Conditioning for Powerlifters (and Anyone Who Just Wants to Get Strong)
Written on March 10, 2015 at 9:01 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post is an interview orchestrated by Jen Sinkler, the creator of the expansive new conditioning resource, Lift Weights Faster 2.0. Enjoy! -EC
Full disclosure: I didn’t actually expect to actually like powerlifting. I just wanted to experience it once, and to distract a training buddy who’s always trying to get the rest of us to enter triathlons. (No. Hey, look, something shiny and heavy!) Nonetheless, last August, I entered my first powerlifting meet, and to my surprise, I did like it. Very much. I liked it enough to enter a meet every two months for the past six months, bringing me to a total of four meets by February.
I followed lifting plans from fellow Movement Minneapolis coach Jennifer Blake, and during another training cycle I got coaching from big ole squatter Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems. Partly because I was so new to the specificity of powerlifting training and partly because my plans (which I adapted daily based on biofeedback) were on point, I saw dramatic improvement from meet to meet, regularly adding 25-35 pounds to my squat in the two months between competitions. It won’t always be like this, of course, but it sure is satisfying while it lasts. Also satisfying: I took home best overall female lifter in three of my four meets, and the trophies tend be exceedingly pointy and dangerous.
What I didn’t do a tremendous amount of in those first four months of my powerlifting-specific training was conditioning. I could say I was worried about my gains, I suppose, but it’s more accurate to say I just needed to wrap my training sessions up in the interest of time, so conditioning was what got axed. Until late December, that is, when I started finalizing the pieces of my conditioning manual, Lift Weights Faster 2. That put me in the mood to play with lighter weights: to do more kettlebell and barbell circuits, to do sprint workouts and calisthenics. So…that’s what I did. And I’m pleased to say that not a gain was lost (and in fact, I continued to see improvements in all three lifts).
That’s because, when wielded well, conditioning is extremely useful for powerlifters. I’ve tapped two experts in the field to explain how and why you can incorporate it into your maximum-strength plan.
Intros to the Experts
Julia Ladewski, CSCS, is a powerlifter and physique competitor who spent eight years as a Division I strength and conditioning coach and five in a private sports-performance facility. Julia now trains clients both online and at her husband's private training and powerlifting facility, The Region Barbell Club. She is a highly competitive and elite-level powerlifter, totaling 1102 at 132 pounds and 1085 at 123 pounds. She has been a member of Team EliteFTS since 2005, and regularly speaks at a number of conferences..
Alex Viada, CSCS, has over 12 years of experience coaching athletes, specializing in training powerlifters, triathletes, and military athletes. A graduate of Duke University (biochemistry) and a MS(c) in physiology, Alex spent eight years in clinical research and health-care consulting before transitioning to coaching full-time. His company, Complete Human Performance, has worked with nationally ranked and national-record-holding powerlifters and strongman competitors, Kona-qualifying triathletes, Boston qualifiers, and bodybuilders. He has attained (and maintained) an elite powerlifting total in the 220-pound class while competing in numerous endurance events -even ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons.
Sinkler: Is handling conditioning for powerlifters tricky? It seems a little like serving two masters — one that cares only about max strength, and one that cares more strength endurance.
Ladewski: Serving two masters is always difficult, but conditioning can be done year-round. Like any other sport that has in-seasons and off-seasons, you’ll vary your conditioning depending on where you are in your training and the importance of that conditioning to your goals.
Pounding some conditioning the day before a heavy squat session can definitely affect your training. But with careful planning, you can be well-conditioned, stay in your weight class, lose body fat, and still perform at a high level.
Viada: Handling conditioning for powerlifters is very tricky. Powerlifters fall on the extreme end of the pure strength spectrum, obviously. They view limit strength as the competition, or sport proficiency (and correctly so), with a far lesser emphasis on strength-endurance. Any sort of endurance or conditioning programming for them needs to be carefully introduced and needs to clearly show the lifter that the endurance training interferes minimally and has tangible benefits.
If there is one thing I would like to dispel, however, it’s the thought that endurance is a separate, unattainable dimension of athleticism for strength athletes. It’s just another dimension of athleticism that can exist together with strength. One doesn’t need to look much further than the NFL or Rugby League to see remarkably strong individuals with far-better-than-average conditioning. Athleticism needs to be viewed on a spectrum, not as a series of yes-or-no options.
