Do Powerlifters Need Cardio?
Do powerlifters need to do “cardio” as a part of their training? Some say they should never do cardio while others say it depends on the situation. I say we should first clarify what we're talking about and then we can determine whether or not cardio is beneficial for a powerlifter.
The term cardio is loosely applied to any form of training involving an elliptical, stationary bike, stepper, treadmill, or other sort of equipment. However, there isn't any consideration given to what is being done on these pieces of equipment. Duration, intensity, steady state, or intervals are all factors that determine what will be achieved by this type of exercise.
Now, like I've said in previous articles, we need to allow ourselves to step outside the box to be able to think through the rest of this article. First, we need to understand the physical demands of a powerlifter, not only in competition but also in training. Then we will apply physiology to those demands. While we know that there isn't any need for a powerlifter to ever be able to perform one type of exercise for long, continuous durations in competition, we'll dig deeper than what is seen by the common observer in this analysis.
- Perform up to nine maximal attempts.
- Recover after each attempt for subsequent attempts.
- Perform warm-up sets at a large range of intensities.
- Perform the above over the course of 4–9 hours.
- Be able to train for 1–3 hours per session.
- Perform multiple maximal attempts in a single training session.
- Perform multiple high rep sets with short rest intervals for hypertrophy.
- Recover between sets throughout the duration of a single training session.
- Recover from the previous training session for subsequent training sessions.
- Utilize ATP/PC as fuel for performance of maximal lifts.
- Utilize oxygen to aid in the recovery of ATP between maximal attempts. (Efficient aerobic functioning is essential to the production of ATP.)
- Utilize glycolysis for fuel when working to improve hypertrophy.
- Utilize oxygen to oxidize lactic acid, which can diminish productivity. (The body is always in an aerobic state but utilizes other fuel sources when exercise intensity is very high or rest intervals are very short.)
Having a base level of aerobic fitness can be highly beneficial for a powerlifter. This can be understood by analyzing and combining the competition and training demands with physiological concepts of how the body utilizes and produces energy. However, randomly going out and doing an hour of cardio every day wouldn't be beneficial. It still needs to be applied appropriately.
Because the term cardio doesn't have any real meaning and doesn't imply any specific training parameters, we need a term that is meaningful and significant. Cardiac development is aerobic training that utilizes low to moderate intensity for extended time periods (20–45 minutes). It's designed to improve the function of the heart so that blood flow is improved, which will allow for more efficient use of oxygen in the blood. The intensity shouldn't be any lower than 70 percent of the maximum heart rate and shouldn't be any higher than anaerobic threshold. The means of training aren't nearly as important as the duration and intensity.
Practical benefits of cardiac development training
- Improves recovery between training sessions
- Improves recovery within training sessions
- Improves recovery within a workout so more work can be done
- Helps control and/or reduce body fat levels
- Improves immune function
- Reduces cortisol levels
- Improves strength
- Allows more energy to be available for the deadlift
From applying cardiac development work to my own training over the past few years, I've noticed a significant difference in my ability to do more work in each workout. When I've been inconsistent with my cardiac development work, workouts became much more difficult to complete without taking additional rest between sets. By training the aerobic system, we're training our body to produce energy more efficiently.
More importantly though, I've felt good going into the deadlift in competition. Before beginning this type of work, I routinely had to lower my opener in the deadlift because of how tired I had become over the course of the day. I can’t remember the last time I was at a meet and didn't hear another lifter complaining of how tired he was or how heavy his deadlift warm-ups felt. Because I began doing cardiac development work, this hasn't been an issue. I've felt just as good going into the deadlift as I have at the start of the day.
Applying cardiac development training
Powerlifters aren't endurance athletes. They don't need endless amounts of this sort of work. Two or three sessions per week of 20–45 minutes per session is sufficient. The best way to do this is to wear a heart rate monitor to ensure that you're staying in the appropriate range. With most powerlifters, the tendency is to go too hard. However, keep in mind that going too hard with endurance work is counterproductive to the goal of powerlifting.
Exercises can include the elliptical, bike, stepper, or any other form of cardio equipment. While these machines will be very effective at providing the desired benefits, they also cause you to put out a lot of effort to go absolutely nowhere. In other words, they're very boring. Remember, the most important factor is to stay in the desired heart rate range for an extended period of time utilizing physical activity. You don't have to do “continuous” activity so long as the heart rate and duration requirements are met.
Below are some less boring options.
- Walking hills on a treadmill
- Wearing a weight vest (or multiple vests) to walk on a treadmill (flat or incline)
- Walking stadium steps (rest when heart rate goes above anaerobic threshold)
Let your heart rate return to 130–140 between reps. Keep the weight light and don’t run. If your heart rate is reaching 160–180, you're going too hard. I've used distances ranging from 35–75 yards per rep.
- Prowler® pushes
- Farmer’s walks
- Yoke carries
- Front squat walks
- Lower body sled dragging
- Upper body sled dragging
- Overhead dumbbell carries
Putting it into the plan
Other than what I've done personally, I can't give any specific recommendations as to how to properly program cardiac development work when training for a meet. Much of what I've done has been trial and error. The information I'm about to provide is only that which I've utilized myself. I'm only able to compete twice a year, so I'm usually working with large time spans (oftentimes five or six months).
Below is a timeline of how I program my cardiac development work:
As you can see in the chart, the volume of cardiac development work is cut at least in half by the time the meet arrives. Because this sort of work has a long residual training effect, it isn't necessary to maintain high volumes of work to stay in shape for the competition.
Another facet of training is that the type of work changes as a meet approaches. In order to avoid interference with adaptation to the main competitive exercises, the exercises are changed over to less stressful forms of work. This will help you avoid devoting too much adaptation to exercises that don't yield direct improvement to the squat, bench, or deadlift.
Below is a table showing how I apply this to my weekly schedule. Notice that I utilize work that emphasizes the lower body after a squat/deadlift day and work that emphasizes the upper body after a bench day. This is done in order to enhance recovery of the affected muscle groups by increasing blood flow to those areas.
Considering physiology, doing some aerobic work isn’t as bad as often claimed—that is if it's done appropriately. Low to moderate intensity cardiac development work can go a long way to improving the recovery ability and overall health of powerlifters—and the deadlifts won’t feel so daunting after already being at a meet for five or six hours.
- Science of Sports Training by Thomas Kurz
- Programming and Organization of Training by Yuri Verkhoshansky
- Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sport Training by Vladimir Issurin
- Various Q&A posts on EliteFTS.com by Landon Evans, Mark McLaughlin, and the Thinker
Thank you to Ryan Horn for his assistance with this article. Ryan is an assistant strength coach at the University of Tulsa.