In three seasons of training for figure competitions, I have certainly done my share of cardio – especially during my first season as a competitor when my trainer was a former Ms. Figure Olympia who adopted the old-school approach to getting lean: hours upon hours of mind-numbing steady cardio sessions. Many a morning and evening you would find me slaving away on the treadmill or pounding the pavement of the nearby park – which despite being beautiful, it soon got old and beyond-words boring.

Yes, I got lean in time for the stage. But at what cost? My knees were starting to hurt, I lost muscle along the way and I was emotionally drained.

Enter my second season competing, a new trainer and a fresh approach to dieting and getting ripped for figure contests. Way less cardio, way more fun! During my third season I earned my personal training certification and learned even more ways to turn burning calories into an enjoyable experience. You treadmill bunnies out there: trust me, after reading this article your slave days will be over!

The body is a remarkable machine: it will quickly adapt to a repeated stimulus. Numerous studies have shown that moderate, long-duration cardiovascular training- while helping maintain a healthy heart and lungs- actually burns less calories during subsequent sessions as the body gets used to the effort intensity. To get the most bang for your buck in the shortest time, try:

o HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
o Circuit Training
o Hill Training

1. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)

Interval Training involves alternating short bursts of intense activity with periods of active recovery (not complete rest!) During which you move at a less intense pace. The ratio of intervals to recovery periods should be 1: 3 for beginners; 1: 2 for intermediate exercisers; and 1: 1 for advanced, well-conditioned exercisers.

By alternating intensity levels within a single workout, your body becomes more efficient at flushing lactic acid and toxins from your cells while simultaneously training the heart to recover faster. As a bonus, interval training has an “afterburn” effect. This means you maintain an elevated metabolic rate for the reminder of the day.

Because of the intensity, these workouts are also shorter (20-30 minutes), making them a perfect addition to a busy schedule. Also, because of the high demands placed on the body, HIIT should only be done once or twice per week (with at least three days between sessions) as an addition to a normal resistance training program and possibly some less intense, steady cardio workouts if necessary for extra calorie burn and fat loss.

For optimum energy and best performance, do not perform interviews on an empty stomach; make sure to have a light meal or snack preferably more than 90 minutes beforehand.

Interval training can be done on the cardio machine of your choice: treadmill, elliptical, stationary bicycle, Stairmaster, rower. If you choose to do sprints / jogs outdoors, an easy way to gauge your intensity is to use the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion): on a scale from 1 (lightest) to 10 (most intense), your intervals should be around a 7-9 and your recovery periods should be around 4-5.

Sample 20 Minute HIIT Program
TIME RPE
5 min warm-up 3
30 sec sprint 8
60 sec jog 5
-> repeat 30/60 intervals 7 times
5 min cool-down 3

2. Circuit Training

Circuit training means doing just that: a combination of exercises and / or cardiovascular activities in a row. For the purposes of this article let's limit ourselves to the latter option. If you do want to spend 45 minutes at the gym enjoying your favorite music, book or magazine- why not split the workout into 2 or 3 rather than one continuous, monotonous session? Most gyms now offer so many types of cardio machines- this type of workout gives you the chance to try them all and always keep things fresh.

Sample 40 Minute Circuit Training Program

TIME RPE
12 minutes treadmill run * 6-7
2 minutes jump rope 8
12 minutes stationary bicycle 6
2 minutes jump rope 8
12 minutes Stairmaster ** 6

* includes 5 minute warm-up at RPE 3
** includes 5 minute cool-down at RPE 3

3. Hill Training

Hill training is a type of HIIT but instead of sprints, you're doing climbs. Overall speed is kept low due to the added intensity of the uphill effort- which believe me, you'll feel right away! Hills are a great way to build up your endurance and- although it may seem paradoxical- your speed during regular, flat-ground running / cycling sessions. As the body gets used to exerting itself at higher inclines, flat level effort will seem much easier. Runners also use hill sessions to improve stride length which results in faster race times.

Sample 20 Minute Hill Training Program
Equipment: indoor cycle / spinning bike

EXERCISE TIME RPE
seated flat-road cycling 4 min warm-up 3
sorted climb 1 min 6
seated flat-road cycling 1 min 5
out-of-saddle climb 30 sec 8
seated flat-road cycling 1 min 5
sorted climb 1 min 6
flat-road cycling 1 min 5
out-of-saddle climb 30 sec 8
seated flat-road cycling 1 min 5
sorted climb 1 min 6
flat-road cycling 1 min 5
out-of-saddle climb 30 sec 8
seated flat-road cycling 1 min 5
sorted climb 1 min 6
flat-road cycling 1 min 5
out-of-saddle climb 30 sec 8
seated flat-road cycling 3 min cool down 3