Strength training and heart health

I have a family history of heart disease. I’m currently 42, and as I’m getting older, I’m worried that I’ll end up with heart problems. Right now I don’t have any problems with my heart or blood pressure. My doctor recommended doing aerobic exercise to stay healthy, but I really don’t like cardio. Will lifting weights have a significant impact on my cardiovascular health?

Short answer: Strength training is probably not going to boost your heart health the way you’re hoping. However there is still benefit! Here’s why:

Your body adapts to the demands that you place on it. These demands can take the form of learning a new skill, increasing daily physical activity, or lifting heavy things. In particular, your muscles will get stronger relatively quickly when you start to make them work.

As well as being an very important organ, your heart is a muscle. And just like any other muscle, it will respond to increased stress (i.e. exercise) by getting stronger. In practical terms, this means it becomes more efficient at pumping blood, since it can move more blood with each heartbeat. This is useful since your body needs a minimum amount of blood to circulate every minute in order to keep living; More blood moving per beat means that your heart rate (the number of beats per minute) can decrease without problems.

Overall, there isn’t much research to suggest that strength training creates enough stress to improve heart health. Aerobic exercise – aka “cardio” – remains your gold medal choice for this. Don’t think that time with weights isn’t valuable for your heart though.

Strength training still benefits

There are still some benefits for heart health. They just are a little more indirect.

  • The most important molecule in your blood is oxygen. We can live with low levels of everything else, but without oxygen, we’re toast. Any time we move our body, our oxygen needs increase, as it gets used more quickly by your muscles. The more strenuous the movement, the more oxygen you’ll use and need. Strength training will make your muscles stronger (obviously!), and stronger muscles will be less stressed by daily activities. With less physical stress comes lower oxygen demands in everyday life, so your heart can stay in low-stress mode too.
  • Research has suggested that the actual structure of your heart will change with strength training. Specifically, the walls will become thicker (but not dangerously so), which allows a stronger “pump” action. Stronger pump means more blood is pumped per beat, and your heart can do less work (fewer beats) to move the same amount of blood through your body. We do know from the research that with regular and long term strength training, your heart rate will decrease, which is an easily observable effect of this.
  • Some research has also shown that blood pressure is reduced with regular strength training. It’s important to know that if you already have high blood pressure, you’ll need to modify your strength training program a little to make sure you don’t increase it during a session. Short term increases in blood pressure are common when lifting heavy things.
  • It appears that with regular strength training, the heart muscle itself will adapt to use less oxygen, again decreasing your overall demand.

The last word on strength training for heart health

Ultimately strength training doesn’t appear to provide enough stress to create significant positive changes in heart health. You really do need the ongoing challenge of sustained aerobic exercise, namely, a sustained elevated heart rate. This is what improves the majority of the factors that keep the heart healthy in the long run. You aren’t sentenced to running, cycling, or anything other form of cardio though. There are lots of other ways to use strength training exercises to keep your heart healthy, or you could look at some non-traditional types of cardio exercise. You might find it just as enjoyable.

Listen Up! (To our new health and fitness podcast)

If you want to hear my real and unfiltered opinions on all things strength, cardio, and other workout and health and fitness trends… You can now listen in.

My good friend Dave Harvey has been at me for ages to do a podcast with him. We’ve finally done it! So we’d like to introduce Common Sense Fitness. You can joint us anywhere you get your podcasts. We’ll be covering all the trendy things in the health, fitness, and wellness arenas and removing the hype so you can figure out A) if something is really worthwhile and B) if it’s going to fit you and your lifestyle.

We’re just ramping up, so the library isn’t extensive. But we have lots of topics in the works, including:

  • How to get through tough workouts when you’d really rather stop
  • Why you need a flexibility practice
  • How the way you breathe can impact the way you feel, look, and perform
  • Long term exercise habits and how you can avoid plateaus and always continue to progress
  • Eating habits and social situations
  • Some of the ways we self-sabotage when working towards big health and fitness goals

Plus a whole lot more. We’re also open to answering your questions, so feel free to send them though by contacting me directly here on the Contact page.

