I swapped cardio for strength training and I've not looked at myself the same since.

Cardio vs strength: “Strength training has changed how I view my body image, mental health and exercise goals”

Posted by for Wellbeing

Tempering a one-track, cardio-obsessed view of exercise has helped writer Charley Ross to accept her body and focus on making it stronger rather than smaller.

Ever since I first joined a gym at 17 – and even during my first recollections of childhood PE lessons – it was all about the cardio. Walking, running, skipping, jumping.

This preference followed me into adulthood. I wats a sporadic runner and cyclist, competing in my first 10K in my early 20s and getting addicted to spin classes soon after that. The faster I was moving, the fitter I thought I was becoming. When I tried out a body pump class as a teenager, I felt intimidated, so I bolted and never went back. This attitude followed me into adulthood, informing my gym routine as I moved closer and closer to 30.

Strength training was a mystery to me, and I wasn’t alone. Dr Joy Cox, a US-based academic and body justice advocate, has called this phenomena among women a “cardio indoctrination”. Whether it’s due to feelings of intimidation or imposter syndrome in the gym, or truly believing that cardio workouts alone are the best and only way to lose weight, many women are hesitant or intimidated to try weights.

My own hesitation wasn’t just about my build; I’m reasonably slim, with minimal muscle definition and no remarkable athletic ability to speak of. It was more about how I viewed my body and the way in which it took up space. It was only after receiving some advice on strength training from a PT at the gym that I decided to, very slowly, give it a go. Now, it’s one of the things I look forward to doing most each week. 

Fighting the ‘cardio indoctrination’

So why has it taken so long for women – myself included – to get their head (and body) around strength training? Well, the increasing popularity and promotion of CrossFit-like competitions for women and other female-orientated strength-based exercise classes have changed the way we want to work out. But that’s not all: sport and exercise psychologist Dr Rhonda Cohen suggests that this shift is also part of a wider change in what body types we view as “attractive” and “desirable” and the increased perceived importance, overall, of being strong.

Strength training has always been a mystery to me, but no longer.
Strength training has always been a mystery to me, but no longer.

“The perception that toned muscles from lifting is a good look has changed our view on weight lifting,” she tells Stylist. “As has the idea that being slim is not necessarily the same as being fit, which also includes feeling healthy and strong.”

Once I brushed the initial imposter syndrome aside, I found that the advantages of strength training were endless. Instead of focusing too much on “running off” whatever I’d eaten or drank the day before, I was thinking about building something instead of trying to diminish or lessen parts of my body when I worked out.

Strength train to change how you view your body

“Strength training can completely change your understanding of your body – you see yourself in a completely different light once you become aware of all the physical work you’ve put in and your increasing strength as a result,” fitness and mindset coach Saima Husain says.

Honing the focus and discipline required to strength train safely has done wonders for my mental health as well. Husain suggests that this potentially comes back to the need to “block everything else out” in order to ensure your posture, feet positioning, breathing and movements are all correct. This need to manage your thoughts, as well as the comfort that comes from repeating sets once you really get to know them, is invaluable to those who suffer from anxiety like myself.

Weight training has also been found to improve bone density, posture and flexibility, as well as strengthening our muscles and preventing injury. It’s even been proven to help boost metabolism

Using strength to get better at cardio

All of that said, falling in love with strength training hasn’t made me love cardio any less. It’s just helped me to view my workout regime and my body image from a different perspective, as well as strive for a balance between cardio and strength-based workouts. 

According to Husain, you get different advantages from both. “Strength workouts are for increasing strength and power,” she says, “while the cardio element is a great way to test your endurance and aerobic abilities.” What’s more, they complement each other – if you’ve strengthened muscles to protect yourself against injury, your cardio ventures are likely to be more successful.

I've not given up cardio, but by focusing on strength, I've improved my cardio output when I do it.
I've not given up cardio, but by focusing on strength, I've improved my cardio output when I do it.

5 strength exercises that I’ve grown to love

I learned quickly that these exercises don’t need to include huge weights; they just need to be activating and working your muscles, making them stronger over time.

To strengthen your back: lat pulldowns have been invaluable in correcting my terrible posture from working from home.

To strengthen your core: regular plank exercises and woodchop workouts, which you can do using machines at the gym or dumbbells in your living room.

To strengthen your arms: the seated lateral arm raise machine is my favourite. It’s great for building stronger shoulders and triceps. Again, you can do lateral raises using light dumbbells from home (or even just a couple of cans of baked beans!) if you don’t have access to a gym.

To strengthen your glutes: there’s nothing like a few sets of glute bridges and pulses to get your butt muscles activating. Introduce weights to lift on your hips when you feel confident. Not only have bridges changed the shape of my butt (it feels… fuller), but having strong glutes that fire equally has also been a game changer when it comes to running.

To strengthen your legs and ankles: walking lunges and single leg stands make cardio-heavy sessions more comfortable, as you’re less likely to get injured 

Take up space: how to fight imposter syndrome in the weights room

If you feel like your exercise routine could do with an injection of strength but you have no idea where to start, Husain recommends asking a personal trainer for guidance. If this isn’t an affordable option for you, there are loads of small things to start with when incorporating strength training into a balanced exercise routine.

“You’ve got to have a good amount of sleep and a balanced nutrition plan,” she says. “Make sure you’re eating a good portion of carbs, fats and proteins.” In terms of exercises, she advises starting out with the basics.

“Work on your lunges, single leg movements and your overhead mobility – nailing those functional movements – and then make a plan to slowly progress.”

Even though female strength training is undoubtedly becoming more popular,  imposter syndrome is still something that many of us struggle with in certain fitness environments.

“It’s all about believing that you deserve to be there,” Husain suggests, before going on to stress the importance of finding the right environment to work in, whether that’s a gym space or at home.

Incorporating strength training into my exercise regime has not just changed how I exercise, but why I exercise. Now above all, it’s to increase strength I never knew I could have, and reap the mental and physical benefits that come with that.

Ready to take your first step towards getting stronger? Hop over to the Strong Women Training Club to try out our Strength Training for Beginner’s plan.

Images: author’s own.

Share this article

Recommended by Charley Ross