Why I Never Say ‘Cardio’- Thinking About The Language Of Fitness

Specialised language and jargon isn’t just fun, it can be incredibly useful. The words we use define the way that we think about topics, and so it’s worth it to carefully refine the words we use.

Here’s an example that illustrates how obsessive I am about this stuff- the use of the word ‘pull’ when talking about the deadlift. ‘How much do you pull?’ is a common way to ask someone how much weight they can do in this most storied exercise. The very concept of ‘pulling’ evokes the sort of arm-focused back-straining effort that any good deadlifter should be working to avoid. My clients (most of whom have never deadlifted before they start with me) never hear the word ‘pull’ in relation to the deadlift, but they do hear the word ‘stand’ a lot. I judge that this conditions them to think about the lift as a lower-body-driven, body-unfolding-evenly process, as they should.

Am I being over-the-top? All I know is that I want to get better and better at teaching things. It’s no great insight to say that effective communication is at the heart of teaching. Effective use of language comes down to one simple thing- understanding what a word or term means before you use it.

I feel bad picking on a word like ‘cardio’. It’s a word that was useful for a long time. It has a clear and precise meaning (physical exercise of low to high intensity that depends primarily on the aerobic energy-generating process, but of course you knew that). Meanwhile the fitness industry is littered with nightmare words like ‘tone’ and ‘detox’, marketing terms based on fictional premises that lower the common IQ of the fitness community every time they’re uttered or written. Compared to these ‘cardio’ is a fine, worthy term.

That said, modern athletes and trainers talking about ‘cardio’ sessions and ‘cardio’ fitness is a useful illustration of how the finer subtleties of language can limit our approach to our own fitness.

Athletes who start training with me tend to have a basic understanding of Cardio Training vs Strength Training. To most of them ‘cardio’ is the huff-and-puff, lots-of-reps-at-a-time stuff and ‘strength’ is about big scary weights. A cultural aspect to this exists where many athletes think of themselves as either Strength Athletes or Cardio Athletes. This false binary is about as useful as the false binaries prevalent on the political thinkpieces you read on Facebook this morning (ie not useful at all).

If pressed, any person of average intelligence will acknowledge that our muscles AND our lungs are working any time that we exercise. They’ll further acknowledge that a set of five back squats can leave you sucking wind and a long run will make your legs feel like jelly.

Our muscles are devices that we use to move and they are powered by the various substances that fuel our body, which includes oxygen. Our nervous system is as much the generator of strength as our muscles, and these various systems interrelate in subtle and intersectional ways depending on exactly what exercise we’re doing.

Sure sure, I hear you say. That’s all true, but doing cardio still makes you good at cardio and strength makes you good at strength, right?

We had a guy attend our wrestling club several years ago, who had never wrestled before. This guy was a serious athlete, a veteran of triathlons, open water swims and many other punishing endurance events. Despite this, two minutes of wrestling would leave him a melted puddle on the floor. I remember his words at the end of his first class, said with an exasperated laugh- “I thought I was fit!”

This guy thought that he had found an activity that had shown up the limits of his fitness. He was utterly wrong. His fitness was every bit as high -level as he thought it was. It was just the wrong fitness.

This guy wasn’t aware that the body has three energy systems- phosphate, anaerobic and aerobic- and that while all three of them are working every time you exercise, there is always one in primacy. Which energy system you’re using depends on how long and how intense the activity is.

A human body is going to have a different fitness in each system. It’s a pie to be sliced up- to reach an elite level in one requires a trade-off with the other two. You noticed that the third energy system is called aerobic, right? The other term for aerobic is cardiovascular. cardio isn’t part of a binary with strength, it’s part of a ternary with phosphate and anaerobic. (I’ll get a bit deeper into all this in my next column).

Once our trainee wrestler had these simple things explained to him he was much less frustrated. He had clear parameters for what he needed to work on, and a clear sense of reality. If he wanted to perform better at wrestling, he would have to increase his anaerobic fitness and allow his aerobic to be de-emphasized. Getting this right would mostly be a simple matter of adjusting the duration and intensity of his weekly exercise, plus one more important thing.

The more functional strength you have the less effort you need to employ in any individual movement. The less effort the lighter the demands on your energy systems. That means the stronger you are, the fitter you are, at least as far as the conception of fitness that people associate with ‘cardio’ training. There isn’t a physical pursuit on earth that a well-structured strength program won’t heavily assist with.

I aim to turn all of my clients into masters of nerdy fitness jargon. I teach every client about the three energy systems within their first two or three sessions, and work to deepen their understanding of them over time. It’s easy to understand, it helps people understand their own bodies and all truly effective gym training incorporates it. When naming the three systems I use the word ‘aerobic’ instead of ‘cardio’ because it’s relation to the word ‘anaerobic’ makes for clearer explanation. I’m thrilled for you to use the word ‘cardio’ if you still prefer it, but I’d love it of you stopped using it as a catch-all term for any type of huff-and-puff exercise. Consider it a personal favour to me.

There are fitness terms and slang that are clear, useful and elegant. There are other terms that are so counterproductive that I want to remove them from the language entirely. In the middle are a bunch of terms that are just fine but used lazily, by trainers and athletes that would rather repeat buzzwords than learn the basic facts about exercise and training.

If you’re after an effective way to set yourself above the gym-goers around you (and I know you are) then watching your words is a great place to start.