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Drop The Excuses and Build Your Aerobic Base

Apr 19, 2020

It's time to put the excuses aside and start developing your aerobic system. With less available options (and likely more time), you have the opportunity to build your aerobic base now in order to express higher levels of output later. 

By Matt Ferrara, BS, CSCS

Now, more than ever, is the time to work on developing a base level of aerobic fitness.

With so many lifters without a gym or stuck at home without equipment due to Covid-19, one of the biggest bang for your buck training goals to chase right now is a base level of aerobic fitness.

No, I’m not saying you need to build the aerobic system of a marathon runner. That amount of specialization and training volume spent on the aerobic system will most likely hamper the strength and muscle mass gains that I know you are after.

What I am saying is that taking a month or so to develop an aerobic base right now will have drastic benefits for your training, body composition, and overall health when you get back to throwing heavy weights around.

And with the current conditions, it looks like we have all run out of excuses for not training this often neglected energy system.

What Is An Aerobic Base Anyways?

Think of an aerobic base like the foundation of your training.

There are three major energy systems that power the human body including the phosphagen system, the glycolytic system, and the aerobic system.

As you already most likely know from high school biology, the body runs on the energy source of ATP. Each one of these systems serves to create more ATP for the body to be used. The phosphagen and glycolytic systems replenish ATP anaerobically which is a fancy word for without oxygen, while the aerobic energy system works to produce ATP with the presence of oxygen.

It has long been taught that each energy system serves its purpose at very specific points in activity. For example, the phosphagen system kicks in immediately and lasts for about 10 seconds, before we completely shift into the glycolytic system, and then things are handed over to the aerobic system once we start to hit the 60s mark.

However, we are starting to learn that this is a reductionist approach and there is much more carryover between energy systems than we thought. Especially the aerobic system, which is involved in almost every activity we perform to some degree as well as throughout the entire day.

Unfortunately for strength athletes and those training to get stronger and build more muscle, the aerobic system is the one that is most often neglected. This is a damn shame, as a little targeted attention to training this system can go a long way in terms of longevity and performance.

In fact, in terms of development the aerobic system is the one we can make the greatest changes to in the shortest amount of time. Which is great, as I like yourself absolutely dread opening my training program and seeing aerobic work on the menu for the day.

Base Building 101

When I work with my clients, the aerobic phase typically lasts anywhere from 4-8 weeks, depending on the person. The goals of this phase for me as a coach are to improve their aerobic system so that we can get more work done, and start to engrain good motor coordination and movement patterns. That’s the beauty of the aerobic phase is that it is relatively easy on the body and is a great opportunity to work on things such as movement quality and tendon and joint resiliency before heavier training comes.

During this phase I am most interested in seeing their resting heart rate decline and their work output start to increase. These are the tell tale signs that their aerobic system is starting to function more efficiently. We pick one performance test for output for the duration of this phase and use it to judge our progress over time. 

The beautiful thing about building the aerobic system is that it sets the body up to perform at a higher level in the following phases of training. Increasing your aerobic capacity literally increases the total amount of stress that you can handle and recover from. In the performance world stress management is paramount.

The athlete who can handle more stress can train more and still recover, thus having an edge on their opponents.

Why Is Building An Aerobic Base So Important?

Just about all of my clients start my programming by developing an aerobic base, regardless of their goals.

Sure, exceptions are made when I’m dealing with someone at a very high level who needs a tremendous amount of specificity. For example, I’m most likely not going to give a powerlifter with an elite total lots of aerobic work.

However, I don’t work with elite level powerlifters and the majority of people I do work with need to improve this quality of fitness. Even if their goals revolve around getting strong and building muscle.

So why do we all need to develop this energy system?

For me it comes down to three things. Efficiency, longevity, and durability.

A strongly developed aerobic system provides more oxygen to the working muscle, improves fat metabolism, and makes hard training or competition less of a stress to the body’s homeostatic environment.

The body is also much more efficient and able to perform at higher intensities with a lower heart rate when the aerobic system is adequately developed. This results in the ability to do more high intensity work while expending less energy.

For a strength athlete, this may translate to the ability to handle a slightly higher weekly or monthly tonnage in lifts above 90%. These small increases in total volume can accumulate to large strength gains over time.

Also, all energy systems rely on the aerobic energy system. A well developed aerobic system replenishes creatine phosphate stores more quickly, which means shorter time between maximal effort attempts.

That’s right weightlifters and powerlifters, faster recovery between heavy singles means the ability to tolerate more heavy singles. If that doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure what else will.

For those chasing hypertrophy, this also means the glycolytic system functions more efficiently, allowing you to perform more hypertrophy specific training with the same level of recovery.

