If you follow our blog with any regularity this is probably a tired subject for you, but we still field questions daily in our facility about strength training and how it compares to cardio, and other forms of training. It’s also common for us to hear comments about “being out of shape,” after an outing on a local hiking trail, or a friendly pick up game of soccer. At Arkitect Fitness strength training is the backbone of our programs. While all of our programs are tailored for the individual, we still have our own set of training principles that we adhere to. Most of our clients “get it” but occasionally people come to us with a particular goal, only to be surprised to see the workouts we’ve prescribed them. At times there have even been clients who tell us how they want to train right down to the exercises, rep schemes, etc… The metaphor I prefer to use is that of the automobile and the mechanic. When there is something wrong with your car, you bring your car to a mechanic (probably one you’ve heard good things about), and ask them to fix it. You don’t particularly care how they fix it, which methods they use, the the types of wrenches they use, etc…All you care about is that the job gets done. No one becomes a member of our facility without at least two things happening first:
- There is something about their physique, fitness, or performance they want to change
- They’ve heard or seen good things about our facility and the results we have produced for various clients
Taking a closer look at the second point, the overwhelming majority of those results have stemmed from a predominantly strength based approach. But why? It’s a fantastic question, one which has many different answers.
1. Being Strong Helps You Work Harder
A few years ago, I prescribed a barbell complex for my clients that consisted of descending reps of squats, over head presses, deadlifts, rows, etc… at a fixed weight. The complex was to be timed, aiming for the lowest time possible. After much chastising many of the athletes for their slow times, they fired back by challenging me to do the complex. Having firmly embraced my role as a coach, and not an athlete, I was by very few standards “in shape,” but still managed to crush everyone’s times by a few minutes. Although the number of reps I had to perform, and the pace which I had to perform them was far removed from any training I had done in years, the amount of weight (95lbs), was an absolute peanut to me. So while many of my clients had lower body fat, better cardiovascular endurance, higher V02max, etc… my strength allowed me to outwork them. Strength that took me years to develop, and will likely take you years to develop too, so you best get started on it now. If you haven’t developed the strength to perform perfect squats in a straight set while you’re fresh, how are you going to be able to do it when you’re fatigued in the middle of a brutal circuit training workout? You must first build the ability to work hard.
2. Being Strong Helps you Avoid Injury
What are some of the more common injuries you see in athletes? Ankles (achilles tendon), Knees (ACL, MCL), hip (labrum), shoulder (rotator cuff, biceps tendon). What about non athletes? The classic “bad back” or “bad knees.” What do ALL of these things have in common? Most of them are caused by WEAKNESSES somewhere along the chain that is your body. Remember the saying a chain is only as strong as its weakest link? That applies here. The other commonality? Most injuries are to connective tissue. Sure breaks happen, especially in high contact/impact sports, but often it’s a sprained ankle or shoulder. When you strength train, you don’t just make stronger muscles, you make stronger tendons and ligaments, and these help to protect you from serious injury. Think about what happens when you “roll” an ankle, you go to make a cut on the field, and when you plant your foot, the inertia of the change of direction is too much for your ankle to bear, and it rolls, thus stretching the connective tissue, and leaving you with a sprain or worse, a tear. Gradually loading those tissues in a controlled environment via strength training is one way to help reduce the risk of such occurrences. Muscle can also act as body armor for when you take a fall on some ice or take a tumble on a bicycle, and being strong can even help you to reduce the risk of concussion in a car crash or other high impact scenario.
3. Having More Muscle Increases Resting Metabolism
Do you notice that men typically have an easier time losing weight than women do? Did you ever wonder why? No, it’s not because they are stupid, lucky, jerks, it’s because they carry more muscle than women do, thus have a more efficient and “faster” resting metabolism. While many people chase a big calorie burn in the gym, if you’re smart, you’ll follow a training program that will help you outside of the gym, since that’s where you spend most of your time. Being lean is all about creating an ecosystem in your body that promotes leanness. That means being an efficient fat burner, even when you’re not working out. For women, you may not ever to be able to have as much muscle as a man does, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have more muscle than you do now. This makes it a tragic case for all the women out there who avoid strength training because they don’t want to look bulky. While everyone has the right to their own opinion of what the ideal physique is, it’s a shame that some would choose a particular aesthetic over cultivating a truly healthy, capable body.
