There is a definite bias in the fitness industry toward cardio – sometimes called aerobics. Go to any gym and you’ll see lots of people putting in lots of time on treadmills, exercise bikes and rowers or attending Group exercise classes. Look outside and you’ll see walkers, joggers, runners and cyclists doing the same.

Cardio exercise IS very important as it helps keep your most significant muscle in good shape – your heart – but I think that most exercisers would benefit from doing a little less cardio and spending that extra time engaged in a sensible program of strength training.

How fit do you actually need to be?

Once you have developed a decent level of cardiovascular fitness and can, for example, run for 30-minutes at a steady pace or get through a group exercise class relatively easily, unless you are a competitive endurance athlete, you are probably as aerobically fit as you need to be. At this level of fitness you should have more than enough “puff” for aerobically demanding daily activities like climbing a flight of stairs and your cardiovascular health will be as good as it’s going to get.

According to the ACSM – the American College of Sports medicine – three-20 minute sessions of moderately intense (60-percent or more of maximum heart rate) cardiovascular exercise are sufficient to optimize and maintain general fitness and health. Doing more won’t do you any harm but it’s a case of diminishing returns – you’re health won’t really improve much despite doing more cardiovascular exercise.

Of course, if you have designs on marathon running or even putting up a good 10k time, you’ll need to do more than the recommended thrice weekly 20-minutes but if you are an “average exerciser” there really isn’t much of a requirement to do more.

The reason so many people do more than the ACSM’s recommended volume of cardio is because they are exercising to control their weight. Cardio burns calories and, assuming you are eating a calorie controlled diet, any energy deficit will result in fat being used for fuel. Unfortunately, this is not a very effective way to control bodyweight (or more specifically body fat) because while cardio does burn fat, it does so at a depressingly slow rate.

An hour of cardio typically burns around 600-calories so to burn (or prevent the gain of) one pound of fat, you need to do an hour of cardio every single day of the week. If you miss a day, you won’t burn any extra calories so your weight will stagnate. The best way to control your weight is to control your diet and not try and outrun it but that’s a whole different article!

So, why is strength training so important?

Strength training does a number of things that cardio simply can’t...

  1. Improves bone density and reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis
  2. Increases insulin sensitivity to help you control blood glucose levels effectively (important for diabetics, pre-diabetics and those who struggle with carbs generally)
  3. Reduces the incidence of non-specific back pain
  4. Improves joint health by strengthening muscles, tendons and ligaments which will reduce your risk of injury
  5. Improves flexibility and mobility
  6. Reduces the risk of falls in older people
  7. Increases functional strength to make everyday activities easier
  8. Elevates metabolism 24/7 to enhance fat burning
  9. Improves posture by strengthening “anti-gravity” muscles
  10. Preserves muscle, strength and functionality which can maintain or improve quality of life

Cardiovascular fitness and health are undeniably important but, if you’ll excuse the clumsy metaphor, your heart and lungs is the engine of your car while your muscles are the wheels. A well tuned engine is all well and good but if you have no wheels, you aren’t going anywhere!

Strength training – the fountain of youth?

Little old men and little old women are little for a reason – loss of muscle and bone. Muscle and bone mass naturally peaks in your mid-30s and declines with age but this decline can be slowed, halted or even reversed with strength training. Because of a lack of strength, many older people are unable to walk without assistance, get out of a chair or even leave their homes. Modern miraculous medicine allows us to live longer but lack of strength can mean those extra years are very low quality.

If you are convinced that you should be doing more strength training, you may well be thinking how to go about implementing it into your weekly exercise schedule. Personally, I believe the most effective and efficient way for most people to strength train is to perform two whole body workouts per week. This advice may fly in the face of what most gym rats do but that’s because they are following the bodybuilding model of training and that is not what the majority of exercisers need.

By working your whole body twice a week you will make the most efficient use of your exercise time and leave plenty of time for your cardio. Combined with a sensible diet, this approach will leave you in great shape.

I’ll cover whole body strength training workouts in a later article but for now make sure you focus on compound (multi joint) exercises so you can work all your major muscles in six to eight exercises.

Strength training will not make you big and bulky (unless you want it to) and can seriously enhance your health and fitness. Make time for strength training and remember cardio for health but strength for life!