Aside from “24hr barbecue brisket” or “free work drinks.”
They are of course;
And before I begin outlining some of the ways in which I’ve changed my mind about cardio, I want to outline that prior to Directional Strength, my business was all about bodybuilding, figure competitions and bikini / fitness division competitors. I don’t like too much cardio for these people because of the sheer amount of stress that they are already under! Calories are already very low, stress hormones already very high and there are numerous other thermogenic adaptions which will occur when getting to very low bodyfat.
In competition, it’s necessary to get very very lean. So sometimes yes you have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that some cardio is necessary (particularly for women around 60kg or lower who are looking to drop bodyfat without lowering calories even further) to get in stage shape. No, it’s not sustainable and yes – you should aim to do the minimum amount of cardio possible.
But I’m not coaching aesthetic athletes anymore. The vast majority of my clients are engaged in sports which require equal amounts of aerobic and anaerobic fitness including marital artists and Spartan race athletes. Working more closely with powerlifters and doing powerlifting myself, I’ve learned that my cardiovascular fitness and my capacity to improve my strength are inseparable.
So my opinion needed to be refreshed, I needed more information and more of a balanced opinion about when cardio is necessary, what kind of cardio has the most benefit and how it improves our health, fitness and overall well-being outside of getting up on a stage wearing fuck all and prancing about.
4 main ways in which cardiovascular training benefits our health;
Before I can start giving some guidelines as to how cardio can be used for various health and performance goals, I need to cover what it does for us. Physiologically, there are a number of ways in cardiovascular training can help us to improve our health, so we’ll focus upon these first.
1. Mitochondrial density and beta-oxidation
The mitochondria are like little batteries within your muscles that gobble up energy. When doing aerobic training, there is a process called beta-oxidation, in which the free fatty acids circulating within our plasma are pushed into the mitochondria to be metabolised into AcetylCoA and used in the Kreb’s cycle.
One of the benefits of cardiovascular training, particularly aerobic – is that we adapt to increase the density of the mitochondria within our muscles. More mitochondria = more capacity to take in free fatty acids and oxygen.
2. Improved heart and immune function
Being cardiovascularly trained helps to reduce resting heart rate and blood pressure by increasing stroke volume, and a lower resting heart rate is related to optimal parasympathetic nervous system activity. Stroke volume refers to the amount of blood being pushed around the body by the heart, and the heart rate referring to the amount of times the heart beats per minute. The average resting heart rate for an adult is between 60 and 75, with the lower end of this range being optimal as it is a good sign of physical fitness. If you are fit – your stroke volume increases, and your blood pressure will decrease – the overall effect being that the heart does not have to beat as frequently to get more blood to the periphery of the body. Blood carries oxygen to the muscles, so therefore having a heart which functions optimally enables oxygen to reach your muscles far more easily, improving the efficiency and the capacity of your body to take up free fatty acids.
3. Parasympathetic / sympathetic nervous system balance
The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and enables us to reduce our heart rate, digest food, recover optimally, manage and control the natural circadian rhythms of our body including those related to cortisol, melatonin etc. This helps us to manage stress, achieve deeper sleep and ensure a healthy immune response, including fighting off potential viruses. When we are threatened by a potential danger, our heart rate increases rapidly, as does our cortisol, adrenaline and our blood sugar. High resting heart rates can be a result of a highly stressed body which is sympathetically dominant, highly inflamed, metabolically dysfunctional and with the potential for insulin resistance as a result of stress induced blood sugar spikes.
4. Improved recovery and potential work volume
All of the improvements to heart and immune function will carry over to our capacity to recover from heavy training. Because once high intensity or anaerobic activity is ceased, we return to an aerobic / fat burning state – having improved cardiac function, lowered heart rate and greater parasympathetic function means that a “switch” can be flipped between the use of oxygen, and the use of lactate. Being aerobically fit enables us to buffer lactate faster, increases our VO2 max and ensures that recovery between bouts of high intensity efforts is maximised. For a strength athlete, this ensure that not only can you handle a higher intensity of training during your sessions, but that you can also recover faster between sets and between workouts. Your ability to tolerate a higher volume of work is intrinsically linked to muscle hypertrophy and of course, your capacity to build strength over time.
How to improve your cardiovascular fitness
Here are some ideas for integrating cardio, using case studies and real world examples;
1. Overweight / obese trainee with central abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and high resting heart rate
If you have a high amount of central abdominal obesity, chances are you do not metabolise carbohydrates optimally. If you have high blood pressure and are high risk for cardiovascular diseases, then you do not want to dive right in to high intensity, brutal, “beast mode” training styles because you do not have the capacity to recover from it!
If you are eating a lower carbohydrate diet (which is recommended for these populations), then you will need to slowly integrate steady-state, low intensity but longer duration cardio. I would suggest that you begin by aiming for a daily step goal of at least 7,500 and then integrating more movement into your daily routine. Over time, you might want to work up to two or three designated cardio bouts using a stationary bike, treadmill or other equipment and keeping to an intensity which allows you to carry on a conversation – done at a separate time to your lifting.
