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Resistance Training to Momentary Muscular Failure Improves Cardiovascular Fitness in Humans: A Review of Acute Physiological Responses and Chronic Physiological Adaptations

added Sep 4, 13, updated Oct 17, 13
most detailed summaries by Paul Ingraham


This paper makes the case that relatively brief, intense doses of muscular training may be able to build cardiovascular fitness about as well as steady-state aerobic exercise (like, say, running). This conclusion is mostly supported by comparing what is known about physiological responses to these types of exercise (it’s not a report on the results of a controlled experiment directly comparing the two).

It’s a controversial idea that many exercise physiologists denigrate as a pet theory. Who’s pet? Why, the authors of this paper! Steele and McGuff are particularly well-known for their association with a strength training method, high-intensity training (HIT). Their conclusion here, if true, would obviously be great news for HIT — because it suggests that HIT is good for general fitness, not just bodybuilding. So the risk of bias is high. But biased opinions can be valid, and there’s nothing obviously wrong with this paper. This is probably their boldest statement: “Identifying a particular modality of exercise as being ‘aerobic’ or ‘CV’ constitutes a misnomer. The extent that any modality of exercise produces CV fitness adaptations appears to be dependent primarily upon the intensity of the exercise.” That could be true, but perhaps a bit overconfident, because (as they acknowledge) there just isn’t much experimental data about this yet — and it does seem a little far-fetched that athletes who did only resistance training would stand a chance competing in an endurance event. But it is possible they would do much better than we think. The biology does seem to support the claim, at least well enough to make it plausible and worth testing.

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J Steele, J Fisher, Doug McGuff, S Bruce-Low, and D Smith
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Journal of Exercise Physiology


Research demonstrates resistance training produces significant improvement in cardiovascular fitness (VO2 max, economy of movement). To date no review article has considered the underlying physiological mechanisms that might support such improvements. This article is a comprehensive, systematic narrative review of the literature surrounding the area of resistance training, cardiovascular fitness and the acute responses and chronic adaptations it produces. The primary concern with existing research is the lack of clarity and inappropriate quantification of resistance training intensity. Thus, an important consideration of this review is the effect of intensity. The acute metabolic and molecular responses to resistance training to momentary muscular failure do not differ from that of traditional endurance training. Myocardial function appears to be maintained, perhaps enhanced, in acute response to high intensity resistance training, and contraction intensity appears to mediate the acute vascular response to resistance training. The results of chronic physiological adaptations demonstrate that resistance training to momentary muscular failure produces a number of physiological adaptations, which may facilitate the observed improvements in cardiovascular fitness. The adaptations may include an increase in mitochondrial enzymes, mitochondrial proliferation, phenotypic conversion from type IIx towards type IIa muscle fibers, and vascular remodeling (including capillarization). Resistance training to momentary muscular failure causes sufficient acute stimuli to produce chronic physiological adaptations that enhance cardiovascular fitness. This review appears to be the first to present this conclusion and, therefore, it may help stimulate a changing paradigm addressing the misnomer of ‘cardiovascular’ exercise as being determined by modality.

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