What’s The Best Cardio Workout?
What’s the best cardio workout? This is a common question and we decided to answer it, once and for all. We conducted an experiment with a variety of workouts – from free Youtube workouts to your standard gym equipment to professionally designed routines.
We determined that the best and most effective cardio workouts are 60-90% more effective than the worst. In other words, the difference between the best and the worst equals 67 Chipotle burritos (100 lbs) worth of calories over the course of one year. In other words, doing the best cardio workout instead of the worst could keep help you lose 20 lbs over the course of a year.
what is the best cardio workout?
I have always been a fan of high-intensity cardio workouts. I started running at a young age, ran cross-country competitively, and played soccer year-round throughout high school. Alex has also been a lifelong fan of cardio workouts, but she refers to herself as a “one-speed pony.” She has never liked the high-intensity workouts as much as I do and prefers running, swimming, and lifting weights.
Workout preferences aside, the purpose of this experiment was to identify the best, most effective cardio workout. Since we’ll be using heart rate analysis, our definition of “the best, most effective workout” is the workout that burns the most calories. We will measure calories burned during the 20-minute workouts and for 60 minutes immediately after for the “afterburn effect.”
We understand that there is more to a workout than just calories burned, but for experimental purposes, this was our best metric.
The cardio workout that has the fastest pace and engages the most muscle groups will deliver the highest average heart rate and calorie burn numbers.
“I am really confident that the Insanity Workouts are going to be the best. It is total body, explosive cardio, they are designed by world renowned trainers and a team of sports scientists, and they include only enough breaks to prevent you from fainting.”
“Although I love running and enjoy spin classes, I don’t think either will be the best cardio workouts. They don’t engage the whole body and they are less explosive than High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I know nothing about the YouTube workouts but I expect some form of HIIT to win.”
Workouts (20 minutes of each):
- YouTube Cardio 1: Fitness Blender – Fat Burning HIIT Cardio Workout (6.6MM views at time of post)
- YouTube Cardio 2: POPSUGAR Fitness – Burn Major Calories With This Cardio Workout (2.3 MM views at time of post)
- Exercise bike (Classic Cardio program – full details in Appendix VI)
- Treadmill (8.5 minute mile)
- Beachbody On Demand (BOD) Cardio 1: Transform :20 Sample Workout
- Beachbody On Demand (BOD) Cardio 2: Insanity Max :30 Cardio Challenge (BOD membership or free trial required)
Note – If there was a warm up included in the routine, that was skipped. Instead, we followed a consistent warm up for all workouts summarized in the “Controls” section below.
- Ryan – 30 years old, 175 lbs, 7% Body Fat Composition (collected using this caliper), and intermediate/advanced fitness ability according to our fitness test
- Alex – 30 years old, 105 lbs, 18% Body Fat Composition, and intermediate/advanced fitness ability
Days: One workout a day in randomized order (see Appendix V).
- No alcohol during experiment or two days before start
- 8-9 hours of sleep tracked using the Pillow app (see sleep data in Appendix III)
- Followed portion control container plan during the experiment (see food details and tracked containers in Appendix IV)
- Morning workouts between 8:30 and 9:30 am
- No food or supplements between wake and work out
- Ryan – 40 ounces of water between wake and work out
- Alex – 20 ounces of water between wake and work out
- Collect data with Polar H7 HR Monitor during the 20-minute workout – referred to as “the burn”
- Collect data with Polar H7 HR Monitor immediately after the workout for 60 minutes while reading by the pool – referred to as “the afterburn”
- Warmup for 2.5 minutes (not included in HR data):
- Run in place (30 seconds)
- Jumping jacks (30 seconds)
- Side step twists (30 seconds)
- Stretch (60 seconds)
- No other workouts during the experiment
- No music during workouts
The graphs below illustrate a strong correlation between average heart rate and calorie burn during the workouts. As shown in the graphs, Ryan burns significantly more calories than Alex during the workout, and Alex tends to maintain a lower average heart rate. See Appendix I for the data tables.
