Why You Need Better Aerobic FitnessMay 23, 2023
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. In 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 are going to talk about how to optimize your recovery.
In this day and age, everyone thinks they need more. More training, more protein, more volume, ect. 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 folks 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.
If you're interested in learning more about Energy Systems development, check out my Playbook here.
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.
For years aerobic work was frowned upon which would make you slower and gain fat. Of course, knowing what we know now about Energy Systems we know that we can utilize Aerobic work to facilitate recovery, improves our ability to generate ATP for explosive sports, and increase the length of our life.
Why Aerobic Work Is Necessary:
- 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 the function of mitochondria.
The Cardiac Output Method
With this method, you may stop reading when you hear the words “low-intensity” or “steady-state,” but as I said before, be open-minded because this is the premier method for improving the aerobic system.
The reasoning is simple: without an efficient aerobic system, your ability to recover between sessions and between working sets will not be what it could be. Moreover, improving your aerobic system can literally extend how long you live.
The connection between aerobic fitness and lifespan is pretty well established, with numerous studies to back it up like this one here. In fact, this method was the single most beneficial method for my own training and took my conditioning to a level I didn’t know existed.
Moreover, if you have better aerobic fitness your ability to bring more oxygen and nutrients to skeletal muscle (we develop more capillaries which are like having more roads to reach more surface area) will be higher.
Recovery and repair need oxygen and nutrients to fuel that process. Someone who has more roads can cover more ground faster and improve the whole muscle function.
By having more capillaries “roads” there is a higher ability for waste products (such as lactate) to leave muscle and not impair the recovery process. The whole goal is better delivery and better clearance.
More aerobic fitness also means more mitochondria and therefore more factories to process the oxygen to generate more energy for repair.
Here are the two primary methods I use to develop aerobic fitness for my clients.
The hardest part for most is that it’s too easy (yes, it’s easy to do), and it can be somewhat boring, but how we customize these sessions while still keeping the intent intact is key.
First off, let’s discuss what cardiac output is. Cardiac output is the amount of blood the heart pumps through the circulatory system in one minute. In layman’s terms, it’s a product of heart rate and stroke volume, so this training style influences the heart’s ability to pump blood to the extremities. More importantly, it can increase the cavity volume known as ‘eccentric hypertrophy,’ particularly of the heart’s left ventricle.
I know what you’re thinking, “Can’t I arrive at these same adaptations by simply lifting weights!?” No, you cannot! The reason is, eccentric hypertrophy (stretching) of cardiac tissue is a result of low-intensity conditioning done for longer durations, and the heart-rate needs to be in a specific range for this to occur.
On the other hand, weight-training results in more of ‘concentric hypertrophy’ of cardiac tissue, which is a thickening of the walls—two very different things. So, improving cardiac output is done in very specific settings with very specific measures.
And no, this type of work will NOT take away from your strength gains when done correctly. Let’s dive right into programming.
- Select 2-3 pieces of cardio equipment
- Perform 10-20 minutes of steady-state ‘conversational style’ work on each
- Perform 1-2 sessions a week as their own training session
- Heart-rate 60-70% of MHR (Zone 2)
- 15 Minutes of Air Bike
15 Minutes of Rowing Machine
15 Minutes of Light Sledpull Powerwalk (a weight you can walk continuously with without stopping)
- AMRAP 60:
50 Double Unders
40 Calorie Air Bike
30 Calorie Air Runner or Rower
20 Hollow Rocks
10 No Push-up Burpees *If you find your HR gets too high (over 150) after the burpees rest for 60s.
- 10 Rounds of:
20 Calorie Air Bike
20 Calorie Rower
100 Ft. Odd Object Carry
- Calories/Reps of:
Air Runner (or 4:00, 3:00, 2:00, 1:00 run)
Calorie Air Bike
For most people, 40-60 minutes 2-3x per week is enough, but if you’re already more aerobically inclined, you can go as long as 60-90 minutes.
On the other hand, if you have zero aerobic fitness, start with 20 minutes and progress to 30 minutes over the course of eight weeks. Remember, this work is intended to be ‘easy,’ so if you can’t carry on a conversation while doing it, you’re going too hard!
High-Intensity Intervals aim to use a variety of sustainable exercises with incomplete bouts of rest after each round. The intent is to stimulate higher oxygen utilization and improve the aerobic abilities of fast-twitch fibers.
Notice, I used the word “sustainable,” so when we think about movements that can be sustained for longer durations, we are not thinking about using locally demanding movements like a push-up or pull-ups that have high rates of peripheral fatigue. Most trainees will be limited by local muscle endurance, not their overall level of aerobic conditioning.
When we select movements, they need to be movements you could sustain for 30-60s without stopping.
- Low resistance movements that can be sustained for the entire interval without stopping
- 15-20 minutes in total duration
- Incomplete rest intervals
- 1-2 sessions per week
5 Rounds of:
- Air Bike for Calories x 60s
- Russian KB Swings x 60s
- Rowing for Calories x 60s
- Box step-ups (unweighted) x 60s
- Rest x 60s
Of course, you can get creative using different variations, but the key takeaway is that you should have sustained output for all sets, meaning round one should not look much different from the last round. This style of workout will leave you feeling relatively fresh thereafter and with a good sweat!
Again, choose movements that are sustainable for you and allow you to work for a prescribed duration without stopping—this shouldn’t be a brutally hard conditioning piece.
Sled work and Loaded Carry Combo
Clearly, this method will not come as a shocker to many, but there are more than a few caveats with programming this method. In terms of when you do it, do you perform it in a separate session or on a ME or DE lower day?
In this case, the sets’ duration will be longer, and loading will be lower, making this a better fit for its own conditioning session.
On the other hand, these two modalities could be used for anaerobic work using heavier loads for more sets/shorter durations, but that’s another article.
Sled Work and Loaded Carry Combo is a great way to train aerobic abilities of fast-twitch fibers and maintain posture when the heart rate is elevated and when fatigue begins to set in.
Here’s what you need to know:
- 8-12 sets x 60s-90s & 90s rest between sets
- Or for a set distance of 400-800 meters for time
- 1 session per week
- 1a. Sledpush Sprint: 8 x 60 yards. No rest.
- 1b. Crossbody Farmer Carry: 8 x 60 yards. Rest 90s – 2:00
- 400 Meter Sled Pull Farmer Carry
- 25% BW on Sled (includes sled weight) + 50% of BW (total in each hand)
- Goal is to stop as little as possible
- Shoot for sub 15:00