Conditioning for Strength Athletes

Fitness and conditioning do overlap but they are not the same thing.

Depending on who you ask—this can be a controversial topic. But in reality, it’s straightforward. Before we get into exactly what you should, and shouldn’t be doing, let’s take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

There’s a common misconception about what conditioning is. Most people seem to think that it’s as simple as conditioning = cardio.

Depending on who you ask—this can be a controversial topic. But in reality, it’s straightforward. Before we get into exactly what you should, and shouldn’t be doing, let’s take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

There’s a common misconception about what conditioning is. Most people seem to think that it’s as simple as conditioning = cardio.

For example, a strength and conditioning coach gets people strong and fit.

This isn’t wrong, just incomplete.

Conditioning and Fitness Are Not the Same

Cardiovascular fitness is a health-related component of physical fitness and is characterized by our ability to deliver oxygen to working muscle; essentially, it’s how well our heart can pump oxygenated blood to meet exercise demands.

Improving cardiovascular fitness is advantageous for many sports, but is it directly beneficial for strength sports?

Conditioning is not just being fit. Conditioning is being prepared to meet the demands of a sport or activity. An athlete can be extremely fit but poorly conditioned to the task at hand. If we consider what conditioning might mean for a marathon runner, it will look quite different for a powerlifter or strongman, or even bodybuilder.

Conditioning incorporates the physical qualities required, familiarity with the environment, and overall readiness to perform.

Conditioning Is Specific

Simply put, fitness is general; conditioning is specific.

There’s going to be an overlap between the two, but fitness and conditioning are not the same.

So, for strength athletes, how does being conditioned look? Quite simply, it requires you to exert large amounts of force for relatively short periods and execute a particular skill while doing so.

So, how do we tackle the conditioning demands of strength sports, and is there a place for cardiovascular fitness?

The short answer is to train specific to the sport (obvious, I know), but this is where exposure to high loads close to competition serves a clear purpose—yes, it’s a skill.

Still, it’s conditioning for the impending competition environment.

  • In the case of strongman, it might be performing specific competition events in prep.
  • In bodybuilding, the art of posing certainly falls under conditioning.

Where, then, does cardiovascular fitness fit?

Cardio Impacts Your Overall Ability to Train

To put it simply, it keeps you healthy. The evidence here is pretty undeniable, regular aerobic exercise lowers your resting blood pressure, your resting heart rate and reduces your risk of a multitude of health conditions. In short, it’s good for you, but does it have a place outside of doing it for health? Yes.

Improving your cardiovascular fitness can have a tremendous impact on your overall ability to train. You can improve recovery between sets and between workouts.

Being able to regenerate ATP and supply blood to muscles faster is rarely a bad thing.

There may be a point of diminishing return, but I can tell you that I’ve yet to meet a strength athlete who was too strong for their sport.

Q. What type of cardio should strength athletes perform?

A. They should perform low-intensity aerobic work every single time.

What’s that? HIIT circuits aren’t better? No, they’re not.

Consider what we’re trying to achieve? Your high-intensity training occurs every time you lift.

  1. There is no need to try and develop anaerobic pathways any more than that for strength athletes.
  2. Doing authentic HIIT-style training at something like 15:60 serves no additional benefit, so why would you do it?
  3. The best form of aerobic training a strength athlete can do is moderate intensity, moderate duration, and low impact.
  4. Circuits of box jumps and swings look great on Instagram but are also more taxing on the body as a whole, and we want to save our recovery capabilities for our specific training.
  5. I start by recommending off-legs cardio—spin bike, rower, or ski erg.

As a general rule, I don’t recommend you run; the trade-off is rarely worth it.

  • Protocol 1 – Work for 30 minutes, keep your heart rate at 130-150 bpm continually. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, this is the intensity at which you can maintain a conversation.
  • Protocol 2 – Aerobic intervals; Work for 30 seconds and then rest for 15 seconds. Pick any exercise or multiple exercises and rotate; Once again, accumulate 30 minutes of work.
  • Protocol 3 – Tempo Intervals, work slightly higher intensity for 15 seconds, rest for 45 seconds. If you’re going to run, this is how I suggest you run rather than long distance.

If you are a strength athlete interested in staying healthy and maintaining a level of aerobic fitness, do what you’re not currently doing.

Please don’t do more of what you’re already doing and call it cardio. You know it isn’t—Surely?