Do strength training and cardio mix?

If Hamlet was a strength athlete he’d have said, ‘to cardio or not to cardio, that is the question’.

Aerobic training has long been thought to be detrimental to muscle growth, strength and power development. Scientists put forward the ‘interference phenomenon’. The theory suggests that when the body is faced with two opposing stimuli, it becomes confused and the body adapts poorly. It fails to reap the optimal benefits of either style of training and instead settles for a mediocre middle ground.

Research also unearthed that aerobic training had a deleterious effect on hormones. Muscle building hormones, like testosterone, are suppressed while stress hormone output, like cortisol, is increased.

Sports scientist, Charles Pfeiffer, went as far as saying that, “The consequence of aerobic exercise is too detrimental to be considered an effective training modality for anaerobic athletes; let alone a necessary one.”

Skewed data

But a closer look at the research and recent studies suggests that Pfeiffer and co are wrong.

The context of these past studies was not relevant to strength athletes. The investigations called for large amounts of cardio. It showed that the more cardio a person did the greater impact it had on their strength and size. But this like expecting to get strong while training for a marathon. It ain’t gonna happen.

Strength athletes should supplement their strength training with cardio. It should form a small part of their overall regime. The body adapts to the specific demands it is placed under. The principle has its own acronym – SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands). For the strength athlete, if she focuses on strength training with cardio sprinkled on top, there will be no negative effects but performance benefits.

The benefits

Aerobic training can create a larger window for strength and muscle gains. Early-stage research suggests that cardio increases the release of a derivative of testosterone.

You can expect improved body composition too. Studies show that concurrent training (aerobic plus weights) improves body composition. Resistance training increases metabolic rate and aerobic training suppresses hunger. In isolation, strength training and cardio result in less benefit.

A leaner body from concurrent training has its own advantages.

Hormonal changes

  • Insulin sensitivity improves so the body becomes better at storing carbs as muscle glycogen instead of fat.
  • The fat cell hormone, Leptin, becomes more effective. It plays a key role in energy regulation.
  • The muscle builder, Testosterone, increases.
  • The fat depositor, Oestrogen, decreases.

Aerobic training aids with recovery from a strength session too. It promotes blood flow to muscles without causing further harm. Nutrients are brought in to repair the damaged fibres and waste products are removed. Also, your heart health will improve.


The research and theory are supported by the success of athletes who combine strength training and cardio. There is no doubting the achievements of the Chinese weightlifters in recent years. They clean, snatch and squat. A lot. But their regime involves regular jogging and other aerobic-based exercises too.

Another example is the premier weightlifter, Ilya Ilyin. He follows a ten-month program. He begins by building a general foundation through swimming and rowing and no lifting. Then, his training becomes specific and culminates in the elimination of everything but the Olympic lifts and squats.

The plan

Strength training is your focus. Develop your program around your goals. That might mean a specific meet or lift.

When including aerobic training, follow these guidelines:

  • Keep the volume low – Three twenty sessions a week is your maximum.
  • Favour low intensity over high – You should be able to maintain a conversation with ease.
  • Favour low impact over high – Cycling, rowing and walking are good options. Limit running. It has been shown to have a negative impact. The eccentric part of the movement, that is needed to absorb shock, causes muscle damage that affects power and strength output.
  • Separate strength and cardio sessions. If you can’t have two different sessions, do your cardio after your strength training.
  • Consider your calories. Including aerobic training means your body spends more energy. Don’t make the mistake of letting your body fall into a calorie deficit – unless weight loss is your goal. Bump up your calorie intake to compensate for the increase in workload.




The Grapple

It took twenty-five years but I finally got around to trying a martial art: Kung Fu in rural China. The training was holistic; encompassing self-defence, mental strengthening and physical hardening.

I gravitated toward the grappling that formed part Chinese kickboxing – San Da. I felt better suited to this mode of fighting and preferred the rawness of getting into a clinch with my opponent.

The wrestling experience was limited though, so I signed up to a local wrestling club upon arriving home.


Registration day arrived and the community centre was nearly deserted. A middle-aged man sat at a small desk with papers sprawled in front of him. His thick muscular neck meant he was the man I was after.

As I neared the desk he lifted his head. He looked at me, squinting as if looking at the sun; a squint he would maintain no matter the lighting conditions.

‘You here for wrestling?’ he asked in an American accent annunciating ‘wrestling’ as ‘wrassling’.

I confirmed I was indeed there for wrassling.

