We shouldn’t view strength training as cardio

Posted on June 21, 2017

(Last Updated On: June 21, 2017)

“Try doing a heavy squat and tell me you don’t feel your heart working. Cardio means cardiovascular. Weight lifting makes the heart work more, so it IS cardio.”

Some version of this statement has been thrown out by the weight lifting community over the years. It’s been part of a push to get people to stop doing things like going to the gym and hopping on a treadmill in favor lifting weights.

When phrased above, hey, it’s true, but we’ve seen trouble with this thinking with cancer and brain health (dementia, Alzheimer’s, CTE)-

Exercise and cancer- why it helps and how much is enough? (part 3)

Some exercise advice for former football players (worried about CTE)

With cancer, we don’t have the research to say resistance training is fine to do in substitute of “cardio.” At best, we could make an argument if the research says you need 3.5 hours per week of cardio to get the optimal cancer reduction benefits, then weight training wise you need 7 hours per week, because the heart doesn’t get worked in weight training like it does cardio. While weightlifting proponents will talk of high heart rates from squatting, squatting comprises a significant minority of nearly all lifting routines. And nobody is squatting near anything like 7 hours a week.

Not to mention time is a big consideration when it comes to keeping up with an exercise program. If we’re talking doubling someone’s commitment each week, we have to seriously question the feasibility of doing so.

-> We are not going to consider circuit training right now because that is not what the average weight lifting proponent is referencing. For instance, Starting Strength lovers do not purposely attempt to keep their heart rate up; have minimal rest breaks. They instead read some Rippetoe quotes before the next set.

With brain health, the research has so far shown weight training doesn’t produce neurogenesis like aerobic work does. It could certainly end up helping other facets of the brain, but so far, in the regions we most care about for the diseases we most worry about, the evidence is not there.


The obvious

Anecdotal way of seeing this is nonsense:

Runners will kick ass in the gym from a breathing perspective. Powerlifters / bodybuilders / weightlifters will not kick ass in anything cardiovascularly demanding unless they train it.

“But that’s because they train the movement.”

It doesn’t have to be running. Can be bike, row machine, whatever. Movements that in fact, a weightlifter would train more. A row machine bends the knees significantly, it’s horizontal squatting, which weightlifters engage in and runners don’t. Take someone who is a runner and have them do any of these things, they are going to hands down have an easier time with them than the weightlifter.

They will hands down have an easier time with circuit training i.e. fast paced LIFTING with minimal rest breaks.

Or flip the argument. What if runners were doing their running thing, running around saying,

Running builds bone density and muscle. Weight training means resisting weight. Your bodyweight is weight, so running is weight training.”

Again, it’s true, but lifters would lose their biceps at hearing that.

‘You’ll build some muscle but then quickly stop.”

“You won’t build the same type of muscle.”

“Your bone won’t be as strong as if you weight trained.”

“The range of motion isn’t similar.”

You don’t say! Sounds like what happens to the heart when comparing strength vs endurance athletes.

Getting progressively granular


Having muscle on your frame is a nice thing as one gets older, but whether you have the muscle of a e.g. triathlete or a weight lifter? That’s unlikely to matter. Your heart health will matter more when it comes to how long you live.

And which athletes live the longest?

“The study showed that compared to the non-athletes, the elite athletes had a much lower chance of dying at a given age, but the percentage of how much lower depended on VO2 max.

  • Endurance athletes had a 43% lower risk
  • Team athletes had 33% lower risk
  • Power athletes had a 10% lower risk

The study concluded that the harder your body has to work to get oxygen, the less chance you have of dying.”

Source: https://www.labmate-online.com/news/news-and-views/5/breaking-news/which-athletes-have-the-longest-life-expectancy/34105


Do Elite Athletes Live Longer? A Systematic Review of Mortality and Longevity in Elite Athletes

Olympians live longer than the general population … but cyclists have no advantage over golfers

Before somebody says power athletes are more aggressive and that could be why they die sooner, endurance athletes are notoriously neurotic and overtrained. (They’re known for respiratory infections because of this.)

