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Cardio Confusion: How to Do It Right

My recent blog on common sense cardio training seemed to strike a chord amongst many of you who have had enough with personal trainers making sweeping statements that defy sensible reason and the evidence of our own eyes and experience. Although I tried to also deal with my own key points for how I might approach integrating cardio training programmes into an exercise regime, the feedback suggested that not everyone really “gets” what is meant by “cardio”, with the biggest issue being that some people are still labouring under the major misapprehension that the only exercise modality that can be categorised as cardiovascular is aerobic style training such as medium to long distance running or cycling. Nothing could be further from the truth and let me explain why.

There is a world of difference between exercising for aerobic capacity, which is what you get from aerobic training, and cardiovascular fitness.

Let that sink in for a few seconds.

Now let’s define a few concepts, because there is so much BS talked about what is necessary to be “fit” (what does that mean anyway – it should mean “fit for purpose”, and every purpose is different so there can be no real meaning to the term “fit”!):

Aerobic Training

Cardio training programmes are often perceived as being within the exclusive remit of “aerobic exercise”. Aerobic (“with oxygen”) training is typified by low to moderate levels of exertion, typically over a duration of 20 minutes up to many hours. As a % of energy used to fuel the body, fat metabolism is higher than carbohydrate/glycogen metabolism (glycolysis), however fewer calories per unit of time are burned than with more intense forms of training (anaerobic – “without oxygen”) and overall metabolic elevation stays higher the more intense the training session is, ie the greater the anaerobic capacity so long as exercise duration is of sufficient length, as 2 seconds of anaerobic exercise will burn minimal calories, but repeated bursts of 30-90 second anaerobic training will boost your metabolism like wildfire.

Aerobic Capacity

Specific aerobic training improves aerobic fitness/aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity is the functional capacity of the cardiorespiratory system, which is measured by testing VO2 max, a term that means an individual’s aerobic capacity/peak oxygen uptake/maximal oxygen consumption. VO2 max is crucially important for endurance athletes, of minimal importance to more explosive athletes (there is in fact a proven inverse correlation between VO2 max and an individual’s ability to “accelerate” and “explode” as measured by a vertical jump), and there is no direct link between VO2 max and cardiovascular health. This isn’t to say that the VO2 max is useless, or that an improved cardiorespiratory capacity is not a good thing for many people, but it is clearly not the only or even the best way to exercise the heart.

Cardiovascular Health

The cardiovascular system is one of the most important aspects of our own health, and we should pay it constant attention. It is the heart, the veins, and the blood vessels, and it takes in pulmonary, systemic and coronary circulation. It has nothing to do with aerobic capacity, which should make you wonder why aerobic training is so commonly conceived as being the only way to exercise for a healthy heart!

Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Cardiorespiratory fitness is the ability of both the respiratory and the circulatory systems to supply oxygen to skeletal muscles during physical activity. This isn’t just an asset for an exercise regime, but also for living a vigorous and fulfilling life. A large number of people seem to believe that cardiorespiratory fitness can only be achieved by aerobic training. Indulge me for a second and let us wonder if there are any other exercise modalities that might vigorously pump blood to skeletal muscles and “train” the heart”.

Female after an intense UP workout

30 minutes later…not smiling now…

What it all means:

Hopefully the definitions above will have got you thinking a little and enable you to appreciate that the first problem we have to address in this cardio/ aerobic debate is that we are pretty much all guilty of using the term “cardio training” when we really mean “aerobic training”. Think about what we mean when we discuss a cardio training programme: this refers to exercise that is stimulating for our overall cardiovascular system, predominantly the heart. So it therefore stands to reason that anything that maximally exercises the heart and vascular system can count as a cardiovascular training programme. If you are one of those who associate cardiovascular training as solely belonging to the world of the treadmill/stationary bike, stop for a second and ask yourself whether you are being slightly myopic, and if there may be occasions when other forms of exercise aside from traditional aerobic training might also stimulate the heart.

