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Cardio or Weights? Choosing the Right Fitness Plan
Describes the positives and negatives of weights training versus cardiovascular exercise.
As varied and contradictory as the recommendations of professionals often seem, fitness training can be generalized to include two schools of thought: one which emphasizes weight training, the other cardiovascular exercise. While they aren't mutually exclusive, it is difficult to find a workout that accomplishes both. Why? Because they lend themselves to conflicting ends.
Weight training focuses on building muscle through repetitions of lifts, usually for no more than thirty seconds to a minute at a time. This is great for developing size and raw strength, the sort of physique you see sprinters and linebackers sporting. While this elevates the heart rate, however, it does little to prepare it for long performance trials. Try getting a sprinter to run for more than several minutes at a stretch. Before long, he runs into embarrassing problems.
The same goes for pure cardio activity, only in reverse. Long-distance runners and other endurance athletes train the heart, lungs, and functional muscle groups to process oxygen and energy more efficiently and for longer periods of time. The drawback? The sustained physical activity needed to accomplish this burns a lot of calories, which makes achieving significant gains in muscle size and strength very difficult. Remember your friends on the high school cross country squad? Phenomenal athletes, every one of them, but they looked like twigs and probably could lift as much.
So which is the "right" body type: meathead or string-bean? Unless you are the rare athlete that needs to meet one or the other extreme, the answer lies somewhere in between. To remain truly healthy requires regular attention to both strength and stamina, no matter which you choose to prioritize. So how do you do both?
There are a number of ways. One is to alternate workout days, switching back and forth between training strength versus cardio. This is an excellent way to maintain both dimensions of fitness, although the gains you see will be slower than if you focused on one or the other.
A second method is to alternate cycles of several weeks weights, several weeks cardio, and repeat. This gives you the opportunity to make tremendous gains in size and strength during one phase, and then to preserve them when your emphasis shifts to stamina and endurance. It is also arguably the most effective way to achieve the 'cut' look of a bodybuilder. Be careful, however, that you do not go too long in one cycle at the expense of the other, or you'll pay for it when you hop back onto that treadmill.
In addition, there are a handful of high-performance sports that incorporate both types of activity. Competitive rowing especially finds a balance between strength and endurance, without inhibiting either; by any standard, oarsmen are some of the finest athletes in the world. The same is true for swimming, with more emphasis on the cardio. The nice thing about both is that neither requires you to spend time in a sterile gym - and who would want to, when he could get similar results in a pristine, natural environment? Boxing and wrestling, while high impact, also deliver major returns. With these activities, you are sacrificing ease in your regimen for simplicity and effectiveness. If you can hack it, however, then these may be the most fruitful options.
If you are serious about getting fit, you need a plan of attack. Develop a weekly routine that accommodates your other responsibilities, and stick to it. At the same time, be flexible. It isn't the end of the world if you don't follow your script to a T. If your needs change, then let yourself revise the program accordingly. Above all, don't let lingering doubts keep you from exercising. The best way to learn how to work out is to do it. As long as you put in the time and attention, the specifics of your regimen will become clear. So what are you waiting for?