I’m a fat man at heart. I eat a lot. Five reps is “high-rep” work for me.

I hate cardio with a passion. Hell, I hate going up and down the stairs most of the time let alone any kind of planned conditioning work. But let’s get to the gist of this article.

Is there a NEED for conditioning in powerlifting? I’m not so sure, at least not in the traditional sense of “conditioning.” Let’s examine this further.

In a powerlifting meet, you warm up and then perform three heavy squat attempts. You get a break and start warming up for bench. You perform three attempts and then there’s another break. Finally, you warm up for the deadlift, do three attempts, and you’re done.

Is it just me or is this not too taxing on the cardiorespiratory system?

Sure, some meets are performed more quickly than others. For example, the IPF and some very organized state/national level meets are run extremely quickly. You’ll perform your three attempts for any given lift and when the flight is done, you have exactly 15 minutes to warm up for the following lift before the next flight begins. While this is considered “fast” for a powerlifting meet, it’s not extremely taxing on the cardiorespiratory system unless you have a conditioning level on par with Jabba the Hut. Conditioning here isn’t necessarily cardiorespiratory in nature. However, you need to have the neural conditioning it takes to be able to perform nine very heavy lifts in three hours or less.

In other federations such as the APF and WPO, lifters tend to have much longer breaks in between lifting disciplines. While this allows for more rest and recuperation, you also run the risk of tightening up. It’s probably tougher to stay focused mentally as well. I’m not saying that one federation or the other is right, but I want to make you aware of the differences. In these meets, cardiorespiratory fitness probably has little or no influence on the outcome whatsoever.

Simply put, powerlifting isn’t a cardio event. It’s a strength event. So why are you doing 24 extra workouts per week? And why are you worried about keeping your damn heart rate up?

The Definition

Before we continue, we need to define the term “cardiorespiratory endurance.” The CDC defines this as “the ability of the body's circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel during sustained physical activity” (USDHHS, 1996 as adapted from Corbin and Lindsey, 1994).

Unless your idea of sustained physical activity is a ten second grinder on your third deadlift, there isn’t a ton of cardiorespiratory endurance involved in your powerlifting performance.

Question Everything

As with most topics, the subject of extra workouts came from the man himself, Louie Simmons. In his article, “Extra Workouts,” Louie references quite a few lifters who perform extra workouts and discusses why they do them. Let’s critically examine some of the typical reasons why people perform extra workouts as well as how to make them work FOR YOU.

Before I continue, I’m certainly not opposed to this kind of work, and this is definitely not a bash of Louie. I just want people to think critically about WHY they are doing what they’re doing, not just blindly following the advice of others. Louie is an amazing lifter, author, and coach, but too many people are doing these workouts for the wrong reasons.

The most common reasons people cite for doing extra workouts are to:

  • improve recovery
  • bring up weak points
  • improve conditioning
  • increase general health/fitness

There are many different reasons as to why you could be including this type of workout into your program. But, let’s look at each more closely to see if they are helping you achieve your goals.

Extra Workouts for Recovery

One of the most often referenced points for adding in “extra workouts” is recovery. When done properly, these mini workouts are excellent for promoting blood flow to damaged muscles, flushing metabolic waste, and speeding the recovery process in general.

BUT, most people get it all wrong.

Instead of doing lighter weight and higher reps, they do five sets of five on the glute-ham machine with a blue band around their neck and their eyes popping out of their skull. In other words, instead of “recovery” work, they’re doing another hamstring workout. If that’s your goal, fine. But the problem herein lies when the goals and the programming aren’t properly aligned. Strength work does not equal recovery work!

In his article “Cardio Confusion,” Eric Cressey cites that for proper recovery you should be using approximately 30 percent of your 1-RM for a given strength training exercise (or 60 percent of your heart rate reserve for typical “cardio” such as walking or biking). Using this example, if you can bench 300 pounds for a single rep, you’d only be using 90 pounds for your recovery work. I know many of you out there aren’t used to loading up the quarters and having a go on the bench, but if you’re doing these workouts for recovery, leave your ego at the door and do it right.

Summary: If you want to improve recovery, read Eric’s articles and take his advice. Go light or go home!

