by Robert Maxwell
Among the vast, untrained masses, there exists a great deal of confusion regarding exercise. This takes many forms, and one of the most common is blurring of the line between cardiovascular fitness and strength. More often than not, those who don’t train regularly to achieve either will think of any sort of exercise as simply “getting in shape”. Why is this a problem? A few reasons. The biggest is that without a clear understanding of what it means to gain strength versus cardiovascular fitness, your average novice trainee will not do well at either, likely wasting a lot of time and effort exercising sub-optimally. When I first became interested in improving myself physically as a teenager, my lack of knowledge and experience quickly made me a victim of this effect. I started exercising mainly because I was skinny, and wanted to get bigger. I had a vague notion about lifting weights to build muscle, but was so uninformed that I figured I could achieve this by exercising any old way. The routine I developed involved several minutes of vigorous push-ups, jumping jacks, running on the spot, and bicep curls with an old pair of 15 pound dumbbells my dad had lying around. Knowing nothing about proper nutrition, I paid zero attention to what I ate, but faithfully performed this simple workout program every day for several months. Needless to say, my physique didn’t improve much, nor did my strength. Fast forward more than a decade, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons about the differences between strength and fitness. There’s no doubt that everyone should do some sort of physical training regularly. The emphasis that you place on strength versus fitness depends on your goals, lifestyle, and natural interests. All training regimes should involve some aspect of both strength training and fitness work. The first step to deciding what this breakdown will look like for you is understanding what strength and fitness are, and their differences.
Strength: The Ability to Exert Force
Gravity is constantly pulling every object and living creature on Earth straight downwards, perpendicular to the planet’s surface. Physical strength is nothing more than your ability to resist this force on an object by pushing or pulling it. It’s been stated by knowledgable coaches that physical strength, more than anything else, determines our quality-of-life. We may one day invent ourselves out all physical work, but until we do, strength still comes in very handy in a great many situations. Even if the need for all manual labour is illuminated by increasingly complex machines, strength will still remain highly useful, when society inevitably collapses along with the bones and internal organs of the flaccid majority. Bottom line – get strong and stay strong. You’ll be better at nearly everything that’s physically taxing.
Fitness: A Healthy, Well Functioning Body
Earlier this summer, my family and I went to the beach, and my brother Joseph and I decided to swim out to a raft that was anchored in the bay. It was probably 70 or 80 yards or so from shore, and the water got deep quite suddenly. We weren’t very far into our swim when we realized that it was more difficult than we expected. Joe and I are both over 250 pounds, most of it muscle, so long swims or jogs are always challenging for us. We made it to the raft, both much more out of breath then we had hoped or planned to be. The experience reminded me that although I've chosen to specialize in strength more than fitness, a good set of lungs and a healthy heart that’s able to withstand decent amounts of cardiovascular exertion is important, too. Since our breathless swimming adventure, I've resumed my old habit of briskly running between my house and office a few times every day. Not only will this improve my overall health and in all likelihood, length of my life – it’ll actually support my strength training, too. Here’s how. In the pursuit of strength via barbell exercises, it’s important to sometimes train with somewhat lighter weights and more repetitions. Although this in and of itself isn’t optimal for strength, it's the best way to build muscle, which gives you more room to get stronger later. Trouble is, without at least a basic level of cardiovascular fitness, high-rep work in the weight room is extremely difficult. That’s why most professional strength athletes have at least a small component of cardio style fitness as part of their routines.
Why You Should Aim for Both
I’ve known plenty of really strong guys who couldn’t run 100 yards to save their lives. I’ve also seen lots of slim, lean guys in great shape for things like long walks, runs, and cycling trips, but were weak. Although both groups are far better off than if they didn’t train at all, neither is ideal. Specializing in one is fine, but not to the point that you completely neglect the other. If you’re a man who refuses to pick up heavy things for the purpose of getting stronger, you will be weak, and your weakness will increase with time. If you reject running, walking, cycling, or any other form of cardiovascular exercise, you will be out of shape. Eventually your out of shapeness will advance to the point where even the simplest activities leave you struggling for breath. If you avoid both strength training and cardio, you will be both weak and out of shape. No man can be his ideal self if he’s not doing some form of strength training and cardiovascular fitness regularly. Even if you work a physical job, you’re not off the hook. It’s really hard to enjoy your life if you’re fat, weak, and out of shape.