You’ve heard it time and time again: “Exercise is good for you!” “You have to exercise to stay healthy.” And although any exercise is better than no exercise, it is becoming more and more clear every day that strength training is more beneficial with a greater range of benefits than cardio.
What is strength training?
Strength training, also known as resistance training is using some kind of weight to lift to get a workout. When we think about strength training, many of us think about buff, leering, self-involved dudes at a Gold’s Gym. But it’s so much more than that. You can strength train by lifting weights or using exercise machines, but you can also strength train by practicing certain kinds of yoga, playing parkour, or even by lifting your children into the air. The weight used can be an external weight or the weight of your own body.
What is “cardio”?
This term is short form for ‘cardiovascular exercise’ and usually refers to increasing your heart rate a certain amount for a protracted period of time. This typically involves running for long periods of time, brisk walking, swimming, or biking. Cardio is not considered a strength training exercise; you are not lifting anything when performing a typical cardio workout. (And please, I beg you, for the love of your healthy joints, don’t lift weights while you’re in motion!)
What kind of exercise is most effective?
It is important to recognize that any form of exercise, so long as it is not causing injury or illness, is better than not exercising at all. In general, exercise allows for the development of coordination and motor skills, increases endorphin production and therefore feelings of happiness. It promotes stress reduction, pain reduction, lowers blood pressure (long-term), enhances the immune system, and decreases the risk of developing chronic diseases. (Uh, hell yes, sign me up, please.) You should be able to run away from an angry pig. You should be able to use your body to pull yourself up a rock to safety.
But, if you are looking to get the greatest benefit out of exercise while reducing the risk of harm, strength training is what I recommend. When exercising, it is ideal to put your body under the least amount of stress possible while receiving maximum benefit. When you go for a long run or bike ride you are actually doing the opposite. Exercising at low intensity for long periods of time taxes your joints and organs tremendously. When you exercise you produce reactive oxygen species, also known as free radicals. The longer you exercise, in general, the more you are producing. These free radicals are the things that cause damage at the cellular level and increase the risk of developing disease. Several studies have shown that long cardio sessions increase the release of cortisol (a stress hormone), raise the risk of cardiac disease, can cause scarring on the heart, and lead to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.
What we understand now is that although cardio exercises can help you get in shape to some degree, a far more effective approach to exercise is strength training.
When you lift moderate to heavy weights three times a week with proper form you have the ability to control the stimulus you are inflicting on your muscles much better. You reduce the risk of injury tremendously because of this. There is much less of a chance for you to lose proper alignment or misstep which is often a cause of injury. High intensity strength training has been shown to be the most effective way to enhance fat loss and increase muscle mass. Strength training also improves insulin sensitivity which lowers the risk of most chronic diseases.
Additionally, strength training improves mobility and balance, posture, increases bone density, and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. What is even more awesome about strength training is that you get all the benefits of cardio without all of the risks! If you perform a set of an exercise and only wait 30 seconds before jumping in to the next set, you will get your heart rate up and improve your conditioning. I will often drop to do a set of pushups to get my heart rate up, or pick up a kettlebell and do some swings. (Please be sure that you have someone show you how to lift properly and give you feedback on your form. You may need to hire someone for this, but it’s well worth mitigating the risk of injury, which will cost you much more in the end.)
More reps lower weight or fewer reps higher weight?
Lifting moderate to heavy weights with good form should provide tremendous, noticeable benefits in a relatively short period of time. You will probably start noticing benefits within a month and marked differences in your body shape and tone by the third month. To be honest, it can suck at first as your body gets used to this type of exercise, but it is worth it!
Again, if you’ve never lifted weights before, get the help of a qualified personal trainer. They will put you on the right track so you get the best use of your gym membership. And, remember, hours and hours of cardio is probably doing you more harm than good, and it is definitely not necessary for your health and fitness goals. You’ll reach your goals much quicker by incorporating a strength training routine into your week. Doing some cardio, if you enjoy it, is perfectly fine, but it is important to recognize that strength training is essential.
Yours in Health,