What’s More Important as We Get Older, Cardio or Resistance Training?

A brief history… until “aerobics” broke onto the scene with Kenneth Cooper’s books, Aerobics (1968) and The Aerobics Way (1978), fitness was dominated by resistance training. cooper-aerobicsCooper’s books changed the face of exercise by supplying research showing the health benefits of cardiovascular training. When I was in college in the late 70s, my exercise science professors actually asked me to teach the weight training portion of their courses because none of them had any experience with anything other than aerobics (now commonly termed as cardio).lalanne

As a result of that paradigm shift, most health related research only looked at the benefits of cardio. Since that’s where the research was, cardio was the mode of exercise that was most recommended for health. Thankfully, resistance training has received more attention by researchers in the past couple of decades.

For the sake of this article, I’ll stick to an older definition of cardiovascular exercise as rhythmic, continuous, and maintaining a heart rate of 50-85% of your heart rate reserve (max heart rate – resting heart rate). Some typical cardio activities include walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, cross-country skiing, etc. Let’s define resistance training as loading movements with a force with the intent of increasing muscular strength or endurance. This can be with body weight, tubing, machines, free weights, etc. Please note that these definitions are simplistic for the sake of discussion. The truth is that there are many hybrid forms of exercise as well.

There are significant benefits from both of these exercise modalities. Both, in varying degrees, can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve lung function, increase insulin sensitivity, improve circulation, relieve stress, improve memory and cognitive function, help control weight, and many other positive health changes. So, which do we choose?

If we are talking about maximum benefits as we age, the best answer is to do some of both. That said, I’m going to say that IF I had to choose one, I would choose resistance training because, if done correctly, it can provide a greater ability to do daily activities. That, to me, speaks to keeping independence and quality of life. quirky_lift_4These activities, squatting down, lifting, carrying, pulling, and pushing, all benefit more from resistance training than traditional cardio training. Resistance training is also better at building/maintaining lean body mass, increasing fat loss, and improving bone mineral density.

Now many people hesitate at the idea of starting a resistance training program. They think that they are too old to be throwing huge weights on their back to squat or on the bench press. I’ve even heard doctors say that their patients shouldn’t squat. That’s a misperception of what resistance training really is. Getting up and down out of a chair (or off a toilet seat) is a squat. It’s a movement we need to be able to do and if getting out of your chair is difficult, that may be what you start with. Try getting out of your chair 6-10 times in a row. That’s resistance training and your body weight is the resistance. Doing repetitions of “chair squats” will strengthen your legs and hips and make getting out of the chair less of a challenge.

So, when you know you should be exercising and are finally ready to do something about it, don’t automatically think that cardio will do it for you. It is definitely good to do, but having the right resistance training program will give you faster and better results in how capable you are in doing your daily activities.

 

 

 

 

Free Weights, Machines, Tubing, or Body Weight?

Should your resistance workout include free weights, machines, tubing, or body weight exercises? The answer is “yes!” It should and could include any or all of those various resistance training forms. The choice you make depends on a few things. These include what you are training for (your goals), what equipment do you have access to, and what have you been using (variety is the spice of life). Let’s talk about what each has to offer.

First, let me note that all are means of adding resistance to movement and, in doing that, have the potential to build muscle size, strength, and endurance depending on the repetition range and volume (a post for a later time). Yes, you can body build with tubing alone. Your muscles don’t know what form of resistance you are using. They only know, “Is it hard?” and if it is, your muscles will adapt.

designFree weights (a constant, external weight) have been around forever. Anything we grab and lift is a free weight. There are many physical professions that produce strong people because they lift heavy things as part of the job. In fact, some of the strong man/woman challenges are taken from these, such as the farmer’s walk and yoke carry. One of the major benefits of lifting free weights is that can replicate the demands that we face in our activities of daily living (ADL). This is typically what is called functional training. Lifting with free weights can make you deal with balance, stability, and gravity in a similar way as lifting something in “real life”.

Machines typically have a pin selected weight stack, seats that need to be adjusted to fit your body, and handles that you either pull or push. The good and the bad? Changing weights are quick and easy. Machines support your body weight so you don’t need to. This makes it less like activities of daily living. However, that support can also allow you to work around injuries and not all exercises need to be directly related to ADL. Additionally, most machines offer variable resistance. Where free weights are always the same (a 10lb dumbbell is always 10lbs), through the use of different shaped cams, machines can increase and decrease the resistance. This helps you to work through “sticking points” to maximize resistance within a full range of motion.

Tubing (elastic tension) offers the advantages of being highly portable, very versatile, and simple to change the direction of force (up, down, horizontal, etc.) by changing the anchor point. It can provide significant resistance both by changing to a heavier gauge tubing or by simply moving further away from the anchor point. The biggest downside to tubing is that you are never sure how much resistance you are using. This makes replicating the tension, from one workout to the next, challenging. Without that measurable progress marker, some people may not be as motivated.

Finally, there is body weight exercise. Using your body weight (BW) is certainly functional, we have to move our bodies around all day long. No external equipment is needed, so it’s a handy portable workout. There’s also an ego advantage. Who doesn’t like the idea of being able to handle their own BW. Push ups, pull ups, and dips are long time fitness standards. We can’t alter our weight, though, to suit the exercise. I watch some guys crank out pull ups and have to note, “Well, you only weigh 150. Try that at my weight (212 as of yesterday, btw).” Sometimes your BW is not enough. BW squats, if challenging now, will rapidly become too easy. You need to be creative to give the whole body the right amount of resistance. (See push up progression here)

So, when the question of which mode of resistance training is best for you arises, you know the answer is “It depends”. What tools are available, what is your goal, what things do you like doing? The important thing to note is that all of these can provide very effective workouts and your body will not respond differently because of the type of resistance you use.