Sinkler: Why is conditioning for powerlifters important? What purpose(s) does it serve?
Ladewski: Years ago, it was kind of a big joke for powerlifters to just get bigger and bigger to lift big weights. While there is some truth behind that, it's shifted a bit towards being strong, leaner and healthier. Aside from the health benefits that even the general population receives from conditioning (heart health, better bloodwork, and so on), powerlifters are finding that having a level of conditioning is beneficial for their training, as well.
To be strong, one needs to be able to do a lot of work. More work requires a level of conditioning. If I do two sets of pushups and I'm completely spent and ready to call it a day, then my training — even for strength — will suffer. Of course there’s also the benefits of staying closer to your weight class, having less overall body fat, and having fewer achy joints.
Viada: Conditioning is important not only for general health, but is also important to sport itself. So why would a powerlifter look to improve aerobic conditioning? Can it help sport performance? The answer is (provided that deleterious effects can be minimized) an absolute yes.
Though powerlifting competition is a pure ATP/CP sport, recovery even over the course of a workout taps into aerobic systems heavily (for substrate replenishment and recovery between higher volume sets).
Improved aerobic capacity can lead towards greater overall work capacity and training volume, as well as faster recovery between sets.
Improvement in muscle glycogen stores and increased mitochondrial density would also greatly improve training quality (by allowing higher workout volume), and though event-day sport performance will not be directly impacted, more (and longer) quality training sessions are a major benefit.
Is aerobic training necessary for the powerlifter? No. But all else being equal, these positive effects are decidedly worthwhile for the majority of lifters, and I’m of the opinion that a lifter with superior aerobic capacity will have more productive training sessions than one who is absolutely exhausted after walking to the monolift.
Sinkler: Very well said. What kinds of conditioning activities do you program for your powerlifting clients? How do you include said activities without detracting from their powerlifting performance?
Ladewski: For powerlifting, I like to do a variety of things. Much of it depends on the individual, but sled dragging (upper and lower body work), prowler pushes and interval circuits work well. Bodyweight, high-rep band work, even kettlebell stuff works really well. Planning it around their regular strength work is important. as well. Don't underestimate walking, either. Brisk walking is great for powerlifters.
Viada: For strength athletes, I will often prescribe fast-paced rucking with moderate loads at low to moderate intensities, steady-state cycling or Airdyne, rowing, and aqua jogging (swimming tends to be a poor choice, as strength athletes often sink like rocks, and the additional shoulder mobility that swimming requires and develops can hurt strength and stability in pressing movements).
I also program circuit training for them, but there’s a tendency among powerlifters to go too high intensity on it. Lots of powerlifters load up too much weight and miss the benefit. So, I steer them away from circuit until they learn how to go low intensity. Once they learn to use less weight, it goes back in.
Sinkler: That makes sense. You mentioned that people often miss out on the benefit of circuit training. Talk a little more about that. And, how can circuit training, in particular, be used to develop greater work capacity?
Viada: This is actually a huge pain point for me in training athletes. We train a huge number of military athletes, fighters, obstacle-course racing competitors, CrossFit athletes, and the like, and we heavily utilize circuit training, though we’re often loathe to call it that. Circuit training, if properly implemented, has tremendous value in developing specific work capacity in certain movements, training individuals to perform while fatigued, building and developing “pacing” ability, and yes, even eliciting several positive cardiovascular adaptations.
That said, for athletes, circuit training should be specific — durations should be selected that are comparable to the demands of their sport, modalities and exercises should closely track movements and muscle groups the athletes need to develop strength-endurance in, and overall the emphasis should be on movement quality, not simply throwing a hodgepodge of different exercises at them.
For the general population, there’s greater flexibility, but I always come back to one point: there’s sometimes the sense that I dislike circuit training, but nothing could be further from the truth. The issue is that many individuals do not like using appropriately submaximal weights. If a load is so heavy that it interrupts the flow of a circuit, changes pacing, forces the use of the Valsava maneuver (or otherwise occludes bloodflow), the point is being missed entirely.
