Why Does Everybody Hate Cardio? It May Be the Reason You’re Not Making Gains…You’ve probably seen the shirts. Heck, you might even own one of the shirts - “Cardio, more like cardi-no” Cool, you have a general disdain for all things cardio related. While that opinion may be popular on social media, it’s rather short sighted and misinformed. In fact, if you’ve been struggling to make progress over the past few months, cardio may be the missing piece in your programming puzzle.
A Quick Primer on Energy SystemsWhenever someone starts talking about bioenergetics, most people start scrolling or click the back button. This is not exercise physiology and I have no interest in boring you to death, so let’s skip the science mumbo jumbo. Think of energy systems like the “boost” button in certain video games. There are some characters who are more sprint based - they can run exceedingly quickly but only for short distances. There are other characters who are more locomotion based - they can run forever but not that quickly. Essentially, the 3 energy systems in your body are like different “boost meters” - some recharge very quickly but only provide a limited amount of energy. However, others recharge extremely slowly but provide a seemingly endless amount of energy until fatigue sets in. For those who are slightly more science based, here’s a summarized breakdown on each:
- ATP-PC: Produces energy fastest but only sustains work for 6-12 seconds
- Anaerobic Glycolysis: Produces energy moderately fast but only sustains work for 30-90 seconds
- Oxidative Phosphorylation (Aerobic): Produces energy slowly but can sustain work for seemingly hours on end
Breathe Hard, Recover HarderThink about the difference in food intake between a 250lb bodybuilder and a 160lb sedentary male. Who eats more? The bodybuilder obviously, but why? Larger engines require more fuel (gas). However, they also produce more waste (exhaust). In the case of human physiology, these are known as “metabolic byproducts” which build up within the intracellular environment during training. Research has shown that these are typically correlated with fatigue and tend to limit force production. (Layzer 1990) However, in the case of an engine, what’s the easiest way to get rid of more exhaust? Increase the size and number of pipes transporting the exhaust fumes to the muffler. Cardio work accomplishes the same phenomenon in humans - by increasing capillary density at the peripheral level of the tissues, you can remove more of those metabolic byproducts (namely hydrogen and phosphate) and train harder for longer. #science While the aerobic system seems “slow” and unproductive, it’s important to keep in mind that this system holds the key to rep to rep, set to set, and session to session recovery. If you can enhance your aerobic efficiency, you’ll be able offset the changes to muscle pH that typically accompany the metabolic byproducts we mentioned above. Not only that, if you can enhance an energy system (“boost meter”) which produces the most energy possible over a given unit of time then wouldn’t it make sense logically that you would recover faster? Energy is needed for literally every cellular process in the body.
Brain Gains For All You Nerds Out ThereBut, maybe you don’t care about getting jacked and tan. Maybe you’ve been in the iron game for years and you’re on your way out. Maybe you feel like you’ve tapped out all your muscular potential. Well, that still doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on cardio work. Here are some non-hypertrophic related benefits from chronic steady state work:
- Neural plasticity - Ability of the brain to change throughout an individual’s lifetime and establish new network patterns and connections (Swain et al. 2012)
- BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) - Encourages new neuronal growth within the brain and helps support long term memory formation (Kyun Jeon et al. 2017)
- Neurotransmitter Regulation - More specifically dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline (Lin et al. 2013)
- Vagal Tone - Improved balance between sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) states resulting in improved immune function (Bonaz et al. 2017)
You’ve Got To Sweat it To Get itSo, while your aerobic system may not be maximally taxed under a bar, it’s important to remember that it is one of the strongest determinants of your work capacity. Larger work capacities can handle more volume and you know what that means, right? Gains bro, lots of gains. Maybe it’s time to get out of the gym and go for a walk every once in a while. Better yet, if you can, go for a walk/hike outdoors. Vitamin D, fresh air, and increased hypertrophic potential - that sounds like a winning combination to me.
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