On Memorial Day, I was featured as a fitness expert on NY1 News (New York City’s local television station) discussing how to improve cardiovascular health without doing traditional forms of cardio.
If you did not see the segment on TV, you can watch it on NY1’s website (I can’t embed the video on here unfortunately): BuiltLean on NY1: Cardio Segment.
The following article expands upon the news segment and offers a great workout for you to try that will improve your cardiovascular health in MUCH less time than traditional cardio. As a side note, please don’t take the following to mean all forms of cardio are bad, or useless. I simply want to present a fresh alternative even if you are a die hard cardio junkie.
What is Cardiovascular Exercise?
Cardiovascular exercise (aka cardio) is defined as an activity that is sustained for prolonged periods of time that improves the function of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Examples include jogging, using the elliptical, or stationary bike, typically for 30 minutes, or longer.
Digging a little deeper, there are 3 energy systems in the human body: (1) Phosphagen System, (2) Glycolitic System, and (3) Aerobic System. The phosphagen system predominates during exercise bouts of less than 10 seconds, the glycolitic system predominates in exercise bouts of less than 2 minutes, and the aerobic system predominates for longer duration exercise, typically 5 minutes or more. FYI, Aerobic and anaerobic systems usually work concurrently, so when describing activity it’s not which energy system is working but which predominates.
Metabolic Resistance Training vs. Traditional Cardio
For decades, the medical establishment erroneously believed that strength training could not offer the cardiovascular benefits of traditional cardio exercise. This is partly because the energy systems that predominate during strength training are the two anaerobic systems (phosphagen and glycolitic), which do not require oxygen.
Recent research and empirical evidence, however, has proven conclusively that strength training, and in particular high intensity strength training (aka Metabolic Resistance Training) can offer substantial cardio benefits such as improving the size, strength, and functioning of the heart and increasing V02 max without many of the negatives that come with completing traditional cardio exercise. It’s not often cited, but the cardiovascular system serves to support the muscular system, not the other way around.
I am biased because 95% of the exercise I do is anaerobic for good reason, but here’s a quick comparison between anaerobic training vs. traditional cardio:
• Takes much less time
• No overuse injuries (versus high volume and high impact of running on pavement)
• No risk of aerobic adaptation, so the body continues to burn significant calories over time
• Afterburn effect (calories burned after exercise) is much greater than normal cardio
• Greater fat loss and better hormonal profile
• Improved functional strength to prevent injuries
• Must have a baseline level of fitness in order to complete metabolic training, not for people in poor condition, or who have orthopedic issues.
• Requires more skill vs. cardio which requires almost no skill
• May not be as sustainable for some people, especially if done too frequently
For a primer on Metabolic Strength Training see: Metabolic Strength Training 101.
Compelling Research Example
While this study doesn’t directly test high intensity strength training, which I think would have exhibited an even more profound effect, it does test anaerobic exercise:
Martin Gibala of McMaster University in Ontario found that short, anaerobic intense bouts of exercise produced greater improvements in endurance than traditional exercise. In one group, participants exercised for 20-30 seconds for a total of only 2-3 minutes 3x per week. The other group rode a stationary bike for 90-120 minutes also 3x per week. At the end of the 2 week study, the anaerobic group had slightly better improvement in endurance even though they exercised for roughly 6-9 minutes vs. 5 hours for the aerobic group each week. 1
The research on the fat loss benefits is even more compelling, but I’ll save that for another article. In my personal training practice, we just had a client lose 30lb and 7 inches off his waist in only 10 weeks (200lb to 170lb, 38 inch waist to 31) as a result of dietary modification and metabolic strength training. He had previously been running 3x per week with almost no results to show for it.
Quick Sample Workout
The following workout may seem simple, but it’s brutally effective. If you are in poor condition, or have orthopedic issues, I think it’s best not to try this workout:
1) Dumbbell Clean & Press (with dumbbells between legs) 8-10 reps
2) Kettlebell Swings (if you don’t have kettlebells, use dumbbells) 15 reps
3) Walking Lunges – Approx. 50 feet
Repeat this circuit 3x while resting as little as possible between each exercise (less than 30 seconds) and using as much weight as you can handle with proper form. That’s the workout. If you are not gasping for air by the end then you (1) didn’t use enough weight, (2) rested too much between sets, or (3) are superhuman. For another workout that is similar, check out this Metabolic Conditioning Circuit.
In the NY1 video for your reference, there are 3 general categories of exercises demonstrated, which for some exercises can overlap:
1) Plymetrics – marked by explosive movements that allow your muscles to achieve the greatest force in the shortest period of time and is very effective at improving stamina, balance, speed, agility, and overall athleticism. Examples include jump squats, jump lunges, and burpees.
2) Combination Exercises: combines both upper body and lower body movements, which is taxing on the muscular and cardiovascular systems. Examples include kettlebell swings, or a squat with an upright row.
3) Leg Exercises: lifting heavy enough weights while completing squat and/or lunge movements.
I want to send a special thanks to Kafi Drexel, the NY1 Health and Fitness Reporter, Lauren Mikler, Associate Producer, Elora Murray, NY1 Assistant, and Adrian Husbands, who is the demonstrator and also a Trainer and Registered Dietitian in my training practice.
Let me know if you have any questions, or comments about the segment, or this article by using the comment field below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
- Gibala MJ, Little JP, Van essen M, et al. Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol (Lond). 2006;575(Pt 3):901-11. ↩