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Can You Improve Cardiovascular Fitness Lifting Weights?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 30 June 2021
Hits: 2223

We all know that exercise is great for our body and staying in great shape can effectively help prevent the onset of deadly diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  Most people associate activities like running and cycling as the best way to improve fitness and heart health, while strength training is looked upon as the best method to improve muscle mass. What people fail to understand is that there are a multitude of health benefits with strength training that are far superior to endurance training, and that you can improve your cardiovascular fitness lifting weights. Anyone who says to me you cannot get fit lifting weights is not doing it right. While cardio is still good to use it works best in combination with strength training to maximise the health of the body. In this article I will show you why strength training is the preferred option and also how to do it correctly to improve your fitness at the same time.

Exercise is more important than ever to counter the damage of our rapidly evolving sedentary lifestyle. One hundred years ago we did not need gyms as we were forced to walk everywhere, most jobs were very physical, and even home life demanded rigorous activities like chopping wood and cleaning clothes manually. While technology has improved our lives in many ways it has come at a cost to our health, in particular our heart.

Here are some very concerning statistics about heart health.

  • Cardiovascular disease is the number 1 cause of death globally: more people die annually from heart disease than from any other cause.
  • An estimated 17.9 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, 85% are due to heart attack and stroke.
  • People with cardiovascular disease or who are at high cardiovascular risk (due to the presence of one or more risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidaemia or already established disease) need early detection and management using counselling and medicines, as appropriate.
  • Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioural risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol. This is the preferred way to treat this as a prevention is much better than a cure, not to mention there is no side effects from eating well and exercising.

Reference: World Health Organization

The logical conclusion is that in order to improve our heart health we need to get our heart rate up and working, and the easiest way to do this is to exercise. The first thing people think of to do this is cardio exercises like running, cycling, swimming etc. However, is this the only way to get your heart rate higher? And how much is enough?

What is cardio?

What is cardio training, anyway?

Cardio is simply any activity that requires an elevated heart rate and breathing rate to sustain. Our muscles require oxygen to function, so when we start using them hard enough and for long enough, we start breathing faster to get more oxygen into the system and our heart starts beating faster to pump that oxygen out to the muscles for them to use. Anything that engages this process is cardio.

You could be swimming, running, cycling, mowing the lawn, walking up the stairs, or playing with your dog in the park. These are all examples of cardio.

This is where people go about trying to implement an endurance running or cycling program thinking it is great for their heart. We need some degree of aerobic fitness but overdoing this can be a disaster and unfortunately this can even lead to heart problems!

For example, endurance-type exercise, such as marathon running, can actually damage your heart and increase your cardiovascular risk by as much as seven times!!

Research by Dr. Arthur Siegel, director of Internal Medicine at Harvard's McLean Hospital found that long-distance running leads to high levels of inflammation that can trigger cardiac events. Another 2006 study found that non-elite marathon runners experienced decreased right ventricular systolic function, again caused by an increase in inflammation and a decrease in blood flow. All in all, such findings are a powerful lesson that excessive cardio may actually be counterproductive.

Watch the video below for more detail on this.


I suggest reading the book "Heart of a Champion" by former Ironman Greg Welch to see just how much damage endurance training can do to your heart.

The preferred choice is to use mainly strength training combined with some interval training if you want to improve your health. The benefits of adding muscle cannot be overstated.

Here is a just a short list of the various benefits of using a strength training program to add muscle.

  1. Muscle is the biggest influence on your metabolic rate. The more you have the faster your metabolism and the easier it is to lose weight
  2. Muscle regulates hormones and prevents disease like diabetes and cancer often caused from insulin resistance
  3. Muscle improves bone density and prevents bone fractures, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, and can even reverse arthritis.
  4. Muscle prevents injury and improves stability across all joints
  5. Muscle improves sporting performance by increasing speed and power.

None of these things are improved from a cardio training program. They will improve slightly but not to the level they need to be for dramatic improvement and overall health.

You can read more about this in the articles below

The big question is can you get fit lifting weights?

Can You Get Fit Lifting Weights?

