-4 words before taking another breath. If you’re rambling on and on without trouble, increase the intensity. Working out at your anaerobic threshold helps to increase your work capacity – that is how long you’re able to sustain hard work. A higher work capacity will improve your cardio, but also be useful when performing intense circuits on the weight room floor.

5) Do Easy Steady-State for Fat Loss and General Conditioning

Although steady-state or low-level aerobic cardio often gets trashed in favor of high-intensity sprint intervals, slower cardio still deserves a place in your program. Although it may not be the most effective manner of raising your capacity for running and biking, it can be useful for recovery days and as an addition to a solid routine to increase activity without overtraining. By working out at a moderate heart rate (around 65-70%), you can increase blood flow to working muscles without causing an intense training stimulus, perfect for a day in between hard lifting sessions. Although it shouldn’t be the main staple of your program, incorporate one to two days of easier cardio in your program either as a starting point for harder work or a break from hard workouts to ease your mind and body.