20 Best Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss: Get Lean
Are you looking to lose weight? Cardio workouts are an excellent part of your weight loss toolkit. Combining a great exercise regimen with a healthier lifestyle will slim your waistline and improve your overall wellness.
Doing cardio on a regular basis has numerous health benefits.
Cardio workouts are great for:
- Increasing your endurance and stamina.
- Building cardiorespiratory fitness so you feel less winded.
- Strengthening your cardiovascular system and other muscles, which reduces your risk of heart disease.
- Giving your mood a boost and helping with mental health.
- Reducing risks of chronic illnesses like Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
- Promoting fat loss by burning calories and improving your metabolic rate.
- Helping to control your appetite.
Regular exercise will help you lose excess weight and live longer. And fortunately, you have numerous options to chose from. Below we highlight 20 of the best choices for weight loss.
What Is Cardio, Anyway?
Cardio is short for “cardiovascular” because these are activities that fire up your cardiovascular system. Another term for it is Aerobic Exercise, which means “with oxygen.” Basically, we are talking about exercises that get your heart rate up, blood pumping, and lungs working. During Aerobic Exercise, you will be moving the muscles in your arms, hips, and legs at a high intensity.
When you do cardiovascular exercise, and your heart rate increases and you begin to breathe hard, you put more oxygen into your blood. The amount of oxygen you use during training is called your Vo2Max. Vo2 Max can be measured by a special machine and is typically used by elite athletes to measure their improvement over a training session. As you consistently do aerobic activity at high or moderate-intensity, your Vo2Max will increase. While you may not have the exact measurement, you will begin to feel that your breathing gets easier as your fitness level improves. Having a good aerobic system means you will be able to do more over a longer period of time.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you get 30 min of physical activity a day. However, if you are trying to create a calorie deficit for weight loss, you may need to modify your exercise intensity or increase the period of time you exercise. You will also want to work different muscle groups regularly and build lean muscle mass. Lean muscle is the best way to boost your metabolism, so you lose body fat.
The good news is, aerobic activity can be fun. You don’t have to do the same thing over and over again. Below we rounded up 20 of the best cardio exercises, and they can be mixed and matched together in a workout program that will help you to look your best and burn the most calories in the least amount of time.
Putting It Together
Before we deep dive into the different exercises, let’s first breakdown a few terms.
Anaerobic Activity Versus Aerobic Activity
As mentioned, cardio is also called aerobic activity. This is a form of exercise that gets your heart rate up and makes you breathe hard. It is any activity lasting over two minutes, though it tends to be longer.
Anaerobic exercise means “without air” and is fast, explosive movements like jumping, sprints, or Olympic Weightlifting.
During aerobic activities, your body uses a combination of oxygen, fats, and carbohydrates to produce energy. Because fat is readily available in the body in fat stores, the body is more likely to use fat oxidation than carbohydrates. Fat oxidation = losing weight. This is why the intensity of your workout matters. Because a single anaerobic exercise is so short, it does not burn as much fat.
However, anaerobic exercise can build muscular endurance and can be combined to create a HIIT Cardio workout which will be more effective than steady-state cardio.
Steady-state is simply one continuous workout at a steady pace over a long period of time rather than broken into intervals. A long run on a treadmill or swimming laps would be good examples of steady-state cardio. Steady-state can build your aerobic system; however, doing the same movements repeatedly can lead to muscle injuries due to overuse and burnout. That’s why it is a good idea to mix your cardio activity up. Choose different workouts from this list, or mix several together for HIIT training, described below.
Circuit training is a way to work many different muscles in less time. Typically a trainer puts together 5 – 10 exercises that work different muscle groups. For example, you might pair repetitions of dumbbell rows with plank-style jacks, so one works your upper body, and the other targets the muscles of your legs. You move from one exercise to the other with very little rest, because you are alternating the muscles you are using. Circuits can be intense workouts and an excellent way to burn fat.
High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT
You are probably familiar with interval training by now. A HIIT workout focuses on a short bout of activity at maximum effort, followed by a short rest period. The goal of HIIT is to work at about 85-95% of your max heart rate during the interval, then lower your heart rate during the short recovery period. Alternate intervals of work and rest for the duration of the HIIT.
