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The Dreaded C-Word

The C Word

That’s right. We’re talking about cardio! This article will be focused towards the strength athlete and their use of Cardiovascular exercise, why it can be beneficial, and how best to apply cardio at varying times of the competitive powerlifter’s year.

“But Cardio kills my gains!”
Yes, if applied incorrectly and managed poorly then cardio could in fact make you weaker. However, if applied correctly and managed efficiently cardiovascular conditioning will make you a significantly better strength athlete, and here’s why.

1. Cardiovascular work has a whole host of health benefits; reduced cortisol, reduced DOMS, improved mood, decreased risk of heart disease, and blood pressure management amongst other health benefits too.
2. Unless you are a SHW with no top end weight limit to your competitive category you will be better served by having a more muscular frame. Muscle is what moves weight and if all else is equal a strength athlete with 10% body fat will always beat a strength athlete with 25% body fat simply due to more contractile tissue. Cardio can help improve body composition
3. The demands of strength training revolve mostly around the ATP/PC energy systems, you need to have efficient oxygen utilization/aerobic function to recover ATP between maximal sets.
4. Strength sports competitions will often last 6+ hours to entire days. To ensure optimal recovery between attempts and removal of fatigue and stressors an efficient Cardiovascular system is key.

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He runs 10km regularly. What’s your excuse?

But strength is Anaerobic Surely?
Yes, whilst strength sports do have large anaerobic demands even activities that are largely seen as anaerobic still have huge aerobic contributions. A 200m sprint still has roughly 30% aerobic energy system contribution, the 400, 800 and 1500m runs have 50% plus contributions from the aerobic system. So, if your aerobic system is more efficient and powerful the more reps you’ll be able to perform at given percentages of your maximum. This allied to the improved recovery that dovetails with a strong aerobic system, will allow you to increase your training volume which we all know is the main driver of improvements. The other way of looking at this is that with a well-adapted aerobic system if you were to do the same number of reps with say 70% of maximum, your anaerobic system would contribute less energy. This means less fatigue will be accrued so you can recover faster from that set/session than a less fit athlete.

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Sprinters also have fantastic aerobic capacity and are extremely strong!

Hang on, what about APMK and mTOR?
It is true that adaptations of the human body to cardiovascular training are in direct opposition to adaptations instigated by resistance training (energy used for muscle protein synthesis versus improving mitochondrial function and upregulation of aerobic enzymes versus their glycolytic counterparts). The largest and most up to date meta-analysis (a look at all the scientific data available) actually came to the interesting conclusion that running specifically (due to huge eccentric demands that would be exacerbated in athletes with a larger than average mass for their relative frame size) is what causes the interference effect. Now there are always exceptions to the rule, most notably Andrey Malanichev running 10 kilometres regularly.

Ok, I’m in. But my body aches!
Now that’s an interesting point. We all know that (especially in a competition peaking phase) you can accrue all kinds of aches and pains in your joints and muscles as part and parcel of strength sports. As already mentioned well structured low intensity steady state cardio (LISS) can assist in flushing out waste products from training and reducing muscle stiffness, this is no good if your chosen modality impacts your body in other ways. The best way around this is to choose minimal impact activities (above we have already discounted running) with minimal risk of worsening any current injuries or creating new ones. These considerations can be even more important for larger athletes as the forces involved in jogging can be staggering, the whole point of LISS cardio is to help your recovery by removing fatigue, not adding to it!

So, what works then? My personal favourite is walking at a brisk pace, this can easily be loaded as you adapt to the stimulus by adding external load (a weighted vest) or increasing difficulty of terrain (walk on a beach if you’re lucky, in hills if you can or simply put a treadmill to incline). Other worthy variables include stationary bikes (watt bikes/turbo trainers being top of the pile, the meta-analysis mentioned earlier found that there was zero negative effect on strength and muscle development when combined with cycling as the aerobic activity), ski-ergs, rowing machines, swimming and aqua jogging.

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Cycling has no negative effect on strength or size development

Can’t I just do 10 minutes of HIIT instead?
You could do at certain part of the season (which we will cover below) but for the most part simply due the increased fatigue and stress of true HIIT (it has to be proper maximal effort to get the most out of it) for a strength sports athlete LISS should be the priority as this will aid your mood and recovery between sessions whilst leaving you with the most energy for your strength training which is the priority. Admittedly HIIT training can be more mentally stimulating and time efficient so I would never count it out completely. If you were to do HIIT some good modalities include; Strongman carrying events, bodyweight circuits, stationary cycle sprints, kettlebell swings or a CrossFIT WOD (at your discretion).

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Rugby Players Regularly combine Cardio and Weights

Right, put it all together then Cardio Bunny.
Ok so we need to consider 3 factors, frequency, intensity and volume (for the purposes of this article this shall be known as duration). Once we have considered these we shall put together 4 different sample weeks of CV programming for the discerning strength sports athlete. As your resistance training is the priority we will also assume that CV training takes place immediately after your resistance sessions or on off days.
1. Frequency – this entirely depends on your existing level of conditioning. I would begin with 2 sessions of dedicated CV per week, monitor your fatigue and performance and as you become adapted add further stimulus.
2. Intensity – we have already decided that LISS is the way to go the majority of the time so we want to spend our time in Zone 2 (http://www.fitdigits.com/personalized-heart-rate-zones.html). If you don’t have a heart rate monitor I would strongly recommend the purchase of one (chest straps are superior to wrist based devices), if you don’t want to you should be working at roughly 5-6/10 effort level where 1/10 is stationary and 10/10 is maximal sprint. Generally speaking if you are ambulating and both feet leave the ground at once it isn’t LISS.
3. Duration – Similar to frequency, begin your sessions at 15 mins and generally (unless you have an endurance goal/event coming up) keep your sessions to 60 minutes maximum.
So to the example weekly schedules starting with a 12 week off season and moving into a 12 week competition season. Athlete A is a middle to lightweight athlete, Athlete B is a heavy middleweight to heavyweight.

OFF SEASON

Day Athlete A Athlete B
Monday Upper Body + 10 Min HIIT Upper Body
Tuesday Lower Body Lower Body + 20 Min LISS
Wednesday 45 Min LISS 10 Min HIIT
Thursday Upper Body REST
Friday Lower Body Upper Body + 20 Min LISS
Saturday 15 Min HIIT Lower Body
Sunday REST REST

IN SEASON

Day Athlete A Athlete B
Monday Upper Body + 20 Min LISS Upper Body
Tuesday Lower Body Lower Body
Wednesday 40 Min LISS 30 Min LISS
Thursday Upper Body Upper Body
Friday Lower Body Lower Body
Saturday REST 45 Min LISS
Sunday 40 Min LISS REST

To Summarise
The days of the thinking that strength sports athletes don’t need cardio, or that cardio will “kill your gains” are well and truly gone. The more research that is conducted the more evidence there is to show that being a strength sports athlete with a well-conditioned aerobic system will enhance your performance both in the short and long term. This cardio activity can take the form of simply walking, hopping on a Watt Bike or even jumping in the pool with the old dears for some aqua fit. Whatever it is you do, provided you load it sensibly and monitor it carefully you will see benefits from it in your strength pursuits.
Now go do some cardio!

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