Graded Exercise Protocol

by Dennis Bradford

in physical well-being

Especially if you are beginning a cardio exercise program, I recommend Graded Exercise Protocol (“GXP”). It’s simple, safe, effective, and efficient.

(A task is effective if it gets you closer to your goals. Performing a task as economically as possible is performing it efficiently.)

Whenever you consider making any major changes to your exercise or nutritional habits, it’s best to get your physician’s blessing in advance.

What is graded exercise protocol?  How does it work?

I learned about it from Richard Winet, Ph.D., in his “Master Trainer” newsletter. He stated it was developed by Ralph Carpinelli, Ed.D., based on research done by Dr. Robert Otto.

What interested me was his claim that, although it was easier than high intensity interval training (“HIIT”), it was nearly as effective.

HIIT is the most effective protocol for cardio exercise. Because it is so intense, it must be brief, which is why it is also the most efficient protocol for cardio exercise.

Graded exercise protocol is not quite as effective or efficient as HIIT, but it’s nevertheless very good. Furthermore, it’s easier than HIIT. That’s why it’s especially good for anyone beginning a cardio exercise program.

If you want additional fitness after you have done GXP for a few months, then simply shift to HIIT. [I explain below when to shift.] If you are satisfied with your results from graded exercise protocol, just stay with it indefinitely.

The chief idea behind graded exercise protocol is simple:  keep your heart rate between 80 and 85% of its maximum for a specified amount of time. (In HIIT you do intervals of higher and lower heart rates.)

Since your heart rate is measured precisely, it’s easy to track your progress.

It’s imperative to know your age adjusted maximum heart rate (VO2max). If you happen to know it from recent standard exercise testing, use that number.

If you don’t, it’s easy to estimate it. There are different ways to do that. Here’s the most common:

Subtract your age in years from 220. 85% of that number yields your maximum heart rate for GXP. 65% of that number yields your minimum heart rate for GXP.

For example, if you are 40 years old, 220 minus 40 is 180. Multiplying 180 times .85 is 153. Multiplying 180 times .80 is 144. So, during the work phase [see below] of Graded Exercise Protocol, simply keep your heart rate between 144 and 153.

To do that, you must have a heart rate monitor. There are two serious mistakes you could make with GXP. The first is not using a heart rate monitor. Please never do GXP (or HIIT) without one.

The second is not cooling down properly.  Never just stop after intense cardio exercise; instead, always cool down.

There are three phases to GXP: warm-up, work, and cool-down. It is important not to rest between the three phases; go straight from one to the next.

The warm-up phase involves taking about 3 minutes to elevate your heart rate from normal until your 80% level. If, for example, you are using a stationary bike (which is what I use and recommend for either GXP or HIIT), get on it and start pedaling slowly. Simply increase the speed at which you are pedaling for several minutes until you hit your 80% level.

The work phase involves adjusting the speed of pedaling so that you are maintaining your heart rate between the 80 and 85% levels for the specified time.

The cool-down phase involves taking about 3 minutes to lower your heart rate back to normal. Simply decrease the speed at which you are pedaling for several minutes until your heart rate is back to normal. (In practice, I quit cooling down once my heart rate decreases from triple to double digits.)

How frequently should you do GXP? I recommend 3 times weekly. (I recommend against doing it more frequently than every other day. I recommend against doing it less frequently than 2 times weekly.)

How long should the work phase last? I recommend from 3 to 10 minutes once you have adapted to GXP.

How long should the work phase last when you are initially adapting to GXP? I recommend starting with 15 seconds and increasing its duration by 15 seconds until you are up to 3 minutes.

So, your first work phase should last 15 seconds, the second 30 seconds, the third 45 seconds, and so on.

If you do a three minute work set three times weekly, that’s only 9 minutes of exercise weekly! Even if you include warm-ups and cool-downs, that’s only 27 minutes weekly.

If you don’t think you have time for sufficient cardio exercise, you are lying to yourself.

What if you eventually want to do more than 3 minute work sets? Just increase the duration of your work sets by 15 seconds until you are doing 4 minutes, or 5 minutes, or 6 minutes and so on up to 10 minutes.

If your work sets eventually reach 10 minutes, you are doing them 3 times weekly, and you want even greater cardiovascular efficiency, then it’s time to switch to HIIT. [I intend to do a post on HIIT. Until then, you can find various HIIT protocols described online by simply doing a search for it.]

Otherwise, you may continue the graded exercise protocol with a work set duration between 3 and 10 minutes until your dotage. (Note: as you become more fit, you’ll have to work harder using GXP anyway.)

What if you want some additional mild cardio? I recommend brisk walking, but if you are walking to burn fat please don’t do it more than once weekly. (Why that limitation? Click here for the answer.)

Work up to one of these three: walking 2 miles in 30 minutes, 3 miles in 45 minutes, or 4 miles in 60 minutes. Any of these will make you comfortably tired and increase the amount of fat you burn each week. (Again, however, more frequently is not better for fat loss in this case.) Just don’t drop the GXP in favor of the walking.

If you haven’t been fit since junior high school and begin graded exercise protocol, you will soon enjoy the thrill of increased fitness. Being fit feels really, really good.

I wish you well!

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