Cardio and Powerlifting: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Cardio is a double-edged sword for powerlifters. On the one hand, cardio will help you to shed fat, will probably make you feel a bit better and healthier in your daily life, and might improve your work capacity. On the other hand, cardio will detract from your recovery. Spending energy on cardio means you will have less energy to spend on getting stronger, and there’s no way around that.

Your goal, then, should be to minimize the negative effects of cardio (decreased recovery) while maximizing the benefits. This article explains how to do that.

(Before we begin, I want to reiterate that this article is directed at powerlifters. Not everything in here will apply to other types of trainees!)

Should You Even Do Cardio?

Until I decided that I wanted to be an elite lifter, I did a lot of cardio: intervals on the Airdyne, Prowler pushes until I nearly passed out, hill sprints, even metcons. I enjoy challenging myself, and so that’s why all of my cardio workouts were high-intensity ones, and it’s also why my powerlifting total was pretty uninspiring. High-intensity cardio is so difficult to recover from that I was unable to do that and progress in the weight room, too. When I cut all that stuff out, I quickly added about 100 pounds to my powerlifting total.

If your only goal is to become as strong as you possibly can, then I think you’d be well-advised to avoid cardio entirely. Even if you need to make a certain weight class, it’s generally better to just be careful with your diet and learn how to cut water safely and effectively.

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But most people have goals that are a little broader than that. And, if you fall into that crowd, you probably already know that cardio can have a lot of benefits:

  • It can decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you had a killer leg day yesterday, and can barely squat on the toilet in the morning, then a little cardio can help to get some blood flow through your legs and ease some of that discomfort.
  • It burns calories! Yes, changing your diet is usually a more time-efficient way of cutting calories, but cardio can help, especially in the later stages of fat loss.
  • It has a ton of benefits for general health. Studies show that regular cardiovascular activity can improve mood, decrease risk of heart disease, and more.

Okay, so that’s why you should do cardio. Now let’s move on to what.

The Best Types of Cardio for Powerlifting

You probably already know that heavy squats, bench presses, and deadlifts can take a toll on your joints. I’m not trying to lecture you about health risks, here; I’m being practical. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can train hard in the gym and get out of bed the next day without creaky knees and sore elbows, that’s fantastic. But most people can’t – and the idea of getting up early after a heavy squat workout to go out to the track and pound on your knees some more while you run intervals should be a non-starter, unless you fancy yourself to be the next Jujimufu.

[Here are three reasons why you should always perform cardio after lifting!]

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Instead, you want to choose low-impact activities that won’t exacerbate any pre-existing injuries, and won’t set you up for new ones. Good choices include stationary cycling, stair stepping, walking, and swimming. Bad choices are things like running, kickboxing, and plyometrics. Pick-up sports are the absolute worst choice of cardio for the competitive powerlifter. You have a sport already, and if you want to get good at it, you shouldn’t expose yourself to the risk of serious injury messing around with another one.

If you’re not competitive, you’ll have to weigh the risk-reward ratio for yourself, but I still strongly recommend against using basketball, soccer, or anything else remotely competitive as a form of cardio. Chances are, someone out there is going to take the game more serious than you are.

So we’ve covered the why and what. Let’s move on to how.

How to Incorporate Cardio into Your Training Program

The theme here – as usual – small changes. It’s tempting to jump into the deep end on a new cardio program, but I strongly recommend you avoid that. You want to give your body time to adjust to a new stimulus as gradually as possible to minimize the impact it has on your strength training. We’re going to discuss the same three variables that you should put most of your focus on in the rest of your programming: intensity, volume, and frequency.

First, you need to consider intensity. I’ve already touched on how much my lifting suffered when I was doing a lot of high-intensity cardio, and I recommend that powerlifters avoid it completely. It’s helpful for many goals – conditioning for sports like football, wrestling, and CrossFit, for example – but the benefits it offers to a powerlifter, competitive or not, aren’t enough to warrant inclusion in a balanced program.

Low-intensity, steady-state cardio is, in my opinion, a much better option. LISS is your typical “cardio bunny” type of training: some type of steady activity that gets your heart rate elevated to about 60-80% of your max. At this level of intensity, you’re able to carry on a conversation without too much difficulty. You shouldn’t be phoning it in, though – if you’re able to text or browse Instagram during your cardio sessions, you’re probably not working hard enough.

Next, consider volume. Studies suggest that cardio sessions of over 20-30 minutes are going to create a somewhat significant training response – in other words, once you’re doing longer sessions, your cardio is going to eat into your recovery ability for lifting. Of course, sessions shorter than 15-20 minutes aren’t going to do much of anything for you, so you’re basically working with 15-30 minute sessions when all is said and done.

And, finally, throw frequency into the mix. Here’s where the small changes come in: you start with one session and work your way up according to your goals. I recommend beginning with one, 15-20 minute cardio session on one of your off days from training. If that’s not enough, add a second, and so on. If you’re already doing cardio on all of your off days, you can either bump the session length to 30 minutes, or you can add a session to one of your training days.

The best time to perform cardio is a subject that gets a lot of debate. There are some big proponents of fasted cardio, and others who claim that timing is irrelevant. For powerlifting, though, I think the really important thing to consider is that if you’re doing cardio on your weight training days, you should do it immediately after you finish lifting. That will give you the most time between workouts of any kind to devote to recovery.

Wrapping Up

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong way to do cardio, so if you have a routine that works well for you and allows you to progress, stick with it! If you don’t have a routine, and you want to begin one, the suggestions in this article should help you to do that as efficiently and effectively as possible. And if you’re struggling with personal programming for cardio or lifting, then I’d suggest checking out my UYP video series to get a grasp of the basics, which can be found through the YouTube video above. Also, you can always check out the course I made if you need more help.

Well, I’m off to do some cardio…

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from Ben Pollack YouTube channel.