Coming to Terms with Cardio

Cardio, conditioning, energy systems training: what are these, are these the same, and why would you do them? In this episode, we come to terms with cardio.


Cardio & Conditioning

Let’s first consider your training and exercise background. This often affects how you think about this. Some come from a more purse powerlifting or bodybuilding background, where the goal is building muscle or improving strength.

A different background may be a cardio-centric, where you ran, did cardio classes, or CrossFit, where conditioning was a regular, dominant part of your program.

Neither extreme–cardio as the be-all, end-all, upon which you attempt to lose weight and build health, nor the activity avoidance, where you eat big, train big, and rest big to maximize gains–leads to the quality of life we’re seeking.

So, what role should conditioning play in your training program?

Let’s first consider the word “cardio.” It’s a shortening of the word “cardiovascular,” which correctly implies that this type of training helps improve the functioning of your lunges and heart. It comes with baggage, however, of being something done for weight loss (e.g. I ate these cookies so I need to “do cardio” to burn the calories I consumed).

Cardio: Why?

Conditioning serves 3 potential purposes: weight loss or calorie-burning, performance, health. There really is one additional bonus reason that is somewhat associated with the third.

The first reason and the purpose many associate with energy systems training is actually probably the worst reason to do cardio. While “cardio” can burn calories, nutrition & building muscle is the best way to improve your bodyfat. While targeted conditioning can & should be part of your program, don’t think of it as something to burn calories just as you consume cardio.

A second purpose for energy systems is ability to perform for a sport, activity, or life in general. Even sports that don’t require a high-level of conditioning perform some conditioning. The example is powerlifting, because elite powerlifters at some point have to perform high volume, and if you’re a big powerlifter, performing 7 sets of 5 squats will get you winded and you need the ability to perform this high volume without being so winded that you cannot perform the training to get you stronger.

Lastly, one may add conditioning to a program to improve health and quality of life. Cardiovascular training is associated with better health markers and better functioning of lungs, heart, and brain. A program designed to improve quality of health should include conditioning.

One additional benefit, related to the above, is the ability to think, reflect, meditate, and unplug. Especially with aerobic exercise (more on that soon), the relatively light and easy, repetitive activity done outside and in nature can allow you to shut off the screen time, get some vitamin D from the sun, and think and process things (both consciously and subconsciously).

Energy Systems

Okay, now onto the underlying science.

There are 3 energy systems we target with energy systems training: aerobic, glycolytic, and phosphagen. The latter two fall under the umbrella of anaerobic (without oxygen).

Aerobic is low power, long duration. You’re probably using it now. It is the typical energy system that provides you energy, and only gets superseded when the energy needs outstrip its ability to provide you energy.

Phosphagen is the extremely short duration but high power output: think Olympic lift, heavy single, vertical jump, 10m sprint. You have the ability to go into the ready reserve of power, but it’s extremely limited.

The medium power, medium duration energy system is the glycolytic. This is the energy system targeted with interval training or high intensity interval training (HIIT). Training done with this should be extremely uncomfortable, plus it’s long enough that it lasts awhile (compared to phosphagen training).

The currency of the body when it comes to energy is adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The reaction that occurs to produce energy breaks down ATP into adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and one phosphate group.

There’s no on or off system, so they’re all working to SOME degree all the time, but one is dominant. Just like on a lift where there are transition points where one muscle takes over as the primary moves from another, there are transition points where one begins to level off and another takes over.

There’s important reasons to include conditioning in your program, but it’s not a panacea and the typical reason to perform it (weight loss) it probably doesn’t serve all that well. That being said, including cardio makes sense.




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