The truth About Cardio

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In the world of fitness, there has been a long-standing controversy surrounding cardiovascular exercises (cardio). The belief commonly held is that doing cardio while trying to build muscle will destroy any progress you have made in the gym. Go onto Instagram or Twitter and it will not take you long to find profiles dedicated to gym life sporting “f*ck cardio” in their captions which further perpetuates the stereotype. Unfortunately, as humans, we love this kind of dichotomy. Being a gym-goer and/or aspiring bodybuilder puts you on a team and the enemy of that team is cardio. If you so much as look at the treadmill, row machine, or stationary bike, you are engaging in the use of tools of the oppressor. These are to be avoided at all costs lest your muscles are wasted away and you will be rendered a scrawny twerp. Does any of this sound familiar?

The truth

I am here to tell you that this is a lie. A lie that I think hurts a lot of people’s gains and can also ruin them in the long run.

To understand why this is, we need to first understand what cardiovascular training does. Cardiovascular training is any exercise that challenges your cardiovascular system. That system specifically is your heart and the miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries connected to it. As a side note, many people believe that cardio is respiratory training. This is only half-true. Cardio is for heart health and heart strength, you breathe heavier as a result of doing cardio and while you may feel your breathing getting easier after becoming accustomed to cardio, it is the result of your heart becoming stronger, not so much your lungs. What you are doing during cardio is simply forcing your heart rate to increase. To the unaccustomed, having an increased heart rate is very uncomfortable and as a result, many people avoid it. To understand why is simple: your heart is a muscle and if you avoid cardio, it is a weak muscle.

Every time your heart contracts, it pumps blood through your arteries and out to your extremities so that they have oxygen to function. When you do cardio, you work out your heart muscles by forcing them to contract faster. The result of this over the long run is a decrease in your resting heart and a more efficient, stronger heart. But how does this help you in the gym?

Have you ever done a really hard set of an exercise and felt completely winded? I bet you have. The reason that was so taxing was that you increased your heart rate to a level that it was not comfortable being at and as a result, you had to work hard to get that set done. However, what if that hadn’t been so taxing? Imagine going up to one of your hardest lifts, completing it, and not feeling like you need an oxygen mask to recover. How would that affect those sets in the future? That is possible if you train your cardiovascular system and would help you get stronger faster. You see, by training your cardiovascular system, your heart becomes comfortable at those higher heart rates which means that you can work out harder than you ever have and feel fine. Think about how that could benefit your gains!

Counter Examples

I would like to take a second now to recognize what someone would look like if they incorporate both strenuous lifting and cardio. To do this we need to find examples of such people and there’s no better place to look for those people than sprinters and CrossFit.

All controversy aside about its exercise philosophy, you have to admit that CrossFit produces some truly remarkable examples of physical fitness. Take the following two people:

Brooke Wells

At 5-foot 6-inches tall and 150 lbs. Brooke Wells is a monster. She deadlifts 425 lbs, squats over 350 lbs, cleans 270 lbs. This photo was taken of Brooke completing her 10-day marathon challenge in which she ran a total of 26.2 miles in 10 days.

Rich Froning Jr.

Rich is the Michael Jordan of CrossFit, having gotten 1st place awards in eight CrossFit games. At 5-foot 9-inches tall and 195 lbs. he is an absolute specimen of a human being. He can squat over 475 lbs., deadlift over 570 lbs., and can run the 400-meter dash in 1 minute which is incredible at his size.

Now let’s look at sprinters whose sport is cardiovascular exercise.

Asafa Powell

As an Olympic gold medalist, Asafa Powell is FAST. You may think to run fast you need to be light and small. No way. Asafa is 6-foot 3-inches tall and over 200 lbs. Sprinters need to be explosive and as a result, do a lot of heavyweight training. In fact, you can find videos of Asafa box squatting 585 lbs for reps!

Ivet Lalova

Ivet is another Olympic sprinter who has won gold at the European Championships. At 5-foot 6-inches and 121 lbs. she is truly an excellent example of cardio and weight lifting combined as she can bench press over 135 lbs. and squat over 225 lbs.

How To Include Cardio And Keep Gains?

By now, you should understand that it is possible to look like a beast and not get winded walking up a big flight of stairs. The last piece of this puzzle is: how do I do that?

You can breathe a sigh of relief because the answer is not “go run 5 miles a day.” Steady-state cardio like that will cause you to lose size, that is the cardio you will want to stay away from. This is both good news and bad because while long bouts of cardio sound like hell to most people, the solution is not easy.

To acquire a strong cardiovascular system and maintain size and strength, you have to work in small, very intense bursts of cardio. Doing this is called anaerobic cardiovascular exercise as it still uses type 2 muscle fibers and works out your heart at the same time.

Exercises that you can incorporate are:

  1. 100m/200m/400m sprint repeats
  2. 15-minute row repeats
  3. Keep your stroke rate between 22-26 strokes per minute, rest 3 minutes, repeat
  4. Burpees
  5. Sled pushes
  6. Battle ropes (upper body cardio)

Final Thoughts

I hope that you can take this information and use it to make even more significant gains than you are currently experiencing. The fact is this: if you want to perform at a high level whether that is in lifting or in sports, you need a strong heart. That is just the facts. Avoiding cardiovascular exercise because you are afraid of losing gains is silly and simply not true. If you do the right kind of cardio, you can experience added gains to your lifts and a physique that would rival Greek gods and goddesses. Remember, your body is a machine of interconnected and interdependent systems. If one of your systems is weak, you will never reach your full potential.

Jordan Tank, Personal Trainer, Columbus, Ohio

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