For years, I dedicated 90% of my workouts to cardio. I ran 2-6 miles as early as 5:30am several times a week, and finished the day with an evening spin class. Even on days I focused on strength training, I still ended the workout with a run on the treadmill.
Unlike most cardio bunnies, my aggressive cardio sessions were driven by a desire to improve as an athlete and look like one, too. Yet, as my endurance improved, my physique didn’t. Sure, I was fit but doing too much cardio was having the opposite affect on my body. My metabolism slowed, I had less muscle tone in the areas where I wanted definition (like lower body and abs), and I was hungry and tired all the time.
Why Cardio Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
Cardio as a weight loss or performance method is necessary, but it’s only a small part of the puzzle. Strength training, nutrition, recovery, and even supplementation are all components of an intelligent training system. That’s true whether you’re working out for fat loss, muscle gain, or just to look good naked. In my case, cardio wasn’t helping me achieve my performance or aesthetic goals, despite the fact that I was “super fit” and could run 14 miles easy.
If this hamster wheel sounds like one you’re currently on, here’s what I know. You need a plan. You need to train intelligently. There is a time and place for cardio and for lifting weights. But you can’t go hard on cardio alone and expect your performance and body to improve.
When women ask me how they can sculpt their bodies and lose a little fat, I send them directly to the weight room, not because lifting weights is the ultimate solution but because it’s the better and more effective solution for fat loss, sculpting and aesthetics. Cardio has its place but unless you’re training specifically for endurance, 2-3 cardio sessions a week is plenty.
Swapping cardio for powerlifting
I like to think that I didn’t choose powerlifting, powerlifting chose me. As I got bored with long-distance endurance races, I began lifting more and more often. However, my athletic side needed more than just weight lifting for a hot body. I needed to train with purpose.
Powerlifting was the first performance-driven strength sport that made sense to me from a physical and technical aspect. Unlike Olympic weightlifting, the technical aspects of powerlifting aren’t as complex and my workouts were a lot shorter than my Oly weightlifting workouts, something that was super important to me as I juggled two careers and a business.
NOTE: You can read about my first and second Powerlifting meets and training HERE and HERE.
Within weeks of training, I noticed my strength increase and my physique improve. Not only did I take my deadlift over the 200lbs mark (one of my performance goals), but I finally nailed a 100lbs bench press and saw my arms, abs and butt tighten up. Meanwhile, the numbers on the scale went up (I went from >128lbs in 2013 to 135lbs in 2016). Years ago, an increase on the scale like this would have scared me off, but seeing the positive changes in my body was proof that the number on the scale didn’t tell the whole story. I was finally starting to look like an athlete and getting stronger as a result. I accomplished more physically and aesthetically in one year of powerlifting than in ten years of cardio alone.
Powerlifting as cardio
As a recovering cardio-a-holic, I can’t say I miss all that running, but I do enjoy the sweating, grunting, and intensity that powerlifting gives me. Sure, conditioning is still on the table but it’s spent on shorter, more effective methods that enhance my training, not detract from it. From sprints to kettlebell swings to speed deadlifts, lifting weights can still give you the cardio boost you’re after without sacrificing things like performance, muscle or a healthy metabolism.
Here’s why swapping cardio for strength sports works so well:
- The more muscle we have on our bodies, the more efficient we are at burning fat.
- The more efficient and strong are bodies are, the more capable we are at doing new things. I would have never tried rock climbing or surfing if I felt weak.
- Training for strength or performance has a way of taking your focus away from aesthetics. Instead, your energy pours into the areas that actually make a difference, such as sleep, nutrition, hydration – all the things that ultimately help us achieve the physique we’re after
- Training is strategic not wasteful, and it it is never used as punishment. Sculpting your triceps for example, helps improve your bench. It’s not just about making your arms look good in a tank top.
- You can eat more. Like, a whole lot more, and who doesn’t love food?
So do you have to take up powerlifting to get in amazing shape?
No, but if what you’ve done so far hasn’t worked, taking up powerlifting or another strength sport wouldn’t be the end of the world either. If you can attempt a 7-day juice cleanse you can risk swapping out the endless cardio for some strength work.
The best thing we can do for ourselves, especially as women, is to start showing up for ourselves on purpose. Not because we “have to” or because we’re afraid of the consequence or because we need to do penance for something we did the day before. Training on purpose and for a purpose beyond our looks alone, is an act of feminism. Powerlifting, or any form of strength training for that matter, takes the penance, punishment, and comparison thinking out of the equation to make room for purpose-driven training. And that’s precisely why I’m not giving up powerlifting any time soon.