The below graphs show the total calories burned (calories during the burn + the afterburn) as a result of each workout. Both BOD Cardio workouts showed the highest calorie burned during the 60-minute afterburn for both Ryan and Alex.
The regression analysis for both data sets are shown in the below plots. The analysis confirms a nearly perfect (R2 = 1) correlation between average heart rate and calorie burn. Therefore, our experimental results are accurate.
BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max:30 Cardio Challenge, was the best cardio work out for both Ryan and Alex.
For Ryan, BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max :30, was…
- 11% better than BOD Cardio 1, Transform :20
- 44% better than the treadmill
- 91% better than the exercise bike
- 68% better than YouTube Cardio 2, POPSUGAR Fitness
- 77% better than YouTube Cardio 1, Fitness Blender
For Alex, BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max :30, was…
- 7% better than BOD Cardio 1, Transform :20
- 13% better than the treadmill
- 30% better than the exercise bike
- 60% better than YouTube Cardio 2, POPSUGAR Fitness
- 73% better than YouTube Cardio 1, Fitness Blender
If Ryan did 20-minutes of BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max :30, five days a week for one year he would burn 169,780 calories. That’s…
- 16,640 calories, or 15 Chipotle burritos*, more than BOD Cardio 1, Transform :20
- 51,740 calories, or 47 Chipotle burritos, more than the treadmill
- 80,860 calories, or 74 chipotle burritos, more than the exercise bike
- 68,640 calories, or 63 Chipotle burritos, more than YouTube Cardio 2, POPSUGAR Fitness
- 73,840 calories, or 67 Chipotle burritos (that’s 100 lbs), more than YouTube Cardio 1, Fitness Blender
If Alex did 20-minutes of BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max :30, five days a week for one year she would burn 56,160 calories. That’s…
- 3,900 calories, or 4 Chipotle burritos*, more than BOD Cardio 1, Transform :20
- 6,500 calories, or 6 Chipotle burritos, more than the treadmill
- 13,000 calories, or 12 chipotle burritos, more than the exercise bike
- 21,060 calories, or 19 Chipotle burritos, more than YouTube Cardio 2, POPSUGAR Fitness
- 23,660 calories, or 22 Chipotle burritos, more than YouTube Cardio 1, Fitness Blender
* One Chipotle burrito is 1,095 calories. Flour tortilla, chicken, brown rice, black beans, fajita mix veggies, salsas, cheese and lettuce (no sour cream or guacamole).
- BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max :30, was the best cardio workout (highest total calories burn) for both Ryan and Alex.
- BOD Cardio 1, Transform :20, was the 2nd best for both Ryan and Alex.
- For Ryan, nothing else came close, but for Alex, running on the treadmill was a close runner up. The exercise bike and YouTube Cardio workouts were not the best cardio workouts according to the heart rate analysis (charts in Appendix II) in this experiment. These workouts were slower paced with too many breaks to maintain an elevated heart rate.
- On average, Ryan burned 2.7X the calories that Alex did during a cardio workout. This is why portion control is so critical to for couples. Alex has a lower average heart rate (and lower resting heart rate) than Ryan during the workouts. This is likely due to years of her marathons. Despite these differences, both data sets show a strong correlation between average heart rate (bpm) and calories burned (kcal) as expected for all individuals.
- Both Ryan and Alex burned more calories during the afterburn with BOD Cardio 1 and 2 workouts (Insanity Max:30 and Transform:20, respectively). These workouts maintained a high average heart rate (also delivered the highest max heart rates of all workouts) by challenging multiple muscle groups with lunges, jumping squats, push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, and core moves. Having total body resistance moves in a cardio routine increases the calories burned in the afterburn.
Clearly there is such thing as effective cardio and less effective cardio. This is precisely why we think Beachbody On Demand is the most effective way to exercise. To work out smarter, we recommend following these tips.
- Always work out as a couple. You gain accountability, push yourselves harder, and boost your attraction to each other. Just to name a few of the benefits of working out as a couple.
- Optimize your workout schedule, routine, documentation of progress, and free yourself from the gym. Here are our best ideas on how to get exciting results working out as a couple.
