You see people squatting with barbells in the weight section. But hang on, why are squats always included in cardio classes then? Is it a type of cardio or is it considered more on the strength training side of things?
Squats are typically seen as strength training. They are a resistance exercise that builds muscle and strength in the lower body. However, depending on how you execute them, they can also emulate the cardiovascular benefits that are typical to cardio, so they can overlap between the two fitness types.
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The Difference Between Cardio And Strength Training
So, first, let’s talk about what is classified as cardio and what’s defined as strength.
WHAT IS CARDIO?
Cardio is defined by anything that raises your heart rate and breathing rate.
By that definition, yes, vigorous weight lifting can also be categorized as cardio but here is the third marker that differs cardio from strength training—it needs to work and challenge the cardiovascular system.
There are different types of cardio training.
Most people typically think of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or LISS (low-intensity steady-state) or even playing sports like football or basketball.
HIIT is a type of cardio that encompasses short and intense sessions while LISS refers to longer, steadier bouts of cardio like a cross country run. The goal of cardio, despite which type you do, is to improve your cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
Related Article: Cardio for Beginners: 6 Mistakes to Avoid (Plus 3 Workouts)
WHAT IS STRENGTH TRAINING?
On the other hand, strength training is what you do when you have the goal of building muscular size, strength and/or endurance. The focus is on challenging your muscles.
Likewise, with cardio, there are different types of strength training that you can do such as powerlifting (focusing on the big three lifts—squat, bench and deadlift), Olympic weightlifting (snatch and clean and jerk), and hypertrophy training, just to name a few.
You can use the barbell, free weights, weight machines, or even just your own bodyweight and resistance bands.
So, Are Squats Cardio Or Strength Training?
Squats are generally considered to fall under the strength training umbrella. Even just doing bodyweight squats without the added weight of a barbell or dumbbell, it is still a resistance exercise that uses your own weight against gravity to complete. However, depending on how you do your squats, they can reap benefits that are mostly seen when doing cardiovascular exercise.
Related Article: 8 Benefits Of Doing Squats For Weight Loss
All About The Squat
We’re going to give a brief overview of the squat and how to perform it with the correct technique before we get into ways you can make them more cardio-based or strength-based. In the meantime, you can check out the FitBod app for some great ideas.
MUSCLES USED IN THE SQUAT
The squat is a compound movement that is lower body focused. It primarily works the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves. It also works your abdominal muscles as your core is what you need to engage in order to stabilize yourself and hold steady throughout the movement.
Related Article: 100 Squats A Day: Results After 1 Month
HOW TO PERFECT YOUR SQUAT FORM
There are different squat variables like the sumo squat but for now, we are going to focus on the classic squat.
Your feet width depends on the individual. Some people prefer a wider stance while others can squat with their feet narrower. A good starting point would be your feet just slightly wider than hip-width, toes facing forward.
Brace your core and squat down. Sit your hips back. Your knees should remain facing outward and open with your shoulders back and chest up. Ensure that your toes and heels remain on the ground.
You’re going to want to aim to hit parallel, meaning that your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees are making a 90-degree angle. However, if you’re a beginner, then just strive to go as low as possible. Don’t worry, depth is a work-in-progress!
Press into your heels and stand back up into the starting standing position. Make this part of the movement as explosive and powerful as possible.
How To Make Squats Strength-Based
If you want to work on making your squats stronger and building your lower body, here are some ways on how to make squats more on the strength-based side of things.
Bodyweight squats are considered strength-based already, but if you really want to work on your strength, then adding additional weight is the right way to go.
Ensuring that you’re able to squat (with depth, which is considered at parallel, or forming a 90-degree angle with your knees), with good form is the first step, whether you’re training for strength or cardio.
As you improve, you want to make sure that you’re applying progressive overload to your training.
This basically means that you’re constantly challenging your body and muscles by working them harder than what they were doing previously.
This means going from bodyweight squats to your body weight plus an additional 5kg, for example, and so forth. You can add weight in various forms such as by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell. Another method of incorporating weights is by a barbell.
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As we mentioned earlier, strength training is acting against resistance so to improve our squats with this approach, another method is to include resistance bands.
Resistance bands come in different levels so you can still adjust it to what suits you best. You want to choose one that you can keep your form while still being challenged. There are also multiple ways to use resistance bands to make your squats more strength-based:
Wrap Your Band Around Your Knees
The most popular method is by having a looped resistance band that fits around your knees so it’s harder to spread your legs.
This forces you to pay extra care on keeping your knees out so that they don’t buckle in while you squat, engaging a lot more glute muscles.
Step On The Resistance Band
For this workout, you’ll need a longer resistance band.
Step with both feet on one end of the band so that you’re standing on it. Your feet should be as wide as you typically have it when squatting.
Wrap the other end of the band around your neck.
When you squat, the band is slack but when you stand, the band should be fully extended and providing extra resistance to this exercise.
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How To Make Squats Cardio-Based
Now that you know how to make your squats more strength-based, what if you want to include squats into your cardio machine? Well, here are some ways on how you can approach your squats for cardiovascular benefits.
DO MORE OF THEM
Adding more reps and sets is also a way to progressively overload your squats to gain more strength, yes, but also if you want to add in some cardiovascular rewards, then you can do a much higher volume of squats.
In this case, you don’t have to add much weight to it since you’ll be doing many of them. Some people like to aim for a number, for example, 30 bodyweight squats or others like to do as many reps as possible (AMRAP) for a certain period of time.
Either way, this is a sure way of getting your heart rate pumping, challenging your cardiovascular endurance.
ADD A JUMP
Adding in a jump in between your squat reps definitely makes them more cardio-based than strength-based. The extra jump means that you’ll be working your cardiovascular system even more while also improving your explosive power. When you include jumps, you want a seamless segue from one rep to the next.
Begin by squatting down to parallel as normal.
As you begin to stand up, push off your toes to enter into a jump.
Make sure your legs are fully extended and your feet are off the ground.
Land by bending your knees to absorb the impact. As you do so, descend into your next squat rep.
As you practice squat jumps more, you’ll be able to squat jump more smoothly.
Squat jacks are an option too.
It’s similar to squat jumps but covers sumo squats as opposed to your typical ones. Sumo squats are when your feet are placed much wider apart than your normal squat stance.
To include the jump for this exercise, you’re going to want to jump back to a standing position with your feet together. Then, jump into your sumo squat with your feet wide apart. You’ll also find that the sumo squat will work your glutes more too.
Another way to approach your squats from a cardio perspective is to include pulse squats.
Pulse squats are squats that don’t cover the full range of motion. Instead, at the bottom of the squat, you pulse up and down a few inches either way before finishing the rep. While it may not seem like much, it definitely increases the burn to your lower body and makes you work that extra bit harder.
Squats are, by definition, considered strength training. However, there are ways that you can make them more cardio-based so that you reap the cardiovascular benefits from them, and there are also methods to keep them solely to improve strength. Whichever way you prefer to include squats in your workout, it’s important to ensure that you’re squatting with correct form to prevent injury and optimize results.
About The Author
As a health and fitness writer, Emily combines her two passions—powerlifting and writing. With a creative writing degree under her belt, she spends her mornings lifting weights, her nights putting pen to paper, and eating too many snacks in between.