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Fairytales from the gym: All weights no cardio

So we are carrying on with our gym myths series, smashing stereotypes and learning how to train for better results in the process.

As promised in my last installment of this series, we are going to take a look at cardio.

My observations in the gym identify two particular types of workout. There's the people who are up there on the cardio machines, and don't tend to lift much - some of these are women who are avoiding weights, but this group also tends to include a lot of health focussed gym goers, people wanting to lose weight or improve cardiovascular health. Then there's the people who are all about weights, they go straight to freeweights on arrival, and stay there. Now, the latter may well be doing their cardio training elsewhere, but there is definitely a myth that exists about cardio and weights being separate types of training that don't mix, and that is what I want to bust today.

A personal trainer will tell you that a good training program needs both resistance and cardio training.

Why do you need to train cardio?

Benefits of cardio include:

You can't simply leave that out of your routine. So why does that commonly happen?

Firstly, when training for strength or hypertrophy (big muscles) is the goal, that means a lot of volume (sets and reps) and a lot of rest time between sets, which means that workouts take a long time. We can reduce that time by using split routines, and condense it by using supersets, trisets and giant sets, but ultimately you are still going to be spending 40-60 minutes lifting weights and taking your rests between sets. Adding 20-30 minutes cardio onto that isn't that appealing, especially when on the surface, you might not understand why you need to.

Secondly, there is this idea out there that training cardio is actually detrimental to strength training. This is completely and utterly wrong. If you are training for functional fitness, it makes sense that you want to be able to move without getting out of breath. You want your body to be capable of keeping up with all the cool, fun stuff you want to do with it, and that means cardio fitness too. But even if you only want to be good at lifting, the right kind of cardio can still help you perform better.

And this is the key: The right kind of cardio.

Energy systems in cardio training.

To understand how this works, you need to understand energy systems. Your muscles get their fuel for contraction via a few different routes, depending on how the muscle is being used.

If you need the muscle to work at a low to moderate level, for a sustained period, you use your aerobic system. This needs oxygen and will carry on for hours if you need it to. So if you are running an endurance race at a steady pace, you will mostly rely on your aerobic system.

But the aerobic system has limits, and if you are working harder, a decent paced run instead of a jog, you will be relying on your lactate system to provide more fuel. The lactate system produces lactic acid as a byproduct, and this limits it. You can run on this system for a few minutes, but then you'll need to take a couple of minutes recovery.

The lactate system still isn't the flashiest fastest resource you have. That's your creatine phosphate system. CP provides a massive burst of energy for a short time, just a few seconds, but enough for a short hill sprint.

Energy systems in resistance training

So you need energy to lift weights too right? We know cardio training improves the efficiency of your energy systems in various ways, improving your tolerance to lactic acid for instance, or increasing CP stores in your muscles. Improvements to the systems in cardio are transferable when these systems are used in resistance training.

Soooooo..... If you train anaerobic cardio you increase your tolerance to lactic acid (the burn in your muscles), you push your anaerobic threshold (that bit where you feel like you are going to vomit) and that means you can work harder when you are lifting weights under anaerobic conditions. Hypertrophy training (heavy weights, several sets of 6-12 reps) uses your anaerobic system. The lactic acid burn stresses the muscles and encourages them to bulk up, the better you can train through "the burn" the better your gains will be.

It is true, that for instance training cardio for endurance is not highly compatible with power lifting. The two use different systems and ultimately you end up spreading yourself too thinly and compromise creeps in. Training endurance makes your intermediate type muscle fibres more like slow twitch fibres, but for power lifting you want fast twitch fibres, they clearly don't match up. But ..... you can do cardio to make them more like fast twitch fibres, and that will definitely improve your lifting. Training the right kind of cardio to match your resistance regime will get you better results all round.

Matchmaking your training

So if you are training for joint stability, low to mid resistance, high reps; then you need to be working on your aerobic conditioning. This is where LSD (long slow duration) cardio is useful. It works both ways, if you are training LSD for an endurance race, it makes sense to do some resistance training to stabilise and strengthen your joints.

If you are training for muscular endurance (mid weight, sets of 12-15 reps) then you will be using your aerobic system, but you want to be challenging your aerobic system to stay aerobic when you work harder, so do some intervals. Intervals are great because they allow you to push yourself towards your threshold, then take a little recovery break. Lots of gym machines have interval training sessions built in, which is really helpful. Or you could try a lower intensity circuits class.

Hypertrophy means going for the burn, so if you want big muscles you need to be training anaerobic intervals. Work hard for 30-60 seconds, then take a minute or two at a moderate level to get your breath back. You need to really be feeling it, like your heart is trying to strangle you. That's good times.

If you are training for strength or power then you are doing a lot of hard work in a very short time. You'll be lifting the heaviest you can for less than 5 reps (less than 10 seconds) then taking a couple of minutes rest before doing it again. You are using your creatine phosphate system. To train your CP system you need to be doing sprints or short, high intensity intervals. Working as hard as you can for 10 seconds, then taking it back to a moderate level for a couple of minutes recovery. Hill sprints are a good example of this, but any kind of cardio exercise will do.

Fitting cardio into your gym routine

OK, so now we know that you need to do it, the question is how.

The most obvious is to get onto the cardio machines, because they are right there. You've usually got the choice of a few different ones, mix it up a bit, don't just stick to one kind. Try adding 15 minutes of intervals on the machine into your workout.

You could also train cardio separately, maybe getting down to your local playing fields and doing some running between lines, or get a running app on your phone that coaches you through intervals of fast running and recovery for set times. Or try some cardio intervals at home, stuff like burpees and mountain climbers, then jogging on the spot for recovery.

Classes are great too, there's a whole load of options for HIIT (high intensity interval training) classes that use cardio intervals - HIIT workouts are short too, usually 20-40 minutes, so they aren't too hard to schedule.

My absolute favourite way to bring cardio to weights addicts is bringing HIIT into your resistance workout. Turbulence training is an example of HIIT that works great with a hypertrophy programme, I use it a lot because I get bored in the rests between sets. Basically you do a set of 6-10 reps, then a one minute cardio interval. You can do this on the mats in the gym with kettlebells, dumbells or bodyweight strength training, or you can get right down next to the weight bench and throw in some squat thrusts inbetween your chest press sets. Yeah, it's a bit unusual, but are you really going to let those guys sitting on their phones between sets judge you? You are a trailblazer and you are using your gym time to get the best results. Try it, it's hard, you will feel it and no one can tell you that this kind of cardio is for softies....

If you want help building a balanced, effective training program that helps you get the most out of your workout, you should totally check out my online PT options, it's a great value way to access my expertise for your personal goals.


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