10 Best Cardio For Powerlifters (Science-Backed)

10 Best Cardio For Powerlifters

Cardio is a controversial topic among powerlifters because it’s not an activity most are excited to do. 

However, cardio comes with many benefits to your health and performance and it’s worthwhile to explore your options.

Here are the 10 best cardio options for powerlifters:

  1. Brisk Walking
  2. Rowing
  3. Sled Pushes
  4. Swimming
  5. Cycling
  6. Running
  7. Elliptical
  8. Circuit Training
  9. Stair Climber
  10. Air Bike

Choosing how to approach cardio will ultimately be an individual decision based on your training goals, training schedule and ultimately what you also find engaging and fun. The goal should be to get the most amount of benefit without causing undue setbacks to your powerlifting performance. 

In this article I will answer the question of why you should consider doing cardio, when you should do it and also go over the pros and cons of each of the 10 cardio options listed above to help you make a decision that best suits you.

Should Powerlifters Do Cardio?

Every human should aim to elevate their heart rate most days of the week for optimal health, including powerlifters; however, this can come in many forms and doesn’t have to always look like traditional cardio.

Many styles of powerlifting training don’t challenge the heart enough and so adding in supplemental cardio in your week, in addition to lifting, can help improve your recovery, increase your overall fitness level, help you burn more calories in the day and keep your risk of heart-related issues at bay.

A 2012 study looking at delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and how aerobic exercise affects it, found that moderate-intensity activity may be good following resistance training. This is believed to be because cardio helps push blood around which in turn helps your muscles recover more efficiently.

While doing cardio itself doesn’t necessarily cause you to burn more fat, it will increase how many calories you burn in a day which can help you stay within a caloric deficit more reliably and can be a good tool for maintaining or cutting weight for a competition or just for general health. However, this also doesn’t mean that just powerlifting without cardio will cause you to gain weight.

In addition, cardio exercise is overall great for health and longevity as highlighted in this systematic review on the effect of aerobic exercise on cholesterol levels. 

There still remains the question of, does lifting with lots of reps count as cardio or do you have to jump on the treadmill?

A 2017 study looked at this question and the answer they came to is that it does count! 

However, something to consider is that while how you elevate your heart rate doesn’t necessarily matter from a cardiovascular health perspective, the risk and rewards for your overall strength, hypertrophy and injury risk do matter and should be considered.

For example, your risk of injury from doing sets of 10-15 squats is likely higher than pedalling on a bike for a few minutes. However, just knowing that modality doesn’t matter can be an important consideration for if you are in a training block that happens to include more high rep lifting. 

Therefore, if you wear a fitness tracker that tells you that you are elevating your heart rate a lot just by lifting, additional cardio may not be necessarily needed for you. In summary, if your goals include staying healthy and longevity you will definitely want to pay attention to how much cardio activity you are getting.

Looking for a program to help you cut weight? Check out: Powerlifting Cutting Program: 7 Rules To Follow (GUIDE)

When Should Powerlifters Do Cardio?

Choosing when to do cardio will vary slightly based on what your current powerlifting training schedule looks like as well as your main goals.

According to a study conducted in 2017, researchers found that subjects who did cardio on the same day as strength training progressed in a similar fashion as those who were assigned cardio on a rest day from lifting.

However, they did observe a reduction in the amount of hypertrophy between the two groups, suggesting that if you have goals with respect to gaining muscle you will likely want to opt for scheduling in your cardio on a separate day.

This notion of waiting to do cardio after lifting is not new and a 2016 study suggests that 6 hours is the amount of time you should wait after lifting before engaging in cardio. 

Therefore, if you don’t have the ability or willingness to do cardio on an entirely separate day, try at least to separate them by roughly 6 hours and not do it immediately after lifting.

In a 2016 study they looked at the effect of training at different times of day as well as the order of the strength and endurance training and found that if hypertrophy is your goal you can probably get away with doing endurance before or after your strength training and overall there was some evidence to suggest that training in the evening may be better for muscle building.

However, as powerlifter you are likely more concerned with strength than hypertrophy and for that a 2003 study determined that strength ability can be compromised for up to 8 hours after a cardio session and particularly in the muscle groups that were directly involved in the cardio. 

This would suggest that if you are doing a form of cardio that has a high impact on your quads you may not want to squat that same day or within 8 hours unless you are okay with feeling slightly weaker than you would have otherwise.

With the following considerations in mind it would probably be best to separate your cardio and strength as much as you can (6-8 hours) so your body is able to recover before it jumps into a different training modality. 

However, if you have no option but to do them back to back, opt to doing the cardio after the lifting keeping in mind intensity, fatigue and your ability to recover following the session.

