Category Archives: Aerobic

The Return of Aerobic Work

The Return of Aerobic Work
Not long ago, I frequently used the word “conditioning.” I thought the best way to condition athletes was through anaerobic workouts that tested the limits of pain and pushed the boundaries of regurgitation. After all, we’re taught that sports are anaerobic, and that blasé aerobic work has no place in a serious program.
Today, the word “conditioning” makes me cringe. As you can imagine, I cringe a lot. And, unlike before, vomit-inducing anaerobic work is rarely in the cards for me or my athletes. Thanks to people way smarter than me (Joel Jamieson, James Smith, Buddy Morris) I have an appreciation for different types of “conditioning,” much like I have an appreciation for different types of strength.

Conditioning Conundrum

I can’t define “conditioning” as the very word is akin to the phrase “lifting weights.” You can lift weights in many ways and for many reasons. Most of us do it to get stronger. But others do it for more specific reasons, like training for strength-speed, strength-endurance, and starting strength. For those of you that managed to get past the first ten pages of Supertraining, you know this list continues seemingly ad infinitum.
So if we lift weights to get stronger, do we perform conditioning to become more conditioned? The problem is ambiguity. We have different types of “conditioning” just like we have different types of strength.
Conditioning, in its true sense, refers to training the body’s energy systems. We easily distinguish between the anaerobic (without oxygen) and aerobic (with oxygen) systems. We even associate different body types to proficiency in each system. Jacked football players and sprinters are anaerobic beasts. Gangly marathoners, however, are aerobic creatures.
But neither stereotype is correct because jacked football players frequently rely on the aerobic system. Yeah, I said it. Football is aerobic. Before I face the stones, let me explain.

Energy Systems

The Return of Aerobic Work
Breaking the energy systems into anaerobic and aerobic isn’t enough. The anaerobic system can be further split into the  and the . Each corresponds with the energy deriving metabolic processes.
ImmediateIntermediateLong term
Bottom line is, all anaerobic work is not created equally. Football is a prime example. In an effort to “condition,” coaches rely on suicides, Prowler pushes, and Tabata intervals until their athletes’ legs are loaded with lactate and loopier than Gumby’s.
Anaerobic? Absolutely.
But the right kind of anaerobic? Nope.

Another Dimension

Next, it’s important to know that each metabolic pathway has a power component (how fast the system can derive energy) and capacity component (how long the system can be sustained).
So someone with great alactic power can produce a few intensive bursts of energy at a high level. This, for example, includes an Olympic weightlifter, powerlifter, 100m sprinter, javelin thrower, shot-putter, etc. These athletes give a maximal effort, blow their load, and take a long time to recover. Just think of hitting a PR in the gym. It’s not easily repeatable.
Someone with great alactic power and capacity, however, can replicate intensive efforts over time – a baseball pitcher, for example. A pitcher with amazing alactic power will hit triple digits on the radar gun. But if their capacity sucks, their speed will diminish with each successive throw. So a pitcher with good capacity and decent power is likely to be a starter. One with a lot of power and shady capacity, however, more likely a closer.

Importance Of Capacity

The Return of Aerobic Work
Many sports require short-term explosiveness – alactic anaerobic power. This is why the NFL Combine gawks at 4.3 speed.
Over the past few years, aerobic work has been vilified for decreasing absolute explosive potential. But most sports require  in addition to power. There are problems if 4.3 speed turns into 4.7 speed during the second quarter, 5.5 speed during the third quarter, and 6.1 speed during the fourth quarter.
Ray Lewis isn’t known for playing six downs and calling it quits. He’s known for being on the field every play and always performing at a high level.
So what’s more important, absolute power, or the capacity to sustain power? Wouldn’t it be better to run a consistent 4.5 and sacrifice a little power for a lot of capacity?

