One of the challenges facing the average exerciser today is the sheer variety of exercise options available to them. Part of the confusion regarding what type of exercise to partake in is the supposed benefits. Additionally, certain types of exercise promise greater, quicker or better results than others.
The goal here therefore, is to clarify the purpose and benefits of each type of exercise and also to suggest instances that might bias the choice of one over another.
Broadly speaking there have always been two general camps of exercise, resistance and cardiovascular. The former typically referring to the use of an external load such as weight training and the latter typically used to describe repetitive motion, steady state activities such as jogging.
The problem with this classification is that it suggests that both are mutually exclusive. That is, if you’re lifting weights, there are no cardiovascular benefits and if you’re doing ‘cardio’, there is no resistance component involved.
The reality is that there are very few distinct lines between the different types of exercise and as a result, many have components of others.
For example, performing the barbell complex known as the bear, (power clean, front squat, push press, back squat, push press) for 5-8 repetitions using a load equal to 60% of your bodyweight or greater would provide a significant challenge to the cardiovascular system. At the same time, the use of external load would also put it squarely in the resistance-training category.
Recently, the term ‘metabolic resistance training’ has been coined to classify any resistance training that confers a cardiovascular training effect.
To complicate matters even further a study by Gillen and Gibala in 2013 found that higher intensity exercise elicited similar health benefits to more traditional aerobic or ‘CV’ exercise.
The truth, like many things, is that types of exercise exist on continuums. Furthermore, a particular workout or training session can exist on multiple continuums at the same time. To help you decide which type of exercise is best for you and how you should structure your physical activity, the following are the most common and relevant continuums:
Relative load – The amount of weight being moved relative to the exercisers bodyweight. For example cycling on a stationary bike would have a low relative load because your bodyweight is supported. In contrast, powerlifting or plyometric exercise would have a high relative load, (the latter due to the force and deceleration components).
The greater the relative load relative to training status, the greater the improvements in strength. That is to say, as people get stronger, they will need to use greater and greater loads to improve strength. Beginners or sedentary individuals however, can use relatively low loads and still confer a strength benefit.
Cardiovascular demand – All exercise is cardiovascular, simply because the heart will pump faster and the body will work harder than it would at rest. The level of demand placed on the cardiovascular system therefore, defines the continuum.
There are two typical ways you can assess the cardiovascular demand for any activity you perform. The first is to monitor your heart rate. The greater the elevation in heart rate above resting, the greater the cardiovascular demand. The second is to assess your breathing. The shorter you are of breath, or the more challenging breathing becomes, the greater the cardiovascular demand.
Physical characteristics – Some types of exercise demand higher levels of performance in multiple areas (such as, balance, stability and agility) than others. For example, performing Parkour for an hour may generate a similar heart rate and breathlessness profile to running intervals, but the increased skill demands of the activity would provide a greater training effect.
Working in or working out – There has been much research on the psychological benefits of exercise, but most people going to the gym have one of two mental objectives. The first group - working in, are a little more contemplative and as a result, activity is likely to be less strenuous. This is to allow them to sort through intrinsic factors such as their thoughts, goals or simply reflecting on their day. The second group – working out, are more motivated by the extrinsic factors of their workout: how many reps performed, how much weight lifted or how much distance covered.
Because of the interrelationships between the above continuums, no one type of exercise truly exists. One person could go to a pump fx class for example and load the barbell, pushing themselves on every rep, whilst another may use it as an opportunity to switch off.
That said, there are certain principles that will allow you to better classify whatever it is that you do:
- Whatever you do first, you do best – You will be stronger and fresher in the first part of your workout, so it makes sense to whatever’s important to you first
- Whatever you do most, you respond to best – As Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit”. The more your training matches your goal, the better your progress.
- Jack of all trades, master of none – The advent of Crossfit has seen a resurgence in the popularity of cross-training. That is, the improvement of multiple physical characteristics at the same time. The more variety in your training, the less specific your progress. That said, unless you’re a competitive athlete, you probably don’t need the specificity that a strict training programme requires when starting out.
- Training doesn’t generate progress, recovery does – Your training sessions will give your body a reason to change, your recovery or rest periods give your body the opportunity.
- No energy system is exclusive – Whilst some types of exercise may be predominantly anaerobic or aerobic, you’ll be using fuel in all forms whatever you’re doing.
- What we like, we do – As long as you enjoy a particular type of exercise, stick with it. Consistency and frequency are the keys to success, so it’s important to enjoy yourself.
There are so many different types of exercise that trying to classify them can only lead to confusion. For example, interval training can be high, medium or low intensity, structured or random, done with or without weights, etc. Resistance training is equally fraught with insufficient terminology when simplified and the list goes on.
Keep things simple and just train, aiming to finish each day better than you started it.