Practical Considerations for Combining Cardio and Lifting

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Hey guys, after the huge response to my recent article about combining aerobic and resistance training, I got my friend Alex Viada to go into a little more depth on the subject.  Combining the two is what he does for a living, so he’s the guy to really talk about application.  I’m just a guy going through the research – he’s the expert that REALLY knows this subject inside and out.  I hope you enjoy!  I know I’ve learned a lot from him.  If you enjoy the article, take some time to check out his site:  http://www.completehumanperformance.com/

 

After Greg Nuckols posted his excellent piece on Cardio and Lifting, I was more than pleased when he offered me the opportunity to do a follow up based on my practical experience working with concurrent/hybrid programs, and relay a few of the major lessons I’ve learned both from programming for myself and for my athletes…  a group that includes dozens of 200-300+ pound individuals with 450+ pound bench presses, 600+ pound deadlifts, 600+ pound squats, and other such numbers that are useful to throw around in heated internet arguments…  in other words, none of these folks are delicate flowers who shrivel up and die when asked to run a few miles.

For the strength-focused athlete, incorporating cardiovascular training into one’s program is something that is approached with everything from mild distaste to outright horror- and potentially with good reason.  Introduction of cardiovascular training into an already stacked strength training regimen without proper attention paid to recovery or overall work load can result in a loss of strength, overtraining, and underwhelming performance gains in the aerobic realm to boot.

This is an extreme case, however- it is not terribly difficult to intelligently incorporate aerobic conditioning into a strength program, and as Greg’s article points out, if done correctly the net effects can be improved recovery, greater work capacity (both specific and general), and overall just not feeling like a generally un-athletic heap of crap when trying to go up a flight of stairs.

In my experience, when it comes to training hybrid athletes (those who train for strength and endurance, concurrently), the major considerations in designing a program are: Recovery management, energy systems management, managing progressive overload in the aerobic arena, and correctly timing workouts in the microcycle.

Figure 1: The author on a bike.  You helmet does not have to look this silly.

 

Recovery management and choosing the correct form of activity

Resistance training and “aerobic” training both tax the body’s energy stores and various structures in a number of ways- certainly both forms of activity consume energy stores, cause muscle tissue breakdown, stress bones and connective tissue, and so forth.  What is important to remember, though, is that the level of stress is very different between the two, and if properly managed, the body can recovery from a greater overall level of stress provided the TYPES of stress are varied.

For example- sprinting and high repetition squatting are relatively similar in terms of physical stress- both involve relatively high peak loads at momentarily acute joint angles, as well as heavy eccentric and concentric stresses, so treat these as nearly identical workouts in your planning (and understand that they can, in fact, be combined).  On the opposite end of the spectrum, slow, easy cycling or swimming are completely different than standard resistance training- far less trauma to the muscle fibers (very low mechanical stress), far less damage to bone (these are not load bearing, for the most part), and can therefore be programmed with less consideration to heavy lifting.

Without getting into a breakdown of every single kind of exercise, just remember that it pays to examine HOW your existing routine is stressing your body, and choose your aerobic exercise modality accordingly.  Pushing your leg strength to the limit or focusing on your squat?  Avoid heavy sprinting or fast cycling, and opt for low intensity swimming, low intensity cycling or even rucking (hiking with a weighted pack) as your cardiovascular activity.   Bench specialist?  The erg or the pool are doing you no favors.  SHW athlete?  Forget running entirely- rucking is an excellent option, (possibly even superior to cycling, since few things are less comfortable than putting 300 pounds of pressure on your crotch.), just make sure you have solid, supportive, well fitting boots.

Another point to consider- to maintain explosiveness and specificity, ensure that the aerobic activity chosen is as DISSIMILAR to the required movement patterns as possible, particularly if you are an athlete who typically struggles with rate of force production.  Swimming tends to hurt Olympic lifters less than endurance cycling, while cycling interferes minimally with the bench press.  Rucking, because it uses movement patterns very different from most lifts in general (no acute joint angles, low intensity movement, etc.) has been (in my experience) the MOST tolerable for all strength athletes.  This sounds like common sense, but seems to escape many individuals- the body adapts to how it is trained, and if you perform similar movements with different cadences, you may be “training” your body to perform sub-optimally in both. Of note- despite all the arguments both for and against “speed’ work for powerlifters, I find that incorporating speed work for concurrent/hybrid athletes is nearly a must, while for pure strength athletes it can often be optional- implying that frequent RFD work is more important for athletes who are performing high volume non-explosive activity on a regular basis.  This is consistent with the findings in the summary presented here.

