A Conditioning Guide for Strength Athletes
Here’s what you need to know…
- Programmed wisely, concurrent training – working on strength and conditioning at the same time – can make you stronger.
- The myth about endurance work causing strength loss was taken from research involving extreme cases.
- GPP isn’t that important for powerlifting meets, but it is when it comes to training for those meets.
- Having a solid foundation of conditioning will speed recovery from strength training.
- Mobility circuits kill two birds with one stone: mobility needs and general conditioning. And it only takes 15 minutes.
Strength and Endurance?
You’ve probably heard that strength athletes should avoid cardio, skip conditioning, and only focus on the strength side of sport.
Maybe you’ve listened to that advice. It makes sense after all. Concurrent training – training for both endurance and strength for example – won’t give you optimal results on either end of the spectrum.
But is that really true? Have you ever looked into how different types of training help each other?
Rev Your Engine
There’s more to conditioning than just improving a mile time, cranking up your VO2 max, or cutting weight for the beach. Conditioning can be an engine to the power source of the body.
Regardless of your sport, conditioning is a part of the training plan that has to be put in play. The type of sport you participate in just dictates the style and programming of conditioning.
Concurrent Training: The Research
Research has shown that strength gains are still made with concurrent training.
Studies by McCarthy et. Al. and Kraemer et. Al. both show improvements in strength with combined groups similar to those who strength trained only.
The myth of strength loss with endurance training was taken from research that showed extreme cases and placed into the masses. Strength sports simply adopted this train of thought, and none more than the sport of powerlifting.
Powerlifters: Strong and Totally Out of Shape?
Powerlifting has evolved and changed over the past couple decades and it has just recently started to grow out of an old school train of thought.
It’s always been accepted that powerlifters are overweight and need no sort of athleticism or conditioning.
I single out powerlifting here because it’s one of the only sports that relies strictly on maximum strength and has no form of endurance in nature. It’s a sport where each event may last, on the upper end, seven seconds, and large amounts of rest are given between bouts.
When you look at it from the outside, you could easily argue there’s no reason for conditioning of any kind for this athlete. But those who know science could attest to the need with the new light that has been shown on concurrent training.
Some research has proven that training both endurance and strength at the same time will result in a lessened effect of strength gain. This is a problem when it comes to a sport that relies solely on maximum strength.
However, where people go wrong is the research that shows this looks at a larger volume of endurance training and doesn’t take into consideration a well-scheduled program. So instead of delving deeper, people (myself once included) just take it for what it’s worth and throw conditioning out the window.
The problems that come with this idea are vast and dangerous.
Laying a Foundation
Just like creating any powerful landmark, there has to be a solid base. Without a base the structure will crumble and fall with just a blur of a lifespan. The same thing goes when talking about a strong and powerful body.
If the base is skipped it’s only a matter of time until progress comes to a screeching halt and injuries start to occur.
With the big three lifts, a major foundational point is the basics of movement – the idea of how to properly squat, bench press, and deadlift without compensation. This is essential for any lifter and must be mastered to continually improve.
Along with that is something called General Physical Preparedness. GPP is the idea of the body’s energy systems being conditioned to work longer and more efficiently.
For a powerlifter, competition day relies more on the ATP/PC system for short, maximal outputs.
However, when it comes to training for an event, a lifter with better GPP will be able to complete more working sets, more exercises, and thus allow for better strength gains than would an athlete with poor conditioning.
Working to increase mitochondrial density and muscle glycogen stores sets a muscle up to be able to work longer, which in turn gives an athlete the ability to put more into the training. Better training equals better results.
Energy Systems and Recovery
When it comes to recovery, lifters are always trying to find an edge. From supplements to sleep to nutrition, lifters are going out of their way to find the next big thing.
Why? Because faster recovery means more training and more training means better results.
But what does conditioning have to do with recovery? The answer is simple: energy systems.
When we train we create chemical changes that cause the fatigue we feel. Muscles run out of energy substrates such as ATP. Lactic acid and hydrogen ions build up (the burn we all love to hate) and glycogen stores get slowly depleted.
With conditioning, an athlete can improve oxygen delivery to the muscles, create more efficient production of ATP, and oxidize lactic acid. The aerobic system is the main power source for recovery.
Blood transport is vital for nutrients, hormones, metabolites, and waste. Its ability to pump in the nutrients needed and pump out the waste plays a huge role in both performance and health (2).
With an improvement in nutrient and oxygen transport, a lifter will not only be able to work longer with a better work capacity, but will also start recovering from training faster and more efficiently. This improved recovery will lead to more frequent and efficient training sessions.
An additional aspect to this improvement is that of competition day. Many of these days last for hours upon hours, and by time the deadlift rolls around many lifters have fatigued and miss numbers they have hit over and over in the gym.
With an improved aerobic base the body can fully recover after each attempt and stay fresher throughout the day leading to deadlift PRs.
Fit or Fat?