What started this all? Between Dave and I, we have more than 20 year’s experience working with people in all sorts of fitness and wellness settings. We’ve always talked a lot about the things we see on a regular basis, what works and what doesn’t. The biggest challenge we’ve seen people have? That getting started with health and fitness is incredibly overwhelming. Our goal is to take away the confusion and help you get (or keep) moving.

Listen up and subscribe for new episodes, and we will provide you with simple solutions to make health, fitness, and wellness more achievable for daily life. Find our podcast Common Sense Fitness right here, or anywhere else you get your pods.

Pineapples wearing sunglasses and party hat with balloons

New year resolutions: Why normal goals don’t work

A new year resolution is the pinnacle of goal setting. The glow of the holidays set up a rosy outlook on the new year, and aspirations are lofty. We’re relaxed, in great moods, and so optimistic about the possibilities ahead of us. The sky is the limit! But that’s part of the problem.

Some research suggests that 75-80% of people have given up on their new year resolution by mid-February. In my experience, that sounds about right. In large part, this comes down to two major, immediate factors here that mean many of our resolutions are not set up to succeed. If we can address these, we significantly increase our chances of making those resolutions stick!

Timing is everything

The start of a new year seems like a great time to make changes. New year, new me, right? Realistically, choosing the first of the year probably makes our desired changes a lot harder to stick with. The timing is off!

By the time January 1st roles around, we’ve have a solid three to five weeks of the holiday season and all the festivities that accompany it. That’s a lot of time out of routine, and for many people, that’s time spent indulging in food, drink, and sleep that aren’t normal for us. It’s not really typical of our daily lives. This can lull us into a false sense of “I have plenty of time for new things”, which quickly falls by the wayside as we get back to normal.

What to do instead: Tweak your new year resolution to match your “normal” daily routine. Take into account the time you spend working, commuting, doing chores and providing care for others. And remember to leave some time for hobbies and other things you enjoy. Does your goal, or the steps you need to take to achieve it, need to change in order for it to realistically fit into your days? Maybe you can make it smaller, simpler, or give yourself a longer deadline to achieve it.

(Goal) Size matters

Our culture is all about “go big or go home”. That’s cool, but actually hard to do. Here’s why: Big is overwhelming. It’s sometimes harder than we expect. Sometimes achieving big things is more complex than we realised. Most commonly, we just don’t know where to begin.

That’s not to say big goals are bad goals. In fact, big goals are usually the ones that get us excited. I mean, if you want to lose weight, losing 20kg (or 44 pounds) is way more inspiring than losing one, even though losing one is much more achievable and sustainable.

What to do instead: Break it down. Big goals just need a little extra thought and planning in order to be more easily achieved. There are many ways to break down your big goal into smaller, more achievable pieces. It can be as easy as taking the time you give yourself, and dividing that and your goal into smaller sections. By breaking things down, you get the positives both of something that doesn’t seem too big to accomplish. And you get a lot more “reward buzz”, my term for the feeling you get when you do what you say you’re going to do. Taking action can be as rewarding as the big goal itself.

Tweak ’til it’s right

You don’t have to throw out your new year resolution and start from scratch. Instead, sit down and spend some time considering the above points. If you’re going to keep working away at the goal you set on Jan 1st, it’s worth figuring out what you need to do to achieving it in small pieces, what actions will make those achievements happen, and how they are going to fit into your normal non-holiday life. It’s a different type of exercise, but like any other, very much worth doing!

Can I go hiking and still gain muscle?

I’m a guy who is interested in gaining muscle, but my partner wants to lose weight and get fit. She wants to go hiking and I really want to support her! We tried it and both loved it. My question is: can I still gain muscle while hiking once or twice a week? I’ll still be going to the gym and lifting heavy 4-5 days per week. I’m worried that the cardio from the hiking will keep me from adding muscle mass.

