The Heart of the Matter

Most of the emphasis of personal training is on resistance training. This is true with many of the major organizations and this is what the majority of clientele pay for. Being in good cardiovascular condition is nice, but it doesn’t improve your looks as much…right? Many personal trainers do little to no cardiovascular exercise themselves and laugh at the thought of getting on a treadmill or elliptical trainer.

Aerobic conditioning can actually enhance resistance training in the long run (no pun intended). This trend is changing and the public is looking for trainers to not only give the basic guidelines of a solid and safe cardio program, but they want some innovative ideas too. Being that I come from an endurance background, the cardiovascular or aerobic aspect of training has always come relatively easy to me. I was on the far end of the endurance spectrum, being a national ranked age group duathlete and sub 2:45 marathoner. I think I got into multiple-sport activities (triathalons, duathalons) because I wanted more fun and variety in my aerobic program.

It is important that NFPT trainers set a good example in being well-rounded. Every trainer should know how to train someone in aerobic, anaerobic, flexibility, and agility-based activities. The following are some tips on aerobic training.

The Basics

Cardiovascular training is not very different from weight training. The same F.I.T. principle applies where the frequency – exercise sessions per week, intensity – heart rate, and time – length of endurance session, will affect the type of aerobic athlete (client) you produce. A good program will alter each of these in order to emphasize each aspect at particular times. If you are training someone for a race, you should use the classic periodization of training principles. The longer the race the more you will need to emphasize duration and not intensity.

Frequency should vary from low to high whenever a new phase or upgrade of the program is given. For example, you may keep the time per session the same or slightly lower when you add a session in a given week. The two main forms of cardiovascular work are aerobic (below the lactate threshold) and anaerobic (above the lactate threshold). Just like weight lifting, you must go hard to see big results. Triathletes and other enduro-animals call a bunch of easy training “junk miles”. Many athletes will slip into this mode and report to their peers how many miles they did that week. I would constantly hear how all my training buddies were putting in way more miles than me, yet for some reason they were behind me when the race ended.

If you want to run, swim, or bike faster you need to do some quality miles or intervals. Weight lifting light weights, with high repetitions, and with short rest intervals can be an excellent way to get an intense cardiovascular session right in the weight room.

Starting Out

Again, like weight lifting all workouts should start with a warm-up. The warm-up should be followed by a brief stretching session of the muscles to be used. For a typical workout, I will use the previous aerobic guidelines established by the ACSM. Frequency- 3 times per week, Intensity: between 60-85% VO2max (see the NFPT handbook for details on experience), Duration – at least 20 minutes. As you probably remember the Kavornon formula- Target HR= Reserve HR * 65% + resting HR. The Reserve HR= Max HR – Resting HR. A typical 40-year-old may have a max HR of 180 and resting HR of 70. Thus, their HR reserve is 110. So multiplying their HRR (110) by .65= 72. Add 70 to 72 and this equals 142. This heart rate plus or minus 7 beats gives you a good exercise range.

Too often, people start off too hard with endurance exercise. When I say, “start off”, I am referring to both within that individual session, and within their overall training program. This will result in injury and often mental burnout. In my opinion, too many people wear too much clothes while exercising as well. This overheats the body and causes more blood to be shunted to the skin and away from the central venous return thus decreasing venous return and subsequent stroke volume. This minimizes a property called the Frank-Starling principle, and forces the heart to work harder to pump less blood. This causes someone to go anaerobic earlier and this means it feels lousier.

Keeping It Fun

The best way to keep your client or yourself going is to vary the activity and set a concrete goal. Often someone can get a better workout by doing 10 minutes on a treadmill, 10 on a recumbent bike, and 10 on a rowing machine than they would doing 40 minutes on any of them alone. Also, put your client on a endurance workout on some machine that has different variables. For example, on a treadmill you can vary the speed or the incline; on an elliptical trainer you can vary the ramp angle or the resistance, on the bike you can vary the pedal cadence or resistance… and so on.

Give your clients a program or set them up on one of the pre-assigned workout programs on those machines. Tell them what is happening in their bodies when they do those different things and what muscles are being worked. They will appreciate you for it. Give your client a performance goal to shoot for either by using the machine or a race in your community. In this case, being a “run of the (tread)mill” trainer is a good thing (pun intended). Keep your client and yourselves in overall good shape.

Mark P. Kelly has a doctorate in Exercise Physiology and Education Administration, he has specialties in kinesiology, exercise and nutritional biochemistry, weight management, and endurance athletic physiology. He was a nationally ranked duathlete, body building contest winner, trainer of professional athletes, and personal trainer for 20 years. He is a primary writer for the NFPT certification programs, a teacher in universities, and runs Principle Centered Health Human Performance Services, which specializes in assessments and corporate wellness. He can be reached at [email protected].


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.