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Resistance Trumps Cardio Workouts At First

A common mistake I see being made all the time is individuals starting out an exercise program “backwards” by putting cardio workouts first before ever doing resistance training. This is especially true for overweight individuals because there’s a common misconception that cardio is “better” than resistance training for weight loss.

The Weight Training/ Cardio Myth
People often think that weight training is for “bulking up” and cardio is for trimming down. It’s this faulty belief system that often leads overweight people to getting injured from repetitive cardio routines when first starting out. The problem is often joint injuries (hips, knees, ankles) due to the repetition of movement patterns and impact caused by most cardio activities. Typically the overweight person has so little “structural integrity” that starting a workout program even as little as 3 x week with just cardio quickly leads to problems. Let me explain…

The joints of a previously sedentary individual are not conditioned to handle the impact that cardio activities often bring with them. There are also typically issues with muscle imbalances that can affect movement patterns. This is what I’m referring to when I speak of a lack of “structural integrity.” Think about it this way…when you have a wheel out of alignment on your car it changes everything about how your car handles and steers. If left out of alignment the tire will wear unevenly and eventually blow out. Your car’s steering system was designed to function with everything running true or in proper alignment. Your body is no different. When a person is sedentary (sits too much) or has just not completed physical activity with regularity they develop muscle imbalances. This is just where certain muscles get weak and inhibited (due to not being used) and others get short/tight.

Cardio frequently causes injuries when a person’s kinetic chain is “out of alignment” What happens is this throws off the “alignment” of your gait (how you walk or run). Depending on the muscle imbalances your legs might be slightly turned in or out. I’ll spare you all the details but just understand that your body works in one big series of connections and everything works together. If there’s a change at your hips for example, it will impact your knees and possibly your ankles. No one joint used in locomotion (walking, running, etc) works independently of other joints. Everything is tied in together. 50-90% injury rate in the first six weeks of training Research (Jones et al., Sports Med. 18(3): 202-214, 1994) has shown that the intensity required by the average sedentary person trying to improve their cardiovascular system will likely create an excessive structural overload – in fact in this study there was a 50-90% injury rate in the initial six weeks of training.

A typical scenario…. An overweight person decides they “need to do something” and he/she makes a commitment to start exercising. Since cardio is the perceived exercise of choice for weight loss, they start jogging, spinning, using a stair-climber, etc several days a week in hopes of burning fat. They’ve neglected to address the “structural integrity” of their lower body which is more than likely compromised with muscle imbalances and joint weakness due to previous inactivity. So they go about their cardio routines “out of alignment” and find that only after a couple weeks or less they have significant joint pain in their hips, knees, ankles or combination of all three. The pain quickly becomes an issue along with inflammation which eventually requires them to stop doing the activity altogether in order for recovery to occur. So now he/she is at a point only a few weeks into their exercise program (if that long) where they now have to quit completely and are back to square one.

So what is the best strategy? There’s a very good reason we dedicate almost the entire first workout with my Charleston personal training programs to a kinetic chain assessment and movement analysis. It’s simply that important to have an understanding of what if any imbalances need to be corrected for proper movement patterns and function of the body. Even if you’re going to workout at home or in a health club, I strongly recommend you consider meeting with a trained fitness professional that is knowledgeable in kinesiology. He/she can help identify any muscle imbalances and/or postural deviations you may have and offer specific exercise prescription for correction.

Correct muscle imbalances, stabilize joints, and develop structural integrity first! Then once you have a plan in place you can go about your exercise routines. Whenever I’m designing a training program for someone who needs to lose weight my first objective is developing that “structural integrity” I’ve been talking about. This will be accomplished by doing resistance training (using bodyweight, band, and medicine ball exercises first, followed by free weight exercises second) in part of a 3 x per week workout routine. The resistance workouts will be 20-30 minutes in duration and be followed by low-intensity aerobic exercise (preferably walking) for 15-20 minutes. We’ll progress the walking up to 30 minutes as conditioning improves but… We’re NOT progressing to higher intensity/impact cardio routines until the person has develop joint stability and structural integrity of the entire kinetic chain. The person can also complete walking for their low-intensity aerobic work on days between workouts for 15-30 minutes. The whole idea being that we’re going to hold off on the higher intensity and higher impact cardio routines until the person has gotten stronger through resistance training.

Additonal benefits of doing resistance training first over cardio in a weight loss program… Numerous research studies have shown that weight training has a more significant boost on post-workout metabolism than low intensity cardio. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2002 Mar; 86(5):411-7) showed that weight training caused a significant increase in metabolism for up to 38 hours post-workout. Another study by Medical Science Sports Exercise Journal (Vol. 31, No. 9, pp. 1320-1329, 1999) was done on fat loss comparing the following:

  • Diet only
  • Diet and cardio
  • Diet plus cardio plus resistance training

Guess which group lost the most fat? You guessed it, the group that combined diet changes with cardio and resistance training. In fact, the cardio group only lost one more pound of fat than the diet only group. The best study I have found in my research was in published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition(1999 Apr; 18(2):115-21). This study directly compared resistance only to cardio only. The cardio group did 4 hours of low intensity cardio a week. The resistance group did 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps a exercise for 10 exercises, 3 times a week. Both groups were on an 800 calorie deficit. Both lost fat, but the weight training group lost more fat but unlike the cardio group, they also maintained all their lean muscle.

This is extremely important! Since fat loss is regulated by hormonal balances in your body and the amount of lean muscle you have, it’s imperative that your exercise strategy include the development of metabolically active lean muscle (not the wasting of muscle). Unfortunately, the muscle wasting or “sparing” is often what occurs when people start doing lots of cardio on calorie restrictive diets. It’s a very counterproductive strategy that simply lowers metabolism and alters the hormonal balances to keep the individual literally stuck in a “fat storing” state.

If you’re overweight and just starting out with exercise, you’d be well advised to start with an assessment by a trained professional first, then start on a program that includes resistance training, walking, and changes in your diet. Simply look to replace processed and refined foods from your diet with natural foods (primal blueprint) diet strategy and follow the 80/20 rule. That’s 80% or more of your diet coming from natural food/drink and 20% or less coming from unnatural food or drink that’s been processed in any way. If you follow this strategy you’ll see much better results not to mention lessen the risk of injuries. Train hard, eat primal, and live strong!

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal training programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.