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Cardio Busters Strike Again!

October 19, 2009 10:18 AM

While the debate about steady state vs. intense interval cardio races on, more emotion has been poured into the debate than logic or science. I aim to resolve that.

The debate is whether steady state cardio, think long jog or bike ride, is more or less effective as a form of exercise than interval training. Of course the question needs to be raised, "more effective at what exactly?"

Heart Health

The heart is a muscle and it responds to exercise in a very predictable manner; impose intense demands for short bursts and it gets larger and stronger, impose low-moderate demands for extended periods and it gets smaller and more efficient.

To illustrate this point, Dr Fred Hatfield, Ph.D. a famous powerlifting champion participated in a study performed by researcher, Dr. Kenneth Lynch. The results were irrefutable! The 25-year veteran of powerlifting with zero aerobic exercise under his belt had the best ejection fraction in his ventricular muscle of anyone that Dr. Lynch had ever performed the test on. By the way, Dr. Lynch, a marathon runner at the time, had been using this test on top marathon runners for quite some time.

Why is this so important you ask?

Well because the left ventricle is the part of the heart that pushes blood throughout the body and it also happens to be the part that is most associated with cardiac diseases such as myocardial infarction, atherosclerosis and similarly bad sounding conditions.

Another noteworthy consideration is that no marathon runner alive had ever come anywhere close to matching the powerlifter's workload in the test, which consisted of riding an exercise bike with an average heartbeat of 133 beats per minute. Most marathon runners aren't physically strong enough to endure workloads of beyond 800-900kg meters/min without incurring massive work-stopping oxygen debt.

You may be asking "what the heck?" The powerlifter shouldn't have a strong cardiovascular system since they don't do "cardio!" Well, if you have never squatted heavy for 5 reps then you couldn't possibly understand the amount of blood your heart is pumping. Watch a World's Strongest Man competition and see how hard those athletes are breathing after picking up thousands of pounds of Atlas stones and setting them on platforms in the span of a handful of minutes. Strength athletes are performing cardio every time they lift heavy. The type of cardio is different but challenges the heart nonetheless, in fact, it challenges the heart is a more functional way.

In a related study Dr. Mike Stone, formerly head research scientist for the Auburn University based U.S. Strength Research Institute found that Olympic style weight training produced increases in max VO2 uptake averaging up to three ml/kg/min in just five weeks of training. Conventional strength training did not produce the same levels of VO2 improvement as the Olympic snatch and clean and jerk. It would seem that the explosive nature of the lifts would be the reason. The relative short amount of time of muscular contraction before relaxation in Olympic style lifts is fairly unique in the strength-training world. Just a note to kettlebell lifters, can you say swing and snatch? Kettlebell ballistics provide the same rate of contraction and relaxation as the Olympic lifts and would likely be ideal candidates for increasing VO2 max… Wait a second, didn't Kenneth Jay, Master RKC already try to tell us this? Need you one more reason to train with kettlebells?

The Heart Specialist Speaks…

Dr. Al Sears, M.D. the Director of The Center for Health and Wellness who has reversed heart disease in over 15,000 patients has this to say in his book The Doctor's Heart Cure. "When you exercise for more than about 10 minutes, your heart adapts by becoming more efficient. It achieves this efficiency through downsizing. Long-duration exercise makes the heart, lungs and muscles smaller so that they can go longer with less energy, but there's a trade-off. The cardiovascular system becomes very good at handling a 60-minute jog, but it gives up the ability to provide you with big bursts of energy for short periods. Far from protecting your heart, this loss makes you more vulnerable to a heart attack."

Dr. Sears recommends intense interval training, relative to the current fitness level of the individual.

He goes on to say that heart attacks don't happen due to a lack of endurance but rather by a sudden increased demand of blood/oxygen consumption in the heart. This may happen during sex, heavy lifting or an emotional blow. The strength athlete is arguably already prepared for this situation.

Functional Fitness

Let's move onto another aspect of cardio training, the functional aspect. Aside from actual long distance sports such as triathlons or marathons, there really isn't a time when you are called upon to move at a fairly moderate pace without stop for a prolonged time; and before you say, "yes there is", let's dig deeper. A warehouse worker may be moving all day, but his day is broken up by lifting a heavy box, setting it down onto a pallet and then counting the number of boxes on the pallet before using a machine to lift the pallet into a truck before returning to do it all again. As you can see, there are periods of heavy lifting followed by walking and then rest and more heavy lifting. Sounds more like a session in the gym to me.

