The big joke in powerlifting is that anything over 5 reps is cardio. However, why is it that high reps are so difficult for strength athletes? The reason is that the amount of energy you are using is directly related to the amount of weight you are lifting. Meaning if two people did 8 reps of squats but with different weights, the person doing heavier weight will use more energy. This is pretty logical. So as a strength athlete, your goal is to eventually be able to lift heavier and heavier amounts of weight. Because of this, you will be constantly increasing the amount of work needed to complete a workout. Since you will be expending more energy, you will become more susceptible to fatigue.
Anaerobic energy is the type of energy being used when doing low reps. You are using more aerobic work when you are doing high reps. So the typical strength athlete will be exhausting anaerobic energy. However, anaerobic energy is a lot more costly than aerobic energy. For this reason as you increase the amount of weight you lift, you increase the amount of aerobic energy your body will start to use in workouts. Again this is why 5 reps seems like cardio for advanced strength athletes, yet ridiculously easy for beginners. So what’s the point behind all of this information? Even a powerlifter, for example, whose main focus is using anaerobic energy can benefit from aerobic energy to improve their training leading up to the meet.
The other benefits to doing cardiovascular work include:
Increased blood flow to muscles.
Injury risk prevention.
Reduction of hunger.
Increase of caloric intake.
Overall better physical feeling.
While all of these benefits could be future articles in and of themselves, I would encourage all strength athletes to try to incorporate cardio vascular work. So the question then is, what type and how much? I used to advocate High intensity interval training cardio for lifters (15-45 secs of sprinting, and 30-60 secs of resting). HIIT saves more time, increase aerobic capacity more greatly, and causes more reduction in hunger that low intensity cardio (walking, hiking, biking, etc.) This just seemed like the plausible solution since strength athletes use a quick burst of energy like when sprinting, and the conservation of time was really appealing. While I don’t want anyone to toss away HIIT, the predominant type of cardiovascular work should be low intensity cardio. The reason for this is that it still will increase aerobic capacity, but without risking overuse of your central nervous system which is crucial to strength training. Simply put, low intensity cardio is better for recovery purposes while still getting benefits of increase aerobic capacity. My final advice would be to start out small. While low intensity cardio takes more time, it has a lot more practical benefits:
It is much less taking and intimidating than HIIT.
It can be incorporated in much more enjoyable ways. Instead of having to set aside time to do sprints, you can do leisurely activities for low intensity cardio such as walking, hiking, biking, etc.
It is much more relaxing both physically and mentally.
Final verdict: Strength athletes could really benefit from cardio, particularly low intensity cardio. Start off small and progress. Instead of thinking it as another list of things to do, try to take some refreshing walks or do some enjoyable leisurely activities such as hiking.