Cardio Revisited

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I used to be a fitness snob, and I was proud of it. I was embarrassingly proud of just how much I wrote off doing certain exercises.

“Bicep curls? GTFO bro. Everyone knows the compound lifts are king.”

“You train legs and don’t do squats? Well, clearly you don’t train legs.”

“You do cardio of the slow and steady variety? You do realize you’re wasting away your gains, right?”

So where exactly did this sort of thinking get me?

Well, I was proficient at compound lifts like squatting and deadlifting. However I didn’t exactly “look” like I knew how to lift. I also got winded walking up the stairs or after a set of more than 10 reps.

A few years ago we, the fitness industry know-it-alls, buried cardio. Steady-state cardio was 6 feet under, and we’ve steadily piled on more and more dirt. Most of this was done with good intentions.

Far too many of the average gym-goers rely on steady-state cardio to shed fat. Being the good hearted know-it-alls we are, we set out to fix that. Thus we got people to quit steady-state cardio the only way we knew how.

We demonized the hell out of it. Claimed it would make you fat. Claimed it would ruin your gainz. Called it boring. We opted for brutal HIIT sessions, instead.

We missed the boat on one critical application of cardio.

What’s rarely been talked about is how cardio can have an application to the weight room. Steady-state cardio increases your performance in the weight room, and makes the new muscle you add higher-performing. If you care about performance, you need to start doing steady-state cardio.

Cardio builds better muscles.

The blood vessel support network in a muscle is a big fucking deal. Without an adequate capillary network, muscle tissue can’t function at the highest level possible.

When building size and strength, you’re not only adding more muscle tissue, you’re also adding more to the existing support network. That new muscle tissue requires more capillaries in order to function properly.

This is where a lot of lifters who only rely on HIIT or why only lifting weights faster go wrong. Steady-state cardio is superior at increasing the capillary support network of new muscle tissue.

Why? Because steady-state cardio is oxidative, and the muscular adaptation that takes place isn’t muscle just deciding to up and disappear, like we’ve been told. It’s actually to laying down new capillaries that will allow the muscle tissue to receive more oxygen and nutrients via the blood.

Why is this important?

A greater capillary support network means that you can now clear metabolites and waste products faster. To truly see the application here, we need a brief primer on energy systems.

We’ve got three energy systems. ATP/CP, Glycolytic, and Oxidative.

  • ATP/CP: This is a kickass energy system that packs an immediate punch thanks to immediately available ATP stores within the muscle. However it can only sustain energy for 10-15 seconds of work. Think all out sprints or a heavy 1 rep max.
  • Glycolytic: This energy system gets the necessary fuel from stored glycogen, which is then converted to ATP. It kicks in after existing ATP stores have been exhausted, and can sustain energy for about 2-4 minutes of continuous all out effort, depending on current glycogen storage. Think of the 400m race in track.
  • Oxidative: This bad boy might as well be nicknamed the Energizer Bunny, because it just keeps going and going and going. The oxidative system gets the necessary fuel from your fat stores, which is a whole lot of fuel. Even people with single digit body fat percentages have thousands of calories of stored fat.

All three energy systems work on a continuum. No matter what you’re doing, all three are working together to fuel activity. The glycolytic system provides most of the energy after about 30 seconds, all the way up to around 4 minutes of continuous activity.

This is also where most athletes and lifters see their performance die. They spend too much time in the glycolytic system, burn through too many carbohydrate stores, and performance suffers.

If you’ve got a well-trained cardiovascular system, with an enhanced support network, you can successfully get into and out of glycolysis. This is a huge advantage because the athlete who can clear waste products, recover, and get out of glycolysis will almost always perform at a higher level for the duration of competition or the training session.

In the same vein.

Another massive advantage to steady-state cardio is the increased stroke volume adaptation. Steady-state cardio actually gets your heart jacked. It allows the heart to fill with more blood, and pump out more blood with each beat.

This is an adaptation that doesn’t happen with HIIT. Instead of the heart stretching and growing, it actually thickens, specifically in the left ventricle. This is where a program where HIIT is the only focus goes seriously wrong.

When the heart is beating fast, it’s just trying to get blood in and out as efficiently as possible. If you’ve got a left ventricle that’s thicker than the rest of the heart, and an inadequate stroke volume, you’ve severely limited the amount of blood and oxygen you can supply to the muscles.

All of this plays into the largest performance beneficiary: increased work capacity.

Work capacity is an often talked about, and often misunderstood topic in the lifting world. Where a lot of people go wrong is they start confusing general and specific work capacity. Both have important applications, but they’re very different depending on the athlete.

General work capacity: This is simply the ability to perform work over time. It could be any sort of work or movement. Moving boxes, a loaded carry, a lifting session, or walking to the fridge to grab a beer.

