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NIFS Healthy Living Blog

Cardiorespiratory Fitness: Increase Your Strength and Endurance

GettyImages-671140578“Cardio day” are maybe the most dreaded words for a gym-goer. Or maybe you’re a cardio junkie and love nothing more than knowing it’s on the exercise menu for the day. In any case, most seem to have a love/hate relationship with cardio. We know we need it, but it can be a long and arduous task.

What the heck does it even mean, anyway? You hear about high-intensity cardio and low-intensity cardio, but surely one has more benefit than the other, right? Well, as always, it depends. Cardio is really just a fitness buzzword that’s been tossed around so much that it seems to have lost its definition (probably around the same time the Thighmaster started to fizzle).

What Is Cardiorespiratory Fitness?

According to Wikipedia, cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to skeletal muscles during sustained physical activity. Blah, blah, technical jargon, blah, blah. Basically, it’s how well your heart and lungs can work together to pump blood, oxygen, and nutrients to exercising muscles. Again, it still doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but we’re getting somewhere.

Look at that simplified statement again and you’ll notice three key words: heart, lungs, and exercising muscle. (Okay, that’s four words, but you get the idea.) To simplify the discussion, I’ll focus primarily on aerobic adaptations, meaning improvements in the ability to use oxygen to produce energy, which are very different from anaerobic adaptations.

That being said, the primary aerobic improvements we’ll assume are the following:

  • We can help the heart and blood vessels improve their abilities to pump blood throughout the body.
  • We can improve the ability of the lungs to take in oxygen and put it in the blood.
  • Lastly, and this is often overlooked, we can train the muscles to become more efficient in using the oxygen from the blood.

Great, so how do we do this?

Global Improvements vs. Local Improvements

Before we answer that, it’s helpful to make a distinction between the two types of improvements we’re chasing: global (or systemic) and local (or specific). The first two areas (heart/blood vessels and lungs) are considered to be global changes, while improvements within the exercising muscle are the local changes.

Car analogies are helpful here (even if you’re like me and know diddly about cars). You might think about the global changes as being similar to putting in a bigger gas tank or a better air intake, while local changes might be similar to adding lighter wheels and tires. One is making a change to the engine, or system, while the other is making a change to a specific part to enhance the efficiency of the system already in place.

How to Train for Cardio and Respiratory Fitness

Now, back to what we can do to make these changes in your body.

Cardio

Let’s start with your gas tank, err, I mean your cardiovascular system. Your heart can either be trained to fill up with more blood, or it can be trained to contract more forcefully with each beat. But you can’t do both at the same time. Depending on your training style, your heart will change in different ways. This is vastly oversimplified, but training more aerobically (think endurance athletes) will adapt your heart to fill with more blood, making it “stretchier.” Training anaerobically, on the other hand, will cause an adaptation to your heart, making it thicker and stronger with each beat. Again, this is not absolute, but different training styles trigger different hormonal responses in the body. Without guidance for your training styles, some of those hormones might compete with each other. Therefore, instead of training to become really good at one thing, you might be training to become extremely average at both. Now, for competitive athletes who need aspects of both endurance and strength/power, timing becomes invaluable, and I’ll refer to the great mind of Joel Jamieson on that front.

Respiratory

As for the second part, several different improvements can happen in regard to your lungs, or respiratory system. Let’s focus on the more basic adaptations. First, your lungs will improve in their ability to fill up with more air, similar to the change in the heart we discussed earlier. This is partially due to the strengthening of the respiratory muscles. However, how the ribcage moves (or doesn’t move) during respiration becomes increasingly important so that you don’t reinforce inappropriate breathing muscles. This is a topic for another blog post, but if you’re really curious, check out this in-depth intro to the mechanics of your ribcage during respiration for now.

The other major improvement in your respiratory system I’ll discuss is on a much smaller, even microscopic scale. The way we get oxygen through our lungs is through tiny little sacs, just like the one in the picture here. Each sac is covered in a net of tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which is where the oxygen enters the bloodstream. With proper training this net becomes more dense, which allows more oxygen to enter the blood with each breath. More oxygen means more energy, just like more air into an engine means more power!

Muscular

Lastly, we can make changes in specific muscles if we so desire. It makes sense that a runner would want to train the legs specifically, just as a baseball pitcher trains his arm. One improvement is very similar to the change in the lungs: capillary density. Your muscles have those capillary nets just like your lungs do, and aerobic activity in a particular muscle group triggers more capillaries to form in those areas. Ergo, we get more blood and nutrients to the exercising muscle.

Another major change we see within the muscle is that muscle cell’s ability to actually use the nutrients it’s receiving. So, you have to both get the energy source to the muscle and make sure your muscles are using every possible molecule that they can to generate energy for your training. This happens in a number of ways, such as increasing the size of the muscle cell, increasing the amount of energy-producing mitochondria within the cell, and increased levels of the enzymes responsible for aerobic energy production.

