Dustin Elliott details the impact that steady state cardio has on strength, and talks about the essential aspects of lifting needed for hypertrophy.

Does cardio help you get strong?I’m sure many of you are familiar with the phrase “You are what you eat”. Outside of the genetic predispositions some people have that allow them to eat whatever they want; this phrase still holds true today. What it implies is that if you constantly eat healthy and you watch your calorie intake, well than chances are that will be reflected not only in your appearance but in your discipline when it comes to health in general.

However, unhealthy eating habits will also manifest themselves in your physical appearance (unless you are blessed with a fast metabolism and can’t gain weight no matter what you eat) and there is no magic pill or regime that allows you to eat whatever you want without experiencing the consequences. Hence the phrase, “You are what you eat”. So next time you see a commercial and a fitness model or an athlete is chomping on a burger (come to think of it, the last few fast food commercials I saw with pro athletes, they didn’t so much as eat a fry), think about the reality of the situation.

And the next time you're on a diet, and you go out drinking with your friends, loading up on diet whiskey and Cokes won’t help much either. Alcohol is 7 calories per gram (which is only second to fat which is 9 calories per gram). Also, keep in mind that alcohol has a direct link to poor eating habits and leads to increased calorie consumption (1).

Let’s get back to the subject at hand now, the reason I opened with this phrase is because research shows that this same principle applies to weightlifting as well. Many people don’t realize this however, and the people that don’t stand out at the gym when they say their goals are to increase strength; and then they jump on the treadmill and run. Or those that say their goal is hypertrophy, but they lift so heavy that the time under tension required for their muscles to increase in size is non-existent because they move the weight too fast.

Adaptations to exercise begin from the very first workout, and you must not only learn what routine you need for the adaptation you want, but you must also learn what types of training to avoid that will prevent you from reaching your goals. Adaptations for strength and endurance are completely separate and while both can be improved upon to a certain degree; you cannot get anywhere close to maximizing your gains for both at the same time (2).

First, let’s discuss why long duration steady-state cardio Is detrimental to absolute gains in strength. When you are performing steady state cardio, your body undergoes physiological changes that can increase oxygen consumption and cardiovascular endurance which are positives. However, the prominence of Type I (slow twitch) muscle fibers will increase as well. The amount of Type I, Type II a (fast twitch), and Type IIb (fast twitch, glycolytic) your body has is hereditary (3).

However, a study done by researchers in Switzerland showed that exercising on a bicycle for 30 minutes 5 times a week for 6 weeks (it was done steady state as an endurance exercise) increased the mitochondria and aerobic capacity of all muscle fiber types (4). While this may sound like a good thing, it’s not if your goal is to increase strength. When you exercise, there is a hierarchy of energy sources that produce ATP (energy source for all cellular reactions). For the purposes of lifting weights, what you need to know is that creatine phosphate can convert to ATP rapidly and is the primary source for energy for movements that are explosive (heavy lifts under 8 reps, sprints etc).

It takes about 3 minutes to replenish creatine phosphate stores (this is the reason for the 2-3 minute rest period recommendation for strength training). If the rest periods are less, you will notice there is a decrease in ability to repeat heavy lifts; your body will then begin to tap into its carbohydrate stores (glycogen) to produce ATP. Creatine phosphate will still be used at the initial stages of the lift/sprint, but glycogen will quickly take over as the fuel source since there is not as much creatine phosphate available.

For continuous repeated exercise that has no rest intervals, your body taps into it’s fat stores (fat takes longest to convert to ATP, however it provides the most ATP compared to creatine phosphate or glycogen) to produce ATP. The reason I’m explaining the system for which your body produces energy is that the characteristics of your muscle fibers will determine the fuel source your body is able to tap into. If your muscle fibers take on more Type I characteristics they will have less ability to utilize the creatine phosphate system for strength.

The question you may be asking yourself now is: “Okay, so doing cardio decreases strength, but I’m still lifting heavy, won’t that stop my fast twitch muscles from taking on slow twitch characteristics?” For this question, the only answer that can be given is that it depends on your genetic makeup. However, if you have trained to increase your strength and power; then you will almost certainly experience a decrease in these two aspects as you bodies’ muscle fiber make up (the characteristics, the muscle fibers themselves do not change) adjusts to the new stimulus of steady state exercise.

If you have trained for increases in endurance, then you will likely still benefit from gains in strength. But no matter how you go about it, you won’t be able to maximize gains in strength while doing steady state cardio because the pathways your muscles must go through to adapt will limit your potential for strength/power output.

In a research study done at the University of Illinois, they made a comparison between 3 groups of lifters over a 10 week period. There was a group that primarily did strength training, a group that did endurance training and a group that combined strength and endurance training. They found that during the beginning of the study, the strength/endurance group had similar gains to the strength group. However, toward the end of the 10 weeks they saw the strength/endurance group plateau and decline in their markers for strength (5).

The next question that you may have is: “So does this mean I’m going to have no cardio respiratory endurance while I’m getting strong?” The answer to this is no. Steady state cardio is to be avoided while strength training, not cardio in general. Interval training (bouts of high intensity exercise alternated with periods of rest or active rest) is proven to increase cardiovascular fitness (6). And at high intensities it even aids in improving peak power output (7).

Now to continue with our discussion, let’s talk about everyone’s endless quest for gaining muscle and the countless lifters who constantly add weight and cheat, bounce, and throw their way through every rep. And while some of the more advanced lifters might be laughing at them, going through a lift quickly; while it may be great for increasing strength, will not optimize your gains in muscle mass.

