Starting cardio? Think strength before volume

Results are in! Being strong makes everything better. It’s a huge factor in injury prevention and balance, and strength makes the activities of daily life easier. And if you are going to start doing cardio regularly, strength training might be your best friend.

Counter-intuitive? Let’s do some math and you’ll see why this makes sense. We’ll use running as an example:

Let’s say you want to go for a 10 minute run. During that time, you take many many steps per minute; for a slow jog, you might take 150 steps per minute (one step is contact on one foot to contact on the opposite foot).

How did I come up with that number? Many run-specific coaches suggest a running cadence of 160-180 steps per minute. Moderate pace walking has been measured around 100 steps per minute, and a vigorous walk may be as many as 130 steps per minute. Anyway.

10 minutes x 150 steps per minute = 1500 steps.

1500 steps is 1500 times the muscles in your legs contract. This is a lot!

Strength training lessens the load

Let’s transfer that 1500 steps into gym terms. Each muscle contraction (per step) happens the same way muscles contact during rep of a strength exercise in the gym. Essentially, you are doing a 1500-rep workout. Even a high-volume gym program wont come close to this, and you’d be training way past fatigue and into injury risk with any sort of external weight attached to that.

Even if you have no strength training experience – you know that there will only be a certain number of times you can lift a thing – say a bag of potatoes – before you get tired. If you lift heavy things regularly and repeatedly, you’ll be able to lift that bag of potatoes many more times. Strength training makes that bag of potatoes feel lighter, relative to the heavy things you lift at the gym.

The same thing goes for cardio. No matter what kind of cardio you do, your muscles have to move the weight of your body. If you get stronger relative to your bodyweight, each “rep” that you do during cardio (one step during a run, in our example) is less stress on the muscles involved. To put it another way: If you can squat one quarter of your bodyweight when you start a gym program, and can squat one half your bodyweight at the end of a gym program, the physical stress of 1500 steps is going to be much less, well, stressful.

Less load, less injury

Too much load is the underpinning for overuse injuries. As you now know, strength training is a great way to decrease load without actually cutting into your cardio time. But it’s still important to balance your overall load – the combination of strength training and cardio training – with enough time to allow for recovery and tissue repair.

Recovery processes range from simple things you are doing anyway (sleep, food, hydration) to optional extras like massage, ice baths or float tanks. No matter what you use or do, your recover time is when your body repairs from the physical stress of your previous training, and rebuilds a little bit stronger so that it’s better prepared for the next session.

Strength training for cardio: Rules of thumb

If you want to get better at cardio, you need to do more cardio, so this should be your primary training focus. However, I would aim to include one or two strength training sessions per week. Focus on compound movements (involving more than one joint, so a pushup rather than a bicep curl) and full body training; 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps over three major exercises will be a great place to start in supporting your cardio efforts.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to start a cardio program, think about building strength first. It’s a surefire way to make your cardio training easier, decrease your risk of injury, and overall, perform and feel better while you’re at it.

What do you think?