The naysayers of resistance training will tell you that aerobic training is a must for cardiovascular health, regardless of whether an individual weight trains or not. The number of times I have heard medically trained personal training clients come out with this line of BS is quite staggering. The solution to such ignorance is to teach via experience, and one introductory session into the delights of weight training for fat loss and body composition purposes soon sees them reverse that opinion. In such circumstances it isn’t absolutely necessary to have them gasping for breath, heart beating so hard that our receptionist at the front desk can hear it, vomiting in the sick bucket, and collapsing in a corner of the gym for 50 minutes, but it does give a certain satisfaction as a lesson well learned!

What I love about resistance training is that it is the most malleable training tool available to us. We can pretty much literally train for anything we want. So if you are gearing up for a powerlifting world record with long slow sessions of triples and a work to rest ratio of 10 seconds to 7 minutes then yes, you would certainly benefit health wise from some form of cardio training, although this should not be traditional aerobic work but rather some brief modified strongman sessions on the super yoke, farmers walk, and prowler. On the other hand, the type of training that most people want, the type that adds a sculpted look to the body, very often involves minimal rest periods and a constantly elevated heart rate. If someone comes to me wanting to improve their “fitness” for almost any sport, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their stamina and short-term recovery ability can be improved often in as little as a few days with brutally tough workouts that emphasize big compound movements, restricted recovery between sets, and a little bit of time spent pulling a sled! If anyone doubts me on this, I’ll let you train someone the traditional way of doing shuttle runs across a football pitch and other forms of outdated “conditioning work”, and I’ll train them my way in my gym, and after ten days we can see whose performance will have improved the most. I’ll be willing to wager anything you like on this one if someone wants to take me up on it!

Female after tough weights session

Alive, a little bit sweaty, heart rate still racing, no treadmill in sight!! Workout below…

What this means for YOU!

It means that there are innumerable exercise options open to you if you want to build cardiovascular health. A bit of (hard) aerobic training can be good, and so can some (hard) weight training. Coasting on a stationary bike will have negligible effect, as will weight training the way most people seem to do it in a commercial gym. Sitting yourself down in some fancy machine and lifting a weight for 12 reps that you could actually lift for 100 reps, and then resting five minutes whilst you text your friends and stare into space simply does not cut it. It isn’t all that complicated, you just have to work hard!

However, if push comes to shove, is there an optimal form of training for cardiovascular health? In my opinion, the answer to that is a definite affirmative, and it lies squarely in the realm of resistance training. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a modified strongman training class or can train in a gym where supersetting large compound movements is feasible, then you have the ideal cardiovascular training modality. Try this very simple workout below and tell me your heart is working overtime!

Intense Cardio Workout:

A1: Trap Bar Deadlift – 10 rep max / 4010 tempo.

Under 10secs rest.

A2: Standing Military Press – 10 rep max / 3010 tempo.

Under 10secs rest.

A3: Pull Up – 10 rep max (add weight if necessary) / 3010 tempo.

Under 10sec rest.

A4: Back Squat (in this routine I’d use a Safety Squat / Hatfield Bar if you have access to one) – 10 rep max / 4010 tempo.

Rest 2-4 minutes and repeat for a total of 4 cycles”; if you can!!

This is certainly not your bog standard cardio training programme, and if you are reasonably well trained and generate a degree of force then this will f*** you up beyond belief. And your cardiovascular system will benefit from the workout of its life!

Some of you reading this may be skeptical of my enthusiasm as after all, a cursory glance will tell you that I have a personal preference towards weight training over aerobic exercise. Just for once I’ll quote a tiny bit of science (thanks to Clare Rooney whose typically erudite comment made me look this up) and state that there are countless studies proving that left ventricular function of the heart is one of the key predictors of cardiovascular health, and guess what sort of person these studies say have the best ejection fraction and diastolic function? Yes, individuals who regularly practice vigourous resistance training! (Am J Cardiol. 2008 Jul 1;102(1):97-101. Epub 2008 Apr 22).

Your Honour, I rest my case.

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