How about helping your friend move into a new house? First you lift a heavy piece of furniture, this requires strength/endurance and specific grip strength/endurance. Now you get a rest as you walk back inside to get another piece of furniture or perhaps a box. Once again, lift and then rest before lifting again.

When the heck do you keep a low-grade elevated heart rate for prolonged periods in the real world?

A former Marine client of mine was relating a store about how they were required to test in a 3-mile jog as part of their PT. However, he said never once in actual combat did he ever have to jog for 3 miles. He said there were a few times he had to dash as quickly as he could to a helicopter that was 50-100 yards away! I didn't ask further details but I'm sure you could figure out the importance of burst speed in those instances.

The bottom line is that for functional fitness, intensity for brief durations rules.

When Is Steady State Cardio OK?

Now that I've committed genocide against steady state cardio I feel compelled to list some ways that a more moderate version can be applied and for what purposes.

For an exerciser who trains 3+ days per week with intense strength training and wants to achieve additional fat burning on their off days, I often recommend taking a nice long walk outside. This has the benefits of burning calories (not as many as intense training but you can't have it all) while simultaneously clearing waste products from the body and speeding recovery. If this same trainee did intense interval training on their off days for the purpose of cardio they would need to be careful to avoid using too much of the same musculature and motor movements that they are going to be working on the next day's strength session or burnout would surely follow. A smart trainee or a good coach can overcome this dilemma with a well-designed training program.

Personally I perform my strength sessions first and then a brief cardio blast for the heart and lungs immediately after. Then on my off days I will find a fun moderate exercise that is not steady state and have fun. I might juggle light kettlebells or practice martial arts at an easy pace. The key is to not overwork the grip and movement patterns used in the previous and following strength sessions to allow recovery.

What About…?

People Who Enjoy Jogging/Biking

What about people who jog or take long bike rides? Well, many of my clients do. Here in Denver, Colorado we have lots of sunshine year round and people love to go outside and jog or ride their bikes. The first thing I ask them is "do you jog/bike ride to try and get fit or because you actually enjoy the activity?

If they tell me it is purely for fitness then I tell them to stop and do kettlebell swings instead. If they tell me they love to go out and jog and it makes them feel at peace… I tell them to keep jogging! We exercise so we can enjoy the activities we like right? I am honest with my clients and tell them the dangers of jogging and long distance bike riding such as the nervous system tightening the hip flexors, hamstrings, lazy glute syndrome, plantar fasciitis, etc. Interestingly enough, they always know what I'm talking about because they already have most of those issues.

I tell them no problem, we will use Hard Style kettlebell training and dynamic joint mobility such as Z Health to get you fit enough to enjoy your chosen sport.

People Who Add Some Light Jogging Into Their Training

Now am I saying that a light jog here and there is the devil? Of course not! My previous rantings about marathon runners were extreme examples of steady state cardio exercise. If you like to do 10 snatches and then jog for 30 seconds before 10 more snatches knock yourself out. If you get plantar fasciitis then stop jogging.

People Who Say They Get a Good or Hard Workout When They Jog

First off, how do you scientifically define a "good workout?" Hard doesn't mean effective, it just means hard. Any lame personal trainer at any lame gym can give you a hard workout, but will it make you better at what you want to be good at? I can cause a ton of discomfort by hitting your thumb with a hammer but that doesn't mean you will be any more fit because you endured something uncomfortable! Let's define fitness before we start making statements like "good workout."

People Who Use the Treadmill or Stationary Bike

Get off of it! Dr. Eric Cobb founder of Z Health says it messes with an athlete's visual system. Allow me to expand upon that. There are 3 main systems in the body that provide information about your body's spatial awareness; it's location in space. Your proprioceptive system (nerves in your feet primarily while standing), your vestibular system (inner ear), and your visual system. If one of these systems isn't working then the other two will help fill in the gaps but your balance, athleticism and spatial awareness will not be as good as it should be.

Now picture taking a nice walk down a scenic path. Each and every step you take provides new proprioceptive information as your foot makes contact with a given surface whether it is flat concrete, gravel, bumpy rocks or dirt, etc. Your vestibular system is given information as it senses your balance from step to step. You step on a rock and your weight shifts to the left and your vestibular system detects the balance difference and a complicated system of nerves act together to correct your balance so you don't fall on your face. Next your visual system is provided information about the speed of your movement as you see things passing by and coming nearer to you.

