If you regularly lift you’re probably thinking of your heart. There’s a lot of good information that gets swept under the rug (like the value of knowing your target heart rate) and a lot of myths that get too much attention (like exaggerated heart problems in the lifting community). Fortunately, HTBM is here to set the record straight on heart health.
A Note on Blood and Exercise
We’re an exercise blog, so we generally don’t get too deep into the physiology of how your body works. But, an article on heart health may merit a slightly deeper dive – specifically into why blood flow actually matters for your workout.
Blood circulates through your body removing waste (including that nasty lactic acid that contributes to muscle soreness) and depositing nutrients that your body needs to function. That includes the nutrients that your muscles use to lift weights, support your body and propel you through water as you swim, or pump your legs as you run or bike.
Perhaps the most important chemicals that blood moves are oxygen and carbon dioxide. Oxygen is used in the generation of energy, so you need more of it when you’re being physically active. Similarly, carbon dioxide is a waste product of energy production, so more physical activity means more carbon dioxide to get rid of.
The blood is able to move these gasses because of the iron-rich molecule hemoglobin (Derickson & Tortora, 668). The iron in hemoglobin carries oxygen in and carbon dioxide out – which is part of why iron landed on our list of vitamins and minerals that contribute to muscle growth.
Heart Health and VO2 Max
The amount of oxygen that your body has available to do a given activity is called your VO2 Max – “VO2” short for “Volume of Oxygen” (Abernathey et al. 164). How much oxygen you have available is a function of your heart’s efficiency and your lungs’ efficiency. We have a whole other article focusing on VO2 and pulmonary health, so check that out if you haven’t already.
Your heart’s efficiency consists primarily of heart rate and stroke volume (ibid 168). You should be familiar with heart rate – how fast your heart is beating, usually measured in beats per minute. Stroke volume is the measure of how much blood your heart moves per beat. Both can be optimized through physical activity and a mindful diet.
What to Know About Heart Rate and Exercise
A lot of people gauge how much they’re getting from their workout by how it makes their body feel. But, if you’re a more analytical person that likes to do things more objectively, understanding your heartrate is a great way to bring more numbers into your workout log particularly if you have specific interest in heart health.
Your body automatically increases your heartbeat when it needs more blood, and your heart can only beat so fast. Your estimated maximum heart rate is widely to be expected to be around 220 minus your age. A combination of moderate activity (50%-70% of max heart rate) and vigorous activity (70%-80% of max heart rate) is recommended for maximum heart health.
Here’s an interesting way to look at it: Moderate and vigorous activity are to your heart rate what toning and building are to your one rep max. This isn’t exactly one-to-one, but remember, your heart is a muscle.
Moderate activity helps your heart to stay fit and build endurance. Vigorous activity can actually increase your heart’s muscle mass and increase what it can do each time that it pumps. Both of these have benefits for longterm heart health, but they also have very real short-term benefits in terms of your workout. Healthier heart means heftier workouts.
Speaking of short term and long term, you can increase your heart health by minding how you use your body but you can also preserve your heart health by minding what you put into your body. Substances like alcohol and tobacco can negatively impact your heart health. Of course on the short term that can nerf your workout, but on the long term it can take time off your life.
What to Know about Stroke Volume and Exercise
The other half of cardiac output and its influence on VO2 Max comes from stroke volume – how much blood your heart moves with each beat. This is a factor of the size of your heart, as well as your heart health and the health of the rest of your vascular system – the veins and arteries through which blood moves.
You may think that the size of your heart would directly improve your stroke volume. To a point, that’s true. A beefier, more muscular heart can pump more blood per beat. However, this has its limits. If the walls of your heart get too think, it can actually decrease the amount of blood that your heart can move per beat.
Think of your heart as like a house. You want the house to be strong, so you build the walls thicker. As the walls get thicker, you can fit fewer people inside. So, heart health and heart sixe aren’t exactly one-to-one.
For most people, this isn’t a problem. But, for extreme athletes or those that use dangerous or illicit substance to pump their gains, it can be a problem. It’s also the source of some nasty rumors about weight lifting and heart health that we’ll get to the bottom of in a moment.
Diet and substances play a huge role in maximizing stroke volume and general heart health as well. Nicotine in particular can be hard on your circulatory system. Unhealthy fats might be even more significant.
Too much fat circulating in your blood can actually begin to accumulate in your blood vessels. Your heart can work as hard as it wants, if your vessels are clogged with other stuff, the blood can’t get through. Heart health without vascular health is difficult to manage and useless to maintain.
Debunking a Myth About Lifting and Heart Health
If you’re a big lifter, you might worry about your heart health. About your heart getting too healthy. Indeed, there are horror stories out there about muscle men having heart problems because of their over-the-top lifting routine.
This has happened, but not to just anyone. We’re talking John Henry-style situations. And it’s not just true of weight lifters, either. Cleveland Clinic reminds us, however, that these are extreme athletes in extreme situations.
