The more you train a client, the more they need to recover from training. Such is the circle of training.

If your client’s level of cardiovascular fitness is low, they could have a hard time handling your training sessions. Recovery is, after all, an aerobic system, and it’s a big reason why your client’s cardiovascular health should be considered when you program.

Before you start someone on a program, you need to understand where their cardiovascular health currently stands. In this article, we’ll lay out:

* Several kinds of assessments to help you determine your client’s cardiovascular health

* A discussion of low-intensity and high-intensity training methods

* How to properly program cardio to fit your client’s individual needs

Let’s get to it.

Two assessments to determine your client’s level of cardiovascular fitness

Understanding your client’s cardiovascular health helps you know the amount of training volume and intensity you can put your clients through, without burning them out.

Assessments consist of two kinds of tests: indirect and direct tests. You can perform these tests during your initial consultation. Most of the time, indirect tests will be fine for the general population. If you deal with more advanced, athletic clients, you can consider direct tests.

Indirect tests

Indirect tests do not require any physical exertion and can be performed easily and quickly--perhaps at your first session, initial consultation, or with other screening processes. The most common indirect test is measuring the client’s resting heart rate (measured in beats per minute). It’s a simple measure that can tell you what may be going on in someone's life and their stress levels.

Harvard Medical School showed that a lower resting heart rate is a good correlator of overall aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health, which means that your client will be able to train and recover more effectively from workouts.

Resting heart rate is best taken while your client is seated and--surprise--at rest. Find your client's pulse on their wrist, and using your index and middle finger, count how many beats you feel in 15 seconds and multiply it by 4 to approximate the beats per minute. The following are resting heart rate guidelines to help determine where your client may be on a cardiovascular level.

* Low fitness level: 80 beats per minute (bpm)
* Average fitness level: 60-80 bpm
* High fitness level: Less than 60 bpm

Sometimes a higher resting heart rate can indicate high levels of stress, or that something else may be going on and you may have to refer out before you start them on a program.

Direct tests

Direct tests require your client to do some physical work to determine their cardiovascular health. The more popular tests are the 1.5-mile run and Bruce treadmill test. The latter is a maximal exercise test where the client pushes to complete exhaustion via varying treadmill incline and speed settings. The treadmill incline and speed are adjusted according to chart below.


All in all, this test can determine your client’s approximate VO2 Max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen someone can use during intense exercise. For that reason, this test is not recommended for elderly clients or anyone fairly new to exercise, as it is very demanding.

Calculate an estimated VO2 Max from the Bruce treadmill test results:

* For Men VO2 max = 14.8 - (1.379 x T) + (0.451 x T²) - (0.012 x T³)
* For Women VO2 max = 4.38 x T - 3.9

* T = Total time on the treadmill measured as a fraction of a minute (e.g. a test time of 9 minutes, 30 seconds would be written as T = 9.5).

Using that VO2 max, use these guidelines to determine their fitness level:

* Low fitness level: < 35 ml/kg/min
* Average fitness level: 35-50 ml/kg/min
* High fitness level: >50 ml/kg/min

The results of the 1.5-mile test are more straightforward. Simply have them run their fastest 1.5 miles and measure their results against these guidelines to determine their level of fitness:

* Low fitness level: > 14 minutes
* Average fitness level: 11-14 minutes
* High fitness level: <11 minutes

In addition to the Bruce treadmill and 1.5 mile run tests, you can also look at how fast their heart rate can recover in 60 seconds after maximal exercise. It may be a bit overkill at this point, but worth mentioning: You can measure this with a heart rate monitor, or take your client's pulse. The better cardiovascular shape your client is in, the quicker their heart rate will recover. This gives you an idea of what type of training your client will be able to handle (low intensity or high intensity?).

Here are some general guidelines based on the recovery of their heart rate:

* Low fitness level: Recovers less than 20 bpm
* Average fitness level: 20-40 bpm
* High fitness level: >40 bpm

What’s more, their rate of recovery is a handy metric for you to track your client’s improvements over time.

Putting it all together: Based upon your tests with your client, you can place their level of fitness into three categories. While they might be a little self-explanatory, I’ll explain them to be clear.

* Low levels are typically clients who have little to no aerobic levels of fitness and are just starting out.
* Average tends to be those middle-of-the-road clients who have a simple understanding of fitness.
* High levels tend to be more of the athletic population.

Give your client a few different tests and take the lowest score of the tests as your starting baseline.

Low-Intensity Training vs High-Intensity Training

Now that you know where your client’s cardiovascular fitness lies, it’s time to match them up with the appropriate training method, starting with low-intensity methods.

Low-intensity training methods help your client increase efficiency of their heart to improve oxygen supply, without pushing your client too hard. They’re ideal for highly stressed clients and can promote faster recovery. The two common types of low-intensity training are:

Steady-state cardio

On days your clients do not train with you, they can do lower steady-state cardio, which is like a slow jog, bike ride, a nice walk, or low-level sled pushes, on their own. The key is to keep their heart rate between 130-140 and train anywhere from 30-90 minutes.

