LRFotS Kapios has been getting back into the Church of the Iron God, after a long absence, and sent over a rather interesting set of questions about whether something called “cardio” is actually useful as a warm-up. Specifically, Kapios wants to achieve greater balance and strength, and reduce muscular tightness and imbalances that have arisen over the recent past.
Here is his full query:
Hey Didact, I recently started going to the gym again after quitting for so long. I’m the type of person who doesn’t have freak genes, but I can lose weight and add muscle faster than most people I know.
Regardless of that, my body is tight and I’m out of balance even though I’m getting my old strength back a lot faster than I anticipated.
I asked the gym owner to put me on a program so I can get a proper balance and strength and he told me to start with cardio as a warm up always and when I told him that I find cardio boring as hell, he explained to me that the heart pumps blood into the body faster, sort of like lubricating a machine (standard reply I guess).
Here lies my question, is it actually worth doing cardio as a warm up? In the past I would go straight to the iron and just do less weight. I felt like my heart was beating like a Viking war drum and I never had any injury.
Only some of that morning soreness that goes way with cold shower and some cayenne cream.
I didn’t reply back to the owner, but I’m still wondering what cardio is useful for aside from endurance. I think stretching, balancing and lifting iron should cover most of the needs of a man these days.
Maybe as a starter, cardio might be good, but I never see experienced lifters go anywhere near the treadmill.
My short answer is:
Cardio is only good for losing gains.
How to Warm Up for Lifting Heavy Shit
The gym owner quoted above DOES make a good point about how getting the blood moving throughout the body is important to limber and loosen up your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments. I will never argue that you should approach a bar or dumbbell “cold”, i.e. without doing some sort of stretching and warm-up exercise.
The importance of a proper warm-up before lifting increases rapidly with age. I have been powerlifting for nearly 11 years, and I have found that the better my warm-ups are, the better my overall lifting days are. There are different ways to warm up that activate different muscle groups, depending on what your lifts are for that particular day.
The Didact’s Fitness Routine
Here is what my typical fitness routine looks like these days over the course of a week:
- Monday: Power cleans and barbell rows
- Tuesday: Kickboxing and/or Krav Maga
- Wednesday: Rest day
- Thursday: Leg day – 10 sets of squats, 5 sets of deadlifts
- Friday: Chest day – 13 sets of bench presses, plus chin-ups
- Saturday: Rest day OR 5x 5min rounds of kickboxing against a heavy bag
- Sunday: Max squat/deadlift day
I’m not saying that this is an ideal routine. It is just a routine that I, personally, enjoy, and which keeps me strong, tough, and healthy. Not everyone has the time, motivation, or energy to spend 5-6 days in the gym or on the practice mat. I should also note that, since I no longer am in the USSA and therefore cannot attend my old Krav Maga school, this fitness routine is actually LESS taxing than the one that I used to do when I was there.
It goes without saying that, every time I exercise, I do warm-ups. Here’s what I do.
Before we talk about what you do IN the gym, let’s talk about what you must do OUT of the gym as well. This is important, it can save you tremendous pain and misery later.
The single most important part of your body to keep healthy and loose is actually your lower back. As someone who has endured multiple lower back injuries over the past 11 years, I can assure you that NOTHING will destroy your gains and your confidence faster than a lumbar spinal issue.
I injured my back particularly badly in the summer of 2019, which was a year in which I had 4 back blowouts in one calendar year – that had never happened before. Clearly, my body was sending me some urgent signals, and I needed to pay attention. So I did some research and checked out what Jeff Cavaliere from ATHLEAN-X recommends for dealing with lower back pain.
Here are two videos that provide a clear set of simple exercises that EVERYONE should do, every single day:
So here is what I do, every morning. This might seem a little disjointed at first, because I refer to two different videos at different segments in each one, but trust me, there is a logic to it:
- 60sec “relaxed hang” from a chin-up bar to stretch out my spine;
- Fixing the “spinal list” by pushing my hip into the wall (Step Two in the first video above) – 10x each side for 3sec each rep
- Further fixing of “spinal list” using the standing exercise in the second video (starts at about the 6:15 mark) – 10x each side for 3sec each rep
- “Bridging” exercises on a yoga mat – similar to how wrestlers and BJJ players warm up, see this video for details, I add a “reach” over my shoulder to increase the range and flexibility
- Loosening up the glute medialis tightness using the lying-down exercise in the second video (starts at the 3:30 mark)
- Back hyperextensions lying on the ground (this is Step Three in Jeff’s first video above, starting at about the 5:40 mark, I 3 sets of 15 seconds each)
That’s what I do every single morning, and it has kept my back strong and relatively pain-free – though I do feel soreness after squats and deadlifts.
