The Importance of Conditioning

I’ll admit it. I’m out of shape.

For years I’ve operated on the assumption that just “lifting weights” was plenty for getting big, strong, and more generally just being “fit and healthy”.

Now, I really should know better. Even though lifting heavy things is kinda my thing, it’d be a bit dishonest for me to say that I have no concerns for how I look and for my health (although we can be honest, given a choice between be pretty/strong/a winner and be healthy, most folks are going for the latter).

Indeed, for awhile now Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell and Dave Tate over at Elite FTS have been going on about how important it is to be in shape. Yes, even powerlifters, who are notorious for being fat, unconditioned, and considering anything over five reps as cardio.

That’s unfortunately where I fell for a long time. It became a process of gradually excluding anything that wasn’t a big barbell lift done for 1-5 reps. Now, it’s often said that weight training three times a week is sufficient for cardiovascular health. I’m not so sure about that. The research showing that gravitates towards workouts that are more of the traditional bodybuilding fare – sets of 8-10 reps with moderate rest intervals.

Needless to say, I wasn’t doing that. Lo and behold, my body developed in turn. You want me to lift something heavy, or otherwise generate a lot of force? Great. I can do it for a cool 30 seconds. Then I’m wiped.

Obviously, this is not a good thing – and it brings me to the point. A few weeks ago I was down in Sydney and got the chance to go to a strongman session on Saturday afternoon. Now, I won’t say I came into this with any expectations of being awesome. I knew up front that I was going to be sucking wind, even if I could handle some of the raw weights involved.

Oh my God.

I can officially say I have a whole new respect for strongmen competitors. I got to try a sampling of several events, from sled dragging, farmer’s walks, keg carries, Atlas stones, and a tire flip.

Strength-wise, I wasn’t terribly out of my league. I could pick up and handle most of the implements that the other guys were using. No, the problem was work capacity. Years of specializing on low-rep powerlifting exercises left me completely unconditioned for this kind of thing. There wasn’t a single attempt I made that didn’t leave me with burning lungs.

I think the word here is “humbled”.

But for all that, I found I actually did enjoy it. I like being challenged, even though I’ll probably bitch and moan about it. More importantly, I found a major weak point that I need to work on.

Really all this requires is some emphasis on pushing the anaerobic threshold – picking up something heavy and doing it until you’re breathing hard. This could be higher-rep sets or high-set/low-rest sets of squats and deadlifts, interval power cleans, kettlebell work (a recent favorite of mine), dragging the sled as suggested by Westside, boxing, or even just plain old sprinting. But one way or another, I’ve realized I need to keep some kind of “hard conditioning” in the mix here.

The Soviets had an old axiom about “getting in shape to train”. They felt that you built up “an athlete” first, then specialized that athlete in a given sport. From my own experience, that makes sense. Being in shape, or having the general work capacity to get through a hard workout, can make a huge difference both in your performance and in your recovery ability. And yes, this even means those of us that are mainly interested in powerlifting.

I realize this may not be a stunning revelation to most, myself included, but sometimes things are a lot easier to see when you experience them first hand.

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