Article written by Cody Plofker
I know what you’re probably thinking. This guy is pitching aerobic mobility circuits to Lift Big Eat Big? Does he even know what this site is about? Does he even lift? Before you think I am crazy, hear me out please. If you’re anything like most LBEB readers and strength athletes, conditioning and mobility work are the two most hated, misunderstood, and probably skipped parts of your training. You love to get after it in whatever your chosen strength sport is, but you avoid conditioning and mobility work like the plague. Most of us associate conditioning with either long distance running or puke inducing wind sprints, and for some reason everyone thinks you have to work on mobility with a lacrosse ball on your butt. I am no different, but I have found that I have to work on my conditioning and movement quality if I want to stay healthy while pushing training volume. If I just snatch and clean and jerk, I can’t recover as well and I end up getting pretty banged up. I’m also busy like many of you are, so I like to combine my conditioning work with my “mobility” work to kill two birds with one stone. This makes conditioning less boring, and ensures I actually get both done in a training week. I will lay out some sample circuits I use later, but first let me explain the benefits of aerobic training for strength athletes.
I probably don’t have to convince you why having good mobility can keep you healthy and aid in performance. However, I will say that I am not a big fan of trying to mobilize tissues via lacrosse balls and foam rollers without creating adjacent stability. Instead of thinking mobility, think movement quality. Movement quality encompasses joint alignment, mobility, flexibility, stability, and more. Often times, getting more stable and aligned can actually lead to increases in ranges of motion. Side note: I hate the word cardio to describe aerobic training. Aside from the fact that people associate it with running on a treadmill, calling aerobic training cardio is akin to calling strength training “myo” or “muscle.” Conditioning is better, but I prefer the term energy systems training.
All cardiac output training recommendations come from Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamieson. Despite the MMA title, this book is an excellent resource for all coaches and athletes. It is the best energy systems book I have read to date. Joel lays out his comprehensive methods for each energy system in an easy to read and applicable manner.
The main form of aerobic energy systems training that strength athletes should be utilizing is called the cardiac output method. Cardiac output work is a form of aerobic training that improves the amount of blood that can be pumped by the left ventricle of the heart on a per minute basis. The increased blood being pumped out per minute creates pressure on the ventricular walls from the inside. This pressure results in left ventricular eccentric hypertrophy, which is increased size of the ventricle by stretching it from the inside out. This is different than concentric ventricular hypertrophy, which is an actual increase in ventricular thickness that results from higher intensity conditioning methods. The more blood you can pump out on a per minute basis, the more oxygen and nutrients you will deliver throughout your vascular system and to your working muscles. This type of training results in decreased resting and working heart rates. (Jamieson, 2009) After using this method, you should expect the following:
1. Improved Recovery
Cardiac output work is an excellent “chronic recovery” method. If you think of success in your chosen strength endeavor as a pyramid with maximal strength being the peak of the pyramid, aerobic conditioning forms the base of your pyramid. Lower intensity aerobic methods allow you to widen your base, which ultimately allows you to have a wider foundation to increase the height of your peak. This is why you will see a lot of GPP or General Physical Preparedness in the early formal training years of youth European strength athletes. By expanding your aerobic base, you should essentially be increasing the amount of volume of higher intensity methods that you can recover from. Believe it or not, but the aerobic energy system is what is responsible for recovering between repeated sprint bouts using the ATP/PCR energy system. (Haseler et al., 2013)
2. Improved Parasympathetic Dominance
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. The sympathetic division is responsible for fight, flight, or freeze. This is the branch that you are tapped in to while training hard, drinking coffee, and the like. The parasympathetic division is for resting and digesting. This is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that is crucial for recovering from training. If you are doing a lot of intense strength training (like we all are) it is easy to create too much sympathetic tone and not be able to shift parasympathetic enough to recover from training. The sympathetic division is absolutely necessary to train hard, BUT problems arise when one cannot shut it off. Cardiac output work can decrease your resting heart rate to below 60 beats per minute, which results in a shift to a more parasympathetic state. While heart rate variability is the gold standard for measuring autonomic balance, you can quickly get a sense of where you stand by checking and monitoring resting heart rate. If you are well above 60 beats per minute, you are probably pretty sympathetically toned up. If you can get down to around 60 bpm or so, I would bet your recovery abilities would improve quite a bit.
-If your resting heart rate is well above 60, you should start on the lower end of the heart rate zone. If you are near 60, you should strive to stay above 130 bpm.
-Start at 30 minutes 1 or 2 times a week. Work to get up to 45 minutes twice a week, but strength athletes shouldn’t need more than that to see significant improvement.
-The great thing about this method is that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as your heart rate stays in the right intensities for the right amount of time. Aside from corrective circuits, I recommend sled pulling, rowing, Airdyne cycling, tempo runs, or sport specific technique drills if applicable. I like the circuits because they kill two birds with one stone.
-Movements should use the entire body and be low resistance.
-In an ideal world, everyone should have a heart rate monitor. We don’t live in an ideal world, so if you don’t have one take your radial or carotid pulse for 15 seconds and multiply by 4, or 30 seconds and multiply by 2.
-For the circuits I like to have around 5 exercises, with 2 of them being higher intensity movement that will get your heart rate up more with the others being ground based or lower intensity exercises focusing on movement quality.
-Rest days should be actual rest days. Instead, implement these either directly after training or separate times on days you do train.
Here are two sample circuits that I like to use:
Sliding Leg Curl
1/2 Kneeling Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
Sled Face Pull
Supine Hooklying Kettlebell Pullover
Core Engaged Dead Bugs
TRX Face Pull
Bottoms Up Kettlebell Carry
Half Kneeling Palof Press
Band Kneeling Hip Thrust
Rotate through each circuit until you reach your desired time. 5 or 6 times through usually works out to about 30 minutes for me. There is no prescribed rest, but you also don’t have to rush to the next exercise. Rest as needed based on heart rate intensity.
These circuits may not be sexy like squatting or pulling, but they can help you recover better and improve your movement quality in a short amount of time. Try these circuits out, or make up your own based on your equipment availability and movement needs and hopefully you will see your ability to handle training volume and recover improve. Let me hear your thoughts or questions either in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you implement cardiac output training and have a beneficial experience, please let me know. I would love to hear your experiences with it.
Cody Plofker is the head coach and founder of Garage U. Cody is a strength and weightlifting coach with an eye for proper movement. He is currently completing his Bachelors of Science degree in Exercise Science. He formerly played collegiate golf and was captain of his team until he decided he preferred training in the weight room to playing golf. Cody is now a competitive olympic weightlifter in the 69 kilo class with the goal of qualifying for a national meet.
Haseler, L. J, Hogan, M. C., and Richardson, R. S. (2013) Skeletal muscle phosphocreatine recovery in exercise-trained humans is dependent on 02 availability. Journal of Applied Physiology, 86:2012-2018, 1999.
Jamieson, Joel. (2009) Ultimate MMA Conditioning. Performance Sports.