Simple Strength: How ''Cardio'' is Ruining Your Life
Author : Justin Nault
“If you think lifting weights is dangerous, try being weak. Being weak is dangerous.”– Bret Contreras
Steady-state cardio is stupid. Yup, I said it, I meant it, and I’m here to represent it. Ok, ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh, so let me clarify. If you’re trying to burn fat, build muscle, get stronger or get faster, steady-state cardio is stupid. Let’s be honest, stop in at your local “globo-gym” and look for the most unhealthy people you can find (it’s rude, I know, but bear with me); they will all undoubtedly be gathered in the same location, the “cardio” section. Better yet, my personal favorite, the “cardio theater.” You know, that place in fancy gyms where people go to watch movies and perform some sort of painful, joint-pounding, “jog” because they think they’re in the “fat-burning zone,” and lifting weights will make them “bulky.”It’s an epidemic, and it’s not their faults. I blame it on the last 30+ years of fitness “experts” feeding you the myth that is “cardio.” Partner that with the “diet and exercise” movement claiming that you must eat baby-sized food portions and burn more calories than you eat to be fit and you end up with one of the most damaging lies the American people have ever been fed (pun intended). For starters, the primary goal in their world is to help people get “skinny.” The problem with that theory is, skinny is not fit, skinny is not strong, and skinny-fat is still fat. We’ve lost track of one of the most valuable tools available to the human body... strength! Real strength, not “look at how big my biceps are” strength. I’m talking about full body strength and mobility that translates to and improves every aspect of your life. Want to burn fat? Get stronger. Want to run faster? Get stronger. Want to prevent injury? Get stronger. It’s safer, more effective, and far more enjoyable than “cardio.”
First things first, “cardio” is a made up word, related to the heart, with no exact definition. A sort of “catch-all” used to describe activities that elevate your heart rate, which we’ve been lead to believe will keep us healthy. The thing is, you’re operating based on faith, because the truth of the matter is, whether or not steady-state cardio has any effect on reducing our risk of heart disease has yet to be extensively tested (no matter what Cosmo tells you). People just accept it to be true, and no one really knows why.
Secondly, the idea that exercising at 60-70% of your max heart rate is the “fat-burning zone” is a straight-up lie. In reality, you burn more fat while you sleep than you do while jogging. (Thanks to your nightly, “fast,” but that’s another topic, for another article) As long as you have excess amounts of glucose in your body, you’re not burning fat for fuel, and slow-paced, steady-start cardio is nowhere near strenuous enough to deplete your glucose, trust me.
Last but not least, extended periods of steady-state cardio, on a regular basis, put you at an incredibly high risk of injury. How many hardcore distance runners have you met who have not been plagued by injuries? I’m willing to bet the number is small. In fact, studies havedocumented that 60% of runners are injured in an average year, with one running injury occurring for every one hundred hours of performance. (1) The reason for this lies in the different types of muscle fibers. For the sake of simplicity, the four muscle fiber types can be broken down into two main groups, Slow Twitch and Fast Twitch fibers. The Fast Twitch group can be further broken down into three groups. For this article, we will focus on the three main types of muscle fibers, which I will list here, with a very brief, simplified summary of each, for the sake of time.
1. TYPE I
“Slow Twitch” fibers – Small, slow and weak. Used primarily for endurance activities, but are not capable of generating much force.
2. TYPE IIA “
Fast Twitch” fibers – Activating these fibers requires far more energy than activating type I fibers. These fibers are used for activities that require both force and endurance simultaneously, such as combat sports or CrossFit.
3. TYPE IIX
“Fast Twitch” fibers – Very large, and very powerful. However, these fibers fatigue very quickly and are not used for endurance..
If you’ll notice, based on the above descriptions, steady-state cardio works only the slow twitch muscle fibers, since these activities require endurance, but very little force output. The problem is, when you are only working your slow twitch muscle fibers, you really aren’t doing anything to improve your power or endurance, so realistically, your body is experiencing virtually no benefit. Not only that but once your slow twitch fibers inevitably start to fatigue, they can easily go into spasm, elevating your risk of injury even further. The slow twitch fibers reside deep in your muscles, closest to the bone, making them extremely difficult to access and treat when injuries occur.
As long as you’re not engaging the fast twitch muscle fibers, you are not getting stronger, faster, or improving overall fitness, period.Looking for results? Cardio is a flop.
So, what’s the point of all this? Why write an article that seems like a full-blown attack piece aimed at cardio? Well, the answer is simple; I want you to be happy, healthy and strong! To achieve those things, we have to start taking exercise seriously, which means ditching the cardio fad and focusing on results!
