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15 March 2023

An Overlooked Benefit of Cardio for the Powerlifter

by Brian Minor 0

Recently there seems to have been an uptick in the discussion surrounding the role of cardio for the powerlifter/strength-focused athlete. However, these brief waves of discussion often seem to fade into the background pretty quickly. Some of that could be due to a perceived lack of importance. “If nobody strong I know is doing it,…

Recently there seems to have been an uptick in the discussion surrounding the role of cardio for the powerlifter/strength-focused athlete. However, these brief waves of discussion often seem to fade into the background pretty quickly. Some of that could be due to a perceived lack of importance. “If nobody strong I know is doing it, why waste my time?” This observation is also likely influenced by the assumption that performing any amount will run counter to the actual training goal of becoming stronger. It’s likely a combination of both, on top of the reality that most powerlifters simply despise performing cardio, to begin with.

While not the primary point of discussion within this article, it is true that endurance exercise can interfere with resistance training adaptations. This may be influenced by potentially incompatible molecular responses (3), with the modality, intensity, and overall volume of endurance work playing a role in the magnitude of effect (1).  Let’s be honest here though. As powerlifters we like to joke about any sets above  ~4 reps being “cardio” (haha hehe), so a little can usually go a long way. However, the benefits may not be for the reasons often put forth or assumed.

Outside of general health (reason enough alone), what are some of the purported benefits of performing more (read: some) cardio as a powerlifter?

Perhaps the most common argument in favor of adding cardio is to increase one’s work capacity, allowing them to recover from more volume and thus, build more muscle and strength. This line of rationale generally assumes that “more is better” when it comes to volume, so long as we can recover from it. In reality, both volume and hypertrophy (4), and volume and strength (2) have inverted “U shaped” relationships. Meaning, more is better to a point, and then the rate of gains either plateau of may even regress with further increases. 

That said, in a recent paper I co-authored with Jacob Schepis and Eric Helms (5), we described a situation where an increase in work/recovery capacity could lead to more gains would be if an individual’s otherwise “optimal volume” for target physiological adaptations is beyond what their performance can recover from (this could apply both acutely and across a microcycle). Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that an increase in work capacity automatically increases the optimal volume for our desired adaptations. 

To expand on the above scenario, let’s look at a hypothetical example and pretend an individual’s optimal volume was ~10 sets per week for squats, and they typically train it twice a week for 5 sets/ea (plus some misc accessories). Unfortunately, their schedule has recently gotten much busier and the typical time they can spend in the gym has been cut by a third. As a result, performing the 5 sets of squats requires they trim their rest intervals but they find it’s at the expense of a large dropoff in performance set to set.  If they want to avoid this dropoff, they are only able to perform 3 or 4 quality sets of squats before needing to leave the gym. Given that this individual is not actively performing any cardio, a little can go a long way in affording themselves the opportunity to perform what is otherwise optimal for strength adaptations. 

However, the acute benefit of increased aerobic fitness extends beyond one’s ability to perform and recover from a greater number of sets/volume within a session/week, and that is the vastly overlooked positive influence it can have on actual force production. For a powerlifter, high force output is the name of the game. 

Within individual training sessions, many powerlifters self-select loads in an autoregulated manner to account for their readiness on a given day. For a lifter who has generally poor aerobic fitness, modest improvement can allow one to better manage inter-set fatigue and increase the average degree of loading across multiple sets of an exercise.

While heavier loading obviously has a positive influence on increasing force output, the impact of intra-set fatigue on decreasing concentric velocity (and subsequently force output), isn’t thought about as much. Two protocols with the exact same sets, reps, and load can vary in their training effect on strength. The protocol that has less avg velocity loss within a set and set to set is going to have greater force output per rep, on average. 

The same increase in aerobic fitness that may let you recover from more will arguably see the majority of it’s ROI through reductions in average concentric velocity rep to rep and set to set, thus increasing average force output. If you would like to read more about minimizing velocity loss and its effect on strength, I would encourage you to read the guest piece on my blog from Zac Robinson and Josh Pelland from Data-Driven Strength. While slow repetitions via heavy loading certainly have their place in strength training, they build a very compelling case that one’s “volume” work should be trained further from failure when aiming to maximize strength in the short to moderate-term (e.g. strength/peaking phase). 

In the end, while some elements of cardio can potentially interfere with resistance training adaptations, it’s role and potential value should be assessed in a holistic manner.  There certainly can be benefits to increasing aerobic fitness on strength outcomes, and those usually extend beyond simply accommodating more volume.

References

  1. Fyfe, JJ, Bishop, DJ, and Stepto, NK. Interference between concurrent resistance and endurance exercise: molecular bases and the role of individual training variables. Sports Med 44: 743–762, 2014.
  2. González-Badillo, JJ, Gorostiaga, EM, Arellano, R, and Izquierdo, M. Moderate resistance training volume produces more favorable strength gains than high or low volumes during a short-term training cycle. J Strength Cond Res 19: 689–697, 2005.
  3. Hawley, JA. Molecular responses to strength and endurance training: are they incompatible? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 34: 355–361, 2009.
  4. Heaselgrave, SR, Blacker, J, Smeuninx, B, McKendry, J, and Breen, L. Dose-Response Relationship of Weekly Resistance-Training Volume and Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Trained Men. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 14: 360–368, 2019.
  5. Minor, B, Helms, E, and Schepis, J. RE: Mesocycle Progression in Hypertrophy: Volume Versus Intensity. Strength & Conditioning Journal Publish Ahead of Print, 2020.Available from: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Citation/9000/RE__Mesocycle_Progression_in_Hypertrophy__Volume.99236.aspx
  6. Wilson, JM, Marin, PJ, Rhea, MR, Wilson, SMC, Loenneke, JP, and Anderson, JC. Concurrent training:  a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res 26: 2293–2307, 2012.

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