One benefit of HIIT workouts is that this type of training uses your aerobic and anaerobic systems to improve sports performance or any other activity you do. HIIT also raises insulin sensitivity. The more sensitive your body is to insulin, the less you need it to reduce blood glucose levels.
Need more? These high-intensity workouts are fantastic for reducing fat and burning calories, even after your activity ended. After a workout, your body burns calories getting your body back to normal. This phenomenon is known as afterburn or post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The more intensely you exercise, the longer it takes to get back to your regular state, which means you’ll burn more calories after your workout, so you can burn the same calories as steady-state cardio but in a fraction of the time.
If you have time constraints, HIIT workouts are a great choice The cardio exercises on this list make great interval workouts. Grab a timer and combine several for a powerful workout that promotes fat loss.
Tabata is a specific type of HIIT workout. It’s four-minutes of high-intensity training that consists of eight rounds of work, with 20 seconds of maximum effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. Tabata is a higher intensity workout, so you can burn a lot of calories in a shorter amount of time. But the fast pace might not be for everyone.
All cardio exercises are beneficial to your body and health. But not all cardio burns the same amount of calories or target the same muscle groups.
Here are the 20 Best Cardio Workouts to help improve your health and fitness.
Burpees are a great way to burn calories because they work your entire body. They are an effective exercise because you use a lot of big muscles so you get a lot of progress in a short period of time. Since they require no equipment you can do them anywhere, from a park to a hotel room. Burpees also make a fantastic component of a HIIT workout.
Start standing with your feet hip-width apart. Drop down and place your hands on either side of your feet. Explosively move your feet back behind you so you are in a plank position. From here, complete a pushup, Then jump your feet back between your hands. Then jump up, fully extending your body, with your arms completely extended overhead. (Some trainers will insist that you clap overhead.) Your rep finishes with the jump.
2. Mountain Climbers
Mountain Climbers are another great body weight move loved by the fitness industry for building aerobic fitness and improving core strength. They work your abs, legs, triceps, shoulders, and more.
Start in a high plank position with your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders. Keep your back flat and in a straight line from head to ankle. Bend your right leg, bringing your right knee to your chest. Return to the starting position and bring your left knee to your chest. Continue this running pattern moving as fast as you can while keeping proper form and your low back level.
Jumping jacks and the next few on this list are plyometric exercises.
Plyometrics use speed and force to build muscle power in your lower body. They burn a ton of calories, however, a word of caution – jump training is a high-impact and high-intensity exercise. If you are a beginner to fitness or have bone, joint, or heart health problems, you should consult with a medical professional before starting this type of exercise.
3. Jumping Jacks
Jumping jacks are another full-body workout that will build your aerobic capacity and improve your vo2max. They specifically target your glutes, quads, and hip flexors.
Begin standing straight, with your feet directly under you and your arms at your sides. Explosively jump up and spread your feet so when you land they are more than hip-width apart. At the same time, bring your arms overhead in a wide arc, so your hands are nearly touching. (Again, your personal trainer may have you clap overhead.)
Jump again, bringing your legs together and your arms down into your original position. That is one rep.
4. Plank Jack
A lower intensity variation of the jumping jack, the plank jack doubles as a cardio and core building exercise. These horizontal jacks are great for leg muscles, core, and hip flexors.
Start on your exercise mat in the high plank position. Your arms should be extended, with your elbows locked. Place your palms on your mat directly under your shoulders. Keep your body in a straight line from your shoulders to heels. Tighten your abs and spread your left and right leg, jumping both feet out to the sides, off your mat.
Stay in your plank as you jump both feet back together. Each jump is a rep. Keep your plank strong by preventing your back from sagging or arching through the workout. If the high plank position is hard for you to maintain, you can drop to your forearms.
5. Jump Rope
Jumping rope is a great way to burn calories and only requires a little space and a jump rope. In fact, you would have to run an 8-mile pace to burn the same calories as jumping rope.
