Not everyone likes cardio, but we all need it, so that’s why there are cardio alternatives like muscular endurance training.  Endurance training is a focus on higher repetitions, less weight and less rest. It is quite different from strength training in that the goal is stamina and not increased force production.  Before we dive into some ideas for cardio alternatives, let’s explore the reasons for doing cardio and how they affect your overall fitness.

Cardio vs. Muscular Endurance Training

Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, is any form of exercise that raises your heart rate for extended periods of time.  It most typically involves muscular endurance as the exercises are often repeated continuously over that time.

Muscular endurance – the ability of muscles to perform repeated, submaximal contractions, or the stamina of local muscles.  Most often trained by repeated movements at lower weight intensities or bodyweight movements.  This is what you’ll use for cardio alternatives.

The reason they are both in the same conversation is that your body doesn’t necessarily know the difference between a heart rate that is elevated by running and a heart rate elevated by squatting lighter weight for lots of reps and little to no rest.

Muscular endurance training is often synonymous with endurance training, which is things like running, cycling, rowing, swimming, i.e. cardio.  For our discussion it will involve muscular endurance which is weight training for endurance benefits without the use of cardio-specific training.

Muscle Fibers

In order to understand muscular endurance training, we must first understand the muscle and the different types of fibers.

  • Type I fiber – Type 1 is your slow twitch fiber, think endurance. Type 1 fibers contain more mitochondria and myoglobin, and are surrounded by more capillaries so they have great aerobic capacity.
  • Type II fibers – Two types
    • Type IIx – Your extremely fast-twitch, or strong fibers. Very inefficient in terms of endurance, but very efficient in terms of force production.
    • Type IIa – intermediate fibers, they are basically the combination of the two other types, type I and type IIx, but are less efficient at their respective strengths.

Can We Change Our Muscle Fiber Types?

An interesting fact about muscle fibers is that you are typically born with a specific make up of fibers, which predisposes you to certain strengths.  However, small shifts between fibers can occur with training (1).  This means that if you want to be an endurance athlete, or a strength athlete, all is not lost, but your genetics might limit your potential in each discipline.

These findings are significant with regards to fitness, because it shows us that as you work towards a specific training goal, you will see progress and biological adaptations towards that goal.

Periodization

In strength and conditioning, specifically with athletes the idea of periodization is behind all programming.  It is the idea of manipulating training variables like intensity, technique, volume, and frequency to allow for the athlete to perform at their peak when their competition or season arrives.

Periodization in fitness is different because most people don’t have deadlines or competition dates (some do!).  It involves varying the individuals program to cycle through training the different body systems allowing for maximal efficiency and variety.

Periodization, when used effectively, will allow for continual growth in strength, cardiovascular and muscular endurance, mobility, and body composition on a long-term basis.  It achieves this through short-term focus on a specific training component, and shifting in due time while maintaining the progress made in the previous training block.

Each time you shift your training focus, your body has learned and adapted to that stimulus. This means that when you return to training in that manner, your body responds quicker each time.  This allows for consistent, if not always linear, progress.

For example, if you build strength for 2 months, then shift your training to focus to muscular endurance, but continue to maintain a semblance of that strength, you will lose some, but not all and you will find yourself back to your previous strength and more much quicker when you do return to strength training.

General Physical Preparedness

With fitness, the goal is overall health, and some would argue, general physical preparedness (GPP).  GPP is the idea of training a wide variety of body systems to enhance the training of a specific one.  Basically it refers to periodization and staying away from extreme specialization.  Think of it as being able to take on almost any physical challenge or task thrown you way and succeed.  It is a combination of skill, strength, endurance, mobility/movement quality, and workload.

So the idea of general fitness is probably better described as general physical preparedness and involves training in a variety of ways over the course of your training program (most likely a year).

The Case for Muscular Endurance

Muscular endurance is often a less sexy component of fitness, but is vital to our health.  It requires a lot of time, work, and effort, and it often doesn’t impress many people, specifically in the gym. That doesn’t mean it can be overlooked.

The benefits of endurance training (specifically endurance weight training) are vast (2):

Reduced risk of osteoporosis

  • Repeated compressive stress on the skeletal system resulting in denser, stronger bones.

Increased metabolism

  • Increased oxidative capacity meaning that the muscles metabolize at a greater rate. Aka it increases your metabolism.

Protective against diseases/conditions like:

  • Diabetes – by increasing insulin sensitivity
  • Heart disease, coronary artery disease, hypertension, COPD – by training the heart (a muscle) and increasing blood flow through the arteries
  • Cancer – improved immune function, reduced inflammation, lower levels of hormones (3)

Cardio Alternatives Using Muscular Endurance Training

When implementing muscular endurance training sessions as alternatives to cardio, the way you program it is simple.  You use a lot of the same movements you would use in strength training, but you set different parameters.

Endurance training parameters include:

  • Reps between 12 and 20 per set
  • 2-3 sets per exercise
  • 30 seconds or less of rest between sets

Your volume, or basically the amount of exercises (sets x reps) and weight you do over the course of your training session will depend on your experience level and your recovery.

Some sample training sessions for endurance training might look like:

Beginners

  • 2×12 Incline Push up (30 seconds rest)
  • 2×12 Bodyweight Squats (30 seconds rest)
  • 2×12 TRX Rows (30 seconds rest)
  • 2×12 Hip Bridge (30 seconds rest)
  • 2×12 Crunches (30 seconds rest)

*Progress from 12 to 20 reps over time.

Intermediates

  • 3×15 Goblet Squat (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 Push Up (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 DB RDL ((30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 Inverted Row (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 Reverse Lunge (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 Single Arm Shoulder Press (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×15 Upright Row (30 seconds rest)
  • 3x45sec Front Plank (30 seconds rest)

*Progress from 15-20, then up in weight from 12-20 reps over time.

Advanced

  • 3×20 Deadlift (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 Walking Lunges (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 DB Floor Press (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 Pull-ups/Assisted Pull-ups (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 Jump Lunges (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 Landmine Press (30 seconds rest)
  • 3×20 Hanging Leg Lifts (30 seconds rest)

*Progress in weight and drop reps to 12, then progress in reps from 12 to 20 over time.

Another cardio alternative I really love is called density training.  It involves taking the duration of your workout and adding more work into it.  The way I like to set them up is as follows:

  • Usually 5-6 movements, full body.
  • Set time frame, starting with 25 minutes and working up to 40-45.
  • Aiming to always increase the amount of work done in said time frame either by increasing weight, or increasing sets/reps.

You can apply this to muscular endurance training as a cardio alternative really well because instead of resting for 30 seconds, you can quickly move onto another exercise effectively eliminating rest.

Sample

  • 12 Barbell Squats
  • 12 Push-ups
  • 12 Pull-ups
  • 12 KB Swings
  • 12 KB Push Presses

*30 minutes, as many rounds as possible

Key takeaway:

If your goal is fitness, or really anything other than lifting the heaviest weight you possibly can, your program needs to include cardio and muscular endurance.  If you don’t like cardio, there are plenty of cardio alternatives that elevate the heart rate and require similar amounts of work and provide the benefits of cardio.

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Sources:

  1. Wilson, Jacob M.; Loenneke, Jeremy P.; Jo, Edward; Wilson, Gabriel J.; Zourdos, Michael C.; Kim, Jeong-Su, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: June 2012 – Volume 26 – Issue 6 – p 1724–1729

  2. Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal174(6), 801–809.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1402378/
  3. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/physical-activity-fact-sheet#q3