Your body doesn’t know when you’re training ‘strength’ or ‘cardio’ – nor does it care. These are concepts that we made up. Your body knows intensity and duration.
It doesn’t matter what exercise you’re doing, if it’s short duration and high intensity, it provokes a strength response in the body – in the muscles and nerve connections. When you’re training for an extended duration at a lower level of intensity, that isn’t ‘cardio’, that’s endurance training.
What’s the difference? ‘Cardio’ refers to cardiovascular conditioning which means: stuff that makes you breathe hard and gets your blood pumping.
Everything does that, to varying degrees, depending on the intensity and duration.
Ever done a heavy set of squats? Blood’s pumping hard, after ten seconds. That’s a cardio response.
Sprinting, squatting, bench press, chin-ups, burpees, jumps – all of these stimulate your heart to beat faster and provoke a strength response in the body. Yet we think of sprinting as cardio and squats as strength work. That’s odd.
If you want to get strong, train with intensity.
If you want to develop your endurance, train repetition of effort for duration. All methods of training provoke a cardiovascular response.
We assume the method determines the result, but that’s not necessarily the case. Training with weights won’t make you strong, simply because they’re weights. Your body doesn’t care - if you want to be strong, you need to train with an appropriate degree of resistance. If you’re capable of a certain repetition of effort for an extended duration, it isn’t strength training. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a dumbbell or not. Doing a weightlifting circuit, continually swapping from one exercise to the next without rest, without pushing failure, that will not develop your strength effectively because it’s an exercise in endurance. Yes, it’s a variable-intensity circuit, as is going for a jog in a hilly neighbourhood, but it's still basically endurance work. It’s only strength training if the weight is heavy – which is to say, if you’re training at intensity.
Aerobics, jogging, swimming, kettlebell swings and continuous weightlifting circuits, or metabolic resistance training – none of these activities are ‘superior for fat loss’ – it all comes down to the relationship between intensity and duration. They all stimulate your body in the same general way - if we’re talking energy systems and physiological or ‘metabolic’ impact, they’re exactly the same. The intensity of these exercises varies from individual to individual - but no method is best, the best method is the one that provides you with a satisfying training session. Too easy? Do something harder. Too hard? Try something easier. If you can maintain a given workload for two hours, it isn’t intense. If you can only maintain it for nine seconds, it is intense. If you can keep it up for half an hour, it probably feels challenging, but also like you’re getting your money’s worth.
All this talk brings us to - dum dum dum - cardio intervals. You know, those things we have to be doing that are the best things ever in the whole wide world for fat loss? Those things that are physiologically identical to full-body resistance training with short rest periods? Those things that are marketed by people who have their own agendas?
Hills or sprints on an exercise bike – going as fast as you can for ten seconds, then cruising at a relaxed pace for twenty (or whatever), and repeating – how is that different from doing eight push-ups then jogging to the end of the room and back? In terms of energy expenditure and physiological response, it’s the same. Different muscles, but the same overall metabolic effect. So which method is supposed to be better for weight loss?
How are high-intensity cardio conditioning methods different from full body strength training? They aren’t really. Sprints versus squats - intense leg training, ‘full’ range of motion, application of force to the ground, and the same cardiovascular response. They’re the same exercise, only pretending to be different.
Anyway who cares? It’s all just someone else’s dogma. It’s intense, it’s full-body, what am I mean to believe? One method makes you thin and the other makes you muscular? Girls should do one and boys the other? Gimme a break.
What’s comparatively useless is intense training that’s not multi-joint. That’s isolation resistance work, and only has limited application in terms of functional strength. Handy if you want to be big, though. And it’s great if you find it satisfying.
Neither endurance nor strength training is ‘more important’ than the other – they’re both good. It’s about being specific and not deluded. If you’re doing a weightlifting circuit and wondering why you’re not getting stronger, it’s because you’re not training for the development of strength. If you’re doing a heavy set of weighted lunges, and resting for 90 seconds in between sets, the reason you’re not getting better at running three miles is because you aren’t training for endurance. They’re related, these exercises are - there is actually an enormous overlap, but training your strength is different to developing endurance.
If you want well-developed, all-round athleticism, you’ll need to incorporate strength and endurance training, mobility and flexibility, and possibly agility work too - depending on what you want to develop and the demands of your sport - if you play one. You might need to develop the ability to appreciate methods you are not naturally inclined towards.