The aerobic system also increases the total amount of stress the athlete can handle. Think of this on a daily level. This may mean a few more reps or a couple extra sets. Now think of this on a weekly level. This athlete will be able to accumulate more weekly volume than others, and may be able to do an extra session if that is beneficial. Now think of it on a monthly level, or even a yearly level. This is where the athlete will start to reap the rewards of his/her efforts and the benefits become exceedingly noticeable.

All other things being equal, the athlete with the better developed aerobic system performs more quality reps in the same period of time than that of an athlete with a sub par aerobic system.

How Do I Assess My Own Aerobic System?

So I might have convinced you that the aerobic system is important, but how do you determine the level to which your own aerobic system is performing?

All we need to do is take a look at your resting heart rate and do a simple performance test.

Why? These are two physiological parameters that directly correlate with increased work capacity and aerobic ability. If we can make changes in these to qualities, we know we are on the right track.

Taking your resting heart rate is simple, and can be done either manually or with the use of a heart rate monitor. It should be done immediately after waking for the most accurate reading.

The performance test I like to use is a five minute assault bike ride for max calories. This is very similar in concept to the more popular 12 minute run test, but less technique dependent and beats up the joints way less than running does.

I will have a client perform this test not only in the beginning and end of their aerobic phases but periodically throughout. This gives us a pretty reliable indicator of how we are progressing and allows us to make any necessary changes as we go.

What Is Happening To My Body?!

There are certain very specific physiological adaptations we are looking to get during the aerobic training block.

However, in order to obtain these adaptations we need to keep in mind a few rules.

  1. Rule number one is that we need your heart rate to stay in an aerobic zone and below the lactate threshold. For most people this requires working at a heart rate of 120-150 for 30 to 60 minutes. For more advanced athletes this heart rate zone may be able to increase to up to 170 depending on their individual threshold.
  2. The second rule is that we do not drag this phase out too long, as it has a point of diminishing returns after about 3-4 weeks. Build a base, then move on. Revisit this period of training just often enough to not lose the qualities you have built.

Now onto the adaptations.

What we are mostly looking to do is increase mitochondrial density in muscle fibers and enlarge the heart and vascular systems.

These adaptations will improve how much blood can be provided to the working muscles, as well as how efficiently it gets there. It also improves local muscular endurance through increased mitochondrial density and thus allows more work to be done when hypertrophy phases eventually begin.

More quality work means more gains, and having an efficient aerobic system will allow you to accomplish that. 

Changes can be made in as little as 2 weeks of building an aerobic base. That is a damn short adaptation time when it comes to the human body, and something that should not be over looked. This means you don’t need much time to get to a base level of aerobic fitness, making these phases of training not have to be that long or drawn out.

We are going after the minimum effective dose as strength athletes. We don’t need or want an extended phase of building an aerobic base. Build it quick, maintain it, and improve upon it when things start to slip. It’s that simple.

Aerobic Capacity Circuits

I know I just talked a lot about the importance of conditioning, but I also know you probably don’t want to go hop on a treadmill. That’s fine because neither do I.

As an alternative, one of my favorite ways to build an aerobic base is through aerobic capacity circuits. It provides variation beyond mindlessly jogging on the treadmill, simultaneously targets other tissue adaptations, and most importantly can be used to improve movement patterns if done properly.

The rules are pretty open. As stated above you need to keep your heart rate in the 120-160bpm zone for 30-40 minutes. What you choose to do in that time is up to you. However, I recommend choosing movements that are low impact and unilateral if possible. They also shouldn’t be overly complex.

Here is one of my favorite aerobic capacity circuits.

Perform each exercise for 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest. Rest 1 minute between rounds and performance a total of five rounds.

A1) Heel Elevated Goblet Squat

A2) Push Up

A3) Reverse Lunge Left With Contralateral Reach

A4) Reverse Lunge Right With Contralateral Reach

A5) Med Ball Slam

Adjust the relative effort as needed to keep your heart rate in the desired realm.

Just Do It

Increasing your aerobic capacity allows you to train harder, longer. If you’re a strength athlete this means more quality volume that can be recovered from, thus more strength gain. If you’re a bodybuilder or have aesthetic goals this means more volume and thus more hypertrophy. If you’re an athlete this means more quality training sessions and practice sessions during the week and thus increased performance.

And finally, if you’re just an average Joe looking to look better naked and be stronger, building an aerobic base is one of the most bang for your buck investments in training time that you can make in terms of your health and fitness.

So should you do aerobic work?

I’ll let you decide.


About the Author

Matt is a strength coach who trains out of a private facility in Concord, New Hampshire. After spending time honing his coaching skills in the Boston area, he moved out of the city to an area where he could provide expert level coaching while enjoying the great outdoors. He currently provides both in person and remote coaching services for those looking to train hard without sacrificing their bodies or lifestyle. You can find him on Instagram @chasingstr3ngth


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