Many young men who begin lifting weights and putting on muscle often fall into the trap of ignoring their cardiovascular fitness. Oftentimes they are so caught up in bulking up, they end up looking extremely fit, but their overall fitness performance says otherwise. I know because I used to be one of these guys. There’s nothing worse than looking like you’re in the best shape of your life but you can’t even make it up a few flights of stairs without huffing and puffing. Now don’t get me wrong, weight training is an excellent and effective way to improve your cardio health, but I’m talking about overall athletic performance here. To achieve overall fitness, you need to not only be muscular and strong, but you also want to be able to perform well in other aspects of fitness such as cardiovascular endurance and flexibility.
So what exactly is a good barometer of “overall physical fitness”? By weight training, you’re improving your anaerobic fitness but you’re doing very little for your aerobic fitness (also referred to as cardio). Good overall physical fitness means having both good anaerobic and aerobic fitness. A good way to measure your aerobic fitness is by looking at your VO2 max. The VO2 max is the measure of your body’s maximum capacity to use oxygen to generate energy during aerobic activity (in case you didn’t know, your body needs oxygen to generate energy molecules called ATP during aerobic activity to sustain the activity). Thus, the VO2 max is a good indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness or physical fitness. The higher your VO2 max, the longer you will be able to engage in cardio-based activities; the lower your VO2 max, the shorter you will be able to engage in cardio-based activities and the quicker you will be winded. If you’ve been lifting weights but neglecting your cardio, this is why you might be huffing and puffing while walking up a flight of stairs.
Isn’t Cardio Bad for Muscle Gain?
But wait a second. Isn’t cardio a really bad thing to do when you’re trying to gain muscle? Don’t believe the brotards. Yes, typically speaking, you won’t be able to get super good at both anaerobic and aerobic performance at the same time. With that said, that doesn’t mean you can’t have decent aerobic fitness while your main focus is gaining muscle. Doing some light aerobic training a few times a week won’t hinder your progress in the weight room. If you do low intensity cardio at about 70% of your max heart rate, 2-3x a week, for about 20-30 min each time, you will be able to maintain an adequate form of cardio performance. The drawback to this is the time it takes and how mind numbingly boring it is. Personally, I hate doing these “lengthy”, low-intensity type workouts and I can understand if you hate it too.
Another option you have is you can do HIIT as we described in our article on hill sprints. The problem with hill sprints is that you WILL have to account for them in terms of your training regimen and recovery. Because of the intense nature of the exercise and its volume, you’ll find that you’ll likely run into recovery and performance issues if you’re attempting to improve your squat and/or you’re squatting 3x a week.
So if the two previous cardio options discussed doesn’t tickle your fancy, what can you do to maintain some decent aerobic fitness? What if I told you that all you had to do was 4 min sessions at the end of your workout 2-3x a week? This is exactly what the Tabata interval is.
The Tabata Interval
In a study conducted by Tabata et. al, they tested the efficacy of steady-state cardio and a version of HIIT on aerobic and anaerobic performance in moderately trained university men. He had group 1 perform low intensity, steady-state cardio for 60 min on an exercise bike 5 days a week. To no surprise, their VO2 max improved significantly and there were no changes to their anaerobic capabilities. For group 2, similar group of men perform a “Tabata” interval –which lasts a total of 4 min- 4 days a week on an exercise bike, coupled with 1 day of low intensity, steady-state cardio for 30 min also on an exercise bike. He and his team of researchers found that the men in the second group not only significantly increased their VO2 max (by 14%), but they also experienced a 28% increase in their anaerobic capabilities!
So what is this Tabata interval? In the study, the Tabata interval consisted of 4 sets of intermittent exercise carried out on an exercise bike at 170% VO2 max. Let me clarify: he had the participants pedal balls to the wall for 20 seconds followed by a 10 second rest. This cycle would repeat 7 more times for a total of 4 min consisting of 8 total intervals. The key to a Tabata interval is working balls to the wall. You’re not repeating the benefits unless you feel completely and utterly exhausted after the exercise.
How to Incorporate Tabata Intervals into Your Workouts
So Dr. Tabata’s team established that the Tabata interval improves both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. How can you use this to achieve and maintain an adequate level of cardio fitness? I would incorporate 1 Tabata interval 2-3x a week at the end of your workout as a finisher. There are literally dozens of different exercises you can use as your Tabata interval. The following are my favorites. You can pick one exercise and do it for all 8 intervals or you can pick a few exercises to change between each interval. Whatever exercise you choose, you must do it with max effort for 20 seconds on, then 10 seconds off and then repeat until your 4 mins are up:
- Medicine ball slams
- Sledge hammer slams into tire
- Punching a heavy bag.
Again, you must go all out during this 4 min set of intervals and you must feel like death by the end of it to reap the benefits. The beauty of the Tabata interval is that it will help you maintain a decent level of cardio fitness but won’t hurt your progress with the weights because of its short duration. You also have no excuse not to do them due to a lack of equipment or bad weather because you can do burpees anywhere.
Look, cardio training sucks for a lot of people but with anything in life, you have to be willing to suck it up in order to improve yourself. In order to truly improve our physical fitness, we have to be well rounded. It’s rather embarrassing to look big and strong but then you can’t even do any other fitness related activities like walk up a flight of stairs without struggle. If you can’t/won’t fit in steady-cardio or hill sprints into your workout regimen, I have presented you with a quick (but certainly not easy) solution to solve your cardio woes. It’s going to be up to you to man up and beast through the vomit-inducing intervals. But rest assured, your self-discipline and aerobic fitness will thank you for it after.