How to get lean and improve conditioning—even if you hate doing "cardio"

Most people will tell you that you gotta “do cardio” to get lean. I think that sounds miserable, so I rejected the idea and found a better way.

I hate cardio. And no, that’s not overstatement for effect or any other form of rhetorical tact.

The idea of “doing cardio” is about as appealing as listening to most mainstream radio stations – and I hate mainstream radio. Every time I walk into a public gym and see people grinding away on the elliptical, and consider doing the same thing, a part of me literally dies – it’s a fact.

Note: It’s not a fact. Obviously there isn’t an actual, tangible part of me that’s dying when I see think about spending 45 minutes on a stairmaster – but I do hate it.

So I loathe cardio, which creates a problem because I like being lean.

I’m not talking about being shredded up like a bodybuilder or fitness model – that’s not the look I’m after or the kind of dedication I’m interested in.

Nah, I’m just talking about looking good enough to take off my shirt at the beach or pool and feel confident. For me, this means having at least a good outline of a six-pack.

And many people will tell you that in order to get or stay lean, you gotta do cardio. A while back, to get in shape for a photo shoot, I bought into this idea and started doing 30-45 minutes on the elliptical or treadmill a few days per week.

And you know what happened? Two things happened, actually:

  1. I got leaner (cool, I have better abs)
  2. I started hating my life (a bit extreme, but I did stop looking forward to my workouts – something I typically really enjoy).

And through this experience, I learned some important stuff, like the fact that being lean was a goal of mine, but I honestly wasn’t willing to continually do hours of traditional cardio in order to achieve or sustain it.

So instead of choosing between the goal of getting/staying lean or doing a bunch of cardio, I chose neither, and decided to find a better way – which we’ll get to in just a bit, but first, let’s look at why anyone does cardio in the first place.


This may seem obvious, but since I know a lot of people who say they hate cardio, yet continue to do it, I figure there must be some compelling reasons that we are so drawn to cardio.

The way I see it, you do cardio for one of two reasons (or both):

  1. To improve your conditioning (for a sport or everyday life or so you don’t die of a heart attack at 50).
  2. To get ripped.

Every guy I know wants to be healthy and feel like they can handle the things they do on a daily basis, so the first reason makes sense.

Similarly, almost every guy I know is at least okay with the idea of having a six pack (talking abs right now, not beer – although in an ideal world I’m sure most of us would like for these to go hand-in-hand).

So there are two pretty compelling reasons why you might want to do cardio, which makes the idea of people working themselves to death at the local YMCA more understandable.

Is cardio, in some form, necessary? Yes, I’d say it is.  But what if there was a way for you to achieve the two “objectives” above without  the long hours of traditional cardio?


Ready to ditch the cardio? You can. Here’s the three best ways that you can stay in shape and live lean without the endless, soul-sucking elliptical sessions.


Yeah, Yeah – I know, “you can’t get strong with short rest periods”, etc., etc. “

But maybe you can get stronger and build muscle with shorter rest periods. Actually, the second part – the muscle-building part – has been proven in research, if you’re into that kinda thing.

And from real-world experience, I’ve seen the getting stronger thing work with short rest periods too. About a year or so ago, I grew really sick of the rest for 2+ minutes approach in-between sets.

What am I supposed to do while sitting there for 3 minutes between each set? I found myself scrolling through social media or doing some other trivial time waster and realized, “hey, this is stupid.”

So I cut my rest periods in half. Now, I was resting 45-60 seconds instead of the usual 2-3 minutes. And you know what happened? My workouts become more fun, I started getting out of breath and sweating more, and I started feeling a ton better – in and out of the gym.

When I’d run around and chase my kids, I noticed I had a little more get up and go. When I would jump in and play a game of pickup basketball, I had more endurance.

And, perhaps just as importantly, you know what I didn’t notice? Significant drops in strength. Sure, there was an initial drop where I had to slightly decrease the weights I was using the first few weeks while I became more conditioned to the new regimen of shorter rest periods.

But after that? My strength “came back” and I started experiencing all those positive things above. I don’t know that shortening your rest periods is enough to completely eliminate other forms of cardio/conditioning, but it sure helps.

Generally, I follow these guidelines:

  1. If it’s a barbell move that I’m tracking and using for strength work (3-12 reps) like  trap bar deadlifts, incline presses, etc, I keep rest periods around 60-90 seconds.
  2. If it’s ‘pump work’ using body weight or dumbbells or machines, I’ll drop rest periods to 45-60 seconds – or even lower for supersets where antagonistic (opposite) muscles are being worked, like biceps and triceps. For supersets, I’ll go anywhere from 0-30 seconds.

In the end, don’t overcomplicate things. Take a look at how long you’re resting in-between sets now and cut it in half. Keep reducing until you get close to the guidelines provided above.

Like I said, you will probably notice an initial “drop” in strength when you do this. But this doesn’t mean you’re getting weaker or losing muscle or any of that nonsense.

