Strength training vs Aerobic training

Strength trained individuals might question whether they should include aerobic exercise in their programs due to the popular belief that muscular strength can be lost when combined with aerobic training. To explore the truth of this belief we will look at the possible benefits of adding aerobic exercise to strength-based programs. We will discuss how aerobic exercise impacts your one repetition maximum and we will give advice on how to structure your workout if you consider mixing your exercise types.

To start with we need to unpack some terminology:

Aerobic exercise: Any exercise that requires oxygen to generate energy. This could be activities that last for more than 3 minutes as this is the point at which more oxygen is being absorbed for energy production. This 3-minute mark may vary between individuals. Examples of aerobic exercises are cycling and running.

Anaerobic exercise: Any exercise that requires no oxygen for short bursts of energy such as sprinting or lifting weights.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends the average individual needs more than 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular/aerobic exercise a day. This recommendation is based on the positive effect aerobic exercise has on decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol. Another advantage of aerobic exercise is that it increases the number and activity of Mitochondria. The Mitochondria is known as the power house of the human body and is responsible for converting carbohydrates and fats in to energy. With this increased activity the body can convert the fats and carbohydrates faster therefore more energy is available. With more energy available an individual may recover quicker during workouts and could potentially do more repetitions or sets during workouts.

When looking at strength training there is a negative trade off to an individual’s one repetition maximum if they incorporate aerobic exercise in their training programme. A study done by Kraemer and colleagues on the compatibility of high intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations, found strength training alone had better one rep maximum performances in comparison to a mixed method of aerobic and strength training (Kraemer et al. 1995). This development in strength may be linked to the slower muscle action that is needed for aerobic training. Despite these results, the majority of studies examined the effects of high-intensity resistance training and aerobic training on untrained subjects and therefore no definitive conclusions can be drawn on the effectiveness of mixed method training in trained subjects. The reason for the decrease in strength when incorporating aerobic training, is due to the possible muscular fatigue and higher metabolic energy demands that aerobic exercise requires. Currently the best way to overcome the negative effects is by correctly structuring your session to ensuring that there is adequate recovery time between sessions.

So, the question you may still be asking is how does one incorporate aerobic exercise into a strength training programme?

Here are a few guidelines:

  • We suggest aerobic exercises should not be used for warm up in people who are trying to gain strength, rather the warm-up should mimic the movements that the individual will be doing within the strength session.
  • Aerobic training should always be performed after strength training i.e. at the end of your exercise session, as this will have little to no effect on your strength work.
  • If one is doing a full session of only cardiovascular work the following session of strength work should be of a light to moderate intensity of 50-75% of 1 repetition maximum or a comfortable weight.
  • Where possible always follow a 3 cycle periodized approach to your training.
    • Cycle 1 (4 to 6 Weeks) 70% Aerobic training with 30% Strength training
    • Cycle 2 (4 to 6 Weeks) 70% Strength training and 30% Aerobic training
    • Cycle 3 (3 to 4 Weeks) 100% Strength training

At the end of the day whether you should or should not perform aerobic based exercises comes down to your fitness goals. If weight loss is your outcome, a mixture of strength and aerobic exercise is best due to higher energy demands. If strength is your goal then a periodized approach is best. This structured plan has been proven to increase strength gains in athletes and novices alike.