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Benefits of strength training: get an effective cardio workout without running

Posted by for Strength

Strength training makes every muscle stronger – including our most vital one, the heart. By tweaking how you train, you can get a truly effective cardio workout without stepping off your mat. Here’s how your strength sessions can make your heart stronger, healthier and resistant to disease.

Weight lifting builds strength while running improves cardiovascular health – fact. As with all things health and fitness, nothing’s that black and white, and in this case, strength training may make us stronger but it can also be an effective cardio workout that rivals activities like jogging and cycling.

Cardio, explains PT and founder of Your True Fitness, Sharon Dosanjh, is “any form of exercise that raises your heart rate and increases your breathing speed, and in doing so, improves the functioning of your cardiorespiratory system.” The better your cardiovascular health, the quicker your breathing should return to normal once you stop moving and the lower your risk of things like stroke and heart attack.

Here’s why strength training can be just as good a cardio workout as running:

Strength training makes your heart stronger

When we train our large muscle groups, our heart tends to beat faster to get blood into those working areas. Think about it: to run, we primarily work our quads, hamstrings and glutes – the biggest muscles in the body. When we swim, we’re using everything, from our core to our back. Powerhouse muscles take a lot more energy to work so naturally get the heart pumping more vigorously.

You can absolutely get the same effect in a strength circuit by including compound moves including squat variations, lateral lunges and deadlifts. Save your accessory work (isolated movements of smaller muscles) for non-cardio days or as periods of active recovery.

For a heart-healthy workout, PT and wellness expert Jillian Michaels recommends circuit training. “If my goal is bodybuilding, I’ll rest a lot between sets of very heavy reps… but if my goal is more about cardiovascular conditioning, I will do circuit training – moving from one resistance-based exercise to the next in swift succession,” she says. “Circuit training provides little-to-no rest and that makes the cardiovascular system work harder, thereby conditioning it more quickly and efficiently.”

She goes onto explain that the heart is at the centre of our circulatory system. Responsible for pumping blood through our arteries, capillaries, veins to deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout our body, “when we exercise, the demand put upon our heart is greater because our need for oxygen to be delivered to the muscles increases.  This stress put upon our cardiovascular system forces a ‘stress adaptation response’.” Simply put, our heart and blood vessels need to adapt to our bodies’ physical demands by growing stronger and more efficient. That means, Jillian concludes, that “your heart becomes more efficient at circulation, lowering blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Breathless woman in gym
Strength training makes your heart stronger – as you're moving between exercises with minimal rest (you should feel out of breath!).

Strength training reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease

Cardio training isn’t necessarily about what you do but how you do it. A leisurely walk or bike ride, while great for your mental health and overall mobility, isn’t a cardio workout because it doesn’t challenge your system (unless you’re very new to exercise) – whereas a strength circuit may leave you panting within the first two minutes. 

Sharon explains this further, stressing that “the most important thing to keep in mind when doing a cardio workout is not the type of exercise, but how the exercise is being performed.” In order for any exercise to be a good workout for the heart, she says “the intensity of the exercise needs to be kept high enough to challenge your heart. If you hate running, there are lots of other cardio options out there!”

And while strength training might not be the traditional choice for cardiovascular health, Jillian points out that “numerous studies have shown that weight lifting can have tremendous benefits in this area of our wellbeing.”

A 2019 study published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that weight training was associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. The study, which included nearly 13,000 people, found that performing resistance training for less than an hour per week was associated with up to 70% decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. 

Strength-based cardio makes you fitter overall

If you hate running, you may have been tempted to skip cardio altogether. After all, if you lift heavy weights, you’re already fit… right? Well, cardio training has so many benefits that even if you’re doing other kinds of exercise, it really is worth trying to carve out a cardio session once or twice a week.

Strengthening your cardiovascular system will:

  • Take the load off your most vital organ: Your resting heart rate slows and less stress is placed on it in everyday life.
  • Increases your oxygen capacity: More oxygen means more blood is pumped into working muscles and you’re better able to clear out waste products.
  • Speeds up recovery: The stronger your heart and lungs get, the quicker you’ll be able to return to normal after exercise. That means being able to resume breathing calmly within a few seconds of finishing a run or quickly resuming talking after lifting a weight.

You don’t need weights to reap the cardio benefits of strength training

Cardio conditioning isn’t about lifting heavy weights – it’s a chance for moving quickly and without rest. As such, bodyweight circuits are ideal. Try building a strength circuit with a mix of static and plyometric (jumping) exercises that will challenge those big muscles, get you sweating and bring the heart rate up. How about including a jump lunge as an energy boost in between air squats, cossacks and good morning exercises? We guarantee that your heart rate will be through the roof after a few seconds!

Scientists at the University of Prishtina found that bodyweight exercises offered the same cardiovascular benefits as jogging. 57 students were divided into three groups: one did endurance training on a treadmill, the second did strength-based circuits and the third did nothing. At the end of the study, researchers concluded that both kinds of exercises were equally beneficial for the cardiovascular system. 

Sharon points out that you only really need two things to make any exercise into a cardio workout: intensity and timing. “By increasing your intensity and reducing the rest time between exercises, you can keep your heart rate high and achieve a good cardio workout,” she explains. “Both of these can be achieved using bodyweight exercises.”

To start with, Sharon suggests selecting exercises that work large muscle groups, like the chest, back or quads “as they create a higher oxygen demand. This in turn creates a larger challenge to the cardiovascular system.” 

Take your fitness up a notch by joining one of the SWTC training plans. Let us know how you get on. It’s time to get strong

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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