Jump ropes are inexpensive and easy to pack with you, so they are great for travelers and working out outside. You might not want to spend an hour jumping rope, especially if you are a beginner, but it’s a fantastic addition to a HIIT session. Try one minute of jumps, with a minute of rest.
Hold the jump rope handles in each hand, with the rope behind you. As you spin the rope, focus on using your wrists, not your elbows. Keep your body loose and relaxed and your jumps low. Start at a moderate pace and as you become used to the movement, move at a higher intensity.
As you become more proficient you can try other jump rope styles like double unders, high knees, or alternating feet.
6. Jump Lunges
Here you add a jump to the standard lunge. It sounds easy, but this simple movement targets your entire lower body, including glutes, hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. They are a great way to also build stability and balance.
Start with your right leg forward and your left leg back. Your right knee should be at a 90-degree angle with your weight balanced evenly on your foot. Your back leg will be bent with your knee towards the floor and your weight in your toes. Your left arm should be forward and your right arm back as you prepare to jump.
Jump into the air, switching your legs and arms while you are in the air, so your left leg is forward, and your right leg is back. Each jump is one rep.
If this type of cardio is a bit much for you, you can take it down a notch and start with lunges without the jump. Start with your right foot in front and your left foot behind; knees bent at 90-degree angles. Bring your right foot back to the left as you return to the standing position. Move your left foot forward on the next rep and continue alternating throughout the set.
If you would like to add strength training, try holding a light dumbbell in each hand.
7. Jump Squat
Like the jump lunge, the jump squat is adding a jump to a standard move – in this case, the air squat. Both of these workouts will increase your cardiovascular fitness.
Start with your feet hip-width apart; toes turned outward slightly. Hinge at the hips and lower your butt down into a squat. Push with your feet, springing up and extending your legs straight. Allow your knees to bend slightly as you land, then squat again and go immediately into your next squat.
Again, if you would like to add strength training, try holding a light dumbbell in each hand while you jump.
8. Box Jumps
Like most of the jumps on this list, box jumps are great for your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads. They can also improve your body’s ability to perform in sports.
You will need a box to jump to. Plyo boxes come in all sorts of heights but for maximum calorie burn and energy expenditure, choose a low box so you can complete more reps in bigger sets. More continual reps are needed to give your aerobic metabolism the chance to burn fat.
In the starting position, stand close to the box with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees into a slight squat, swing your arms back, and as you swing them forward, explode off the ground. Land on the box softly mimicking your take-off position – feet flat and knees slightly bent. Then jump or step back down.
Other Bodyweight Aerobic Training Options
9. Running or Jogging (Moderate pace)
Running at a moderate pace is a steady-state cardio workout. There are those who want to get back to basics and just throw a pair of shoes on and go. The pros are that running will burn calories and work your heart muscle, but the cons are that regular running on asphalt can be hard on your body. Running on trails can be a lower impact choice. If you chose to run on a treadmill, use the incline setting. That will burn more calories and may be more comfortable on your knees.
Sprinting is another excellent way to promote fat burn. A quick sprint will get you to your maximum heart rate in no time and burns a ton of calories, so it can be more efficient than running at a steady pace. Sprints are excellent for putting your in the target heart rate zone for fat burning and improving your oxygen consumption and Vo2 max.
You can easily turn your sprints into a high-intensity workout. Try sprint intervals of 30 seconds running as fast as you can, followed by 60-90 second rest periods.
If you are sprinting at a track, you can increase your calorie burn by sprinting up a flight of stairs. Remember to run with high knees to reduce your chance of tripping. For safety, always walk down the stairs, however.
11. A Brisk Walk
Walking is a great low-impact aerobic activity that is good for your overall health. Brisk walking will raise your heart rate and reduce body fat. It also improves mood, helps with balance and coordination, and can lower blood pressure.
Walking is also fantastic for active recovery. If you are sore from weight training or a long-distance run, taking a brisk walk will engage your muscles and get your blood flowing, while still burning serious calories. Walking is steady-state cardio and because it is low intensity, you can go for a long time without a rest period.