4. Strength is the Foundation for all other activities
A good friend of mine who competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu used to be obsessed with being “in-shape” for competition. There is no doubt he was a fantastic athlete, but he was always focused on being more conditioned, and more durable. I used to ask him all the time: Have you ever lost a match because you got too tired? He would always answer “no.” Then I would ask: Would being stronger help? and he would say “yes, but I’m strong enough.” While how strong is “strong enough” is a topic for another day, consider how many athletes don’t include dedicated strength training because they don’t think it’s important to their sport, especially at the high school level. What if I told you that being stronger would make you a better cyclist, tri-athlete, handball player, softball player, tennis player, or even a better bob sledder? Just check out USADA’s sanctioned athletes list to see what I’m talking about. While athletes take all kinds of drugs to improve their performance, most of them are AAS (Anabolic Androgenic Steroids) or their derivatives, the primary function of which is to make the athlete stronger. I’m only referencing sports which are home to athletes who have been busted for using steroids, nevermind those who have been caught taking “masking agents” which are other drugs used to hide the steroid usage. And these are just US athletes. The good news for you is that you don’t have to take steroids to get stronger for your rec league volleyball games, you can just come to Arkitect Fitness and we’ll get you there. But if little Blind Bobby is taking synthetic testosterone to win his paralympic table tennis tournament, he may know something you don’t know, and that being strong absolutely gives him an edge over the competition.
5. Being Strong Helps with Mobility
I’ll get right to the point on this one: If you’re not strong enough to hold yourself in the correct positions during different movements, exercises, sports, etc… no amount of stretching is going to help you. To paraphrase sport scientist Dr. Michael Yessis, “the best way to improve flexibility is to take a joint through it’s full ROM while under load.” The tissues in our body are pliable, meaning they have the ability to change shape and dynamic. Think about the angle of your ankle in a typical ankle stretch on a slant board, now how is that different from the angle of the ankle in a deep squat? Not much except now you have the extra force of the load you’re squatting creating tension on that squat, while simultaneously firing up all kinds of processes in your nervous system that help to create good patterns of movement, and stability. In a study of sprinters, it was found that hamstring flexibility was correlated to risk of injury. What did the more flexible sprinters also have more of? Strength. They were able to produce more torque at all joint angles. That’s not a coincidence.
But what about Cardio?
This is a question we get all of the time. Especially from those who are looking to lose weight. Popular belief has always been that you do cardio to burn fat, and lift weights to build muscle. It’s not that straight forward. While traditional aerobic exercise tends to burn more calories than strength training, strength training tends to have greater excess post exercise oxygen consumption, also known as EPOC or the “afterburn effect.” While most of the studies about EPOC focus on circuit training, it’s important to remember what circuit training is: bouts of exercises with bouts of rest interspersed. Traditional strength training works the same way, as long as you are sticking to you rest periods, which is why we stress it so much. To sum it up, you burn more fat/calories in the hours after your strength training workouts has ended, than you do from traditional aerobic workout like a run or bike ride. One of the major road blocks for people is that they use their perceived effort as a measure of progress, when what you should be measuring your progress with is tangible results. Using myself as an example, I ride an 8 mile loop near my house on my bicycle, and this past Monday was probably my hardest ride since the first time I went out on my bike this year (after not riding a bicycle since childhood). Despite all the agony and pain I felt during the ride, I (unintentionally) set a personal best for average speed and time. If I didn’t track my rides, I may have been left thinking “wow I am out of shape,” but because I have analytical data, I can clearly see that I’m actually improving my fitness. Check out this photo at the finish of a women’s 3000m steeplechase in London. I somehow don’t think they’re all thinking “wow I’m so out of shape.”
What it really comes down to is needing what you don’t already have. That seems painfully obvious, but is often overlooked. Aerobic training tends to have a lower barrier to entry than strength training. All you need is a pair of shoes to go for a walk, run, or hike. Many popular high school sports, by nature develop your aerobic system, just think of all of the running that happens in sports like soccer, football, lacrosse, field hockey, track, basketball, hockey, etc… It’s not uncommon for people to have respectable aerobic capacity when they come in through our doors, even if they may be over weight, or it’s been a few years since they did any legitimate physical activity. On the flip side, very few people have ever done any legitimate strength training, even if they came from other gyms. If they were going to a generic globo gym, they were just “winging it” and if they came from a group training or bootcamp facility, they usually had very poor instruction, and have developed a lot of bad habits, and never really developed any legitimate strength. Most people’s idea of fitness is a combination of attributes: strong, flexible, durable, lean, etc…although it’s difficult to be all of those things, it is possible, but is best achieved by focusing on one attribute at a time, and if you’re smart, you’ll start with strength as your foundation.