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Cardiovascular Exercise Principles

By Chad Tackett
For maximum effectiveness and safety, cardiovascular exercise has specific instructions on the frequency, duration, and intensity. These are the three important components of cardiovascular exercise that you really need to understand and implement in your program.

In addition, your cardiovascular program should include a warm-up, a cool-down, and stretching of the primary muscles used in the exercise.

Warming Up and Stretching
One very common mistake is stretching before muscles are warmed-up. It is important to stretch after your muscles are warm (after blood has circulated through them). Never stretch a cold muscle. First warm up. A warm-up should be done for at least 5-10 minutes at a low intensity.

Usually, the warm-up is done by doing the same activity as the cardiovascular workout but at an intensity of 50-60% of maximum heart rate (max HR).

After you've warmed-up for 5-10 minutes at a relatively low intensity, your muscles should be warm. To prevent injury and to improve your performance, you should stretch the primary muscles used in the warm up before proceeding to the cardiovascular exercise.

Cooling Down
The cool down is similar to the warm-up in that it should last 5-10 minutes and be done at a low intensity (50-60% of max HR). After you have completed your cardiovascular exercise and cooled-down properly, it is now important that you stretch the primary muscles being used.

Warming-up, stretching, and cooling-down are very important to every exercise session. They not only help your performance levels and produce better results, they also drastically decrease your risk of injury.

Frequency of Exercise
The first component of cardiovascular exercise is frequency of the exercise, which refers to the number of exercise sessions per week. To improve both cardiovascular fitness and to decrease body fat or maintain body fat at optimum levels, you should exercise (cardiovascularly) at least three days a week. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends three to five days a week for most cardiovascular programs.

Those of you who are very out of shape and/or are overweight and doing weight-bearing cardiovascular exercise such as an aerobics class or jogging, might want to have at least 36 to 48 hours of rest between workouts to prevent an injury and to promote adequate bone and joint stress recovery.

Duration of Exercise
The second component of cardiovascular exercise is the duration, which refers to the time you've spent exercising. The cardiovascular session, not including the warm-up and cool-down, should vary from 20-60 minutes to gain significant cardiorespiratory and fat burning-benefits.

Each time you do your cardiovascular exercise, try to do at least 20 minutes or more. Of course, the longer you go, the more calories and fat you'll "burn" and the better you'll condition your cardiovascular system.

Intensity of Exercise
All beginners, especially those who are out of shape, should take a very conservative approach and train at relatively low intensities (50-70% max HR) for 10-25 minutes. As you get in better shape, you can gradually increase the duration of time you exercise.

It is important that you gradually increase the duration before you increase the intensity. That is, when beginning a walking program for example, be more concerned with increasing the number of minutes of the exercise session before you increase the intensity, by increasing your speed or by walking hilly terrain.

Remember that cardiovascular exercise should be done a minimum of three times a week and a minimum of 20 minutes per session. Once your muscles are warm (after warm up) and after the cardiovascular exercise, you should stretch those muscles used in the exercise. For example,

  • after bicycling, stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, hips, and low back.
  • After doing the rowing machine, stretch your legs, back, biceps, and shoulders.





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