Cardio for Weightlifters? When Conditioning Is Important for Strength Athletes

As strength, power, and competitive fitness athletes, we are always concerned with the effect of endurance training on our top end strength and power outputs. Despite the plethora of scientific and coaching advancements that have taken place around the world in strength and conditioning, cardiovascular training is still commonly demonized among lifters. 

The Science of Conditioning for All

The development and maintenance of GPP (general physical preparedness) has been established repeatedly by researchers, coaches, and elite athletes, with such benefits as beneficial to:

Improved muscle blood flow: Enhanced cardiovascular fitness has been shown to improve vasodilation, allowing greater blood flow and nutrients to active tissues.
Improved capillary density in muscle tissue: more efficient O2 delivery and exchange at the cellular level, ultimately increasing muscle endurance.
Improvements in cardiovascular health: regardless of your sport, medical research has shown a high percentage of age (and non-age) related diseases are preventable through loving and active lifestyle, one that embraces baseline cardiovascular fitness most days of the week.
Decreased vagal tone: Results in decreased heart rate, vasoconstriction, and decreased sympathetic nervous system response at rest.
Increased work capacity: Although deadlifts may not seem aerobically taxing, doing six sets of six reps on a hypertrophy phase will most definitely put you in an oxygen deficit. The better your body can use and exchange oxygen, the more optimally your body can recover in between sets.
Increased recovery of lactate and anaerobic systems: Recovery is an aerobic process, usually occurring at heart rates below the 60% HRmax zone. The more efficient your aerobic system is at exchanging oxygen and accumulated hydrogen at the cellular levels, the greater clearance of metabolic byproducts that are detrimental to intense activity.

Developing A Better Plan for Conditioning

The stigma of decreased gains from cardiovascular training for some athletes stems from a misunderstanding and poor programming of continuing regimens. I remember when I played football, I went out for 2-3 mile jogs in preseason, to “improve my stamina.” Although I was super fit and running 5ks, that didn’t translate over as much as doing shorter, high-intensity sled work and track workouts. When conditioning programs are developed based on the metabolic needs of the athlete, true gains in cardiovascular health, body composition, and performance will be made.

Mike Dewar Running

Mike Dewar Running, image courtesy J2Fit

Fast forward to today, where as an Olympic weightlifter, strength enthusiast, and strength coach, I am challenged every day with the cardio conundrum. When I sit down to develop those conditioning programs, I set out to:

1. Determine the ultimate conditioning program to improve the endurance of the specific energy systems needed for my athletes and me. The metabolic demands of one sport are not the same as another. Understanding the differences between the energy systems and sport specificity will help you elicit the most optimal training response. Generally speaking, most power and strength athletes can get by with doing high intensity conditioning a few times per week in durations of 20 minutes or less. The anaerobic and aerobic processes will have ample stress to adapt to, and you will minimize wear and tear due to increased bodyweight and muscle mass in bigger athletes.

2. Determine the “point of diminishing returns” of what the conditioning volume effect may have on the overall performance of an athlete. For most individuals, more is never better. In fact, less volume and greater intensity is almost always the way to go. Most anaerobic athletes need to produce maximal power in under 10 seconds. The ability to reach near maximal levels of intensity, and have sufficient aerobic recovery processes in place through a sound aerobic conditioning program, will lead to increased recovery in between higher intensity sets and training sessions.

3. Reevaluate the overall training regimen (strength + conditioning programs) to assess and reassess the effectiveness of both. Being able to find conflicting training principles (heavy strength training for an in-season distance runner) helps to keep your athletes progressing and staying resilient to injury. Often, in these high intensity training cycles, lower intensity aerobic training can be done at intensities of 60% of HRmax using any form of movement (bike, jog, swim, row, bodyweight circuits, assistance work). The ability to build an aerobic base will allow greater recovery from higher intensities during training.

A Sample Conditioning Program…

This is a training template I created with the help of Joe Mosher, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. This template is adaptable to most athletes and fitness goers, and can be tailored to suit most goals for:

– CrossFitters
– Olympic Weightlifters
– Football, Baseball, Soccer athletes
– Short to Mid Distance runners (anyone other than marathoners and ultramarathoners, although one could argue this is a great high intensity interval workout)
– Or any other athlete (you can adapt this basic principle to swimming, rowing and cycling)

A video posted by Mike Dewar (@mikejdewar) on

The key to developing a personalized conditioning program is to recognize the importance of the recovery period as the most important aspect to monitor. Over the course of the training session and consecutive workouts, the recovery heart rate should be monitored to determine if your aerobic base is improving.

Energy System Typical Sports Interval Duration Examples Total Intervals / Training Session
ATP-PCr Weightlifting/Powerlifting 10 seconds 50/100m run, 250m row, max effort bike 10-15


Most Formal Sports/


60-90 seconds 400m run, 500m row, max effort bike 8-12
Aerobic General Fitness/GPP 3-5 minutes 800m run, 1000m row, max effort bike 4-8

Once you determine your goal and the specific metabolic demand of your sport, you are ready to get to work.

Interval Intensity: On the very first set of the day, you are to perform the given interval at your highest intensity. Every set after that initial interval should be done at roughly 75% intensity. For example, if you run a 100m sprint in 10 seconds, you should be running each successive set in under 12.5 seconds (10 seconds/75% effort).

Rest Periods: Recovery is critical for the development of an aerobic base and greater metabolic efficiency at your given training intensities. The total time of your rest periods if solely dependent on your recovery heart rate. Once you finish your set, you need to monitor your heart rate to see how long it takes to fall below 60% of HRmax, or roughly 120-130bpm for most individuals (220 – your age = HRmax).

Rich Froning’s Similar Plan In Action

I watched Rich Froning do this with his coach and broke the numbers down afterwards.

Perform 4 Rounds

400m sprint 
200m jog **
300m sprint 
100m jog **
300m sprint 
100m jog 
3 minutes of rest (walking or standing)

**This is a recovery of sorts, so pick a smooth pace and recover. No walking.

Personal Side Note

Throughout every annual training cycle, one must program particular attributes, and understand that growth in all areas of fitness is not likely at one time. By stepping back and looking at the entire annual training cycle you can input general cardiovascular fitness, sport specificity conditioning, and maintenance phases into your training programs. At the end of the day, the best training regimen will account for your needs, goals, and metabolic demands of your sport.

For more from Mike Dewar, including custom training programs, visit J2Fit and The Barbell CEO.

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.

About the author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Masters in Exercise Physiology from Columbia University in NYC, USA. Mike is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Club Coach (USAW2), and Performance Nutrition Coach. Mike is a sponsored ReebokONE Ambassador specializing in weightlifting, barbell and powerlifting training, and sport-specific strength and conditioning. Additionally, Mike is an Assistant Coach of Strength and Conditioning at NYU and the Co-Founder at J2FIT Human Performance in NYC, USA. Mike is the Founder of The Barbell CEO, a lifestyle brand devoted to the strongest coaches, entrepreneurs, and minds. Additionally, Mike is a co-host on The Fittest League Podcast.