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5 Resistance Training Workouts that Improve VO2max
By Zachary Mang, PhD, Amber Logan and Len Kravitz, PhD

Improved VO2max: Why it Matters
The relationship between maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max), cardiovascular disease (CVD), coronary heart disease (CHD) and mortality is well-defined. Overall, the higher an individual's VO2max, the lower his/her risk for developing CVD, CHD and diseases that lead to increased mortality (Kodama et al., 2009). Kodama et al. evaluated 33 studies to identify the relationship between VO2max, CVD, CHD and mortality in healthy men and women. The researchers used a statistical method for combining data from multiple studies called a meta-analysis. Studies included in this meta-analysis study assessed VO2max via an exercise stress test, with results expressed in METs. One MET, which is a person's resting metabolic rate, is 3.5 ml oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute (mL O2/kg/min). From the data of over 100,000 participants, it was concluded that a 1 MET increase in VO2max is associated with a 13% and 15% decrease in risk of all-cause mortality and CHD and CVD, respectively. The findings from this study also showed that men and women with VO2max values of 7.9 METs or higher had substantially lower rates of CHD and CVD events. This large investigation clearly demonstrates that increases in VO2max leads to meaningful benefits of cardiometabolic health.

What Type of Circuit Weight Training Programs Improve VO2max?
For many clients, finding time to exercise for cardiorespiratory fitness and musculoskeletal health is challenging and often a barrier to adherence in exercise, particularly with the challenges of living with COVID-19. Fitness professionals regularly seek program design ideas that can optimize the health-related goals of clients in a most time-efficient manner. Below are brief descriptions of three circuit weight training (CWT) workouts with women and men, from actual training studies, that were shown to significantly improve VO2max.

CWT Study #1: Gettman et al. (1982) recruited 77 healthy, middle age (35-36 years old) females and males to participate in a 12-week training study. After extensive baseline screening for cardiovascular risk factors, participants were randomly assigned to three groups: circuit training, concurrent (aerobics and resistance) training, and a non-exercising control. For the CWT (the focus of this article), participants trained 3 days/week, and the circuit consisted of 10 exercises that alternated between upper and lower body. The exercises were as follows: squat, shoulder press, knee flexion, bench press, leg press, elbow flexion, back extension, triceps extension, abdominal sit up, and vertical chest flyes. All exercises were performed at 40% of 1-RM (measured every two weeks). The participants did 12-15 repetitions in 30-second sets with 15 seconds of rest between exercises. A total of 3 circuits were completed each of the sessions. After 36 sessions (3 days/week, 12-weeks), the CWT group increased their VO2max 12%, and also had significant improvements lower body strength and upper body strength.

CWT Study #2: Piras et al. (2015) investigated 12 weeks of circuit training versus a HIIT training group. The CWT was comprised of 10 healthy male and female participants with an average age of 24 years. The participants were recreationally active and free of any musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory disease. The CWT program consisted of the following six exercises performed in this rotational order: chest press, leg extension, latissimus dorsi pull-down, leg curl, shoulder press and seated heel raise. Participants performed 15 repetitions of each exercise at an intensity of 55-60% of the 1-RM for each exercise. After performing all 6 exercises, with no rest between exercises, all participants rested one minute and then repeated the circuit. This circuit was completed a total of 4 times on 3 nonconsecutive days per week. The CWT group showed an improvement in maximal aerobic capacity of 8.0%. It should be noted that during each workout the participants wore a heart rate monitor and completed each workout at 60%-80% of maximal heart rate.

CWT Study #3: Kaikkonen et al. (2000) recruited 90 (male = 45, female = 45) middle age, sedentary, but otherwise healthy adults and randomly assigned them to non-exercise control, endurance training, and CWT groups. Trainings took place 3 days/week for 12 weeks. The CWT group performed 3 rounds of 10 exercises on air resistance machines with a work to rest ratio of 40 second work:20 second relief. Intensity was fixed at 20% of 1-RM, with 25-50 repetitions performed at each station. The exercises in the circuit included leg extension, leg curl, abdomen curl-up, back extension, leg abduction, leg adduction, body twist right, body twist left, push-up, and a pull-down exercise. After 12 weeks of training the CWT demonstrated an improvement of 11% in VO2max. The participants wore a heart rate monitor and completed each workout at 70-80% of maximal heart rate.

Can Body Weight Circuit Training Improve VO2max?
Myers et al. (2015) recruited 34 sedentary, but otherwise healthy, college age females and randomly assigned them to a combined (traditional resistance training and endurance exercise) (n=17) or CWT (n=17) training. The CWT participants exercised 3 days/week (non-consecutive days) for 5 weeks, with just their body weight for external resistance. See Table 1 for an example of the 5-week training program exercises and sequence. The researchers provided repetition goals for each exercise. The participants were instructed to complete the circuit as many times as possible in. 30-minute period, with minimal rest. After 15 sessions, the participants in the CWT group significantly improved their VO2peak by +11%. A key message from this study is that 90-weekly minutes of body weight CWT improved maximal aerobic capacity.