Energy systems management- proper recovery and recuperation

The second most critical piece to remember- think about what energy stores you’re depleting, and recover accordingly.  A true LISS (Low intensity steady state) session WILL deplete your glycogen, but it’s remarkable how LITTLE glycogen you need to perform maximum effort lifting the next day.  I’ve had dozens of athletes do 20+ mile runs one day, then squat heavily the next.  They may require more bar-only warmups to get loose, and their overall workout duration will be shorter (they will NOT have re-synthesized their full glycogen stores by the time they go squat, so their drop down sets may suffer), but their maximum power output will be largely unaffected.  The takeaway here is to plan volume accordingly- high repetition/hypertrophy work or extended RFD/dynamic effort sessions require more stores than a few maximum effort lifts, so take care to allow sufficient time after extended aerobic activity to replenish… this can take up to 72+ hours if sufficiently depleted.

Do note- no matter how “slow” the activity or low intensity the activity in question is, you still ARE burning glycogen.  Ultra runners moving at a 13:00/mile pace can still bonk when they run out of glycogen, and are nearly unable to even maintain a steady walk at this point.  Do not think that any sort of “metabolic optimization” (such as eating massive amounts of fat rather than carbs during activity to keep the body burning fat over glucose, or any such nonsense) will preserve glucose for lifting.

Also note that, while the post workout “anabolic window” is indeed overstated in terms of its importance, it is not ideal to perform long duration cardio immediately after a lifting session- catabolic hormones are already high, significant microtrauma has already been done to the muscles, and the body needs to recover.  Short duration sprints may not be contraindicated (as 15-20 minutes of HIIT may be little different than simply performing a few burnout sets of squats), but the athlete should always perform longer duration aerobic activity when the body is at least marginally recovered from resistance training.  While I am a big advocate of “big picture thinking”…  i.e. the athlete’s overall program over the course of a week matters more than a few minutes here or there post workout…  it still pays to consider when the system is primarily catabolic, and when you’re better off recovering versus simply wringing out an  already exhausted body.

Finally, do note that SHORTER duration, lower intensity aerobic activity can indeed aid in recovery.  Anecdotally, simply getting the legs or arms moving can increase blood flow and mobility, prevent tightness, and warm up the body enough for active mobility work or stretching.  Endurance athletes have done similar such “recovery runs” for decades for great effect- just make sure not to overcook these sessions and try to turn them into challenging workouts!  A “recovery run” 6-8 hours after a leg session (or the next morning) can, certainly anecdotally, speed recovery significantly.

Progressive overload and preventing stagnation

Aerobic activity is no different from resistance training- simply performing the same exercise at the same intensity and volume week after week will result in no improvement.  Any individual, even if his or her goal is simply to improve background aerobic capacity, should vary his or her aerobic training to prevent stagnation and chronic overuse.  Careful incorporation and gradual accumulation of low intensity, extended duration steady state workouts (The “long slow run” or “overdistance” work, to be done on its own training day), moderate intensity “tempo” work (also to be done on its own training day), and higher intensity, shorter duration sprint or interval style work (which can be done at the end of resistance training, provided it is taxing the same muscles as those worked in the previous workout) should all be incorporated to maximize adaptation and ensure progression.

Over-doing any one of these will result in overtaxing discrete systems already pushed to their limit- too much sprinting or interval training will rapidly overtax the same energy systems and muscles you need for strength training, while too much low intensity extended duration work will result in chronic glycogen depletion/fatigue and potential overuse injuries.

Figure 2: I have no idea what’s going on here, but it seems relevant

 

Also, according to the internet, your CNS will burn out if you do just one thing over and over again.  I asked the internet specifically what this meant, but nobody could really agree on an answer, just that it was very bad.  So please, don’t anger the internet.

Putting it together

So what, then, is the ideal template?  One you create yourself- nearly every athlete I’ve worked with has a unique program, with cardiovascular training implemented completely differently.  There is no one “magic bullet”, particularly with strength-focused athletes.  I HIGHLY recommend that the individual experiment with different types of training, from swimming to aqua jogging, hiking and trail running to rucking with a loaded pack, from distance cycling to cross country skiing.  Simply thinking of aerobic activity as “running” is short-sighted- unless you are specifically training for an event, it pays to consider all the above factors when incorporating aerobic conditioning into a program.

It ALSO pays to understand when aerobic conditioning should be decreased or even eliminated.  Prior to peaking for competition, strength athletes may find a benefit from reducing volume in the aerobic component of the program- shortening their duration by 25-50% two weeks before competition, and 50-75% the week of competition.  If the athlete has consistently done some sort of aerobic conditioning throughout the training cycle, however, I would NOT recommend eliminating it entirely… the athlete has adapted and become accustomed to the regular stimulus, but has also become accustomed to the regular mobility and “loosening up” that aerobic conditioning can provide, on top of the particular hormonal/neurological effects.  Loosely translated- don’t change ANYTHING too dramatically right before competition- you may find that the regular cardiovascular conditioning has been helping your legs recover, has been helping your appetite, and helping you sleep at night, and suddenly eliminating it a few days before competition may REALLY disrupt things for the worse.

