One of the things that annoys me most about health and fitness circles is the way they talk about cardio. They talk about doing cardio, or doing cardio before their weights, and it is a bit of a misnomer. It doesn’t really make sense when we evaluate what ‘training your cardio’ means.
Right now, when I am looking at this camera talking to you, I am using my cardiovascular system. Any moment that you are breathing, you are using your cardio.
You are constantly having to produce energy from somewhere, and the majority of that energy comes from burning oxygen.
What is aerobic and anaerobic exercise?
When we talk about training our cardio, there’s two different types. I am simplifying a little bit. But there’s two different types of cardiovascular system we can train.
One is our oxidative, the other is our glycolytic. Also known as aerobic and anaerobic. With oxygen and without oxygen.
If we are running at a steady state and we are maintaining the pace for a long period of time, anything over a minute and a half, is considered aerobic exercise. If we do something that causes us to run out of breath, so we are working without oxygen, we are working anaerobically.
When we are using our oxidative system, our aerobic system, we are burning primarily fat for fuel. It is a very efficient system. It is what our body uses primarily.
When we are working our anaerobic system, our glycolytic system, we are burning glycogen which is a messy process. It depletes resources in the body and it causes us to have a build up of lactic acid, which is why we get a burning sensation in our lungs as we run out of breath because it is unsustainable.
The truth is, when we exercise there is a good chance we are using a mixture of both sides of the cardiovascular system. If we are running at a steady pace and we are just pushing ourselves a little bit, let’s say I run for five minutes and then I have to stop, it’s because I am slipping in to that anaerobic range.
I’m quickly getting a build up of the waste products in the body and I have to stop to rebalance, or slow down. And this is what bugs me. When we lift weights, for example, we are still using our cardiovascular system.
Weight training and cardio
People talk about weight training and cardio as if they are separate. If was to do a set of 20 kettlebell swings I would become quite out of breath.
It’s not uncommon to see people do squats and have to stop because they are running out of breath. We can train our cardiovascular system using resistance training.
The other problem I have with cardiovascular training is that it sucks for weight loss! Most people that are trying to lose weight quickly think that they just need to go for a run, or get on the sprints or on a rowing machine.
They think that anything that makes them out of breath is going to change their physique and it is simply not true. When we train, especially in the steady state – the aerobic range, we are actually more likely to teach our bodies to use fat as the primary fuel source.
Yes, we are burning calories so we can lose weight that way. But let’s say that we’re already quite lean and we are trying to get that little bit leaner. Say we are in the slightly overweight category as opposed to the obese one, we are probably much better off using our anaerobic system as it depletes the glycogen that then later has to be restored and it also is going to train our muscles more.
Body shape goals and training types
Think about the difference between Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. Mo Farah is fantastic in the steady state range. He is very lean, a little bit skinny. Sorry Mo Farah, I don’t think many people in the world would choose to look like you.
Then you’ve got Usain Bolt. He’s this awesomely muscular athlete, who is extremely lean and well-toned. He looks pretty strong and powerful because he is using that anaerobic system.
If your goal is to maximise your physique and weight loss through training you are much better off with the anaerobic side. That’s typically the side we don’t train in our day-to-day life.
If you are walking, you are working your oxidative system. We can improve that in to a jog, or a fast walk, or by walking for longer. But really it is very rare that we challenge our oxidative system that much.
I’m not saying it’s not worth training if you are a triathlete or a marathon runner, or if there is a sport involved. But if we are going for general fitness, the anaerobic system is really where it is at.
By training the anaerobic system we force our blood vessels to work really hard. The heart reaches a much higher rate, we push blood through the body. We burn a large amount of calories very quickly and we strengthen and tone the muscles.
By training anaerobically we are getting more health benefits, we are improving our body composition more and it doesn’t take as long. It’s also less stress on the joints.
If we are running consistently for an hour a day there is a lot of impact on the ankles and knees, hips and so on. Whereas if we do ball slams, kettlebell swings or burpees done correctly there is a lot less stress on the joints and it yields greater results.
So, think again before you say “I’m training cardio”. Are you training aerobically or anaerobically? There’s a big difference. If you have any questions about how to maximise both systems, and which systems you should be training, get in touch and we’ll talk about it.