However, athletes – even sub-extreme athletes – can develop larger hearts. As we said above, this is bound to happen with enough activity, as the heart is a muscle. The “condition” is even called “athlete’s heart.” And, it isn’t a negative thing in terms of heart health.
That is, as long as the heart is growing because the individual is working out. Sometimes what looks like athlete’s heart is really a serious medical condition. This is one of the many, many reasons that you should maintain a close relationship with your primary care physician – particularly if you are new to weight lifting or haven’t started yet.
In fact, the opposite of this myth is true. Many people who experience heart problems are recommended to work out more, and even lift weights more because of the positive impact that lifting has on heart health. That is, provided you don’t hulk out too much too often.
Even that doesn’t mean that you should take it upon yourself to add heavy lifting to your post-op recovery plan. If you have a history of heart problems, even seemingly minor ones like arrhythmia, talk to your doctor before you start working out.
A Quick Note on Caffeine and Sodium
We mentioned above that you’re more likely to run into heart problems if you use illicit substances, or abuse legal substance in your pursuit of gains. Or, for that matter, if you (over)indulge in less-than-wholesome substances like nicotine and alcohol. We’ve also touched on the importance of minding your fat sources.
However, there are two more pantry staples that we need to talk about when it comes to heart health for the lifter. Those are caffeine and sodium.
Caffeine can make your heart beat faster. Some athletes even try to take advantage of this. If you drink an energy drink – including some fruit juice cocktails – you can get into your workout with a slightly higher heart rate anyway. And, faster heart means more O2, means more lifting power, right?
Well yes, but that caffeine increases your heart rate no matter what. If your heart rate is going to go up because of your exercise anyway, what you’re really doing is reducing the amount of workout that you need to put in to get to that 70%-80% max heart rate that we talked about above. And, don’t even get us started on going over 80%.
A little caffeine before – or even during – your workout can help to get you going. That’s particularly true if you’re an early morning riser or just don’t feel like your routine on any given day. But, you shouldn’t be drinking so much caffeine that you notice your heart rate going up before you get to the bench.
And remember, it takes caffeine about half-an-hour to start taking effect. So, if you pound an energy drink in the parking lot and hit the gym, you might not feel it when you start your workout but it’ll catch up to you eventually.
Sodium is significant for the opposite reason. It doesn’t increase your heart rate, it increases your blood pressure. That is, the pressure that your blood exerts on the interior walls of your heart and blood vessels. That means more wear-and-tear on your blood vessels, but it also means that your heart has to work harder to move your blood.
You might not have thought of sodium impacting your workout too much before, but if you’ve ever struggled with weightloss or tried to fit into the next weight class, you might have thought about it in a different way: water weight. It’s actually two sides of the same coin. Sodium (and other salts) make your body hold onto water, which is a constituent of blood.
Sodium has a more gradual impact than caffeine, so getting in a workout an hour after you had a salty meal shouldn’t be too dangerous – provided you’re staying hydrated, which you should be anyway. However, if your diet is generally salty, you could have higher resting blood pressure.
We didn’t talk a lot about blood pressure in this article, and we aren’t going too. But, just like you don’t want to go into a workout with already elevated heart rate, you don’t want to go into a workout with already elevated blood pressure.
Signs of Over Exertion
We’ve talked a lot about workouts and heart health – including how, when, and why your workout can push your heart too far. But, how do you know when that’s happened before it’s too late?
Pushing your body too far is called “over-exertion” and it can have serious health risks. Fortunately, there are some symptoms that should let you catch it.
If you’re in the middle of an intense workout and start to notice:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or nausea
Stop. It could be a sign that your body is trying to catch up with you. It could also be the beginning of a “runner’s high” – a feeling of euphoria that some people get while working out because their bodies are releasing endorphins and other feel-good chemicals.
Unless you feel like you might pass out, you don’t necessarily need to panic, just sit down, drink some water, and let your exercise buddy know that something’s up. If you don’t notice anything but your exercise buddy says you look off or might be hitting it too hard, listen to them.
Once you’ve been sitting for a few minutes and had something to drink, maybe even a little something to eat, check back in with yourself and your exercise buddy. If you feel better, consider taking the rest of the day off anyway. If you don’t feel better or feel worse, consider talking to gym staff or even going to the hospital.
Mind Your Heart
Those are the ups and downs of exercise and heart health. Of course, this was essentially an introduction. It could be said that every article on heart health is also an article about exercise and vice-versa. So, keep coming back to bulk up your brain. After you get back from the gym, that is.
Abernathy, Bruce; Hanrahan, Stephanie J.; McManus, Alison M.; Kippers, Vaughan; Pandy, Marcus G.; Mackinnon, Laurel. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement.” 3rd Ed. Human Kinetics. Champaign IL, USA. 2013..
Derickson, Bryan & Tortora, Gerard J. “Principles of Anatomy & Physiology.” 14th Ed. Wiley. Hoboken NJ, USA. 2014.