Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cardio is a DIrty Word

I f*cking hate cardio. I really do. Always have. I had crippling asthma as a child so running around for long periods of time was less happy go lucky and fun than it was potentially fatal. Seriously. I have very, very few fond memories of my childhood that involve intense physical activity and as a result by the time I discovered the sports I did like my body had pretty much already decided it was only going to engage in short bouts of activity. Unless the activity was playing video games and consuming hot pockets, in which case I was a marathon level athlete.


I'm going to get straight to the point. In most cases, steady state cardio is f*cking garbage. What is steady state? It's exactly what it sounds like. Same intensity (speed and/or resistance) for the duration of your workout. So yes, I'm sorry, I know you don't want to hear it but that 5k jog you do 3 days a week at the same speed? Probably a waste of your time.

Yes. I know you've seen results. No, I'm not telling you that it does absolutely nothing. What I'm telling you is that your time would, beyond any shadow of a doubt, be better spent doing other things.

Think about it like this. Your body wants to be efficient, in fact, your body is biologically driven to accomplish things in the most energy efficient manner available. Why do most people do cardio? To lose weight, more specifically, to lose fat. The reason your body retains fat in the first place is as a way of maintaining fuel reserves. Once again, it's your bodies biological imperative to maintain the highest level of fuel reserves possible just in case sh*t gets real and you need to fight a bunch of zombies while running from a burning building and carrying no fewer than seven children. Or, you know, something like that.

What I'm saying is that when you do steady state cardio, you are training your body to burn its fuel more efficiently. I know that sounds good, but it's not. If your goal is fat loss it's actually rather bad. The more steady state cardio you do, the more work your body can squeeze out of every fat calorie. That's why when you first started running or biking or swimming you lost weight so quickly. Then your metabolic processes caught up to your activity, and now you're stuck. Used to take you 500 calories to run a mile. Now your body has it down to such a fine science that it can hoof the same distance with half the calories.

What's that mean? Well, you can double the duration of your exercise bout to make up for the efficiency but that's a long, dark road to go down. Eventually you'll be that guy in the corner on the treadmill who runs for 2 hours every day and looks the same today as he did two months ago. Oh, and by the way? He's still fat.

Not only is steady state cardio not the most efficient mode of fat loss, it's actually detrimental to the rest of your training efforts. If you are trying to build muscle, steady state cardio will short circuit your gains. We have these things called signaling pathways that are the biochemical blueprints/maps for all of our physiological processes. Turns out the resistance training pathway and the aerobic training pathway cross over and cancel each other out. What this means is that if you mix them you won't get the full benefits of either. Aerobic exercise activates a cascade of hormones that leave you looking kind of soft and fragile. I'll be honest, I find marathoner's incredibly impressive but I have less than zero desire to look like one of them.

In addition long term steady state cardio is responsible for a plethora of overuse injuries, particularly running. Hip flexor tendonitis, shin splints, stress fractures etc. are all the result of repeated bouts of doing the same damn thing for way too long.

So, what do you do? Metabolic Conditioning, or intervals. Interval training is basically combining a work interval with a rest interval. It can be anything from a 30 second sprint coupled with a minute of jogging to 20 seconds of burpees with 10 seconds of standing still. There's a pretty significant body of research that demonstrates this kind of training burns significantly more calories than steady state. It also contributes to the optimal hormonal environment that will transform you into a muscle building, weight throwing, steel eating beast where steady state will pretty much do the opposite. There's plenty of different  ways to put these things together but I'll give you two of my favorites.

HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training
The purpose of this is to choose a work interval and go all out. THat means that if you're running, your work interval should be an all out sprint. THe rest interval is whatever you need to feel recharged enough to push through another work interval. Again, if you're running, you might want to start by sprinting/walking and then work up to a jogging rest. Try this:

5 min jog/warm up
30s sprint
1:00 jog
repeat 6-10 times
5-min cooldown

I usually do sprints at 10-11mph and use about a 6mph jog as my rest. If you're not in great cardio shape I would start out a little bit slower. A word of advice, while you do want to increase your intensity/amount of work with every workout only increase the speed of one thing at a time. I.e, if you increased the speed of your sprint, do not also increase your active rest pace in the same workout. The same can be said of duration. Don't increase the duration of your sprint and decrease the duration of your rest in the same workout.. Your workouts should be hard and fast, but your progress should remain slow and steady.

Every minute on the minute 10 minutes
12 squats
9 push ups
6 burpees

Grab yourself a timer and get going. All you have to do is watch. Every time it ticks a new minute, you go through the circuit. This can get rough as you get tired because the longer it takes you to complete the work, the less rest you get. There'es a minute between the start of each set. No exceptions. This type of metabolic conditioning is particularly beneficial for people gym-goers who's main focus is building muscle because you're basically doing circuit training. Try this, do your entire weight workout and then when you're done give this met con a shot as a finisher.

There's plenty of other alternatives out there to long term steady state cardio. Most of them are faster, more effective, and in my opinion immensely more fun which begs the question, why are you still doing this sh*t?

Note: It is worth mentioning that there is a very specific and necessary purpose for steady state and that is competition. If you play a sport that involves long term steady state cardio, then you're going to have to do some of it to train. You can't learn to run a marathon by only doing sprints. It just doesn't work that way. That being said, if you aren't a cross country athlete or signing up for adventure races by the dozens you can most likely skip out on this stuff. Your metabolic pathways (and probably your joints) will thank you.

Good luck and good lifting.


Today's Workout:


Yesterday I set a new Squat PR. Today I'm doing nothing because my knees are sore. Wah.

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