Common Sense Cardio Training
Twenty years ago, when I was still but a teenage boy, I would let a lot of things bother me. Righteous indignation was a common occurrence, and my father used to constantly liken me to a coiled spring. I’ve mellowed a fair bit since then, but every now and again I allow the red mist to descend and I’ll take vehement umbrage to some bit of sub-educational idiocy. The politics of imbeciles and training opinions of morons who masquerade as “fitness professionals” are my two most emotive bete noires!
Today’s rant has been a slow burn that was sparked into fire by a headline I read on Facebook by some bandwagon jumping clown. This joker, admittedly a character known to all at Ultimate Performance as he cloned our website a few years ago doing such a bad job that he left our website details in his own text, has hitched his colours on the anti-cardio mast and decided to preach his wisdom that running will make you fatter and that if you are near anything electric whilst exercising you are wasting your time. Lord knows I am not a huge fan of cardio training, and especially some forms of running, as an optimal body composition tool but to suggest that if I go for a run I’ll get fatter flies in the face of sense and experience, and only serves to undermine the credibility of all personal trainers as we can get tarnished with the same brush as our sadly deluded, attention seeking, wanting to sound smart and erudite, friend.
Before I get into the heart of the subject, let me digress briefly and tell you about one of the things that is systemically wrong with the fitness industry at large – it is full of unoriginal and unimaginative individuals who jump from one guru to the next, and who are self proclaimed experts parroting the latest trend ad nauseam without common sense and real experience. Because I personally am a well known subscriber to many of the principles espoused by Charles Poliquin, I tend to see Charles’ words, often taken out of context, parroted by trainers who have less gym experience and far less muscle than many of my business’s personal training clients. When Charles speaks we should all listen, but I’d be a bit embarrassed to not be able to think for myself. And the thing is, Charles’ thinking and approach fits in well with much of my own bodybuilding experience. I didn’t have to perform some crazily agile mental feat of volte face and switch from Chek to Poliquin for example. That would be a bit weird, and those who have done it almost always seem to lack a fundamental understanding of what is necessary to get in really great shape.
The blunt fact of the matter is that a personal trainer doesn’t need to follow any leader/mentor to be great at getting someone in top shape – experience and passion are so much more important than anything else. Education is crucial to take it to the next level, but that is the easiest part to add to the mix. There are no shortcuts for gym knowledge and the value and common sense that comes with trying everything out on yourself. Every single one of the small number of personal trainers I know whom I would recommend in a heartbeat fulfil these criteria. They live the life, are always learning, and don’t jump on dumb bandwagons – they have all been educated by Poliquin amongst others, but they can all think for themselves and have their own opinions. They include people like Tom Crudgington at Body Development in Bath, Daine McDonald in Sydney, Damien Maher and Claire Rooney in Ireland, Sander Beenders in Amsterdam, Mike “The Encyclopaedia” Demeter and Eric Falstraut in Canada, and Luke Leaman in Texas. And never forgetting all the wonderful personal trainers at UP whose passion and knowledge help to create a fantastic and unparalleled training and learning culture!
UP’s newest personal trainer Mirella Clark: granted she didn’t look quite so amazing until I told her a couple of year’s ago that she needed to do more weight training, but here is a lady who loves her cardio style workouts and (see later to follow this point) always wears her iPod strapped to her arm!
Digression over, back now to addressing common sense cardio training. The fool who writes a headline like “Run Yourself Fatter” is trying to grab your attention, but what he fails to realise is that most people pick up on just 10% of any message, so no matter what else he may have written most people will only really recall the main header.
Mistakes such as these are often compounded by the fallacious argument, that I have heard so often from a certain type of personal trainer, that all you need to do is go to the gym and observe those who weight train and those who do cardio training to see who is the leanest, because it will be the weight trainers who will win. Hmm, I am willing to bet that I have been in more hardcore weight training gyms than 99.99% of all personal trainers, and in my experience the fat bastards all tend to congregate around the bench press platforms and avoid cardio like the plague! And then when they want to lean up, they jump on a treadmill! This does not for a second mean that these chaps (it's almost always the guys by the way) are porky because they like to bench press and avoid any form of cardiovascular training, causality is not so simple. But to the eye of the layman, who can observe the lean cardio bunnies and the squidgy “weight lifters”, it all makes no sense whatsoever and serves to undermine otherwise sensible messages.
I guess this is the nature of the beast in an unregulated and young industry such as personal training. Compound the cowboy element with some jokers’ desire to sound smart and “different”, and add into that mix the natural desire of the general public to be given a magic “secret” formula to get them into shape without too much effort or God forbid discipline, and we end up with rubbish such as “cardio training will make you fatter”, or my old favourite that I have dealt with in a previous vlog that “calories don’t count"! If only it were really so simple and easy.