Finally, as Greg noted in his article, for the athlete entering a competitive season, the nature of your aerobic activity should change as you approach competition.  Consider WHY you are incorporating it, and do not hesitate to drop it to a bare minimum during a peaking phase- just ensure that this is done gradually.

Of the various athletes I’ve had the privilege of working with, from Powerlifters to military Special Forces to Strongman competitors, the VAST majority of individuals have been able to maintain or even increase the rate of strength and size gains when intelligently incorporating cardiovascular conditioning into their routines, and very few of these individuals restricted this conditioning to HIIT, prowler pushes, or other such typically recommended exercise modalities.  Regular cardiovascular conditioning improves their recovery, their overall work capacity, and (not unimportantly) truly teaches pain tolerance and a willingness to push through discomfort, an additional benefit that cannot be discounted.

The human body is a remarkably adaptable system- it is designed to respond to whatever stimulus acts it is exposed to, and it is simply foolish to assume that, because strength adaptations and endurance adaptations SEEM at opposite ends of the spectrum, that an individual cannot train for both and reap rewards from both ends, as long as they refuel and recover properly from both.

A final note- treat aerobic activity no different than lifting weights- it PAYS to know what you’re doing.  Get a good pair of shoes before running (a good pair for YOU- go to a specialty running store and get evaluated, don’t just run in shoes that look fancy).  Get a good bike fit if you want to cycle.  Get good supportive boots and a well balanced pack if you want to ruck.  Get proper goggles and a real swimsuit (or jammer shorts) and not board shorts if you want to swim.  And sign up for a lesson or two from somebody who knows what they’re doing.  Most strength athletes are so specialized for power production that we have terrible mechanics for lower intensity activity, and spending a bit of extra time looking at our running form or finding a proper bike saddle will prevent a HUGE amount of issues down the road.

Figure 3: Hoka One One shoes next to a conventional running shoe.  Learn what’s out there, and know your gear!

The final lesson here- if anything, give Greg’s article another read- from practical experience, it is certainly 100% accurate- incorporating aerobic conditioning in no way means a strength-focused athlete cannot continue to gain size and strength, it must just be done carefully, so as to not lose gainz.

 

About the Author:
Alex Viada is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a USA Triathlon certified coach, Ironman triathlete, occasional Ultra runner, and Powerlifter who specializes in training hybrid athletes- individuals who wish to perform and compete in both strength and endurance events concurrently.  His company, Complete Human Performance, at any given moment has roughly 60 athletes on the coaching roster, including active duty Military, Police / Firefighters, Powerlifters, MMA fighters, CrossFit competitors, Ultra runners, Triathletes, and Cyclists…  most of whom fall into multiple categories.  He squats and deadlifts 700+, runs a 4:15 mile, and has a strange obsession with Belgian beer.

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24 thoughts on “Practical Considerations for Combining Cardio and Lifting”

  1. The article states that “it is not ideal to perform long duration cardio immediately after a lifting session.” Does that mean any cardio at all after lifting is disadvantageous? I’ve been meaning to implement 15 minutes of LISS cardio after each of my lifting days, so would even that relatively “easy” cardio still be detrimental to the body? Or would that be OK?

    Also, if it is OK, would you recommend consuming anything before beginning the cardio, such as some fast-absorbing protein and/or carbs?

    Thanks for any advice 🙂

  2. Douglas Bjorkman

    The Deadlift records are certainly impressive. However I am also curious about your Ironman times..

    When I was doing Ironman in around 11 hours I avoided upper body weight training so as not to carry the extra muscle weight on the course. After all after spending multiple thousands to get ones bike as light as possible it seems rash to carry so many extra kilos on your body. Swimming is really a technique rather than a strength sport and in any case is only 10% of the sport.

    Of course it depends on onses priorities. Now I’m old and knees worn out for running Im eyeing age-weight records for powerlifting. As I still bike a lot I’m interested. In discovering it’s not a contraindicated as I thought.

  3. Great article Alex. I have benefitted a lot from your concurrent training advice and love your book. Great that you put Hokas in the article – they can be a game changer for bigger stronger folks who love to run and worry about the “pounding.” And I swear my legs are “readier” to squat the day after a run in Hokas than any other shoes.

  4. How do you feel about the fact that Viada has now admitted on his blog that he lied about his running accomplishments? Does this change your opinion about combining cardio and strength training?

    1. I did not know he’d done that actually. Would you mind linking me? But to answer your question, not really. I know quite a few people who’ve been coached by Alex and had solid results (mostly strength athletes who’ve either maintained or increased strength while improving their conditioning considerably), which matters more to me than one dude claiming awesome results.

      1. FWIW, decathlete Jack Fath is the heaviest person to ever run a 4 minute mile. He clocked in at 3:59. His listed bodyweight at the beginning of the season was 190. Who knows what he actually weighed that day.

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