best cardio

The Best Cardio for Strength, Mass, and Fat Loss

The word cardio is pure blasphemy!
It’s a touchy topic often looked at as a practice where your gains go to die. The internet is filled with endless memes and pictures of jacked dudes telling you not to do cardio because you will lose all of your gains.
Some are afraid to lose strength or muscle. Other people are just jumping on the “Team No Cardio” bandwagon because they think it’s the cool thing to do.The truth is if you are training to get stronger, put on muscle, or burn fat you could benefit from properly implemented cardio.

What Should You Be Doing?

Many strength athletes combine barbell complexes with different modalities.

These may include olympic lifting movements, sprinting, and strongman training modalities. While these training modalities have a time and place they are harsh on the joints.

Sprinting is its own sport, strongman is its own sport, and olympic weightlifting is its own sport. This means there are very specific sets of skills that go into the training that are extremely physically demanding. When people try to implement these types of training into their own they typically over do it. While there are some freaks of nature that are able to do this, the majority of us are not so lucky. The sad truth is these cause joint pain and discomfort which lead harsh training conditions.

best cardio

Sprinting is its own sport, and when people try to implement these types of training into their own they typically over do it. Image courtesy of Bret Contreras.

I can already tell you the scenario because it happens over and over again: An ex-football player (played 10 years ago in high school) who recreationally lifts weights to get jacked works a desk job and sits 7+ hours a day. He reads a new article in his favorite fitness magazine that says he should start sprinting. Not only is sprinting cool because it increases your coolness by 50%, but it makes you feel like Usain Bolt. It can give you the confidence to know that you can easily chase down someone if they try and steal your Chipotle. So he heads to his local turn, throws on his old football jersey that used to get him laid in high school, and laces up his dusty cleats. If he is feeling good he throws down two minutes of static stretching and immediately takes off with maximum effort 60-yard sprints. Nine times out of ten, he’s in for a hamstring, adductor or oblique strain. (This is always accompanied with an “I told you so” from your wife or girlfriend.)

On the other side of the coin is the lifter who reads an article that tells him he needs to run two miles a day. If not, he will become obese and his heart will explode. This person never lets his body recover and doesn’t take in enough calories to maintain or gain any substantial muscle mass. He never seems to get stronger no matter what new fancy program he is on.Not only that, but the constant pounding and repetitive movement wreaks havoc on his body because he is not conditioned for it. Next time you see some runners take a good look at their face- you will most likely see pain. Avoid this. Properly progress your cardio, and most importantly choose a method that you don’t absolutely hate with a passion.

Build Strength, Burn Fat, and Build Muscle

It is important to have a good base level of conditioning- which is often referred to as general physical preparedness.

This will allow you to recover from training sessions faster. Less time spent being sore means you can train more frequently.

Training more frequently while still being able to recover properly means a greater environment for growth. This is a recipe for success in getting the body you desire.

Five Joint-Friendly Cardio Options

All of the exercises in this article are chosen because they are joint-friendly and for the simple fact that they actually work.

Does that mean the other exercises are bad? Absolutely not.

These are just five GREAT alternatives that aren’t extremely taxing on the joints, and for most people are much more enjoyable.

*Remember before any of these exercises to make sure to go through a proper dynamic warm-up. Ramp up your intensity during the workout until you feel ready to perform like a champion.

When first starting out don’t go “all out” because you will absolutely destroy yourself.

Take your time, learn the movements and how your body feels after a session.

That being said, let’s get into it.

Hill Sprints

Hill sprints are a great alternative to regular sprints- a go-to recommendation for getting strong and shredded.

Unfortunately most of our bodies aren’t conditioned enough to jump right into sprinting. This typically leads to injuries that push our goals further away.

Hill sprints help get us shredded like cheese. And they bring us back to the glory days of chasing down that wide receiver and making the game-winning shoelace tackle on the one-yard line. When we sprint up a hill with a slight to moderate incline the stress on our joints is considerably lower than sprinting on a flat surface. Hill sprints also teach proper mechanics for accelerating. The inclined surface forces us lean forward  (for those pick up games of basketball you play on Thursday nights at the YMCA).

What To Do?

  1.     Find a hill with a slight to moderate incline — one that would be difficult to walk up. Make sure not to go to the extreme and use a hill that will just make it awkward to sprint up.
  1.     Sprint up the hill.
  1.     Use the walk back down as recovery.
  1.     Once you reach the bottom of the hill, reset and perform another sprint.
  1.     Repeat 5-10x.

Key Notes

  • DO NOT go “all out” at first. Start your sessions about 50% of maximum effort and slowly increase intensity when you feel it’s appropriate.
  • As you get used to the sprinting and seeing how your body recovers from it, work up to 90-100% effort over the course of 4-6 weeks. This will allow your body to become accustomed to sprinting, and it won’t leave you crippled and miserable.
  • Progress by increasing the total number of sprints per workout.


I love kettlebell swings — especially when they are heavy.

They are a great alternative to boring cardio.  Plus there is something great about explosive hip extensions that you don’t get from anything else.

It is important to learn how to properly perform the kettlebell swings before performing them in a way that can cause some serious fatigue. This way you stay safe the whole time and get a good understanding if you’re having a breakdown in technique. One of my favorite ways to use kettlebell swings for cardio is EMOM style (every minute on the minute).

What To Do?

  1.     Set a timer for 10 minutes and grab your kettlebell of choice.
  1.     Perform 15-25 swings.
  1.     Put the bell down and rest the remainder of the minute.
  1.     As soon at the next minute comes, start another round.
  1.     Repeat for the 10 minutes.