In my personal experience, and as is extensively documented in the literature, the single best way to achieve lasting results in all aspects of health and fitness is to simply get stronger. This goes for men and women alike and is part of the reason I am such a big fan of the CrossFit movement. Thanks to the unprecedented growth and popularity of the sport, society’s point of view is shifting, and strong is sexy. Weightlifting is no longer an exclusively male activity. Women all across the country are finally swapping out their treadmills and elliptical for squat racks and barbells. While I certainly do not agree with all aspects of CrossFit, (did somebody say overtraining, improper form, and poor nutrition?) I am still a giant fan of the overall impact is has had in popularizing functional fitness!
Before we dive into exactly how to get stronger, I need to make one thing very clear: Strength training is not bodybuilding, and the two terms are never to be used interchangeably. Strength training will not inflate you like a balloon and make you look like Mr. Olympia. The goal of bodybuilding is not strength, it is aesthetics, which is perfectly fine, however, the fear of “looking like a bodybuilder” is enough to convince some people they should never pick up weights and keep themselves firmly planted in their running shoes. For that reason, I think it is extremely important to separate the two methodologies. I assure you, with proper strength training and nutrition, you will look lean, athletic, and downright sexy.
Strength training is hugely beneficial to overall health, for all of the reasons that steady-state cardio is not. First of all, when it comes to burning fat, you need to understand that it all comes down to one thing, Insulin. Insulin is our body’s primary regulator of fat metabolism. Not only that, but insulin also regulates something called Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL) which is responsible for pulling fat into cells for storage. In short, more insulin means more LPL, which means more fat storage, less insulin means less fat storage. “What the hell does this have to do with strength training?” You might ask. Let’s take a look...
Excess energy is stored in the body in fat cells, in the form of triglycerides, thanks to LPL. During bouts of extreme muscle exertion, when there’s simply not enough glycogen to meet energy demands, adrenaline is released which activates an enzyme call hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL). HSL has pretty much the exact opposite effect of LPL, it breaks down the triglycerides stored in fat cells and releases them into the blood where they can be transported to the muscles and burned for fuel. This particular metabolic occurrence is exclusive to high-intensity training. Activating your fast twitch muscle fibers is the fastest way to deplete muscle glycogen (glucose. a.k.a. sugar). When your muscle glycogen is depleted, your muscle cells become more insulin sensitive, allowing them to absorb more glucose to help replenish the deficit. The more insulin sensitive you are, the less insulin your body will produce, the less insulin you produce, the less fat you will store. The bottom line here is this; high-intensity exercise kicks off a series of events that help you become a fat burning machine!
I know what you’re thinking, “Sign me up!” (At least, that’s what you should be thinking, after all, you just learned more about sports nutrition than most MD’s learn in med school). This is the part where we dive into your crazy new training regimen, strict diet, hours of lifting, five days per week splits, and more muscle burning than you thought possible... Right? NOPE! In fact, your life is about to get a whole lot easier. The beauty of strength training is, IT ACTUALLY GETS RESULTS! You don’t need to beat your body into the ground by constantly chasing results with a “more is better” mentality. Keep it simple, stupid!
There are two main types of training that I recommend to increase strength:
- BARBELL TRAINING W/ COMPOUND EXERCISES
- KETTLEBELL TRAINING
Googling either one of those terms will bombard you with more information than anyone could ever hope to absorb, so I’ll narrow it down for you here. I always recommend barbell training, for anyone looking to increase overall strength. That said, some people are really timid when it comes to barbells, and certain moves like the deadlift make them nervous. For those people, I recommend Kettlebell training.
1. BARBELL TRAINING
Let’s start with barbell training. I recommend a simple 5×5 workout, 3 times per week, focusing exclusively on compound lifts. On your first day, you will work on finding a comfortable starting weight for each exercise. I warn you, do no let your ego get in your way! You’re always better off starting light and working your way up slowly. You will be increasing the weight of each exercise by 5 pounds each workout, and believe me, before you know it you will be moving some serious weight! All 5 sets are to be done with the same weight.
Let me explain:
- 5×5 = 5 sets of 5 reps
- Use the same weight for each set.
- Increase the weight by 5 pounds per exercise, every single workout. Including the squat. This means your squat will increase by 15 pounds every week since it is performed 3 times per week. The rest of your exercises will move up by 5-10 pounds per week, depending on the week.
