We all know that lifting big hunks of iron that are sufficiently heavy that we can only muster five repetitions while progressively overloading your barbell for every performed exercise every session will make you strong. But there are some of us that are interested in also increasing our cardiovascular conditioning. Is this possible or wise or even prudent?

Dr. Ken Cooper has done a remarkable job in convincing (brainwashing?) the masses into believing cardio = fitness, to the point of believing cardiovascular/aerobic fitness is the only approach. His research is the reason most public sector fitness tests (military, police, fire, etc.) are so similar. In some countries, jogging is still called “Coopering.”

There is plenty of evidence that a reasonable amount of cardiovascular fitness correlates well to improved health and wellness.

Run for your life! At a comfortable pace, and not too far: James O’Keefe at TEDxUMKC

James O’Keefe MD — Cardiovascular Damage From Extreme Endurance Exercise

However, this level of cardiovascular fitness does NOT necessarily require cardio/aerobic exercise to obtain or maintain. If you can meet the markers of cardiovascular fitness suggested by Drs. Cooper and O’Keefe without jogging, running, or other sustained-effort aerobics then you’ll reap the same health benefits.

There is also plenty of evidence showing resistance training offers even more health benefits than aerobics. In a study lasting nearly two decades involving 8,762 men aged 20-80 it was found that, “Muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2453303/

TL;DR: Increased muscular strength trumped all other indicators of health and was the single best predictor of reduced mortality in a 18.9 year study involving 8,762 test subjects.

Even Dr. Cooper has amended his recommendations to include more strength work to overcome limitations in aerobics-only exercise: Father of Aerobics Pumps More Iron (http://www.cbass.com/CooperBook.htm)

In addition to the obvious strength benefits, a good barbell program also provides needed cardiovascular fitness. Here’s an example from Dr. Ben Been.

I offer for your examination the results of my first foray into doing a Starting Strength session while wearing a heart rate monitor chest strap:

Heavy weight training with a Heart Rate chest strap today. At age 52, my (supposed) max HR is 168.
Squats: 3 sets of 5 @ 310 (Personal Record)
Presses: 3 sets of 5 @ 145 (failed, got 5,2,3)
Deadlifts: 1 set of 5 @ 295 (didn’t even attempt, was smoked after DL warmup sets. Too much volume, not nearly enough food prior.)

Session Duration: 52 minutes and change (didn’t wear the strap for squat warmup sets ~10 minutes)
Max Heart Rate: 144
Avg Heart Rate: 115
Calorie Burn*: 496

Compare and contrast this with a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) session on the Prowler on Tuesday:
Protocol: 20 seconds sprint @~85% pace/1+40 rest, 8 rounds;
Session Duration: 20 minutes
Max Heart Rate: 151
Avg Heart Rate: 125
Calorie Burn*: 226

* my gut tells me not to put too much stock in the calorie burn guesstimate, but my old kettlebell instructor tested his $19 Timex HR monitor’s results against a MetCart at Vanderbilt and it was within 10%. Luckily, I don’t really care about calorie monitoring, I just like to compare things.

So the Prowler has a higher average intensity for a shorter period of time. However, I note that the strength session looks identical to a longer, slightly less intense HIIT session.

What does all this mean you should say when somebody asks you “yeah, but what do you do for cardio?”

And this from Mark Hurling

I wear a heart rate monitor when I lift to keep an eye on the “quality” and “value” of the cardio I am getting. Even on the more moderate loads of a 5/3/1 routine it ranges from peaks of 90% of MHR to never less than 70%. This includes the 3+ minute rest periods between sets. My log shows it.

Anyone who believes there is no cardio benefit from lifting has never bothered to keep an eye on what’s really going on with their body when they lift [or they have never lifted heavy].

If the goal is to compete and win in an endurance sport, such as a 5K race, then regular running is required to prepare. If the goal is an overall increase in fitness and performance, or just increased health, then dedicated cardio/aerobics exercises are not necessary. Military and police personnel would be wise to realize this.

Even if endurance athletics is your goal, strength training is still vital. Just ask six-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion Mark Allen:

Bill Coyne reports the same:

Strength Training is Critical for Endurance Athletes

Strength Training is Critical for Endurance Athletes

NBC report on same:

Associations of Muscle Mass and Strength with All-Cause Mortality among US Older Adults

Weightlifting is good for your heart and it doesn’t take much

Some research indicates strength training may be more effective for heart health and overall health than cardio, especially for older people.

Even the Cooper Clinic founded by Dr. Ken Cooper, the man that coined the word aerobics, agrees:

Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality

A study published in October in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise provides evidence for the first time that even a little weight training might reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. People appear to gain this benefit whether or not they also engage in frequent aerobic exercise.

The study drew from an invaluable cache of health data gathered at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, where thousands of men and women have been undergoing annual checkups, which include filling out detailed questionnaires about their exercise habits and medical history. More than 12,500 records were anonymized for men and women, most of them middle-aged, who had visited the clinic at least twice between 1987 and 2006. The subjects were categorized according to their reported resistance exercise routines, ranging from those who never lifted to those who completed one, two, three or more weekly sessions (or whether they lifted for more or less than an hour each week). Another category was aerobic exercise and whether subjects met the standard recommendation of 150 minutes per week of brisk workouts. This exercise data was then crosschecked against heart attacks, strokes and deaths during the 11 years or so after each participant’s last clinic visit.

The findings were dramatic: The risk of experiencing these events was roughly 50 percent lower for those who lifted weights occasionally, compared with those who never did — even when they were not doing the recommended endurance exercise. People who lifted twice a week, for about an hour or so in total, had the greatest declines in risk. (Interestingly, the subjects who reported weight training four or more times per week did not show any significant health benefits compared with those who never lifted, although the researchers believe this finding is probably a statistical anomaly.)

“The good news,” says Duck-chul Lee, an associate professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and co-author of the study, “is that we found substantial heart benefits associated with a very small amount of resistance exercise.” As an associational study, the results show only that people who occasionally lift weights happen to have healthier hearts — not that resistance training directly reduces heart-related health risks. The data, though, does reveal associations between weight lifting and a lower body mass index, Lee says, which might be connected to fewer heart problems. He and his colleagues do not know the specifics of what exercises people were doing — lat pull-downs? dead lifts? squats? — or how many repetitions they did or at what level of resistance. Lee says he is in the early stages of a major study to examine some of those factors. But he doesn’t suggest waiting for those results.