Let’s face it: for most of us, cardio sucks. It’s boring and mind-numbing and can be enough to kill our motivation to train. For some, it can even suck the life out of you for a good portion of the day. Unfortunately, energy systems work remains a great tool to help you get leaner and healthier. I often get asked: What is the best “cardio” to maximize fat loss? My answer is: “the cardio you will stick with”. If you can find a type of energy systems work that doesn’t suck as bad as the others, you drastically increase your chances of success because you will train harder on it and will stick with it in the long run.
That’s why selecting an energy systems work regimen that fits your neurotype is paramount to long term body composition changes. In this article, we will discuss the best energy systems training options for each Neurotype, covering more traditional cardio as well as resisted methods. We will also explain which are the worst options for each Neurotype. If you want to get ripped without losing your mind, read on.
BEST ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK FOR TYPE 1A
High-Intensity Intervals (HIIT).
HIIT is pretty well known among lifters since it was immensely popular about 10 years ago for people wanting to get lean. It is indeed true that on a minute-per-minute, basis it “burns” more calories than steady-state cardio. But is that really surprising? The faster you run your engine, the more fuel you burn… I mean, really? Wow, what a discovery! HIIT can also keep your rate of energy expenditure elevated for a few hours after the session is over (as does a hard weight lifting workout). While that doesn’t necessarily make it a superior method, in some cases it does, like for the Type 1A who hate boring hamster cardio! Type 1A are all about intensity: go hard then go home. They are not built for top speed as much as Type 1B and are also not as negatively affected by lactic acid as 1Bs.
I would recommend HIIT with a 1:1 ratio: something like the 30s very relaxed (walking) and 30s really hard. When dealing with a less conditioned individual, you can start at 45:15 but gradually work toward the 30:30 intervals. With Type 1A, I like to keep these bouts to no more than 12 minutes (most of the time). Start at 8 minutes and gradually work up to 12. Once you reach 12 minutes, aim to make the intervals harder (e.g. increase the treadmill incline, the stationary bike or elliptical resistance or wear a weight vest) instead of increasing duration.
Heavy loaded carries (farmer walk, Zercher carry, prowler pushing)
Type 1A ar built for intensity and they love lifting more weight. As such, single modality (only doing one exercise at a time) heavy carries are a great tool for them. I normally like to keep the sets around 10-15s in duration. While the goal is to lose fat, they should still avoid cutting rest intervals too short because they want to avoid an excessive adrenalin (producing too much adrenalin can crash a Type 1A). 15s of effort and 60-75s of rest would be adequate. Once again, shoot for a total of no more than 12 minutes which means 8-10 sets at the most. Once you reach that level (you should start at 5-6), increase the intensity by using more weight or a harder carry. The key thing for Type 1A is not so much the speed, but the weight. They should go as heavy as they can for that 10-12s of effort.
Long duration steady-state cardio
If you want to have a Type 1A give up training and pick up knitting, have him do 60 minutes of steady state cardio! It’s not that they can’t do it, they actually have a pretty good cardiovascular system, it’s that long repetitive work of a low neurological demand is mind numbingly boring for them. They will actually feel like they are dying from the inside when doing long and slow cardio! Not the best thing if you want them to stay motivated.
A training program based on very short rest intervals and high reps like German Body Composition training, Circuit training or even CrossFit would also be bad ideas for this neurotype.
BEST ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK FOR TYPE 1B
Type 1B are normally very good athletes: high skill level, fast, explosive, strong. They can actually build a decent base of aerobic capacity (although it will rarely be their strength), but one of their main issues is their tolerance for lactic acid. Of all the Neurotypes, they have the least tolerance for it and take the biggest recovery hit from training in a lactating state. Jessica Coté-Beaudoin is a Crossfit athlete I worked with for 4 years, one of the most gifted athletes I’ve seen: former national level gymnast, amazing on the Olympic lifts (195lbs snatch, 250lbs jerk) and pretty strong. Through proper training, she was able to build decent cardio (low intensity) but despite being in great shape and highly conditioned, she just could not tolerate lactic acid. When she was forced to do tons of lactic work to solve the issue, she overtrained badly (she was basically breaking down from day to day). Note that I was only coaching her on the Olympic lifts, not doing her whole programming.
