Resolving The Cardio Controversy

There's one sure and easy way to start an argument, if you're the combative type: Go to a fitness-oriented website's message boards and either praise or condemn endurance exercise. You can bet you'll find plenty of disagreement from your fellow posters, no matter which position you take.

Alwyn has endured so many of these arguments that he would qualify for the Congressional Medal of Rhetorical Futility, if such a thing existed.

The problem, Alwyn has told me, is one of definition. "Cardio" and "aerobics" are used interchangeably, as synonyms for "endurance." In Alwyn's view, they shouldn't be. Here's how he defines them:

Cardio

This word should be used for any type of exercise that makes the heart and lungs work harder. Look back at "The Greatest Program Ever" on page 84. Guys in that study increased their aerobic power while also losing fat—exactly what you'd expect from "cardio" exercise. Except they accomplished this while doing Olympic-style weight lifting, which also increased their strength and muscle mass.

I've also heard about this effect from a friend training for a Strongman competition. The events generally take a couple minutes or less and are designed to test not only strength and power but also how long a competitor can continue a maximum effort. You don't have to compete to see how the events would force a contestant's heart and lungs to work full-out.

My friend told me that his VO2 max, the scientific measure of aerobic power, increased dramatically during his Strongman training. This despite the fact he did no training that would meet the following description of "aerobic" exercise.

Aerobic

This describes exercise that uses the aerobic energy system, one of three ways your body has to generate energy. Here's what they are and how they work:

Phosphagen system: This energy system uses two substances—adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate (CP)—for short, intense bursts of speed and power. Your body stores, at most, ten seconds' worth of ready-to-use ATP and CP.

Anaerobic glycolysis: Your body refuels itself by breaking down glycogen, the sugar in your muscles, and producing lactic acid as a by-product. The lactic acid interferes with your muscles' ability to contract, and this leads to rapid exhaustion. The best-trained athletes in sports like boxing, wrestling, and intermediate-distance running (such as the 800-meter) can tolerate extreme levels of lactic acid. Mere mortals like us probably poop out in sixty seconds or less.

Aerobic metabolism: This is the easiest way for your body to generate energy for movement. You use it all the time, at rest or in motion. It uses oxygen ("aerobic" literally means "with oxygen") to burn a combination of fat and glycogen to produce energy.

Your body doesn't use just one system at a time. Let's say you're walking to the bus stop, using your aerobic energy system, and suddenly realize you'll miss the bus if you don't run the final two blocks. Energy for those first few steps will come from your phosphagen system, buying time for your glycolytic system to kick in. But that doesn't mean your aerobic system has shut down; it's simply adjusting to the new demands and will be back in play after about twenty to thirty seconds of running.

Thus, your run to the bus stop will involve all three energy systems.

Another example: downhill skiing. Your three energy systems—separately and together—will all be active in different parts of the run.

Conversely, in a basketball or football game, you'll hardly use your aerobic energy system at all, except when play is stopped. Hockey and soccer use a combination of

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