Who’s Got It Right- The Cardio Junkies or The Meatheads?


It’s funny how the pendulum keeps on swinging in the health and fitness industry. We all saw it with the low-fat diet and low-carb diet crazes. One minute it’s a sin to eat even a gram of fat, and then within the blink of an eye people are embracing the idea of putting a stick of butter in their morning coffee (Google “Bulletproof Coffee” if you don’t believe me!). The rise and decline of Nautilus machines, and the BOSU-circus-trick obsessed trend that came and went in the early 2000s marked similar swings of the pendulum.

Man on stability ball doing a squat with a spotter.

Yes, the pendulum swings one way and at the drop of a hat swings back the other way. All too often, however, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and things are rarely as black-and-white as they may first seem.

In the 70’s and 80’s, cardiovascular exercise seemed to be the end-all be-all when it came to fitness.  Aerobics was all the rage and this new concept of “jogging” took the nation by storm. Ron Burgundy MemeBy the late 1990’s, however, many people had completely shunned long-distance cardiovascular exercise, saying that it just made you slow and frumpy and that you could get everything you needed out of high intensity interval training.

Several years (and thousands of gassed out athletes) later, many who were proclaiming that high intensity intervals were the only way to condition an athlete are now starting to once again embrace the inclusion of some low-intensity long-duration exercise.

So does this mean that the Cardio Junkies were right all along? Not necessarily. The fact is that over time you tend to be a reflection of your overall body of training. Are you just doing Long Slow Distance aerobic exercise? Then chances are you will have very little speed and strength, and you can just about kiss having healthy amounts of muscle tone goodbye. Are you just doing strength and power training, and you’ve never committed time to building a legitimate aerobic base? Then sure, you will be strong and powerful, but you will be worthless in the fourth quarter!

This article will investigate the pros and cons of both cardio as well as strength and power training, and will ultimately help steer you towards which (or what ratio of the two) will be the best fit for you.

The Case For The Cardio Junkies

Repeated Aerobic training stimulates a unique set of adaptations ultimately designed to do two things: 1) help you hit the same mileage in a quicker time, and 2) help you go longer than you previously were able to. Simply put, repeated Aerobic training makes you more efficient.

Adaptations of aerobic exercise include:

  • Improved stroke volume of the heart (more blood ejected with each beat of the heart).
  • Improved capillary density in various tissues (these small blood vessels help carry more oxygen to working muscles).
  • Increased mitochondrial density (mitochondria are the energy powerhouses of our body’s cells).
  • Increased slow twitch muscle fibers (muscle fibers capable of firing repeatedly for long bouts without exhausting).
  • Decreased resting heart rate (and therefore an easier ability to get into a recovery state between exercise sessions).

The Case Against Cardio

While cardiovascular exercise does have a myriad of benefits, it does not come without certain drawbacks. Some potential disadvantages of cardio include:

  • Cardio, in its conventional sense, will not improve strength and power output in short burst efforts. In many cases, especially when performed frequently and in the absence of strength training, it will make you weaker.
  • Due to its repetitive nature, frequent cardiovascular exercise often increases the risk of repetitive strain injuries such as tendonitis, bursitis, and stress fractures.
  • Frequent cardiovascular exercise can increase Cortisol (your chronic stress hormone) output, interfere with blood sugar metabolism, and can actually make it challenging to lose those last few pounds of body fat.
  • It is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain all of your muscle mass if you do a lot of aerobic training. Again, the body is after efficiency- and having a lot of muscle mass is not considered “efficient” by a body repeatedly subjected to aerobic training.

The Case For The Meatheads

Just as aerobic training spawns a unique variety of adaptations by the body, strength and power training also creates several noticeable changes in the body. These include:

  • Increased muscle mass and increased metabolic rate.
  • Higher propensity for the body to burn body fat, even at rest.
  • Improved strength, speed, and power output.
  • Improved neural efficiency (the right style of strength training can invoke tremendous strength increases with minimal gains in bodyweight).
  • Improved ligament and connective tissue strength, thereby improving resistance to injury.
  • Increased bone mineral density.
  • On an aesthetic level, muscle mass is what tends to provide the curves and tone that many people find visually appealing.

The Case Against Strength and Power Training

As alluded to earlier, if all one does is hit the weights then they become less likely to develop a strong aerobic base, meaning they are more likely to gas out in whatever sport or event they are partaking in.

It turns out that even though you may see similar trends in terms of heart rate during weight training and aerobic training sessions, there is one noticeable difference. During weight training blood pressure tends to significantly spike due to the exertive efforts involved when lifting weights. This provides more resistance for the heart to have to fight against, meaning that the heart likely never fully ejects all of the blood from the left ventricle on a beat-by-beat basis. In other words, weight training does not create the same favorable adaptations at the heart that aerobic exercise does, and may in fact make it less efficient at working optimally.

To make a long story short, repeated weight training can diminish gains made from endurance activities, and repeated endurance training diminishes gains made from strength and power training.

So Which Is It- Cardio or Weight Training?

Again, the answer is not black or white. In fact, it is really gray. But if you truly want to get the most out of your current training, it is best two ask yourself two questions:

  1. What are the general needs of my sport or activity?
  2. How does my current fitness look in terms of question #1?

Let’s quickly analyze question #1. It becomes obvious when looking at different sports that each of them have different energy, strength, and power requirements. On far ends of the spectrum, look at running a marathon versus competing in a powerlifting competition. It does not take a PhD in exercise science to see that training for a marathon requires a much bigger focus on the aerobic end whereas powerlifting is very much on the strength and power end. But what about sports like football or soccer? Both involve tremendous amounts of running, but they also require a lot of strength and power.

One of my favorite sports to analyze is the sport of fitness. With the proliferation of CrossFit, one can see the many variables that would have to be trained for. You have to be able to display significant strength and power while also displaying tremendous endurance. For many of the generalists out there who do not have a specific sport to train for, the development of all aspects of fitness seems to be the focus.

Now let’s look at question #2. You know what your sport requires but how do you stack up in comparison. This is where fitness testing is of tremendous merit. There are a wide variety of fitness tests available, but some of my favorites include the Cooper Test (12 minute run for distance); one rep maximum testing for bench press, squat, deadlift, and power clean; maximum consecutive push-ups and pull-ups; 500 meter rowing ergometer time or 400 meter sprint time; and the vertical jump test. Only through testing will you have any idea as to what your strengths and weaknesses are.

The Final Verdict

And the winner is… both! It truly depends on your goals and your current level of fitness. Neither strength nor aerobic training are inherently bad, it just depends on your application of them. It is best to find an experienced trainer in your area to help you determine what forms of exercise are best for you!

About Dr. Taylor Levick

Taylor Levick is a chiropractic physician and performance coach based out of the Daytona Beach area. Dr. Levick brings over a decade of experience in personal training to his clinical practice, where he is able to combine the methodology he was exposed to through his chiropractic education at Palmer College of Chiropractic Florida, extensive post-graduate studies and seminars, undergraduate studies in exercise physiology at the University of Florida, and devoted self-learning into a truly unique approach that benefits not just athletes, but people of all walks. In an effort to “walk the walk,” Dr. Levick is heavily invested in his own health and fitness, and regularly seeks to push the limits of his own performance. In addition to owning his own private practice, Dr. Levick personal trains clientele and is the general manager of Impact Fitness and Health, and is a part-time faculty clinician for Palmer College of Chiropractic Florida Clinic. When not working, Dr. Levick enjoys staying active and taking advantage of Central Florida’s year round nice weather.

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