Key Notes

  • I prefer going with a slightly heavier bell and performing 15-20 reps.
  • Make sure your form in on point the entire time — if form is sacrificed, stop the set and grab a lighter bell.
  • Progress by swinging a heavier kettlebell or by adding total time to the workout.
best cardio

It is important to learn how to properly perform the kettlebell swings before performing them in a way that can cause some serious fatigue. Image courtesy of Men’s Fitness.

Prowler Push and Drag

The infamous prowler — many praise the tool and even more curse it.

The prowler is an amazing tool that strengthens and conditions many muscles. These muscles are important for running, squatting, deadlifting, jumping…pretty much everything.

The prowler push and drag is one of my all time favorite go-to’s for cardio and will be sure to slap some muscle on those legs of yours. Grab a heavy resistance band or strap because you are going to be doing some dragging. Load the sled with enough weight that it is difficult to sprint 20-30 yards.

What To Do?

  1.     Push the sled as fast as you can the desired distance.
  2.     When you get to the end, wrap the band around the sled and right above your butt.
  1.     Perform a SLOW and controlled backward drag the entire way back. Make sure to stay low the whole time like you are in a tunnel and you don’t want to bang your head on the ceiling.
  1.     Rest for 60 seconds.
  1.     Repeat 10x.

Key Notes

  • Don’t be afraid to load the sled heavy on these.
  • Keep the backward drags at a slow and steady pace — these will burn.
  • These are great to perform with a partner and use their turn as a rest.
  • Progress by adding weight to the sled or increasing the total amount of sets performed.
best cardio

The prowler is an amazing tool that strengthens and conditions many muscles. Image courtesy of Harold Gibbons.

Airdyne Intervals

The Airdyne bike is an awesome way to burn fat and it would be difficult to find a more joint friendly option.

If you have never done these before you are in for a real surprise. From the outside they look simple. But these bad boys will have you waking up in your car asking yourself what happened after you unconsciously dragged yourself there.

I recommend starting off with a short work period and a rest period about 4x the length. For example, start by performing 15 seconds of work going as fast and hard as you possibly can, followed by 60 seconds of rest.

What To Do?

  1.     These are easiest if performed with a timer that beeps to tell you when to go and when to catch your breath.
  1.     Perform 15 seconds of all out work — as fast and hard as you possibly can.
  2.     When the 15 second timer goes off rest and relax — some like to pedal slow. I like to put my feet up and completely relax as much as possible.
  1.     When the 60 second timer goes off it is time to get after it again.  Make sure to push as hard as humanly possible on these.
  1.     Repeat for 6-8 rounds.

Key Notes

  • Do not cruise through the work periods.
  • 15 seconds is plenty to get your heart rate going and to have you gasping for air, especially after a few sets.
  • To progress, add more sets or SLIGHTLY decrease the rest period — just make sure intensity does not drop.
best cardio

The Airdyne bike is an awesome way to burn fat and it would be difficult to find a more joint friendly option. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Heavy Carries

Nothing makes you feel like a badass more than carrying 14 bags of groceries into your house except doing even heavier carries in training.

They are an amazing exercise to for the grip, upper back and core strength and endurance. These can be performed in different ways by carrying different objects. You can choose dumbbells, kettlebells, yokes, farmers handles, Altas stones, or other odd objects.

Setup cones 20-30 yards apart and select a predetermined number of 5-8 total trips (up and back is equal to one trip). Perform the predetermined number of trips in the shortest amount of time. Next time you perform the exercise try to beat your record.

What To Do?

  1.     Set cones or mark off a distance of 30 yards and grab your weapon of choice (I like to have clients start with dumbbells or kettlebells).
  1.     Pick up the weight with a neutral spine. Stand nice and tall in a proud position — no slouching or neck reaching forward. Make sure to have the back, shoulders and core working.
  1.     With a tiger-crushing grip walk the 30 yards, make a smooth turn (keeping everything in a safe position), and make your return.
  2.     Put the weight back on the floor in the same safe manner than you picked it up.
  1.     Perform 8-10 sets, in as little time as possible. Rest as needed between sets.

Key Notes

  • Make sure you are in a safe position throughout — DO NOT sacrifice form or position for speed or weight.
  • A good starting point for weight is to hold half of your bodyweight in each hand. For example, a 180 lb male would do carries with 90 lb dumbbells in each hand.
  • Progress by completing the same amount of sets in less time or by increasing the weight.
best cardio

Nothing makes you feel like a badass more than carrying 14 bags of groceries into your house except doing even heavier carries in training. Image courtesy of


Just because something is “hard” doesn’t mean that it will have a positive training effect.

Running a half marathon would be extremely hard for most of us. It would also leave most of us crippled for days after with a interior training effect.

Killing yourself every single conditioning session until you throw up will not make you better — but it will impede your recovery. Anyone can be driven into the ground with an exercise with no rest to make it seem “hard”. It is important to understand what exercises and training methods (in the right doses) will provide us with the results we are looking for. Then we can spend more time doing the finer things in life.

About the Author

best cardioJoey Percia is a coach at a boutique training studio in New York City as well an online coach. He is a competitive powerlifter in the 181 division and has totaled over 1400lbs. Joey has a M.S. in Exercise Science, CSCS, CPPS and is a Westside Barbell Coach. He likes cheesy pick up lines, movie quotes and crushes fish tacos