Hiking a couple of times a week shouldn’t have a massive impact on your muscle gain. There are a couple of factors here that lead me to this answer.

Strength training while also training for aerobic capacity (cardio fitness) is called concurrent training. (This is a necessity for most sports.) The research says that this may diminish progress in either or both types of training. One popular theory about why this happens describes an “interference” between the adaptations caused by cardio or strength exercises. These very different types of exercise create very different responses in the muscle, some of which may counteract each other.

However, cardio training is Not Guaranteed to diminish strength or muscle mass gains. This interference effect seems to vary a lot depending on the individual as well as the type, duration, frequency, and intensity of training. Some people even see improved responses from concurrent training.

Hiking as concurrent training

The most common interference effect is a decreased strength and muscle gain response with concurrent training – that is, when doing cardio and strength sessions on the same day or same week. Doing more cardio seems to create an “overreaching” response. In other words, taxing the body more can make it harder to A) get the same quality strength workout and B) delay recovery from all workouts. But this doesn’t seem to apply to all cardio across the board. It appears to be most caused by high-volume, high-intensity, or high-frequency cardio workouts.

My guess is your couple-times-a-week hiking isn’t especially high in volume or intensity. I would be more wary of very long hikes, up very steep terrain and/or with a heavy pack, all of which will increase the intensity of the hike. On the other hand, frequency also plays a part. If you have a long or hard hike every so often, it shouldn’t create too much interference. It’s a drop in the bucket, so to speak.

The other thing to keep in mind with concurrent training is that interference is usually body part specific. A big (long, heavy) hike might knock your legs around a little, so you might not have a great leg workout the next day. An upper body day would probably be fine though. You could get around this by planning your strength training days so that you hike after leg days. You might be a little more sore or tired, but it wouldn’t disrupt your muscle gains anywhere near as much.

Another benefit to hiking

There’s some benefit to hiking in this situation as well (other than strengthening your relationship!). Non-paved trails are full of rocks, divets, branches, and other varied surfaces. As you step over and around these, you challenge different ranges of movement. This gives your brain lots of rich information to work with, strengthens your physical resilience (aka decreasing injury risk), and helps you recover from your gym sessions. Plus, getting outside has many psychological benefits. It’s nice to get a break from the indoor world sometimes.

Bottom line, hiking has a pretty low chance of being a serious risk to your muscle mass goals. Be smart about how you structure your training, and get out there with your partner and enjoy the fresh air!

Running is giving me a headache

I went for my first run and my head was hurting for the rest of the day. The run wasn’t hard, in fact it was a walk-run alternating between running for a minute and walking for a 90 seconds. Including warming up and and cooling down, it was a 30 minute workout. Do you think my headache could be related to not being hydrated enough?

There are quite a few factors that might be causing a headache after running. Dehydration could definitely be one of them.

Hydration guidelines tell us that men should have a total of around three and a half to four litres a day of fluid intake. Women around two and a half to three litres. (Litres are roughly equivalent to quarts, if you need to do the conversion.) Total fluid intake, by the way, is not just the water you drink. Other drinks and the water content of the food you eat also contribute. This article from the National Institutes of Health provides the water content for selected foods in Table 1.

Temperature, humidity, and sweat rate will impact your hydration status as well. If it’s hot, you’ll sweat more and dehydrate more quickly. Even moreso if it’s hot and humid. And if you sweat a lot, that will also contribute. Take these things into consideration when you’re planning your workout.

Also keep in mind that you can’t drink water and instantly be more hydrated. Don’t let the rate you pee fool you. It takes at minimum several hours to process the water you drink. If you’re running tomorrow, start hydrating now.

