When You Want Strength But Love Cardio

Image: brett lohmeyer

In this letter, you jokingly (I think) say that people who like to run are “crazy and cannot be reasoned with.” The thing is, though, I am one of those people — I like running and swimming, completed Insanity last winter, sometimes do Zumba, sometimes do HIIT routines on the treadmill, and am hoping to do my first triathlon next year. What I do NOT like is lifting. I get bored, and the weight area at the gym is always so crowded that it stresses me out. The only way that I’ve found I can enjoy lifting is in Bodypump class, which I occasionally go to.

I do know, though, that I need to do strength training in order to burn fat. If I gain muscle, well, that’s a bonus, I guess, but it’s not my primary goal. And while I know I’ll gain the ability to lift more weight if I do it frequently, lifting a larger amount of weight is never going to bring me the kind of satisfaction I got from, say, breaking two hours on my half-marathon time. So my question is: what is your recommendation for a reluctant lifter who wants to lower her body fat percentage and continue doing cardio? — Katie

I have a recommendation, and you’re not going to like it, but this goes out to all the cardio people out there. Here is the thing: you can’t make significant progress at anything if you don’t do it enough, or if you are trying to succeed at multiple goals at once. You can’t train for a half-marathon and a powerlifting meet at the same time, not, at least, if you don’t want to either a) die or b) perform in the race or meet more or less exactly as you could before you even started trying to train. Your body and your life, through stress and the foods you eat and the rest you get, provides you only limited resources, and you have to use them wisely.

A typical recommendation for runners is to strength-train twice a week for 30–45 minutes. If you want this, I’d suggest doing something like a beginner program like Stronglifts or Starting Strength, but rather than alternating two workouts three days a week, just do each workout one day a week for two days total. (I’d suggest doing something like this except it seems so unnecessarily complicated? Lifting does not have to be like this, which I will get to in a minute.) Your progress will be pretty slow, and possibly non-existent, so long as you continue to do a lot of cardio and don’t afford yourself either adequate time to lift or adequate time to rest and recover from those lifts. It may just spin your wheels and amount to more “exercise” without getting to the realm of “training,” which is what will build your muscles and strength.

That said, I understand you like cardio; I too once liked it, was obsessed with it. I ran four half-marathons one year, three in under two hours. By the time I was about five years into running, I had managed to successfully contract Stockholm Syndrome — I “liked” it and started to do it more and more, until a couple years later I stopped because I realized it was not getting me where I wanted. Maybe that is not the case for you, but I say to you very gently: consider that it might be. We close ourselves off from a lot of things and glom onto others for reasons that are well beyond our control. There is a lot of cultural forcing around what women “should” or “can” or “cannot” do with regard to their bodies and food, and it’s impossible to exist in the world without internalizing it. I subscribed to a lot of it then without realizing — I went to an all-girls high school, for God’s sake — and even still, every day I realize more insidious things that I think for no reason other than they’re pervasively repeated by everyone and I didn’t have enough experience or time to question them. We are each only one person and have to get through life somehow with the best information we can get; it just turns out that some of that information is bad.

I too once thought lifting was boring. But I also thought lifting, for women, entailed doing only light weights for three sets of 20+ reps. And I still hate that kind of lifting, but it’s a very different lifting from what I do. I’d go so far as to call that lifting “not lifting”; many who lift refer to this as “cardio.” I never even dreamed of lifting heavy.

I never lift in that rep range anymore, because it’s boring but also because it does not yield the same strength results as lifting heavy for a few reps (please someone get me started on why this study is bad). You didn’t specify what you’re doing, but I’d go to far as to say, if you find lifting boring, you may not be doing it right. The core of a good lifting program involves lifting enough weight that you are pretty spent between sets, and it takes all of your focus just to move the weight. You shouldn’t be bouncing your way through 40 bodyweight squats while your mind is elsewhere; you should be tensing your entire body to push through 5 heavily weighted squats. It should take all of your concentration, and if it doesn’t, the weight isn’t heavy enough.

Lifting weights, done correctly, also involves a lot of resting, usually at least a minute between sets. This means you spend 50–90 percent of the time playing around on your phone! Everyone’s favorite activity! In lifting as in life, you do your best work focusing really hard in bursts and completely relaxing the rest. I hope you are not one of those people who is like “I like cardio because you are moving the whole time and I don’t feel like I’m burning calories otherwise!” This is like the people who are always at the office and they are SO BUSY and they’re always moving around and rushing from place to place but when you look at their computer screen they are like, copying a row of Excel cells one at a time from one sheet to another.