But even if true, why are power athletes more aggressive? Would they be less if they did more endurance work? A run is a great way to calm down. Knowing cause and effect here is not obvious.

But fear not, we have more ways to look at this.

Blood pressure

“Strength-trained athletes had higher BP than endurance-trained athletes (131.3 ±5.3 / 77.3±1.4 vs 118.6 ± 2.8 / 71.8 ± 1.2 mm Hg, p<0.05)”

Blood pressure and hypertension in athletes: a systematic review

Then you come back with,

“A lot of strength athletes are fat.”

Not so sure about that. For sports with weight classes the majority entail having to cut weight. And often barely making the cut.

“Lifters are bigger.”

That we need to control for weight. That’s a tenuous stance since few strength / power athletes are the size of endurance ones. Furthermore, those most making the argument for weight lifting as cardio are most often those also making the argument having a high BMI doesn’t matter when it’s due to muscle. If you’re saying size matters, then you’re saying BMI matters.

-Which it likely does: Is it ok to have a high BMI if it’s due to muscle?

-> Strength athletes, even if the same body fat percentage, by virtue of pretty much always being heavier, do have more fat on them though. A 190 lb lifter at 8% body fat is fatter than a 140 lb runner at 8% body fat.

And why are lifters bigger?

Some lifting proponents might say “your heart is fine as long as it’s not accompanied by ridiculous weight gain.” Yet the culture of lifting is to get bigger. Certain programs *cough* Starting Strength *cough* necessitate weight gain or you’re said to not be on the program!

-> And we wonder why women are still nervous about weight training making them look bulky, yet that is the goal of weight training! Sure, Dear women, Stop worrying about getting bulky, but it’s understandable they have the initial concern.

Another one,

Blood pressure and rate pressure product response in males using high-dose anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS)

“You can’t use roided up lifters as a comparison.”

Again, steroids are part of the culture of lifting, but never mind that. Controls above are bodybuilders not using steroids. Notice their resting heart rates. Being in the 70s doesn’t exactly scream being in solid cardiovascular health. At least not compared to e.g. runners. Being in the 70s is more like what a sedentary Jane Doe would have.

The heart is a muscle too

Most of us have heard the heart can get bigger,

But similar to our weight lifter bitching at the runner “not all muscle hypertrophy is the same,” not all heart hypertrophy is the same.

If we look at the cardiomyocytes from the picture above,

We can imagine them changing size in different ways. We could make them,

  • wider
  • longer
  • wider and longer

If we make them longer, it’s like pulling a band. As you pull it apart and lengthen it, it gets skinnier,

This is called eccentric hypertrophy.

Our regular heart,

Right Ventricle, Left Ventricle

Then eccentric hypertrophy:

Longer and skinnier.

Concentric hypertrophy would be us making those cardiomyocytes wider. Thus thickening,

There are different benefits of each. In eccentric, we have more volume to get and eject blood. That’d be helpful to meet increased oxygen demand. In concentric, we have a stronger wall to deal with the pressure of e.g. all that blood coming back more violently.

But there can be tradeoffs too. Concentric and you have less room for blood. Eccentric and you have a thinner wall.

Taken to extremes, these are problematic:

heart hypertrophy issues concentric eccentric

Notice on the far right, for chronic exercise “myocyte length > myocyte width.” That is, eccentric hypertrophy > concentric. Both types are happening, and in a ratio as to not be pathological.

-> For women who’ve been exhausted in their first trimester, you now have some idea why. Your heart was working like it was exercising…all day!

Back to our endurance vs strength training,

“Enlargement of the left ventricular internal diameter was most pronounced and reached about 10% in athletes performing predominantly dynamic sports; mainly strength training athletes had a lesser increase of the internal dimension, which was limited to 2.5%.

Impact of different sports and training on cardiac structure and function

That’s about five times difference in eccentric hypertrophy between endurance and strength trained athletes.

