I’m sure you’ve heard the popular memes ‘Cardio, is that Spanish?’ or ‘Cardio will make you lose your gains bro!’ that regularly float around social media, mostly posted by, admittedly, strength training and fitness enthusiasts. Although somewhat light hearted and entertaining, I genuinely think all too many people have taken this myth too seriously and abandoned any form of conditioning work from their training program, presumably in the fear that all their hard earned muscle mass is going to be immediately lost with even so much as a secondary glance at a treadmill, instantaneously leaving them with the physique of a marathon runner. This pervasive myth is not only leaving many strength athletes and enthusiasts very aerobically de-conditioned (which is very detrimental to overall health) but many are actually unable to maximise the strength gains in the gym – this article aims to explain why.
A brief explanation of the aerobic system
The aerobic (oxidative) system refers to activity that includes the use of oxygen. This is commonly conditioned through the use of low power/long duration exercise. On the surface, this seems like the complete opposite to what a strength athlete would need to possess, given that strength training is comprised predominantly of the anaerobic-alactic (creatine phosphate) system – High power/short duration, 1-12 seconds in length.
Aerobic conditioning improves aerobic capacity, which is the amount of oxygen an athlete can take up from the air and an athlete’s ability to use oxygen as energy. The higher an athlete’s aerobic capacity, the longer they can perform without getting tired. This occurs because aerobic training improves mitochondrial density, and mitochondria generate most of our cells’ ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) – which is responsible for providing our body with energy. When we are training our aerobic capacity, it is essential that we do not exceed our anaerobic threshold (85% of heart rate max) and thus increase blood acidity, as this decreases the performance of mitochondria. The consensus appears to show that staying within 60-80% of ones heart rate max is the most optimal way to train the aerobic system.
Now we understand the physiology behind aerobic training, why in the hell would a strength athlete want to train their aerobic system?
The longer an athlete can remain in an aerobic environment before they begin to produce lactic acid, the less stress there is on the body to train. The more efficient the aerobic system, the greater the athletes lactate buffer system. A higher lactate buffer system improves an athlete’s capacity to recover from intense bouts of alactic exercise (i.e strength training). This benefits a strength athlete’s performance in a number of ways:
- Improves an athletes special work capacity, allowing them to perform more quality, higher volume training in a single session. If a strength athlete can recover more effectively between sets, they will be able to perform more reps/more weight/increased technical efficiency in subsequent sets.
- Allows an athlete to recover better between intense training sessions. This improved recovery capacity between sessions and will reduce overall fatigue debt, allowing them to perform more optimally during subsequent sessions and even train more frequently without the fear of overtraining.
- Allows an athlete to perform better during long days of competition. In powerlifting, for example, it is not uncommon to see many lifters performance decline as they reach their deadlifts, due to being physically drained from the previous lifts. Having a more efficient aerobic system will allow an athlete to recover more optimally between lifts, which again will lead to a better overall performance.
- Lets face it, getting out of breath from climbing a flight of stairs is not healthy. You may consider yourself an ‘athlete’, but are you willing to sacrifice your long-term health for the sake of getting brutally strong? Particularly as I’ve discussed above, aerobic work can actually aid in your goals as oppose to detract from them.
Aerobic training should be used not abused
Although aerobic training is important, strength athletes must be careful not to perform so much aerobic conditioning that it becomes detrimental to their recovery capacity, as this can affect long-term performance gains. A weightlifter must ensure the bulk of their training revolves around the snatch and the clean and jerk, just as a powerlifter must ensure the majority of their training involves direct focus on the squat, bench press and deadlift. If a strength training program becomes too aerobically based we begin to violate the law of specificity, which is the most important training variable to consider in a training program. This can have negative effects for a number of reasons:
Unfortunately, this is where the old ‘cardio makes you lose your gains’ meme begins to hold true. Too much cardiovascular conditioning will in fact begin to frequently place muscle tissue in a catabolic state. Less muscle means less tissue to contract and apply force, thus strength loss will inevitably follow.
As eluded to above, too much non-specific training in the form of aerobic conditioning adds to an athletes net fatigue. Of course, all training creates fatigue, but an athlete must ensure that the majority of their fatigue comes from training that most specifically helps to improve their performance (i.e. squat, bench and deadlift training for a powerlifter). Too much fatigue from training that isn’t the most specific/high priority form of training will never help to improve overall performance.