Another other thing that might really contribute to a headache after running: Neck and shoulder tension, especially through your upper traps. Running technique is not just about how you move your legs, and running is hard work! When we are doing physically hard work, we often end up with our shoulders up around our ears. Coupled with the fact that most of us hold tension in our shoulders anyway, this could definitely be a contributing factor. Keep your shoulders and arms relaxed as you run, for a better stride and one less headache trigger.

man lifting adjustable dumbbells doing bicep curl

Strength training is making me too sore!

I paddle outrigger canoes three or four times a week as part of a racing club. I’d like to strength train as well, but it leaves me sore for days and I can’t go out on the water. I don’t want to miss time in the boat, so I’m not going to the gym, but I really liked lifting weights in the past. Is there any way I can actually do both? 

When strength training soreness is consistent and limits your other activities, your program is probably too intense. Volume (sets/reps) and weight (load) determine session intensity. Too much of either will overload your body. It’s common to be sore after a session or two when: 

  • You’re new to lifting weights,
  • You are getting back into weights after a long period away from strength training, or
  • When you’re starting a new program, especially if there is a larger “power” component to it. (Power-focused exercises focus on moving heavy weight fast, like the Olympic lifts, or moving your body explosively, like plyometrics.) 

This doesn’t sound quite like you. I would look at adjusting your strength training volume, specifically by decreasing your sets and reps. When you use strength training to support another sport, you can get away with doing less in the gym. But you still want to make your time worthwhile. You’ll get plenty of muscular endurance training from your time on the water. A focus on heavier (but not maximal) strength training in the gym will provide you a better foundation for your sport-specific work.

Assuming no injury history that you work around, I’d probably be looking a a weights program including:

  • Dynamic stretching as a warm up. For paddlers, working on improving thoracic extension especially will be very helpful for injury prevention and power in the stroke. 
  • Lots of compound lifts (also called multi-joint exercises). These include squats, deadlifts, chin ups, rows, and pushups. Aim for two to three sets of six reps, choosing a weight that you can do for seven reps max, with good form.
  • Anti-flexion/extension and anti-rotation exercises like planks or anti-rotation presses (also called a Pallof press). 

The other factor to consider here is that you are potentially under-recovered. Higher-demand exercises like heavy weights, eccentric movements, or power exercises create more muscle damage than endurance or strength-endurance exercises. Damage requires healing, and while we rarely think about it in that context, that is exactly what recovery time is for. Higher exercise demands mean higher recovery demands. You might need more sleep (most important) or more food (usually less of a concern for recreational athletes). You could also pursue more soft tissue support like massage or foam rolling. That said, your consistent soreness makes me think this is not really a recovery issue, it’s a training volume issue. 

Bottom line: Strength training soreness happens, but you shouldn’t be sore every time you lift weights. The benefits you get from a training session like that will be outweighed by your inability to do the things you enjoy. Better to back off the strength training intensity so you can lift, train, and live your life without wincing. 

Fit and healthy middle age woman doing a snatch barbell exercise for stretch and power training

Do I need to set a big goal for motivation? 

If you want to stay motivated, a big goal can definitely help. But it also can backfire, and keep you from starting all together. This is especially true when we’re talking about complex things like physical health and fitness. Our bodies are complex machines. When they are working well, they work in a fairly predictable way. But when they aren’t functioning optimally, straightening things out can be complex. 

For example: A person wants to lose a significant amount of weight. The traditional wisdom tells us that weight loss is a matter of “calories in versus calories out”. But this isn’t the whole picture of how a body works. Age, health conditions, medications, your brain, and even your environment can all change how many calories you burn. Mental load – high levels of stress, a thinking- or emotionally-intense job, or how much you want to eat those brownies – can impact your levels of willpower. So the simple “eat less, burn more” isn’t always easy to accomplish. 

So big goals in health and fitness often have a lot of elements to consider. This is part of why we are so good at stopping ourselves before we get started. When there are lots of things to consider, how do you know what to do first? And when there’s so much to do, is it even possible to actually succeed? 

