In: Training

Why weightlifters need cardio

Most people have firm views on health and fitness and what the best way to achieve their goals is.  Often it involves doing lots of one type of exercise – that’s why runners run longer and longer distances and weightlifters (I use the term to cover everyone who exercises their body with applied resistance) rarely move fast at all.

Following a blog called why runners should lift weights, I’m here to tell you why I believe weightlifters should do cardio.

Bodybuilders running

What is cardio?

Cardiovascular exercise (aka cardio) is pretty much any exercise which raises your heart rate for a sustained period, unlike weightlifting which raises it for short bursts.  Depending on your level of cardiovascular fitness, it could include walking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, climbing, dancing, housework, etc.

There are different intensities too.  Low intensity exercise will only raise your heart rate a little and you can carry on for hours without getting tired.  Very high intensity exercise will make you feel like your lungs are screaming and can only be sustained for a few seconds.

It’s all cardio.  But as that word has negative associations for some, I’m going to use a more descriptive word and call it conditioning and explain how weightlifters can use conditioning to improve their health, fitness and reach their goals faster.

Reason #1: Your heart and lungs will thank you

If our heart and lungs are not fit for purpose, then quite frankly things aren’t looking good, are they?  To function well, our lungs need to pass enough oxygen into our blood, and our heart needs to be able to pump that blood around our bodies in sufficient volume and at the right speed, for our bodies to do what we ask of them.

Weightlifters who are out of condition and only focus on lifting weights run the risk of increasing the thickness and strength of the heart, without providing sufficient space for blood to pool between heart beats.  This is called left ventricle hypertrophy and is seen in people who lift heavy weights or those who are chronically stressed.

It means that when the body demands more blood flow (e.g. through weightlifting or moving around faster), the heart needs to pump harder and faster than it would ordinarily have to in order to circulate the same volume of blood.

By adding conditioning to your training programme, you can increase the volume of the left ventricle, thereby allowing more blood to pool and reducing the number of heart beats needed to meet demand for oxygenated blood around the body.

And yes, the opposite issue can also be a problem; those who only do cardio can have a left ventricle which is too large for the power of the heart.  The good news is that it’s easy to get an indication of whether you have an issue or not by measuring your blood pressure and resting heart rate each week.

Blood pressure (BP)

If you don’t have one, get yourself a BP monitor and measure it at least weekly.  They start at around £20.  Here’s why knowing your BP is important:

  • A study in 2002 reported that 68% of all-cause mortality attributed to BP in the US happens between 120 and 140 mmHg.
  • For every 20/10 mmHg increase in BP, cardiovascular risk was seen to double.
  • However, a reduction of 5 mmHg correlated with a 7% reduction in cardiovascular risk.

The NHS classes BP of 120/80 mmHg as healthy and only starts to get concerned above 140/90 mmHg.  The US now uses 115/75 mmHg as an indication of good BP.

If your BP is higher than 115/75 mmHg, consider adding conditioning to your programme.  And speak to a doctor if you have any concerns.

Resting heart rate (RHR)

A low resting heart rate is a sign that your heart can keep ticking over with minimal effort – result!  The NHS suggests 60 beats per minute (bpm) is healthy but Thrive prefers it to be below 55bpm:

  • A study found that all-cause mortality increased linearly as RHR increased above 45bpm.
  • By the time RHR hit 90bpm, a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular mortality was observed.

Weightlifting is not the only thing which increases RHR (stress being another major factor) but reducing your RHR will reduce your health risks.  Most smart watches and phones with cameras can measure your heart rate – measure yours first thing in the morning each week.

Reason #2: You’ll be able to create more energy to lift more weights

How fast does your breathing rate recover after a heavy set?  If you find you’re still panting by the time your rest period is up, or it’s as much as you can do to walk up to the squat rack, then you should work on your energy production with conditioning.

Food undergoes many chemical reactions to get to a position where it’s used to produce the energy we need to move, think, sleep or lift weights.  The final energy-creating magic happens in our mitochondria.

Mitochondria sit in our cells and their primary job is to cause the little sparks of energy that drive everything we do.  They are sensitive things and are negatively impacted by stress, toxins and free radicals.  Their productivity is also guided by genetics, nutritional deficiencies, exercise and thyroid hormones.