Fibre Type Alterations
Fast twitch muscle fibres produce high amounts of force rapidly when activated by the nervous system, making them incredibly important for strength athletes. Not only do they allow an athlete to acutely produce more force, they also have a very high capacity to grow much faster than slow switch fibres in response to heavy training. On the contrary, slow twitch fibres contract more slowly, don’t produce as much force, and have a lower growth potential. This is the opposite of what a strength athlete wants. High amounts of aerobic training tend to shift muscle fibre characteristics from the fast to the slow end if it makes up the bulk of a training programme. Although this is reversible, it is definitely not the optimal environment to produce gains in strength.
Nervous system alterations
When this change from fast twitch to slow twitch occurs, the motor unit (which controls muscle fibres) also changes from faster to slower, which means the motor nerve optimises to slower-twitch activity. Even at this neurological level, an athlete will become better at low intensity sustained activity, but likely worse at strength training.
Taking all of this into account, aerobic conditioning should have a place in a strength athletes program, as long as it is minimal and ideally during general base building phases of training that are further out from competition/1RM testing. As one approaches competition, training volume is just simply more intelligently spent on gaining strength through mastering the competition lifts. An offseason is a perfect time for a strength athlete to incorporate aerobic training into their program.
How does an athlete implement aerobic training?
As already mentioned, training must be highly specific. Thus, any aerobic training we do must be highly specific to the demands of the overall training goal. Aerobic training doesn’t necessarily have to be just sat on a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill, either. You can pretty much perform any type of exercise, as long as you ensure that you ensure that it is repeatable, and you don’t fatigue quickly or move into the anaerobic threshold of 85% heart rate max. You should be huffing and puffing, but it should be easy enough so that you can still hold a conversation. If you are exhausted, you’re doing it wrong.
Tempo activity is designed to promote conditioning of the aerobic system by remaining between 60-80% of ones max heart rate. Around 15-45 seconds of active work separated by rest intervals/active rest intervals to ensure that heart rate stays in the aerobic zone. Once an athlete’s aerobic capacity improves, rest periods can be shortened. This training method can be performed by running, rowing, pushing a sled, jump roping, using medicine balls, using battle ropes, and so much more. For a strength athlete, anything that can be loaded heavily, like a sled, kettle bells, dumbbells or even a barbell (as ill discuss shortly) is optimal, as more fast twitch muscle fibres will be recruited, making it much more specific to strength orientated goals. Below is a fantastic example of strength athlete specific aerobic conditioning session performed with a heavy sled, separated by an active rest interval utilising core stability exercises. Remember: You must be huffing and puffing, but still able to hold a conversation.
Controlled rest periods
This is where a strength athlete can implement aerobic conditioning in the most specific way possible. Setting rest periods between 30 seconds – 2 minutes on the main competition lifts is a great way to build sport specific work capacity, and is best performed at 60-80% of an athlete’s 1RM for sets of 2-5 reps. Performing up to 10-12 sets of this is a brilliant way of getting a lot of training volume in a short space of time, whilst also improving aerobic capacity. This method can also be utilised by setting a time cap. For example, putting 75% of your 1RM on the bar and seeing how many sets of 5 you can accomplish in 15 minutes. Again, this is a brilliant form of training when an athlete is far out from competition – during high volume blocks for example. Below is a great example of how one would implement controlled rest periods during a lighter ‘speed’ squat session.
Take home message?
Aerobic training is a tool that should be utilised carefully in a strength athlete’s training program. If used successfully it can without a doubt help to improve the capacity to recover, increase strength gains, and simply improve overall health. I often see athletes can get so caught up in chasing numbers and goals that they forget that a balanced approach is crucial. This is definitely true for myself. I have been guilty of chasing strength goals with too much tunnel vision, neglecting other aspects of my athletic training as a result.
A 300kg squat is an incredible achievement, but if one suffers long term health affects from neglecting aerobic conditioning, was it all really worth it? With the rise in popularity of hybrid training in recent years, I believe we are seeing a paradigm shift in consciousness in many athletes. Many now realise it is possible to be big, strong, run long distances, jump high, and be explosive simultaneously. If you want to get brutally strong, the majority of your training should no doubt be aimed at heavy barbell training. But with intelligently designed programming, it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the expense of neglecting other athletic skills and qualities.
Francis, Charlie. The Charlie Francis Training System. www.charliefrancis.com.1992.
Siff and Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. Ultimate Athletic Concepts. 2009.
Wesley Smith, C. Israetel, M. Hoffmann, J. Scientific Principles of Strength Training.