"More than 3 reps is cardio, am I right!?"
This is an all-too-common phrase said by powerlifters worldwide.
It's time we put it to bed and time to encourage powerlifters to implement cardio into their training.
Where did this phrase begin?
I reckon it was about 3.2 sessions after the first Powerlifting program was written.
Powerlifters often worry that cardio, even steady state cardio, will rob them of gains, powerlifting performance and strength.
Plus sticking with cardio is...hardio. This plays directly into the powerlifters' bias against cardio.
The truth is you can perform short, medium, and long-duration cardio and still perform massive feats of strength if training is planned accordingly.
Ask people like Paul Cooper, Alex Viada, or Robert Samual who became successful powerlifters while partipating in long-distance running.
What kind of cardio is best for powerlifters?
I think steady-state, Zone 2 (roughly 60-70% heart rate) activity is best for powerlifters for the reasons explored below.
PHYSIOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF STEADY CARDIO
Increased Capillary Density & Venous Return
This means waste products can be shifted more readily.
Powerlifters tend to have more muscle than the average person. This produces more waste product which needs shifting for good recovery. Steady cardio improves this process by increasing the size of capillaries which drag these by-products away from the fatigued areas.
Increased venous return is increased blood flow back to the heart, which aids the body more readily clear a fatigued area of waste products to accelerate the recovery process.
Lower Resting Heart Rate
Steady cardio increases the size of certain parts of the heart. This increases the amount of blood which is pumped with each beat. Your heart is more efficient therefore needs to beat less.
A more efficient heart aids greatly in recovery between bouts of exercises like mid-rep range assistance exercises which you had to mash together because you chatted for too long during your squats and now you have 15 minutes to finish 4 exercises.
Less likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes/May Aid The Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes
Steady cardio makes you more able to manage your glucose and fat stores via magical processes I don't nearly understand.
I'm reliably informed this reduces the chances of getting type 2 diabetes due to exercise increasing insulin sensitivity.
If you are suffering from type 2 diabetes, this may help your treatment of the condition along with the appropriate medical intervention.
Cardio May Reduce Chronic Inflammation (A Huge Risk Factor Linked To Many Chronic Diseases)
Aging is strongly linked with an increase in chronic inflammation which is a good indicator of poor health in future. One of the major causes of inflammation is thought to be inactivity.
Ageing and being less active seems to go together to create the perfect storm for chronic disease.
By getting into the habit of doing a couple of hours of steady cardio per week for life we set ourselves up for a fitter and healthier old age less impacted of chronic disease.
High-intensity exercise you aren't accustomed to increases inflammation in the short-term, exercise you are accustomed to is strongly linked to reducing inflammatory markers.
This is why when adding any new activity to your program, you should start with very manageable amounts which you gradually build up until your doing enough to maintain good endurance for health, training and competitions.
The problem with many inflammation/exercise studies is the exercise is self-reported so it's hard to make specific cardio training recommendations based on these stats alone.
Luckily we have many other factors to help us decide how much cardio we should to do.
You'll Be More Able To Deal With Life Stuff
Most of us need to be fit enough to handle activities outside of powerlifting no matter how seriously we take the sport.
We want to do life stuff like climbing stairs without having a 10 minute rest.
We want to be fit enough to play with our children and grandchildren if we have them. We want to be as independent as possible for as long as possible.
Adding cardio to your program allows you to be fitter for life and fitter for training.
In short, you'll be a more resilient human.
If you have a better quality of life, you may be less stressed. Being less stressed outside of the gym allows you to recover more optimally from the stress inflicted in the gym.
Many activities can go towards your steady-cardio quota for the week from walking, to gardening to sex (if it's Coach V's birthday...) which can be fun, great for your mental health and can bolster your immune system.
Your cardio doesn't need to be long stints on a treadmill (although that's a perfectly good option.) You can pick your steady state cardio methods based on what you find the most enjoyable and/or beneficial.
You'll Recover Faster Due To Being Fitter
Cardio builds a more efficient engine which can do the same amount of work in less time.
If you are fitter for training you need less rest between sets.
If you need less rest between sets you can either do more lifting or leave the gym quicker, both of which have their own benefits.
Mid-rep range assistance exercises and split-squats will make you want to die for a shorter period if your recovery ability is better.
Being generally fitter means it's less awful if you have to swap from doing mostly singles, doubles and triples to higher rep muscle building work which sucks when you don't have the endurance capacity to do it.
I mean, it sucks when you HAVE the endurance, but you run less risk of tanking, throwing up, and having a diabolical time.
As many coaches have said, specific training like powerlifting is built from the foundations created by your general fitness. Steady cardio helps you build those foundations.
You'll Have More Left In The Tank By The End Of Competition Day
Powerlifting competitions are feats of endurance despite only containing 9 competitive lifts.
By the time deadlifts roll around, many people are ruined.
A little extra fitness should lessen the amount this happens giving you an advantage over the rest of the competition.
Lower resting heart rate, better glucose regulation and better sleep and well-planned, specific training all contribute towards being powerlifter capable of getting through an entire competition without being exhausted until after the last lift of the day.
Start including steady cardio in your life.
Start with a minimal amount and slowly build up to 2-4 hours of steady-cardio activity a week if you can.
References & Further Reading
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach