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Where Should I Start? Strength or Cardiovascular Training?

Suppose you are just starting out or getting back into exercise. You have limited time to devote to this, but want to at least do something.

  • Should you get going and find some cardiovascular activity that you like?
  • Or should you start enjoying the feeling of getting stronger through strength training?

Seems that every time you turn around, there it is: do whatever it takes to get in some cardiovascular exercise. The health benefits are stunning. Lower blood pressure, lower chance of getting diabetes, lower cholesterol, less chance of getting heart disease, some cancers, and mental deterioration. There are two general focuses here. One is to put a dent in sedentary behaviors, the other is to get the heart rate up for at least ten minutes at a time, but hopefully longer. Longer with an elevated heart rate means you get more of the above-mentioned benefits.

But, what about strength training? Doesn’t it get your heart rate up too? Why not just do that?

Ok. The stage is set. Let’s get out the boxing gloves and duke this one out. What should it be? Pump iron or go for a power walk?

I hate to do this, but here goes…it depends.

If you are really deconditioned with your cardiovascular abilities, you will need to build that up first. Why? Because when you strength train, it puts a certain strain on your heart and muscles. Even when you lift something that is 20% of what you are capable of, some circulation gets temporarily shut off to your muscle. True, your heart rate may go up, but some of that is because of circulation issues related to lifting weight. This type of heart rate increase is not as beneficial to your health as that brought about by cardiovascular exercise. In a case like this, doing some cardiovascular training for 6 weeks or so can act like a kind of insurance policy once you decide to add in some strength training.

On the other hand, it may be that strengthening before you start some cardio may help you to balance out your muscles or take care of a previous injury. In that case, once you start doing more cardio, it will be more efficient, with less chance of an injury happening down the road.

Here’s a few additional points about that. Doing strength training (including working on your balance and posture) helps your muscles to work more synchronistically. Meaning, muscle fibers fire up together to help you lift whatever it is that you are using. Many times, during the first 6-7 weeks of strength training it is this process of neurological restructuring that is making you stronger. After that, your body starts to adapt to the new regimen by putting down more protein in your muscle fibers.

With that in mind, when you start strength training, whether it is using machines, free weights, doing Pilates, Yoga, Barre, or calisthenics, making sure your form is correct is key. Let’s take a moment to think about what was said in the last paragraph. In the beginning of strength training, you are really retraining your nervous system. Would you like to be training your nervous system to slouch, compensate, or stay in a pattern of motion that strains your body? I think not. The take home message here is that when you start (and as you continue on), you have a golden opportunity to make some changes that can only benefit you going forward.

So there. The gloves are off, and you can judge for yourself which activity to slip into your schedule first. There are a ton of other questions around this issue, but those will have to be wait for another time.

But, can’t help myself…one more thing. You may be tempted to start out by jumping into circuit training, thinking that you can combine both strength and cardiovascular training that way. Here’s the thing. With circuit training there is very little emphasis on form or paying attention to your body’s foibles or limitations. Not only are you missing that golden opportunity mentioned above, you are setting yourself up for potential injury. That said, once you have a solid base of cardio and good form with strength training, circuit training can be a good way to save time and get you moving in new and more challenging ways.

So, cardio or strength?  Thoughts?  Please leave a comment below.

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