Welcome to our Muscle Quality series. Be sure to check out the other articles in this series: Muscle Quality: Improving It Will Change Your LifeMuscle Quality and the Neurological System: Part 1Muscle Quality and the Neurological System: Part 2, and Muscle Quality and Fat Loss.

Muscle Quality


Perhaps the most misunderstood concept of exercise surrounds the idea of “exercising for the heart.”  The main reasons we should exercise are to live longer, be healthier, and feel good about ourselves.  However, we often hear, or say to ourselves, that we “exercise for our heart”, “run for our cardio,” or that we have to “get on an elliptical for 40 minutes for cardiovascular fitness”.  But what exactly do these things mean?  Often, the association is made between aerobic work (low intensity, long duration), and improved cardiovascular function.  I believe when people say they need to, “get their cardio in”, they are referring to an idea that they need to sustain a heart rate for a period of time in order to “work their heart.”  The thinking is that the heart rate must go up, and that’s the goal.  But, the better question is, “What causes the heart rate to rise?”  “How is my cardiovascular fitness going to improve?” “What is the best way to attain this goal?”

Let’s further explore cardiovascular fitness.

What do we want from exercise?  This is the question we have been answering for the past several weeks.  We have discussed the neurological changes that occur, as well as how exercise drives fat loss, all because we improve muscle quality.  With all of the adaptations that occur, it is the exercise as stimulus, and it is the right intensity that must be applied.  There’s no better illustration of this concept than the notion of exercising for cardiovascular fitness.  One thing we have seen over the years is that there is not a clear understanding between cardiovascular fitness and coronary heart disease prevention.  There’s a big difference!  However, the link between the two is muscle quality.  As it improves, so improves your cardiovascular fitness and your health.

Let’s define cardiovascular fitness and its various components.


Cardiovascular fitness is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the working muscle tissues, and the ability of the muscles to use oxygen to produce energy for movement.  This type of fitness is a health-related component of physical fitness that is brought about by sustained physical activity.  A person’s ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles is affected by many physiological parameters, including heart rate, stroke volume, cardiac output, and maximal oxygen consumption.

Heart rate: The number of beats per minute

Stroke volume: Volume of blood pumped from one ventricle of the heart with each beat

Cardiac output: Volume of blood being pumped by the heart, in particular by a left or right ventricle in the time interval of one minute

The most common and important reason why we should exercise is to be healthy, live longer, and feel good.  At The Exercise Coach®, our passion is to improve the quality of people’s lives.  We have been doing this for over a decade with just two, 20 minute exercise sessions a week.  The biggest objection we hear initially is, “What about cardio?” Well, that’s our next question –  what about it???  Because we have been force fed by the fitness industry, media, and government telling us we need to “exercise,” for 45 minutes a day, “for our heart,” this notion has become so ingrained in us, that we believe we “must do cardio.”  Whatever that means!  Well, what exactly does “cardio” or “cardiovascular fitness” mean, and how does it help us be healthy, live longer, and feel good?

As stated previously, “Cardiovascular fitness” is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the working muscle tissues and the ability of the muscles to use oxygen to produce energy for movement.

One of the main functions of the heart and lungs is to supply oxygen-rich blood to our body.  Our muscles need varying amounts of oxygen.  If we are sitting or sleeping, our heart rate is a lot lower than if we are in the middle of a workout, right?  The difference, of course, is how hard our muscles are working.  So the increased heart rate is the result of muscular work.  This is a crucial point: first fatigue the muscles, then the heart rate goes up.

Now, if our goal is to improve cardiovascular fitness, we want to improve the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles.  This is determined by a person’s ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles, and this is affected by many physiological parameters including heart rate, stroke volume, cardiac output, and maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max).  The question is, how best to do that.


VO2 max refers to the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise, most typically on a motorized treadmill.  Maximal oxygen consumption reflects the aerobic physical fitness of the individual, and is an important determinant of their endurance capacity during prolonged, sub-maximal exercise.

VO2 max is something that can actually be measured clinically. Fortunately, we can look to research to provide answers as to what works the best.

Research shows the greater the effort put forth by the individual the greater the improvement in their VO2 max.*  So if the goal is to improve your VO2 max, rest assured your personal trainer at The Exercise Coach® has you covered!

Unfortunately, VO2 max is something that can also be manipulated and is not a great way to gauge true cardiovascular fitness.  A great example of this is a story Dr. Doug McGuff retells in his book, Body By Science.  McGuff recalls his time in the Air Force when he was a part of a group that were told they had two weeks to prepare for their VO2 max test.  Well, several of the group members were competitive runners who assumed their aerobic fitness was just fine.  Conversely, there was an overweight and deconditioned person in the group who decided to just replicate the test by using the exact bike, resistance, and time.  I bet you can guess who had the best score…yes, the overweight, deconditioned guy.

Moreover, research studies are littered with before and after VO2 max studies that reflect no change whatsoever.  How can this be true?  Well, maybe because VO2 max testing is not a reflection of cardiovascular fitness at all!

While VO2 max typically refers to our lung capacity, others associate a degree of cardiovascular fitness being more related to muscular endurance.  Specifically, it is our ability to perform endurance tasks such as walking, running, or climbing multiple flights of stairs without feeling out of breath at their completion.  These are specific muscular actions in sports that demand specific sport training in order to participate and compete.

Back in my basketball playing days, when I started to condition in preparation for an upcoming season, it didn’t make too much of a difference how much sprinting and interval work I did.  When basketball practice started, I was still gassed because I couldn’t replicate the intensity and action of a high-level basketball scrimmage.  This is why we hear athletes always talk about being in “football shape” or “basketball shape,” because conditioning is specific to the actions being performed.

Although the true definition of cardiovascular fitness is aerobic capacity, and while some may define it as more of an ability to perform muscular enduring tasks, the argument can be made that they are relatively similar.  As we discussed above, both of these fitness components can be improved much more by improving muscle quality compared to conventional “cardio”.  However, through my experience, it seems the majority of people are more concerned with improving their cardiovascular health, rather than their cardiovascular fitness, in order to live longer, be healthier, and have more energy. There’s no doubt The Exercise Coach® approach, which emphasizes “muscle quality” over “movement quantity,” sets us apart from the field, and sets up our clients to be healthier, happier, and enjoying strength well into their senior years.

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*Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise published a review examining the effects of intensity training on VO2 max and they found, the greater the intensity the greater the improvement in VO2 max!  (Med Sci Sports Exerc. Shannan E. Gormley, David P. Swain, Renee High, Robert J. Spina, Elizabeth A. Dowling, Ushasri S. Kotipalli, Ramya Gandrakota; 2008;40(7):1336-1343.)

Read the rest of this series:

Muscle Quality: Improving It Will Change Your Life

Muscle Quality and the Neurological System: Part 1

Muscle Quality and the Neurological System: Part 2

Muscle Quality and Fat Loss

Muscle Quality and “Cardio”

Muscle Quality and Cardiovascular Health

The Downside to prolonged “Cardio”

Muscle Quality and Osteoporosis

How to Combat Osteoporosis through Strength Training

Muscle Quality and Gastrointestinal Health

Muscle Quality and Inflammation

Muscle Quality and Brain Health

Muscle Quality and The Endocrine System: Part 1

Muscle Quality and The Endocrine System: Part 2