Is there any Unique Variation of Traditional Resistance Training that Also Improve VO2max?
Haennel et al. (1989) recruited 32 middle age males with below average aerobic fitness and randomly assigned them to four groups: non-exercising control, endurance training, and two resistance training groups (explained below). Participants trained 3 days/week for 9 weeks, with each workout lasting less then 30 minutes. Unlike circuit training, where enthusiasts rotate sequentially from station to station, in this study participants completed three sets for each exercise and then moved to the next station similar to traditional resistance training programs. The exercises performed each workout included the following movement patterns: knee extension, knee flexion, leg press, elbow extension, elbow flexion, chest press, shoulder extension, shoulder flexion and plantar flexion. For each exercise station the participants did three consecutive sets of the exercise performing 20 seconds of work (for each set) followed by 20 seconds of rest. After the third set of an exercise, there was an 80-second rest before starting the next exercise. One resistance training group performed the maximal number of repetitions (MAXrep) for each 20-second set. The second resistance training group performed 70-85% of the maximum number of repetitions (SUBrep). It should be noted that the intensity settings on the hydraulic equipment were similar for the MAXrep and SUBrep training groups on all exercises. As intended, the SUBrep group performed ~14 repetitions per set while the MAXrep group performed ~16 repetitions per set. After 9 weeks of training the SUBrep group increased their VO2max by 12.5% and the MAXrep group increased their VO2max by 11.3%. Uniquely, this non-traditional “rapid fire” approach to training elicited very favorable results for improving VO2max for the SUBrep and MAXrep groups.

Summary Thoughts
A major take-away of this article for fitness professions to share with their clients is that people with higher VO2max capacities have more favorable cardiometabolic health and lower risk for cardiovascular diseases. The evidence-based workouts summarized in this paper appreciably substantiate that creatively designed, time-efficient resistance training workouts can deliver outstanding results. Get On It!

Table 1. 5-Week Whole-Body Circuit Workout
Week 1: Exercise(repetitions)
Squats(15), Push-ups(5), Lunges(10/leg), Plank(45 sec), Sprint(200 meters), Mountain Climbers(10/leg), Leg Drop Abdominal exercises(10)

Week 2: Exercise(repetitions)
Sprint(200 meters), Step Back Lunges(10/leg), Squat to Calf Raise(20), Push-up Fly(15), Sprint(200 meters), Push-up Planks(10), Leg Drop Abdominal exercises(15)

Week 3: Exercise(repetitions)
Squats(25), Leg Lifts from Push-up Position(10), Push-ups(20), Clock lunges(5), Sprint(200 meters), Plank with Knee Tucks(15), Scissor Kicks(30)

Week 4: Exercise(repetitions)
Mountain Climbers(15/leg), Sprint(200 meters), Speed Squats(30), Push-ups(15), Push-up to Plank(10), Squat Jumps(15), Round the World Plank(4), Leg Drop with Hip Thrust(15), Side Plank Hip Drops(15/side)

Week 5: Exercise(repetitions)
Crossover knee tucks(20), Squat Jump Lunge Combo(10), Speed Push-Ups(20), Sprint(200 meters), Side Plank Hip Drops(10/side), Crossover Lunges(10/leg)

Source: Adapted from Myers et al., 2015
Side Bar 1. What Common Characteristics Are Observed with CWT Programs that Improve VO2max.
There are several common training characteristics of the three highlighted CWT programs that improve VO2max presented above. For instance, they all include 6-10 exercises in a circuit that is repeated 3-4 times for a workout lasting up to 30 minutes. Exercise intensities range from 30% to 60% of 1-RM. Rest between each exercise is from no rest to 20 seconds. When wearing a heart rate monitor, it appears that a heart rate intensity of 60-80% of heart rate maximum is maintained during the workout. With all programs highlighted above, a 3 nonconsecutive-days/week training schedule was completed.

Zachary Mang, PhD received his doctorate in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His research interests include resistance training for skeletal muscle hypertrophy, oxidative adaptations to resistance training, and the utilization of resistance training as a frontline defense to thwart chronic disease.

Amber L. Logan, B.S. is a Physical Therapy Student at Duke University. Her research interests include exercise for clinical populations and disease prevention as well as physical therapy rehabilitation for neurological populations.

Len Kravitz, PhD, CSCS, is the program coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, where he received the Outstanding Teacher of the Year and Presidential Award of Distinction. His third book is HIIT Your Limit: High-Intensity Interval Training (Amazon).

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Haennel R, Teo K-K, Kappagoda T. (1989). Effects of hydraulic circuit training on cardiovascular function. Medicine and Science and Sports and Exercise. 21(5), 605-612.
Kaikkonen H, Yrjämä M, Silanderm E, et al. (2000). The effect of heart rate controlled low resistance circuit weight training and endurance training on maximal aerobic power in sedentary adults. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 10, 211-215.
Kodama, S., Saito, K., Tanaka, S., et al. (2009). Cardiorespiratory fitness as a quantitative predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events in healthy men and women, JAMA, 301(19), 2024-2035.
Myers TR, Schneider MG, Schmale MS, et al. (2015). Whole-body aerobic resistance training circuit improves aerobic fitness and muscle strength in sedentary young females. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29(6), 1592-1600.
Piras, A., Persiani, M., Damiani, N., et al. (2015). Peripheral heart action training as a valid substitute to high intensity interval training to improve resting cardiovascular changes and autonomic adaptation. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 115, 763-773.