Why beginners should NOT start with cardio

By Coach Izzy

I know what you are thinking: “Oh you heathen! How dare you?” Or maybe you have a curious approach along the lines of “Watcha talkin’ bout Willis?” Whichever it is, are you looking for validation to “cardio sucks strength rocks?” Or is it the other way around? You will find neither.

I dedicate this piece of fitness advice to those looking to start their journey. My objective is not to glorify strength training or vilify cardiovascular training. Truth is, they are more related than we have been led to believe, even though they are portrayed in opposite dimensions. My purpose is to help you understand how they are approached backwardly and given priorities based on continuity rather than validation (As in “I do it because that’s what they taught me and everyone else is doing it”)

Join me in as we uncover the factors that should be taken into account when helping the novice fitness enthusiast adopt a more active life style. Our mission should be to put the health and well being of the individual ahead of everything else, even if it challenges the mainstream.

 If you have never exercised, it is best to start with cardio 

No, not really

Although this bit of old gym wisdom is finally losing ground, it still holds enough power to make it to exercise literature, programs, and advice. It is so uncontested that when their proponents are invited to analyze, they are shocked to realize how backward the approach is. How is that possible? The answer must be a complex one, right? It is not. In fact, it is much simpler than you think.
Let us start by acknowledging that cardiovascular work is a physical activity (Duh!). Are we in agreement? Good! As a physical activity, it poses a set of demands on your body. Correct? With that in mind; what do you think is the key factor dictating how your body will cope with them?

Come one, it is not that difficult… That’s right! It is your STRENGTH. People still fail to understand that when it comes to physical activities, everything is an expression of your strength, and strength must be your foundation. And no, this is not the biased “what do you bench?” type of strength. We are talking about the type of strength that helps you handle the fluctuating inertial demands of physical activities. It does not happen by accident. It has to be developed.

Ok, I understand your point, but what does this mean to me? 

Glad you asked

How does this apply to the average guy or gal looking to get fit or take the first steps into their fitness Journey? Let us take the typical individual who has not done anything physical in a long time, if ever, and wants to get started. Great! The crucial step has been accomplished. To realize the goal the individual must be willing to make the changes and take action, otherwise nothing happens.

Based on conventional wisdom, what would our subject think he should be doing to get started? What is everyone saying and what is the media perpetuating? You’ve got it! Start with Cardio!

But hold on…

  • We have an individual who is physically unfit.
  • We know very little of the state of his muscular endurance although it is safe to assume it is virtually non-existent.
  • We do not know how long his untrained muscles are going to be able to support him.
  • We do (or should) know that once his muscles fatigue, the load gets shifted to his joints.
  • We know nothing of his neuromuscular state (reaction time, coordination, etc.)
  • We do not know if this individual has any form of compensatory patterns and if so, why.

Hmm, it seems that we are very limited into what we can do, but hey! Cardio comes first right? So cardio we have to do darn it! Time to perform the assessment, after all, how are we going to determine the proper heart rate? That’s a thought… and something that seems prudent, or is it? It depends.

Pfft! You are overreacting! The assessment will tell all

Um, you cannot measure what you don’t have

There are many forms of assessment employed by fitness professionals. They range from the simple stop watch and pulse palpation, to sophisticated gas analyzers with wireless heart rate monitors. All excellent techniques and equipment designed to measure specific parameters but they have a major weakness. The vast majority of them are designed to measure capacity instead of readiness or ability.

Some tests like most treadmill and bicycle ergometer protocols have been studied extensively and proven reliable over the years. Unfortunately, these protocols are based on data from athletes and younger, fitter college aged populations. Hardly something one would readily extrapolate to the average middle-aged (or older) desk jockey who deals with professional, life, family stresses.

Other assessments of capacity are so bizarre it makes me wonder why they are still being employed. Why would anyone put an unfit person to run a mile, or perform step ups or swing bells for time? Isn’t it established that the person has NO CAPACITY to exercise? So why test the capacity THEY DO NOT HAVE? In my mind, this is borderline irresponsible and unethical, no matter how well intentioned it may be.

Does it actually make sense? We know well the individual is unfit and inactive yet we are willing to challenge him to confirm the obvious? Even if the assessment is skipped, does it make sense to have this person perform repetitive loaded patterns? Yes, that would be cardio.

Seriously, I fail to see what could be prudent or reasonable in such approach – “What? You have never run? We have to start you immediately. We’ll time how long it takes you to run a mile now and then we’ll time you again in 8 weeks”Hello???


Here is a crazy idea. How about we defy popular wisdom by helping the individual build a basic level of strength? Hold on there! If you are shaking your head thinking “But I just want to lose weight”, I can assure you will be more than fine and your hesitation, though understandable, is fueled by uncertainty rather than objectivity. We will be covering those topics in the future, so I beg you to please bear with me.

Going back to the topic, why do I keep insisting in this insane, heretic idea of giving cardiovascular training a lower priority than strength training in the program of the beginner? There is a lot more to it than what you have been exposed to. Here are a few good reasons:

  • A good strength training program will ensure you get a solid start Remember, balance, flexibility, endurance, they are all expressions of your strength. Lack of strength will hinder them and trying to overcome them without developing your strength will get you nowhere productive.
  • A good strength training program will increase your ability to engage in cardiovascular work Strong tissues that can effectively generate and absorb forces will allow you to go longer or harder, depending on what your goals are. Your joints will be spared the jarring they suffer when weak untrained tissues fail to sustain work.
  • A good strength training program will be a crucial factor to change your body composition Have you ever noticed the cardio slaves? The ones who spend HOURS at it. How many of them actually look good? Of course. They are neglecting several important factors. Strength training overcomes the shortcomings of traditional cardio training and challenges your body into noticeable changes.
  • A good strength training program will increase your metabolic rate No doubt about that one. All that lean tissue you add is always on the hunt for energy. You will use more calories during activity, and will continue using calories even at rest. Not bad, uh?
  • A good strength training program will increase your safety margin Being able to perform your daily activities with efficiency and increasing your body’s capacity to tolerate work will do wonders to increase your safety margin whether exercising or simply taking care of your yard.
  • A good strength training program will increase the longevity and enjoyment of your fit lifestyle Giving your body the ability to generate and absorb forces efficiently will spare your joints. You will be able to enjoy your favorite activities longer and have more options when the need for change arises. You will have more fun with your accomplishments as opposed to dreading the pain and discomfort a weak body experiences.

There! That was simple, was it not? No complex theories just some plain common sense revealed by focusing on what is often overlooked. It was never said that cardiovascular work was bad or that strength training was better than cardio. It is nothing like that. Rather, the priorities need to be revised when a novice is being introduced to physical activity.

Whether is exercising for weight loss, or to improve your health, or simply look and feel great, it is important you realize that your body’s adaptations are the result of gravitational forces acting upon it. It is an inevitable aspect of every form of physical activity. How productive or detrimental the program is will be dictated by how much you are demanding of your body and how ready your body is to handle those demands.

About The Author


Coach Izzy has been part of the Strength and Conditioning field for over 25 years. He speaks of the advantages of self-sufficiency and the drawbacks of relying on the liner approaches the health world seems fond of.