Specific work capacity: This is much more specific to the individual athlete and their needs. Specific work capacity is the athlete’s ability to perform a given type of movement for a given frequency or number of reps without experiencing some sort of performance decrease.

If you’re a powerlifter, you need to have a high specific work capacity when it comes to squatting, deadlifting, and benching. If you’re a sprinter, you need to have a high specific work capacity when it comes to running.

What’s often misunderstood is how general work capacity can have a major benefit to anyone. Whether they are an elite athlete, weekend warrior, or someone looking to gain a few pounds of lean mass.

We’re talking about GPP.

GPP, or general physical preparedness is one of the big reasons why steady-state cardio should be a part of most lifters programs. GPP work has a massive role in increasing a lifters general work capacity, which can tie into increased performance.

General work capacity can’t be overstated, no matter the type of athlete or lifter we’re talking about. The better your cardiovascular conditioning is, the better you will utilize energy, clear metabolites and waste products, and recover.

If a lifter takes a period of training to focus on GPP, they will see the benefit later on when trying to increase specific work capacity. Having an increased level of GPP allows for a greater specific work capacity, which directly impacts quality of training sessions and performance improvements.

Put simply, if you’ve got a high general work capacity you can make each training session longer, and more productive. Say hello the gain train.

Steady-state cardio isn’t what you think.

The largest misconception when it comes to steady-state cardio is that it must be work on the elliptical, incline walking on the treadmill, or pounding the pavement in a long slow jog.

The truth is this: the heart will never win any awards for being smart. The heart doesn’t care what it does, as long as it gets into zone 2, or what equates to 120-150 bpm for most people.

Hitting the elliptical for 30-40 minutes is boring as fuck. You can only watch so much terrible television on those tiny screens. This is where using your imagination to get in some cardio can be really helpful.

Any movement works as long as your heart rate is in the right zone. Dan John is known for having fat loss focused clients do mobility work between exercises as a way to keep their heart rate up. Mobility drills are a perfect example of an unconventional way for someone to get cardio in.

In fact, one of my favorite ways to get in steady-state cardio is through a steady-state mobility circuit. It goes a little something like this:

Steady-State Mobility Circuit

1. Set a timer for 30 minutes.

2. Jump rope in place at a slow pace for 45 seconds.

3. Knock out Eric Cressey’s spiderman lunge for 4x each side

4. Perform Max Shanks’ thoracic bridge 4x each side

5. Repeat until the timer is up.

I love this circuit because it keeps me in the necessary heart rate zone, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the elliptical, and I actually feel good when I’m done. Mobility and cardiovascular work are two aspects of training that are easy for many of us to overlook, and this bad boy knocks out both.

Don’t be a fitness snob like I was.

It may be fun feeling like you’re superior to all the people in your gym running on the treadmill, but it’s not fun having to catch your breath after climbing a set of stairs. Get some cardio in and take care of your ticker.

For more on cardio, you can check out these articles on HITT vs steady-state cardio and the best supplements to take before cardio.

About the Author

Tanner Baze is a former Texan who now lives in Hotlanta. He is a lover of all things Star Wars, Gangster Rap, and Taking Back Sunday. When he's not reading Vonnegut or Hunter S. Thompson he's probably deadlifting, hanging out with his dog Bowser, or watching a romcom.

Comments for This Entry

  • SoMuchYoga

    Honestly, I hate cardio workout the most. But now that I know it builds better muscles, I gotta do it at least once a week (maybe), alongside with my regular yoga routine.

    March 22, 2016 at 11:43 pm

  • ocballer

    great article I am scared to do cardio becuase im afraid of muscle lost, this article also tell you how to prevent it

    September 6, 2015 at 5:43 am

  • Nadia Azizan

    Kickboxing is my cardio! Best way to get the heart, sweat and adrenaline going! offers amazing kickboxing classes, along with other exciting martial arts options as well!

    September 3, 2015 at 6:40 pm

  • Muscles and Stuff

    This is why I just started doing a day a week of cardio lol. Every muscle needs to be worked out and the heart is one of them! While I agree with your post, if you working on strictly bodybuilding, I must say that doing cardio wouldn't fully be optimal, but thats just my opinion. I feel that doing just one day a week of steady state cardio is good enough for me and is what I definitely recommend!

    August 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm

  • Chemist

    Very true..I used to cycle 7 miles a day to work and walk everywhere. Had to drive with my new job and my lifting performance fell through the floor within 2 months. I was puffing like a emphysema patient between sets

    August 19, 2015 at 8:37 pm

  • Sophie

    Out of interest, would you consider yoga (of the non Bikram 'go-hard-or-go-home' variety) be a good way to get in some 'cardio'?

    August 18, 2015 at 4:19 pm

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