Achieving balance in your workout routine is one of the cornerstones of fitness success. This means that as the first step, you need to find the optimum split between weights and cardiovascular exercise. This will depend to a large extent on how much time you have.
Ideally, you should aim to do cardio every day of the week. Your cardio should be split into long endurance training sessions and short interval training sessions. The longer endurance training should last 45 minutes to an hour, and you should keep your heart rate steady throughout, at about 70% of your maximum. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. You can begin these sessions at a lower pace, around 60% of your maximum, for about 45 minutes and work your way up to a full hour at 75%. It does not really matter what type of cardio you do (swimming, running, cross training, cycling), as long as your heart rate stays within this training zone. However, it may be a good idea to do a form of cardio that allows you to wear a heart rate monitor. This means you will be able to make sure that you remain within your training zone.
Your cardio interval training sessions should last no more than 25 minutes, and be divided into short bursts of high intensity training, interspersed with low intensity rest periods. You should ideally begin your intensity training with a few minutes of warming up, slowly increasing your heart rate to your training zone (around 70% of your maximum). You should then work out at an intensity that boosts your heart rate to 80% or even 90% of your maximum, for a short period, and follow with a period of low intensity (50% of your maximum). You can be creative with how to split these high and low intensity bursts. For instance, you can divide them evenly – i.e. one minute of high intensity, followed by one minute of low intensity, and repeat about 8 times.
Alternatively, you can stage these bursts, by beginning with 30 seconds of high intensity, then 45, 60, 90, 60, 45, and 30 seconds of high intensity, each one interrupted with 30 seconds of low intensity. This is known as pyramid training. The idea of interval training is to train your anaerobic zone, and increase the threshold at which lactic acid is released in your muscles. This will help considerably with your weight training, as you will increase the number of reps you can perform without failing. Interval training will also increase your heart strength and size, and assist with your cardio endurance training.
Depending on your goals, you can split endurance and interval cardio training into different ratios. If you are just looking to increase your general fitness, do endurance training one day, followed by interval training the next. If you are practicing for an endurance event, such as a triathlon or a marathon, you can bias your routine toward endurance training, by doing two days of endurance cardio, followed by just one day of interval training. Similarly, if you are training for a sport that requires short bursts of high energy, such as basketball or martial arts, you may choose to bias your cardio training more towards intensity workouts.
Together with cardio, resistance training with free weights and cable machines is extremely important in strengthening your body. In order to most effectively reach your goals, you must split your workout routine in such a way as to allow your muscles enough time to recuperate, before training them again. If you are just starting out, you will want to give a specific muscle group about 7 days to recover, before targeting it again. If you are more advanced, you can work the same muscle group more often, say every 4 or 5 days.
Perhaps the most effective way of achieving this sort of routine, is to break up your resistance training into muscle groups. An example of this sort of routine is shown below:
Monday: Back and Chest muscles + Interval Cardio
Tuesday: Endurance Cardio
Wednesday: Leg and Shoulder Muscles + Interval Cardio
Thursday: Endurance Cardio
Friday: Arm and Abdominal Muscles + Interval Cardio
Saturday: Endurance Cardio
The above is just an example, and represents a fairly advanced level of fitness. You can vary it to your personal requirements by spacing the cardio and resistance training differently. For instance, you can reduce the intensity by choosing not to do cardio on the same day as resistance. You can increase the intensity by removing the rest day, and by decreasing the time between the same muscle groups.
In addition to splitting your workout as above, it is a good idea to vary your individual resistance and cardio routines. We discussed above how you can vary your endurance cardio, by changing the time of the high and low intensity periods of exercise. You should also try to vary your resistance training, by changing various parameters. These include how much weight you use, how many repetitions and how much rest you allow yourself between sets. You can also vary your resistance routine by switching from regular sets to super sets on some weeks. This means that instead of resting between sets on the same exercise, you move straight from one set to a set of a different muscle group and then rest. For instance, on the chest/back day in the above schedule, you could do one set of bench press, followed immediately by a set of lat pull downs. You would then rest for a minute, and repeat 3 or 4 times, according to your needs. You should also think about varying the actual resistance exercises every week or two. For instance, instead of doing bench press one week, you could vary by doing ‘flys’. These will work your chest muscles in a different way, and give you more rounded strength.
The reason you need to give a specific muscle group time to recover, is that when you do intense resistance training, you actually damage the muscle fibre. The body must then be allowed enough time to repair this damage, in order to build muscle. If you target the same muscle group again before it has had a chance to repair itself, you may experience symptoms of over training. These include fatigue, and unusually high muscle soreness. You will not benefit in any way from over training. Rather, you will actually impede your muscle growth, and slow your improvement. Start slow, and figure out what is right for your body. Once you have a routine you are comfortable with, slowly start to increase the difficulty, preferably with the help of a professional trainer.