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Cardio Vs Weights: What’s the right gym balance?

Part 1: Define fitness to define your fitness goals

If you’re a regular reader of FITSHIT, you’d know that as of last week, I’ve started writing about Muscles.

Having spent the first 3 months of my blog on weight-loss, I’ve now shifted focus to helping you gain-strength. Which is the critical second-half that completes fitness.

Now, as soon as I say gain muscle, the first thing that pops into your mind is the Gym. And once you’re at the gym, the first big, complicated question that stares you in the face is…

What should I do?

Should I run or lift weights or do functional training? Should I train one body part a day or two or all? Or should I do one of those cool exercises like battleropes or kettlebell or tyre-swings!.

And you’re not alone in this confusion. I know many beginners (and many more long-timers) who just come to the gym and ‘do something’ before they leave. There’s no agenda, no plan, no method. Just a false happiness about having ‘hit the gym today’. And then, in a few months, the real disappointment of not seeing any results.

So what should you do at the gym? What’s the right balance of strength and cardiovascular training that’ll help you achieve your fitness goals?

Btw, what are your fitness goals? And, if I may ask….

What is fitness?

Is it a feeling? Is it a target?

Is it getting to your ideal weight? Is it being able to run 10km?

Is it being able to bench 50kgs? Or a 3-minute plank? Or 10 pull-ups?

How you define fitness, dictates how you set your fitness goals. And how you set your goals, is what determines what you should be doing at the gym.

And while it seems like a subjective question that might have different answers for everyone, it isn’t. There is an objective, scientific way to define fitness. And it has to do with how the body moves.

You see, any form of exercise, involves some form of movement. And for your body to move, 4 systems need to come together and work in cohesion.

The Fantastic Four

Skeletal, Muscular, Cardiovascular and Respiratory. These are the 4 basic systems that comprise the movement mechanism of our body.

Think of any form of movement — running, lifting, eating, shitting — none can happen without the active involvement of all 4 systems. And when you train, you’re (intentionally or otherwise) training all four systems to varying degree.

Now, if movement is fitness and fitness is progress (as I argued in last week’s post), then the most basic, scientific definition of fitness is:

Consistent, balanced improvement of the 4 body systems

So fitness is continuously improving all 4 systems so that neither is left lagging. Because whichever one lags, becomes the weakest link, and defines the limits of your body. Of your fitness.

To know what I mean, try this.

Let’s say that the maximum you can run at a stretch is 3km. Head out for a run today and as you start approaching 2.5km, and start feeling fatigued, take a moment to notice yourself. What exactly is this fatigue made of?

Is it your knee that’s paining? Or your ankles? Or back?

Is it that you’re just out of breath? Or is your heart pounding so hard that you feel it’ll come out of your mouth any instant?

Depending on how you answer that question, you’d know that it’s your skeletal or muscular or respiratory or cardiovascular system, respectively, that’s the chink in your running armor. And if you’ve defined your fitness goal as ‘Run 10kms’, then this is the bottleneck (for now) that’s keeping you from getting there.

Solving for this bottleneck will unlock your performance.

Let’s say it’s your back. Running 3kms doesn’t leave you breathless or cause any pain in the legs. Just that your lower back starts hurting and you just can’t continue. Clearly then, if you could, somehow, solve for this back pain, you’d be able to cross the 3km barrier.

Doesn’t mean you’ll get to 10km directly. Because who knows which system would start complaining at 5,7 and 9km. But for now, ‘Strengthen Back’ is the formula that’ll get you over the wall you’ve hit.

How do I train each system?

While they are 4 systems, they normally function in pairs. The muscular and skeletal systems and bound to each other, just like the cardiovascular and respiratory systems are. That’s why you’ll often find them referred to as ‘MusculoSkeletal’ and ‘Cardiorespiratory’ systems.

That’s also why gyms have 2 sections: Cardio and Weights.

And the basic science of training both systems is the same:

Progressive Loading

The human body is built for survival. So when you continuously put it under any form of stress, it adapts and learns to cope with that stress.

Acclimatizing to high altitudes (which the body does by dynamically increasing lung capacity and by carrying more oxygen in the blood stream), staying without food for days (which the body does by decreasing metabolism and using stored fat for energy), or learning to not buckle under ever-increasing weights (which it does by building muscles).

All of these are survival responses.

Truly, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

Cardio

So if it’s your cardiorespiratory system that’s holding you back, you need to demand ever increasing work from your heart, your lungs and your circulatory system. To increase their capacity and cope with the stress. And to do this, you should do cardio. Progressively tougher cardio.

So run a little longer than last time. Cycle for a few more meters. Be on the cross-trainer for one more minute.

Because these exercises, while they do utilise the Musculoskeletal system, don’t strain it. Their primary target is Cardiorespiratory. And that system responds in 3 specific ways:

  1. You Heart Expands: Yes. The heart is a muscle. And if you continuously demand more work from it (by making it pump more blood into the arteries), it grows bigger over time.
  2. Your lungs expand: Same logic. Don’t believe me — check out the lung capacity of sherpas. Or Michael Phelps (Which apparently means he can get twice as stoned as us normal folks. Read this.)
  3. VO2 Max: Slightly technical, but it’s basically the measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during intense training. Higher your VO2 max, higher your endurance capabilities. And as you do more and more rigorous Cardiorespiratory training, the body adapts by increasing it’s blood-oxygen carrying capacity.

(Read more about VO2 max here. And here is a Vo2 Max calculator if you’re interested.)

Weights

If it’s the Musculoskelatal system that’s your achilles heels, then you need to lift heavier and break down those muscle fibers to make them larger. I wrote about this process, in detail, last week.

So, what should you do at the gym?

When I started out, about 3 years ago, the weights section intimidated me. I was a Marathoner. I could run 40kms at a stretch. But ask me to hang from a bar for 40 secs, and my arms would buckle.

To be clear, given how I started, I was extremely proud of where I’d come. Going from a 105kg teenager to a Sub-2 Hour Half-Marathoner was no mean feat (how humble). But, as I now realised, my definition of fitness was flawed.

During that decade of running, I defined my fitness by my running time. If I could run faster, for longer, I was fitter.

What that meant for my body, was extremely lopsided development. After 10 years of intense discipline with running, I had legs of steel, the cardiorespiratory system of a sherpa, and the upper body strength of a toddler. Because not only had I never trained my upper-half, I had, by running such long distances, actively destroyed muscle there.

My arms, shoulders, back, chest — were all wasting.

Once I understood the science of the 4 body systems, and how they need to develop together for the body to move better, I changed my definition of fitness. And that changed my fitness goals.

I wanted an upper body that could match my legs and my heart and my lungs. I wanted a body that was awesome overall, not in parts.

And that’s Part 1 of my answer. To know what you should do in the gym, you need to reflect on where you are today and where you want to go. Only once you know points A and B, can anyone guide you on the best route.

So think about it this week. Go for a run, lift a few weights, do a few more squats than you’d usually do — and as you approach your limits, see which part of you starts breaking first.

Next week, now that you understand fitness, I’ll give you my beginner’s guide to finding the right balance at the gym. Along with a few tips on exercise sequencing and rep-ranges and workout duration. The works!

Join my email list. And I’ll progressively load with your brain with ever-awesomer health-tips. Game?

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