I’ve worked with another CrossFit athlete who was also like that. She was in great shape, very good cardio but as soon as she had some lactic acid build-up, you lost her.
These guys are built for speed. The best type of conditioning for them is short duration sprints. Normally, I would recommend around 12s but they could go as long as 20 seconds, so long as there is absolutely no lactate build-up. As soon as they feel some lactic acid, they should stop the set. That’s why I like to use ample rest intervals with them. For example, 12s of sprinting / the 90s of rest. If they rest for too long though, they can get out of the zone. Since they are not as negatively affected by adrenalin as Type 1A, I like to have them do an active recovery with things like band pull-aparts or even some abs work between sets of sprints. I recommend not going longer than about 15 minutes of work so roughly 6-10 sprints per session.
Prowler/Sled sprints/battle ropes/sledgehammer striking/KB swings in alactic zone
Here, the keyword is acceleration. Anything that can be done hard and fast, they will respond well to. Any type of sprinting (prowler, sled, Assault bike), striking, or KB swings will be effective, as long as they do not build up lactic acid (see above). They can do medleys of several exercises targeting different regions to minimize lactic acid build-up. Something like:
A1. Prowler sprint 10s
A2. Sledgehammer striking 12s
A3. KB swing 20s
For 4-6 rounds
Or they can do a single modality for parameters similar to the traditional ESW (10-20s on / 75-90s off or active rest).
Another good option is the use of weightlifting complexes. The classic example is “The Bear”:
Power clean + Front squat + Push press (or strict press)/bring bar behind the neck, back squat, press/push press behind the neck
But you can come up with tons of different combinations. For example:
2 power cleans + 2 push presses + 2 front squats
2 power snatches + 2 power cleans + 2 power jerks
Here I would also recommend keeping the sets at less than 30s to prevent lactic acid accumulation.
One final approach that works well is the upper/lower alternating EMOM for 4-5 reps. You combine one upper body lift and one lower body lift using an EMOM (every minute on the minute) approach with odd minutes being the upper body lift and the even minutes being the lower body lift. Roughly 70-75% of your max is used on those lifts.
When the clock hits…
0:00 … do 4-5 military presses
1:00 … do 4-5 front squats
2:00 … do 4-5 military presses
3:00 … do 4-5 front squats
Etc. For 10-15 minutes.
Anything that puts them in the lactic zone
Lactic acid training can be a powerful tool to get leaner. For one thing, it can spike growth hormone levels to a significant degree. For a type 1B, it is not a good modality partly because their brain hates being in that zone, but mostly because it takes a lot for them to recover from that type of work. So much so that it could negatively impact their day-to-day performance.
I gave the example of Jess earlier. A few years ago, she was coming back from her best performance, 3rd at regionals (behind Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and Michelle Letendre). That year, she actually focused heavily on the Olympic lifts since she was training with me four times. The next season, she was a favorite to do really well, but her weightlifting volume dropped down and her coach drastically increased her lactic acid work since it was her weakness. The result is that she spent the last 4 months prior to the open in a state of borderline depression. It would take everything to get up to train. When the open started, she performed dismally: she was in the 200th after two WODs. She was broken down and crying all the time. I told her to stop training completely for the last 3 weeks of the open, doing only the WOD and not doing anything for the rest of the week other than mobility work. Well, she was able to work back up and qualified for regionals. Her coach at the time thought that she was lazy and hard to coach. He didn’t understand the impact that lactate work can have on a Type 1B. When Type 1Bs are under too much lactic acid for too long they just shut down, it has nothing to do with will power. Three years ago, at regionals, Jess injured her shoulder badly in one WOD. I thought that there was no way she could go on. The upcoming WOD was ring muscle ups and clean ladder, two of her best movements. She was treated by my friend Sebastien Lemire and went on to complete the WOD in horrible pain … and not only did she win it, but she also had the best time in the world! That’s not a lazy or mentally weak person!
