Cardio for Powerlifting: The Why And How For More Strength And Muscle
What’s the first thing coming to mind when you think of the word cardio? Especially cardio for powerlifting.
I bet it brings to your thoughts the image of an emaciated guy running the Boston Marathon. As a strength athlete, the thought of running until you begin chafing in the most unmentionable of areas isn’t appealing.
Who cares if you can run for hours if it means you have less muscle and strength than a six year old?
Despite the perceived awfulness associated with aerobic work, it plays an integral part in your strength and muscle development.
Luckily for you, going for a jog isn’t the only way to get the job done.
In case you have the mindset of, “I don’t need to do anything aerobic. I just want to be strong and gain muscle.” Be sure to read on to see the benefits aerobic conditioning offers you.
The Three Energy Systems
Don’t worry, you won’t be reliving any terrible memories you had of your one semester of biology in college. You’ll take a look at the role of each of your energy systems.
A basic understanding of the why behind your training is important for future success.
- Alactic or ATP-PC System. This is the most powerful, yet shortest lived, of the three systems. If you’re performing an all-out effort like a heavy set of squats or sprints, the ATP-PC system is the most popular kid at the party. Despite its ability to perform powerful movements, it begins to peter out around the 10-12 second mark.
- Anaerobic System. As the name implies, the anaerobic system does not require oxygen to operate. Instead, it burns carbohydrates, like those in your bloodstream, liver, and muscles. Like the ATP-PC system, it can be used for powerful actions. It begins to fade after 60-90 seconds of use.
- Aerobic System. The aerobic system doesn’t have the strength of its powerful brethren, but it can literally go all day. It has the ability to bounce back and forth between burning carbohydrates and fats as its fuel source.
The three energy systems are not independent of each other. In every activity you take part in, each of the systems is turned on to a degree.
You Need a Strong Aerobic Base
Even if your goals are strictly to get strong and pile on muscle, you need to have a good aerobic base. Anyone who has strength trained for an appreciable amount of time has, at one time or another, neglected this piece of their training. This neglect has limited your potential in terms of strength and muscle.
Your ability to recovery is aerobic.
The ATP-PC and anaerobic systems are responsible for the majority of work done while strength training. Outside of that, your aerobic system is king.
The recovery time taken between workouts is the aerobic system at work. If you’re not able to recover between workouts, good luck gaining strength or adding a sliver of muscle.
Even the rest you take between sets is your aerobic system grinding away. If it’s lacking, you won’t be able to accumulate a significant amount of volume from strength work. The more volume you can put out, the greater your gains in strength and muscle.
A strong aerobic system makes a given task feel easier.
If you have a solid aerobic base from lower intensity work, you’ll be able to keep your heartrate lower during workouts. The workout feels easier because you won’t have to tap into your anaerobic system.
Compare that to someone who only does soul crushing anaerobic work. This person will have to elevate their heartrate to greater levels to complete the same workout. Not having a well-functioning aerobic system becomes more expensive from an effort standpoint.
Making things feel easier is not only true for you physically, but psychologically, as well. Some of the aerobic methods you’ll learn about later on create positive associations for your brain.
When you’re able to perform a large amount of work when breathing is controlled, your technique is perfect, and your brain is in a relatively calm state, you’re able to sustain the effort for a long period of time.
If you were to purposely make the work feel difficult, which is what most people aim for, the flood of stress would eventually bring your ability to keep going to an abrupt halt.
Aerobic conditioning allows for greater parasympathetic tone.
In case your science teacher failed to mention it, the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with being calm and relaxed. It’s better known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system.
When you’re hitting the iron hard and heavy, you’re tapping into your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This part of your nervous system is great when you’re training. It’s not so great when you’re going about the rest of your day.
Take a look at the laundry list of things putting a negative stress on your body.
- Lack of sleep
- Too much caffeine
- Psychological stress stemming from work or your relationship
- Poor nutrition (specifically, an underperforming gut)
Putting each these stressors together, along with stressful workouts, is a recipe for below average results.
When you put an emphasis on aerobic work, you can reverse the tone of your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic. This shift allows for better recovery from workouts. Better recovery equals more strength and muscle.
Methods for Improving Aerobic Conditioning
You now know how each of the energy systems operates in your body.
In addition, you’ve realized the importance of having a high level of aerobic conditioning when strength and muscle are sought after.
How do you go about incorporating aerobic conditioning into your training plan?
Let’s take a look at three methods which are geared towards improving your aerobic capacities.
Cardiac output is going to be most similar to what you know as cardio. It’s similar to “going for a run.” It’s low intensity work done for a long duration.
Cardiac output is all about the adaptions taking place in the heart. This method increases your stroke volume (i.e. you’ll pump more blood per heartbeat, thus, requiring the heart to beat less) by increasing the size of the left ventricle. How’s that for a science lesson?