Looking back at the history of powerlifting there are two things that always stood out: these people were crazy strong and they were also fat.
Yes, I said fat.
Old-school powerlifters seemed to all share the same features and none of these features matched their bodybuilding counterparts. When I was younger I always just accepted that the weight was an advantage, but now I’ve realized the higher fat content is not an advantage but actually a detriment.
Why Do Many Powerlifters Get Fat Anyway?
To get stronger we must eat in a calorie surplus and when doing that, mixed with a lack of conditioning, weight gain is inevitable.
As a lifter, strength is the main goal and therefore nutrition becomes an aid to strength instead of a road to sexy. This is all fine and dandy but if you really break it down there’s a way to get both.
The Best of Both Worlds
Science and practice have led us to many breakthroughs in the world of nutrition. We know more now than ever before and we’ve learned the culprits behind fat storage.
We’ve also started learning about the medicinal effects of certain foods and how they can help our performance in all aspects of life. It’s time we start using this knowledge for strength and physique and stop being lazy.
By watching macros and micros we can manipulate our diets to not only lose fat but also keep and even gain strength at the same time. However, to do this we have to utilize conditioning in our programs.
In short, powerlifters have no reason to be fat anymore.
It only makes sense as a powerlifter to be as lean as possible. Powerlifting is divided into weight classes and you only compete against other lifters in your class.
So if two lifters weight 220 pounds and one lifter is 10% body fat while the other is 20% body fat, math tells us that the lifter with only 10% body fat will have more muscle mass therefore have a greater potential for strength.
It’s only logical to be leaner than your competitors and carry a greater potential.
Planning It All Out
Conditioning for the strength athlete will improve body composition, work capacity, and recovery, all leading to a more efficient lifter and better training. The big question now is how to program it so that it doesn’t get in the way of strength training.
A strength athlete isn’t looking to run miles upon miles and spend hours on an elliptical each week to get in conditioning. There’s no need for that amount of duration and exercise selection should be more specific to the sport.
During the off-season is when the majority of an aerobic base should be built. This is the time of the year where 3-4 sessions can be implemented each week with each session lasting anywhere between 20-60 minutes.
These sessions could be anything from walking, stadium stairs, or sled drags.
As an athlete gets closer to competition and enters into prep phase, the frequency should be lowered and the exercise selection could be adjusted.
Some of the best things for conditioning are timed sled drags, mobility circuits, and med ball work. Whatever you may choose, the goal is to keep the heart rate around 130-150bpm and try to keep lactic build up to a minimum.
Slowly progress each week by adding time or reps. It’s most beneficial to incorporate lower body work the day following a heavy squat or deadlift session and upper body work the day after a heavy bench session.
This allows for increased blood flow to the damaged muscle groups, speeding up recovery time and lessening soreness.
Below is an example week of training with conditioning:
Bench 5 x 2 85%
Close Grip Bench 3 x 8
Chest Supported Row 5 x 10
Chin-Up 4 x 10
Triceps Extension 3 x 15
25 Min Mobility Circuit
Squat 5 x 2 85%
Paused Squat 3 x 6
RDL 4 x 8
Glute-Ham Raise 4 x 8
20 Min Sled Drag 45lbs
Overhead Press 5 x 5
Pull-Up 5 x 10
Dumbbell Row 5 x 10
Pressdown 3 x 15
Deadlift 8 x 1 70%
Front Squat 5 x 5
AB Rollout 5 x 10
60 min Incline Walk
One idea here is to incorporate mobility circuits. These kill two birds with one stone and can be a great addition to anyone’s training plan.
Start with 4-5 exercises targeting mobility work on movements or areas that may be lacking. Perform 15-20 reps per exercise. Move through each exercise in a circuit fashion and continue for anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes.
The heart rate should stay up around 130bpm and the athlete should work up a sweat. This not only helps conditioning but also improves movement quality.
Stop With The Excuses
There has been a stigma placed on powerlifting as a fat and lazy sport. People who don’t want to do cardio choose to just lift heavy instead.
But there’s much more to powerlifting than just lifting weights. It’s a testament of strength both physically and mentally. It takes drive and guts to get under those weights knowing they may crush you.
There’s a sense of grace and athleticism involved with the form and positioning, and there’s a pride given to those who succeed.
Crush that stigma and show pride in your ability, your physique, and your athleticism. Stop the stereotype and create a new look for powerlifting and strength sports across the board.
Build your conditioning, improve your recovery, and set new records.
- McCarthy et. Al. Compatibility of adaptive responses with combining strength and endurance training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise [1995, 27(3):429-436].
- Kraemer et. Al. Compatibility of high-intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations. Journal of Applied Physiology. March 1995. Vol. 78 no. 3, 976-989.
- Strength training and cardiovascular training side by side: How does one affect the other? Sport Fitness Advisor.
- Jamison, Joel. Ultimate MMA Conditioning. 2009. Performance Sports Inc.