The Cardio Conundrum

This is the situation…

  • You took my advice and started strength training. You eat a lot of good food. You visit them gym 2-3 times a week. You focus on the fabulous five (squat, deadlift, press, pullup, dip) and slowly add weight to the bar as you get stronger.
  • One day you talk to “bro” at the gym. Dude is huge and jacked. He goes “Listen kiddo… you’ve got to do 60 mins of low intensity cardio along with 125 sets of bench press and 350 sets of bicep curls everyday. Else you gonna get fat!” You’re a little confused but don’t think much of it and get back to showering.
  • A couple of days later your super athletic blah blah cubicle mate at work starts off with “Yo… I joined Crossfit…” and ends with “You have to do these metcons everyday and feel like you were molested by aliens. Else you gonna get fat… oh and you won’t get that discount at lululemon Now you’re scared not knowing which one to choose… alien molestation or lululemon. [I’d pick alien molestation btw!]
  • Sunday night you go to a birthday party and you say “I’ll just have a small piece of cake”. Everyone looks at you like you just declared that you were a tranny and this one guy wearing a noticeably loose t-shirt goes “Come on dude! You shouldn’t say no to anything. Look at me. I eat anything and everything I want but I’m still in shape. It is ‘cos I run 7 miles everyday! Running is the best form of exercise and everyone should run till their knees and ankles fall off. Else you gonna get fat!” At this point you’ve had it. But luckily instead of inhaling that cake in anger, you calm down and write to me.

“Dearest Raj,

So I took your advice and blah blah blah… blah blah…

I don’t want to get fat! WTF do I do now?!

– Confused Guy”

Hey Confused Guy,

Firstly, never ever address me as ‘Dearest Raj’.

Secondly…

  • The “bro” is perfectly right per his PhD in Broscience but you need to understand that he has more steroids than blood in him.
  • Your colleague is perfectly right per his Crossfit bible but you need to understand that in a year he will have more injuries than a war veteran and possibly suffer from adrenal fatigue. He will get that lululemon discount though. [No disrespect to Crossfit or the awesome affiliates here. I’m just sick of the many affiliates that treat metcons as a panacea and overdo them.]
  • The runner guy is perfectly right per his…ummm… sorry he’s wrong and you need to understand that he has a bunch of flab, too much inflammation and achy joints.

Thirdly,

Low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio works. Examples of LISS are walking, hiking, slow biking, slow rowing and *gasp* low intensity on the elliptical. The leanest people in the world, bodybuilders and hunter gatherers, do a tonne of this. When you walk briskly, your heart rate is elevated which results in expending calories and since the intensity is low all (or most) of these calories are fat calories.

Lean and strong!

The pros of LISS are –

  • you don’t burn out
  • there is no joint abuse
  • risk of injury is negligible
  • it doesn’t tax any muscle group so recovery (from strength training) is not affected

The cons of LISS are –

  • workout time is long
  • it is super duper boring

High intensity training (HIT) works, when done right. Call it whatever you want – metcons, conditioning, interval training, HIIT, circuit training, tabata protocol, dumbbell/barbell complexes – it’s all high intensity training. The other set of leanest people in the world, sprinters and fighters, train this way.  The concept is to perform a move or a set of moves in circuit fashion at super high intensities (close to max heart rate), then rest and then perform the move/circuit again. The work-rest intervals may be planned (as in a tabata protocol) or unplanned (as in a Crossfit metcon).

Lean, mean and strong!

The pros of HIT are –

  • your total workout time is very less (5-15 mins)
  • your endurance improves drastically
  • your body continues to burn calories at a higher rate than usual for hours after working out

If overdone or stupidly programmed, the cons of HIT are –

  • you could burn out
  • there is joint abuse
  • you risk of injury is high
  • it does tax muscles so recovery (from strength training) is an issue.

Medium intensity steady state (MISS) cardio… sucks! Examples of MISS are running, elliptical at medium intensity, distance biking etc. People who do this are mostly marathoners or endurance athletes and they definitely aren’t the sexiest folks around. Most runners are typically skinny fat and though they were skinny clothes have a bunch of flab especially in the lower abdominal area.

Ummm…

The pros of MISS are –

  • your endurance improves but not much more

The cons of MISS are –

  • joints are overworked and abused beyond imagination
  • overtraining is common and injuries are almost certain (shin splints anyone? plantar fasciitis maybe? IT band syndrome perhaps?)
  • you end up losing way more muscle than fat making you skinny fat
  • you could possibly cause damage to your heart
  • you load up on carbs to fuel your runs which causes more inflammation which aggravates the other cons.

My verdict…

If you’re interested in getting stronger, improving your endurance, increasing your work capacity, running faster and looking great,

  • Strength train 2-3 days a week.
  • Do low intensity cardio  2-3 days a week for 30-45 mins per session. If you have a lot of fat to lose, add in an extra day.
  • Do smartly programmed high intensity workouts 1-2 days a week for 5-10 mins per session (excluding warm-up). Or keep it simple – sprint! There are too many ways to do sprint training and I should probably dedicate a post just for that. If you have a lot of fat to lose or have much stress in your life, DROP one session for rest/stretching/LISS.
  • Stay the hell away from medium intensity cardio like running marathons etc. if you’re serious about fitness.

OK I know you guys get all wound up about my marathon-bashing. So here you go –

  • the cardiovascular benefits of distance running/cycling can be obtained from LISS and HIT very easily without causing harm to the rest of the body
  • if you’re competing (sub 1.5 hour half-marathon) or just love running go for it
  • please please don’t clock miles everyday just because you have to exercise
  • don’t use this as a reason to eat a truckload crappy food

Hope this helped a bunch of confused folks out there.

Adios!

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20 responses to “The Cardio Conundrum

  1. Smriti January 19, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I am glad you didn’t let me down on the marathon part 🙂
    Good post! Keep it coming.

  2. ML January 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Interesting about the marathoners since it’s such the rage here…and the IronMan. I look forward to the sprint post.
    ML

  3. Mamatha January 19, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Is LISS with added weight (in my case, wearing my baby in a sling) a good idea?

  4. Lavanya January 20, 2011 at 1:54 am

    You are just begging for an email that starts off with “Dearest Raj”, aren’t you? 😉

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  6. kreax February 8, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Can someone (or maybe Raj?) tell me who the sprinter ist… he looks brutal^^

    thanx

  7. Taj February 13, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Totally cool stuff Raj, really inspiring!

    Could you elaborate more on a HIT workout. Sprint is a great way no doubt, is there anything one needs to keep in mind while doing HIT so as not to damage or over do it?

    Would you say Sprinting for a period of 10-15 secs, gap of 2-3 min and continuing this cycle for 5 times is a good workout. I am not sure I can do even that. I have been doing just MIT until I found your post here. Thank to Srividya!

    Plus I am guessing HIT on a treadmill is not a great idea?

    • RG February 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      too many types of HIIT to mention here. look for conditioning workouts on my blog and you’ll find some examples.

      about sprints… 10-15 sec spring with 1 min rest x 8-10 should be perfect.

      about HIIT on the treadmill… can be done… but def need to be careful.

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  10. Swapna Mazumder August 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Dearest Raj, What would you suggest is Low Intensity Steady State in terms of % heartrate range. Running messes up my already messed up hips and knees and I wanted to try something that would supplement my Bikram yoga practice, be easier on the joints and which would help in reducing % bodyfat(keeping the mantra calorie in/calorie out in mind). Thanks.

    Shapna

    • RG August 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      Low intensity would be about 65-70% MHR. And wrt keeping it easy on the joints… brisk walks, swimming and slow cycling are your best bets.

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