A lot of guys do cardio like it was a particularly vile form of medicine: Hold your nose, swallow, and try not to think about it. Whether you're trying to bulk up or slim down, pounding out an hour on the treadmill pretty much defines boredom. Worse yet, if you're trying to put on muscle, you probably worry your cardio work is hindering as much as it's helping.
Well take a step back, because cardio is your friend, particularly if you blend it with some serious strength training. Recognizing that their members want both a strong heart and strong muscles, many gyms now offer classes that train and build major muscle groups even as they provide excellent cardiovascular training. And these classes put a premium on creativity—they're designed to be fun and intense muscle-training systems. The benefits are obvious: If your cardio involves strength training, it will be more effective. And if you have fun doing it, you'll put more effort into the workout.
To help you break out of your rut and find some new and improved cardio that will also build your muscle strength (not to mention stamina, coordination, balance, and so on), we've compiled a list of the best cardio classes with a muscle-building kick. Try rotating one or two in to your regular training routine each week; we bet you'll break out of plateaus you didn't even know you had.
Military boot camps are intended to break your individuality; fitness boot camps break down every muscle in your body, reducing you to a similarly pulp-like state. Jumping jacks, sprints, push-ups, running stadium steps, chin-ups—a variety of forms of torture are brought together by one large man, or tough woman, with a whistle and, hopefully, a bullhorn. Not all of these are cardio exercises, of course, but the speed at which you go from one to the other will keep your heart rate elevated from beginning to end. To learn more about boot camp training, see Bootcamp: Take It Like a Man.
Boxing and Kickboxing
Many of the better gyms now offer a variety of kinds of boxing classes, and which you choose depends on your interest and degree of repressed violence. Bag boxing classes are the rarest and the toughest; you throw a variety of kinds of punches into a heavy bag. It's an incomparable shoulder, core, and upper leg workout.
More common, and with more emphasis on cardio over strength training, are gym kickboxing classes, which offer a variety of choreographed punch and kick sequences. Gym kickboxing classes provide a total body workout, with an emphasis on legs and shoulders, but generally they are non-impact and therefore (in our opinion) not quite as fun. For an incredible kickboxing workout, we suggest muay thai (or other traditional) kickboxing at a "real" kickboxing gym. At these gyms, plan to leave your guts on the floor as kickboxing professionals give you an intense lesson in the world of kickboxing.
The BOSU Ball is the latest piece of equipment to hit gyms. It's a half of a squishy ball on a round platform, and is designed to be used with either side up—hence the acronym BOSU, which stands for "both sides utilized." BOSU classes combine an amazing variety of exercises, some done in stationary positions, some involving stepping on the ball, much as you would in a step class. In each case, the ball adds a balance challenge to everything you do. Even familiar exercises become new—and newly difficult—because of the micro-changes you have to make in your muscles simply to balance. Chances are you'll leave your first BOSU class feeling wobbly, a bit humiliated from your repeated falls, and sore—but raring to come back for more.
Side note on BOSU: If you're doing RealJock.com's 12-week Strong and Lean Workout Program, you'll start to see BOSU balls showing up in the later, more advanced weeks. For an example exercise, see the Dumbbell Squat on BOSU Ball.
If you've never taken a spin class, then you've never experienced just how big a puddle of sweat your body can create in under an hour. Spin classes are done on stationary bicycles, invariably to music. By changing the resistance on the bikes, and by adding sprints, hills, and visualizations, a good spin instructor can both give you a major muscle breakdown and make your heart pump at its limit. Because these classes are so popular and so universal, you'll find a great deal of variety in the instructors, so different classes will offer completely new workouts. Ask around at your gym to find out who the "good" instructors are, and be sure to sign up in advance, because spin classes tend to fill up early.
Jumping rope may seem juvenile, but there's a reason it's a favorite training exercise for boxers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and the like—jumping rope kicks your ass by combining stamina training with speed and agility. For sheer calorie burning it's pretty much unbeatable. Rope classes mix up the speed at which you jump, and will add in power moves, all intended to create a muscle-strengthening cardio workout. It's not for kids.
If you love your treadmill workouts, do not despair, because we have a class for you. Many gyms now offer treadmill classes, which take advantage of the adjustable features on a treadmill to add hills, sprints, knee-high jogs, and other variations on just running for an hour. Most people who regularly use a particular kind of machine stick with a program that's comfortable for them; treadmill classes push you out of that comfort zone, and add a lot of strength work to your routine.
Like treadmill classes, elliptical classes take advantage of the variable speeds and resistances programmed into machines. In an elliptical class, you can expect the kind of variety and encouragement you receive in a treadmill class. If your knees can't take the treadmill, elliptical classes may be a good alternative with many of the same leg-busting benefits.