If your sense of Accomplished is inextricable from your sense of Busy, you need to untangle them, right now. There is good evidence that burning calories is an overall poor way of thinking about exercise, anyway, because effort matters so much and your body really knows how to slog through your attempts at movement once it feels spent (I recently confirmed with a source that the calories-burned estimators on machines are a complete joke, if you didn’t already guess). Like “losing weight,” it’s a compromised and incomplete method of fitness we’ve leaned on so hard we’ve lost perspective, and it’s a big reason why “cardio” is so popular. It feels easily measurable. In reality, it’s not so simple. What matters is building muscle mass and keeping it. (This stuff can be measured too, but beginners don’t need to worry about it so much.)

All this said, I’d push you to go a step further: make a slightly late New Year’s resolution to try scaling back your cardio to one or two days a week, and try a three-day-a week lifting program for, let’s say, twelve weeks. Just three days! Just twelve weeks! You honestly likely won’t even build much muscle in that time, it will mostly be adaptation of your central nervous system. But “muscle” is not the same as “strength” — you will get stronger, and it won’t take as much to maintain that strength, and you won’t be spinning your wheels as much if you continue lifting after that. It will also give you enough time to really get comfortable with it to decide if you like it. Be aware that those are two very different things — it does sound like you’re giving in a bit to your discomfort. It’s always going to be awkward the first few times when you don’t know, for instance, where people are allowed to deadlift, but if you go and watch and try it yourself you will learn.

If a whole workout in your crowded gym is overwhelming, commit to figuring out how to technically accomplish just one movement — how to claim a squat rack, how to set up a deadlift bar — then next time another one, and then another one. If you want to manage your body fat, beginner lifters get the gift of a glorious period called “recomposition” where they can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time without having to manipulate their food (you just eat your maintenance calories, or even a little more). This is a classic example of what your body can do during this time. If you do it now it’ll be over by the end of March, which would give you plenty of time to train more specifically for either a summer or fall triathlon. (Plus, it is still bulking season.) While I’m not normally a fan of fitness content in women’s magazines, this article in Self endorses this very balances of 3x/week strength training and 2x/week cardio, so I’m cherry-picking it from all the bad stuff and putting it here.

I have several friends who are like you, and at least one who is an extremely avid runner who refuses to lay cardio aside even for a few weeks to pursue lifting, even though he has said he wants to be stronger. Again, I too was once like this: the first time I got injured, my anxiety went through the roof because I had pinned my exercise regimen — and by extension my body image and therefore my very self-worth — on running. I had no recourse, and I was afraid of what would happen to me, mostly physically, if I could not run. My relationship with running was not healthy. The answer to that whole mess was not “stop running,” nor really is it for anyone, but it does again involve untangling some things from some other things.

Now, I do love lifting, and I would be very sad to not be able to do it, but I also don’t do it at least a couple of months a year, at all, and there are a few other months where I lift less to maintain muscle while shedding a little fat from bulking. During that time, I do some cardio! I think a lot about never being able to never do any exercise ever again, and I know that day is Out There, when maybe all I’ll be able to do is walk or roll around in my wheelchair a little, or like, sit up. That gives me chills, and it makes me think otherwise physically able people are nuts to not take advantage of being able to move around now. But getting into lifting has also made me realize that exercise is not about the pursuit of thinness or low weight or calories burned.

Even the world’s best athletes do not do their sport all of the time, week in and week out. I’ve been watching the Instagram stories of Mattie Rogers, who is an elite Olympic weightlifter, and she hasn’t lifted in like a month. Just yesterday she story’d that she’d been cleared by her trainer to squat — but only 100 pounds, which is extremely light for someone like her. Sometimes they’re injured and taking time to rehab, but usually they’re just taking time off to rest or cross-train or hike and surf after intense training cycles. Doing the same thing all the time at the intensity required to, say, maintain your half-marathon time and distance all of the time, yields injuries and burnout. You can’t wake Simone Biles and Kerri Walsh in the middle of the night any day of the year and expect Olympic performance. They are probably still lying on beaches right now. It is not fitness to push yourself to the max constantly with no end in sight.

It would be really good for you to take some time off from your normal workout, or at least scale it back, and try something else, if you’ve been into it for a while. I’m not telling you to give up cardio (even though I think you should be open to that possibility : — ) ), or even to stop it entirely. But if you want to build strength, devoting real time and attention to it will not only yield the best results, but it will be healthy for you to see that you can leave aside your current preferred method of training, come back to it, and regain your competency at it, and maybe even do it better once you’re stronger.

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