Many athletes avoid weight training because it makes you “slow and bulky.” Others avoid weights because they prefer aerobic exercise, citing its benefits for health. Over the years, weight training has become more popular among the general population, but is it just a tool to build muscle? Or are there other benefits?
Aerobic fitness can be measured by something called a VO2 max test. It looks like a serious medical operation, with the test subject breathing through a big tube as they run on a treadmill. Often, electrodes are taped to their chest or a blood pressure cuff is attached to their arm.
While these tests look like Soviet Russian experiments, they’re pretty straightforward. A machine analyzes the air that you breathe in and the air that comes out. It measures how much oxygen you use in each breath.
The testers continually raise the speed and height of the treadmill until you feel like you can’t continue. Most people don’t last more than 15 minutes during one of these tests. At the point where you can’t possibly go any further, you’re at your maximum aerobic capacity. Scientists look at how much oxygen you were using when you quit the test and determine your VO2 max.
This is similar to testing how strong you are. You add more and more weight to an exercise until you can no longer do it. At that point, you’ve reached your maximum strength.
To test the effects of weight training on aerobic endurance, scientists use a VO2 max test. They have someone do the VO2 max, lift weights, then do the test again. If it improves, we know that weight training improved their aerobic endurance.
Researchers have found that people who are newer to exercise have a greater boost in their aerobic abilities from weight training than those who’ve been doing it for longer. In the same vein, older people see more benefit from weight training, possibly because they’re building muscle that they lost from aging.
While weight training can’t make you a marathon runner, it can certainly boost your aerobic performance. In other words, you don’t have to skip weight training if you want to do an endurance activity. In fact, it may actually help.