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No Such Thing As Cardio!

That is the conclusion of a review study led by Southampton Solent University (UK) doctoral candidate James Steele and published online in the June 2012 Journal of Exercise Physiology (JEP). Not only do Steele and his colleagues say the division between aerobic and resistance training (RT) is a misleading notion, they propose that resistance training to failure may do it all. “In fact, this review suggests that RT to failure can produce cardiovascular (CV) fitness effects while simultaneously producing improvements in strength, power, and other health and fitness variables,” the Steele team wrote. Untrained individuals looking for the most efficient way to become fit need look no further than RT. They grant that those striving for athletic performance will have to practice their sport in order to build the specific motor skills and other variables involved. You can’t expect RT to prepare you to run hurtles or play tennis. Don’t try a triathlon based on RT alone.

Doug McGuff, MD, the only American on the Steele research team, has long taken this position. He has also been frank to say that he didn’t expect their paper to see the light of day in his lifetime. Indicating its controversial nature, the Steele report was rejected by several journals before being accepted by the JEP, and then only after several revisions. James Steele is to be commended for his perseverance. The review has the potential to change the landscape of fitness.

I can see the protests coming, so let’s dig into the report and see how the Steele team arrived at such a seemingly radical conclusion.

Steele and colleagues reviewed the literature on resistance training and cardiovascular fitness. A primary concern was the effect of intensity, specifically the results of training to momentary muscular failure. They sought to determine if the results of resistance training to momentary muscular failure differed from the response to traditional endurance training. Their hypothesis was that there would be little if any difference, that the responses and adaptations would be essentially the same.

Steele et al observed that brief, high-intensity interval training has been shown to increase endurance as much or more than traditional endurance training. Aerobic metabolism and anaerobic metabolism appear to be linked; training beyond the anaerobic threshold does not terminate CV adaptation. Importantly, duration appears to be less important than intensity. Taking it a step further, the Steele team suggested that the shorter duration and higher intensity of RT may give it an advantage over intervals in building CV fitness. “In fact, it is reasonable to conclude that modality [type of training] appears to be of little relevance in producing an improvement in CV fitness since the evidence indicates that improvement is possible by RT as long as intensity is high,” they wrote.

Research demonstrates that RT significantly improves the basic variables of CV fitness; nevertheless, the general belief is that RT must be supplemented with some form of aerobic or endurance training (such as running or biking) to significantly improve CV fitness. Steele and his colleagues questioned whether sufficient attention is being given to the role of intensity, which they define as effort, not load. (Maximum intensity means maximum effort.) They believe the effectiveness of RT in improving CV fitness would be seen differently if intensity was properly considered. They set out to determine if the literature would support that belief.

In summary, they found that few studies have directly compared the effects of RT and endurance training. Those that have appropriately controlled for intensity suggest that there are no significant differences in CV or physiological responses. The immediate (acute) responses to RT to momentary muscular failure do not differ from that of traditional training. Heart function appears to be maintained and perhaps enhanced. The response to RT appears to be a speed-up in heart rate and blood flow. The magnitude of local blood flow appears to be determined by contraction intensity. There is little or no information on blood vessel function or nitric oxide production. The continuing or chronic adaptations are more telling. The adaptations include increase in mitochondrial enzymes, proliferation of mitochondria, conversion of muscle fiber type to improve aerobic capacity (surprising but true), and increase in capillarization. (Mitochondria are the oxygen processing powerhouses of the body.)

“This review appears to be the first to present this conclusion and, therefore, it may help stimulate a changing paradigm addressing the misnomer of cardiovascular exercise as being determined by modality,” the Steele team wrote. In other words, there is no such thing as cardio. Resistance training and endurance training are part and parcel of the same physiological process. Exercise is exercise, with intensity calling the tune.

It was beyond the scope of the study to suggest how best to employ RT (exercise, load, sets, frequency) in its all-purpose mission. That will be left to future studies. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile noting that the image researchers choose for the schematics of the physiological effects of RT was a figure doing the barbell squat—and not the one-arm dumbbell curl. It seems safe to assume that multi-joint exercises are likely to produce superior overall CV adaptations compared to single-joint isolation movements. It’s probably also a good bet that multiple sets would do the job better than single sets. Needless to say, sets should be continued to fatigue.

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Imagine that, resistance training goes from cosmetic to the real deal, making aerobics optional.

I have no trouble accepting the Steele study. The Stuart Phillips group at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario Canada has come to a similar conclusion. Nevertheless, it may be premature at this stage to give up all forms of endurance exercise, especially if you enjoy it.

Keep in mind that motivation (psychology) plays a large part in successful long term training. Variety keeps things interesting. I recently purchased one of the new Concept 2 Ski Ergs, and it has enlivened my training tremendously. I am now competing in the Concept 2 World Rankings at two distances on both the rower and the Ski Erg. The competition with others my age and weight around the world has increased my motivation and improved my performance; there is always someone a little ahead of you to spur you on. Importantly, strength training has made me more competitive on both ergs.  

I enjoy RT, but I also enjoy training and competing on the rower and ski erg, both considered endurance machines. I know from a lifetime of experience that I will do better over time doing a variety of exercises, strength and endurance.

We all have choices. If doing only RT makes you happy, the Steele study should make you feel better about going with what you enjoy. I enjoy doing both lifting and high intensity aerobics. Moderate-to-low intensity steady state training doesn't appealed to me.

On the other hand, people who don’t do any form of RT should take note of the Steele study and consider adding RT to their regimen. RT will make them better at what they are doing. Whatever the choice, none of us should forget the importance of staying active between workouts. (I enjoy walking.) Your body and your mind will be better for it.

A tip of the hat to James Steele and his team (James Fisher, Doug McGuff, Stewart Bruce-Low, and Dave Smith). We are all better off because of your continuing efforts. Resistance training is taking its rightful place in the pantheon of fitness because of researchers like you.

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Finally, the clear winner in all of this is intensity/effort. Thanks to Arthur Jones, Ralph Carpinelli, Martin Gibala, Stuart Phillips, Doug McGuff, James Steele, and no doubt others, intensity is proving to be the key to success in all forms of fitness training. For those who want to become more fit, strength or endurance, effort wins over duration every time. Low and moderate intensity exercise have their place, but high intensity exercise is the key to progress.

Some will disagree, I know, but science is on the side of intensity.

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