Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

Cardio training has really been taking a beating recently. In the strength-training world, it’s become trendy and fashionable to make a name for yourself by suggesting that no one ever do any form of cardio training ever again or all of your muscle mass will disappear. Why are we listening to people who can squat 600 pounds with a big gut and can barely move well?

Like many topics in fitness, the accepted view on what you “should” do swings from one ridiculous extreme to the other.

There is no question that the previously dominant view that people have to do long cardio sessions to get fit is incorrect. More isn’t better. But zero isn’t better, either.

Here’s what you need to know:

-Endurance—as a component of fitness—is essential for optimum health and function.

-Cardio increases blood volume, allowing more efficient buffering of acids produced during higher-intensity training.

-You don’t need nearly as much cardio as we used to think, but you need more than zero.

Endurance is an essential human capacity. It’s what allowed us to successfully evolve to the top of the food chain. Developing the ability to outlast our prey when hunting helped us obtain precious resources for survival. But the kind of endurance we had back then was developed at a higher intensity than the long, slow cardio training that was popular not too long ago.

Of more current interest, aerobic exercise changes the brain in ways that improve cognitive function and may have beneficial effects throughout the lifespan. Aerobically fit people have more fibrous and compact white matter, which is comprised of the bundles of axons that carry nerve signals from one brain region to another. More compact white matter is associated with faster and more efficient nerve activity. This provides a host of benefits to many mental and physical tasks. And aerobic exercise can help keep our minds sharp as we age. The goal of most strength training (or even cardio training) isn’t directly tied to a better brain, but I think it’s safe to assume that all of us want a sharp mind throughout our lives.  

With strength training, the goal is larger, stronger muscles and this means we have to perform shorter, more intense training. A limiting factor is the accumulation of acidic waste products in the muscle when performing an effort.

When the accumulation increases at a rate that is faster than your body can clear out, muscles begin to burn and further contractions become increasingly difficult. Your blood carries sodium bicarbonate to buffer the acidic state. Boosting the acid-buffering ability of the blood would push your fatigue point further out. A little aerobic training can make your anaerobic training better by increasing blood volume, which allows the blood to carry more sodium bicarbonate.

To get this benefit, you may need only one “traditional” cardio workout a week, but there is a better way.

If you’re reading this thinking I’m a big fan of cardio workouts, you’re wrong. I’d much rather be chasing a ball or a person playing a sport or outside in nature hiking or taking a short trail run to get my cardio training done. But life doesn’t always present opportunities to do those activities. I prefer higher-intensity strength training and faster explosive training. But it’s foolish to only train that way all the time. By performing interval training according to the ACE IFT model, you can get a lot of benefit in less time than “old school” cardio. I use this interval training two to three times per week for no more than 20 to 25 minutes per session, and have used it successfully with many clients since first learning it a few years ago.

There’s something inherently unnatural about climbing onto a machine and going absolutely nowhere while disconnecting yourself from nature. But sometimes circumstances like scheduling or weather make other options impossible. When doing this kind of training, it’s best to use the minimum effective dose so you devote more time to other forms of training or just other things in general.

And it’s also important to make clear that in no way am I advocating any boring exercise. Whatever you do should be engaging to both body and mind. That may mean using motivating music or some elements of play, competitiveness or reactivity. The moment I’m not engaged and get bored, I either change what I’m doing or I stop.

There’s not much need to do the long, boring, steady-state training of yesterday. Using modern, intelligent approaches to interval training gleans the most out of a minimum investment of time while still providing the benefits of aerobic training.