| July 5, 2021
By Trevor Mah
Read time: 7 min.
“A man does not prove himself an all-round strong man just because he is able to lift a heavy weight, especially when the weight is lifted once only. Genuine strength should include not only momentary strength, as proved by the ability to lift a heavy weight once, but also the far more valuable kind of strength known as strength for endurance.” - Arthur Saxon
Let’s just get one thing out of the way - cardio sucks for most people. The thought of having to do it and actually doing it does not usually excite people the same way as other forms of exercise such as lifting weights. Don’t get me wrong, cardio can be enjoyable for a lot of people. For them, their fitness goals usually do relate in some way to what they do for cardio. If you enjoy marathons, play sports, go for hikes, etc. then cardio naturally is a byproduct of the activities you choose to partake in. Then on the other hand, you have people whose fitness goals are performance or aesthetic based. Bodybuilders, bikini competitors, powerlifters, weightlifters, and the like tend to dread cardio sessions (not all of them, but probably not their favorite part of their workout). Even though cardio is part of the program for some of them, such as low-intensity steady state to assist in cutting down to a weight class, it can be dreaded due to boredom and its lackluster repetitive nature.
No matter what your goals are, cardio is essential for many reasons beyond just general endurance. Here are some important facts where an improvement in your overall cardiovascular conditioning/aerobic fitness/lung capacity, or whatever you like to consider it is essential.
Increased Working Capacity
Right off the bat, having improved capacity means you can simply last longer with whatever physical activity you are doing. For non-endurance athletes, this is important because it also means a better recovery rate. If you get winded after a straight set of a compound exercise and need to sit down, more aerobic work will help you feel less sluggish between sets. If you are able to increase the amount of work you can put in, then that means more opportunities to improve on your lifts and movements.
Proper doses of cardio supplemental to resistance training (power, strength, etc.) is beneficial to aid in the recovery process. Depending on your choice of cardio and intensity, it can aid in getting your body shifted back to a parasympathetic state to kickstart the recovery process. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which facilitates improved circulation, digestion, nutrient absorption, and muscle repair amongst others. After your body has spent time in a sympathetic state that is highly stressed during your workout, being in this state for too long can be harmful based on hormonal factors. Even on off-days, cardio is a great way to supplement your overall program to ensure that your body continues to move and is ready for the next day.
Heart Health and Circulation
This is tied into the recovery process, but cardio simply gets your heart working. For specific heart health reasons I’ll leave it as pretty straightforward as cardio is literal in its meaning. But for heart functions such as circulation, cardio is important to get blood flowing by delivering nutrients and disposing of waste throughout the body. Chances are that any of your high intensity training creates many wasteful byproducts from metabolic functions, so cardio is a way to aid in the process of cleansing your body.
I strongly believe that longevity should be one of the most important fitness goals for anyone. It is one of the goals that you don’t ever truly achieve but always strive for. Everyone wants to be around for as long as possible and live a high quality life. For some, this is simply just being absent from disease, and for others it is being active and capable of playing with their kids. No matter what, cardio is essential to ensure that you are able to keep up in life. What good is being all strong and powerful if you struggle to climb a few flights of stairs? While people who neglect cardio may look “fit”, the risk of heart disease can still creep up on them.
The last reason for cardio is once again straightforward for performance. If you are an athlete in competitive sports, having the ability to last longer is essential so that you can perform at optimal levels through your “game”. Being explosive and skilled at your highest level is needed at the end of the game as much as it is throughout the beginning and middle. You certainly don’t want fatigue to be the main reason why your performance significantly drops at the end.
What can you do?
As stated in the beginning, think of the people who normally don’t mind or enjoy cardio. Find an activity that keeps you moving consistently and gets your heart pumping. If the weather is nice, you can easily get your cardio in whether it’s biking, going for a run, or even swimming if you live near water.
To reiterate a point on “cardio”, as I am using it as a catch-all word when it can sometimes be replaced with conditioning, aerobics, etc. this is just for simplicity. Because of that, you also don’t necessarily need to think of cardio with a narrow perspective. For instance, circuit training can be a way for people to enjoy getting their hearts pumping over monotonous time spent on a treadmill. Whatever form you choose to do, you just need to do it consistently and take it just as seriously as your resistance training.
Cardio work can also be a drag just because of the thought of how long it can feel. The good news is that short bursts of high intensity have many benefits that are better than low-moderate longer sessions. Workouts such as Tabata protocols, low rest finishers, and such can also be a good way to end your workout on a high note while checking off the right boxes for your heart.
Alternatively, if you really prefer low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, you can still develop strong cardiovascular health. If you are a beginner though, you will benefit more from relative high intensities as long as they are within your current limitations. Lower intensity activity should be implemented for intermediate and advanced ability levels as they benefit from it the most. If you train primarily anaerobic, it is essential to avoid overtraining and proper recovery. Acclaimed weightlifters such as the Chinese National team implement low intensity aerobic training in their routines to ensure they yield the most out of it for optimal health. LISS won’t deter from your strength gains as long as those remain your primary focus. Low intensity work essentially becomes a complimentary component to your training. For endurance athletes, the opposite is true as strength training compliments their output.
The reasons why cardio is important goes well beyond what I mentioned here and are rather more simplified compared to the depth that these reasons can truly go into. Either way, I believe these are some of the most important points that apply to many people. If you are a bodybuilder, circulation is important to ensure that your muscles are receiving the proper amount of nutrients for growth in your gains. If you are an athlete, then cardio is crucial to your game. For powerlifters, cardio can unlock more of your potential to do more work and get strong down the road. For everyday people, having a strong heart will allow you to be around longer so your quality of life is improved. No matter what your goals are, I hope that you are able to tie in these reasons and connect the dots specifically towards your goals and keep cardio as a consistent part of your fitness journey.
While I haven’t delved too deep on actual scientific evidence on this (well to be honest, I didn’t look hard enough), but I would like to make one more beneficial point about cardio that I have noticed in a lot of people. Consistency with cardio seemingly allows people to keep their poor habits in line and adopt a more overall “healthier” lifestyle. People who tend to make it a habit of going for regular runs, circuit train in moderation, partake in CrossFit classes, and so on generally don’t fall off the wagon and indulge in destructive habits such as binge eating, drinking etc. Personally, I believe it’s a combination of effort and time invested in cardio that brings along a sense of accomplishment that people do not want to risk losing. You might hear someone who just ate a whole pizza after a session of “crushing the weights”, they might justify that with “replenishing” with carbs they burned. But when it comes to someone who just completed a WOD or biked around the city, you likely won’t see that happening. This could be a psychological process that promotes avoidance of guilt, but as long as it keeps them from poor choices then that’s another plus for cardio.
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