How to make big goals possible

You can use a big goal to keep your motivation high by being smart, rather than blindly working hard. When I’m meeting with a client for the first time, my first questions are:

  1. Tell me about you. (Everyone’s favorite…)
  2. What do you want to get out of this?

The information I get from these two questions tells me:

  1. What life is like, and where the opportunities for change are, and 
  2. What that ultimate goal is.

This information sets the stage for the planning and logistics part of the session. Breaking this ultimate goal down into smaller goals (sometimes called steps, action points, process goals, or similar) is key. By taking something huge and making it small, we also make it more easily achievable. 

Easy is key! Achieving anything helps us feel successful. Success itself is motivational. And because we know we can achieve one small step, it is easier to achieve the next small step. So success continues, and motivation stays high, and all of a sudden you’re on the brink of your ultimate goal. One more small step and you’re there, motivation high all along. 
So a big goal can keep motivation high, provided you are smart in how you’re working towards it. They say rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was worth the wait and the work – and your ultimate goal will be too.

Middle age woman walking for fitness

Should you exercise every day? 

Should you exercise every day? All the signs point to yes.

A lot of people worry that daily exercise might be too much, and it’s true that in some situations you can overdo it. But the fact is that many people don’t even meet the minimum exercise recommendations. 

Daily exercise recommendations in America, Canada, the UK, and Australia are all the same: 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 to 7 days a week. They also recommend strength or resistance training of some description at least two days a week. 

I can understand why you might think it’s not the best idea – exercise is hard, right? And you’re sore for days afterward? 

There’s a smarter way to exercise every day. Our bodies benefit much more from small-and-frequent bouts of exercise, even if they still don’t meet the recommended guidelines. For example, a Taiwanese study of over 400,000 people showed that even those exercising for 15 minutes a day at moderate intensity (half the recommended amount) lived on average three years longer than those who were inactive. Three years is a lot of life! That could be the difference between seeing your grandkids graduate from high school – or not. 

Daily exercise has no drawbacks

…When done well. It is definitely possible to over-do it when you are just getting started. Keep your workouts short and relatively easy, and you can do something every day. As your body becomes more accustomed to working out, you can stretch your sessions slightly longer or choose exercises that are a little more challenging. 

There is strong evidence that increasing exercise will decrease your risk of death from any cause. And there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit. Even very high volumes of exercise – in excess of 100 minutes daily – aren’t shown to be harmful for overall health. The worst thing that we see with long daily sessions is that you eventually won’t see the same return on your investment. I prefer to think of it like this: You’re already in peak health, and you can’t get any peak-er. 

Short term safety

Start off with small workouts to decrease the chance of being too sore. I always tell my clients that we want to aim for challenging but achievable, and that’s a very individual measure. You should feel like you’ve done something, but it should also feel good.

Doing the same thing day in and day out might give you a few problems. Repetitive movements can increase your risk of repetitive stress injuries, or overuse injuries.

Varying the types of exercise you do can help keep your muscles and joint safe and injury free. Strength training in particular is a really great way to prevent injuries, since it makes your body more robust and ready for anything. Yoga or a stretch session are also great options to add to a routine, since it puts your body in positions that you don’t access every day. This helps keep you flexible and challenges your strength in different ways. 

Overall, don’t be afraid to exercise every day. Listen to your body, especially in the day or two after challenging yourself with something new. Take it easy when you need to and push a bit when you feel up to it, and don’t forget that slow and steady wins the race. You want this to be a sustainable life-long habit, so make it as enjoyable as you can. Your body will thank you.

How can I build lean muscle mass for long distance running?

Want to build muscle for running? From injury prevention to faster times, it’s worth the effort! Strength or resistance training will be the single biggest thing to help you gain lean muscle mass. Any time you lift weights, or do other resistance training, you stimulate lean muscle mass gains, also called muscle hypertrophy. 

The challenge as a long distance runner is that running is a stimulus to minimize lean muscle mass. Your body wants to run as efficiently as it can. One of the easiest ways to improve running efficiency is to decrease your body weight, and muscle mass is heavy! So by minimising the amount of muscle you carry, you also minimize the amount of physical work you have to do when running. 

