Leg Day or Cardio? Here's a Workout That Gives Both

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A runner is reflected in a puddle
(Marine Corps/Cpl. Mary Carmona)

Working your lungs and legs together is a great way to improve your ability to run or ruck faster and for longer distances. Sometimes we call this "Run and Leg PT," as the leg workouts are typically done without weight but higher-volume squats, lunges, jumps and sometimes crawls and carries.

The goal of your training cycle is the factor that changes how you arrange the exercises within a cardio and leg day combo.

When you're training for strength and power, you will see a workout that adds explosive jumping activities. You can use your rest periods for easy cardio if you still need to maintain a cardio base, using bikes, treadmills, ellipticals and rowers. They also function as an easy way to stay warm between sets.

Here are a few ways we like to mix in a series of activities that can enhance strength, power, muscle stamina and cardio endurance, as well as speed and agility.

Repeat 4-5 times

Easy cardio 3-5 minutes, followed by a light stretch.

Select any two or three of your favorite leg activities and place them in this cardio mix circuit.

Weighted lunges: 5/leg

Jumping lunges: 10 (non-weighted)

Box jumps: 10

You also can add in the traditional lifts (squats, deadlifts, cleans) with barbells, kettlebells or sandbags.

Repeat 4-5 times

Easy cardio 3-5 minutes, followed by a light stretch.

Select any 2-3 of your favorite leg activities and place them in this cardio mix circuit.

Deadlift: 5 or kettlebell Romanian deadlifts: 10

Weighted squats: 5-10

Dumbbell jumping squats: 10

Farmer walks: 2 x 25 meters, fast

Medicine ball or sandbag power throw overhead

Another option is just to go on a longer run or ruck, but every five minutes or so, stop and do a series of leg exercises with or without the ruck.

For instance:

Run 30-40 minutes but every five minutes, stop and do 20 squats and 10 lunges per leg. Continue running or rucking until the total time or distance you selected is completed. This way, you can accumulate some good repetitions with both cardio activity as well as muscle stamina activity. That will help build efficient heart and lungs as well as give you legs that will not give out during longer events of running or load-bearing activities.

If you want to make running harder, you can do that with the above added leg calisthenics and weights, but you also can do it by finding a hill to run, stairs to climb, or soft sand to run and ruck through. All the above options are ideal ways to work the lungs and legs when you need to excel in strength and endurance.

Looking for speed and agility training? You also can replace the steady pace, five-minute cardio sets above with some sort of shuttle run.

But if you are adding shuttle runs to lifting, you only should use the shuttle runs as a technique drill and not try to run full speed 100% with explosive changes of direction. Save that for later or for when only doing calisthenics-based leg workouts. You may find additional tightness when lifting, and you should recover fully (separate training session) before you mix in sprints with lifts.

Less Running Option

However, if you prefer not to run that much, try the same exercises above but using a high-level resistance bike, elliptical or stair stepper. Though the impact of running is reduced significantly, the leg burn is increased like that of running hills or soft sand. The bike pyramid where you increase resistance every minute on the minute is a classic way to warm up, max out and cool down, whether you are adding leg activities or not.

If you need to get your run in and you don't want to skip leg day, take your pick from the above options.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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