Strength VS Cardio: Impact on Executive Function in Esports

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This article review looks at a study that compares strength training and aerobic training effects on executive function and attentional control. The discussion includes realistic extrapolations to esport performance via these mechanisms.


Nicholas Fulco

Physical Therapist

Nicholas Fulco PT, DPT, Cert. DN is a Physical Therapist working in outpatient orthopaedics and sports rehab. He received his undergraduate from Louisiana Tech University in Kinesiology and Health Sciences in Ruston, Louisiana. He then received a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in St. Augustine, Florida. He has worked with professional, collegiate, high school, and recreational esports and traditional sports since 2019 and currently operate in a sports medicine clinical setting. His gaming passions include FPS, MOBA, and Battle Royale games. He is a contributing author to the esports health and performance institute and is involved with the team services at 1HP.  

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What Will You Learn?

  • What is Executive Function in esports?
  • Study Design and Population
  • Methods and Procedures
  • Cognitive Measures- Stroop Test ​
  • Cognitive Measures- Go-No-Go
  • Cognitive Measures- Catch Game Test
  • Experimental Group 1: Aerobic Exercise Rx
  • Experimental Group 2: Resistance Training Rx
  • Control Group
  • Data Utilized for Attention and Executive Function
  • Results
  • Conflicting Studies to Date
  • Other Proposed Mechanisms of Cognitive Improvement in Esports
  • Why is this important for gamers? ​
  • Gaming Population and Implications of Research
  • Conclusions and Limitations
  • Exercise Protocols for Esport Performance
  • References


There have been numerous studies indicating the benefits both aerobic exercise and resistance training on improving acute effects on executive function (EF) and attention for all demographics 

However, there have been few studies which compare the two interventions to see if one type of exercise trumps another, or if specific exercise parameters elude to greater yields in the measured cognitive functions. 

While research to date is promising, we will attempt to decipher a key piece of literature attempting to understand the most appropriate FITT for maximizing these brain gains. 

This information is of particular interest to competitive gamers due to the heavy reliance on executive functions for in game performance. 

As defined by the DSM-5, executive function is a neurocognitive domain that deals with information processing and decision making.

It is one of the most relied upon neurocognitive domains in esports for high level performance.

In 2019, Tsuk et al. Attempted to seek which exercise prescription was superior for inducing acute improvements in cognitive function and attention. 

Study consisted of a counterbalanced repeated measures experimental design. 

Participants: Forty volunteer physical education students (21 women; 19 men, age = 25.7±2.84 years) 

Inclusion Criteria: All of the students were familiar with both training modes. Inclusion criteria were: non-smoking, no neurological or psychiatric disease, no prescribed medications that might alter cognitive function, and no head injury or long-term hospitalization in the previous three months.

Procedure: Participants visited the lab four times, each visit no more than one week from the previous visit. They were asked not to engage in any structured exercise on the day of their testing session, and not to consume caffeine for at least two hours prior to the session. The visits were in the following order 

Methods: Baseline testing performed, aerobic fitness assessment using progressive maximal cycle ergometer, resistance fitness testing, cognitive testing barrage consisting of Stroop, Go-No-Go, and Catch Game tests. Three counter-balanced sessions after the initial introduction lab sessions performed

Data Gathering: Cognitive testing prior to interventions each session and 5 mins after performance of control or experimental tx

The Stroop Test can be used to measure a person’s selective attention capacity and skills, processing speed, and alongside other tests to evaluate overall executive processing abilities.

  • Phase 1 (no interference stage): The participants were presented with a word in colored letters on a computer screen – the word did not name a color. Following a brief delay, the participants were presented with a pair of colored squares. They were instructed to choose as quickly as possible, by pressing a computer mouse button, the square that was the same color as the letters of the word presented. This stage included 10 trials.

  • Phase 2 (no interference stage): The participants were presented with a word on a computer screen that names a color in white letters. They were instructed to choose the color, by pressing a computer mouse button, from a list which represented the meaning of the word. This stage included 15 trials.

  • Phase 3 (with interference stage): Participants were presented with a word on a computer screen that names a color written with letters of a color other than that named by the word’s meaning. They were instructed to choose, by pressing a computer mouse button, only the squares colored as presented by the letter’s color. This stage included 15 trials. Outcome parameters for each phase included accuracy, response time and its associated variance, and a composite score computed as accuracy divided by response time.

Go-No-Go Test: A timed continuous performance test. The test measures components of attention and executive function, and also evaluates response time and response inhibition. 

The participants were presented with a series of large colored squares on a computer screen at variable sequences. Each square was one of four colors. The participants were instructed to respond as quickly as possible by pressing a computer mouse button if the square appeared in any color but red. This test included 30 trials. The variables measured included: accuracy, response time and its associated variance, a composite score computed as accuracy divided by response time, number of errors of omission, number of errors of commission, and response time associated with errors of commission. Omission errors are assumed to reflect deficient sustained attention or vigilance; commission errors – a combination of underlying processes, including impulsivity and inattention/memory deficit

Catch Game Test: This test measures motor planning involving hand-eye coordination and rapid responses. 