Moving swiftly on and being constructive, let's address where cardio training sits in the pantheon of exercise modalities. Firstly, it does have a place, and if you do it you won’t lose all your muscle! You may have noticed that those who say you will shrink from cardio tend to have very little muscle mass of their own anyway. And if you are female and perhaps not all that interested in muscle, cardio will not make you fat either. Now that this shocking revelation is out of the way I am going to list a number of points that you can use to help form your own way of dealing with the cardio conundrum!
The Mitchell Soundbites of Common Sense Cardio Training:
- Cardio is not the best way to get lean if you have limited exercise time. Weight training done fast and hard will always win out if you can only get to the gym 3 times a week and have zero other opportunities to train.
- Cardio is a great fat loss tool for those of you who can only make the gym 3-4 times a week (for your weight training), but have time to exercise at home / outdoors on other occasions. My attitude is why waste good gym time by doing cardio!
- Long bouts of cardio training, take heed those of you who think nothing of doing 1.5hours on the treadmill / elliptical, can be counterproductive. I don’t believe for a second it will make you fatter, but it will negatively impact your cortisol levels, make recovery harder, and be harmful to those of you wanting improved muscle mass or just so-called “tone” and shape. Basically, extended endurance style cardio performed repeatedly will make you “stringy”, and although some women may want this look, you won’t be able to pull it off without decent quality muscle and lower body fat levels to start with, otherwise you’ll just end up “skinny fat”and at least for me this is the worse of both worlds! An advocate of massive amounts of cardio is the always entertaining Pauline Nordin, but she is an ex Figure pro trying to be smaller and leaner, and can get away with cannabilising muscle tissue. A regular woman cannot.
- Charles Poliquin makes a great point that I have never heard from anyone else (unless they lifted it from Charles in the first place). That is that continuous aerobic work plateaus after 6-8 weeks of training. This means two things: firstly, there is limited value in doing traditional aerobic style training as a means of continuously improving your fitness without drastically changing things up regularly. Here is a hint – you can exercise your heart (the true meaning of “cardio” work as opposed to aerobic training; cardiovascular health and aerobic fitness mean very different things and are not at all correlated), elevate your metabolism, and improve “aerobic fitness” without an overemphasis on cardio. In fact, you don’t necessarily need any cardio at all. Secondly, if you do want to do cardio for fat loss/fitness, then mixing it up a lot will help prevent your body from shifting up a gear into a more efficient, less metabolism boosting, mode. Different machines, different paces, uphill, downhill”, the options at your disposal are endless and infinitely better for both mind and body than endlessly trudging away at the same level on the same treadmill.
- You will hear some people harp on about the oxidative stress and elevated cortisol issues that come with performing cardio. I say if it makes you feel good, and you are otherwise healthy, then a little bit will not hurt you! Note that this doesn’t mean 2 hours a day, every day, on the treadmill. Hard cardio (be it interval training or steady state) should be done judiciously, but a couple of 30 minute sessions a week will usually only serve to benefit a fat loss programme, and if you enjoy and feel good when taking a nice long walk then go for it! In my opinion, the positives will far outweigh the negatives. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a replacement for the more effective forms of fat loss training.
- If you are seeking to maximise muscle mass then 3 times a week of 30 minutes fast walking may be useful, but is probably not essential if you are weight training hard and with sufficient volume and frequency. A few fast walks on top of 4 times a week of an hour at a time lifting weights will not really hinder your recovery process unless you have the testosterone levels of a neutered hamster!
- As ever you must adapt the training tool to the goal. I do not really like interval training as cardio for those who are primarily concerned with muscle growth or muscle retention. I think the energy demands, both physical and mental, of hard weight training are too great to add interval training on top. If a lean and athletic body is your goal then adding interval training can be a huge benefit, and for most regular people with non-physique competing goals this would be my preferred cardio of choice (point 15 aside).
- Following on from point 6, if you are seeking to maximise muscle mass whilst getting leaner at the same time then I’d advise a little bit of fast walking and a lot of weight training at something like a 6:1 time ratio in favour of the weights. This is a very personal thing though, and really has a lot to do with your own recovery levels, any calorie deficit, and the type of resistance training protocols you adhere to. For myself I will ramp things up by hitting the weights twice a day, therefore my need for cardio training is limited to the days when I am not in the gym and not requiring total rest. However, as I have said before, if you are a so-called “normal” person and have limited gym time, then you may benefit, for very brief periods when you are focusing on fat loss, in learning a lesson from bodybuilding and adding an extra cardio session 3-6 times a week as separate from your weight training.