If you have a lot of weight to lose, swimming or treading water might be the perfect cardio workout for you. Being in the water can be easier on your joints. But don’t think that makes it easy! The water adds resistance, and you will be working to stay afloat.
13. Martial Arts
Martial arts are full-body exercises that can help you lose extra weight, but are also fun to do. Look for fitness centers and places near you offering classes.
If you have access to a local gym, there some very effective cardio workout machines that you use to get a great workout and work at your maximal heart rate for fat loss.
14. Elliptical Machines
Ellipticals are designed to provide a low-impact workout, so they don’t burn calories as well as some of the other machines on this list. However, a lot of people who have joint problems can use an elliptical successfully. If your goal is to build your leg muscles and glutes, increase the incline. Lower the incline and increase the resistance to a high level to build strength in your thighs.
Treadmills are great for brisk walks or running, and they ensure that the weather is not an excuse for getting your workout in. Like the elliptical, the incline setting can help you burn more calories and can be easier on your knees.
16. Stationary Bike
Stationary bikes can be a great way to lose weight, but you must be ready to go hard. You need high intensity to see good results. Try a spin class to keep you pedaling at the right pace, or try cycles of one min of fast pedaling, followed by one min of moderate pace.
The rowing machine makes for a fantastic lower impact exercise. If you are rowing correctly, it is a full-body workout using your legs, abdominals, and arms.
You can row continuously for steady-state burn, or row as hard as you can in short intervals for a HIIT cardio workout, whichever your preference. If you don’t know where to start, your rower may have pre-set programming you can use.
Using a StairMaster for stair climbing is another popular cardiovascular activity that will burn calories and build muscle in your legs. However, it can put a lot of stress on the hip, knee, and ankle joints.
Combining Resistance Training and Cardio Activity
19. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings are a great way to build total-body strength while improving your cardiovascular health. They also work your legs, hamstrings, hips, glutes, and core.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding the kettlebell by the handle with both hands in an overhand grip, your palms facing you. Keep your elbows straight – this is a legs and hip workout, not arms and shoulder workout.
Brace your core, and with a slight bend in your knees, hinge slightly at the hips. Squeeze your glutes and snap your hips forward, sending the weight swinging in a big arc to chest height.
As the kettlebell drops, keep your arms long, while hinging at the hips to receive the weight. Let the kettlebell ride back between your legs.
If you don’t own a kettlebell, you can also use a heavy dumbbell. Hold the dumbbell by the head with both hands as you swing it.
20. Dumbbell Squat Press
Here is another resistance training move you can add to a circuit to HIIT workout for powerful fat burning.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a pair dumbbells in front of you, your arms bent at 90-degree angles and palms facing each other.
Push your butt back and squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause, and as you stand back up, press the weights above your head, then bring them back to the start position.
How Often Should I do Cardio for Weight Loss?
Aerobic activity burns a ton of calories, but for greater improvement, you should pair it with strength training. If you do the same exercise routine day in and day out, you run the risk of injury. This is why runners have so many problems like joint pain and stress fractures. You need weight training to build muscle and increase bone strength.
Also, while cardiovascular exercise burns a lot of calories at the moment, that calorie burn stops as soon as you do. In strength training, you may not burn as many calories at the moment, but burn continues long after you stop. Plus, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn. For better results, find ways to mix cardio and resistance training.
One option is to do intense exercise 3 days a week and strength training two days a week. Another option is to combine them and do a short hard HIIT workout followed by some strength training.
If you are doing HIIT, be sure to warm-up first thing before you start any interval workout routine. For best results, ten min. of low-intensity movement, like a slow jog or stretching, is suggested.
Of course, before starting any exercise program, seek medical advice.
- “Physical Activity Guidelines Resources.” ACSM | The American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org/read-research/trending-topics-resource-pages/physical-activity-guidelines.
- García-Pinillos, Felipe1; Cámara-Pérez, Jose C.1; Soto-Hermoso, Víctor M.2; Latorre-Román, Pedro Á.1 A High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)-Based Running Plan Improves Athletic Performance by Improving Muscle Power, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2017 – Volume 31 – Issue 1 – p 146-153 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001473