Make Strength Training More Effective With a Cardio Finisher

Strength training is essential for building lean muscle, and having more muscle can help you reach your fitness goal whether that’s doing a pull-up, biking from winery to winery during your upcoming Italian vacation (goals), or running a faster mile. Muscle = strength and strength = crushing it. But if you’re looking to burn fat and lose weight, you’ll want to take a slightly different approach to get the most benefit out of your strength routine.

Lifting weights can absolutely be a metabolically intense activity on its own (and it’s an essential component of a working out for weight loss plan), but it’s not as inherently intense on your cardiovascular system compared to something like treadmill sprints. Adding more weight can help boost the heart-pumping effectiveness, but that’s not the only way to get more calorie burn out of a strength session.

One trick trainers often use with their clients is what’s known as a “cardio finisher.” Think of it as roughly 10 minutes of high-intensity cardio intervals that you do at the end of your strength training session, explains Ashleigh Kast, trainer at Drive495 in NYC and founder of Sophisticated Strength. Ending with a finisher adds a metabolic element to a strength workout that may not have that component built in.

Keep in mind that if losing fat is your goal you’ll need to do a combination of strength and cardio training, and eat a diet that contributes to body fat loss and muscle-building. With that in mind, here’s what you should know about cardio finishers and how to incorporate them into your next strength workout:

It’s called a “finisher” because it’s meant to be done at the end.

There are a few reasons you would do high-intensity intervals at the end of your strength workout—not the beginning. First, the focus of your strength workout should be on the strength moves—you want your mind and body to be fresh when tackling them. “High-intensity intervals take a lot out of you from an energy standpoint, and they are taxing on the nervous system,” explains Kast. So if you do them at the beginning of your workout, you’ll start the main part of your routine in an already exhausted state. This may up your risk of injury—sloppy squats aren’t great squats and they aren’t safe squats.

Another reason to add the burst of exertion at the tail end of a workout helps fire up the glorious fat-burning engine known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC, AKA the afterburn). This is when your body has to expend more energy after strenuous activity in order to return the body to its normal resting state.

Ultimately, maximizing the calorie-burning potential of your strength routine is two fold, explains Heather A. Milton, M.S., senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. First you want to make sure that your strength routine is going to kick-start the fat-burning metabolic adaptations you’re aiming for. You do that by performing compound movements and lifting heavy weights. (Here’s how to determine if you’re using the right resistance.) This will lead to more EPOC and more calorie burn post workout. Then, consider adding on the post-strength aerobic work, she adds. The extra burst of activity will extend the total time you spend training, which translates to more calories burned.

But you need to make sure you have enough gas left in the tank to do it right.

Of course the big caveat here is that if you absolutely have zero energy left to give after your strength session, call it a day. You’ll still reap all of the muscle-building benefits of your strength workout, which by the way, does translate to fat loss in the long run. “If you feel lethargic, dizzy, or light-headed, that’s a sign you need to rehydrate and refuel before you continue any exercise,” explains Milton.

Here’s how you can do a cardio finisher at the end of your next strength workout.

This is the general formula Kast uses with her clients:

  • Pick a high-intensity cardio activity.
  • Do an interval of exercise at a 1:3 work to rest ratio, so 20 seconds on and 60 seconds off.
  • Repeat a total of 4 to 8 times.

When you’re ready to up the intensity, try reducing the work/rest ratio to 1:2 or 1:1.

And these are a few tips to keep in mind.

Choose an activity that you’re good at and doesn’t require a lot of thought. You can do sprints on the treadmill or indoor rowing machine, kettlebell swings, battle rope slams, or sled sprints. Pick an activity you already have the skills for so you can really focus on the intensity, explains Kast. If you’ve never used a kettlebell before don’t try doing a kettlebell swing finisher. This also helps avoid injury as you’re going to be performing these intervals in a fatigued state.

Intensity is key—so really give it your all. That translates to about 80-90 percent effort level, explains Kast. “You’re not being chased by an axe murderer, but you are definitely hustling.” And make sure you recover after each burst of activity. Since you’re pushing the intensity, limit your finisher to roughly 10 minutes, she adds.

Milton notes that you can also see a boost by finishing with extended moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (about 20 minutes at a 60-80 percent effort level). Ultimately it’s about finding what works best for you and your schedule—and making it progressively more challenging as you get stronger. “If you have energy left in the tank, you can do HIIT and get some post-exercise calorie burn, but if you prefer moderate intensity for a bit longer, that will help you achieve your goals, too,” explains Milton.

It may not be a pleasant way to end your workout, but it will help inch you closer to your goal.

Get in the right mindset to tackle a finisher by thinking about this: Your workout is almost over. There’s nothing left after these 10 minutes. There’s nothing left for you to save energy for. Leave everything you got on the gym floor not because someone is screaming at you telling you to give it all you got, but because you know that these cardio intervals will get you closer to your goal.

“The cost of spending 10 minutes is low while the payoff is high,” explains Kast. And ultimately, that’s what she’s looking for when designing programs for her clients at Drive495. Think of finishers as that dangling carrot at the end of your strength workout that will help seal in the benefits of your hard work.

And while we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again because it’s that important: Working out isn’t just about losing weight or burning fat.

There are a ton of other benefits to getting your sweat on regularly. But if you are looking to lose weight, there are ways you can work more efficiently toward that goal. Adding a cardio finisher to the end of your strength routine is one of those ways, coupled with logging consistent total-body workouts, completing steady-state cardio sessions, getting enough sleep, and following a healthy diet that fuels your workouts while also creating a calorie deficit. If you want more information on a safe and healthy way to lose weight, here’s a place to start.

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