Leveling Up Your Strength Gains: Why Cardio is Your Secret Weapon

Chances are, you’ve come across the idea that cardio can sabotage your muscle gains. I certainly did. Growing up, I idolized the muscular figures of the 80s, and they never once preached the benefits of cardio for building muscle. So, I went on my way, following the classic low-rep, high-weight approach that promises to make you as strong as an ox.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, this approach did yield results. I felt myself getting stronger, pushing heavy weights for doubles or singles every couple of weeks. My form and technique improved, but I never felt rock-solid, especially when lifting at higher percentages. Eventually, this led to a setback—an injury about a year and a half into my training that left me questioning everything.

That’s when I decided to seek professional guidance. I enlisted the help of a coach to fine-tune my strength pursuits and do things right, instead of relying on guesswork.

To my surprise, what I expected to be more of the same—heavy weights and low reps—turned out to be the opposite. I embarked on a 12-week journey of high repetitions with lighter weights, capped off by intense cardiovascular training (HIIT) at the end of each session.

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Fast forward 9 months, and I feel stronger than ever, and I finally understand why. My approach to reps and volume has shifted, thanks to the power of periodization, which we can touch on shortly.

Let me break down why cardiovascular fitness is essential for strength.

Think of your muscles like the engine of a vehicle, whether it’s a car, train, or airplane. You feed it fuel, and it produces mileage and performance by breaking down that fuel into energy, with oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release. Just like a fire gives off smoke when you provide oxygen, your muscles need oxygen to contract and release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Now, with the science bit out of the way, let’s discuss why this matters for your quest to lift heavier.

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The more oxygen you can utilize, the harder your muscles can contract during a lift. And the best way to improve your oxygen utilization? Cardio. That’s where cardiovascular training becomes your ally, helping you efficiently harness the oxygen in the air to power your muscles.

Now, I’m not saying running a 10k race alone will make you strong. Building strength is an art, and it’s not something that happens overnight, especially if you have specific goals. Let me outline how I approach strength training for the deadlift, and here’s where periodization comes into play.

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Periodization involves progressing toward your desired outcome through themed workout plans. In the context of absolute strength goals, my approach involves building foundational conditioning (cardio) and then gradually working towards a one to five-rep max by a specific target date. As I mentioned, building strength takes time, so these “blocks” of programming typically last 8-12 weeks each (you might go through 5-6 of these while working towards your goal) to adapt to the stimulus before moving on to the next phase.

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During these blocks, your cardio training comprises a mix of long, steady-state workouts, short and intense sessions, and compound exercises with minimal rest (1-1.5 minutes). For instance, in my deadlift-focused training phase, my “cardio” was deadlifts and their variations, with reduced rest periods and higher intensity, not swimming laps in a pool. Gradually, this periodization increases the weight and reduces rest periods to help you achieve your goal of lifting the heaviest weight possible by your target date.

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Speaking from personal experience, my capacity, strength, and, most importantly, my form have improved significantly. This transformation is largely attributed to my incorporation of cardio into my training regimen, proving that cardio does not, in fact, hinder your muscle gains. I was once in the “doubtful” camp myself, but it’s definitely worth trying if you’re keen on unlocking your full potential.

If you’re intrigued and want to see how this approach can impact your growth, especially if you’ve been held back by injuries, don’t hesitate to reach out to The Charlotte Athlete! We specialize in working with athletes, addressing the root causes of pain, and helping them achieve their goals.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Ells

PS: Hope you enjoyed the pictures haha

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