I never paid much attention to conditioning. I thought it was an easy concept to understand. Do some cardio once a week, hard intervals if you can, and you'll be in shape in no time. Except if you wanted to build muscle - then don't do any cardio, ever.
And now? I'm eating my hat.
Thanks to people like Joel Jamieson, our industry has actual science to combat the #broscience. It's this actual science that's made me change my mind on everything above - we actually need much less interval work; more long slow cardio; and that a proper conditioning plan is incredibly detail oriented.
Below are the three biggest takeaways that anyone can implement immediately into their own programs.
1. Get a Heart Rate Monitor
There's a single mindedness that comes with performing a powerlifting-centric program over the past few years. While I really learned what it takes to maximize the skill of strength, I dismissed others that didn't immediately help. For example I knew heart rate was important, but I never knew why. As I've beefed up my knowledge of conditioning, I realized a simple concept: heart rate equals stress. The higher our heart rate, the more stress we're placing on our system. The lower our heart rate? You got it, the less stress on our system.
So while getting a heart rate monitor to use during your workouts is important, the bigger priority is using it to take your resting heart rate. Why? Because we need to determine our stress baseline before we add any additional stress through exercise.
I know what you're thinking, "exercise is stress?" You got it. The wrong dose or modality of exercise can actually increase your stress levels, something I wrote about here.
The easiest way to take your resting heart rate is to do it as soon as you wake up in the morning. If someone has a high resting heart rate (above 60), their nervous system is sympathetic dominant. Another way of saying it is their system is shifted to "Fight or Flight" mode. While everyone is different, most people that are sympathetic dominant will have other problems such as: trouble sleeping, more anxiety, getting sick more frequently, and general aches and pains.
When someone is parasympathetic dominant, or shifted towards "Rest and Digest," their heart rate is going to be <60 beats per minute. If someone is parasympathetic dominant, it illustrates that their nervous system is in good balance and they'll have an easier and faster recovery from harder workouts.
To get an understanding of how resting heart rate and stress can impact our workouts, here's an example of two very different people:
-Person A: Resting heart rate of 80, stressed with a mortgage, kids, and owns their own business.
-Person B: Resting heart rate of 52, no kids, no mortgage and a fairly laid back job.
Who do you think is going to have the better training session? Who do you think will break down more quickly? These two examples are extreme, but these people have radically different needs and can't be treated the same.
How can you lower your heart rate and become more parasympathetic dominant? That brings me to my next point..
2. Place More of an Emphasis on Long, Slow Cardio (and Swallow Your Ego)
Three years ago I couldn't have dreamed of writing this point. And I'm pretty sure I would've defenestrated my computer for doing so.
For starters, slow cardio isn't the muscle and gainz eating monster that #broscience has made it out to be. In fact, doing it at least once a week will only help. Why? It's a loaded topic, so I'll do my best.
Our aerobic system is constantly being used while we exercise, not just after the 2 minute mark we learned in health class. The more robust of an aerobic system we have, the less we have to utilize our other metabolic pathways - our anaerobic system. To avoid giving you all nightmares of high school biology, just know that the anaerobic system produces a lot more power but is much less efficient than our aerobic system. If we can have our aerobic system contribute more work and decrease our reliance on our anaerobic system, the less gassed we'll get during our workouts.
Even more, our aerobic system helps recharge our anaerobic system by getting rid of its waste products. So the better our aerobic system, the less we have to use our anaerobic system and the quicker it's able to recharge. Pretty cool, right? That's why lifters like Jim Wendler swear by slow 30 minute Air Assault rides, and including this type of cardio will only make you physically stronger.
Now that I have you hooked, the best way for most of us to improve our aerobic system is with long, slow cardio. With this approach, we're trying to enlarge the left ventricular cavity of your heart so that it can pump out more blood and be more efficient.
The catch? In order to maximize this effect, we need to keep our heart rate between 120-135 beats per minute for 30-90 minutes. When we start to go above 140 bpm, we get a stronger contraction, but our hearts can't fill up maximally. What results is a thickening of our heart rather than a lengthening, and it shifts us toward the "fight or flight" response. But depending on who you are, long slow cardio can make for a very different experience.
If you're like me and are parasympathetic dominant, you'll find out real quickly how much hard work goes into keeping your heart rate steady at 120 beats per minute for 45 minutes. When I wasn't wearing a heart rate monitor I'd coast at a much slower rate, thinking I was working hard enough. It bruised my ego when I found out that "working hard" meant my heart rate was at <110 beats per minute. Nowadays I'm doing 15 miles on the Air Assault bike in that span of time and my resting heart rate has decreased even more.
If someone is sympathetic dominant, performing true long, slow cardio will feel MUCH different. For these people, their default is "fight or flight" and they're going to want to put in much more effort than they need. They're going to have to make a concentrated effort to go slow - much slower than they want - to keep their heart rate in the appropriate range. Egos can get bruised here too, as people realize they really need to scale back their workload. Going higher is only going to increase their overall levels of stress, and they're no longer getting the adaptation (larger left ventricle) we want to trigger.
Some favor intervals to help increase their aerobic system (heck, I used to be one of them!) but it all comes back to what adaptations we're trying to elicit. Since most of us need a bigger aerobic base, targeting a larger left ventricle will help us feel better, move better, sleep better, and lower your resting heart rate.
3. Look Outside of Running
We all tend to think of running when we think of cardio. I guess you could say we're conditioned that way (pun most definitely intended).
While I have no problem with running itself, most people either go too fast or do it too often. Our hearts and energy systems can't distinguish our mode of exercise, so we can use any variety of machines and exercises to elevate our heart rate into the desired area. As Eric Cressey posted a few months ago, there are plenty of ways to keep your heart rate elevated with simple mobility/stability circuits. Here's an example of how someone can keep their heart rate elevated and see an aerobic training effect without running:
- Agility Ladder Drills x2
- Dead Bugs x4 each leg
- Spiderman Lunge x5 each side
- Inchworms x 10 yards
- Box Step Ups x90 seconds
Just repeating the above for 30 minutes should help get someone's heart into the desired zone. Even better, this ideology can be applied to meatheads like me that were worried about losing their gainz. With a few light goblet squats, light deadlifts, and some core work, it gives us the training effect we're looking for that's also suited to our interests.