Higher intensity training utilises more carbohydrates as fuel, so you want to steer clear of HIIT, HIT and anything too intense until your resting heart rate, blood pressure and fitness levels have improved. Weight training wise, a bodybuilding style approach is actually perfect as it helps to reduce stored muscle glycogen and improve insulin sensitivity.
2. Highly stressed average Joe, office worker with sedentary lifestyle and poor sleep who wants to lose fat
Much of what I would recommend for the average Joe is actually the same as that for an overweight /obese person. Lack of sleep, high stress levels and a lack of physical activity all contribute to poor energy utilisation, a greater propensity for high resting blood sugar and impairment to insulin sensitivity. Think of this as a pre-fat loss approach, where you aim to reduce your stress, improve your sleep and activate the parasympathetic nervous system on a daily basis. Have a step goal, get up off your chair and move around as much as possible, do meditation / yoga / read / colour in a book etc on a daily basis to ensure that you’re getting the recovery you need. Aim to reduce the sugar in your diet, increase the amount of fresh fruits and veggies and as per #1 – perform weight bearing activities in the 8-15 rep range and slowly increase your cardiovascular training to 3 or 4 sessions per week at a moderate intensity. Remember – adding more stress to an already stressed body is counter-productive! Look to ways to increase the amount of movement you do on a daily basis, without going to a point where you cannot hold a conversation.
As you become fitter, get deeper, more quality sleep and can manage your stress – THEN look to ramping it up and adding things like circuit training, or higher intensity exercise.
3. Strength athlete or martial artist looking to improve peak performance
Here we can have some fun with your training and integrate some periodisation and strategic, higher volume phases. Typically for strength athletes I will split a macrocycle into 4 mesocycles; Preparatory phase, hypertrophy phase, strength phase, peaking phase. The preparatory phase is where you would include very high volume sets of up to 20 or more reps, as well as things like AMRAP training and a higher proportion of conditioning work. If you are not particularly fit, this phase is where we try to establish a baseline cardiovascular capacity. This will help to ensure that the volume you can handle, and recover from in subsequent hypertrophy phases is increased. Some daily cardio in the form of a minimum step goal would be ideal, as well as an active recovery day involving some hiking or a long walk would be advantageous for helping recovery during ALL microcycles.
For martial artists or those doing activities like BJJ, conditioning work is going to be a far higher priority as cardiovascular work is implicit in your sport! Plyometrics, hybrid training sessions involving sprints and reps for time are highly advantageous to your performance in general. If you are currently training for your sport 3-4 days per week but feel that you need extra cardiovascular fitness, make sure your recovery is optimal before adding extra intensity or frequency. Sleep quality, duration and nutrition must be set to help you recover adequately – then you can look to including some moderate intensity, steady state cardio such as running or rowing to your routine. Start with sessions of 30 minutes or less and then periodise / increase the intensity over time.
Remember that your sport requires you to be able to repeatedly hit a peak intensity in a short duration of time – potentially using moderate intensity cardio at the beginning of your mesocycle and then integrating sprints, high intensity bouts of work and other peaking methods as you reach your competition or event.
3. Spartan Race or endurance athlete
I like to think of programming and periodisation for these athletes as a see-saw. You might begin with some baseline strength work and then once you’ve hit a reasonable level of strength – increase the endurance component accordingly, but you never completely remove the strength training elements – you just adapt them to be more muscular endurance based. This would involve using things like bodyweight and weight training to stress muscular endurance over time, so starting with a strength phase, then leading into a hypertrophy and then an endurance and peaking phase. Your goal for the peaking phase is to maintain muscular size and strength whilst improving the speed and duration of your cardiovascular training, slowly adding in extra kms as you lead up to the race or event. Ensuring you’re eating enough food and staying hydrated is paramount here, as when your training volume increases, particularly from cardio – you’ll be expending a lot of energy and your water and glucose intake will need to go up accordingly.
Track, monitor and adjust
When it comes to training there is unfortunately a cross-over effect wherein we cannot get maximally strong AND maximally fit at the same time. There will always be confounding factors that mean that Peter is going to rob from Paul. Each sport or each goal you choose will invariably contain some level of optimal physical fitness or strength, no one sport requires everything! So if your goal is simply to become healthier and drop a bit of bodyfat, keeping both cardiovascularly fit and looking to increase strength and hypertrophy over time is not only your goal – but is completely reasonable to achieve. Aiming to run a marathon one week and then do a powerlifting meet the next, is not.
As with everything, if you track and record the changes you are getting you can then adjust accordingly. If you are looking to optimise your health, simple measures like resting heart rate, blood pressure and waist circumference are going to be your best measures. If you want to increase your work capacity and the overall volume and intensity of your program – you might want to focus on things like HRV, strength, total volume lifted and then use your resting heart rate as a guide for being self-aware and adjusting your routine to ensure your recovery.