Rev Up Your Horsepower: An Interval Weight Training Plan

Running an hour daily for conditioning won’t cut it. For maximal work capacity, enter the pain cave.

If you ever want to be anything other than a show pony, you’re going to have to develop your work capacity. In the real world, work capacity has little to do with running a marathon and more to do with having the type of grit and stamina that would allow you to carry a loved one to safety over a mountain.

There’s a saying in sports performance: “If it fires together, it wires together.” That means if you want real-world conditioning, you need a combination of heavy lifting and tier-one conditioning.

Enter Interval Weight Training

Pat O’Shea first talked about interval weight training workouts, or IWTs, in his book Quantum Strength and Power Training. The basic setup goes like this:

  • Perform a full-body athletic movement, such as the power clean, power snatch, or snatch pull for 8–12 reps. Immediately following the strength movement, move to a cardiac conditioning effort for 2–4 minutes and work at 90–95 percent of your maximum heart rate. After completing this round, rest for two minutes and begin again, performing three total rounds.
  • Following the three rounds, take a 5-minute complete rest. Let’s face it: you’ve earned it. But you’re only 30 percent done.
  • Following the 5-minute rest, repeat the format first used, again using a whole-body strength movement, but this time substitute a grinding-type movement such as the front squat. Perform 3 total rounds and then take another well-earned 5-minute break.
  • The final stage is a bodyweight circuit using exercises performed at high pace for 6–12 reps, each with minimal rest between movements. Rest no longer than a minute between circuits. Complete 3–5 circuits.

After you’ve earnestly done one of these workouts, you’ll never think of a few mindless laps of farmer’s walks and prowler work as conditioning ever again.

Choose a weight that feels explosive for the duration of the workout.

Cardio or Conditioning?

Everyone gets all tangled up over trying to define cardio and conditioning, as if there is any appreciable difference between them. Both require you to have an elevated heart rate. Both teach you to work for extended periods of time. And truthfully, there is no one exercise that builds work capacity that is exclusively one or the other.

You may think anything that gets your heart rate up can count as cardio training, so you will be fine just doing high-rep squats. Well, no. Just like you can have concentric and eccentric muscle contractions when doing curls and presses, your heart can have different training adaptations. So it makes sense that the hearts of endurance athletes and strength athletes differ, just like their physiques do.

When it comes to conditioning, there is a clear hierarchy. Like it or not, some exercises are just more effective. In tier one are the classics – running, swimming, cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, and the VersaClimber. Tier two includes kayaking, boxing, and kettlebell snatches. It’s not until you get to tier three that you find the exercises most people try to use for conditioning – jumping rope, circuit training, and kettlebell swings.

The reason why circuit training is in tier three comes down to one factor: blood flow. When a muscle is tensed beyond 50 percent, all blood flow is stopped. Since less oxygen is being used by the working muscles, less oxygen is provided. And when it comes to getting that adaptation to the heart that helps it grow, it’s all about the need for high levels of oxygenated blood to be pumped to the muscles.

This is one of the big disconnects when it comes to conditioning work – your goal is to end up with higher levels of work capacity. While circuits may help to develop high levels of strength endurance, they do little to boost your heart’s ability to pump large quantities of blood. Further, because of the low loads used, they do little to develop muscular strength. If you’re looking for ways to improve functional horsepower, there is a far better way.

An IWT Primer

Before I get into the specifics, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Substitutions: Don’t substitute small exercises for big ones. Lat pull downs aren’t a replacement for power cleans.
  • Load: While the loads should be relatively light – O’Shea recommends 70 percent of your 3 rep max – don’t skimp. The strength component must tax the muscles so you learn to display both strength and high levels of conditioning.
  • Difficulty: 90–95 percent of max heart rate is hard. Like, collapse-on-the-ground hard. If you don’t despise these workouts, you’re just not doing them hard enough.
  • Equipment: If you think running for two minutes will make you skinny, then stick to the big guy options – the Airdyne, rower, and ski erg – although a two-minute incline run on a treadmill is the hardest option you could choose.
  • Heart Rate: If you use a heart rate monitor, don’t expect to see your heart rate at more than 90 percent for the first 30 seconds. It takes about that long for it to really jump. Instead, expect to see it peak near the end of your effort.
  • Bonus Points: If you’ve spent time already addressing your fitness and know that while you are strong, you suffer with endurance work, then use slightly longer intervals of 3–4 minutes. Three-minute efforts, in particular, are heavily used in training methods designed to peak VO2 max abilities. That is the kind of training that gets you comfortable with being uncomfortable and increases your top-end fitness dramatically.

More is not more when it comes to IWTs. A single session each week following the full format is enough to see great improvements in real-world conditioning, and prepare you to kick some serious ass when needed. Trying to do multiple IWTs in a week will leave you burnt out quickly.

Nothing will test your mental toughness like a hard rowing effort.

If these workouts aren’t kicking your ass, you’re doing it wrong.

4-Week Interval Weight Training Program

Try this IWT once a week for four weeks before taking a break:

First round:

  • Power clean x 8–12 reps
  • Row 2 minutes
  • Rest 2 minutes

Repeat for three rounds. Rest 5 minutes before the second round.

Second round:

  • Back squat x 8–12 reps
  • Airdyne 2 minutes
  • Rest 2 minutes

Repeat for three rounds. Rest five minutes before the third round.

Third round:

  • Mountain climbers x 10
  • Push-ups x 10
  • Burpees x 10
  • Squats x 10
  • Box jumps x 10 (jump up and step down)
  • Rest one minute

Repeat for five rounds.

Your goals for this workout each week should be as follows:

  • Record the distances rowed on each interval. At the end of the four weeks, you should cover 10 percent more total distance than you did in the first week. A good starting goal is 550 meters per 2 minutes. That means you should break 600 meters per interval in the final week.
  • Record total calories on each round for the Airdyne. Each Airdyne model records calories burned slightly differently. On the newer AD6s, we expect to see 40 calories or better for 2 minutes, while on the older AD4s and the Stair Master Air Bike we see roughly double that. In either case, just like with the rowing, your goal is to add 10 percent over the 4 weeks.

Aim for Progression

If you’re really out of shape, you’ll notice a tremendous drop-off in the number of reps you can get with the strength exercise, as well as how far you can go on each tier-one effort. Over time, as you become fitter and better adapted, you’ll see that all your efforts stay close to one another. At my gym, we expect to see less than a 10 percent drop in performance from one interval to the next.

When choosing your weights, don’t pick a weight that barely gets you 8 reps for the first set. That’s too heavy, and you’ll likely get only 5–7 reps in the second and third sets. Instead, pick a weight that you are confident you can get 10 reps with, and try to get at least 8 reps each set. If you are hitting 12 reps each round, add some weight for next week.

Embrace the Sweat

Don’t be scared of conditioning. You won’t lose muscle. In fact, as you get better conditioned and your heart gets stronger, you’ll find all sorts of other benefits, such as faster recovery between sets of your regular workouts and increased recovery between workouts. A strong, healthy heart is the most important muscle in the body. But to develop it, you don’t need to run an hour daily.

More Interval Training and Conditioning:

Photos courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.