Bruce Lee is an amazing athlete, right?
Honestly, he’s the reason that I got into lifting weights. When I started out as a 140lb shrimpy beginner, he was the only guy that I could really look up to. After all, we had plenty of big dudes like Arnold, but I didn’t know of as many smaller jacked dudes that I could model myself after. Watching the classic martial arts movies just made me want to be like Bruce Lee and Jean Claude Van Damme - lean as heck, and way stronger than I look. Plus, it was awesome that Bruce was clearly a very smart guy and had a very intelligent way of looking at the world.
At the time, I did a lot of “research” on Bruce (read: I googled him a lot, because I was 13) and tried to copy his routines and diet. His training involved a lot of core work, some strength work, and a liberal amount of cardiovascular work, usually in the form of running and biking. I read a bit about his diet in which his wife claimed that carrots were his favorite food and he ate large amounts of honey because he believed it had special nutritional value - so I started making smoothies with carrots in them and drinking honey. That sure didn’t last long!
As I got more experienced, my tastes changed.
I got more into bodybuilding, and wanted to look more like Arnold than like Bruce. I got into powerlifting and wanted to set powerlifting world records more than I wanted to look lean. It became clear to me that while such a program may have been ideal for Bruce, with his specific training needs, it was far from ideal for my new training goals.
My perspective on cardio also changed.
Running, for example, burns the most calories and usually provokes the highest cardiovascular response of all cardiovascular exercises when done in a steady state (that’s to say, when you’re sticking to a steady speed for a while) format. The bike is useful for interval training, at which point it can help you vastly overshoot your normal cardiovascular output for a short period of time - leading to protocols like the infamous Tabata - but it generally burns fewer calories and provokes a smaller cardiovascular response during steady state exercise.
As I discovered this, my own training veered away from using the bike. While I still had clients using the bike as needed if any kind of upright cardio was too stressful on the joints, the goal was always to transition them into being able to run or walk. After all, it seemed like this was the most bang for your buck.
What’s old is always new again!
One of the biggest lessons I had to learn as a coach was how to properly balance cardiovascular training with lifting. For the longest time I, like many beginners, bought into the hype that “cardio kills gains” and that there’s no good way to get in cardio. I virtually stopped doing cardio altogether, and foolishly didn’t see the point.
As I grew and developed as a trainer and coach, I came to realize that this was simplistic and inaccurate. There is strong, researched evidence that a significant amount of running will interfere with strength and muscular adaptations. At the same time, this applies only to running, and the research doesn’t seem to provide any evidence that other forms of cardio, including walking (whether with a weight vest or on an incline), cycling, elliptical, and rowing, have any kind of interference effect.
It’s not clear why this is, and that’s fine! The common theory is that it has to do with impact. The impact of your foot striking the ground can be massive, and when you repeat it a lot (like you’re doing with a lot of running) it can definitely cause some amount of additional stimulus above and beyond what you’re strictly getting from the cardio itself. It’s likely that this added stress, and the recovery that this entails, are more to blame for running’s negative impacts than the cardio itself.
It’s also true that plenty of athletes are both strong and fast, capable of combining these seemingly opposing qualities.
As someone who trains primarily to get stronger, I can’t really do a ton of running without interfering with my primary training goals. But everyone should have some degree of cardiovascular training. In fact, athletes of all kinds should have some degree of involvement of every major mode of training - strength, power, muscular endurance, hypertrophy, and cardiovascular, among others. What should vary is the ratio of what kind of work to what. Obviously, if you’re a cardiovascular athlete, the greatest proportion of your training should be focused on that quality, but you should never completely overlook any kind of training because all training is interrelated to some extent.
What that means is that while you may not need to do much cardio, you should never do no cardio. When you’re in my position, that means finding low-impact ways to still get a strong cardiovascular effect.
Nowadays, cycling is my most frequently used cardiovascular method. It looks like Bruce Lee had something to teach me after all - that cycling is still a useful cardiovascular exercise. I’ve made a complete circle back around to where I started - using cycling for cardio. All thanks to Bruce.
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