This depends on how you lift, and what exercises you are using. The variation between a bicep curl and barbell squat is massive in terms of fitness demands. If you waste your time sitting on machines or doing endless isolated exercises like the bicep curl you will get little benefit to your cardiovascular system.

However, if you use “big” functional movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, push-ups and chin-ups your heart and lungs will get plenty of work. The leg exercises in particular place a massive stress onto the heart, as the body is forced to pump huge volumes of blood to the working muscles. The muscles in your legs are the largest muscles in your body, so when they are on the limit of their capability the heart is also working to its limit to keep oxygen in your blood so you can continue to move.

The harder your muscles work the more oxygen they require, which means we start breathing faster, our hearts start pumping faster, we get sweaty, and eventually have to stop to regain our breath. This is cardio.

If you don’t believe me pay attention to your breathing and pulse after a set of walking lunges or squats. Remember you must functional movements to get the most out of this as the body has to send blood to so many muscles.  These exercises require lots of oxygen and you’ll be huffing and puffing and your heart will be racing to get that oxygen out to the muscles.

I know when I complete a heavy front squat or deadlift my heart rate will elevate to 150 and 160 beats per minute within 15-30 seconds!

I really do not understand why you would waste your time with isolated training exercises like bicep curls, triceps pushdowns, leg extensions etc. For starters who has that much time to workout like that anyway as it takes forever to do a workout? And secondly they do not even come close to the strength gains of the integrated movements like squats, lunges, chin-ups, and deadlifts as you would be working many of the smaller muscles multiple times with these "big" integrated movements. If you spend time completing mainly integrated exercises, which is what you should be doing anyway if you want to move well in life, there is no need to use exercises to target small muscles, as you have just exhausted them.

To give you a good visual explanation of what I mean, let’s take a look at two integrated exercises to see just how many muscles are being used.

Below is a picture of the chin-up and the squat. Take a look at how many muscles are being used in these exercises. I have highlighted in yellow the main prime movers of each exercise, which are the main muscles that will be fatigued. What is often missed is the other muscles that are also activating on a lesser scale to support the joints and the movement. I actually simplified these pictures too as I would not have enough room to list all of the muscle names involved such as the abdominal muscles and small shoulder stabilisers. 

Remember when it comes to improving fitness the more muscles you have working, and the bigger they are the more demands you place on your cardiovascular system. This is where you are able to improve strength and fitness at the same time.

You can read more about this in the article – Do you need an exercise for every muscle to get stronger?

Advanced Strength Methods

Now it is not just the exercises you can use to increase fitness you can achieve incredible results by using advanced methods. For example if I complete my workout of squats, deadlifts, chin-ups etc., with supersets or worse still circuit training, the cardiovascular demands will be even higher again.

Supersets contain pairings of exercises that can target the same muscle/muscle group, One set is performed of one of the exercises in the pair, then the other immediately afterwards. A short recovery can be taken between each pair before the next set is performed. Supersets are great at hitting muscle fibers and stimulating growth, particularly if they target the same muscle group and medium to heavy weights are used. They are also great for being able to achieve more volume of work within the session.

Combining “big” exercises like squats and lunges together in a superset is a great way to increase strength but also your cardiovascular system, for as we have already discussed the demand on the heart to pump blood to your working muscles is immense. Putting them under this incredible stress for long periods takes your body to the limit in a very short amount of time.

Using these methods my strength workouts begin to feel like I have been sprinting uphill even though I am just lifting heavy weights. Now these methods are not limited to circuits or supersets, there are tons of these methods you can try. A few years ago I started to list all the workouts I could think of and realized I had well over 100 workouts! I decided to create a book called The Little Black Book of Training Secrets to show people how to modify their workouts to achieve different goals of strength and fitness. You can see more about this by clicking here.

Grab a copy of the book below.

The other popular method use to improve fitness with weights is circuit training.  This involves setting up a series of exercises starting at a minimum of 4 and as many as 15 exercises and completing one set of each exercise in succession without resting between. One full round of the 4-15 exercises is effectively one round of the circuit. Your goal is to try to make it through 2-4 rounds (sets) of the circuit. A resting period of 3-5 minutes between each round is enough time to allow the body to recover and ensure the intensity does not drop off too much. If you can maintain a good level of intensity it will provide greater returns.