The Aerobic System’s Role

There are two underappreciated aspects of the aerobic system. First, it’s very important in developing alactic anaerobic capacity (think explosive stuff). Second, most sports are aerobic despite the common perception.
Upon exercise, all energy systems turn on. The power clean is rooted in alactic anaerobic power because of its short duration, not because the aerobic system fails to ignite. The duration, not the intensity, determines energy system involvement.
As repeat sprint exercise continues, the energy system contributions become “truer” to their respective time zones.  (1)(2).
But studies emerged about aerobic work diminishing explosive ability. And we all got caught up in absolute power, foregoing capacity.
 Joel Jamieson says, 
Basketball is another example. There are some sprints and jumps here and there, but for the most part you see guys trotting up and down the court. Yeah, they’re jogging. Fancy that.
Somehow we’re brainwashed into thinking that athletes never jog, but it happens in nearly every sport. In soccer, unless the ball is in their vicinity, athletes lazily move about the field. Football? Jogging to and from the sideline and back to the line after every play.
And what about athletes with their faces in oxygen masks (even though they don’t really work)? I don’t foresee Boba Fett inspired uniforms with oxygen tank backpacks anytime soon, so these guys better start fixing their shitty aerobic development.
To be fair, the sports mentioned also have a short-term explosive component, which makes respecting the work-to-rest interval important. A 2009 study found that, “More than 70% of the total [soccer] match duration was performed at low “aerobic” intensities, while only 1-3% of the match was performed at high-intensities (“sprinting”) (3). The overall work-to-rest ratio of these soccer players averaged out to a 2-4 second sprint every 90 seconds.”
In math speak that interval looks like 4:90. Football usually shakes out to 6:40, barring a two-minute drill (in which case it becomes even more aerobic). Olympic weightlifting, at minimum rest, is about 3:120. Truer alactic anaerobic sports like javelin and the 100m have even longer rest periods.
Compare those ratios to Tabata’s 20:10. Not even close.

Aerobic Work vs. Lifting Weights

The Return of Aerobic Work
Way back, nearly all athletes performed aerobic work. Bill Starr writes about running in The Strongest Shall Survive. Thomas Kurz in The Science of Sports Training notes that weightlifters jog in the early off-season. Old school fighters were known for doing roadwork. Hell, even Ricky Bruch, the eccentric discus thrower, jogged.
Now, aerobic work is shunned. But the aerobic system not only increases overall health markers but also aids in recovery from heavy weight training sessions.
As discussed in Heart Rate Variability Training, an over active sympathetic nervous system – a pitfall of shitty aerobic development – destroys performance.

It’s like this: a developed aerobic system kick starts the recovery process. More time recovering means more recovery.
Also, you’re able to save and concentrate “intense” bouts of energy for when they really matter. The opposite of this being in a constantly amped up state and slowly wearing yourself down – this is what I referred to as “idling” in 12 Tips to Tune the Nervous System.

Methods of Aerobic Development

The Return of Aerobic Work
Aerobic doesn’t always mean distance running. As long as your heart rate stays around 120-150 BPM (everyone has a different lactate threshold) and lactate doesn’t accumulate, you’re training the aerobic system. “Fun” things outside of distance running are stringing together a circuit of the following:

  • Rope jumping
  • Calisthenics
  • Mobility exercises
  • Tumbling and locomotor movements (cartwheels, forward rolls, backward rolls to handstands, inch worm walks, and bear crawls).

But if you enjoy running, tempo runs, essentially “low intensity” interval training, are a great choice. Tempo runs involve running a predetermined distance in a time window that’s of a low enough intensity to tax the aerobic system and yet fail to go anaerobic (70 yards in 20 seconds, for instance). Once the distance is covered, the runner can rest for thirty-or-so seconds to keep the heart rate in check before doing another heat.
More specific to a lifter, however, is a method used by track coach Dan Pfaff that consists of doing many sets of Olympic lifts over the course of 50+ minutes for 1-2 reps, striving to keep the heart rate around 150 BPM.
 A circuit of push-ups, squats, and pull-ups can train the aerobic system, but it isn’t ideal for a soccer player. Lance Armstrong isn’t a world class marathon runner. His adaptations are specific to riding a bike.


Aerobic work is making a comeback. All conditioning isn’t created equally. What’s the work : rest interval? What energy system(s) are utilized? Do you need capacity? Power? Or both?
One thing is for sure: you could stand to do a bit more aerobic work. That is, unless you’re holding out for the Boba Fett technology.


