You DON'T need cardio, Part 2: Fine do some cardio

So, after I wrote Part 1 of this series about why cardio sucks and why you should never do it, I’ve had some really great conversations with trainer’s, clients, and even some new faces. SUCCESS. My goal in writing Part 1 was definitely to ruffle some feathers, but more importantly to get people thinking about how different training types work into their plan. I also wanted to highlight that the common understanding of the effect of different exercise types on the body is often just plain wrong. For example here are some myths that just won’t die:

  • Lifting weights makes you big and bulky
  • Lifting light weights gives you long lean muscles
  • Stretching is the key to injury prevention
  • Cardio is the best way to lose fat

None of these are true. This means there’s a disconnect between what modern science tells us, and what popular opinion might be. I’ve got a stick in my craw about the cardio myth especially. The standard wisdom is “to lose weight, you’ve got to run!” Now this simply isn’t true as I outline in Part 1, but I wanted to share some of the best questions I’ve gotten since then, and also to help split the hair a little bit more and get into some of the finer details. To the person asking the question, should I run or lift weights?  The answer is absolutely to lift weights. But what if you already lift? Or if you really enjoy being outside? What if you find yourself out of breath in sports or training?  If you only have 1 hour to train, should you do cardio or lift? What if you want to be a powerlifter? What if you just want to lose some body fat and be more active? Well let’s talk.

Should I really never do cardio?

If you're not already lifting weights, no you don't need cardio. Weight training is the foundation of a successful exercise plan designed to do…well anything. Make sure to lift weights first, 3X week and progressively go up in weight from week to week. If you’re not already doing that, think about skipping the cardio and getting strong first. After you’re a pro in the gym (which by the way can take years) then think about which type of cardio can help you continue to make progress.

Look Elliott, spending time outside to myself is one of the best ways I’ve found to spend my time. I look forward to it, and I always feel better afterwards.

Great! Then go for it. But make sure that ‘because I like it’ is the reason why you include it in your plan, and not because it maximizes fat loss or improves your heart health more than lifting weights does. Because it doesn’t. There is time in life to do the things you like. Watching TV, relaxing, spending time with family, and playing sports are what keep us sane to go back to work on Monday. I’m a big fan of these things as they help immensely with keeping a balance, and staying sane. So yes, please include activities that you like in your life, but also recognize the trade-offs. Spending time with family, means you’re not spending time in the gym. I’m not saying don’t spend time with your family, not by a long stretch. But do recognize these trade-offs and align them with your goals to live the life you’ve imagined. What do I really like? A long walk with my dogs, and I suppose that’s technically ‘cardio’. But you know what? I like it :)

 
Dogs + Outside = Awesome. And yes, thats a pull up band being used as a leash.

Dogs + Outside = Awesome. And yes, thats a pull up band being used as a leash.

 

Aren’t there lots of different kinds of ‘cardio’?

Yes, there sure are. What I’m railing against in Part 1 is the steady state, slow pace, repetitive style seen on treadmills and ellipticals in commercial gyms everywhere. There are lots of other kinds of ‘cardio’ that can have a lot of benefit though, such as:

  • HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training. This is going fast for 1-3 minutes, and then at a slower pace for the same duration, performed for rounds. This style has been shown time and again to be superior to steady-state cardio for fat loss. Try 1 minute as fast as you can, and 1 minute at a slow pace for 20 minutes if you’ve never tried it before. This is more time efficient and effective than going slowly for 45-60 minutes.
  • Crossfit-style conditioning: This style is a series of exercises performed back to back with little rest, with some form of competitive aspect like completing the workout as fast as possible. This would be something like:

                50 squats

                50 Kettlebell swings

                25 Pull Ups

                25 Push Ups

This style is great for fat loss, and also for increasing muscular endurance and ‘work capacity’ or the ability to do lots of stuff in a short time. This is a great finisher to a hard strength workout for those looking to maximize fat loss. One of my favorites is the Prowler. If you’re looking for a challenge, load up a Prowler with 90lbs for Men and 50lbs for Women. Now push it 250 yards as fast as you can and try to survive. It should be noted though, that you need a proficiency in all of the exercises you plan on including in your finisher. If you need work on the technical aspects of your push up, doing them as fast as possible against a clock isn't the best idea. With clients I only include these finishers with folks who have a technical base, and have achieved certain strength check points such as squatting 100lbs or performing 5 push ups to the floor.