- Exercise is necessary, but healthy eating is essential. It was important for us to learn that Ryan burns 3X the calories compared Alex while requiring 2X the calories from meals. For us, it’s essential to manage our diets as a couple so that we can get the results we desire. It’s essential for you too.
- Be consistent with your workout schedule. Plan ahead and figure out what time of day works best for your workouts.
- In this experiment, we answered the question “What is the best cardio workout?” But if you read our hypothesis, we knew the answer ahead of time. The best cardio workout is the one that is most challenging. That means, fast-paced and total body so that your lungs are pumping and all your muscle groups are firing. Since taking on these workouts is going to be hard, you need to first learn from some experts on the Secret To Life Long Fitness.
- If you’re ready for the challenge, dig deep into your motivation and find your why for living a healthy lifestyle using our 5-step process. Sign up for a free trial of the workouts we do and we’ll be in touch to support you along your journey.
- If you’re not ready for high intensity cardio workouts, start with you free 2-Week Couple’s Yoga Challenge.
Day 1 – Treadmill
Today, we started the experiment on the treadmill and ran an 8.5 minute mile pace for 20 minutes. For me (Ryan) it was difficult since I rarely run. Therefore, I was breathing heavy and sweating considerably at the end of the workout. Surprisingly, the workout did not produce a very high average heart rate, 146 bpm. My lifting and cardio workouts regularly have me in the 150-170 bpm range.
Alex is a great runner so this was easy for her but also produced a high average heart rate. She even burned more calories in the afterburn than she did in the burn. It was interesting to see how our bodies reacted differently to these workouts.
Running on the treadmill was boring for both of us. We much prefer to run outside. For me, it didn’t help that I was stuck watching a comedy cooking show in Japanese.
Today’s workout was a let down for both Alex and I. It was a HIIT workout, which is my favorite form of cardio, but the exercises were too short and separated by too many breaks. Therefore, our average heart rate was very low. For me, 130 bpm and for Alex, 115 bpm. This is much lower than yesterday’s treadmill workout.
This might be a great workout for the beginner, but for us, they were far too easy.
Alex also found the video to be misleading as it promised 188-375 calories burned (shown right on the screen). She topped off at 67 calories burned instead.
Day 3 was insane, hence the name Insanity. The Insanity Max:30 Cardio Challenge delivered a high average heart rate and calorie burn for both Alex and I.
It was a major challenge and during the afterburn, I could tell my body was fighting to recover. I was amazed that I burned 653 calories from a 20-minute workout (including the 60-minute afterburn). Very impressive results for Alex too, burning a total of 216 calories!
The workout consisted of 45-second moves and 3 short breaks. I credit these great numbers to the intensity, variety of muscle groups recruited, and the explosive total body moves.
It’s good to see my hypothesis come true!
Today’s cardio workout was another free YouTube workout let-down, as you can see from Alex’s post in our Duo Life Community. It was just….
For us, slow also means boring and that is never a good thing when it comes to workouts. They are hard enough to be consistent with when they are exciting, challenging, and bringing results.
This is another beginner workout in our opinion. Maybe selecting free workouts based on the number of YouTube views was not the best choice.
I burned 68% fewer calories and Alex burned 60% fewer calories than yesterday’s BOD Cardio 2, Insanity Max:30, workout. Wow, that would add up to a ton of calories after a few months of working out!
Today’s cardio workout was a burner! This was the first time ever doing this workout for both Alex and I. And, it took some focus to do the moves properly. Both of us hit our highest heart rate maximum yet! For me, 189 bpm, and for Alex, 170 bpm.
This routine requires a step and that definitely increases the difficulty level and challenges the muscles in each leg (glutes especially) individually. Core exercises are a major component too. Since we were seated on the step doing core moves quite frequently, I was surprised that we maintained such a high average heart rate.
Overall this was a very fun workout, challenging upper, lower and core muscles. We both hit muscle failure in the 20 minutes so that is very impressive.
