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cardio

QUESTION: “Hey Dr. Neal! Greetings from snowy Finland! Big thanks for hundreds of useful facts and tips you've given me! You truly have made my life healthier! My question is: How much strength benefits do you get as a bonus while doing cardio training? What are the best activities to get some muscles if you like cardio but not strength training? I love running but never go to gym because I hate it. My lower body is in excellent shape thanks to years of consistent running. Therefore, running must improve muscular strength. I feel I have no need for additional training for my legs. My upper body is skinny, I would like to have some muscles there. I sometimes do push ups, squats etc. at home, but haven't managed to stay consistent. I'm thinking swimming could be a good cardio exercise and also strength training for your upper body. Would you agree? Any other activities you would recommend for those of us who prefer cardio? Keep doing what you're doing!

DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your question. I very much appreciate you taking the time to write in and for expressing your appreciation for the show. I am most thrilled that you find the show helpful and that it has helped you.

I must also say that you are way ahead of most people when it comes to your current workout regimen. When we look at U.S. data, especially, we find that most adults (and, frankly children, as well) do not participate in regular physical activity or exercise. The fact that you have been consistently running for years is fantastic – you deserve some accolades just for staying this consistent.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1267 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


In fact, I wish I could somehow absorb some of your love of running. I don’t know if you remember, but last week I was complaining about how much I dislike running but force myself to do it anyway.

It sounds like you and I are opposites in that sense: you love running and prefer cardio, but can’t stand strength training. I loathe running, but love strength training!

So, I’m going to use my experiences, along with some of my former patients and clients, and some behavior change data to help us out.

Before I get to that, let me first mention something about building strength.

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Muscular Strength vs. Muscular Endurance

You mentioned that since you’ve been running consistently for years, your legs are probably in pretty good shape. I would agree. But I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re strong.

Now, please know that in no way is that meant to be offensive.

Instead, what I’m trying to say is that building muscular strength requires a different form of exertion. I would say that your leg muscles have quite a bit of muscular endurance. This means that your legs are capable of sustaining activity for long periods of time.

For example, you could probably run a 5k with no problem. For someone like me, who doesn’t run all that often, a 5k would probably be exhausting. My muscles haven’t been trained to endure that type of activity.

Let’s remove you from the equation and start talking about a hypothetical person – that way all of this won’t seem so personal.

A Comparison of Two Forms of Training

Let’s say I have a friend, whom we’ll call… oh, I don’t know, Gilfoyle. Now Gilfoyle doesn’t spend a lot of his time running. Instead, he spends quite a bit of time in the weight room performing heavy squats and deadlifts.

If we were to convince him to go for a 10-minute run, we might find that his legs get fatigued after having to endure this type of activity for 10-minutes straight. He could easily squat over 300 lbs. (or about 135 kg) 5 times but may pass out from exhaustion after having to run for 10 minutes straight.

Let’s compare this to someone we’ll call Erlich. Erlich on the other hand, runs regularly. He’s competed in marathons and ultra-marathons. We then ask Ehrlich to squat 300 lbs. 5 times. Well, that may not go so well. This is because his legs aren’t used to pressing that amount of weight.

I want to be very clear – both forms of training are great. Both are considered important components of overall fitness. The ideal would be to have both strong legs – legs that are capable of pressing heavy weight – and legs that can endure activity for long periods of time… like running.

In order to develop both muscular strength and muscular endurance, we need to incorporate both training styles.

Is Swimming a Good Strength-Building Exercise if You Prefer Cardio?

Now you said that you like to swim. Swimming is a good upper body exercise.

This is a great place to start to begin developing the chest, shoulders, and back. It will provide you with an increase in upper body strength but only for a little while. It will increase your upper body strength because you are going to be forcing your upper body to adapt to dealing with moving your limbs under water. This creates resistance, so your muscles will be forced to become stronger when working against this resistance.

However, once they’ve adapted to this, the muscles will become better at enduring that resistance. So, you may find that muscle strength doesn’t increase as fast as you’d like it to. Instead, we need to find a way to add more resistance to those muscles, so that they grow bigger and stronger.

Researchers have actually conducted studies to see if swimming is related to “dry-land” strength. They found that there are some relationships, especially when swimmers train with tethers and focus on improving their explosive power.

So it is absolutely possible to increase your upper body (and lower body) strength with swimming, provided that you incorporate specific training styles designed to improve your muscular strength.

Incorporating Body Weight Strength-Building Exercises if You Prefer Cardio

You also said that you’ll try and knock out some push-ups and body weight squats at home. These are great. But it sounds like performing these moves hasn’t been as consistent as you’d like.

One way to “trick” yourself into building more consistency around these even if you prefer cardio is to perform them as warm-up exercises before you go for your run.

So, let's say you’re all dressed and ready to head out the door for a run. Before you take your first step out the door, stop and perform 5 push-ups and 10 squats. Then, be on your way!

The next time you’re ready to head out for a run, before you open your door and head outside, perform 10 push-ups and 20 squats. Then, you’re ready to head out.

The next time, 15 push-ups and 25 squats… you get the idea.

If and when you’re ready to dramatically increase your muscular strength, send me another question and I’ll see if I can convince you to head into the weight room

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 1267 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") is currently a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Before this, he served as Department Chair at Bastyr University California. Dr. Neal has also published peer-reviewed scientific research and presented at national conferences.Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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