In the strength and conditioning world, strength is often prioritized and conditioning is somewhat of an after-thought. To give you an example, take the typical college football program. I’m going to use mine as an example of one I’ve had first-hand experience with.
Between your main lifting sessions, you’ll see things such as field drills, agility drills, speed-ladder, and suicides. With these cases, there is an overlap between high-threshold work and a lack of aerobic development and/or recovery measures.
In the article, we’re going to talk about measures to effectively train and improve the aerobic system so your programming is well-rounded and you do not run the risk of overtraining. More importantly, we will learn how to optimize your recovery via conditioning and, dare I say, cardio.
In this day and age, everyone thinks they need more. More training, more protein, more volume, etc. What we don’t hear is people needing more time to recover, less volume, and better nutrition practices.
Interestingly enough, we’d see many more athletes getting stronger, looking better, and feeling better if the latter was made a priority. So rather than providing you with more measures to “beat yourself up” even more, we are going to focus on more measures to improve the aerobic system and recovery between your main training sessions.
The Importance of Conditioning on Recovery
From 2010-2011 I was deployed to Afghanistan as an Infantryman. During this time stress was at an all-time high as you would imagine, more than 4 hours of sleep was a luxury, and my diet was terrible at best. When I arrived in theater, I was tipping the scale at 195 pounds. When I returned home one year later I was 168 pounds.
During the deployment as I began to lose muscle mass, I started training harder and more often. My neurosis told me that I had to “get ahead” of losing my gains and proceed to compound stress with more stress.
When I had time to sleep I opted for an extra training session. I can’t even imagine what my heart-rate variability (HRV) score would have been at the time, but to say I was overtrained was an understatement.
This took nearly three years to recover from (nope I’m not joking.) My adrenal fatigue was so bad that my doctor thought it was a miracle I could even get out of bed in the morning. Feeling like shit take on a new meaning for me. Now over 7 years later I’ve finally surpassed my original bodyweight and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did. More is not better especially if you’re already a person that does not cope with stress well.
The Aerobic System
The aerobic system provides the majority of the energy production for any activity lasting longer than 60 seconds, regardless of the intensity level. This system is also responsible for recovery between explosive bursts as well as producing the energy necessary to sustain everyday life (Jamieson, 2018).
For years aerobic work was labeled the “bad guy” that would make you slower and gain adipose tissue. Of course, knowing what we know now about Energy Systems we know that we can utilize Aerobic work to facilitate recovery, improves one ability to generate ATP for explosive sports, and increase the length of your life. Here are a few bits of info I took away from Joel Jamieson’s BioForce Conditioning Coach Certification Course.
Research has shown that life-expectancy is directly related to aerobic fitness and may help protect against premature death due to cardiovascular disease
The aerobic system is the most “metabolically adaptable” energy system in that it can produce ATP from multiple energy sources.
The aerobic system produces more molecules of ATP per molecule of substrate.
The aerobic system is the most adaptable system when it comes to room for improvement
In short, training the Aerobic System involves two kinds of adaptations: cardiovascular and skeletal muscle. Among these adaptations include increasing the functional capacity of the heart, increasing the size of the vascular network, and increasing the number of mitochondria and function of mitochondria.
Training The Aerobic System For Recovery
Now that we’ve gotten that background information out of the way, let’s talk about the role of the aerobic system in recovery between sessions. The purpose of “low-intensity” or “low-effort” work is to drive the body into a recovery state.
If you’re constantly pushing the envelope and driving the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), you’ll more than likely apply too much stress to your system. Too much stress, too often invariably leads to overtraining.
An easy way to ensure you’re recovered properly is to start the recovery process before leaving the gym. Although there are a number of ways we can do this we are going to break this down into 4 categories:
Post workout recovery measures
Balance of training modalities in your programming
Intra-training week recovery measures
Measures to improve the Aerobic System
Spark Recovery Post Workout
First off, your main training sessions, whether we are talking about speed-strength, strength-speed work, and/or hypertrophy work involve driving the sympathetic nervous system. Of course, this is exactly what we want; a heightened state of alertness so we can crush our training session.
Often times, we crush our training session and leave the gym with that same heightened state awareness that can further delay the recovery process. An easy way to facilitate the recovery process and drive the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and recovery) is to conclude your session with 5 minutes of breathing drills, or taking a page out of Dr. Rusin’s Performance Recovery System, using an entire sequenced post training protocol to return back to a parasympathetic baseline.
These drills involve simply laying down with your legs elevated on a bench at 90 degrees. For the next 5 minutes, you want to be mindful of your breathing patterns: long controlled breaths in through the belly with a slight pause at the top, and then long slow exhale. Check out this video as Dr. Rusin teaches the parasympathetic recovery breath:
This drill does not need to be overly complex; the objective is to facilitate rest and relaxation. This breathing drill will help promote the recovery process and whereby we start to recovery immediately following our training session.
Schedule Your Training According to Recovery
Second, many times trainees are eager to reach their goals and apply high-intensity measures on consecutive days. This is a mistake and should be avoided at all costs. Your central nervous system needs adequate recovery between sessions. This does not mean that you cannot train hard, you can, but it’s more dependent on how you train. For example, performing heavy deadlifts on Monday and then heavy back squats on Tuesday is comparable in terms of volume and intensity not to mention stressful to the same primary movers.
