Reigning 2023 World’s Strongest Man (WSM) champ Mitchell Hooper is dedicated to exploring human performance, movement, and function. He holds a degree in human kinetics, a Master’s in clinical exercise physiology, and owns a kinesiology clinic in Ontario, Canada. Hooper backs his knowledge with action and has podiumed in 11 consecutive pro Strongman contests.
For many strongman athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters, cardio workouts are usually an afterthought. But Hooper’s results don’t lie. On Sept. 12, 2023, Hooper took to his YouTube channel to explain how cardiovascular training can increase strength. Check it out below:
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“Cardio is one of the best things you can do for your long-term strength gains,” Hooper said. However, he acknowledged that there is research suggesting that cardio training can inhibit your strength gains. A 2021 meta-analysis of 15 studies found that [aerobic] exercise induced moderate declines in measures of muscle strength with no statistically significant effects on proxies of muscle power in trained male individuals..” (1)
Hooper dissected the research to provide a more comprehensive explanation of the results. Our bodies have two types of muscle fibers — type 1 and type 2. While it’s not possible to switch between type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers during training, the type 2 muscle fibers consist of 19 fiber types that allow shifting, ranging from type 2a (very slow twitch) to type 2x (fastest twitch).
Hooper explained that muscle fiber types mainly refer to the metabolic processes a cell goes through to get energy. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are efficient at utilizing creatine for energy, whereas slow-twitch fibers are adept at using fats as an energy source.
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According to popular opinion, doing any form of cardio can inhibit your strength gains, as you’ll develop muscle fibers that don’t align with your training goals. “This is completely true, but in isolation, not practice,” said Hooper.
Hooper clarified that several other things happen inside our body when we improve our aerobic fitness, including:
Increased Blood Volume
Cardiovascular training increases our blood volume, which pre-loads the heart more, stretching it more than usual. Thus, when it contracts, it lets out more blood into the muscles.
More extensive heart expansions and contractions improve the cardiac cycle, meaning the heart doesn’t have to work as hard. This is also why aerobically fit people usually have a lower resting heart rate than sedentary individuals.
Increased Capillary Density
To accommodate the increased blood volume, the human body grows new vessels, resulting in even better blood circulation to the muscles.
Increased capillary density and blood volume don’t impact your strength training directly. However, they improve your recovery by boosting nutrient and oxygen supply to the muscles, which can enhance your workout performance and overall health and well-being.
Different Energy Systems for Different Time Periods
Another reason people give for skipping cardio is that the body has three energy systems for different types of activities depending on the time duration.
The body relies on ATP and creatine phosphate (CP) for explosive activities that last less than 10 seconds, anaerobic glycolysis (lactic acid system) for the next 30 seconds, and aerobic glycolysis for the subsequent 90 seconds. After this, the body starts aerobic lipolysis, where it uses fat as fuel.
Since most strength training exercise sets last less than 30 seconds, many assume they don’t need to work on their aerobic fitness.
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But like muscle tissue recruitment, energy systems don’t work in isolation. Irrespective of the physical activity you’re performing and the time period, you will use some level of aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Cardio training can improve your aerobic fitness, resulting in lower oxygen debt (a temporary oxygen shortage in the body tissues arising from exercise).
“If you are training hard for 30 to 45 seconds, you’ll be able to push harder to the end, accumulate more total volume, and recover from it better because of increased capillary density and lower heart rate,” Hooper said. “If you’re accomplishing these things, you will be on a good track to get stronger.”
Improved Body Composition
Aerobic fitness can result in a shift in energy utilization. Aerobically fit individuals burn more body fat in the oxidative phase, whereas others burn a combination of fat and carbs. The shift in energy utilization allows an individual to perform at a higher work capacity and burn through their fat stores.
Two Ways to Improve Aerobic Fitness
“Aerobic fitness is basically — oxygen goes into our lungs, then we extract it from our lungs. Everyone is good at that; that’s not an issue, but we then need to get it from there throughout the body,” Hooper said.
Enhanced aerobic fitness through cardio training can help this process by increasing capillary density and blood volume and changing body composition.
“There are distinct ways to train this,” Hooper explained. You can increase your cardiovascular fitness by doing LISS cardio (low-intensity steady state). Conversely, you can improve your enzymatic processes through HIIT (high-intensity interval training) efforts.
Hooper favors Tabata sprints to boost his enzymatic system. This form of HIIT workout lasts four minutes and involves eight circuits of 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest.
When Will Mitchell Hooper Compete Next?
Hooper is currently recovering from a hamstring tear he sustained at the 2023 Shaw Classic, where he won the silver medal. He is scheduled to compete at the 2023 Rogue Strongman Invitational on Oct. 27-29, in Austin, TX.
For more news across the sport, check out these strongman articles:
- Mitchell Hooper Reveals Optimal Training Volume Per Muscle Group for Strength
- Hybrid Athlete Fergus Crawley Is Training for His First Strongman Competition
- 2023 England’s Strongest Man and Strongest Woman Results
- Markov A, Chaabene H, Hauser L, Behm S, Bloch W, Puta C, Granacher U. Acute Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Muscle Strength and Power in Trained Male Individuals: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2022 Jun;52(6):1385-1398.
Featured Image: @mitchellhooper / Instagram