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Improving The Aerobic Base for Strength Athletes During Covid-19

By: Brett Scott, PT, DPT, USAW-1

With the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic now fully descended upon us, many people have resorted to at-home workouts as a way to get their exercise in. Now, normally, any at home program or workout carries certain stigmas with it (boring, not effective, waste of time etc.). However, there is no need for it to be any of those things, as long as you are willing to adapt to the situation. An at home program can be extremely effective if it is thought out, and executed with the same intentions that a normal program would be.

First, let’s talk about expectations. For the general population, a home program can be just as effective as a program in the gym, simple as that. If the effort, and willingness to adapt is there, then the results will be there as well. Some goals may be more challenging to reach, but just because there is a fence doesn’t mean you can’t climb over it. However, if you are a strength athlete (powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, strongman, etc.) with no gym to go to, no heavy weights to lift, you will most likely not be able to train as specifically as you like. That is the reality of the situation. However, there is zero reason to stop working out, or to start half-assing every workout because they are at home.  There are various aspects to your fitness we can train that will help you out in the long run. You may lose some strength and power during this time, but staying active will only help you in the long run. Sometimes, a break from the norm can do wonders for the body too. A break from normal routines can sometimes lead to boosts in other areas of our performance upon return to the normal training regimen.  Some of these areas can help catapult results in our strengths!

Now, let’s talk about programming and trying to capitalize on still accomplishing our long term goals.  There is one thing many strength athletes are missing from their training routine and it’s an adequate aerobic base.  Having a good aerobic base might not seem like it would lead to a better one rep max but that is not quite the case.  And if you have limited equipment resources then taking this time to work on your aerobic base is a great place to start.  For many strength athletes, we typically are only training our anaerobic system which does not require the utilization of oxygen.  That’s all fine and dandy to lift heavy, but your joints and tendons might start yelling at you if you take it too far.  Aerobic training is going to help improve our intra and inter-workout recovery times, improve joint and tendon health, and help to improve our total work capacity.  Improving our work capacity means that when it’s time to hit the gym again, we will have more gas in the tank to take on more reps and sets.  Being able to get adequate volume is crucial for many lifters, and we should always try to keep that window of oppurtunity open. 

So how does one improve the aerobic base during the coronavirus pandemic?  It is actually pretty simple.  Regardless of training modality or resources available, you’re going to abide by the “walk and talk test”.  For those of you with more advanced heart rate tracking devices like a polar or apple watch, what we are aiming for here is your heart rate to be between around 120bpm for about 30 minutes of time, 2-3 times per week.  Now being at this level means you should be working to a degree that you can still talk and have a conversation while walking and exercising yet you shouldn’t be able to sing.  If you can sing then you aren’t going hard enough, and if you can’t even talk, you need to bring the intensity down a bit.  And don’t mistake this for HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.   The whole goal of training the aerobic base is to be in a steady state and your effort should be relatively steady the whole time with minimal rest.  These workouts may not feel relatively hard either, but can have a ton of benefits to our bodies and health.

An example of my kettlebell aerobic base training from the other day is as follows.  

30 min duration- Target HR 120-130 BPM  with a circuit that went as follows.  All of the following was done with either one or two forty-five pound kettlebells or just bodyweight for reference. 

15 KB swings w/ 45#

10 KB pushups

10 KB single leg deadlifts w/ 45#

5  1 arm clean and presses each side

10 Bulgarian Split Squats each leg 45#

10 KB pull throughs 45#

Keep in mind I was not trying to go super fast or hard at any of these movements.  It was more of a brisk paced activity and I sprinkled in brief rest periods when my HR spiked past 135.  

Everyone is going through a similar situation right now. Reach out to friends and find out what they are doing. Keep it refreshing!  Challenge yourself to stay engaged!

The overarching message here is simple: if you want to stay in shape over this “break”, you can, no problem. You just have to be willing to mold to circumstances and be creative! Keep an open mind and adapt, as human beings are meant to do!