Posted August 16, 2017

Why the Fitness Industry Seems to Hate Cardio

Admit it, you’ve seen the articles that circulate around saying you’re going to lose all your gains if you do any kind of steady state cardio. They use concepts like increased cortisol, pictures of sprinters against marathon runners, and any manner of false equivalence arguments to say doing cardio is bad and only doing squats and deadlifts is the only thing you ever need to do in life to be jacked and awesome.

In the meantime, these same personalities will happily trot out their metabolic conditioning circuits, HIIT boot camp classes, Tabata workouts, or Crossfit WODs, all while forgetting one big concept.

They’re all actually cardio workouts.

You can call them what you want, but the basic concepts of work output being governed by oxygen uptake into the muscles over a period of time is still cardio.

Involving work and rest periods while working at an intensity over anaerobic threshold is still cardio.

Doing it with an altitude mask on is stupid, but is still cardio.

Using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, bikes, green eggs and ham, or whatever else you want to use doesn’t make it any less cardio.

So why do members of the fitness industry want to re-brand cardio conditioning as something different or special? To be honest, it’s a pretty competitive environment and in many cases it’s an easy way to stand out from the crowd. What sounds better, cardio, or metabolic conditioning? I mean the first sounds pretty boring and blase but the second sounds like I’m going to get so scientific and metabolic that I could fight a grizzly. I don’t recommend that, but HIIT yeah I’m all over it!

Part of it could come down to competition. A few years ago, a “celebrity trainer” made waves saying that spinning classes would bulk womens’ thighs.┬áThis is a pretty odd statement to make since a lot of people love spinning and doing any sort of cycling class, and the statement seemed to fly in the face of thermodynamics, exercise physiology, and how the body stores energy or builds muscle. i mean, if you’re in a caloric surplus, activity could cause some gain of muscle, as well as some gain of water weight and body fat, but in an isocaloric or caloric deficit state, it would be next to impossible to gain muscle mass.

My wife cycles for about 12-15 hours a week, and pretty high intensities as well. By that standard, she should have legs like Tom Platz.

Her legs post race, pumped as much as they could be. Not really bulky.

Tom Platz. Bulky

Now this could be considered an odd statement by itself, but in context, it’s quite telling. I was in New York a few year ago and happened to walk by that trainers studio. Looking around I noticed something fairly odd. There was a Soul Cycle studio right across the street from hers, and in a direct line of view from the windows of her studio.

Along the same lines, many private training studios may have limited space or budgets for equipment that might not equate to spending $5000-10000 on a commercial grade treadmill, which tend to require routine maintenance, upkeep, and are harder to run group classes on. Bikes can be expensive as well, although significantly less if mechanically braked like most spin bikes. Compare that to free weights, where good ones are around $1 a pound and last a lifetime (as long as someone isn’t dropping them all over the place).

Cardio equipment is something a lot of facilities are less than willing to invest in, and as a result they have to convince their members, clients, and prospectives that they can get just as good of a workout with the other implements they have at their disposal, which is absolutely true, they can. The downside is they wind up demonizing the use of traditional cardio and anyone who does it in favour of their modality of choice.

James Fell of BodyforWife wrote a great comparison piece between cardio and weights, and includes breakdowns of specific energy system use and timeframes for activities, so if you check that out it will save me from having to say the same things.

So while some trainers are against cardio because of trying to manage their own business interests, others are so pro weights that anything else is a waste of time and effort in their eyes. The downside to this is that extolling the virtues of weights and the perceived failures of cardio is a somewhat slippery slope that can teeter between the intent to inform and persuade, and demeaning and embarrassing those who do actually enjoy doing some form of cardio.

Take my wife yet again. As someone who can deadlift more than twice her weight, she’s no stranger to lifting, but as someone who competes in endurance activities, she sees a lot of posts and articles where trainers spend a lot of time bashing those who do these activities and the activities themselves, and has said more than once to me that she’s really turned off from who ever is saying these things when it happens.

Ladies, gents, this is your target audience saying this.

Also worth noting, she enjoys it. Don’t try to convince someone to not do something they love when there’s no real reason to do so.

Cardio training also takes a bit of a different approach than normal strength training, and may involve less from the trainer than they would likely prefer. Essentially, if the client is going for a 10 k run, the trainer isn’t really needed for that. The downside to this line of thinking is that trainers are able to still develop and administer, monitor, and adjust the cardio programming for the client as needed, which means they can still be involved, but maybe run with a larger group, while also pursuing the benefits of strength training for their cardio performance.

There’s also some involvement of numbers. I mean, I suck at math, and getting into fitness was my way of trying to avoid it by only counting to 10. I can usually do that without taking my shoes off. But doing some calculations of heart rate training zones takes literally 2 variables and about 10 seconds, and even this meathead can do it relatively easy enough. When I get deep down the rabbit hole, I start looking at deflection points on heart rate curves on graded exercise tests, and predicting heart rate maxes in cardiac recovery patients, but that’s for a whole other post.

For most cardio programs, you have to track some metrics, like heart rate or power output to ensure the individual is pacing adequately to get the benefit from the specific metabolic zone, or is able to maintain peak output for extended periods by working just below the anaerobic threshold. While this metric may be very specific, it’s pretty similar to how some meatheads track data in the gym like the amount of weight lifting, RPE, RIR, OPP, DYEL, and other important concepts.

A great company that walks this line of conditioning and strength development and does incredibly good business is Complete Human Performance. With athletes running marathons and Ironmans and also competing in powerlifting meets, they involve both the conditioning and strength elements that come with a strength & conditioning program. That and the director, Alex Viada, has been known to deadlift in the 700s and run the odd marathon at a sprint pace for most humans. He also enjoys the odd beer or four.

Doesn’t look like he’s losing many gains from his 3 hour bikes. Seriously bulky though, might have to reconsider my earlier statements.

So to sum up:

  • Cardio isn’t bad for you, and can help augment benefits of strength training
  • Cardio doesn’t make you fat. Stop saying that. It’s not even remotely true. Cardio can be an excellent way to lose weight when paired with an isocaloric or caloric restriction diet.
  • Cardio won’t kill your gains, unless you don’t recover from it well, are eating the equivalent amount of food as a small bunny, or do zero weight training.
  • Rebranding cardio is still cardio, just at a higher price point.
  • Trainers can help their clients include conditioning work on their own, without sacrificing their personal use to that client.

Now go for a run, bike to work, or toss on a heart rate monitor while walking your pups. Deuces, peeps.