As I filled out consent forms he explained we would be doing freestyle wrestling. His background as a collegiate wrestler meant he would also be teaching folk-style techniques.

Not wanting to admit my ignorance between the two styles, I nodded and went back to my forms. I worked quickly, aware that there was a small but growing line of registrees behind me.

But Coach was oblivious to my concerns.

He began to describe the curriculum in detail; his passion for wrestling was clear. I was in the right place.

A quirk of the man was the way he spoke then answered his own questions. ‘What’s the difference between freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling? I’ll tell you the difference,’ he said before explaining the fundamental difference was Greco-Roman doesn’t allow you to attack the legs.

Eventually, I had my receipt for a term of wrestling. As I left the centre, I realised my training partners looked like they had come straight from primary school.

This could be interesting.

Laying the groundwork

The first session was only a few days later and, as the hour neared, I became surprisingly nervous. What if I get hurt? What if I’m terrible?

But these doubts were soon quashed; the atmosphere was light and welcoming. Coach greeted me as I entered the room before returning to a wad of documents that lay before him.

Other wrestlers filtered into the room and my initial suspicions were confirmed – I was surrounded by primary school kids. As an avid Seinfeld fan, I was reminded of the episode when Kramer joined the local karate Dojo. Would I be throwing around 10-year-olds too?

Fortunately, two older and larger wrestlers arrived. I wouldn’t be suplexing any kids today.

The class was small and given it was the first term of the year, we’d start with the basics, Coach explained. We covered stances and how to move around the mat. Like a passenger walking down the aisle during turbulence, I felt unbalanced; repetition would be the key.

I’d need to stay low but not too low or my opponent would thrust my head down too easily. I’d need to be ready to attack but supple enough to react.

But there’s only so long you can spend on the basics. When you join a wrestling club, you join to wrestle.

Initial contact

I was shocked when the contact came. The YouTube videos made wrestling seem forgiving, and even graceful, as a clinch was formed.

When my opponent latched on, it left me stunned, like when you hit your head on the overhead baggage compartment; where did that come from?

We practised takedowns and I became intimately acquainted with the spongy mats we danced upon. Though my opponent was smaller than me, he was in control and this broke my assumption that strength is key.

The seasoned wrestler used technique and supreme positioning to out-wrestle me. Subtle shoves and nudges caught me off guard and I found myself on my back more often than I would have liked.

I moved like a man in quicksand while he manoeuvred around the mat like a snake – fluid and dangerous.

Fortunately, Coach’s whistle stopped proceedings. It was a good thing too – I was beginning to worry about the volume of sweat – mainly mine – that had begun to pool on the matting – it was becoming a genuine slipping hazard (and was also a little gross).

But training wasn’t over yet.

More to learn

It was during the final ten minutes that I learnt the most valuable lesson from Coach. The man was skilled wrestler; despite his girth, there was a lightness to his movements as he threw us around the mats during demonstrations.

But he was unexpectedly tolerant too. The younger wrestlers weren’t always well behaved and were occasionally disruptive though Coach managed them with ease. He was firm but fair and nudged them into line.

He also understood the importance of fun. The final part of training prioritised camaraderie and enjoyment while wrestling took a back seat.

Give it time

The term passed swiftly; I was still far from consolidating the basics. My main difficulty: finding someone to practice with outside of class. Repetition would have let my skills marinate.

My experience challenged my beliefs around wrestling. Strength is important but so too are flexibility, speed and technique.

The sport calls for aggression and desperation – you’ve got to want to take your opponent down more than they want to pin you.

You need to be a cunning and astute observer – where are the openings, what’s his weakness, how can I exploit his position?

And you can’t hesitate – you’re either in or you’re out – there’s no middle ground.

Wrestling, oddly, makes a good analogy for life.

GMB Rings One – Phase Four

There were no surprises with the final leg of GMB’s Rings One program; the two-week period was an extension of phase three.

The sessions were identical and offered an opportunity to practice the ‘Full Flow’ movement. As I was working on the easier iteration of the program, Level A, the movements weren’t quite seamless as the name would suggest. Instead, I did one movement – returned to the starting position – before moving on to the second. I suspect the transitions will be smoother with the Level B programming.

Phase four emphasises quality; the program call for three to five sets of the movement – and that’s it. Although the sessions didn’t leave me with the typical post-workout sensations, my body was unusually taxed. The full-body nature of the movements is demanding and remembering the purpose of the program as a whole – to build a skill – is important to keep in mind. It’s easy to get carried away and do additional work but abiding by the parameters – low volume and lots of rest – helps to foster good habits rather than faulty ones.

