Cardio and Powerlifting go together like, well, actually they don't usually go together. Conditioning, however, isn't "just" cardio. Conditioning is dependent on what one must be conditioned for, and in this case a powerlifter must be conditioned to handle repeated bouts of high force output followed by long periods of rest. In order to be efficient at recovering between efforts, one must develop an aerobic base. In order to continue to produce high force output, they must have highly developed alactic power. This article will be discussing how to incorporate conditioning work to assist the success of a powerlifting program, from off-season to peaking.
The off season is a great time to develop your aerobic and conditioning base since it is not taking away from any of the energy that needs to be dedicated to powerlifting. Developing the aerobic system will pay dividends not only when your training volume increases, but also will help to significantly improve your health. The methods below should be done 2-4 times per week, depending on individual need.
Cardiac Output: This method is unbeatable at strengthening the foundation of aerobic fitness and allows you to develop the capacity needed for a high level of conditioning. An important component of this type of training is the concept of pacing, or being able to manage your energy output for a long period of time. For powerlifters, this will help you get through the long training sessions and still be able to maintain quality at the end of the workout. The key to this method is to keep your heart rate around 130-150 BPM (lower for older athletes) for 30-60 minutes. I prefer to utilize a spin bike for this method, as it helps promote blood flow to the legs without breaking down a lot of muscle fibers, but you can do any form of exercise you prefer.
High Intensity Continuous Training: This method is phenomenal at promoting endurance in the fast twitch muscle fibers of the lower body (or upper body, if you can get creative). The idea is to perform continuous work at a high resistance to improve the endurance of the fast twitch fibers. The easiest way to set this up is to ride on a bike at high enough resistance to only pedal 25-30 RPM for 10-20 minutes, keeping the HR under 160 BPM. This can also be performed as an uphill lunge or a sled push or drag.
When you are in your hypertrophy or volume phases, doing a lot of long, slow cardio will slow down your progress and not allow you to gain as much muscle as possible. During this time, switching over to more interval-style training will give a boost to the energy systems responsible for maximum power output and help improve work capacity, recovery ability, and the readiness for harder training. Try the methods below 2-4 times per week, depending on your need.
Tempo Intervals: This is a moderate-intensity method that is a step up from cardiac output and will allow you to continue to develop the practice of pacing and energy management, this time between bouts of effort. For this approach, perform 10 seconds of work at approximately 70% output, then actively rest for 50 seconds to bring the heart rate back down. Repeat this for a total of 10-20 rounds, progressing depending on fitness level. I like to utilize a rowing ergometer for this, but it can be performed on a bike, sled, kettlebells, battle ropes, etc.
High Resistance Intervals: This method is another step up from Tempo Intervals, and this time involves a much higher intensity. In order to perform this on a treadmill, set the incline at 15% and cover as much distance as possible for 5 seconds, then actively recover until the heart rate returns to 130-140 BPM. If the HR does not reach 130-140 BPM for the first few intervals, actively recover for 60 seconds between efforts. Set the total time to 10-20 minutes, depending on fitness level, and count the total number of reps completed in the prescribed time. This can also be performed on a bike, sled, rower, etc.
Alactic Intervals: This is another step up in interval intensity, similarly focusing on high power output and dynamic recovery. For this, use work periods of 10-20 seconds, followed by 1-2 minutes of active recovery. Focus on high power output during the work periods and perform 10-20 sets, depending on fitness level. This method can be performed with the bike, rower, sled, etc.
Now we're finally to the heavy stuff, and ideally the increase in conditioning is showing in the workouts. This is the time we shift away from doing too much outside the main lifting days besides active recovery, which can be handled by 1-2 days of any of the conditioning methods listed above if you need it. Ideally now the conditioning will be included with the workout through dynamic effort work or "after" the workout with the methods listed below.
Explosive Repeats: The goal of this method is to develop the explosive endurance of the fast twitch fibers and further develop dynamic recovery. Choose an exercise that is easy to measure power output or distance covered (I like KB swings, double-leg bounds, and explosive push-ups). Every minute on the minute (EMOM), perform the movements as explosively as possible for 8-10 seconds (or 8-12 reps) followed by active rest. Repeat until no longer able to produce the same power output, aiming to increase this up to 20 minutes before increasing work period.
Strongman Endurance: Before you get too excited, this is not going to prepare you for a strongman competition. This type of training mostly deals with postural, core and grip strength and endurance. The three main categories in this include overhead walks, barbell/yoke walks, and loaded carries. For this type of training, choose work periods of 60-90 seconds with a load that is challenging yet manageable, and end the work period if unable to maintain proper posture (or try the NSW Mile https://www.t-nation.com/training/death-march-the-nsw-mile). Repeat for a finite number of times, until a certain distance is covered, or until posture cannot be maintained.
The methods listed above can all be used at any point in the training cycle depending on the specific need of the athlete, for example including farmer's walks during the off-season for additional grip development or doing a light bike ride during your early peaking phase to promote blood flow to the legs. These represent the best general areas to utilize these methods in your training, but feel free to adjust based on individual needs. The program below is an example of how this can look during a 12 week training cycle.
Bike 30-60 min, 4x/week
Weeks 1-4 (Hypertrophy)
Alactic Intervals: Row 10-20 sec EMOM 12-20 min 2x/week
HICT: Sled Drag 10-20 min, 2x/week
Weeks 5-8 (Strength)
Tempo Intervals: EMOM 12-20 min 2x/week
Strongman: Farmer's Walk 1000 feet total 2x/week
Strongman: Sled Push 1000 feet total 2x/week
Weeks 9-12 (Peak)
Explosive Repeats: 10 Double-leg Bounds EMOM 8-12 min 1x/week
Explosive Repeats: 10 Explosive Push-ups EMOM 8-12 min 1x/week
Explosive Repeats: 10 KB Swing EMOM 8-12 min 1x/week