Combining strength training with aerobic training
You may be looking to get strong with increased muscle mass. But you may also want to have a healthy heart function and to stay fit for life.
Let’s face it; being able to bench press the weight of a baby elephant, isn’t going to help you climb 5 flights of stairs.
Can you do both?
- Is it possible to get strong and build muscle density, whilst improving your cardiovascular fitness at the same time?
- Are you aiming for body recomposition (less body fat, more muscles)?
The combination of resistance training and aerobic training, may be the right choice for you. In this article, I explain why and the following points in more detail:
- TRAINING FOR STRENGTH
- TRAINING AEROBICALLY
- COMBINING THE TWO
TRAINING FOR STRENGTH
By definition, strength training involves exercises that cause the muscles to contract against resistance. Over a period of time this stimulus results in increased size, power and strength.
In order to get stronger, you need to lift progressively heavier loads over time (known as progressive overload). It’s as simple as that!
How does progressive overload work?
It involves manipulating intensity, reps and sets over a set period of time, to ensure progressive overload is achieved. To develop strength, a maximal or near maximal training intensity is required.
Intensity is expressed as a percentage of 1RM. The closer you are working to your 1RM, the more intense the exercise. The general rule to improve strength, is to perform high-intensity sets at 85% or more of 1RM.
I hear you ask … “How do I build that into a strength programme?” It’s that magic word…
Using periodisation in strength training
Applying periodisation requires manipulation of your intensity and volume, in order to build towards the long-term strength goal. That long-term training period is broken down into phases:
It is important that your periodised programme does the following:
✅ Maximise the adaptation phase (near the beginning of the cycle).
✅ Avoid too much exposure to the exhaustion phase (muscle fatigue towards the end).
What are Macro and Mesocycles?
The macrocycle is the largest and longest phase of periodisation. It includes your overall training goal. For example, when training for a powerlifting competition that is 16 weeks (4 months) away, your macrocycle will last for this period leading up to the competition. The macrocycle, is the long-term objective, this is then broken down into a series of progressive mesocycles.
A mesocycle refers to a particular block of the macrocycle, and will often last for several weeks (approx four – eight weeks). This depends on the training goal of that block. For this reason, the mesocycle is often referred to as a ‘training phase’.
Novice lifters may continue to achieve progress on a new stimulus for longer periods (i.e. over eight weeks). Very advanced lifters may require shorter training phases in order to sustain progression (i.e. four weeks or less).
What are the specific mesocycles?
These are the training goals of each block: Endurance, Hypertrophy and Strength.
You need to build the foundations before progressing to the top of the pyramid (strength). The sequence of endurance, hypertrophy and strength should be followed. You can also create variation across each of the training goals.
What is a Microcycle?
Each mesocycle is further broken down into microcycles, with each microcycle typically lasting for one week. This short-term training cycle consists of the rotation of weekly workouts, as well as the day-to-day intensity and volume manipulations. These are the fundamentals that drive you towards the overall long-term goal. Think of them as the building blocks to your house.
Programming for strength
During the cycles, it is important to make modifications, to build on the previous training phase. This is essential for progression.
What modifications can you make?
- Number of sets
- Amount of reps
- Different number of exercises
- Movement speed – slow to fast i.e. Tempo or speed work
- Split routines
- Recovery periods between sets
- Session frequency
- Variety of exercises
- Simple to complex exercises
Onto the final and important point about strength programming:
It is vital that you plan in rest and recovery. Muscles grow during rest periods and your body will thank you for it!
Aerobic or cardiovascular fitness is referred to as stamina, aerobic power or VO2 max. VO2 is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise that is increasing in intensity. In a nutshell; cardio fitness is the ability to take in, transport and use oxygen.
The likes of Mo Farah (British Olympic gold-medalist long-distance runner), are the aerobic elite!
There are several types of training that are widely recognised to benefit the cardiovascular system:
LONG DISTANCE (LSD)
This training is usually identified as aerobic training. It involves working for an extended period of time typically at least 45-60 minutes duration and less than 70% heart rate (HR) max to develop aerobic base and improve fat oxidation for economy. The intensity of this type of training does not change throughout the session, for example, marathons.
