Iron Cardio: Tired of Using Boring Cardio Machines to Burn Fat? Try One of These Five Novel Free-weight Movements That Get Your Heart Rate Up

Scenario #1

The clanging of Olympic plates, the grunting from a lifter completing a challenging set, the feel of oxidized iron on the palms of your hands…. If these are a few of your favorite things, then you’re a bona fide weightlifting enthusiast.

Scenario #2

The whirling of the treadmill, the beeping of the heart rate monitor, the incessant yapping from two female members about their workout attire…. If these are a few of the things you despise most, then welcome to the club: You’re an official member of CHA, otherwise known as Cardio-Haters Anonymous.

While we can’t deny the benefits of cardio for your health and, of course, your lean physique, many of us loathe the time spent in the gym’s cardio area that seems to march on forever, regardless of how many football games are on the TV screens. There’s got to be a better way. Well, good news: There is a better way, and it involves what you love most–free weights. Hey, what kind of cardio workout did you think we were going to teach you?


The concept of combining weights and cardio isn’t really new; the original concept, known as circuit training, was popularized in the early ‘8os and involved bouncing from one free-weight station or weight machine to the next with minimal rest between sets. It was a great concept that unfortunately was dismissed by hardcore lifters because of its common association with neophytes, women in pink leotards and skinny guys wearing tube socks. Yet those in the hardcore club who also did cardio to maintain low body fat should’ve realized that combining weights with cardio makes for a far superior workout than the treadmill or other cardio stations.

Iron cardio borrows the main concept of circuit training but takes it a step further, making it perfect for the hardcore lifter as a means of getting lean and maintaining muscle mass. Instead of grouping exercises that isolate separate muscle groups, like the biceps curl and lat pulldown, iron cardio utilizes just one exercise that stresses most major muscle groups each workout. The exercises of choice have their foundation in Olympic weight-lifting and include:

  1. CLEAN AND JERK (with barbell or dumbbells)
  2. SNATCH (with 1-2 dumbbells, but the two-arm version is definitely an advanced movement)
  3. CLEAN AND JERK performed unilaterally (with one dumbbell).

Of course, you’re not limited to these. Feel free to also try the barbell snatch (after you’ve mastered the dumbbell version) and the hanging clean, or make up your own routine. Be sure to switch the exercise frequently to avoid overuse injuries that could hamper your cardio and your lifting.


When you cross free weights with cardio, you benefit in many ways that traditional cardio workouts don’t provide.

  • Body Double. Most forms of cardio (walking/running, cycling, stair-stepping, etc.) involve only the lower-body muscles and neglect more than half of the body’s muscle mass. Olympic lifting movements involve both the lower- and upper-body musculature. By using the total body and light weight, you’ll activate more muscle cells to participate in fat-burning. The more muscle cells burning fat, a total fat gets burned.
  • Longer Burn. Because most of the body’s muscle cells pick up their metabolic rate with iron cardio, your metabolic rate stays elevated for a longer period than with typical cardio. This means you burn fatter after your workout, even if you’re just sitting around. While no research quantifies this in iron-cardio-type workouts, a recent study from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse discovered that a whole-body weightlifting workout kept users’ metabolic rates significantly elevated for two days after workouts–and most of the calories burned came from fat.
  • Raging Hormones. Growth hormone (GH) plays a major role in the growth of muscle and the burning of body fat. Higher-rep training, as in iron cardio, dramatically increases the amount of GH released into the bloodstream.
  • Sparring Partner. Long periods of low-intensity exercise (such as walking) tend to convince some of the fast-twitch fibers (those that grow biggest and strongest) to convert to slow-twitch fibers. Iron cardio, on the other hand, maintains your fast-twitch fibers. Sparing these fibers preserves your muscle growth potential.
  • More Power to You. The lighter weight used in iron cardio workouts allows for faster execution of reps. This type of explosive movement builds speed and power that enhances your overall strength.
  • Function Junction. Because these exercises require many different muscle groups to work together, you train your muscles in a functional manner. Functional strength carries over into daily activities and helps prevent injury.
  • To the Core. These types of movements rely on a stable core. With each rep, you’re strengthening deeper core muscles like the transverse abdominal and psoas muscles.
  • Heart Felt. High-intensity cardiovascular exercise like iron cardio increases oxygen expenditure and forces the body to adapt by becoming more efficient at oxygen transport (increase in V[O.sub.2] max). That means healthy benefits for your heart and lungs.

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