Take special note of steps 1 and 6 in the list above. I do the same things, every day, when I am in the gym, no matter WHAT exercise I am doing. I simply reduce the “hang” to 30 seconds instead of 60, and I do 3 sets of 10 seconds each of what is essentially a “cobra pose” in yoga terms.
Now let’s get to the actual warm-up routines that I use for lifting days.
After doing the truncated stretching exercises that I mentioned above, I then do some stretches and mobility work before I start on squats. This comes to:
- 10 standing leg rotations, swinging my left knee counterclockwise and my right knee clockwise, on one foot, to activate hip and groin flexors
- 10 side kicks, each side, to warm up the muscles in the legs and lower back
- Foam rolling using a RumbleRoller on my groin, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, lower and upper back – it looks like a medieval torture device, but it works REALLY well
- Goblet squats using 8, 12, 16, and 20Kg kettlebells, 5 reps of each weight, to activate the hamstrings and abdominal stabilisers for heavy squatting later
If you don’t know what a goblet squat looks like, this is it:
It’s just a front squat using a dumbbell or kettlebell – I prefer the latter simply for convenience and form factor.
Then it’s off to the squat rack to begin my warm-up sets. I start with 40Kg squats and try to work on form and precision, not speed. I do a set of 5 at 40Kg, then 5 at 60Kg, and then 5 at 80Kg. My work sets start at 100Kg.
These days, I do only pause squats – that is to say, I get all the way deep down in the hole, pause for at least 1-2sec, and then power back up. This ensures that I am focusing on form and stabilisation, not on raw speed or power. I have found that this has helped tremendously in making sure that I don’t make a mess out of the descent, as my back seems to be much more sensitive to squat-related injuries than deadlift-related ones now.
For anything other than squats and deadlifts, I don’t do any complicated or lengthy warm-up routines. I only do back stretches and maybe a bit of upper body stretching sometimes, but nothing elaborate.
Once again, the back-stretches are NON-NEGOTIABLE. You have to do them to keep your back stable and healthy. I stretch my back twice a day, even on rest days (well, when I remember to, that is), and it makes a world of difference.
I also recommend walking and standing whenever you can. I make sure that I get my ass out the door every day, regardless of the weather, for a walk of some kind, and most days I try to walk for at least an hour if possible. This has numerous benefits for both body and mind, and I find that, after a long walk and a bit of a rest (plus a homemade latte), I’m in a much better frame of mind for the gym.
Everyone Hates Cardio
Now that we’ve dealt with the best ways to warm up, let’s talk about why cardio is not useful for real gains.
The fundamental issue here is that cardio and powerlifting are two very different forms of exercise. Cardio is aerobic – it is designed to tax your cardiovascular system over a prolonged period. Such forms of exercise are excellent for developing lean bodymass, but does not emphasise explosive power in short bursts. Powerlifting and most forms of weightlifting (except CrossShit – and YOU MUST NOT DO CROSSSHIT, EVER) are anaerobic – designed to push your cardiovascular system in short bursts.
Cardio is indeed good for developing endurance, and weightlifting is indeed good for explosive power. If you do cardio, you are stressing your body in a very different way from the manner in which weightlifting stresses it. The two don’t really have much overlap and will yield very different results, by definition.
Here’s the interesting thing, though:
When you lift weights, especially if you do powerlifting, your cardiovascular system becomes STRONGER. And you can, in fact, handle the requirements of cardio much better.
Do not mistake me here. If you spend your days squatting 300lbs for reps, then you are not going to be able to run a mile in under 4 minutes as a direct result. That is simply NOT going to happen. But you will become much fitter and more able to handle significant stresses on your system, through weightlifting.
From the perspective of long-term health, chronic cardio is very, very bad for you. The science is pretty definitive on this subject – this is why marathon runners have a disturbing tendency to drop dead at a relatively early age. Lots of running, even if only on a treadmill, damages your joints, heart, and arteries, due to the inflammation that it causes throughout your body.
How to Kick Cardio’s Ass
That being said – there is room in every man’s schedule for short, sharp bursts of extremely high-intensity cardio. Scientifically speaking, this yields BETTER fitness results than pure weightlifting OR pure cardio.
How do you go about getting this benefit? There are two methods that I recommend.