- There IS a correct time to perform cardio if you are going to do all your training in just one session. Always perform it after your weight training as the other way round will hinder your lifting performance and limit the fat burning effectiveness of the cardio (much more fatty acids will be freed up into the bloodstream for energy after weight training than before). And keep the weight training to a maximum of an hour and the cardio to a maximum of 30 minutes. Sucking down extra BCAAs whilst doing the cardio won’t hurt either – it will help prevent the catabolism of muscle from the long session as well as enabling you to not run out of stream until you are good and ready to hit the showers.
- Some folk will tell you that you shouldn’t perform any cardio training on any machine that uses electricity (eg a treadmill) as they produce electro magnetic stress (EMS) that can raise cortisol and induce insulin resistance. And it gets worse as you shouldn’t even be near something as seemingly innocuous as an iPod whilst training, as it will similarly restrict your fat loss efforts. The “run yourself fatter”clown actually says that if you use a treadmill, wearing your iPod and watching a TV screen “your fat loss efforts are all but redundant”! Seriously, do people pay this guy money for his services?! I’ve seen the EMS and hormonal fluctuations study on this and I don’t dispute a very mild effect, but let’s get a grip here. If you are training for the Olympics and you need to do the tiny things that each incrementally improve performance by 0.01% then ditch the electrical machines whilst training. But if you are not I feel this is another one of those points raised by bandwagon jumpers who just want to sound clever. This view on EMS was first brought to many trainers’ attention by Charles Poliquin, but they fail to properly appreciate that here is a man who has trained countless world class athletes and is bringing up a “finishing touch” to educate, inform, and yes, entertain, not a new and fundamental “Poliquin Principle”. In fact, Charles has seen me train about 8 or 9 times so far this year. Each and every time I have used my iPod, he didn’t fall into an apoplectic fit at the sight of it, and I am waiting eagerly for the day when any know-it-all trainer who claims that such activities will lead to redundant efforts proves me wrong by turning up bigger and leaner than people like myself and UP trainers Justin Maguire, Howard Pearson, Eddie Baruta, Glenn Parker (the list is actually about 15 people long but I’ll leave it there) all of whom use iPods whilst training and, even worse, occasionally go on a treadmill! The bottom line here is that if listening to your iPod can inspire you to push harder then by all means go for it and ignore the confusing drivel that some would seek to bamboozle you with!
- I think the stationary bike is almost as much a waste of time as the recumbent bike!
- A treadmill, a rowing machine, or a versa climber would be my preferred gym tools. A punching bag and boxing pads can work extremely well too. All allow for versatile training modalities and you can cruise or go hard depending upon the circumstances.
- The best form of steady state and relatively undemanding cardio training is a brisk walk in the great outdoors. If you haven’t tried it for a while I urge you to do so, it will make you feel more alive. It is my own personal favourite.
- If you are a cardio junkie and you are trying to cut down but miss the endorphins/runner’s high then have someone teach you how to weight train using high volume and minimal rest between sets. Find a gym that will be quiet enough to allow a massive giant set circuit (full body or body part split, either is good depending upon your goals) and knock yourself out. I use this type of training for hypertrophy, and get a massive buzz from the endorphin rush. With some good tunes on my iPod (oh no, am I wasting all my hard work by doing that?!!) I just lose myself. Magic!
- The absolute best form of fat burning, fitness enhancing cardio training isn’t really “cardio” at all, so I’m cheating a bit by including it. But this is my blog so we will play by my rules! If I were to supplement any type of fat loss/conditioning regime with extra training sessions above and beyond a tough resistance training regime it would be by adding in “modified strongman training“. If you take a look at the image below this paragraph you can see the effect that such training has on the heart rate – it sends it through the roof! And the beautiful thing about this training modality is that it elevates the metabolism and keeps it elevated for over 36 hours; it allows you to train in a truly “functional”/“primal” manner that traditional cardio done on machines never can do; it is minimal impact and repetition in comparison to running and therefore much easier on soft tissue; and it is so challenging and so much fun that it never ever gets boring!!
As ever, I welcome your comments, and if you think I’ve been a bit harsh or just totally disagree with my take on cardio then please let me know. My word is not gospel and I am always willing to examine different ways of doing things, so I’d be really grateful for any ideas or feedback you give in the comments section below as well as sharing on Facebook with the buttons to the left! Your support and input as ever is massively appreciated!