This is annoying,  A- because muscle mass is actually hard to gain, and B- because that muscle mass can actually help decrease injury risk and improve your runs. 

Strength training considerations as a long distance runner

Training for two different things at once is called concurrrent training. Here’s what you need to think about as a long distance runner: 

Have you lifted before? If you haven’t, you’re in luck: It will be easier for you to gain lean muscle mass when you have no history of strength training. If you have been lifting for a while, you may see slower gains, but the right programming will still stimulate this. 

How much running are you doing? If you’re running long and slow three or more times per week, it’s going to be harder to put on lean muscle mass. Your body will need more time to fully recover after a long run, and also needs recovery time after a strength session. Remember that recovery is when your body replenishes energy stores in the muscle and rebuilds the muscle to be better prepared for the next session. 

How to build muscle for running

When designing a strength training program, we consider several factors. To build muscle for running, we need to balance the muscle demands of long, slow distance with the demands of lifting heavy things. Changing the exercises, the sets and reps, time spent, speed, and how many days can all greatly influence your results. 

Program frequency (how often)

This will depend on how much you’re running. Even one strength training session will be helpful, but I would push for two or even three if you can. You can do both on the same day, which may be helpful if your body needs more recovery time. Research suggests that you’ll get better results from whichever exercise you do first (i.e. run versus strength), but that you can maximise best results in each by having a break between. For example, you might strength train in the morning and run in the evening. 

Program volume (how much, i.e. sets/reps or time, etc.)

I would look at sets of 6-8 reps, which is the low end of the hypertrophy range, and probably three sets per exercise. Four sets will give you additional muscle mass stimulus, but the trade off is additional recovery needs – in this case, time between sessions. 

Program intensity (how heavy)

This will be different for everyone. My rule of thumb is that exercise should generally be challenging but achievable. In strength training, choose a weight that allows you to do the exercise with good technique. If you’ve picked a good weight, at the end of the set you should feel like you could do one or maybe two more reps with (pretty) good technique. 

Exercise selection 

Because you’re a runner training for muscle mass, and not a weightlifter doing cardio, I would prioritize compound movements. These are exercises that use lots of big muscle groups and multiple joints. Think squats or push ups or deadlifts, compared to a biceps curl. And don’t neglect your upper body! The momentum you get from the cross-body swing makes a big difference in your running efficiency, so aim for a full body workout. 

No matter how far or fast you run, building muscle can make a huge difference to your running performance. Every little bit helps, and the added benefit of injury prevention means you can stay on the road longer. So get lifting!

Can I go to the gym only 3 days a week and still see results?

Probably yes! Getting results at the gym, or from any exercise, will depend on how fit you are before you start going regularly. Most people don’t do enough exercise. If you’re in this group, any increase in exercise will make a substantial difference to how you feel and look, and how healthy you are. 

Of course, getting results at the gym also depends on what you mean by results. If you want a first place finish at a competitive marathon, three times a week at the gym isn’t going to get you there. It probably won’t get you six-pack abs either. But three a week, exercising at at least moderate intensity, is often enough for general health.

To improve your health, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. You could also do 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both. You’ll get the most benefit if this time is spread throughout the week. The AHA also recommend adding moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least two days per week.

How to do it

If you split these recommendations into three days, that would look like: 

  • 50 minutes of cardio per session, at a moderate intensity, or 25 minutes per session at a high intensity
  • Strength training during at least two of those three sessions, probably for at least 20 minutes

Of course, those make for long sessions. I’ve found that most people have a preference for either cardio work or strength training. It helps to factor that into your sessions, and then get creative in filling any gaps. My personal recommendation would be to use your gym time to focus on strength training, since most people aren’t set up to do resistance training at home. Combine your three sessions at the gym with a couple of non-gym “sessions”, which can be as simple as going for a walk, to reach the target numbers for health.