Let’s face it: Most people hate cardio. Like scrubbing the toilet, it’s basic and necessary maintenance, but not exactly your idea of a great time. Perhaps because of that attitude, while we may pay meticulous attention to our form in the weight room because we know it’s key to getting results and preventing injuries, we often leave that principle at the cardio-room door.
“Once you start messing with your posture, with an increased amount of intensity, you’ll start to develop problems with your lower back, your neck, your hamstrings, Achilles tendons and calves,” explains Kerri O’Brien, a training director with the Life Fitness brand of commercial cardio machines. “The measurement of a good cardio workout is how much oxygen passes through your lungs. If you’re bent forward and your mouth is down, you’re reducing the opportunity for oxygen to pass through your lungs.”
The following are the three most common cardio fouls and how to fix them:
Illegal use of the hands. We realize every piece of cardio equipment in your gym has some kind of handlebar attached to it — but keep in mind that it’s there as a balance aid, not a security blanket. “Holding on for balance and holding on for dear life are a little bit different,” O’Brien says.
The biggest offenders? Stair mills and step mills, by a mile, says Sonja Friend-Uhl, a master trainer for the Star Trac brand’s HumanSport line. That’s where women hunch over, often with their wrists turned backward as they cling to the handles in an effort to take the workload off their knees and ankles. Third place belongs to the treadmill; when cranked to a high incline, many people hold the handles and lean unnaturally backward to make it up the “hill.” Some even reach straight out from the shoulder, as if they are Frankenstein’s monster, and use the readout console to haul themselves along.
“But that means fewer calories burned and a lower heart rate overall, so you’re getting about a third of the workout you could be getting,” Friend-Uhl explains.
The solution is simple: Let go and straighten up. On an inclined treadmill, lean slightly forward from the hips and swing your arms the way you would if you were hiking a real mountain, which strengthens your core and incinerates additional calories.
“If you can’t keep up with the machine, slow down the pace and take your hands off that console,” O’Brien says. “It’s OK to decrease your intensity because intensity is what you feel and not what the machine tells you.”
Going offsides. It’s hard to mess up on a bike, which is designed to support more of your bodyweight than the aforementioned machines. But people still do, usually in adjusting their seat height. “If you’re too low, it will strain your spine, and if you’re too high, you wobble back and forth [on the saddle],” Friend-Uhl says.
For an upright bike, stand next to it and line the saddle up with your hipbone; with recumbent bikes, make sure your hips line up just underneath the handlebars. That will keep your knees from locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke and ensure your pelvis stays centered on the saddle throughout your workout. And keep your head and chest up, O’Brien says, to keep the oxygen flowing freely through your lungs.
Neutral-zone infraction. If you are reading this article while doing cardio, stop. Right now. Your results depend far more on the effort expended during your workout than the number of minutes clocked. “If your body is still enough for you to read a book,” Friend-Uhl says, “you are not putting out enough effort, period.”
Maintaining a mindful presence during your workout enables you to respond to your body’s cues. “When your lower back is feeling a little tight, it’s time to take action and change your posture,” O’Brien says. “It’s surprising how you can take a 30-minute workout, be present in it, and just get so much more from it.”