The test requires participants to catch a falling object on the computer screen by moving a paddle horizontally so that it can be positioned directly in the path of the falling object. This test included 20 trials. Outcome parameters included response time and associated variance for the first move, number of direction changes per trial, error for missed catches, and a total performance score.

3 min warm-up of pedaling with no load. The load was then increased until the participants reached their predetermined training load of 60% of maximal load, and they continued cycling for 30 min. This exercise session lasted approximately 40 min and could be described as a typical moderate-intensity aerobic exercise session, based on classifications proposed by the ACSM in 2010 ( ACSM et al., 2010). The rated perceived exertion (RPE, Borg, 1974) for all participants during the aerobic session was in the range of 12- 14. The scale ranges from 6 (no exertion at all) to 20 (extremely hard exertion).


This was designed to represent a typical moderate-intensity resistance exercise training session. The session began with a warm-up of stretching exercises. Then the participants performed the resistance exercises by completing three sets of 15 repetitions at 60% of their 1RM, for each of the six major muscle groups that were assessed in the first visit. The exercises were performed using a Body-Solid EXM3000S multi-station gym. Participants were given a 1 min rest between each set of 15 repetitions and prior to moving on to the next muscle group. At the end of this session, a 3 min cool-down was executed by walking slowly to the room were the cognitive tests were performed. This session lasted between 35-40 min.

During this condition, the participants sat quietly for 30 min.

Attention: Response time (RT) of Go-NoGo testing and Phase I (no-interference) Stroop Test 

Executive Function: Performance scores on Stroop Test (All Three Phases) and Go-NoGo. Mean accuracy for Catch Game 

A significant treatment × time interaction was found for Attention Scores, F(2, 37.85) = 3.2, p = .050. A post-hoc test revealed a significant increase of attention scores following the resistance session (pre-post, p = .016). 

A significant treatment × time interaction was also found for Executive Function (EF) scoresF(2, 35.12) = 3.36, p = .046. A post-hoc test revealed a statistically significant pre-post increase of EF scores after the resistance session, p = .026, as well as after the aerobic session, p = .05.

Main finding was that both resistance and aerobic exercise enhanced executive function and attention in young healthy adults. 

Attention was significantly affected only by the resistance exercise session.

These results are in line with two studies, one conducted with middle aged women (Alves et al., 2012) and the other with high school students (Harveson et al., 2016), both of which demonstrated an improvement in EF following both aerobic and resistance exercise. 

The fact that acute aerobic exercise improves EF is well documented (e.g., Byun et al., 2014Tam, 2013).

  • It is also interesting to note that, using a similar protocol but with a mixed group of middle-aged men and women, Dunsky et al. (2017) found increased scores of attention following an aerobic exercise session on a treadmill, but not after a strength session. They also found only marginally significant improvement in executive function scores following both aerobic exercise and resistance exercise sessions. However, Pontifex et al. (2009) did not observe improvements following acute resistance exercise. This may be attributed to the greater exercise intensity applied (80% of 1 RM), which resulted in a deterioration of the effect.

  • Johnson et al. (2016) compared the cognitive performance of older adults aged 71-72 years, using the Stroop test before and after an acute aerobic or resistance exercise session, and concluded that: “independent of mode or duration of exercise, the participants improved in the Stroop Inhibition task immediately post-exercise” (p. 2). Resistance exercises were previously shown to increase plasma cortisol (Doma et al., 2015) and noradrenalin levels (Kliszczewicz et al., 2016)The effects of the increased sympathetic system may explain the positive effects of this exercise mode, in our study as well as in others (e.g., Chang, Ku et al., 2012Chang, Tsai, Huang, Wang, & Chu, 2014).

Another possible mechanism that was suggested for the cognitive improvement following aerobic exercise is that exercise induces physical stress, activating both the sympathetic system and the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis(Mastorakos, Pavlatou, Diamanti-Kandrakis, & Chrousos, 2005)

Stress hormones related to the activation of the HPA axis and the sympathetic system, such as cortisol and noradrenalin, respectively, were shown to affect cognitive function (Lambourne, & Tomporowski, 2010Segal, Cotman, & Cahill, 2012)).

Research examining the link between Action Video Game (AVG) play and cognitive ability has predominantly focused on either comparing the cognitive performance of Action Video Game Players (AVGPs) to non-gamer (NGs) controls or investigating the change in cognitive performance following an AVG intervention. For example, AVGPs are shown to display superior information processing ability compared to NGs [15]. Additionally, AVG play has shown to improve attentional allocation, spatial processing, and mental rotation abilities (for a review, see [16]). In fact, the magnitude of AVG-mediated spatial skill improvement is shown to compare to the improvements observed following engagement with formal courses (secondary school and university) aimed at enhancing those same skill. 

The esports  and gaming demographic ranges from 18 to 34 years old and encompasses 30% women and 70% men. These people are passionate, social, and highly-engaged across various platforms. 

The article reviewed Tsuk et al. demonstrates subjects who best emulate the esports demographic to date regarding research related to the acute effects of exercise on executive function and attention. 

