Dr. Neal answers two questions from listeners who enjoy cardio exercise but hate going to the gym.
Question 1: Does Cardio Help With Strength Training?
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.
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…
Question 2: How Can I Exercise If I Hate The gym?
QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal! So I have this problem with working out — I really do not enjoy going to the gym or doing gym like activities at home. Dumbbells, mountain climbers, eww…
But what I really enjoy is doing things like long walks, roller skating, biking, and most anything that doesn't demand staying in one place working on one muscle group at a time. And I'll say I'm not the most fit and a bit pudgy, but I'm just wondering how these different styles of exercises compare.
What are your thoughts on just doing these outdoor (mostly) cardio activities? Is there anything to think about adding to them to get more out of it? Thanks! Hope you’re doing well and much love from Madison WI!”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your question, and for listening from Madison! Your feelings about gym-like activities are very common.
What I appreciate about this question is that there are probably lots of folks that listen this podcast and are tired of hearing me talk about sets and reps, squats and deadlifts and bicep curls.
While these exercises are great, they may not fit within a person’s goals – or their likes and dislikes.
Stay Consistent With Exercise
The most important thing is to stay consistent with your activity. Some movement is better than no movement.
In your case, if that means going outside and going for long walks, roller skating, and bicycling then that’s fantastic. If you perform these activities consistently, you’re already ahead of the game. Your heart and lungs are probably in pretty good shape.
Increase the Intensity
Now, you asked if there’s anything you can add to these movements to get more out of them. Yes, absolutely.
During your long walks, you can stop every 2 minutes and perform 50 mountain climbers… kidding!
There’s something you can do that will actually serve as a double-whammy: it will improve your heart and lung health even more and possibly help with the pudginess you described. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it actually isn’t.
Here’s the trick: increase the intensity. Here’s how it would work: when you’re on your long walk, instead of walking at the same speed the entire time, pick up the pace. Walk faster than you normally would for 20-30 seconds. Then, walk at your normal pace. Then, after a few minutes of walking at your normal pace, walk fast for another 20-30 seconds. Then, walk at your normal pace. Repeat this pattern until you arrive back home.
You can apply this same pattern to roller skating and bicycling, too. Roller skate or bicycle at your normal pace but throw in some moments where you skate or pedal as fast as you can.
By doing this, you are forcing your body (heart, lungs, and muscles) to adapt to this higher intensity. And it turns out that this increased intensity will also help you burn more calories during and yes, even after activity session.
Like Cardio but Hate the Gym: Conclusion
Now, I’m all about helping others maximize their potential.
So, I will just plant this seed: if and when you’re ready and you want to move on to other exercises that may help improve your bone density and muscle mass, come on back and we’ll talk about some of those gym-type exercises.
In the meantime, keep up the great work!