A method to determine if you should take up cardiac output work is to check your resting heartrate (RHR) in the morning. If you’re consistently above 60 beats per minute, make this a priority.
These workouts can be done on any of your scheduled off days. You’ll work for 30-90 minutes while keeping your heartrate between 120-150 beats per minute. You should be able to breathe exclusively through your nose the entire time. If you become a mouth breather, you’re no longer working in the aerobic zone.
Seeing as you’re concerned more about strength and muscle, the modality you use is unimportant. This could be running, walking with a weighted vest, a circuit of low intensity movements, rowing, biking, hiking, etc. The choice is yours. Simply focus on your heartrate.
High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT)
Like cardiac output, HICT increases your stroke volume. In addition, it increases the mitochondrial density of the working muscles. In layman’s terms, you have more energy producers within a given muscle.
As the name implies, HICT uses higher intensities to accomplish its task. The higher intensities means your fast twitch muscle fibers are doing the brunt of the work. This gives those fibers the ability to produce a powerful force for longer periods of time without growing tired.
For exercise selection, you’ll choose typical strength training movements. Some movements suited for this type of training include; push-ups, bench press from pins, most rowing variations, goblet squats, and step-ups.
After selecting the exercise, you’ll set a timer for a block of 5-20 minutes. Start on the low end when starting out.
For the duration of the block, you’re going to perform as many sets of 1-3 reps as possible. Like the cardiac output method, you need to keep your heartrate under 150 beats per minute to stay within the aerobic system.
Using goblet squats as an example, you’d do a set of 1-3 squats. Take a few breaths to rest. Do another 1-3 squats, take a few breaths, 1-3 squats, repeat for the length of the block.
You should have the feeling you can do this type of training all day. If you feel crushed after a HICT workout, you’re either using too much weight or not resting long enough between sets.
You shouldn’t feel much of a burn from HICT work. A quick burn is okay every once in a while. It shouldn’t occur too often, though.
There are a couple options to choose from when programming HICT workouts.
- Workout dedicated to HICT. This can be added to your existing plan or as a replacement for a workout. Make it a total body focus. A block for a squat, upper body push, and upper body pull.
- Add a block to the end of workouts. Squats at the end of Monday, push-ups on Wednesday, and ring rows on Friday.
The focus of tempo training is to increase the size of your slow-twitch muscle fibers. I’m willing to bet most of your strength work neglects these guys.
The slow-twitch fibers don’t have the capacity for growth like their fast-twitch big brothers. That doesn’t mean increasing their size can’t help you develop greater strength and endurance.
Plus, you’re making muscles bigger. Not much better than that.
You may think tempo work looks easy on paper. It’s nothing to take lightly.
The best exercises are going to be goblet squats, kettlebell RDL’s, push-ups, and ring rows.
Obviously, tempo is the name of the game. There’s going to be a three second lifting phase (concentric) and three second lowering phase (eccentric). You must have constant motion throughout the entire set. No pauses at the bottom or top.
Each set will last for 40-60 seconds and you’ll rest for 40-60 seconds. You’ll soon realize how long 40 seconds can feel. 3-5 sets does the trick.
When you first use tempo training, go lighter than expected. You don’t need a lot of weight for this to be effective.
Toss in tempo sets at the end of your current workouts. Similar to the HICT setup, you can do squats on Monday, push-ups on Wednesday, and ring rows on Friday.
How It Looks
Here are a few examples of how each method fits into the context of your weekly training schedule. This is assuming a three day per week training split.
This program is optimal if your aerobic conditioning is horrendous. We’re talking getting winded after walking up a flight of stairs. The HICT work is held off until an aerobic base is established with low intensity work.
1) Strength Session 1
2) Tempo Goblet Squats (4×40 seconds on/40 seconds off)
Cardiac Output (30-90 minutes)
1) Strength Session 2
2) Tempo Push-ups (4×40 seconds on/40 seconds off)
1) Strength Session 3
2) Tempo Ring Rows (4×40 seconds on/40 seconds off)
Cardiac Output (30-90 minutes)
Example 2 can be used when you your aerobic conditioning isn’t dragging. Your RHR is under 60, or pretty close. HICT blocks are put into the end of each strength session. Saturday can be a cardiac output or total body HICT workout.
1) Strength Session 1
2) HICT Step-ups (10-15 minutes)
1) Strength Session 2
2) HICT Push-ups (10-15 minutes)
1) Strength Session 3
2) HICT Chest Supported Rows (10-15 minutes)
Cardiac Output (30-90 minutes) or Total Body HICT
Don’t Neglect Aerobic Conditioning
Doing anything aerobic may not sound sexy, but it’s a necessity if you want to optimize your strength and muscle development. You won’t magically become the size of a long distance runner when you add in aerobic work.
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Running a marathon not required.
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