Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The role of cardio activities is often debated in the realm of strength sports. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the time and place in which cardio is appropriate for powerlifters.
Some frequently-asked questions include:
Will I lose muscle? Will I fatigue my body? Is cardio bad for my joints? Should I be saving my calories for lifting? What type of cardio is best for me?
The answer, of course, is usually "it depends." Cardio activities have obvious benefits to the health and wellness of the cardiovascular system (that discussion is not the aim of this post). Regular activity in both aerobic and anaerobic exercise will grant you health perks like the prevention of many types of cancer, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, weight management, increasing bone density, and many other life-extending benefits.
What kind of cardio is best for strength athletes?
Again, it depends. In this case, the goal of the athlete dictates the best cardio option. If an athlete is attempting to lose fat to make weight, Low-Intensity, Steady State (LISS) activities are easiest for getting into the fat-burning range of your heart rate. Prolonged LISS activities (>30m) 2-3x/week can help you reach your fat loss goal if you are working on a longer timeline (2-3 months). How do you figure out your intensity level? This also "depends" on the athlete. There is a specific heart rate range that is considered low-intensity but this range varies by person. Instead, use the "talk test" to stay just below ventilatory threshold 1 (VT1). If you're still able to carry on a conversation with the pace you're following, you're likely pretty close to the heart rate range one would consider low-intensity. Some examples of effective LISS workouts would include low-intensity treadmill or outdoor jogging, walking, power walking, cycling, and swimming for 30+ minutes.
Moderate-Intensity, Steady State (MISS) activities are ideal for athletes interested in building cardiovascular endurance. This moderate-intensity level is defined as being over VT1 -- you've found the right pace if you can no longer hold a conversation due to the required oxygen intake being slightly greater. This pace will increase the number of calories you burn while working out. Some activities that include MISS benefits are running (both indoors/outdoors), race walking, walking at incline, cycling, swimming, hiking, and rowing for approximately 20-40 minutes.
High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, is a dynamic anaerobic alternative that will help elevate your metabolism in the after-burn window (this also means you burn fewer calories while you're working out due to the way oxygen is used in anaerobic activity). Popular cult workouts like Orange Theory Fitness, Crossfit, and BeachBody's "Insanity" use HIIT to regulate the heart rate and condition your cardiovascular and respiratory systems to recover more quickly. Common HIIT workouts include tabata, plyometrics, and interval sprints.
Another major benefit specific to plyometrics and sprints is improved power and explosiveness. This would be the most gainful form of cardio for a powerlifter who wants to improve lifting performance. A HIIT workout should be NO MORE than 30m in duration if you want to maintain strength levels. Remember, "too much" cardio puts you into a caloric deficit which robs precious nutrients from your glycogen and fat stores.
A consideration powerlifters should make is the risk of injury and unfavorable side effects that come with cardio activities. For example, running causes tightness in the posterior chain and hips, particularly on an incline, while standing plyometrics include a greater risk of injury to the ankles, knees, and hips due to the explosive jumping. Plank plyometrics (i.e. clapping push-ups) also include greater risk to the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints. HIIT and MISS will generally have greater recovery requirements as they are tougher on the body and the joints due to the intensity levels. Powerlifters should consider this when deciding whether or not to include cardio (and what type) during peaking phases prior to meets.
Define your Goal and THEN your Cardio
While each form of cardio has its benefits, powerlifters should consider the primary goal as their guide. If the goal is to lose fat, LISS, MISS, and HIIT are all great options and you'll want to alternate between the many forms of cardio exercise to optimize programming for fat loss. If you want to lose fat while mitigating the risk of injury, LISS is the most efficient and safe option for you. If the goal is to improve cardiovascular endurance, i.e. you're training for a marathon, MISS should be your go-to method. If you're less concerned with caloric burn and more interested in improving performance, stick with HIIT plyometrics to improve power and explosiveness. Remember that cardio training for performance on the platform should replicate the demands of a competition. In this regard, short intervals of high intensity conditioning are best for training power and explosiveness as it is best used in powerlifting. Examples of conditioning options for powerlifters include box jumps, unilateral Mario jumps, weighted step-ups for speed, hang cleans, push press & its variations, vertical trap bar jumps, kettlebell jump squat, kettlebell power swings, and any other explosive movements that closely mimic the mechanics used in the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Timing Cardio and Resistance Training
Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization states that cardio and strength activities should be separated by a substantial amount of time (ideally a minimum of 6 hours) to maximize the benefits of each. If you MUST do both strength and cardio in the same workout, use your goal as your guide. If your goal is to maintain muscle growth and strength, do light-intensity cardio, no more than 15-20m, prior to lifting. If your main goal is to maximize caloric burn, do your cardio (of any intensity) after lifting or on the days you do not lift at all. Following these guidelines helps mitigate muscle fatigue for your prioritized objective.
Conclusion & Free HIIT Program
In conclusion, "it depends" is the all-encompassing, subjective, and appropriate response to defining the role of cardio in powerlifting. The BEST cardiovascular activities vary greatly by the athlete's priorities and there are risks involved. Yes, you could lose muscle if you put yourself into a caloric deficit. Yes, your body will fatigue from cardio and yes, there is risk of injury. You should save your calories for lifting if strength and muscle size are your primary ambitions. Hopefully you now have a better idea of how to reach your own fitness goals based on the research-supported benefits of LISS, MISS, and HIIT cardio activities.
Want a free HIIT circuit workout? CLICK HERE to access my HIIT Circuit Database. Follow the "How to Use" tab to get a solid cardio challenge at a high intensity. Shoot me an email with any questions.