A few years ago we buried cardio. Steady state cardio was 6 feet under, and we’ve steadily piled on more and more dirt. Most of this was for good reason. Steady state cardio has been grossly overused when it comes to making body composition changes.
There’s no debating the fact that far too many of the average gym goers rely on steady state cardio to shed fat, when in reality they’d be better off lifting and eating less shit.
What’s rarely been talked about is how cardio can have an application to the weight room. Steady state cardio increases your performance in the weight room, and makes the new muscle you add higher performing as well. If you care about performance, you need to start doing steady state cardio.
Cardio builds better muscles.
The blood vessel support network in a muscle is a big fucking deal. Without an adequate capillary network, muscle tissue can’t function at the highest level possible.
When building size and strength, you’re adding more muscle tissue. You’re not only adding more muscle tissue, you’re also adding more adding more a support network. That new muscle tissue requires more capillaries in order to function properly.
This is where a lot of lifters who rely on HIIT or “lifting weights faster” go wrong. Steady state cardio is superior at increasing the capillary support network of new muscle tissue. Why? Because steady state cardio is oxidative, and the muscular adaptation that takes place isn’t muscle deciding to up and disappear, like we’ve been told.
It’s actually to lay down new capillaries that will allow the muscle tissue to receive more oxygen and nutrients via the blood.
Why is this important? A greater capillary support network means that you can now clear metabolites and waste products faster. To truly see the application here, we need a brief primer on energy systems.
All three energy systems work on a continuum. No matter what you’re doing, all three are working together to fuel activity. The glycolytic system provides most of the energy after about 30 seconds, all the way up to around 4 minutes of continuous activity.
This is also where most athletes and lifters see their performance die. They spend too much time in the glycolytic system, burn through too many carbohydrate stores, and performance suffers.
An athlete who has a well-trained cardiovascular system, with an enhanced support network, can successfully get into and out of glycolysis. This is a huge advantage, because the athlete who can clear waste products, recover, and get out of glycolysis will almost always perform at a higher level for the duration of competition or the training session.
In the same vein.
Another massive advantage to steady state cardio is the increased stroke volume adaptation. A well-trained heart will continually push out more blood with each pump compared to a poorly trained heart, because the heart adapts to this form of cardio by stretching and growing.
This is also an adaptation that doesn’t happen with HIIT. Instead of the heart stretching and growing, it actually thickens. This is where a program where HIIT is the only focus goes seriously wrong. If the heart is beating fast, it’s just trying to get blood in and out as soon as possible. If the heart wall is thicker, that job is now more difficult than it should be.
All of this plays into the largest performance beneficiary: increased work capacity.
Work capacity is an often talked about, and often misunderstood topic in the lifting world. Where a lot of people go wrong is they start confusing general and specific work capacity. Both have important applications, but they’re very different depending on the athlete.
General work capacity: This is simply the ability to perform work over time. It could be any sort of work or movement. Moving boxes, a loaded carry, a lifting session, or walking to the fridge to grab a beer.
Specific work capacity: This is much more specific to the individual athlete and their needs. Specific work capacity is the athletes ability to perform a given type of movement for a given frequency or number of reps without experiencing some sort of performance decrease.
If you’re a powerlifter, you need to have a high specific work capacity when it comes to squatting, deadlifting, and benching. If you’re a sprinter, you need to have a high specific work capacity when it comes to running.
What’s often misunderstood is how general work capacity can have a major benefit to anyone. Whether they are an elite athlete, weekend warrior, or someone looking to gain a few pounds of lean mass, we’re talking about GPP.
GPP, or general physical preparedness, is one of the big reasons why steady state cardio should be a part of most lifters programs. GPP work has a massive role in increasing a lifters general work capacity, which can tie into increased performance.
General work capacity can’t be overstated, no matter the type of athlete or lifter we’re talking about. The better your cardiovascular conditioning is, the better you will utilize energy, clear metabolites and waste products, and recover.
If a lifter takes a period of training to focus on GPP, they will see the benefit later on when trying to increase specific work capacity. Having an increased level of GPP allows for a greater specific work capacity, which directly impacts quality of training sessions and performance improvements.
Steady state cardio isn’t what you think.
The largest misconception when it comes to steady state cardio is that it must be work on the elliptical, incline walking on the treadmill, or pounding the pavement in a long slow jog.
The truth is this: the heart will never win any awards for being smart. It’s not the brain. The heart doesn’t care what it does, as long as it gets into zone 2, or what equates to 120-150 bpm for most people.
Hitting the elliptical for 30-40 minutes is boring. You can only watch so much terrible television on those tiny screens. This is where using your imagination to get in some cardio can be really helpful.
Any movement works as long as your heart rate is in the right zone. Personally, I prefer playing golf. It’s an easy way to make sure I burn calories, keep myself entertained, and actually support both recovery and fat loss.