Are Squats Cardio or Strength?

Are Squats Cardio

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of people say that squats give you plenty of cardio. And after stepping out of the squat rack, I’m usually sucking air like I just ran a 7-minute mile, so I get it.

But how do squats actually compare to cardio in terms of calories burned and cardiovascular conditioning?

This article answers that question by breaking down exercise physiology in simple terms and using real-world examples. So you’ll fully understand the training benefits of squats vs cardio.

First, let me provide a short answer to the main question. Then I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of squats vs cardio.

Are Squats Cardio?

No, squats are not considered cardio due to the energy pathways used during the movement. Instead, squats are a strength training exercise that builds the muscles of the lower body.

However, squats can burn fat and even improve your cardiovascular system depending on the load, reps, sets, and rest periods. These variables affect exercise intensity and heart rate.

So it’s critical to understand how your heart rate changes with various exercise intensities, specifically aerobic and anaerobic exercise.

Are Squats Cardio 2

Are Squats Aerobic or Anaerobic?

By definition, cardio is aerobic and weightlifting is anaerobic. Therefore, squats are anaerobic and are not considered cardio.

Cardio and strength training differ by heart rate and oxygen consumption. When exercise intensity increases, your heart beats faster to keep up with your body’s oxygen and energy demands.

With low to medium-intensity cardio exercise like jogging or biking, your heart and lungs supply enough oxygen to sustain the activity for long periods. This kind of exercise is called aerobic, meaning “with oxygen.”

When your body uses oxygen faster than your heart and lungs can supply it, you cannot sustain the activity longer than about 90 seconds. This kind of exercise is called anaerobic or “without oxygen.”

The chart below shows the heart rate zones and their corresponding training benefits. Each zone is represented by a percentage of your maximum heart rate.

Are squats cardio - heart rate

Figure 1. Your maximum heart rate decreased with age. So the aerobic and anaerobic training zones also shift downward as you get older.

Squats vs Cardio Heart Rate

To illustrate the anaerobic vs aerobic nature of squats and cardio, let’s look at actual heart rates during each exercise.

Below is a screenshot from my heart rate monitor during a typical leg workout. The highlighted part of the graph represents my heart rate during sets of barbell squats with a weight I can do for 8-12 reps.

As you can see, squats elevate your heart rate rapidly into the anaerobic and even maximum effort zones. While resting 1-3 minutes between sets brings it back down to a moderate level.

Are Squats Cardio Anaerobic Heart Rate

Figure 2. This graph shows heart rate spikes during sets of barbell squats and the return to a moderate level after a few minutes of resting between sets. You’ll notice that squats are the most intense exercise in a leg workout, with some nearing max heart rate. The dashed line represents my average heart rate during squats, which is right between the aerobic and anaerobic zones, also called the anaerobic threshold.

During high-intensity exercise, your body breaks down carbs and phosphagens for energy, known as the ATP pathway. But this form of energy quickly depletes, and you must rest briefly before attempting another set or bout of exercise.

In contrast, lower intensity exercises like riding a bike burn oxygen and fatty acids. So you can sustain cardio or aerobic exercise for extended periods.

To illustrate, the graph below shows my heart rate during a 20-minute bike ride. You can see a couple of spikes up into the anaerobic zone caused by climbing a steep hill. But overall, my average heart rate was in the aerobic zone, which is why I could ride continuously.

Are Squats Cardio Aerobic Heart Rate

Figure 3. This graph shows my heart rate during a 2.7 mile bike ride with a few uphill and downhill sections. In this case, my average heart rate was on the line between the fat burning and aerobic zones, which is the best way to burn the maximum calories from fat during cardio.

If you’re interested in measuring your heart rate during exercise, I recommend purchasing a chest-strap heart rate monitor. Personally, I use the Polar H10 heart rate monitor during resistance training and cardio workouts.

This type of sensor is more accurate than devices you wear on your wrist and provides excellent data on exercise intensity and calories burned. Plus, it helps you keep the right pace during cardio or know when to start the next set in the gym.

You can pick one up on Amazon by clicking the link below. And download the Polar Beat app to see your real-time heart rate charts.

Squats vs HIIT Cardio

While squats differ significantly from low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS), they are relatively similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

HIIT involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise like sprints followed by longer rest periods of low-intensity exercise like walking. As a result, your heart rate spikes and falls much as it does during barbell squats.

Moreover, the goal of HIIT is not necessarily to improve cardiovascular fitness like LISS. But rather to burn more calories in less time by maintaining an elevated average heart rate.

