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Cardio Strength Training – What Is It Exactly?

Crossfit promotes it; fitness boot camps attempt to duplicate it, and personal trainers are “all about it.” What is “it?” It is a technique, expressed through many modalities of exercise, that comes under the guise of “cardio-strength training.” It can be achieved, in it’s many varied forms, with body weight exercises, weight machines, barbells and dumbbells, sandbags, medicine balls and TRX, kettle bells, sprint training and sport cords. In fact, just about any thing you can hold, throw, push or pull can get you there. And, where is “there?” Well, it’s that very special place where fitness dreams come true; the metabolic ‘sweet spot’ where calories are being expended like gold coins cascading out of a slot machine.

Just like hitting “Lucky 7’s” however, it is far from ordinary. Why? Well, because too many folks interpret the rules of engagement, and don’t follow the specific tenants of HIIT principles. “HIIT” (High Intensity Interval Training) is the foundation of cardio-strength workouts. Specifically, it demands that trainees work hard – very hard, for brief periods of time, and then recover through short rest intervals. This staccato effect creates a metabolic drain on the body that burns fat long after the workout is terminated. This technique has shown itself to be a superior approach to developing a leaner, more defined body. The death of boring, long, slow cardio, (remember jogging?), has been rendered obsolete due to programs that include HIIT principles.

So, like any good buzz word in any industry, we have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, and spell out the jargon on gym marquees all over town. “HIIT Training Done Here!” Unfortunately, our rush to copy this remarkable training approach, one that is re-writing the text books, is just that – a $5 Gucci watch! It’s simply in too many instances, not the real deal.

Instead, through loosely understood reproductions, we hope to become Shakespeare by copying Hamlet. This becomes most notable in arenas where being really tough on clients is lauded as a good thing. Specifically, fitness boot camps and crossfit training might ratchet up the intensity to levels that necessitate their followers to bring their own bucket to workouts, figuratively speaking, of course. But, the point is accurate in that in too many circles, if X is good, 10X might be seen as ten times better. Not so, especially when we consider that exercise is stress, and we all know what too much stress manifests: injury, illness, and a bad time by all.

By the same measure, cardio-strength training does ask its participants to push themselves to uncomfortable levels of fatigue. This is tempered, however, to plowing through the exercise sequences in good form only. The studies that were conducted to present the efficacy of these techniques demanded it. Reckless abandon is never recommended, but, then again, either is just going through the motions. Cruising through a density set, (four or 5 exercises done for a specified time before quitting), is a violation of the rules. The same can be said for any of the methods used to create that metabolic sweet spot eluded to in the introduction. The intervals are brief because they need to be. But there is a hierarchy of experiences built around sound progressions. In this way, everyone can benefit from HIIT techniques if given time and the proper path to adapt. Trainers using these protocols need to honor the tier of difficulty in these routines, and not choose them from a menu at will.

A hard workout is a short one by definition. Cardio-strength routines can be a short as 4 minutes, for example. That particular protocol is so intense, (but strictly performed), that it is not suggested for beginners or intermediates. But, it is too frequently offered up as standard operating procedure for these same novices and the so/so fit. Why? Because as I stated, the well intended trainer is either under our 10X spell, or working to make an impression that is going to end up painful. That 4 minute workout, by the way, is called a “Tabata” and is the zenith of cardio strength routines. It is almost laughable to me to hear of everyone and their mother cranking out these Tabata’s nowadays. Elite athlete’s? Yes! The guy across the street carrying 30 extra pounds between his nipples and his knees? Not so fast.

And, herein lies the problem. Fitness boot camps, crossfit, trainers with a penchant for grueling workouts, are all piling on with HIIT techniques, but too many are not delving it out judiciously. Being a bad ass instructor after reading an article about “countdowns” or “the 24’s” (other HIIT approaches), are missing the boat completely. Blowing out a knee or producing levels of stress in a training session that leave your client sore for a week are not what cardio-strength is designed to do. One must respect the system if it hopes to use it for the good of the end user. Our credo as training professionals should be to do no harm first. First, as in before we hope to apply advanced principles to pedestrian fitness consumers.

Instead of getting “lost in the sauce” we need to understand what we’re pouring it over. Any training needs to be entered into with caution and with preparation. The remarkable results produced with cardio-strength training are of no value if we sideline ourselves with injury before hitting the proverbial fat burning jackpot.

No matter what method of exercise one chooses, it should, more than anything else, be appropriate for the person engaged in the effort. And that effort should always be with proper exercise form, tolerated successfully and managed with small increments of increased demand for best results. Careening down the HIIT highway with no rhyme or reason is foolish if decided upon by our fitness advocate, irresponsible if lead by a fitness professional, and ineffective by both.

Cardio-strength; what is it? It is the most efficient way of burning fat and building lean muscle tissue. But, it is only as good as it is authentically replicated.