Ask any track and field coach working with sprinters and he will tell you that NOTHING requires more recovery than lactate work. Not surprisingly, most natural sprinters are Type 1B. If you need to develop lactic capacity, you might need to use some in your training, but if your goal is only to get leaner it is not worth it.
Another very popular method that will not work well for Type 1B is the Tabata method. Intervals of 20 seconds of hard work/10 sec off x 8 minutes.
BEST ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK FOR TYPE 2A
I was hesitant to put in one training method for Type 2A because for them everything works, but nothing works for a long time. But one method that fits the Type 2A profile very well are Fartlek intervals. Fartlek sounds super complex due to its Swedish name, but in reality, it is quite simple. You basically do lower intensity work into which you throw in shorter periods of higher speed work. It fits well with the 2A because the number, duration, and intensity of those bouts of high-speed work can vary all the time: you can go by feel or have a plan, but no two sessions need to be alike, which sits well with the 2A profile.
If you are “out of shape”, you can include bouts of jogging into a longer period of walking. As you get into better condition, you can move to jog with bouts of sprinting at anywhere between 70 and 90%.
I would keep the total duration at around 20-30 minutes for most 2A if the goal is fat loss. If the individual has a lot of experience and is in good condition, they could go up to 40 min. During those 20-30 minutes, you can vary walking, jogging, running, sprinting, depending on how you feel.
Type 2A like variety and when something is fun/a challenge (that’s why a lot of CrossFit addicts are type 2A). They respond best to multi-modality conditioning work: combining 2-4 exercises into a medley/circuit. Type 2A does not have the same limitation as Type 1B when it comes to lactic acid: they tolerate it slightly better (Type 2B are those who tolerate it the most). As such, each station can (and should) be of a slightly longer duration. I like 20-30s of work per station with 30-60s of rest between station, depending on conditioning level. They can go up to 20 minutes in a medley.
An example could be:
A1. Farmer walk moderate weight for the 30s
A2. KB swing max reps in the 30s
A3. Prowler pushing moderate weight for the 30s
Do 4-5 rounds
Always doing the same thing
Everything works! They could even do steady-state low-intensity cardio… for 2-3 weeks, or even once a week with other types on the different days (which would be sustainable for longer). The worst thing for them is doing the same thing over and over, and no, changing the duration and intensity might not be enough. The medleys are cool but if they do the same exercises all the time they will still lose interest. There needs to be some form of variation either by using different workouts during the week or changing approach after 2-3 weeks.
BEST ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK FOR TYPE 2B
Longer intervals (to produce lactic acid)
An elevation in lactic acid has been linked to an increase in growth hormone (I highly recommend the book “Sprint 8” by Phil Campbell that goes pretty deep into that topic).
By elevating growth hormone, you increase fat mobilization. There is no doubt that lactic training can have a powerful effect on body composition, but as we saw, some Neurotypes are not designed to handle this type of work. However, Type 2B are perfect for it, as they have the best lactic acid tolerance of all the types (of course, an unconditioned Type 2B might need some time to get optimized) and they thrive on the feeling of pumped muscles. Getting that “pain” from a high lactic acid level also makes them feel good because they know they worked hard.
I like something similar to the “Sprint 8” intervals in which they do the 30s of sprinting (gradually working up to an all-out effort after a few sets at 70-80%) and active rest of the 90s (very low-intensity work, same intensity as walking). A-Type 2B in superb physical condition could even push it to 45s of intense effort to spike lactic acid even more. But you should only attempt this if you have a lot of experience with intense intervals, otherwise, the intensity level will drop-off, leading to less lactic acid production and fewer results.
Remember, what we are shooting for is not a duration per se but the increase in lactic acid, and that is mostly dependant first on the level of effort and then on duration. 6-8 such intervals are a good training target.
Anything where they feel their muscles working and accumulating lactic acid
You can simply apply the 30-45s / 90s work-to-rest ratio to different resisted tools like farmer walk, prowler pushing, rowing, Assault bike, KB swings, DB thrusters, battle ropes. On these, you should try to go as fast as you can against the resistance. On the farmer walk, you should focus more positioning which is why you might need to get a little longer on that exercise (45s, up to 60s for highly conditioned individuals).