What are you training and why? Is your training giving you the results you want? If you don’t want big arms, why are you doing biceps curls? If you want to be able to swim long distances, train your technique, develop your shoulders, back, glutes and legs – and work on your endurance. Be broad enough in your approach, but grounded in relevance.
If you just want to be thin, find another goal. Something that won’t just wear you down in time. Find something you enjoy doing, for it’s own sake.
Your body doesn’t know the difference between strength and cardio, your body doesn’t understand ‘concepts’, your body just knows intensity and duration, effort and adaptation, frequency and recovery. These are all relative, they vary from person to person, they vary from year to year.
If you’ve got issues with heart health, you don’t have to do cardio, all you’ve got to work out is whether the cardiovascular response from a given exercise is too much or too little. That will vary exercise to exercise, person to person, but guidelines such as ‘don’t do deadlifts’ cease to be meaningful when you take a look at loading parameters and compare them to sprints. Are they more or less intense – for your heart – than other exercises you are allowed to do? Is it the exercise itself that you have to watch out for (and it might well be), or is it actually the level of intensity? The degree of perceived effort?
Everything and nothing. Whatever you like. Whatever you find satisfying, rewarding, stimulating. What’s important for you will be unimportant for another, and that’s old news.
You often hear people say ‘walking isn’t enough’, which is a massive judgement call – both on walking itself (as if to walk for its own sake, just because you enjoy it, as if that’s a waste of time) - and also on exercise in general, as if the only reason to move at all is if it has a direct and immediate impact on your weight. It’s an immature perspective. All this becomes clear once you ask the simple question ‘enough for what?’ which – to my mind – is not asked nearly enough.
What people typically mean when they say walking isn’t enough is, of course, that the intensity is too low. This is to buy in to the fantasy that one training system fits all, we all have exactly the same level of fitness, and that fitness is not relative. Clearly it’s hogwash.
Walk if you want to, for whatever reason you like. Not hard enough to satisfy your craving for exercise? Walk faster. Still not intense enough? Jog. Run. Sprint. Too much? Slow down.
Walking is great but because of the limited range of motion and relatively light loading, it won’t develop much strength through the hips and buttocks. It’s more for endurance. Mess around with the loading parameters and range of motion, however, and it’s a different story. Stair climbing, particularly if you’re going up large steps while wearing a heavy backpack – that extends the range of motion, increases the load, and can provoke a good strength stimulus for the muscles. You can turn walking into a strength exercise relatively easily.
Because it’s all relative.
Train what you want to be good at. Train your posture. Train heavy lifts. Train running, if you like. Variety is the spice of life, and training too.
Once you realise that you are worthy of love and you come to terms with the fact that this is your body, it’s all you, the fat, the bones and the organs – you realise your body is worthy of love, and the idea of favourite body parts or exercises starts to fade. The idea of that stomach you hate starts to fade, because it’s part of you, and it’s loved. The idea that you should train the parts of your body that aren’t good enough becomes irrelevant, and you realise the reason to exercise is not because you aren’t good enough – it’s because you are good enough.
The idea of what exercises are ‘necessary’ starts to change, and you realise that the only necessary exercises are those that make you feel robust, vibrant, and capable – in short, the ones that make you feel good. Then you’re free to investigate what you find satisfying and rewarding, you’re free to pursue your own sense of achievement, and you realise that duration without specificity is meaningless, that the only relevance duration has is in reference to your athletic goals and potential, and as you commit to doing what’s good for you – what’s fun – you stop merely ‘going through the motions’, you discover that the exercises we are told we ‘should’ be doing, the ones that make us feel depleted, shamed or inadequate – those are the unnecessary ones. Those are the things you don’t need to be training.
You should leave the gym feeling better than when you went in. You should feel inspired, vibrant, and capable. Or maybe relaxed, balanced and calm. Or satisfied, strong, and invigorated. What you feel when you leave the gym is a direct result of what and how you trained. If you leave feeling depleted, feeling like a failure, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, it means there’s something wrong with the methods you’re buying in to.
It doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know.
Play and experiment and be free of dogma and propaganda. Watch other people training – see what they’re doing and try it out for yourself, as long as you feel safe.
When you feel confident and safe, then playtime can be fun. But if you don’t, it’s not.
But that's nothing new.