The other day I was working with one of my Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) clients and we got to talking about her exercise routine with the intention of making sure she was progressing her exercise within the tolerability of her newly restored muscle function. Within that conversation she mentioned she was recently just doing resistance training with the hopes of building muscle and refrained from cardio activity because she didn’t want to affect her muscle gains. She then informed me that she just started doing cardio intervals to get leaner now that she has shifted her focus from building muscle to getting lean. I asked her what she thought she would be getting from cardio as opposed from resistance training (which she told me she was doing a circuit-type resistance routine that elevated her heart rate quite a bit—where it required frequent recovery breaks) and, like so many people, looked at resistance training solely as a tool to build up her muscle (thus metabolism) and cardio was only to reduce body fat (and, in her mind, potentially lose some of the muscle she had gained recently but was willing to sacrifice the muscle for getting leaner).
Well, the reason I tell this story is because this conversation is pretty common. Most people think that cardio and resistance training are two entirely different animals with two totally different effects on the body. In some cases—depending on what you do—this could be true but I informed her it is important to not think of these two things as separate but just different ends of the same spectrum (I also brought this up briefly in a previous post). I told her to think about the two extremes of this spectrum—on one end you have long, slow, consistent-paced cardio (like jogging in your fat-burning zone) and on the other end you have heavy resistance training that most body builders use to build bulk (often doing one heavy set, taking a rest and then doing another set when the muscle has recovered). I shared with her that the long, slow cardio is still like resistance training in that it is lighter, faster resistance training. However, done at this end of the spectrum it can reduce lean muscle tissue as the body will learn how to adapt for efficiency. In this case, reducing muscle mass is an advantage to going long periods of time with this type of activity (just look at moth marathon runners—lean but no muscle mass)—less muscle, less energy expenditure = more efficiency.
I then talked about the two types of activities she was involved in—circuit training with resistance and interval cardio training. I explained that those two activities are closer together on the spectrum and have carry-over results. Resistance training in a circuit (the way she is doing it and so many exercisers do) elevates the heart rate enough to not only make this similar to an interval workout but it also stimulates the same survival mechanisms that cause your body to want to be lean and strong (the brain doesn’t distinguish between exercise stress like that and real-life stresses that cause your body to think it would be a better survivor if it was leaner and stronger). In this case, her resistance training is just slower cardio interval training. On the other hand, her cardio interval training (pushing herself for about 90 seconds and then recovering between workloads) required her muscles to work in a way that could make them gain muscle size (think of a soccer player who does sprints all game—most of their legs are very well formed), which would be one thing that would prevent her from losing any muscle mass and this activity would be considered faster, lighter resistance training (consider that in order to cause the body to “fail” at a desired time like 90 seconds the resistance would have to be high enough to cause fatigue).
The point here is that she wasn’t getting any leaner from her resistance training because she didn’t believe she would. She had the firm belief that she had to do this thing that she thought was totally different in order to earn those specific results. It’s not to say that by adding more work (intervals) she wouldn’t hit the fast-forward button on her results but she should have had some results from her activity levels in the gym. I then shared with her a study that was done by a Harvard researcher who took 84 hotel maids who considered themselves to be out of shape and believed they did not do anything during their daily activity that would be considered aiding in their health. She broke the maids up into two groups and took basic measurements of everyone (heart rate, blood pressure, circumference, body fat, etc.). One group she simply sent on their way (the control group—40 maids) and with the other group (44 maids), she informed each how much activity they did on a daily basis (doing maid duties like vacuuming, changing sheets and laundry) and how that affected their calorie expenditure and health (like exercise does). Armed with only that knowledge, they were sent back to work and monitored to make sure they did no additional activities. Four weeks later both groups were brought back in and measured again. The group that was told nothing had no real change but the group that was educated about their daily activities, which actually exceeded the surgeon general’s recommendation for a healthy lifestyle, all showed massive changes in their body weight, body fat and the other health benefits like reduction in blood pressure and resting heart rate. The only difference here, which was the point I was conveying to my client, was their belief about the benefits of their activities. Once they believed they would get results from something they were already doing, they got those results. My client was getting exactly what she thought she should be getting (or not getting) from her resistance activity.
The more you are educated with up-to-date information about your brain, neuro-chemistry, emotions, exercise, and how your body functions in general, the greater chance you can be more efficient with your activities to help you get to your desired body and health goals.