There have been studies that show high velocity lifting for beginner and elderly weightlifters is equivalent to a controlled cadence lift for hypertrophy (8). However, advanced lifters who do not fall within the elderly age group (the age range for must studies is 60 years and up) need to keep in mind that while an increase in muscle size correlates with an increase in strength; it is possible to increase strength without increasing muscle size. Strength is largely related to the central nervous system and can be improved upon through overload.

Think about an Olympic weightlifter that must increase his strength and power while still being able to make a weight class. This is the reason why periodization is so important for a good training program. Almost every training program calls for you to increase the pounds you attempt for a lift after a certain period of time, and going through a phase in your training when you can focus on increasing your strength becomes very important for this purpose. There is much research, most notably of which was done by Dr. Goldberg from the University of London; which points to maximizing stretch and muscle tension for hypertrophy (slower cadence, strict form, sacrificing weight to go through the full range of motion) (9).

“You Are What You Lift!” Remember this the next time you hit the gym. Just as it pertains to diet, it applies equally to your routine as well. If your goal is to become stronger, don’t train like a distance runner; and if your goal is to become bigger…keep in mind that 5 of the 7 Olympic weight lifting classes are less than two hundred pounds. Don’t train so heavy that you sacrifice the muscle tension needed to illicit the growth that your looking for.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.

  1. Emmanuelle Kesse, Françoise Clavel-Chapelon, Nadia Slimani, Marti van Liere and and the E3N Group. Results of a study of the French cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 74, No. 3, 322-327, September 2001
  2. John O. Holloszy, Frank W. Booth. Biomedical Adaptations to Endurance Exercise in Muscle. Annual Review of Physiology. Vol. 38: 273-291 (Volume publication date March 1976)
  3. Herbison GJ, Jaweed MM, Ditunno JF. Muscle fiber types. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1982 May;63(5):227-30
  4. Hans Howald, Hans Hoppeler, Helgard Claassen, Odile Mathieu, Reto Straub. Influences of endurance training on the ultrastructural composition of the different muscle fiber types in humans. Volume 403, Number 4 / April, 1985
  5. Robert C. Hickson. Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance.Volume 45, Numbers 2-3 / December, 1980
  6. Darren E.R. Warburton,PhD, Donald C. McKenzie, MD, PhD Mark J. Haykowsky, PhD, Arlana Taylor, PT, Paula Shoemaker, MSc, Andrew P. Ignaszewski, MD, Sammy Y. Chan, MD.  Effectiveness of High-Intensity Interval Training for the Rehabilitation of Patients With Coronary Artery Disease. Volume 95, Issue 9, Pages 1080-1084 (1 May 2005)
  7. J. Duncan MacDougall, Audrey L. Hicks, Jay R. MacDonald, Robert S. McKelvie, Howard J. Green, and Kelly M. Smith. Muscle performance and enzymatic adaptations to sprint interval training. J Appl Physiol 84: 2138-2142, 1998
  8. Young, Warren B.; Bilby, Glenn E. The Effect of Voluntary Effort to Influence Speed of Contraction on Strength, Muscular Power, and Hypertrophy Development. The J of Strength and Cond. Research August 1993 - Volume 7 - Issue 3
  9. Goldberg AL, Etlinger JD, Goldspink DF, Jablecki C. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975 Fall;7(3):185-98.
Posted on: Wed, 10/14/2015 - 22:58

In effort to lose weight I took up running 6 years ago. As I gained endurance and lids weight I ran further and further up to the point of 2 marathons. I lost almost 40 lbs during that time, but it wasn't all fat. Without realizing it I had lost considerable muscle in my upper body. What's worse is that I didn't have much muscle to begin with. Now I am backing off of the long distance running and have been lifting for the past 6 months. I have gained over 15 lbs of fat and gained little muscle. Did I screw up my metabolism with all that long distance running? I could eat whatever I wanted then and am learning that I have to be more diligent with my eating. I still run some, usually less than 5k 2-3 times/week. My family is made up of large people, so that's going against me also, not to mention I'm 41 yrs old.

Posted on: Fri, 02/18/2011 - 00:09

I am a sprinter... I do a full body strength workout 2-3 times a week (hang cleans, squats, split good mornings, bench, tbar rows, cable rotations, pull ups, abs) and I sprint/run/plyos 3 times a week... I want to increase speed, which would require getting stronger... Overall I want to be in good overall condition for doing all sorts of activities (baseball, grabling, football, etc).... is this the best type of program?.. also... Which supplements are recommended with this type of working out...because i don't want to waste my money on things that will not help me...I am currently taking daily (multi,Vit D, B12, C, E, Fish Oil, Whey).. B4 workout (Jacked, Kre Alykallin) After (Kre Alykallin, Whey)... and then either ZMA or Casein at night....(sometimes I avoid ZMA, if I start getting weird dreams.....

Please help with this..

Posted on: Thu, 11/18/2010 - 18:51

Great Article. If you are just beginning though, how do you know what amount of weight to lift?

Ross Sonnier
Posted on: Tue, 11/09/2010 - 10:59

Great write up, Dustin. Awesome info.

Posted on: Tue, 11/09/2010 - 07:31

So if someone is trying to gain mass and size, a program like Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 would not be for that person? that person is better off doing another program?