Tempo training

Tempo training stimulates growth of the slow-twitch muscle fibers because the muscles are forced to work through a specific tempo, or pacing. Any major compound lifts, such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, push-ups, etc., will work great for tempo training.

The key is to stick to two seconds in the eccentric/concentric phase per rep, with no pauses, to force continuous movement during the workout. When selecting a load, choose 30-40% of the client’s true 1RM and select 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps per exercise with no more than four exercises per workout.

High-intensity training methods, on the other hand, are much more demanding on the body. They can be adapted to a lower fitness level, however, so even beginners can incorporate some of these methods at a lower load. The following are examples of high-intensity training methods:

Explosive repeats

Explosive repeats increase the intensity level while improving those fast-twitch muscle fibers and the ability to repeat force production over time.

Conduct each exercise for 10-12 seconds and rest for around 40-60 seconds. Focus on 6-8 sets per workout and 1-2 workouts per week. Start lower and progress as client improves recovery heart rate. The goal is to increase work capacity over time with more reps.

In the following video, I show examples of explosive repeats. I go through medicine ball slams, squat jumps, split jumps, kettlebell swings, and explosive push-up repeats, in that order.

Intensive Interval (Alactic Intervals)

The Alactic energy system uses ATP as an immediate source of energy and generally lasts 10-12 seconds. It’s not long, but it’s huge bursts of energy and power. It’s no surprise, then, that these Alactic intervals demand high levels of cardiovascular fitness and are not recommended for the average Joes and Janes. Examples of Alactic intervals include max sprinting, rowing, bounding drills, martial arts, and jumping.

Make sure you stay within 7-10 seconds per reps. Actively rest 2-5 minutes and only do 5-6 reps per set. Since your client is working way harder, a longer rest is required, and the client should do no more than 1 -2 sets per workout at 1-3 sessions per week.

How to effectively program cardiovascular training for results

Here we finally get into how to program for different levels--low, medium, and high levels--of cardiovascular fitness.

The beginner client (low level)

With beginner clients, you want to gradually increase training frequency and volume by improving overall cardiovascular fitness levels.

The table below is categorized into how much Volume (time and number of sessions), Intensity (how hard should they work), and which Training Method to use when training with beginner clients. (We’ll use the same tables for the other levels as well.)

Sample template for a 2-3 day/week beginner

Example day:

A1: Bodyweight squat  2-0-2 x 8-10 reps

A2: Push-up x 8-10 reps

B1: Split squat x  tempo 2-0-2 8-10 reps/leg

B2: Barbell inverted row :  8-10 reps

B3: Plank: x 5 breaths

Slow steady cardio: Treadmill walk with high incline for 5 minutes

2-arm Farmer’s walk for 1 minute

Or explosive repeats with medicine ball slams

Here’s an example of what that all looks like on video:


* A training cycle should typically last 4-6 weeks at a low to moderate intensity
* The goal should be to see a gradual increase in volume throughout training, as that will be the key to see improvements for clients with a lower level of fitness

The average gym-goer (medium level)

With the average gym-goer, you want to separate cardio from strength as much as possible, but you can combine the two modalities. The chart below is the recommended overall program:

Sample template for a 2-3 day/week average gym-goer

Example day:


Repeat 3 Rounds

A1: Medicine ball stomps to floor x 6 reps

A2:  Split stance adductor mobilization x 6/side

Repeat 3 Rounds

B1: Kettlebell swings x 6 reps

B2: Inchworms x 5


2-3 Rounds each group, Minimal Rest Between Exercises, 90 -120 seconds after each round

A1: Goblet squat tempo 2-0-2 x 8-10 reps

A2: Barbell inverted row  x 10 reps

A3: Wall hip flexor stretch 5/leg


B1: Dumbbell step-ups x 10-12 reps/leg

B2: Tempo push-up 3-0-3 x 8 reps

B3: Side plank x 30 seconds


C1: Dumbbell RDL 3-0-3 x 8-10 reps

C2: Chest-supported row x 10-12 reps

C3: Double rack carry x10


* 6 to 12-week training block
* Alternate between high-intensity and low-intensity training methods
* The goal is to gradually increase intensity while slightly decreasing volume

The advanced athlete (high level)

These clients are your not-quite-Lebron-James status athletes. With them, strength training should be done on separate days when focusing on cardiovascular health, as it can be difficult to recover from both at the same time. Here’s what I recommend:

Sample template for a 2-3 day/week advanced athletes

You can do use the same examples from the previous, but adjust according to the chart above.


Repeat 5 Rounds

A1: Medicine ball stomps to floor x 6 reps

A2:  Split stance adductor mobilization x 6/side

Repeat 5 Rounds

B1: Kettlebell swings x 6 reps

B2: Inchworms x 5


* Programming is generally 10-12 week blocks with a full range of intensities
* The higher the fitness levels, the more work and consistency are needed to see true results
* Focus on a gradual increase in volume, with a sharper increase in intensity around middle of program

Strength training here is to maintain strength

Each level should prepare your client for the next level forward. One thing to keep in mind: always use the minimum effective dose. That means just give them enough to get the results you want. What’s more important is consistency and their general health. Adjust where needed, but believe in the process to get your clients to that “next level.”