If Hamlet was a strength athlete he’d have said, ‘to cardio or not to cardio, that is the question’.
Aerobic training has long been thought to be detrimental to muscle growth, strength and power development. Scientists put forward the ‘interference phenomenon’. The theory suggests that when the body is faced with two opposing stimuli, it becomes confused and the body adapts poorly. It fails to reap the optimal benefits of either style of training and instead settles for a mediocre middle ground.
Research also unearthed that aerobic training had a deleterious effect on hormones. Muscle building hormones, like testosterone, are suppressed while stress hormone output, like cortisol, is increased.
Sports scientist, Charles Pfeiffer, went as far as saying that, “The consequence of aerobic exercise is too detrimental to be considered an effective training modality for anaerobic athletes; let alone a necessary one.”
But a closer look at the research and recent studies suggests that Pfeiffer and co are wrong.
The context of these past studies was not relevant to strength athletes. The investigations called for large amounts of cardio. It showed that the more cardio a person did the greater impact it had on their strength and size. But this like expecting to get strong while training for a marathon. It ain’t gonna happen.
Strength athletes should supplement their strength training with cardio. It should form a small part of their overall regime. The body adapts to the specific demands it is placed under. The principle has its own acronym – SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands). For the strength athlete, if she focuses on strength training with cardio sprinkled on top, there will be no negative effects but performance benefits.
Aerobic training can create a larger window for strength and muscle gains. Early-stage research suggests that cardio increases the release of a derivative of testosterone.
You can expect improved body composition too. Studies show that concurrent training (aerobic plus weights) improves body composition. Resistance training increases metabolic rate and aerobic training suppresses hunger. In isolation, strength training and cardio result in less benefit.
A leaner body from concurrent training has its own advantages.
- Insulin sensitivity improves so the body becomes better at storing carbs as muscle glycogen instead of fat.
- The fat cell hormone, Leptin, becomes more effective. It plays a key role in energy regulation.
- The muscle builder, Testosterone, increases.
- The fat depositor, Oestrogen, decreases.
Aerobic training aids with recovery from a strength session too. It promotes blood flow to muscles without causing further harm. Nutrients are brought in to repair the damaged fibres and waste products are removed. Also, your heart health will improve.
The research and theory are supported by the success of athletes who combine strength training and cardio. There is no doubting the achievements of the Chinese weightlifters in recent years. They clean, snatch and squat. A lot. But their regime involves regular jogging and other aerobic-based exercises too.
Another example is the premier weightlifter, Ilya Ilyin. He follows a ten-month program. He begins by building a general foundation through swimming and rowing and no lifting. Then, his training becomes specific and culminates in the elimination of everything but the Olympic lifts and squats.
Strength training is your focus. Develop your program around your goals. That might mean a specific meet or lift.
When including aerobic training, follow these guidelines:
- Keep the volume low – Three twenty sessions a week is your maximum.
- Favour low intensity over high – You should be able to maintain a conversation with ease.
- Favour low impact over high – Cycling, rowing and walking are good options. Limit running. It has been shown to have a negative impact. The eccentric part of the movement, that is needed to absorb shock, causes muscle damage that affects power and strength output.
- Separate strength and cardio sessions. If you can’t have two different sessions, do your cardio after your strength training.
- Consider your calories. Including aerobic training means your body spends more energy. Don’t make the mistake of letting your body fall into a calorie deficit – unless weight loss is your goal. Bump up your calorie intake to compensate for the increase in workload.