For many years, it’s been a widely held belief that resistance training (or strength training) must be supplemented with some form of aerobic or endurance activity such as running to significantly improve cardiovascular fitness. But the truth is, there is no such thing as exercise for cardio vs resistance training as we’ve come to understand it.

This was the conclusion of a review study led by Southampton Solent University (UK) doctoral candidate James Steele and published online in the June 2012 Journal of Exercise Physiology (JEP).1

Steele and his colleagues say the division between aerobic and resistance training (RT) is a misleading notion. They concluded, “… this review suggests that RT to failure can produce cardiovascular (CV) fitness effects while simultaneously producing improvements in strength, power and other health variables”.

So how is this possible?

The muscles, heart, lungs, and circulatory system are all part of the same system. Muscular contraction produces movement and drives the entire system. A contracting muscle requires oxygen, and repeated contractions require more, making the heart beat faster, and the lungs and the circulatory system work harder. When the entire system works harder, it gets stronger and more efficient.

Contract muscles by taking them to a point of momentary muscular failure (high intensity), moving quickly from one body part to another covering the entire body, and you’ll achieve both muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. What’s more, you’ll do so more efficiently than traditional methods that attempt to train the muscles and the heart separately. A strength training programme, properly designed and performed, can elicit a cardiovascular response that equals or, in certain circumstances, surpasses that achieved through traditional means according to Steele’s review.

It’s time to change our thinking.

Steele and his team have helped to stimulate a change in thinking around the misnomer of cardiovascular exercise being determined by modality. In other words, there’s no such thing as cardio. Resistance training and endurance training (aerobic exercise) are part and parcel of the same physiological process. Exercise is exercise, with intensity calling the tune. And that’s the truth.

NB: The Steele study grants that striving for athletic performance is an altogether different matter. Athletes will need to be able to practice their sport in order to build specific motor skills and other variables involved.

i Resistance Training to Momentary Muscular Failure Improves Cardiovascular Fitness in Humans: A Review of Acute Physiological Responses and Chronic Physiological Adaptations James Steele, James Fisher, Doug McGuff, Stewart Bruce-Low, Dave Smith.