- 5 total exercises (3 exercises per workout)
- Bench Press
- Barbell Row
- Overhead Press
What is a compound lift?
- To put it simply, a compound lift is a movement that works a whole bunch of muscles at the same time. For example, calf-raises would be an example of an isolated exercise, meaning, it is only meant to work one particular muscle. Compound movements work multiple muscle groups at the same time.
- The exercises I’ve listed above are full-body compound lifts. You will hit every major muscle group, in every single workout. Talk about high-intensity!
Times Per Week:
- Alternate between Workouts A & B.A sample 2-week protocol would look like this:
- Monday – Workout A
- Tuesday – Rest
- Wednesday – Workout B
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Workout A
- Saturday and Sunday – Rest
- Monday – Workout B
- Tuesday – Rest
- Wednesday – Workout A
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Workout B
- Saturday and Sunday – Rest
Depending on your rest times, you can complete each workout in somewhere between 30-45 minutes. That’s right, no more hour-long cardio sessions 5 times per week, sweating like a sumo wrestler in a steam room. Just 1-2 hours of total work per week will help you get the results you’ve been hopelessly chasing on your treadmill hamster wheel.
I’ll say again; I did not come up with this protocol. Different variations of 5×5 have been around since before I was born and there are countless resources and online articles outlining barbell-training protocols. For that reason, I highly recommend you do some additional research and check out the Stronglifts website. There’s even an amazing 5×5 app that will track all of your workouts for you! If you’re interested in learning more about strength training, in general, check out Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. You will not be disappointed!
2. KETTLEBELL TRAINING
Now, on to Kettlebell training. I’ll be honest; I absolutely love kettlebells! They are one of the most useful tools available in the world of fitness today. Own a kettle bell? You own your own gym! No joke. There’s not a single muscle in your body that can’t be targeted with proper kettlebell training. Personally, when it comes to all things kettlebell, I turn to Pavel Tsatsouline, former trainer of the elite Soviet special forces unit, and the man that is widely credited with introducing kettle bells to the United States.
Kettlebells are known for something called the “what the hell?” effect. A phenomenon that has been demonstrated time and time again in the sports world. Trainers will take extremely specialized athletes, such as sprinters, and pull them out of their regular training routines. These athletes will engage in no other forms of training, other than kettlebell training, for a certain number of weeks. When the sprinters return to their regular training and competition, all of their numbers improve. So how can kettle bells make a sprinter run faster when running isn’t even part of their training protocol? The answer is simple...they make you stronger!
To get the most out of your kettlebell training, I recommend mastering two moves:
- The Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing
- The Turkish Get Up
I will admit, compared to barbell training, the learning curve for these two moves can be pretty steep. However, with a little practice, these two moves alone can be the key to rapid fat loss and staggering strength increases.
Again, all you need is 3 workouts per week. Each workout will consist of the following:
- 5 sets of 10 Kettle Bell Swings (50 swings total)
- Rest between sets, as necessary, but don’t let yourself get too cold!
- 5 Turkish Get-Ups Per Side
- 5 with the right hand, 5 with the left hand.
- Starting Weight (Kettlebells are usually in kilograms):
- Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing = 24kg (about 52 pounds)
- Turkish Get-Up = 16kg (about 35 pounds)
- Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing = 16kg (about 35 pounds)
- Turkish Get-Up = 8kg (about 18 pounds)
If you really focus and take this workout seriously (and don’t pamper yourself with ridiculous rest times), you can hammer it out in 20-30 minutes.
For a quick tutorial on each of these movements, check out these videos:
For an in-depth look at Kettlebell training and why it works, I strongly recommend the book Simple and Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline. This book was my personal introduction to kettlebell training and the strength gains I saw as a result were incredible. On top of that, of all the workouts I have ever tried, kettlebell training was the most effective way to achieve definition in my abs. So if your goal is strength and aesthetics, look no further.
So there you have it. Two simple, yet extremely effective protocols for rapidly increasing overall strength and performance. Remember, strength training requires intense focus. If you’re used to treadmill running while reading magazines, this might be a tough transition for you, mentally. No texting between sets and scrolling through your Instagram feed! The weights you are lifting should feel very heavy. That kind of physical stress requires your full intention. Once you enter the gym, you are there to train and nothing else. Put your phone in airplane mode and hit it with everything you’ve got! You’ll thank me later...
- *Reference: Incidence and Severity of Injury Following Aerobic Training Programs Emphasizing Running, Race-walking, or Step Aerobics,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25(5), p. S81, 1993.