Day 6 – Exercise Bike
Today we followed the exercise bike program outlined in Appendix VI. As I reported to our Duo Life Community, this workout took me by surprise. I sweated like crazy, probably because my leg muscles were firing on the many steep hills built into the program.
Unfortunately, my heart rate dropped off quickly after the workout finished and it ended up being the worst cardio workout for me. This surprised me as I thought it was far harder than the free Youtube workouts. However, this shows that muscle engagement during cardio workouts is critical.
Alex thought the exercise bike was pretty easy, which is interesting because according to the heart rate analysis, it was a better cardio workout for her than the YouTube Cardio workouts. This just goes to show that everyone is unique! And it never hurts to have a heart rate monitor!
Pillow App Sleep Data:
- Ryan: 7 green, 3 purple, 5 red, 4 yellow, 1 blue, 1 orange, and 6 tsp allowance
- Alex: 3 green, 2 purple, 4 red, 2 yellow, 1 blue, 1 orange, and 3 tsp allowance
We eat a mostly vegetarian diet (fully for Alex) of organic whole foods. We were living in Hawaii during this experiment and our typical foods were listed below:
- Steel cut oat meal (Bob’s Red Mill) with almond milk (original unsweetened), honey (local from a bee farmer), and chia seeds.
- Greek yogurt (Fage plain 2%) with granola (Kind Maple Quinoa Clusters With Chia Seeds)
- Organic, cage free egg omelet with frozen organic spinach, and black beans or lentils
- Organic, cage free egg omelet with fresh tomatoes and soy sauce
- Shakeology (Vegan Chocolate or Vanilla) with almond milk, chia seeds, peanut butter, frozen spinach, oats, maca powder, and banana or frozen organic berries.
- Vegetable (from the local farmer’s market) stir fry with quinoa
- Healthy Minestrone Soup
- Southwest Quinoa and Black Bean Salad
- Zoodles with Healthy Homemade Tomato Sauce
Program settings for the exercise bike (LifeFitness brand):
- Select the Classic Cardio program (a random mixture of gradual and steep hills)
- Ryan: Difficulty level 13 of 25 for 20 minutes
- Alex: Difficulty level 9 of 25 for 20 minutes
- Maintained 70-100 rpms
- Never fell below 70 rpms (about 15 mph) on steep hills, and usually never fell below 75 rpms
fitness challenge calendars
If you already have your Beachbody On Demand membership, help yourself to our Challenge Calendars!
Backpacking 2-Week Fitness Plan
This Backpacking 2-Week Fitness Plan is designed for the intermediate athlete to get in the best possible shape for a multi-day trek, and fast. All major muscle groups needed for backpacking are targeted in a calendar optimized to build strength, flexibility, and stability. The plan comes with a calendar, free access to the workouts, and support from the Ryan and Alex Duo Life team. As avid backpackers ourselves, this is a proven plan to train hard for a trekking adventure.
14-Day Couples Yoga Challenge
This 14-day challenge aims to reconnect you to your health and help you appreciate your body. Practicing yoga as a couple is an opportunity to connect and be present in a way apart from your normal, busy lives. The customized calendar was curated and created by us with the purpose to expose couples to a variety of yoga styles and instructors as well as practicing yoga from home.
Or, download for free.
Skiing 2-Week Fitness Plan
This Downhill Skiing 2-Week Fitness Plan is a full-body workout plan designed for the intermediate athlete to get in the best possible shape for a ski trip, and fast. All major muscle groups needed for skiing are targeted in a calendar optimized to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. Our skiing 2-week workout plan comes with a calendar, free access to the workouts, and support from the Ryan and Alex Duo Life team. As avid skiers ourselves, this is a proven plan to train hard for the best ski trip ever.
Hey we're Ryan and Alex
The creators of Ryan and Alex Duo Life. We are a husband-wife duo and “happiness engineers.” After eight years working as corporates engineers internationally, we left our high-powered jobs to tackle our true passion — leading couples to engineer their best lives. The synergy of our engineering minds and ten years of health coaching experience produced Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Our mission is to help you transform your bodies, minds, and relationship, as a couple.