Friday, November 02, 2007

Diseased Canine Training

Alwyn Cosgrove had an interesting post recently that got me thinking. Dangerous, I realize, but hear me out here, gang. Ready for my new crazy assertion that will have everyone talking? There's No Difference Between Cardio and Strength Training. There. You heard it here first.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which recently laid out new exercise guidelines for average folks (and whose recommendations I picked apart at length some months back), makes a clear distinction between exercise intended to challenge the heart and lungs and exercise designed to challenge the muscles, namely, that "cardio" works for one and "strength training" works for the other, and, to maintain health and fitness, you need to do a little of both.

Alwyn's argument is that if you're exercising, you're working the muscles, heart and lungs all together. So to parse it and say one type of exercise works one thing and one the other is a false distinction. When you exercise, the body does one thing: it moves, and the heart and lungs are going to support that movement to the best of their ability. All you can do is change the speed, force, and direction of the movement. That's it.

Cosgrove uses the 'walk a mile' analogy: walking a mile is, in fact, a resistance-training exercise. The resistance is your body weight, the set lasts about 15 minutes, and you perform something on the order of 1500 reps.

I think the cardio/strength distinction sprung up around the time that those accursed weight-training machines started cropping up that were designed to isolate tiny muscles that you could work all day long and never raise you heart rate a single beat per minute. If all you ever do is these isolation moves, you can bet your heart and lungs aren't going to get much of a workout, and that you'd better go out and do some jogging or gardening or washing the car just to remind your c.v. system that it's alive.

But if you're doing real strength-training workouts, where you pound the basics for 45 minutes, your heart and lungs are going to get a serious workout--provided, of course, you DON'T turn your 30-60 second rest intervals into 5-minute 'catch up on ESPN' sessions between sets. Your largest muscle groups working in tandem against high resistance will produce a serious cardiovascular demand, and it's compounded when and if you do supersets or simply minimize your rest between sets.

And this is why I think that the one item that people should absolutely bring with them into the weight room, that nobody does, is a stopwatch. When I do a session of squats or deadlifts, you can bet that I'd like nothing more than to rest four minutes between sets. But if I've scheduled a session of multiple sets of 20 reps with 30 seconds rest between, the only thing that's going to keep me honest is that secondhand, hopping implacable towards the exact second of my undoing, laughing at my laziness if I'm not under that bar when the time comes.

Done in this way, strength training is a KILLER cardio workout. You don't even need the high reps. You can do back-to-back sets of heavy rows, heavy dips, and heavy deadlifts, none for more than five or six reps, and be a wheezing, panting mess in three minutes.

And, sad to say, but turning yourself into a wheezing, panting mess several times a week is a pretty darn good goal for any reasonably healthy person looking to get or keep themselves fit. Those are going to be MY exercise guidelines: if you look like a rabid dog when your session's over, you had a good workout. If you could go out to Spago's afterwards without so much as a shower and a little gel in the hair, guess what, Freckles, you dogged it today.

Let's face it: jogging and all those mamby-pamby machines are really avoidance mechanisms. I used to jog and I used to work out with a lot of little isolation moves. Then friends who needed help moving would call on me because I was a fitness nut, and guess what? I'd punk out SOONER than everyone else. I wasn't any more up for the challenge of moving heavy things for any period of time than my sedentary friends were. Moving furniture is really a series of deadlifts, farmer's walks, overhead presses, squats, weighted lunges, and step-ups done for hours on end. It's nothing like strapping yourself into a machine and doing curls. It's a full-body, heart-and-lungs-AND-muscles workout. And I just hadn't put in the hours to be able to handle it.

But here's a little success story to balance that one: once I figured out that I'd been fooling myself all those years and got serious, I began to stick mostly to the basics, and built myself into a stronger, leaner and more muscular version of myself. I cut out all the jogging because I had asthma and figured I'd never be much for endurance anyway. Some time later I started studying the martial arts, and got very nervous when the sensei told us to lace up our running shoes for a half-hour run around town. To my surprise, it was no problem for me. Miracle of miracles, the weight training had whipped my c.v. system into shape. Not into triathlon shape, mind you--you've still got to train specifically for your sport--but in far better shape than they'd been before I started hitting the weights with any intensity.

Many athletes know that it's really not an either-or thing with muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness: you don't have to train these two functions in isolation. It's a both-and thing, and the most fit people--martial artists, boxers, sprinters, and gymnasts among them--work out in a way that challenges both functions at once. They're producing close to a maximal force and power for a long enough period so the heart and lungs approach THEIR maximum capability. I don't need to say again that the physiques of those athletes are what the vast majority of people--men and women--would consider their ideal shape: muscular but not bulky, lean but not cadaverous.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? Well--in a word, train hard. Don't just jog, sprint. Don't just lift--lift fast and hard, using compound sets and multi-joint exercises. Keep yourself honest by keeping a careful eye on your rest between sets. It's getting yourself into that rabid dog state--the sweating, grunting, can-barely-stand that's really going to do you--ALL of you--the most good.


mamacita chilena said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! Weight training versus cardio has always been kind of an issue for me. I have always said, you can build muscle by doing long distance running and people would say, no, you need to be in the weight room for that. And one year when I was running like a madwoman every day, I joined a soccer team. They had been working out in the weight room all winter long. And guess who won the situp contest and push up contest? Little old me, who had "just been running." And then I also found out last year that the opposite is true as well. I worked out with a trainer at my university gym and she had me doing mostly circuit training like old school style-set of pushups, lunges, burpees, rest, rinse, repeat. We did very little "true" cardio training. Yet, when my sessions with her ended and I decided to go do a few miles on the track after not running for several months, I found my mile time had actually decreased, much to my happy surprise!

Andrew said...

Funny how that works! There may the 'advantage of time away' thing working in your favor as well, being as you're something of a fitness nut yourself. But if you're pushing yourself--and that's a big 'if' since so few people really go for it in such a way that they'll reap big benefits--you're going to be working everything: heart, lungs, and muscles.