Anyone who commits themselves to improving their health by way of fitness will often settle on a chosen discipline, be it running, cycling, weightlifting, CrossFit, and so on. Once we’ve nestled into a routine and start seeing results, (or at least, the results we expect to obtain) from said sport, we can sometimes feel like we can never deviate from that or else any gains we’ve made will suffer.
One such popular example is strength training vs. cardio training. At their most basic level, strength training is seen as a means to build muscle size and strength, and cardio training is employed to help shed body fat, lose weight and improve aerobic fitness. The common belief is that one cannot work in tandem with the other. But that isn’t necessarily the case.
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American fitness influencer and athlete Henry Matthews recently weighed in on this debate, in the hope of debunking the myths. In a recent post on Instagram, Matthews said:
“Most people go through their physical training life thinking that running and big muscles are completely incompatible. The popular images that support this misconception come from media reports that show musclebound bodybuilders only engage in lifting heavy weights and seemingly bone-thin marathon runners doing nothing but run long distances in incredibly fast times.”
He continued: “Science however looks beyond media images and what we know of how the body works argues against both these stereotypes. Bodybuilders are, indeed, heavily muscled and generally avoid running and marathon runners don’t generally go for lifting weights as part of their regular training. The reason for this lies in their specialisation.”
“If we are doing bodybuilding our measure for success lies in size. We really need to build our muscles to the largest possible size to feel we are succeeding in our sport. So, size rather than strength of speed or explosiveness is what we strive for and running is not something that would help us gain that.”
“Similarly, marathon runners are interested in endurance. The measure of success of their chosen sport is long distances run fast. They have zero interest in having large biceps or heavily built pectorals and having massive quads, in this case, is something unnecessary.”
“Contrary to popular belief regular cardio training, whether that is running or cycling can help those who train with weights, experience improved gains in muscle strength and endurance.”
Henry isn’t suggesting that a marathon runner should aim to deadlift over 100kgs, or be able to squat 3 times their bodyweight, because too much muscle will inevitably slow a runner down. But at the same time, having some muscle, or a bit of extra explosive power could help someone run that bit faster.
Indeed, an April 2021 article on Insider covers this exact topic, with a reader writing in wanting to put on muscle, following “years of doing cardio and HIIT classes.” They’re worried they’ll gain unwanted weight if they cut out cardio altogether to focus on strength training.
Journalist Rachel Hosie cites celebrity personal trainer Ngo Okafor as saying “cardio doesn’t necessarily hinder muscle growth if you’re training right.”
“They key is not to let the cardio interfere with your resistance workouts. Only you know if running and HIIT, or high-intensity interval training classes leave you too fatigued to lift weights.”
However, as some people may forget, “when it comes to muscle building, the magic actually happens when you’re recovering from your workouts, not in the gym, so you need to make sure your body has enough rest between workouts,” Rosie adds.
“Many strength-training fans do what’s known as ‘active recovery’, which usually means some form of steady-state cardio like a leisurely cycle, a walk, or a gentle jog. This can help the muscles recover by increasing blood flow.”
While this may be true, it’s still important to keep an eye on just how intense your active recovery is. “Sprints or HIIT classes, are likely to add more strain to the muscles, so you need to be mindful of how these exercises make you feel.”
Runtastic echoes this point, “As a rule of thumb, you should never attempt a strength (muscle) building session when your muscles are already fatigued. You will not be able to work out at the necessary intensity to create an effective training stimulus. And, the risk of injury increases when you lift heavy weights with tired muscles because your stabilizing muscles are weakened and your coordination is impaired.”
They add that nutrition becomes all the more important if you’re practicing both strength-training and cardio alongside one another:
“As long as you provide your body with enough high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates and essential fats and give your muscles time to recover, endurance training definitely does not lead to muscle loss.”
In fact, the two really can work in harmony with one another, since performing cardio workouts can allow your “cardiovascular system to work better and more efficiently, including an increase in capillary growth in the muscle, which can improve muscle circulation.”
“Cardio also improves your stamina and speeds up your recovery, meaning you can work out more often and at higher intensities. And of course, cardio can help reduce your body fat percentage,” meaning the muscle you do build from strength training will be far more visible.
So, with that myth debunked, when and how much of each discipline should you be doing? We’ve previously heard from fitness coach James Kew, who explained when you should perform either, with the answer ultimately being “to prioritise your main goal.”
“If your goal is to improve your cardiovascular endurance, then do cardio first [in your workout program], if your goal is to change your body shape by having more muscle and less fat, then strength training should come first.” After all, we’ve also heard from an expert physician who perfectly explains how building muscle can lead to fat loss, so if you choose to do cardio simply with the goal of losing weight and fat, you may find greater solace in lifting weights.
It’s particularly important to remember that every body is different, so a strength/cardio split that works for one person, may not be the best course of action for someone else, it’s all about finding the perfect balance. Just let it be known that strength training and cardio aren’t mortal enemies.