The Ultimate Guide to Conditioning for Powerlifters

Should powerlifters do conditioning? The short answer is yes. Here's how to program it!

Ahh, conditioning. Say “cardio” and powerlifters run and hide, but conditioning is different. Conditioning is hardcore, it builds strength, fries body fat, and is pretty much the most athletic thing you can do in the gym. Right? Well, sort of.

In my opinion, “conditioning” is a buzzword used to make high-intensity cardio sexier.

At the end of the day, it’s still cardio, assuming you’re spending at least 15-20 minutes doing it. And, in my experience, cardio is not ideal for powerlifting unless you’re really careful about when and how much you do.

But if you are really careful, then both cardio and conditioning can be powerful tools to help control your bodyweight, increase your work capacity, speed recovery, and ultimately get stronger.

The Most Important Part of Conditioning

…is not doing too much. Conditioning, as I define it, involves high-intensity bursts of anaerobic activity performed for 15-30 seconds, followed by a rest period (of anywhere between 15-30 seconds to 2 minutes). That’s a “set,” and depending on your programming, you might do anywhere between a couple of minutes to hours of this type of training.

Hours, obviously, is way too much. In my opinion, a conditioning session should last no more than 15-20 minutes max, and no more than 2-3 sessions should be performed per week. Any more than this, and you’re almost certain to spend so much time recovering from your conditioning that your strength work will suffer. And the short bouts of activity should be intense, but not all-out efforts. Finally, any conditioning must be programmed around your main training. If you’re doing a Prowler session the day before your heaviest squats of the week, that’s not smart.

Assuming you follow those guidelines, however, then conditioning work can have a lot of benefits:

  • Just like well-programmed cardio, conditioning can help to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness, burn calories, and improve general health.
  • Conditioning specifically can improve work capacity. If you’re like me, and it takes you ten minutes to catch your breath after a heavy squat triple, then the aerobic benefits of conditioning work will likely allow you to train harder and longer. 
  • Conditioning can even help to strengthen weak points. Heavy backwards sled drags, for example, can help to strengthen the quads.

Remember, 15-30 seconds of activity followed by 30-120 seconds of rest, and repeat for 15-20 minutes total!

A Few Sample Conditioning Workouts

1. Weighted Sled Drags

This is one of my favorites after a heavy leg day. I like to start light, with the empty sled, taking long strides and driving through my heels as I walk forwards for about 50 yards.  Then I’ll turn around, and drag backwards for the same distance. Each run, I add one plate (45 pounds) to the sled until I cannot complete another run. Remember to keep a tight core and high chest throughout the entire session.

2. Battle Ropes

Battle ropes are a great way to build upper-body endurance, which can often be really difficult.  You know that feeling when you “hit the wall” on pressing movements? You lack muscular endurance. Super-high rep sets can help to address this, but so can conditioning sessions.

There are many different ways to use battle ropes, but I prefer the standard “wave” motion. Again, make sure to keep a tight core and scapular retraction throughout the entire session.

3. Hill Sprints

I actually don’t like these myself, as I find it’s simply impossible not to overreach sprinting up a darned hill. But if you’re in better shape than I am, you may be able to use them successfully. A few suggestions from the days when I did run sprints:

  • Don’t use too high of a grade. Not only will the descent put a lot of strain on your knees, but the quad fatigue tends to be hard to recover from.
  • Along the same lines: walk the descent.  This will help to save wear and tear on the joints as well.
  • Try to stay active (walking or lightly jogging in place) between intervals.  It’s too easy to cool down between sprints and end up pulling a hamstring when you’re starting cold.

4. Sandbag/Farmer Carries

These are both fantastic for developing core and grip strength.  Use a weight that allows you to move quickly over the entire 15-30 seconds of activity, or else by the end of the session, your grip will probably be failing long before your lungs.  As always: tight core, high chest!

5. Truck Push (or Pull)

Pretty straightforward if you have the equipment to set this one up. If you don’t have a truck, a car can work if you set the emergency brake one or two clicks, or pile plates in the trunk.

6. Tire Flips

My friend Matt and I used to do what we called “Texas cardio.” It’s simple: grab a heavy tire and a partner. Your partner stands on one side of the tire, and you stand on the opposite. Flip the tire back and forth between the two of you until someone gives up.

Again, be really careful with this one. If you’re not paying attention and using good form, it’s very easy to tear a bicep on tire flips, especially when you’re fatigued. And the competition makes this one more fun, but it’s also easy to overdo your competitive drive. Stay disciplined and stay smart!

One Last Point

Conditioning work can be fun, challenging, and beneficial, but don’t expect it to turn you into Superman. Don’t expect dramatic strength increases or drops in bodyfat — those are always going to come from your training and your diet. And no matter what, don’t overdo it! If you’re puking in a bucket after your session, it’s time to cut back.

Got a favorite conditioning workout?  Share it in the comments below!

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