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cardio benefits from strength training: people lifting kettlebells

How To Strength Train For Cardio Benefits

There’s no doubt that strength training is good for your mental, physical, and physiological health. After all, research has proven time and time again that lifting things up and putting them back down can increase metabolism, boost confidence, support bone health, and decrease the risk of certain diseases, to list off just a few scientifically-backed benefits

But can focusing exclusively on strength training rob you of the heart-health benefits associated with cardio? It depends on the type of strength work you do, according to certified strength and conditioning specialists. Read on to learn more about the potential heart health benefits of hulking out. 

Cardio, Defined

Typically, when people think of cardio, they think of monostructural machine worka jaunt on the treadmill or a stunt on the elliptical, for instance. But this isn’t the only kind of cardiovascular exercise. 

So, let’s start with a definition before we delineate what types of exercise qualify as cardio. 

Ready? Cardiovascular exercise, at its most basic, is any exercise that increases your heart rate and then keeps it elevated for a sustained period of time. 

Fact: Cardio Is Very Good For Your Heart

Increasing your heart rate offers a number of health benefits, according to certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. Especially heart health benefits. 

Read More: How To Eat Your Way To Better Heart Health

Getting your heart rate to beat faster forces your body to move oxygen and blood to your body faster. Over time, this trains your heart—a muscle itself—to work more efficiently, decreasing your resting heart rate and ultimately reducing the load on your ticker. In the long run, this means reduced risk of cardiovascular health problems, among other chronic health perks.

Moral of the story, increasing your heart rate through cardio is a worthy cause! But did you know that strength training can offer similar heart health benefits?

Strength Training and Heart Health

We’ll say it again for the people in the back: Strength training can provide many of the same heart health benefits as cardio, according to certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., CSCS. Actually, strength training may actually be more beneficial for your heart than cardio, according to the American College of Cardiology

You see, when you strength train, your muscles need more blood. “Blood is what carries oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, as well as what carries away the waste products,” Gam explains. Your heart, lungs, and blood vessels have to work harder to get more blood to your muscles, meaning your workout does, in fact, challenge your cardiovascular system. “This prompts it to become more efficient, thereby improving your cardiovascular health,” Gam says. Cha-ching.

The research on this is solid. One review published in the journal Hypertension found that strength training favorably affects cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and body fat percentages. 

Notably, one 2017 study published in Frontier in Physiology also found that strength training can increase VO2max. A measure of the amount of oxygen your body uses while exercising, VO2max is the gold standard for measuring aerobic fitness, according to Gam. “These findings demonstrate that strength training has the ability to affect cardiovascular functioning and fitness in a similar way to traditional cardio does in certain populations,” she says. 

The Best Strength Workouts For Cardiovascular Benefits 

There aren’t clear guidelines for using strength training to improve cardiovascular function as there are for traditional cardiovascular exercises, like running. The good news, according to Gam, is that any strength exercise that challenges your muscles is also going to challenge your heart, and therefore improve heart health and function to some extent. 

From light weights with short rests between sets to moderate weights with moderate rest to heavy weights with long rest, there are a lot of different ways to improve cardio fitness through strength training, she says. The best way to maximize the heart health benefits of your strength work, according to Gam, is to hover around 70 percent of your max heart rate. 

“When you lift heavy you need to take long rests between sets in order to be able to hit your strength numbers,” she says. During that time, your heart rate will probably return to baseline between very short spikes. As such, though you’ll still reap some reward, lifting super-heavy isn’t the best way to improve heart health, she says. 

Read More: The 6 Biggest Strength Training Form Mistakes Trainers See

Rather, the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness and health while lifting is by doing workouts that combine strength-based exercises with high-intensity interval training. “CrossFit, bootcamps, and many other group classes are a good way to improve cardiovascular fitness and health,” Gam says. Just keep in mind that shifting the focus of your strength sessions to target more cardiovascular adaptations will make them less effective at building strength because when you decrease rest periods you sacrifice your ability to lift heavy-heavy, she explains. 

Regardless, as you become better-conditioned, your heart won’t have to work as hard to do the same task, according to Harcoff. (Again, that’s because your heart will become more efficient.) “You’ll have to continuously make your workout harder in order to reap increasing heart health benefits,” he says. How? One option is to reduce the amount of rest between sets, Harcoff suggests. Another option is to increase the speed of each rep. Lowering the weight may allow you to crank out more reps in a row, which may make it more conducive to improved cardiovascular health, compared to fewer reps with heavier weights. 

How Often You Need To Strength Train For Heart Health

Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend strength training at least two days a week to support heart health and prevent cardiovascular disease. 

As for how much time you need to spend in the weight room each of those days? Ultimately, that’s going to depend on what other kinds of movement you incorporate into your week. While the AHA recommends a minimum total of 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense activity per week, one 2018 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study suggests you may only need to spend 60 of those minutes strength training to reduce your risk of heart-related ailments. 

To create a workout schedule and plan that keeps your specific health and fitness goals into account, Harcoff recommends considering hiring a fitness professional. They’ll be able to write you a program that takes your time limitations, health, and fitness goals into account. 

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