Check out the video below of an example of a killer circuit workout.

You will find many other great ideas that relate to you by checking out this article - 4 Unique Ways To Use Circuit Training To Accelerate Strength & Fitness

Strength training definitely counts as cardio if you’re doing it at a pace and intensity that raises your heart rate and breathing rate. Make sure you keep it safe and work within your limits. Remember, never sacrifice health for fitness.

What Does The Science Say?

Here is some interesting research that investigated this very question.

Lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce your risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 percent, according to a new Iowa State University study. Spending more than an hour in the weight room did not yield any additional benefit, the researchers found.

"People may think they need to spend a lot of time lifting weights, but just two sets of bench presses that take less than 5 minutes could be effective," said DC (Duck-chul) Lee, associate professor of kinesiology.

The results -- some of the first to look at resistance exercise and cardiovascular disease -- show benefits of strength training are independent of running, walking or other aerobic activity. In other words, you do not have to meet the recommended guidelines for aerobic physical activity to lower your risk; weight training alone is enough.

The study is published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Lee and his colleagues analysed data of nearly 13,000 adults in the Aerobics Centre Longitudinal Study. They measured three health outcomes: cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke that did not result in death, all cardiovascular events including death and any type of death. Lee says resistance exercise reduced the risk for all three.

Much of the research on strength training has focused on bone health, physical function and quality of life in older adults. When it comes to reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, most people think of running or other cardio activity. Lee says weight lifting is just as good for your heart, and there are other benefits.

Using the same dataset, Lee and his colleagues looked at the relationship between resistance exercise and diabetes as well as hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol. The two studies, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found resistance exercise lowered the risk for both.

Less than an hour of weekly resistance exercise (compared with no resistance exercise) was associated with a 29 percent lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The risk of hypercholesterolemia was 32 percent lower. The results for both studies also were independent of aerobic exercise.

"Muscle is the power plant to burn calories. Building muscle helps move your joints and bones, but also there are metabolic benefits. I don't think this is well appreciated," Lee said. "If you build muscle, even if you're not aerobically active, you burn more energy because you have more muscle. This also helps prevent obesity and provide long-term benefits on various health outcomes."

Journal Reference:

  1. Yanghui Liu, Duck-chul Lee, Yehua Li, Weicheng Zhu, Riquan Zhang, Xuemei Sui, Carl J. Lavie, Steven N. Blair. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001822

Does This Mean You Do Not Use Cardio?

Not at all!

It is highly recommended you use cardio as part of your training, as it is great for getting outdoors to get some Vitamin D and mixing up your routine. If you enjoy cardio it is good to continue using as you will get a lot out of exercising when find it fun. However, I would try to focus more on INTERVAL TRAINING if possible for it is much more effective than long slow boring cardio.

Interval training is a key part of any elite athlete and is by far the fastest way to get fit. Check out the videos below for ideas of how to do this and some simple tests to measure your heart rate.


Make Sure You Grab This Special Report

To include all of the exercises along with instructions and pictures this article would be over 10,000 words and take too long to read. To make it easier I created a detailed report that includes everything you need to know about nutrition and exercise. There is specific chapters relating to various needs like diabetes, lung capacity, cholesterol, and even detailed heart rate testing assessments. This is the ultimate manual to not only improve your heart health, but your overall health. You can download the PDF report instantly click here or on the image below. 


The message is clear exercise is essential for us to maintain optimal health. Our choice of exercise is very important and the value of strength training cannot be overstated. The belief that lifting weights cannot make you fit is only true if you are using exercises that provide little benefit to functional movement. The big integrated exercises will not only provide the best strength gains but also the best cardiovascular fitness results as the demands on the heart to pump blood to the working muscles is immense.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help by clicking the image below and we can set you up with your individualised program. International and interstate readers I can provide online training that you can organize by requesting a Zoom call.


About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


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