Cardio workout - what do we really mean?
When we talk about "cardio workouts" we often think of running, dancing, spinning or doing the elliptical machine - workouts that elevate the heart rate and increase breathing. In these cases what we really mean are workouts that stress the cardiac muscles and the lungs. But there is another type of cardio workout: CARDIOVASCULAR training. Essentrics belongs to this category while also delivers cardiorespiratory benefits.
Let's clarify all the terms and how they are related.
The cardiorespiratory system is more than just heart and the breathing system, because it also includes all the blood vessels that constitute our vascular system. Strictly speaking a full cardiorespiratory workout will therefore need to stress every component - the respiratory system, the cardiac muscles, and the vascular network.
The importance of vascular training for the heart
When we are running or doing zumba, we are stressing our hearts and lungs but not our vascular system. Our hearts pump blood to the arteries, but for the blood to travel deep into our capillaries all over the body, we need to stress our muscles. Muscle contractions pump blood and aids in circulation, reducing the load for our heart. This is where resistance training comes in.
Muscle contractions can be positive and negative. Positive (or concentric) contractions load the muscles while they are shortened. E.g. bicep curls. Negative (or eccentric) contractions load the muscles while they are lengthened. E.g. Lifting and pumping an extended arm. Most resistance training focuses on concentric motions, which build bulk and pump blood during the training but without proper balance between strength and flexibility, muscles become stiff, tight and short.
Unfortunately many people tend to confuse stiffness and tightness with being strong. Stretching is often used only as quick, obligatory warmups or as cool downs without really boosting flexibility. Imagine your hand always squeezed into a fist. Would it help your circulation? No. Similarly, if your body is bulky and stiff your heart will need to work much harder to pump blood out and send it back.
When muscles are both strong and flexible (and you can't be truly strong unless you are also flexible, a topic to be discussed in another post), circulation stays improved even after training. Instead of concentric motions, in Essentrics we use eccentric motions to strengthen muscles in lengthened/stretched positions. This simultaneously build strength and flexibility, promoting circulation both during and after the workout.
We have all experienced cold feet and cold hands in the winter. These extremities are very far to reach for the heart. This is why resistance training focusing on major muscle groups is insufficient. We need to "pump" all of our +650 muscles, down to the fingers and toes - something that we emphasize in Essentrics. When the entire vascular system is strengthened, the heart is thankful.
Essentrics: the cardiac component
While Essentrics is primarily a vascular workout, it also has a cardiac component to it because many routines involve ballistic and plyometric (reactive) motions that require quick response and explosive power. These work the fast twitch muscle fibers and increase our heart rates. Examples of these motions will include leg kicks, certain Tai Chi plies variations, arm pumping, and squash lunges.
Let's compare how different exercises rank in terms of cardiorespiratory demands, based on information from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM):
Anyone who has done Essentrics will agree that it usually falls somewhere between the upper end of Zone One and somewhere in Zone Two. It is safe to say that in addition to the vascular focus, Essentrics is also a low to moderate cardiorespiratory workout.
Less can be more. Some of us can get exhausted and turned off by stressing our heart rate to the max. If you are the type who enjoys sprinting, then do it by all means! If you enjoy a good workout with moderate cardiac stress that will keep you motivated, then Essentrics is a great choice for you.
Circuit training with comparable payoffs
But there is another cardiorespiratory dimension to Essentrics that few may know. In personal training parlance, Essentrics is effectively a form of circuit training, which NASM explains as:
"...a series of (resistance) exercises that an individual performs one after the other, with minimal rest between each exercise."
Essentrics consists of successive motions that work the full body plus movements that isolate body parts. These motions all employ our own body weight as resistance. Since the isolation movements in Essentrics alternate between the upper and the lower body, the workout is also a form of Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) training, known to improve circulation. Research has shown that circuit training and PHA both produce comparable cardiorespiratory results without spending extended training time. Essentrics is therefore a highly efficient form of cardiovascular conditioning that also delivers cardiorespiratory payoffs.
Bang for your buck
So does Essentrics give you a cardio workout? The answer is yes. It gives you a full vascular workout with low to moderate cardiac stress. Since it resembles circuit training and Peripheral Heart Action training, Essentrics also provides comparable cardiorespiratory benefits. You get your bang for the buck!
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2. Harber MP, Fry AC, Rubin MR, Smith JC, Weiss LW. Skeletal muscle and hormonal adaptations to circuit weight training in untrained men. Stand J Med Sci Sports. 2004;14(3):176-185