I had a hard time titling this piece, which was inspired by an article that was frightening some of our Insanity and Focus T25 users on the effectiveness of doing a workout program that didn’t include weight (T25 does add weight in the Beta block and Insanity in The Asylum but both begin with only body weight exercises). When searching for the offending article I found pages dedicated to subject from one angle or another, leading to the title confusion. Today we’ll dispense with a broadly misunderstood topic in one fell swoop.
We must begin with a few definitions because it’s where all of the confusion lies.
“Cardio” in exercise terms is a catchall slogan (not a type of training) for anything that works your cardiovascular system. It ranges from yoga, to aerobic work, to circuit training (with weight) to high intensity intervals. In fact, all exercise works you heart to some degree. To be termed “cardio”, we generally look for workouts that never let the heart rate drop all the way back to a resting state, which really only includes power training and a misconception of old school weight training. The latter, in fact, came from lore in watching people train incorrectly. Sitting around swapping stories for 15 minutes between attempts at benching or squatting did happen, and likely still does, but it was never a style of training promoted by professionals.
Aerobic was in the list above, so its one aspect of cardio training. It’s low-level steady-state “cardio” that target aerobic efficiency and the root of the confusion. These days it’s only prescribed as training for endurance athletes, people with ailments or who are greatly deconditioned, or as active recovery. It did have an actual hey day, during the 80s, when trainers thought that exercising below your anaerobic threshold (keeping your heart rate low) could be more effective than pushing yourself. It’s been debunked for about a quarter of a century.
Anaerobic means training without oxygen, or hard enough that your heart rate spikes in order to try and hard as it can to help you move oxygen in a deprived state. HIIT, or high intensity intervals, target this exclusively but so does any circuit training, weight training, or any kind of intervals where enough speed or resistance is encountered to make you work hard. Because of its intensity, anaerobic training is always done in intervals so that you won’t pass out. An anaerobic workout might not be a cardio workout (power training requires full recovery) but almost all cardio training these days has an anaerobic element that is, in fact, the focal point of the workout.
“Weight” in terms of training actually means resistance, not a piece of equipment. When you do a push-up you’re using your body in place of a barbell. When you jump into the air and land, you’re using gravity to create force that requires your body to resist against it. From a training perspective it’s all the same thing. So if you’re in a workout that requires force (things that tend to feel hard), you’re using “weight”.
What we have in these articles is a misunderstanding of these terms that even the writers of “Three’s Company” would be proud of. I’m dating myself but can’t think of a better example of a one-trick pony that stayed on the air for years. Besides, one of the cast became an icon of exercise misunderstanding, too.
Using the terms above, in various forms of literacy, the authors of every article I read are attempting to show that aerobic training is mainly a waste of your time and that you should be using “weight”. But since weight can be anything that creates enough resistance so that your body is working anaerobically, the writers are talking about a form of “cardio” that barely exists anymore.
So if you’re not lifting weight how do you tell? Simple: by measuring your heart rate. It varies per individual but if during your workout your heart rate goes above around 140-150 bpm you are training anaerobically or, by the vague definition of the critical articles, using “weight”.
At anaerobic intensity your body is forced to respond by releasing various hormones that will, over time, change your metabolic process and create body composition change (or weight loss, if that’s your goal). So unless you’ve got a stack of Richard Simmons VHS’s that are still your favorite training partner, chances are this entire topic is of very little concern.