Now, go get on a treadmill and tell me what you see? You see the same thing with each step! The visual system becomes confused because by the act of walking it expects to see new information; it expects to see you moving forward. Remember the SAID principle? While on a treadmill you are now teaching your visual system that when you walk, jog or run that you actually don' t move. Do this enough and you will confuse the visual system to the point where you are more likely to get into car accidents, miss that football pass and have a poor gait pattern when you walk. This is one of the things that essentially happens in a patient with Parkinson's Disease. The cause is different but you are essentially moving in the direction of the PD patient!

Remember the last time you were on a treadmill and then got off and tried to walk and felt clumsy for a moment? It took a moment for your visual system to get re-acclimated to what is normal. Unless your sport is on a treadmill (I don't know of any), why would you want to get better at walking on a treadmill and worse at walking on real ground? Remember, you get better at exactly what you practice exactly how you practice.

Cardio That Counts

There is no such thing as the perfect cardio program because of the SAID principle; you need to train for how you need it. But we do need a generic program for folks to have a place to start.

First off, if you compete in a sport such as mixed martial arts, soccer (football for international readers) or other, you already are getting your cardio training. What you need is training in your areas of personal weakness. Perhaps that is quick burst cardio output or perhaps that is grip strength or thoracic mobility and has nothing to do with cardio.

However, adding a quick 5-minute or less high output cardio session to your training is quite effective and quite easy, well actually it isn't easy at all, it is tough but brief. Enter, the Tabata protocol!

Dr. Izumi Tabata a Japanese researcher did a study on various forms of cardio exercise. I'll give you the short version; he discovered that 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest followed by another 20 seconds of intense exercise increased both short and long distance type endurance. Not to mention that this type of exercise fits right into Dr. Sear's recommendation of heart healthy cardio exercise.

Now for Tabatas to be effective the 20 seconds of work must be an exercise that you can perform fairly all-out! That means super efficient GS sport style snatches and long cycle clean and jerks are out but Hard Style snatches and long cycle clean and jerks are in! Sprints are a go, jogging is out. Burpees, swings, etc. will fit the bill.

You are to do a maximum of 8 rounds, this ends up being 3.8 minutes so I don't want to hear the lame story of not having enough time to exercise! Don't feel bad if you want to quit after 3 rounds your first time. If you can do more than 8 rounds you need to pick a more challenging drill to do.

I prefer to mix and match my drills for Tabatas. I may do only sprints one session and bear crawls, swings, burpees and clean and jerks another session. The key is not to get super efficient at the exercises, we aren't picking exercises we want to be super good at but rather inefficient, for us, exercises that we can push ourselves on; hence the reason GS style is out, it is too efficient. 20 seconds of GS isn't even a warm up but 20 seconds of Hard Style can be make quite tough with the proper weight and pace.


If you have ever done Charles Staley's Escalating Density Training strength program, you will immediately appreciate how you will not need any additional cardio for a healthy heart and to be better than 97% of the world in cardio fitness. However, if you want to be extraordinary then add Tabata protocols or something similar to your training. If your goal is purely fat loss then you may do Tabatas after your strength session and then do a mild steady state option such as walking outdoors for 30 – 60 minutes on your off days. If the Secret Service Snatch Test, Ultimate Snatch Test or Tactical Strength Challenge Snatch Test are your game then you already know high output cardio. Tabata sprints or burpees are a nice way to get even higher output cardio while letting your poor calluses rest.

If you enjoy jogging or biking, be prepared to do what is necessary to prehab your potential areas for injury and make sure to add a heart healthy cardio option at least once per week to necessitate your heart to stay larger, stronger and less efficient.

Stay off of the treadmill and get some fresh air for crying out loud!

About the Author:

Brian Copeland, RKC, PFS

Brian Copeland is a Denver, Colorado based strength and conditioning coach, Certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor and Progressive Fighting Systems Certified Instructor. Brian specializes in functional strength and athletic training, conditioning for martial artists, kettlebell lifting, and general fitness. Brian has also rehabilitated several severe lower back injuries, including his own, through the use of "proper" strength and mobility training.

Brian is available for private and group lessons and personalized program design. If you are tired of not seeing results contact Brian, he will design a personalized program based on YOUR goals, YOUR time and YOUR lifestyle.

Visit me today at

Train Like An ATHLETE Not A Hamster!