In my case, I truly loathe cardio. I simply have no patience for going out running or swimming or cycling, just for the sake of exercise. The very thought bores me rigid. Instead, I would much rather go to the gym and smash my fists, elbows, knees, and shins into a heavy bag for 25 minutes.
For anyone who has never done this, understand that nothing will tire you out faster than trying to fight. Even marathon runners have a VERY limited gas tank when fighting at high intensity. Working on a heavy bag is a good way to mimic a real fight, though not nearly as tiring, since:
If you don’t know how to punch or kick, and/or you don’t have access to a heavy bag, then DO NOT run out and sign up for your nearest CKO Kickboxing class, or whatever – they don’t teach you how to throw real punches and kicks, and you will almost surely end up really hurting yourself if you are not careful. Instead, FIRST learn how to throw real strikes, THEN learn how to use a heavy bag.
This takes time and effort. A much simpler and easier method to get the benefits of high-intensity explosive cardio over short bursts is the Tabata method. This essentially comes down to doing an aerobic exercise absolutely flat-out for 30 seconds, resting for 10 seconds, then going flat-out for 30 seconds, then resting for 10 seconds, for a total of 4 minutes.
This does not sound hard. Try it once, and you will realise just how hard it is. These are called “Come to Jesus” exercises for a REASON – because you feel like you’re dying by about the second minute. But they develop explosive speed faster than almost anything else.
Conclusion – Warm Up Without Cardio
In my personal view – and it is not much more than that – cardio is a great way to destroy your gains. Weightlifting operates on a very different set of principles than cardio does. Each approach to exercise results in different stresses on the body. Weightlifting builds muscle in short explosive bursts and keeps it healthy – cardio tears down that muscle by stressing it over long periods.
There are plenty of people who like doing cardio, and that is entirely up to them – may God bless them in all of their variety. If that works for them, then, great. But, for iron addicts like me, cardio is mind-numbingly boring and tedious, and I strongly prefer to spend my time in the gym for a very specific purpose, aiming for specific targets.
If you want to get the benefits of cardio – and there ARE benefits, to be sure – then use Tabata sprints, or hit a heavy bag.
The results that you will get from keeping things simple, straightforward, and streamlined, are profound. I recently started up Krav Maga training again, and although I hadn’t done a proper martial arts warm-up in years, I had absolutely no trouble keeping up with kids literally HALF my age, simply because all of my years of lifting heavy things and hitting hard things have created a strong and resilient body. Yeah, the running and jumping jacks and push-ups and crunches and burpees at the beginning of those workouts are all annoying, but they don’t cause someone like me very many problems.
By contrast, when I see people around me gasping for air after just five minutes of cardio warm-ups, and unable to throw proper punches or kicks after a few rounds on the pads, I know that they don’t have the real resilience necessary to train for a fight. And that is because almost none of them actually lift things, so are not trained to deliver explosive power in short bursts.
So, is cardio good for anything? Yes, it is, but only in very specific applications that supplement a weightlifting programme. You don’t need it for a warm-up. If you follow the kind of warm-up that I do before leg day, that will be PLENTY to keep you limber and loose. The rest is just an exercise in, well, exercising, and nothing more.
If you’re going to do “cardio” as a warm-up, hop on a stationary bike, lowest setting possible, for max two minutes. It will limber up the legs just enough and get some blood pumping, but well before you get tired. That’s the problem, most people do cardio until they’re somewhat out of breath, then try to lift. You’ve worn yourself out before you get started. Rookie move. I agree with Didact, stretching is the most important thing. That brings blood to the muscles, too.
The best cardio you can do is to walk. Listen to music, pray, or get some phone calls in. But make sure you’re walking almost every day.
Words to live by, my friend. Words to live by.
Martial arts training is great cardio. We have a long distance runner who joined at the BJJ gym. Even with his cardio from running it was a good month of training before he had his endurance up for a minutes roll without running out of gas. I know the feeling, 6 minutes on the mat is taxing.
Not every gym or martial art style will do that. There’s a Tae Kwon Do instructor joining us now who has a great attitude and really brings a lot of joy to the floor. Here in his first month I managed a submission just through exhaustion in 3 minutes, where the cardio tax ended the ‘fight’.
Do you do this back stretching EVERY DAY or like 4x a week?
Every single morning. It helps my back immensely. I suffer from both genetic and self-inflicted issues with my spine – I have scoliosis, almost certainly inherited from Granpappy Didact, and every one of my lumbar spinal discs bulges out. So those exercises help considerably in keeping everything healthy and stretched out.