In a “Faces of MN” video interview I did in July of 2012, the interviewer, Joel Carlson, asked what I did for exercise. I explained I lifted weights, and how often the follow-up question is, “Yeah, but what do you do for cardio?”
My answer is always, always, always, “I lift weights faster.”
Anyone who’s ever completed a 5-minute snatch test, a metabolic finisher after a strength workout or almost any CrossFit workout knows what I’m talking about — you can get completely winded without running, swimming, biking or…what do you call what you do on the elliptical?
No knock on those who prefer traditional cardio activities, but not all of us do.
Since that interview, my answer to that question has become a viral internet meme and even a greeting card, so I decided to, well, “run” with it (cardio joke!). Because I knew I wasn’t the only one who completes her cardio through the iron, I made shirts with this motto.
From there, I built an entire conditioning library around this idea. You can learn more about that over at www.liftweightsfaster.com.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Q: But what do you do for cardio?
A: I lift weights faster.
Of course, there was your standard token internet naysayer: “You can’t get a cardio effect with weights,” he brayed. “All you’ll manage to do is thicken the walls of your heart!”
Historically, research has been tough to come by on this front, as oftentimes the lifting that occurs during research studies is that with more traditional set and rep schemes — not exactly your hard-n-fast kettlebell workout.
Luckily, there have been a few recent studies on the topic of lifting and aerobic capacity. A recent study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that a group of young, relatively fit individuals who trained with kettlebells for 8 weeks experienced a 13.8 percent increase in aerobic capacity, along with the strength and balance benefits you might expect.
To get a more definitive answer, I asked a couple of well-known exercise scientists to weigh in on whether or not you can lift weights for cardio.
“It depends what you mean by ‘lifting weight,’” says Alex Koch, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Lenoir Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. Most older studies on lifting looked at training on a machine circuit or doing traditional barbell exercises alone. In those, he continued, there was evidence of significant, though small, increases in VO2max in previously untrained subjects who lifted weights.
“Popular routines to boost cardio with weights these days tend to consist of higher reps of ballistic exercises that engage more muscle mass — think snatch and swing versus bench and curl,” he says. “There is less published data about these routines. Two studies I coauthored looked at the kettlebell swing, and both found that performing high rep swings increased VO2 to a level sufficient to improve VO2 max. Neither looked at long-term adaptation to kettlebell training, though.”
What about the accusation that those who lift weights faster have thick hearts? “Your ‘naysayer ‘ is talking about the issue of restricted venous return during weight-training exercises, limiting the ability to rely on oxygen delivery. That is a valid point,” he says, but goes on to clarify: “That’s really most pertinent to powerlifting exercises, like heavy squats and deadlifts, where a very high intra-abdominal pressure is maintained for a fairly long time. Weights can be lifted in such a way where venous return is not restricted for an extended period, and Olympic-type lifts, such as the power snatch and power clean, or other ballistic exercises, such as swings, where the lifter get to enjoy a period of unloading after a brief, high effort, should not restrict venous return nearly so much.” In other words, you may not be able to squat big weight faster for cardio, but the idea certainly applies to dynamic lifts without a long “grind” period.
Koch is not alone in his assessment. “With a low resistance and high repetitions, you do not create the same tension in the vessels [as you do with high resistance] and you get adequate venous return to the heart,” says Gary Miller, PhD, associate professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Using low resistance with lots of repetitions and short rest intervals seems to stimulate cardiovascular changes to a greater extent.”
So did I make an accurate claim? “I believe it is possible to improve your VO2 max with high-rep, dynamic, weighted exercises like the snatch, clean, or swing,” says Koch. “To get the most improvement with these movements, the workouts should consist of a high level of effort and a duration of effort that is constant, or intermittent with short rest breaks. But that is not nearly as pithy as ‘lift weights faster.’”
There you have it: You can get a cardio effect by lifting weights, as long as your movements are light and ballistic. (In case the huffing and puffing after you finish a set of kettlebell swings and snatches hadn’t convinced you of this already.)
For the Lift Weights Faster apparel line, head to my Shop page.
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