1) Parolin, M., et al. (1998). Regulation of skeletal muscle glycogen phosphorylase and pdh during maximal intermittent exercise. American Psychological Society227(5), 890-900.
2) Haseler, L., et al. (1999). Skeletal muscle phosphocreatine recovery in exercise-trained humans is dependent on o2 availability. American Psychological Society86(6), 2013-2018.
3) Osgnach, C., et al. (2010). Energy cost and metabolic power in elite soccer: A new match analysis approach. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise42(1), 170-178.
4) Oetter, E. (2011, October 10). [Web log message]. Retrieved from
5) Jamieson, J. (2012, February 23). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Aerobic Hill Sprints

Yesterday, my wife and I headed outside to a local hill to complete our first (of many) hill sprint sessions for the Spring/Summer. There is a perfect hill near our place that is very steep and will literally own you unless you are giving full effort up the entire hill.
(Note: If you’re wondering what the 3 primary constituents of hill sprints are that make them so awesome – and why you’d be a fool not to do them – then read THIS POST by Chris Romanow.)
Given that it was our first time sprinting (outside) since 2011, we were definitely tempted to run until our legs and hearts couldn’t take it any longer, as there’s something incredibly freeing and “human” about sprinting full speed outside. However, we managed to hold ourselves accountable, ensuring not to overdo it, as steep hill sprints can wreak havoc on the achilles/calves if you go too much+too soon and don’t warm-up properly beforehand.
Anyway, this got me thinking: when the majority of us go out for a conditioning session, there is really no rhyme or reason to what we do. We hear that circuit training is good, so we perform a Spartan, “300-esk” circuit until we shoot our spleen out the back of our pants as we writhe around on the floor. Or, we hear that running 400m repeats will help our marathon time, so we run them until our our glutes bleed and our hamstrings no longer recognize friend from foe.
Now, let me be clear: For the average person who simply enjoys the feeling of their lungs burning and the sensation of pushing the limits of their mental+physical faculties, this is fine. I am all for having fun and sometimes we get too complex with things simply for the sake of complexity.
However, for the competing athlete, haphazardly running through conditioning drills can be the difference between a big W and getting crushed by your opponent.
It is beyond the scope of this post to go into all the different means and methods of conditioning (and which methods are best for each sport), but I’d like to touch briefly on the concept of aerobic hill sprints.
What?? How can you be aerobic if your SPRINTING? Doesn’t “aerobic” imply long, slow running reserved for weaklings?
No, sir.

Aerobic Hill Sprints

With aerobic hill sprints, as long as you monitor your heart rate accordingly, you can accomplish a very “neat” training effect: you can improve the aerobic abilities of the fast twitch fibers. In essence, this will train your body to produce high levels of power over a longer period of time.
And who doesn’t want that??
The aerobic system has gotten a bad rep in the industry over the past ten years or so (I’ll admit, I used to shun it), when the reality is the aerobic system is probably the most important of all of them.
How to Do Them
Strength coach Joel Jamieson refers to this method as High Resistance Intervals. The work duration is short, and the resistance is high. In the case of hill sprints, our “resistance” equals the grade of the hill (hint: you want a REALLY steep one). Here’s the protocol:
  • Each “rep” (or run up the hill) should last 10-12 seconds. No more, no less.
  • Every rep is MAXIMAL intensity. I’m not kidding, drive those knees up and elbows back as if your life depended upon it.For me personally, I pretended I was Wolverine right after adamantium was shot into my skeleton and, filled with rage, was breaking out of my container to exact revenge on those responsible for murdering Kayla.
  • Rest to a heart rate of 130-140 beats per minute. This is critical to ensure you’re actually able to give a true maximal effort on each sprint and not deplete yourself too quickly. Most importantly, this will ensure the intended adaptations of the session are actually taking place.
  • Heart rate should be below anaerobic threshold. Again, this is critical. This is not the time for a vomit fest and it’s key that you don’t go glycolytic on these. (Yes, I have read the Tabata study, and yes, it is one of the most misunderstood and ill-applied studies in performance training history I believe).
  • If you haven’t sprinted in a while, start with 7-10 reps. Once you get in the swing of things, 15-20 reps should comprise an average “high resistance interval” workout.
Football and rugby athletes are an obvious group I would have do this (heck, pretty much all field athletes), on top of those in the fighting arts and military. Not to mention, aerobic hill sprints would be a staple to place in the preliminary phases of training for a triathlon or long-distance race.
And last, but not least, these are a fantastic option for those that simply love training and want to ensure they’re being the most efficient with their time when they go out for conditioning. The hills are a perfect place to start, too, due to the minimal joint stress received, on top of the fact that poor running form (something I’m still working on) won’t have as much as a negative impact as it would on a 5-mile run.
One of my favorite quotes by Jim Wendler is “My training plan is simple. It’s three things per training session, usually done 3-4 times/week.
  • Stretch
  • Lift
  • Sprint
That’s it, and that’s all you need. If you stretch hard, lift heavy, and run fast, everything else seems to take care of itself.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Now go get after it.


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