Strength training gets along better with concentric hypertrophy, giving some concern over pathology:

“Cardiovascular adaptations in power athletes vary from those in endurance-trained athletes. Strength training is considered a static exercise. In static exercises the stroke volume of the heart is not affected but the overload is characterised by marked elevations in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a modest increase in cardiac output, heart rate and oxygen consumption. High level resistance training is associated with sudden and large pressor responses. The blood pressure response during weightlifting can increase to levels as high as 320/250 mmHg.

The heart responds to a pressure overload in strength training by adding new sarcomeres in-parallel to existing sarcomeres. As a consequence, the wall thickness increases. This pathological condition is called concentric hypertrophy.”

Cardiac remodelling: concentric versus eccentric hypertrophy in strength and endurance athletes

However, strength trained athletes can get some eccentric hypertrophy, and don’t seem to approach anything pathological. Though there is not much research on this. (Though we’d probably have seen a bunch of powerlifters drop dead by now if it were a concern.)

The most popular study is 20 years old as not much has been done since. In one study that was recently done no remodeling of the heart was found in resistance training.

One has to crack up at what that study also found,

“Aerobic fitness increased significantly in [endurance group] but was unchanged in [resistance group]. Muscular strength significantly improved compared to baseline in both.”

A prospective randomised longitudinal MRI study of left ventricular adaptation to endurance and resistance exercise training in humans.

Sounds like running did more for strength than resistance training did for the heart. Maybe they just didn’t squat enough…

-> We’ve been discussing the left ventricle but there are differences in the right side too: Range of right heart measurements in top-level athletes: The training impact

Hopefully we see this is a silly topic. Beyond completely out of shape people or elite athletes, it’s dubious whether resistance training will give any heart adaptation to begin with. If it does, it’s not the same type of adaptation as endurance training. Whether that be blood pressure, heart rate, cardiac hypertrophy or lifespan.

Hell, the heart doesn’t adapt the same way when comparing runners to cyclists!

The weight lifting crowd has spent a hard ~15 years trying to tell runners and cardio bunnies they need to hit the weights. But we can’t denounce the cardio only people in favor of weight-lifting only. Actually, if you’re going to only do one, the argument is not close. Do something more cardiovascularly demanding. Weight-lifters can make fun of people on the treadmill all they want, but the people on the treadmill have an ultimate trump card when they can say “Uh, I’m going to live longer than you.”

The obvious answer is do both. Nobody is saying if you’re a lifter you have to be a runner. We’re saying don’t ONLY lift. Even football players, people we don’t think of as endurance athletes, look quite good:

Systolic in black, diastolic in gray. (Blood pressure and hypertension in athletes: a systematic review.)

They live longer too: Wait, former NFL players are healthier than most people?

You can love lifting, but throw some higher reps and a circuit in there on a regular basis. Don’t avoid taking the stairs because “I squat.” Think about whether you’re getting out of breath or are you only getting light headed? Do you feel your head because you’re breathing heavier, or do you feel your head because you feel like it’s going to explode? You should have some breathing heavy work in there rather than only regularly-transiently-gigantically increasing your blood pressure.

  • Bodybuilding is likely a nice middle ground, due to all the higher reps, faster pace, and cardio focus for fat loss.
  • Power / olympic lifter / shot putter without endurance intervention isn’t ideal, no matter how one spins it.

Granted, a problem here means caring about what’s optimal. It’s understood not everybody cares about living as long as possible. I’ve known many a jacked dudes who didn’t seem to care if they lived past 50. But if you’re a lifter and combating walking more or going for a hike or doing 20 reps rather than only 5 every session, chances are you have a problem. Which is why you tend to see this argument only made by those in their 20s or have a serious financial interest in strength training. Once you get a bit older, have some kids, realize you’re wheezing trying to keep up with your wife on a three mile hike, it’s hard to keep pushing that argument. Those who don’t care about living past 50 usually do care once they hit 50!


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Posted in: Miscellaneous, Sports