Some powerlifters may want to spend an entire block of training focused on conditioning and general physical preparedness and step away from the heavy weights for a while. 

If you’re interested in this approach check out the article GPP Workout For Powerlifters: What Is It? How To, Benefits.

Should You Do HIIT or LISS As A Powerlifter?

HIIT is high intensity interval training, characterized by really intense bouts of exercise followed by low intensity bouts. 

Whereas LISS is low intensity steady state cardio and is characterized by just staying on a machine or doing an exercise for a longer time but at a more moderate pace and intensity (i.e. cycling for 30 minutes).

A 2018 meta-analysis suggested that both HIIT and LISS interventions resulted in less strength gains when compared to a group that only did resistance training. But they did find that those that did HIIT experienced less negative effects on hypertrophy.

A 2016 study found that regardless of intensity, cardio interfered with hypertrophy and strength to a similar degree, the difference being that subjects consistently found high intensity cardio to be more challenging. 

Therefore, from an enjoyment and perceived effort perspective, opting for a moderate intensity may be better for powerlifters.

As a powerlifter concerned about strength, which type of cardio you include may not make much of a difference. However, when in doubt, do what you enjoy more and just try to space out the cardio and resistance training by at least 6 hours, but preferably by 24 to attenuate any effects on strength or hypertrophy.

You may even be surprised that powerlifting could improve your cardio abilities, to learn more check out Does Powerlifting Make You Slower? (5 Things To Consider)

10 Cardio Exercises For Powerlifters

If you’ve decided you’re ready to add some cardio into your weekly routine but need some ideas on what types of cardio are available, check out the following list and the benefits and cons to each approach: 

1. Brisk Walking

Brisk Walking

How to do it:

Assuming you know how to walk, there isn’t all that much to it, except that I would recommend wearing a fitness tracker that monitors your heart rate when you go out on your walk to ensure you are maintaining a pace that is working your heart.

Benefits

  • Zero equipment needed
  • Low barrier to entry
  • Can do it anywhere
  • Great option for anyone nervous to jump into cardio too quickly
  • Low intensity, unlikely 

Cons

  • In order for it to count as cardio need to keep a steady pace
  • Longer time commitment 

How To Program

  • Schedule 30-60min brisk walks in the morning or evening throughout the week where you are keeping your heart rate elevated for at least 20 minutes cumulatively
  • If doing it on a treadmill, add a slight incline to give you an extra challenge

2. Rowing

rowing

How to do it:

The rowing machine is one where you sit on a seat that glides back and forth while pulling on a handle on a chain that connected to the front of the machine. It requires you to push off with your legs followed by rowing the handle back. The machine comes with varied levels of resistance that are adjustable.

Benefits

  • Seated, not as taxing on the lower body
  • More upper body focused
  • Gets your heart rate up relatively quickly
  • Adjustable resistance

Cons

  • May tire your upper body and affect your ability to bench
  • Requires some skill and coordination
  • Not all gyms have rowing machines

How To Program

  • For a HIIT style row you can row 300m as powerfully as you can and then take a 1-2min break and repeat that pattern for 10-15 minutes total. You can also opt for time intervals instead of distance (i.e. row for 40 seconds, rest for 1 min.)
  • For an endurance and lower intensity workout you can keep resistance relatively low and just row a steady state 1500m distance.

3. Sled Pushes

Sled Pushes

How to do it:

Many gyms now carry a sled or sometimes called a prowler which can be loaded up with weight plates and pushed along turf. The aim is to hold on to the sled while pushing the ground away from under you with your legs and moving the sled from one end of the turf to the other.

Benefits

  • Whole body movement, doesn’t disproportionately target one muscle group or joint
  • Shorter intense bouts, less overall time commitment 
  • Good option for those doing cardio

Cons

  • Not everyone has access to a sled, need access to a gym
  • Can be very repetitive, hard to do for longer periods of time
  • Can be hard on the back if not performed with good form

How To Program

  • Load the sled with a weight that you can feel but isn’t too challenging to push and push it 20m in one direction and 20m in the other; take a 1 min break and repeat.
  • You can also combine sled pushes with other exercises like sprints, burpees, jumping jacks, body weight planks or body weight lunges for added variety

4. Swimming

How to do it:

Find either a gym that has a pool or look for a community pool that allows lane swimming and spend some time in the pool doing any comvinatino of front crawl, breast stroke or back crawl for cardio.