Squats vs HIIT Cardio

Figure 4. This graph shows typical heart rate curves for HIIT vs LISS cardio workouts. Notice how the HIIT graph looks almost identical to the squat workout heart rate graph in Figure 2!

Both HIIT and squats improve your fitness differently from steady-state cardio. By working at or above 80% of your maximum heart rate, you get better at sustaining high-intensity exercise, and you can even increase your maximum heart rate.

For example, I’m currently 36 years old, but my maximum heart rate is equivalent to that of a 24 year old (196 bpm instead of 184 bpm). One reason for this is that I regularly train in the anaerobic and maximum heart rate zones with high-intensity weightlifting.

So even though squats won’t improve your mile time, they do improve your overall fitness.

Squats vs Cardio Calories Burned

The higher your heart rate, the more calories you burn per minute of activity. Therefore, high-intensity exercises like heavy squats burn more calories than lower-intensity cardio exercises.

For example, my average heart rate during four sets of barbell squats was around 155 beats per minute (bpm). This bpm corresponds to 79% of my maximum heart rate.

By comparison, my average heart rate was around 137 bpm for the 20-minute bike ride. And that is equivalent to 70% of my max heart rate.

Since there is a direct correlation between heart rate and calories burned, we can easily estimate how many calories I burned during each activity.

Squats vs Cardio Calories Burned

Figure 5. This graph shows the direct positive correlation between exercise intensity and the rate of calorie burn. The dashed lines show the average heart rate and calories burned per minute during my actual squat and cardio workouts.

Overall, squats burned about 15 calories per minute. After 20 minutes, that’s 300 calories burned lifting weights.

In contrast, a challenging bike ride burned about 12 calories per minute. That means 20 minutes of biking burned 240 calories.

Therefore, squats generally burn more calories per minute and more total calories than low to medium-intensity cardio. And in this specific example, squats burned 25% more calories.

Squats vs Cardio FAQ

Now you know how squats compare to different types of cardio. But I’m sure you still have some questions about squats and cardio.

So in this section, I’ll do my best to answer the most common squat/cardio questions.

Why do squats feel like cardio?

Like cardio, squats elevate your heart rate and make you breathe hard. So a few heavy sets of squats actually feel a lot like the pounding heart and heavy breathing you experience after some vigorous cardio.

However, despite this similar feeling, squats and cardio are still quite different in how they train your body.

Are squats better than cardio?

Squats are generally better than cardio for burning calories due to the higher intensity and heart rate. And they are definitely better if your goal is to build or maintain lean muscle mass.

That said, squats are not superior to cardio exercises for improving cardiovascular conditioning and burning calories from fat.

Do squats build muscular endurance?

Doing squats with a lighter weight that you can handle for 15 or more reps builds muscular endurance. However, you lose the strength-building benefits of squats when you train with higher reps.

Can I do squats as cardio if I do higher reps with less weight?

Even with very light weights, you probably can’t sustain any squat movement for longer than 75-90 seconds. So technically, this is not considered an aerobic or cardio exercise.

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Are bodyweight/air squats cardio?

While you can probably rep out dozens of bodyweight squats or air squats, this is still not considered a cardio exercise. However, you could use them as part of a circuit training program to burn calories and fat while improving general fitness.

Are jump squats cardio?

Jump squats are essentially a step up in difficulty from bodyweight squats. Therefore, you probably can’t sustain this exercise for any significant time. As such, jump squats are not considered cardio.

Again though, you could include this exercise in a circuit training program to burn fat and improve fitness.

Will squats improve my cardiovascular fitness?

Heavy squats for 8-12 reps with shorter rest periods can increase your anaerobic threshold. In other words, you get better at sustaining exercise at 80-85% of your max heart rate.

However, squats do not improve your cardiovascular fitness in the aerobic range or 60-80% of your max heart rate. So if you only do squats, you will be out of breath quickly when you go for a jog.

Do squats burn belly fat or thigh fat?

Squats burn calories, and some of those calories come from fat. But it’s important to realize that squats do not “spot reduce” body fat from specific body parts like the belly or thighs.

Instead, squats help you burn more calories to create the overall calorie deficit necessary to lose weight and fat all over your body.

More Benefits of Squats

In this article, you learned how squats can help you build lower body muscle while also improving certain aspects of your cardiovascular fitness. But squats provide many more benefits beyond that.

Click here to learn all 21 Benefits of Squats for Men & Women.

Benefits of Squats For Men And Women
Benefits of Squats

With this information, you’re better equipped to optimize your workouts. Check out the additional articles below for more tips on all things fitness!

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