A better solution would be to separate these sessions. For example, train your deadlifts on Monday and then your back squats on Thursday. You’ll have more time to recover and reap the benefits of your hard work.
Another method we can use to help facilitate recovery and leave you feeling better when you leave the gym is low-intensity aerobic work. This is work that if you were to use a rate of perceived exertion scale between 1 and 10 (10 being an all-out effort), this work would fall somewhere around 5-6 meaning you could likely carry on a conversation while completing it. This work will be done as it’s own training session and NOT in combination with your strength work.
This work will also be done in the form of cyclical work ie. light jogging, rowing, biking, or swimming – work that is “easy” on the body. I even like to use light-sledpulling here as long as we can keep the heart rate in the correct range.
Here are a few examples all done with a heart-rate between 120-130 BPM:
10 Rounds of:
30 Minute Light Sledpull (sled straps attached to your weight-belt):
15 Rounds of:
30 Minutes of an Easy Pool Swim:
You’ll need to at least be a decent swimmer to ensure your HR stays in correct range
3 Rounds of:
5 Minute Bike
5 Minute Row
5 Minute Jog
You can perform a number of variations to keep things fresh, but the key component is that this work should NOT be hard or demanding. The best course of action is to invest in heart-rate monitor with a strap to get an accurate reading, or if you really want to upgrade your recovery training experience, Joel’s industry leading Morpheus unit is the gold-standard on the market, which measures HRV, recoverability and sets custom training heart rate zones daily.
Often times athletes are surprised just how easy this work is and actually have trouble “taking it easy.” With a heart-rate monitor, we can avoid any confusion and adjust our control of the training session accordingly. Don’t make the mistake of turning this work into another training session because you’ll miss the boat on what we are trying to accomplish.
Develop Your Aerobic Base
Lastly, improving the Aerobic System will allow us to better withstand higher-volumes of work by improving our ability to recover, as well as improve our ability to generate ATP for maximal strength work. Here are three of my favorite methods that I’ve learned from Joel Jamieson’s BioForce Conditioning Coach Certification and guidelines that I’ve used for myself and my clients with great success.
Lets break each of these 3 cardio conditioning methods down and showcase example exercise and programming variations of each that can be easily implemented into any type of performance or strength training routine.
Cardiac Output Method
The cardiac output method is an effective method for improving aerobic capabilities. This method works by facilitating eccentric hypertrophy of the left-ventricle of the heart – which leads to an increase in cavity volume.
Cyclical measures work best to train this method ie. Jogging, biking, rowing machine, or swimming. Ones heart-rate should range between 130-150 BPM and sustained for longer durations 30-90 minutes. Depending on your goals and ability, you performing 1-3 sessions a week will suffice.
High Resistance Method
The high resistance aerobic method allows us to effectively improve the aerobic ability of fast twitch muscle fibers by supplying them constant oxygen. This method can be performed by using measures such as sled pulls, sledpushes, airbike, or uphill sprints.
We are looking for 10-12s of work with 60-90s rest between bouts. Because sets are small we can perform up to 15-20 intervals. Your heart-rate should be just under your anaerobic threshold.
Strongman endurance is trains are ability to maintain proper posture under load. With this method, a variety loaded carries and implements can be used effectively such as, farmer carry variations, overhead carries, front rack carries, and yoke carries. This method can effectively improve grip, posture and core control.
We are looking for 60-90 of work per set where the load we choose allows us to work for the entire set without stopping. 4-6 sets resting 60-90s between fits the bill.
How To Program Aerobic Work
Below are some basic guidelines on how to implement these measures in your programming. Of course, your individual goals, training template, and training age need to be considered, but these are basic guidelines for someone that weight-trains 4x a week.
You may be thinking that you don’t have time to add more than what you’re currently doing and if that’s the case, you can try implementing 1 out of the 3 measures from the outset.
If you’re failing to see consistent progress with your training and/or feeling rundown, you’d be best served to decrease your training frequency and add either an aerobic session or recovery based session in place of one of your main training sessions at least for a short period of time.
You may find that you’re main training sessions improve significantly just by taking this route!
Parasympathetic Breathing x 5-minutes after every training session
Aerobic Methods x 1-2x a week, 30-60 minutes a session.
Recovery measures x 1-2 sessions a week, 30-45 minutes.
In short, your conditioning work should not just be aimed at “smoking” yourself or your clients; it should allow you to bridge the gap between your main training sessions, facilitate recovery, and improve the length of your life.
We live in a world of stress, poor dietary measures, and terrible sleep patterns. If you’re in this position and you’re only applying more stress, you’ll need to be smarter about how you approach your programming if you want to stay in the game.
If you train general population athletes than this work should be a staple if you want your clients to be able to train at your facility for a lifetime.
About The Author
My name is Jason Brown and I have been fitness professional for nearly 15 years. I have owned my own facility, trained a wide-range of clients ranging from soccer moms, military personnel, law enforcement, CrossFitters, Powerlifters, and professional athletes. My area of specialization is providing a system of concurrent fitness geared toward the general population in a group setting. Currently, I own BoxProgramming.com and write programming for over 200 facilities world-wide.