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Cardio Contingencies
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Santa brought me P90X2 for Christmas. I won’t actually dive in until next week after I’ve made the necessary additions to my home gym, but it seems as relevant a time as any to pick a bone with those leveling criticism at cardio workouts as being something that should be avoided. In a post entitled “Why the P90X exercise program is overrated”, Vin Miller writes:

Don’t Do the Plyometrics, Kenpo X, or Cardio X Workouts

When proper safety precautions are observed, plyometrics is a great way to improve performance and injury resistance. However, the P90X Plyometrics workout is more of a long calorie burning session than a true plyometrics workout. Along with Kenpo X and Cardio X, these workouts are very similar to aerobics, step, or spin bike classes which means that they’re relatively high in intensity and are a significant physiological burden that can easily wear down the body and require more time to recover from, especially when done on a regular basis.

It’s not that Vin Miller’s recommendation is necessarily incorrect, it’s just that it’s not universally applicable. Oddly, he earlier criticizes the program for focusing too much on glamor muscles and not enough on a “truly healthy and balanced lifestyle”, yet it is anaerobic work, not aerobic work, that gets the most conspicuous aesthetic results.

If the goal is to build upper body muscle mass, intense cardio is potentially counterproductive, especially when done in long intervals and/or high frequencies. But it’s crucial piece of overall conditioning for athletes, and not just for professionals. As a recreational athlete, pullups and pushups aren’t going to do me as much good when I’m playing soccer or ultimate frisbee as endurance work will do. Body builders suck at most team sports like basketball and 7-on-7 because all that mass is heavy and demands a lot of oxygen when exerted.

During plyo, Tony Horton states that the workout really helps him step up his game on the court, and it is undoubtedly true–plyometrics makes one a better basketball player.

Vin Miller suggests as an alternative to intense cardio going on a brisk walk or an easy bike ride and getting one’s heart rate up in the 55%-75% range. For general health, there probably aren’t any negative consequences in getting out there and doing what my 55 year-old mother does each morning, but it’s not going to do a thing to help an athlete (which I define here as anyone who pushes his physical capacities to their limits–in addition to playing sports, it also applies to those who figure skate, rock climb, etc). To realize real gains, an athlete needs to push into the 90% range.

(Republished from The Audacious Epigone by permission of author or representative)
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  1. The main charge I hear leveled at cardio workouts is that they are inconsistent with the body's intended purpose; in other words, there wasn't much point to long-term moderate-to-heavy exertion in recent evolutionary history. I don't know how much truth there is to this, but since I tend towards the ectomorphic side of things, I've been focusing on anaerobic and strength training workouts lately. My basketball playing ability hasn't suffered much and has possibly improved as a result.

  2. I forget which, but a governor of Colorado is famously quoted as saying that the old needed to die and get out of the way. I don't think he would approve of your exercise plans.

  3. Jokah,

    Had you been primarily doing cardio before? If a guy is only going to do one or the other, I'd recommend strength training. My point is that cardio has some role to play if the goal is to improve one's overall athleticism.


    Former governor Richard Lamm. Because my plans will send me to an early grave, or because they'll help the elderly live longer? Heh, I think I know the answer.

  4. Anecdote warning: All friends or family members who criticize P90x are people who would make it maybe 10 mins into the first workout. P90x is not for me, but the results of all who I have seen try it are undeniable.

    I'm a 3-4x weights a week with some minor cardio sprinkled in for my heart guy. I can't buy into the cardio cardio cardio madness that many of my friends are slaves to.

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