It’s possible to cause our bodies to make more mitochondria and get them to work harder.  One way of doing this is through conditioning as this increases blood flow and the delivery of nutrients to the cells.  In fact, it’s been shown that aerobic training can improve mitochondrial health by 50% in only a few weeks.

By having more, healthier, harder working mitochondria, not only will you have more energy generally, but you’ll be leaner as you’ll burn through more free fatty acids to power the mitochondria.

Reason #3: Use the fuel released from intensive exercise to get leaner

Intensive exercise such as weightlifting stimulates a release of adrenaline which in turn causes our body to release free fatty acids and glucose into our blood.  It does this in order to keep a ready source of fuel available to keep up the intensity for as long as possible.

When we stop training intensively, the residual free fatty acids and glucose will be re-stored in our body for another time.  However, if we followed our intensive training with less intensive conditioning, we will use that fuel and become leaner as a result.  Adding 20 minutes of conditioning to the end of your weightlifting sessions should be sufficient.

Reason #4: Improved recovery today means improved performance tomorrow

Exercise is necessarily stressful on our bodies.  It’s through our stress response that our body adapts, grows, gets stronger, faster, etc.  Stress for short periods is generally fine – it’s long-term stress which causes no end of issues.

I say that short term stress is generally fine, as it depends on how well your body recovers.  If there’s insufficient time for recovery, or some other factor impacting it, then your progress is going to be limited.

Conditioning is known to reduce the stress load on our bodies and therefore we recover faster.  We know this through measuring heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV is a measure of the variability in our heart beats – the less stressed our body is, the greater the variability of our heart beats.  You can measure it through mobile apps such as Elite HRV, but the concept is what’s important:

  • Weight training creates stress which lowers our HRV.
  • Conditioning floods our body with nutrients and oxygen, which helps reduce stress and increases our HRV.
  • You can have too much of a good thing. Very high HRV (for example, as seen in elite marathon runners) can make it hard to gain muscle and maintain muscle tone.

Rather annoyingly, there are various ways of calculating HRV which use different scales.  Whichever you use, monitor it regularly to find your base level.  If it takes a dive, you need to stay out of the gym for a few days and do some conditioning.  If it keeps on rising, you can train more intensively.

What and how much conditioning should you be doing?

The good news is that replacing one of your weight training sessions every 7-10 days with conditioning will be enough to maintain a good level of conditioning.  Without any training, people’s conditioning generally only regresses 1% per week; compare that to losing 25-30% of strength, power and speed within 12 weeks of not training.

If your conditioning needs a boost (perhaps you’re not able to recover well, have high BP, high RHR or low HRV), then you’ll need to schedule a block of training which focusses on conditioning alone.  5-8 weeks, once or twice a year should be enough.

That may start alarm bells ringing as you think of your muscles shrinking, but you can mitigate this by choosing your conditioning programme carefully.  And you’ll see better results from weightlifting when you get back to the gym.

There are plenty of options for completing your conditioning, both the format and activity.  Suggestions include:

Low impact steady state (LISS) exercise

Pick an exercise you can do for long periods at a low intensity (e.g. run, swim, row). Your heart rate should be raised, but not to the point you struggle to breath or which causes burning in your muscles.

Interval training

Work at a higher intensity than LISS for short periods, rest and repeat.

Every minute on the minute (EMOM)

Pick 2-5 exercises you can do 10-20 reps of (e.g. squats, push ups, bench jumps). Look at a clock and every time a new minute starts, complete reps of one exercise as fast or slow as you like.  However, your rest is limited to the time it takes for the next minute to start.  Then move on to the next exercise and repeat until your session is done.

Tempo weights

If you really can’t face exercising without weights, then try this:

Final thoughts

There is no definitive set of rules to work this stuff out.  We all respond differently to exercise and we’re all starting from different places.  The important thing is to be aware of how your body is functioning, trying different things and working out a balance which means you can focus on your primary goal in the medium term, even if you have to divert efforts every now and then.

Oh, and if you don’t have a blood pressure monitor, go buy one and use it regularly.

Are you ready to thrive?