I’m content with my progress having completed the program. Although I’m not a fluid mover on the wooden apparatus, I’m more comfortable and adept and can foresee progress with continued application. And that’s the big lesson – getting good at rings (or anything for that matter) takes time.

The development of rings strength relies on a few key pillars:

  • Building rings-specific strength
  • Understanding the nuances of the rings like their dynamic and unstable nature
  • Developing confidence particularly with inverted movements
  • Learning to use technique and appropriate positioning over brute strength

The program has been enjoyable and I’ve looked forward to most sessions. While there are flaws in Rings One (that you can read about in previous posts), the GMB team has put together a solid introductory program for people new to rings-style training. I’m unable to comment on where it compares to similar programs, such as those offered by Gymnastic Bodies, but I’m happy with my purchase.

It’s time for a week off now to give my forearms, biceps and lats a breather. Maybe then I’ll look to tackle another program or perhaps Level B?

GMB Rings One – Phase Three


Phase three of the program shifts away from conventional movements, like dips and pull-ups, and toward combination movements that combine the basics. The theory – now that the conditioning has been built over the first nine weeks, it’s time to transition to the cool stuff.

The new moves aren’t quite full-blown – like a muscle-up – but an easier, assisted variation. Keep in mind that I’m following the ‘A’ level of the program; ‘B’ likely involves movements closer to the real thing.

The volume of the program is less compared to the previous phases. There are only two combination moves per session calling for three sets of three to five repetitions. This is logical given the increased complexity and the ‘combinations’ involve a…combination of movements.

The phase includes three sessions per week and is three weeks in length.

What did I like about phase three?

The muscle-up is a graceful and easy-looking movement – once you’ve got it. I don’t fall into the ‘got it’ category just yet. Fortunately, phase three give the user a chance to practice and practice the move with three out of the four combination including a version of the muscle-up.

Although I continued to jump into the exercise (as suggested, I promise) I noticed improvement by the end of the phase – the transition became more natural, for example.

What improvements could be made to phase three?

The reverse chin lay-back. The name alone makes me shudder. I found this exercise hugely challenging. So much so that I have a note on my printout that reads, ‘More of a controlled fall’.

I couldn’t get the hang of it. I had difficulty maintaining a straight arm position and staying horizontal and my form only worsened with fatigue. I think the purpose of the movement is to train the transition of the muscle-up in an exaggerated manner but it was hard and deflating too. GMB, is the an alternative or watered down version?

Furthermore, the program would benefit from supplementary exercises if a user is struggling with a particular movement like the L-Sit or the dreaded reverse chin lay-back. If the user wishes, she can carry out these exercises, at the end of the normal programming, to improve competency.

What have I learnt from the program

  • go back over the videos if you feel like you’re not quite getting the hang of a movement. reviewing the GMB videos or the plethora of other videos online, helped me to better understand exercises I wasnt doing correctly. looking at someone else performing a movement improved my own awareness of where my body was in space while the cues offered additional benefit

The forearms take a beating with rings training. I found myself with the beginnings of golfer’s elbow – soreness around the inner part of the elbow and surrounding muscles – that mainly results from lots of pulling movements. For me, this reiterated the need for a balanced training approach and including regular stretching and mobility as part of a plan.

I’ve been guilty of neglecting self-maintenance like this in the past but it’s self-defeating. Tightness leads to pain. Pain reduces power so you’re hindering your own performance by failing to stretch.

Another lesson – regularly review the exercise videos, particularly if you’re not quite getting the hang of the movement. Along with the GMB videos, there are plethora of other resources online that help to develop a better understanding of correct form, useful cues and suggestions. Also, the act of watching somone else do the movement correctly allows your own body to imitate the ideal postures weirdly enough.

Phase four is next and marks the end of rings one. Stay tuned.

Internal Chatter IV

I think of time off, like weekends, as sacred time. A time that is just for me. By not planning many engagements I’ll have more time to myself and the more ‘me time’ the better, right?

But maybe this isn’t so. The more I engage the more I am fulfilled. On the contrary, vacant slots of free time are indeterminate. The only thing that defines the start from the end is have-to-do’s like work.

The solution is not as simple as cramming free time with things to do. There must be a balance – alone time is valuable – and when I decide to engage in something I have to commit to it and see the innate value. And not just the value for me but the value for others. I’m not always going to get a pearl of wisdom when spending time with my grandmother though I’m told she feels a sense of pride when visited by her grandson. For me, that is value.