Get Aerobic Improvements, Then Endurance, and Never Get Bored

Of course, the type of training you are doing heavily influences the adaptation you will be stimulating, but for aerobic improvements, these are some of the general mechanisms of those changes. Because the majority of people associate the term “cardio” with high levels of endurance, my assumption is typically that when somebody says, “I need cardio,” what they really mean is, “I get tired really fast during my workouts.” Therefore, it is almost always my priority to place an emphasis on chasing aerobic improvements initially.

After you’ve established a solid aerobic capacity, you can really start to push harder for longer periods if you so desire or require. Remember, your body is smart, but it’s virtually pointless to be training for two completely different goals at one time, only to make crawling progress in each. Instead, if you time your training accordingly, you can consistently make the improvements you desire, and never get bored in your training!

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This blog was written by Tony Maloney, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and Fitness Center Manager. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: cardio workouts endurance strength strength training aerobic strength and conditioning cardiorespiratory

Powerful Student Athlete Summer Strength and Conditioning Alternatives

Student athletes are home for their summer vacations. Some may spend a few weeks there and head right back to campus, while others might not return until the beginning of the school year in August. With them, they bring all of their necessities (furniture, clothes, etc.) from their dorms or apartments back to their homes, with the most important necessity to these athletes being their summer workout manual. This will be their strength training and conditioning guide for potentially the next 3–4 months. Simply put, these documents are critical for preparing their bodies for the upcoming season.

For me, getting the strength and conditioning manual from our coaches for the summer was always pretty exciting. Training was always something that I looked forward to doing (minus the 110-yard sprints for our conditioning test). I knew that as soon as we got back to campus, football season was only a few weeks away, so this was going to be really important.

What Happens if You Don’t Have the Right Equipment Back Home?

The biggest challenge that I faced during the summer months wasn’t necessarily due to the workouts themselves, but finding alternatives to exercises that were in our packets that fit with the type of equipment that I had access to. There were not a ton of training facilities in my hometown, and none of them had areas to do any type of Olympic lifting. They were more of the commercial-style gyms which would have only the basics (dumbbells, fixed bench-press racks, Smith machine, etc.). So training for any type of power or speed-strength with resistance was going to be a challenge. Luckily, I was a young Exercise Science major who saw this as a challenge and a way to learn and adapt to a less-than-ideal training environment.

A similar situation came about a few weeks back when I distributed the summer workout packets to all of my teams. One of my athletes contacted me and explained to me essentially the same situation that I was in from 2007 to 2011. She has access to a gym, but the facility does not have an area to do Olympic lifts, which are a staple in her team’s programming. Luckily, I understand much more now than I did back in my undergraduate years, which makes developing these alternatives easier.

Four Lifts and Their Alternative Exercises

Below you will find four common explosive lifts followed by an alternative weight-lifting exercise and a few tips on how to do them.

Snatch: Single-Arm Dumbbell Snatch

  • Dumbbell starts in front of your body with wrist facing outward.
  • Hinge forward at the hips to lower the dumbbell toward the floor.
  • Drive through the floor with your feet and jump straight up while simultaneously pulling the weight upward with a high elbow then punching it toward the ceiling.
  • Sink underneath the weight and control the catch.
MVI_8960

 

Clean: Dumbbell Clean

    • Start with two dumbbells outside hip-width with wrists facing outward.
    • Hinge forward at the hips to lower the dumbbells toward the floor.
    • Drive through the floor with your feet and jump while pulling the weight upward.
    • Snap the elbows underneath the weight.
    • The dumbbells should rest on your shoulders with elbows high upon completion.
MVI_8964

 

Jerk: Landmine Jerk

    • Start with a bar placed in a landmine attachment or supported by a corner wall with weight plates.
    • Start with feet parallel and bar close to the shoulder that you are pressing with.
    • Dip your hips slightly and jump up.
    • Split your feet so that the front foot is opposite the arm that you are pressing with and punch the weight upward.
    • Stick the landing.
landmine jerk

 

Box Jump: Landmine Squat Jump

  • Start with the bar placed in a landmine attachment or supported by a corner wall with weight plates.
  • Start with feet at hip width with the end of the bar slightly out in front of your body.
  • Squat and drive through the floor.
  • Jump as high as possible.
Landmine Squat Jump

 

These four variations on four common power exercises will give you some flexibility if the space you have to train in is tight or if equipment is limited. They could also serve as an alternative for some of you who are looking to switch up your program for a few weeks without completely straying from these exercises. As with many of the Olympic lifts, repetitions should be kept relatively low so that you can focus on being as explosive as possible. Have fun and get after it!

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This blog was written by Alex Soller, Athletic Performance Coach and NIFS Trainer. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: NIFS fitness center equipment summer weight lifting student athletes strength and conditioning