During resistance training or HIIT, a combination of muscle occlusion and the Valsava maneuver actually increases blood pressure but occludes venous return; in other words, since everything is tensed during every repetition or short interval, no blood is flowing during muscular contraction, and less is flowing into the heart. When an individual is running or biking, this isn’t the case, venous return is actually increased. In essence, with weight training, though the heart rate is increasing, it’s not necessarily pumping more blood. With cardiovascular training, it is. This is why going too heavy on circuits can provide less of an aerobic benefit.
Whatever weight you want to pick, use less. If done properly, a circuit or complex intended to develop overall (general) work capacity should start taxing the heart and lungs around the same time as the muscles. Ego is the enemy here; people use 75 to 80 percent of their maximum loads when they should be using 25 to 30 percent!
The body itself is a load — moving a weight in a complex is no different than moving the body in a run, the difference is only when individuals decide that if they’re not groaning under the weight, they’re not working their muscles. If individuals can reign in that tendency, circuits can be extremely useful for conditioning, developing both general and specific work capacity, and otherwise building both strength and endurance in general populations.
Sinkler: That’s really useful, actionable advice, thank you. Generally speaking, how often do you include conditioning for your powerlifting clients? How long do these sessions last, and on what days do you do them?
Ladewski: During meet prep, I keep it to about two sessions a week. If there's not a meet on the horizon, I'll prescribe three to four days. Personally, I like short, intense sessions. Timewise, it works for busy schedules. Plus, I like using athletic movements, moving fast and pushing hard.
Circuit training is actually a great way for powerlifters to work in conditioning. It works really well after the main strength moves. If you take some of your accessory work and circuit that together at the end, you can get some really good conditioning work and not feel like you have to add in another session or detract from your heavy lifting.
A good, 30- to 45-minutes walk in the sun is also excellent for recovery, de-stressing, and conditioning.
Viada: It’s important to consolidate stressors as much as possible, and to approach strength and endurance as a single entity. One term used lately that I enjoy — and Chad Wesley Smith writes frequently on this concept — is “consolidation of stressors.” That term really represents the cornerstone of this method — high-intensity, low-volume work and high-volume, low-intensity work each requires its own sort of recovery, but most critically, an individual can train one extreme while recovering from another.
“Recovery” is systemic to an extent, but it is also structurally specific — a long, low-intensity bike ride taxes the athlete in very different ways than a heavy squat session, but fast sprint intervals may present similar challenges to the body as that same squat session. In the former case, it would make sense to place those two workouts at opposite ends of the training week, but in the latter case, it would make sense to do them most likely in the same session.
Any high-intensity work should be done concurrently with high-intensity strength training, and the majority of the low-intensity, high-volume work should be done after any sort of volume workouts. Important to remember: Sport practice takes priority. The lifter should only use remaining work capacity to work on conditioning.
Frequency does not have to be significant — two or three 20- to 30-minute sessions is often enough for the majority of pure powerlifters with whom I’ve worked. This is already enough to see some benefits without detracting from sport focus, and with rotating modalities, the workouts should flow seamlessly. Examples include 20 to 30 minutes of row intervals after deadlift work, steady-state cycling after volume squatting, or easy rucking on the first of two days off would be enough conditioning volume.
Sinkler: What other factors do you consider?
Ladewski: When starting conditioning, the main factor is the person's current conditioning level and how much they can handle at the moment. And what their current goals are: are they in meet prep? Off-season? Do they have body fat to lose? And also, what do they enjoy doing? If they hate running, I probably won't include a lot of running. If they aren't well-versed in kettlebells, then I probably won't include much of that kind of training until they learn it better. I want to find things that are challenging for them but that they also enjoy doing.
Sinkler: Anything else you want to say on the topic of conditioning for powerlifters?
Ladewski: When powerlifters hear the word conditioning, they automatically think "cardio,” and worry about long, boring, workouts, having to run, about losing muscle. But conditioning doesn't have to be like that.
Conditioning is typically what powerlifters would call general physical preparedness, or GPP. It amounts to preparing the body to handle more work as training gets more intense.
Start with some off-season conditioning and build up. Then maintain a level of conditioning during your meet prep, as well, and your body will thank you.
Looking for Circuit-Training Ideas?
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Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer for national magazines such as Women’s Health and Men’s Health. A former member of the U.S. national women’s rugby team, she currently trains clients at The Movement Minneapolis. Jen talks fitness, food, happy life and general health topics at her website, www.jensinkler.com.
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