Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cardio vs. Strength Training

If you're like me, you've surely had the cardio-versus-lifting conversation with a friend, or with someone at a gym, or in an online forum. This may be the area in which there's more "bro science" knowledge than any other. Everyone has an answer. 

But what's the answer for Regular Guys? I don't think there is just one.

Everyone has a different starting point, everyone has different goals, and everyone has different preferences. Some people need to lose body fat. Some people are naturally lean but are looking to put on muscle. Some people enjoy distance races and should train with that in mind. And some people just want to be able to keep up with life without running out of breath. So if someone tries to convince you that his way is the only way, it's safe to say that you should ignore that person.

One thing I've noticed is that you'll see testosterone-fueled opinions like this one coming from the bodybuilding community, but there's no corollary on the other side of the fence. No running, cycling or swimming coach worth his salt would advise against strength training. To me, the name-calling combined with the my-way-or-the-highway attitude adds up to bias confirmation, and it's exactly what the Regular Guy should avoid.

But let's be honest: You may not see it in the professional community, but there are plenty of Cardio Kings at the gym -- guys who spend an hour on the elliptical but would sooner eat a pound of dirt than do a pushup. 

My opinion: The ratio will depend on your starting point, goals and preferences, but you need to do both. Strength training will improve your cardio and add lean muscle -- which looks good! Not to mention, being stronger allows you to do more things in life, like moving heavy stuff. On the other hand, cardio will help you achieve the calorie deficit you need to reduce fat. It will also help you build endurance, which will both aid your strength training and give you that stamina you need to keep up with life.

There are a couple of fitness ideas that people -- particularly the cardio detractors -- insist on. I think these are myths, and I think they're worth having a conversation about:
  • Cardio actually decreases muscle mass. There's this idea out there that aerobic exercise causes your body to burn muscle rather than fat. The thinking is that evolution has caused our bodies to choose glycogen (sugar) first, then muscle (protein), then fat. There are two problems with this, however. First, your body is never burning one of those exclusively. And second, you are building muscle when you bike, run, swim, etc. The article I cited above ("you need to do both") is based on a 2012 study that showed that cardiovascular exercise does, in fact, build muscle mass. Anecdotally, I can tell you that training for a marathon made my legs incredibly strong.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat overall. You hear this one a lot -- that resting muscle burns more calories than resting fat does. And it's true. The problem is, it's not a big difference. A pound of muscle will burn about 6 calories a day. A pound of fat will burn 2. So even if you replaced 10 pounds of fat with 10 pounds of muscle, you'd have a net gain of 40 calories a day -- about 4 pounds a year. And let's be realistic on both sides of that equation. 10 pounds of muscle is a serious gain that will require significant dedication to the weight room. And are you really looking to lose just 10 pounds of fat? Let's imagine you gained 5 pounds of muscle and lost 20 pounds of fat -- congratulations! You probably look and feel a lot better. You've also actually decreased your overall metabolism by 10 calories a day.
So now what? This is where you need to define your goals and to be realistic about what you want to do, are willing to do and have time to do. If you are looking to lose a few pounds, you're going to have to create a calorie deficit. Yeah, you can starve yourself, but that's not going to put on the lean muscle to help you look your best. And you're really not going to feel good, either. Consuming fewer than 2000 calories a day isn't going to help you keep up with your kids, or take the Christmas tree out to the curb, or rearrange the furniture. Nor is it going to be any fun when your friends invite you out, and you're the guy drinking water and noshing on the celery when they're knocking back coldies and chowing on wings.

That leaves you with cardio. I am not knocking strength training here, because it's clearly a big key in building the muscle that makes you look good and helps you accomplish things, and also because it will help with your cardio. For example, stronger legs and a stronger core will help you run longer, which aids your conditioning. But you have to do the cardio. 

In order to create a calorie deficit -- or even to maintain a calorie equilibrium -- you have to raise your heart rate. There are many other health benefits, as well, such as keeping your heart healthier, lowering your blood pressure and even making your blood vessels more elastic. But you have to get your heart pumping above 50 percent of your VO2 max -- preferably more -- and keep it there for a while. 

If your goal is to add muscle mass, consider high-intensity interval training (HIIT). You perform your sets quickly and give yourself little rest between them. I do this in my bodyweight routine. So, for example, I'll do a set of push-ups to close to failure, then flip to my back for bicycle crunches, then lunges or squats, and so forth. Within a few minutes, you should be breathing heavily. I understand that if you're going for real bulk, you're going to have to lift heavy, but for Regular Guys, I'm a big proponent of HIIT. You are doing strength and cardio simultaneously, and you're adding functional strength that will help you in the real world.

Of course, whatever your goals, the most important things for Regular Guys are to get off the couch, to make sure you're eating nutrient-dense foods and to keep your calories in check. I hope I've given you some ideas on the getting-off-the-couch part, and I hope you'll share what works for you!

No comments:

Post a Comment