Cardio Without Cardio
If you’ve been following the Strength Sensei for long enough, you know he’s not a fan of steady-state cardio. And neither am I.
Largely because aerobic capacity is an inferior health and performance biomarker compared to strength and muscle, but also because it’s extremely inefficient.
In a world where time is money, and we always complain about never having enough, it’s quite ironic that anyone still jogs.
Purposely taking part in moderate intensity endurance training seems to only make sense for those competing in an aerobic sport. And despite what you’ve been taught to believe, this doesn’t include a whole heck of a lot of sports.
Although it’s common to train soccer, hockey, and basketball players for endurance, they’re far from aerobic sports. Sure, they need to have some endurance capacity, but clearly not the kind that makes them ‘go far.’
The sad part is, training them to go far is actually making them perform worse. As training aerobically harms anaerobic performance:
“The consequences of aerobic exercise are too detrimental to be considered an effective training modality for anaerobic athletes; let alone a necessary one.” – Charles Pfeiffer, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2013.
Conversely, training anaerobically improves aerobic performance. Meaning short-intense bouts of speed, strength, and power improves our ability to go far. And athletes training with sprints instead of long runs will perform better on the field, ice, and court, while still having the stamina to complete extended bouts when necessary.
A study from 2005 in the Journal of Applied Physiology saw participants double their endurance capacity from 26 to 51 minutes in 2 weeks by performing only 6 sessions of 4-7 sprints (30-seconds).
When looking at the difference in power output for sprint protocols (tall skinny bars), compared to traditional steady-state cardio (solid striped block) one has to wonder why any serious athlete (or coach) would purposely select it to improve vo2max.
Not surprisingly, it’s the same story when it comes to regular human beings. With short-intense bouts of activity improving vo2max, anaerobic threshold and other endurance biomarkers to the same degree. Without having to join the running room, drive a bicycle up your ass, or buy a banana-hammock for mind-numbing laps of the pool.
If you enjoy these activities, I guess you can have at it. But, it’s important to understand that this behaviour is not getting you any closer to the strength and muscle necessary to fight the negative effects of aging. And when done to the extreme (which has become common with the universal goal of ‘running a marathon’) it’s probably accelerating the process.
If you’re currently doing strength-training and still want to maintain a level of aerobic capacity, I direct you to HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) or SIT (Sprint Interval Training). Which not only gives you all the benefits that marathon man is acquiring without the excessive stress and free radical damage, but requires less than a fraction of the time.
In 2010, researchers from the Journal of Physiology found equal aerobic and health improvements from 8-12 sets of 60sec sprints, compared to an endurance training group exercising almost 98% more.
By exercising for speed or intensity instead of distance or duration, we experience tremendous improvements in both anaerobic and aerobic performance. With results that are equivalent to those training longer and more often.
In 2006, researchers in the Journal Physiology found equal improvements in aerobic capacity when comparing 90-120min of continuous cycling at 65% intensity, with 4-6 intermittent sprints of 30-seconds and a 4min recovery between sets.
Over 2 weeks, that’s 8hrs (10.5 vs 2.5) less time exercising for the HIIT group!
Sadly, the typical reaction to this information (usually from those new to exercise) is a lack of confidence regarding the ability to go fast or with intensity. Which is unfortunate, as these are the same folks that usually get hosed for a brand new pair of $200 Asics, go gang-busters ‘yogging’ everyday, and quit a few weeks later because they’re injured, bored to tears, or not seeing results.
What they should have done, is started with interval walking (in addition to resistance training), worked there way up to some bodyweight HIIT, and then gone for a short 60-80% sprint once their leanness, strength, and mobility warranted it. As HIIT has proven successful for the very old, very obese, and very sick (diabetes, heart disease), at whatever intensity is ‘all-out’ for them.
For instance, researchers in the journal Diabetes Care split a group of participants with type 2 diabetes into an ‘interval walking’ or ‘continuous walking’ group. The interval walkers alternated every 3 minutes between high-intensity and low-intensity, while the continuous walkers moved at a moderate pace for the full 60 minutes. After performing the protocol 5 days a week for 4 months, the interval group saw a 16-19% increase in Vo2max, compared to no elevation in the continuous group. They also saw significant reductions in fat mass, visceral fat, and fasting glucose, while the continuous group showed no significant improvements in glycemic control.
The other interesting thing about HIIT, is that people LIKE doing it. Probably because it’s short and sweet, and gives them an instant endorphin spike.
Recent evidence (2015) from the Journal Sports Exercise and Psychology suggests that individuals prefer interval training over continuous, and shorter work intervals (30sec) over longer (120sec).