The last 4 months of 2017, I was a real meathead. I was lifting big weights and eating even bigger. Shoot, I even set a personal record for me on the squat at 405…that’s pretty good for someone who wears a 36” inseam.
But I started to notice something…I could lift a house but chasing my kids became laborious. My recovery between sets sucked…I could do a submaximal set on a lift and still be trying to catch my breath going into my next set.
Basically my conditioning had become crap. I was as strong as I have ever been, but my work capacity was minimal at best.
I finally decided enough is enough…and began to work on building my aerobic base and maybe you should to.
What is an Aerobic Base?
When you workout there are two basic energy systems that your body uses to create energy for the work you are doing, anaerobic and aerobic. To build your base of conditioning you will need to focus on the aerobic system
Physiologically, aerobic training can increase your hearts stroke volume, capillary density, and mitochondrial density. Increasing your hearts stroke volume means more blood is pumped out of the heart and through the body with each stroke. Capillary density allows for greater ease in transporting blood to the working muscles and mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells as they produce energy from the carbs and fats that you eat.
All in all, training aerobically makes you a much more efficient and allows you to resist fatigue much longer.
Benefits of Building an Aerobic Base
I know what you’re thinking…I thought you hated cardio?? And you would be right. I despise cardio, but sometimes the thing you hate the most is the thing you should be doing the most.
The aerobic base is the foundation for which our health and repeated performance is built on.
“But all I want to do is get strong and powerful”
Well cool, a big aerobic base can help you get there.
Here are a few of the benefits of building an aerobic base:
Better Intraworkout Recovery
For those of us who enjoy lifting heavy weights, having a strong aerobic base is essential for recovery between sets. The “low-intensity” aerobic system helps the body recover the “high-intensity” anaerobic systems.
Without a good aerobic base, you would struggle to recover between sets of strength training work. You would still be huffing and puffing when your next set comes up and in turn have a decrease in performance. Or if you aren’t a fan of breathing heavy you may have to rest longer, making your workouts longer and decreasing your training density.
A strong aerobic system can help you get more work done within a shorter period of time, which is always a good thing for building muscle and getting stronger.
Better Recovery Between Workouts
Typically we walk around in our everyday lives using our aerobic system to provide injury for life. A strong aerobic base can also aid in greater recovery between workouts.
It helps in the transport of the nutrients and oxygen it needs to replenish and repair the muscles that you just got done working out.
Aerobic work is also a good way to spend your “rest” days. A little “cardio” can go a long way to help “flush the muscles” and ease soreness before your next workout.
The aerobic system primarily uses fat to create the energy needed. By building a strong aerobic base, you better train your body to use fat as an energy source even while resting.
This can be helpful in those who are looking to improve their body composition, or basically just look better.
Decreased Sympathetic Tone
Stress, including your workout, can cause an increase in sympathetic tone. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” system. The one that helps you get amped up for a workout or be able to run away from a bear.
The sympathetic nervous system is great when you are training hard because it allows you to remain focused and push yourself. But in your everyday lives…increased sympathetic tone can lead to increased anxiety and decreased physical recovery between workouts.
A stronger aerobic base will allow you to return back to a parasympathetic state much easier, or “rest and digest”. This will allow your body to focus on recovery of the micro trauma that training can cause.
How To Build An Aerobic Base
Now typically when you think about “aerobic training” you think of pounding the pavement for several miles or trudging your life away on the elliptical. And sure that may help build some aerobic capacity…but I’d much rather be water boarded than to spend an hour doing “cardio”.
But there is a much more entertaining way to build an aerobic base. Without getting to deep into an energy systems talk, the aerobic systems actually helps regenerate the energy needed to fuel higher intensity activities.
Here are a options that I would consider better than your typical “steady-state cardio” if you aren’t some kind of endurance runner.
Cardiac Output Work
Pick something…anything to do, and it can me several somethings. Now do that for 30-40 minutes. Sounds like jogging right?? Well sure that would work but for most of us, running can be brutal on our joints.
Here is where circuit training can come into play. The primary goal while doing cardiac output work is to keep your heart rate between 120-150 bpm for the prescribed time. Here are a few examples of a cardiac output circuit using a sled that I enjoy.
Sled dragging is one of my favorite movements to use for cardiac output work because it is low-impact and concentric heavy, making it great for recovery too. Plus, it will have your heart rate up in no time!
Check out an example workout I have used before
Backward Sled Drag x 20 seconds brisk pace
Sled Rows x 20 seconds
Forward Sled Drags x 20 seconds brisk pace
Face pulls x 20 seconds
Lateral Sled Drag x 20 seconds (right)
Lateral Sled Drag x 20 second (left)
Rest 10 seconds between exercises
Repeat circuit for 20-40 minutes.
If I am running, this is how I will do it. It is a great method for training your aerobic system. You are working at around 70-80% capacity with rest in between.
I prefer tempo runs for sports athletes compared to long distance running as the running form more closely mimics sprinting mechanics. Here is how I may structure a tempo run workout
Every minute on the minute
10 x 60-80 yard runs at 70-80% intensity.
Rest until the top of the next minute.
If you have an heart rate monitor you can also “time” your rest until your heart rate returns back to around 120 bpm.
HICT (High Intensity Continuous Training)
I first learned about HICT while reading through Joel Jamieson’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning. This is a great tool for increasing the oxidative capacity of the fast twitch muscle fibers.
And as the name states, it is HIGH INTENSITY CONTINUOUS TRAINING. The movements should be intense so that you are recruiting the fast twitch muscle fibers, but the reps should be done every 2 to 3 seconds to avoid fatigue.
If you are beginner start with three 5-10 minute rounds with 5 minutes of rest between. If you are an endurance athlete, or someone who needs a vast aerobic capacity, you can take this all the way up to 20 minute sets.
Here is my preferred method for HICT but can be used with a number of high intensity exercises
For this workout you will need either a weighted vest or some chains to drape over your body. Holding dumbbells in your hand can become fatigue on your grip as the sets become extended.
I typically count in my head 2-3 seconds between reps but you can use a metronome or whatever other method to help you maintain a proper pace.
Here is a video demonstration of HICT Weight Step-ups.
Increasing my aerobic base is the goal right now…and HICT or high-intensity continuous training is one of the tools I am using. First learned about this while reading Joel Jamieson’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning. The goal with this is to increase the aerobic capacity of your fast twitch fibers. HICT is a unique blend of high intensity and high volume. This can be used with any number of exercises like the bike, versaclimber or lunges up a hill. Here I am using box step-ups with chains for added resistance, a weight vest is another good option. Since I am just beginning to build the base I stuck to 3 5 minute rounds with 5 minutes rest between each round. You want the cadence to be about 1 step/side every 3 seconds or so. This brief rest period allows for you to maintain a high intensity over a longer period. I forgot to wear my HR monitor during this but the goal should be to remain below 150-160 bpm. Next week I will increase the time a bit to continue to overload the system.