This is the most common type of training seen in gyms, working at a relatively steady intensity for 20-60 minutes between 60-90% heart rate (HR) max (as described for general CV fitness improvement by The American College of Sports Medicine – (ACSM).
THRESHOLD / TEMPO
This is working at or just below anaerobic threshold (described below). Or at a specific race pace typically for a shorter duration of around 20-40 minutes (which should be about the same intensity, as this is the upper limit of steady state speed).
Aerobic and anaerobic (metabolic) thresholds
Firstly, you need to know what adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is. It is a molecule that carries energy within cells. It is the main energy currency of the cell and provides energy to drive many processes in living cells, e.g. muscle contraction.
Aerobic respiration takes place in presence of oxygen (a large amount of ATP is used for longer). Whereas anaerobic respiration takes place in absence of oxygen (a small amount of ATP is used for short periods). This means that, during low-intensity activities most of the adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is regenerated aerobically.
As exercise intensity begins to increase, a point is reached where the aerobic energy system can no longer continue to provide adequate energy. At this point the body uses the lactate anaerobic system more to re-synthesise the ATP required. This is that feeling of lactic acid build up (you know which one I am talking about and oh boy, it burns!). This is known as the aerobic threshold (AeT).
As the intensity of exercise continues to increase above AeT, the body starts to rely more heavily on the anaerobic energy system and lactic acid production increases more rapidly. This continues to a second point or threshold known as the anaerobic threshold (AnT). This point represents the highest sustainable aerobic intensity, before lactic acid levels start to rise to a level that limits exercise duration.
I hope I didn’t lose you there with that overview! But it’s important to understand the different types of training, when it comes to combining cardiovascular training with strength training.
COMBINING THE TWO
Most people will benefit from a mixed training approach that incorporates both resistance and aerobic exercise. If you are an elite athlete, you may require a specific approach to your training.
It is important to point out, that if your overall goal is muscular strength or hypertrophy, training hard for aerobic fitness gains is a conflicting exercise stimulus.
This is because these components, place completely opposite demands on the body. Attempting to train maximally for both strength and aerobic fitness, will lead to less than optimal results for both components. The ‘INTENSITY/VOLUME CONTINUUM’ picture represents the conflict as the demands increase in either direction.
How do you do both?
This is a lot more simple than people like to believe. If you came here expecting an overly detailed explanation, well I am afraid you will be disappointed. I like to keep things simple and easy to understand.
Below is the method that I have personally used and manipulated to reduce my body fat and increase my muscle size (body recomposition), with no threat to my strength gains.
My rule is as follows; as the weights on the bar go up, the level of cardio comes down. This is a basic table of that and can be applied if aerobic training is your main goal.
Moderate / high
Low / moderate
Moderate / high
RESISTANCE INTENSITY (STRENGTH)
- Low; can represent the endurance mesocycle phase
- Moderate; can represent the hypertrophy mesocycle phase
- Moderate / high; can represent the strength mesocycle phase
AEROBIC VOLUME (CARDIO)
- Moderate / high; shorter times periods in the steady state intensity zone
- Moderate; most times in the steady state intensity zone with the occasional session working in the threshold / tempo zone
- Low; most times in the long distance intensity zone with the occasional session working in the steady state zone
When should you train each (if your main goal is strength)?
Keep it simple and choose between these 2 options:
1️⃣ Train aerobically at a different time of day. This option is for people who are able to go to the gym or exercise twice a day. For example; one early morning cardio walk and an evening weights session.
2️⃣ Do your cardio session after training with weights. This is because, doing cardio first uses up much of the energy source for your anaerobic work (strength training) and fatigues the muscles before their most strenuous activity.
The bottom line is, that you need to be clear on your goals before embarking on a new journey.
You should think about what outcomes you expect and be realistic and consistent.
Remember, attempting to train maximally for both strength and aerobic fitness will lead to less than optimal results for both components.
PICK A SIDE! What’s yours? Mine is strength obviously 😀