  • Walking/Hiking: This is effective if it truly is light and easy. A walk in the evening can be a beautiful experience, and one we should all have more often. The trouble only happens what it is so hard (like a tough hike) that it affects your next weight training session. Walk and hike all you want! But just make sure it doesn’t make you too sore for the important stuff like Squatting and Deadlifting.

What kind should I do if I’m a powerlifter? Looking to lose weight? Or new to training?

Here’s the style of cardio/conditioning I’d recommend for different types of trainees:

  • Powerlifter- Hard volume work of 8-12 reps of the competition exercise. This will improve your ability to recover from hard work, so you don’t end up gassed at a meet. You'll also want to include some SBD days (squat, bench, deadlift). You should practice like you play, and you’ll need to Squat, Bench and DL all on meet day, so I highly recommend having at least 1 day per week of your training dedicated to doing all three, especially if you find yourself super tired going into Deadlifts at meets.
  • Weight Loss- Lift weights 3 X week, and then add a conditioning finisher. That means you should Squat, Bench, Deadlift, Overhead Press, and do Chin Ups for 3-5 hard sets of 6-12 reps. After that follow it up with a HIIT circuit or a Crossfit-style finisher. I’ve found a 20 minute cap for the finisher keeps it hard, intense, and not so long that it steals from your strength
  • New to training- Start by building your strength until you can squat at least 100lbs, do 5 push ups to the floor, and deadlift at least 150lbs. If you can't hit those targets yet, you can leave the cardio for later. Pushing up your bodies strength will cause more change than you might think.

Isn’t it bad for your business to tell people not to exercise?

Probably. But there are actually a lot of things we do at TrueFN that don’t maximize our business opportunities. I tell people all the time that if our goal was simply to make money we’d do Zumba in a warehouse with 1000 people and pay the instructor pennies. But we don’t do that and we never will, because this isn’t what people need. And I’m determined to give people what they need (which is lifting weights) even if they don’t like it, don’t think they do, or even get mad at me for saying so. Is it an effective business model? Probably not, but telling people the glories of lifting weights is a foxhole I’ll die in.

Couldn’t you reach more people who don’t lift weights by being nicer about it?

Maybe. But you’ve got to remember I’m working against an entire industry that is designed specifically into tricking people and peddling crap. The Ab-Doer, Ab-o-Matic, and Ab-tastic informercials are telling people it’s easy, and doesn’t take effort. The real effort people need to give is not in the gym, but in educating themselves about what is effective and what is not. Lifting weights to build fitness is not my opinion that I’ve clung to. It is not just a book, but sections of libraries that go unread because the average population is too busy arguing over which foods will kill you first. So yea….I’m kind of testy about it. Because this is an argument that matters. Muscles resist forces like gravity, and lifting weights is training your body to resist the only force that acts on it 24 hours a day- gravity. We can improve not just the number of days, but the quality of those days by strength training intelligently with efforts in the gym, and to learn more about the science and less about the pseudo-science. So today, I’ll be a little rude about it to make my point, and if I don’t start making some headway I’ll be yelling here soon :)

 
 

Does cardio really halt my strength progress?

It’s more wasted effort than anything else. Yes there’s a competing adaptation, but the real trouble is taking you away from the exercises that would have a larger benefit. There are only so many hours in the day, and ‘I don’t have time’ is still the number one reason people give me for not exercising.

Fine I’m convinced. How should I structure my training?

3X week resistance training with progressively overloaded weights is the bedrock of your program. That means Squats, Bench Presses, Deadlifts, Overhead Presses, and Chin Ups. After that you can have fun with whatever other recreation time you have. But make sure to classify it as recreation. Basketball and tennis are tons of fun, but they are not structurally overloaded exercises that will maximize fat loss. These activities are great, but make sure to hit the courts AFTER you make sure you have time to hit the weights.

Summary

Lifting weights is the foundation and cornerstone of health and fitness. This is the first thing people should think of when they embark on a plan to lose weight or get healthier. Right now the common wisdom is to 'do cardio’. But with your help we can change that. Start a conversation with someone about why lifting is important. Share this article. Tell your mother that she would feel better if she were stronger, and you’d love to teach her how. Tell your coworker who’s starting a new diet, that you’d love to have them come train with you. Introduce people to weights, and see the magic it has on their lives. I’m a different person because I lift weights, and I'm glad I am. And that's a message I won't stop sharing