  • It can be concluded that incorporating resistance training @ ≥ 60% 1 RM prior scheduled practice of esports or videogame play could improve overall performance by increasing attention and EF.  

  • However, this conclusion should be taken lightly as a multi-faceted approached should be taken when attempting to improve cognitive performance (sleep hygiene, nutrition, sports psychology, etc.) 

  • More research is needed to determine appropriate FITT of resistance training to determine if an optimum exercise dosage can increase these acute effects and determine a volume for diminishing returns. 

  • The timeline of “acute” improvements has not been quantified to date. It is unknown how long these improvements actually last.   

Based on the methodology and findings in this study we can recommend the following protocols for improving esports performance by means of executive function and attentional control.

This study used cycling as the primary intervention for aerobic exercise but it’s reasonable to infer other methods (running, rowing, etc) are equally effective.


Improve Executive Function:  Participate in moderate aerobic exercise at 60% max effort for 30-40 minutes a day.

Improve Attentional Control and Executive Function:  Participate in moderate resistance training 3 sets of 15 reps at 60% of max effort. Alternate between the 6 major muscle groups of the body (Chest, Arms, Shoulders, Legs, Core, Back) 6 times a week.

Practical Conclusion: If for the sake of time only one methodology of training can be chosen, resistance training offers more cognitive benefits over aerobic training. 

1. Tsuk S, Netz Y, Dunsky A, Zeev A, Carasso R, Dwolatzky T, Salem R, Behar S, Rotstein A. The Acute Effect of Exercise on Executive Function and Attention: Resistance Versus Aerobic Exercise. Adv Cogn Psychol. 2019 Sep 3;15(3):208-215. doi: 10.5709/acp-0269-7. PMID: 32161629; PMCID: PMC6776756.

2. Alves C. R., Gualano B., Takao P. P., Avakian P., Fernandes R. M., Morine D., Takito M. Y. Effects of acute physical exercise on executive functions: a comparison between aerobic and strength exercise. 2012;34:539–549.

3. Harveson A. T., Hannon J. C., Brusseau T. A., Podlog L., Papadopoulos C., Durrant L. H., Hall M. S., Kang K.-D. Acute effects of 30 minutes resistance and aerobic exercise on cognition in a high school sample. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2016;87:214–220

4. Byun K., Hyodo K., Suwabe K., Ochi G., Sakairi Y., Kato M., Dan I., Soya H. Positive effect of acute mild exercise on executive function via arousal-related prefrontal activations: An fNIRS study. NeuroImage2014;98:336–345.

5. Dunsky A., Abu-Rukun M., Tsuk S., Dwolatzky T., Carasso R., Netz Y. The effects of a resistance vs. an aerobic single session on attention and executive functioning in adults. PLoS One. 2017;12:e0176092

6. Pontifex M. B., Hillman C. H., Fernhall B., Thompson K. M., Valentini T. The effect of acute aerobic and resistance exercise on working memory. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2009;41:927–934

7. Johnson L., Addamo P. K., Selva Raj I., Borkoles E., Wyckelsma V., Cyarto E., Polman R. C. An acute bout of exercise improves the cognitive performance of older adults. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2016;24:591–598.

8. Doma K., Schumann M., Sinclair W. H., Leicht A. S., Deakin G. B., Häkkinen K. The repeated bout effect of typical lower body strength training sessions on sub-maximal running performance and hormonal response. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2015;115:1789–1799.

9. Kliszczewicz B. M., Esco M. R., Quindry J. C., Blessing D. L., Oliver G. D., Taylor K. J., Price B. M. Autonomic responses to an acute bout of high-intensity body weight resistance exercise vs. treadmill running. 2016;30:1050–1058.

10. Chang Y.-K., Etnier J. L. Effects of an acute bout of localized resistance exercise on cognitive performance in middle-aged adults: A randomized controlled trial study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2009;10:19–24

11. Chang Y.-K., Labban J. D., Gapin J. I., Etnier J. L. The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Research. 2012;1453:87–101

12. Mastorakos G., Pavlatou M., Diamanti-Kandrakis E., Chrousos G. P. Exercise and the stress system. Hormones. 2005;4:73–89.

13. Lambourne K., Tomporowski P. The effect of exerciseinduced arousal on cognitive task performance: A meta-regression analysis. Brain Research. 2010;1341:12–24

14. Toth AJ, Ramsbottom N, Kowal M, Campbell MJ. Converging Evidence Supporting the Cognitive Link between Exercise and Esport Performance: A Dual Systematic Review. Brain Sci. 2020 Nov 15;10(11):859. doi: 10.3390/brainsci10110859. PMID: 33203067; PMCID: PMC7696945.

15. Kowal M., Toth A.J., Exton C., Campbell M. Different cognitive abilities displayed by action video gamers and non-gamers. Comput. Hum. Behav. 2018;88:255–262. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2018.07.010.

16. Green C., Bavelier D. Learning, Attentional Control, and Action Video Games. Curr. Biol. 2012;22:R197–R206. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.02.012.

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