After a while, when you adjust to shorter rest periods, you will be able to continue moving heavier weights.


What if you could turn those 45 minute cardio sessions into 8-10 minutes? Sure, those 10 minutes might be pure hell… but it’s only 10 minutes. That’s the trade-off you get with high intensity finishers. 

The “finisher” part comes from the fact that you will be doing it at the end of your workouts, after all of your resistance training.

The “high intensity” part comes from the idea that you will being doing 10-30 seconds at an all out effort (equivalent of a sprint), and following that up with “low intensity” recovery (equivalent of a walk, or in some cases, doing nothing to recover for the high intensity portion).

The options here are almost endless. You can do bodyweight exercises, jump rope, sprints, rowing, battling ropes, boxing, swimming, medicine balls — and whatever else you can think of.

To use high intensity finishers, pick your chosen implement and do 6-10 (on the lower side if you’re new to this sorta thing) intervals of 10-30 seconds “work” and 45-60 seconds “rest.”

So, let’s say you want to do medicine ball slams. You’d grab a 10-15 pound ball and get to work by doing the following:

10-30 seconds slams

Rest for 45 – 60 seconds

10-30 seconds slams

Rest for 45 – 60 seconds

….you get the idea.

Get to where you are doing this 1-2 times per week at the end of your workouts, and not will you be in great shape in terms of conditioning, but you’re also going to get leaner, assuming you’re taking care of things on the nutritional side of things, of course.

One final note: It’s best to pair your finisher with the muscles being worked that day during your strength training. So, if you are doing a “lower body” strength training workout, pick something for your finisher that also works the lower body, and vice versa.

If you’re following a full body split, obviously, you could pick a blend (alternate between an upper and lower body movement for your finisher like battling ropes and jump ropes, for example).


If you could find something fun to do a few days per week that gets you moving, preferably at varying intensities, you would never have to “do cardio” again.

Honestly, this option is the ideal way to go. Not only do you take care of the “necessary” elements of saving yourself from keeling over with a heart attack and the aesthetics side of looking better, you also get to enjoy the process.

What do I mean by something “fun”? I mean, literally, anything that you enjoy that involves moving. If it gets you outside; that’s even better.

Too many people spend too much time inside. Something awesome happens when you get outside and get moving. You get the benefits of vitamin D and all of that good stuff, sure. But you also get connected with nature, even if in a city-atmosphere, that just does something good for your mood and general outlook on life.

So find something fun, get outside if possible, and do it for a while a few days per week. You could…

  • Go play a sport for fun
  • Go play frisbee at the park with your wife/girlfriend/kids/friends
  • Go for a walk
  • Join something MMA or Jiu Jitsu or some other restorative/martial arts
  • Do yoga (seriously)
  • Chase your kids around the backyard
  • Take your kids to the park (and walk/ride your bikes instead of drive)
  • Find a hill and walk/run up and down it a few times
  • Go for a jog

…And the options go on and on. You’re limited only by your creativity.

What I like most about finding something you enjoy for physical activity is that it taps into a very primal aspect of being a human. You speed up, slow down, stop, start – you do the things human beings were meant to do. And you have fun doing it.

You’re not doing some bullshit “cardio”, you’re just using your body as it was intended to be used. The other great thing, is it’s hard to do too much of this. I mean, sure you could – but it’s hard.

Because if you’re having fun you’re probably going to be listening to your body and stopping before you become exhausted or do too much. It kinda auto regulates the “how much and how often” side of things that can be an issue with other forms of cardio like high intensity finishers.

One final note on the “fun” thing: If you aren’t use to the whole being physically active thing, there may not be anything that sounds “fun” at first. So just pick something that doesn’t sound horrible and give it a shot. Keep doing that until you find something you like.

I thought I hated jogging for the longest time, but then I realized I only hated it because it was something I either felt like I “had” to do or because of the idea that any kind of running burned muscle. When I set these notions aside and just did it because I felt like it, I found I actually enjoy going for a ½ -1 mile jog every now and then.


Well.. maybe  don’t go that far.

But you definitely don’t have to do it regularly – nor should you – if you hate doing it, especially if you can spend some time in the “fun zone” that we just discussed.

One thing I didn’t even mention previously is the fact that traditional cardio, like doing an hour on the elliptical, takes a ton of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of extra time, and I don’t want to spend the time I do have on some dumb machine doing something I hate.

Too many people make fitness something they “have to do” or do things they don’t enjoy in the name of “gainz.” That’s crazy to me.

Do I think you should do some stuff you don’t necessarily like every once in awhile to push yourself out of your comfort zone and get better? Absolutely. But I don’t think you should be consistently doing stuff you hate just because you think it’s necessary to look a little better.

There’s almost always an alternative that gets you most (if not all) of the results without the disdain. I’ve given you some options here today. Now it’s up to you put them to use.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.