Benefits

  • Very, very low impact on joints
  • Whole body workout

Cons

  • Need access to a pool
  • Need to know how to swim
  • May fatigue the upper body
  • Significant time commitment

How To Program

  • 1-2x a week head to the pool instead of the gym and swim 20-40m at a time with any stroke of your choice; take a break and then repeat for a total of 20-30 minutes
  • For a more intense cardio session, time your rests and try to reduce the amount of time with subsequent sessions
  • If you’re looking to improve endurance you can also swim continuously for a longer distance without any breaks for 150m (roughly 8 lengths) before taking a breather and then repeating.

5. Cycling

cycling

How to do it:

Cycling can be a great activity either on a stationary bike in a gym or actually purchasing a bike and getting out on the pavement.

Benefits

  • Seated, not as exhausting as other forms of cardio
  • Easier on the knees and hips
  • Can be a fun activity if done outdoors

Cons

  • Seat can be uncomfortable
  • More fatigue added to your legs
  • May require purchase of bike

How To Program

  • For more lower intensity cardio just maintain a steady speed for 20 minutes straight with a slight increase in resistance every 2 minutes, whatever is tolerable
  • For a HIIT-style cycle session try to work towards 1 minute on (cycling as fast as you can) then 2 minutes off (cycling at a leisurely pace) for a total of about 10-15 minutes

6. Running

How to do it:

Running for distances under 10km can be a great way to get some heart pumping activity into your week, either outdoors or on the treadmill.

Benefits

  • Accessible to most, just need a pair of running shoes
  • Can meet weekly cardio needs very efficiently

Cons

  • Can be very taxing on joints
  • Can often leave you sore
  • Requires more skill than people assume

How To Program

  • For more endurance style running I would recommend going on 3-5km runs around 2x a week, depending on your recovery.
  • For higher intensity interval running time 30 second sprints followed by 1-2 minute rests, repeated for 10-15 minutes.

Interested in running while powerlifting, check out these articles:

Powerlifting And Running: Should You Incorporate Both?
5 Best Shoes for Both Lifting & Running (2021)

7. Elliptical

How to do it:

The elliptical is a machine found on most cardio areas in most gyms where you move handlebars with your arms and pedal with your feet for a full body, lower intensity cardio workout.

Benefits

  • Easy on the joints
  • Works both upper and lower body
  • Good for low to moderate intensity cardio

Cons

  • Not great for high intensity cardio
  • Can be repetitive and not engaging
  • Longer time commitment since lower intensity

How To Program

  • Set the elliptical to a moderate to high resistance and pedal with both arms and legs for 20-30 minutes or until you have sustained a elevated heart rate for at least 20 minutes

8. Circuit Training

How to do it:

Circuit training is a broad term for choosing a few relatively simple and lightweight exercises and doing them back to back for a set amount of reps or for a set amount of time.

Benefits

  • More fun and engaging than just hopping on a single machine
  • Use a variety of muscles so don’t just fatigue the lower or upper body
  • Versatile and can do them anywhere

Cons

  • Can be too much extra weekly resistance for the muscles
  • Potentially higher risk of injury

How To Program

  • Choose 3 exercises, for example: kettlebell swings, skater squats, plank and complete each for 1 min and once you’ve done each 1x take a 1 minute break and do the circuit again
  • For versatility you can set up 2 different circuits and do 3 rounds of each circuit for a 20-30min cardio workout

9. Stair Climber

How to do it:

The stair climber is a common machine found in most gyms that mimic climbing up a set of stairs, all you do is hold on the the railings and climb as if you’re going upstairs.

Benefits

  • Low to moderate intensity
  • Can be found at most gyms

Cons

  • Can be tough on knees
  • Intimidating machine for the inexperienced (may have a fear of falling off)
  • Mostly just fatigues the legs

How To Program

  • Hop on a stair climber at a moderate resistance that doesn’t feel like you’re walking through mud or sprinting up the stairs and keep climbing for 20 minutes straight

10. Air Bike

How to do it:

The air bike looks similar to a regular back but it has handle bars comparable to an elliptical machine and the resistance is created by wind resistance. It is a much more physically taxing machine than a regular bicycle or spin bike.

Benefits

  • Both upper and lower body involved
  • Easier on joints
  • Great for high intensity training

Cons

  • May be too difficult for a novice, someone who is deconditioned
  • Not many gyms have one

How To Program

  • Pedal and push and pull the handles and maintain around 80 rpm for 30-40 seconds straight and then reduce the rpm for 1-2 minutes before going back for a 30-40 second sprint. Repeat for a total of 10-15 minutes

Final Thoughts

Cardio is a valuable form of exercise that is often avoided by powerlifters, but it comes with valuable benefits relating to recovery, weight management and long-term health. The key to including it into your program will be choosing something you enjoy doing while also not exacerbating injuries or preventing you from getting stronger or building muscle which is possible with the approaches discussed in the article.


About The Author

Elena Popadic

Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.