Sprints of 10-15s or less will not give them maximum results. I’m not saying that they won’t be effective, but they do not take advantage of the Type 2B tolerance for lactic acid. Also, Type 2B are not built for max speed, so they do not enjoy this type of training. However, short sprints can still be used for the less conditioned Type 2B as an introduction working towards 30s sprints. Something like:
Week 1: 10 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 2: 15 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 3: 20 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 4: 25 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 5: 30 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
A very deconditioned 2B could have an even slower progression:
Week 1: 10 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 2: 10 sec sprints / 60 sec rest x 8
Week 3: 15 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 4: 15 sec sprints / 60 sec rest x 8
Week 5: 20 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 6: 25 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
Week 7: 30 sec sprints / 90 sec rest x 6
BEST ENERGY SYSTEMS WORK FOR TYPE 3
Longer steady-state cardio
Slow pace, longer duration cardio does fit this neurotype since they don’t need “excitement” and they don’t get bored doing the same thing over and over. And even though some coaches bad mouth slow pace steady-state cardio, it does work. It is true that it “burns” fewer calories per minute and doesn’t have a high energy expenditure post-workout, but it does help stimulate fat loss and more importantly, it can upregulate the enzymes that help mobilize and transport fat so that it can be used for fuel. Its greatest benefit is that it programs your body to use fat for fuel more efficiently.
Studies showing an increase in cortisol and a decrease in testosterone were conducted with very long protocols/true endurance training. I’m talking 90-120 minutes and more. In fact, a decrease in testosterone (likely due to an increase in cortisol) is seen in endurance athletes who do 2-3 hours of intense endurance training almost daily (competitive cyclists, for example). Adding 45 minutes of moderate pace cardio 3 times per week will not lead to the same results. You have to put things in perspective.
Bouts of 30-60 minutes at an intensity of around 70% of your maximum heart rate is a good zone to train in. At that duration, it is not recommended to combine it with lifting, so they should do it 2-3 times per week while lifting 3-4 days a week.
Longer duration sled dragging, prowler pushing, Assault bike, rower
I prefer to use loaded energy systems to work with exercises that are not load-bearing, so I don’t like to use farmer walk, Zercher carries, or overhead walk. I prefer the prowler or sled. Apparatus like the rower and assault bike are also good tools to use.
I prefer to use longer protocols with lighter weights. Sets of up to 2 minutes at a fairly slow pace can be used for a total of 20-25 minutes in duration.
Heavy strongman medleys
Heavy loading increases their anxiety and can thus increase cortisol and make the experience unpleasant. It could even increase the risk of injuries by increasing muscle tightness during the activity. Furthermore, Type 3 does better on single-modality training: not combining several exercises into a complex/medley.
They also won’t do well on maximum acceleration work like sprints and hill sprints.
Energy systems work, conditioning, “cardio” are quite often necessary evils. Well, not “necessary evils” but “very useful evils” when it comes to getting leaner. I know that some people will point out that you can get lean, even really lean without “cardio”. And they are right! It is quite possible. After all, and at the risk of being ostracized by paleo, keto, or IFers, the most important thing in the fat loss hierarchy remains the caloric deficit. Dieting really is simple: if you have an optimal protein intake (around 1.2g per pound of bodyweight when dieting down) and are on a caloric deficit, you will lose fat. Once you have set your protein intake, your choice of calories should be made mostly for health-boosting purposes and personal preference (keto works well for me, but I do not enjoy it, hence I can’t stick with it). Once you accept that (and it’s the truth despite what those preaching for their favorite diet cult say), then you understand the potential value of energy systems work/cardio. It is mostly a way to create a caloric deficit without having to lower your food intake too much. You have a choice: eat less and don’t do “cardio” or eat more and do it. From experience, you will be able to train harder, feel better, and preserve more muscle using the second option, but it’s important to select the option that best fits your neurological profile. If you hate every single minute of the conditioning/cardio work you are doing, it will negatively affect your performance and results, plus you won’t stick with it. There is literally no magic type of energy systems work, the magic is in finding what fits with you.
Once again, I would like to thank my good friend Matthieu Jeandel for his important contribution to this article.
-CT & MJ