Extra Workouts to Bring Up Weak Points

This is another example often cited when extra workouts are mentioned. Most people figure that if four sets of glute-hams twice a week are good, then four sets, four times a week is even better. This goes on for every weakness they have—weak triceps, weak abs, weak low back, weak upper back. The list can go on and on.

Next thing you know, your “weak point” workouts are getting longer than your primary workouts! Let’s be real here. You can’t bring up EVERY weakness at the same time. Even if you could, as soon as one thing isn’t the weak link, another one is! Marinate on that one for a second.

We get into a vicious cycle always thinking if a little bit is good, a little more MUST be better. Remember, what we do in the gym is only half the battle. How we recover when we’re out of the gym is every bit as important. Next time you want to do a three hour “weak point” workout, go home and drink a beer. Relax. Get some extra sleep. Your body will thank you, and you’ll probably set a PR on your next max effort day.

Summary: Want to learn how to structure weak point workouts? Check out Louie’s “Extra Workouts” article (and don’t do 38 weak point workouts a week!).

Extra Workouts to Bring Up Conditioning

As I already stated, there really isn’t that much cardiorespiratory influence on a powerlifting meet. If there was, the stickman with the highest VO2 max would win every event while the guy who’s all fast twitch would be lying in a smoldering heap backstage. Needless to say, this isn’t the case.

So why are we trying to kill ourselves with conditioning? Especially the “my muscles are bathing in lactic acid and I feel like there’s a small child sitting on my chest” type intensity? Not only do we not need it for our sport, it can actually decrease our sport performance by shifting our muscle fiber make-up to a slower twitch profile. Instead, let’s look at the positive benefits of low intensity workouts. Some of the merits include (Eric Cressey, Cardio Confusion):

  • blood flow, nutrient delivery, and metabolic waste clearance
  • reduced delayed onset muscle soreness
  • practice form and technique on the competition exercises
  • improved insulin sensitivity
  • increased GPP

While there are a ton of benefits to doing low intensity/recovery workouts, none of those reasons scream “improved performance” in powerlifting, at least not directly. Next time you’re doing 20 minutes of cardio in your Target Heart Rate Zone, think about how much it’s going to help you in your next meet (yes, I know powerlifters who actually do this). If anything, your improved performance will be due to the fact that you are leaner and healthier, not because you have improved your VO2 max or anything remotely similar.

Now if you need improved conditioning because you compete in a federation that runs extremely fast meets, you need a different plan of attack. In this case, try pairing several competitive lifts on the same day. You could squat and bench on the same day or even bench and then pull. While it may not be 100 percent optimal from a training standpoint, you stand to gain much from being better prepared on meet day. This is powerlifting, sport-specific training at its finest! (Please note the heavy sarcasm used with that terminology!)

Summary: Low-intensity cardio = good; high-intensity cardio = bad; and sport-specific training = greatest training concept of all time.

Extra Workouts for General Health/Fitness

This is one that I can’t argue against and one that I’d like to see more powerlifters adopt (especially the big guys). What we do isn’t easy on our bodies. We’re constantly loading our bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and nervous system to the max. As a result we get bigger, stronger, and stiffer, which is great for our lifts, but not necessarily great for our long-term health.

If you are a WPO world-level competitor and your performance means dollars in (or out) of your pocket, I can’t argue with you. Your goal is to get as freakishly strong as possible using whatever means necessary (and at whatever cost). I’m not a world-class powerlifter myself so I don’t have to depend on the sport to feed my family. However, for everyone else, consider the benefits of adding some very basic cardiorespiratory work to your program. You’ll look better, feel better, and live longer. Those all sound like bonuses to me.

Summary: Low-intensity cardio/strength work has many benefits. Consider adding some into your training. It may not help your total, but it can and will help you live a longer, healthier life.

Wrap Up

This article wasn’t intended to give you all of the answers but rather make you question why you are including certain items in your programming. We all hit a point of diminishing returns when it comes to our training. If what you’re doing either isn’t effective or isn’t doing what it’s intended to do, it’s time to give it the boot.

Until next time, good luck and hit some PR’s!