Conditioning for Strength Athletes

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One of the questions I receive most frequently on Facebook, is something to the effect of  ‘what kind of conditioning should I do to avoid losing my gainz?”

Well I’m here to address my 2 favorite ways for strength athletes (powerlifters, strongmen, weightlifters, highland games throwers) to ‘condition’ and improve both their performance and physique.

I say ‘condition’ in quotations, because as I’ve said many times before, conditioning is a big word that means lots of things. A well conditioned middle distance runner, well conditioned CrossFitter and well conditioned strength athlete are very different things; and while you may think the runner will also be better conditioned that the strongman, I think this is a matter of perspective.

Conditioning must be specific, it must be dare-I-say, functional. The athlete must be specifically conditioned to perform their function. So while the middle distance runner’s function is running at a moderate speed while turning left for minutes at a time, the strength athlete’s function is to squat, bench and deadlift for 1 rep maxes (powerlifter), snatch and clean & jerk for 1 rep maxes (weightlifter), carry, load, push overhead and pull heavy weights for anywhere from the time a 1rm takes to as much as roughly 90 seconds; and finally to to throw objects of varying weights for maximal distances with complete rests (Highland games); and for all of the above, part of their function is to also train effectively for competition.

So now that we have established what the function and parameters of each athlete’s endeavor is, lets look at this from an energetic standpoint. Powerlifting, weightlifting and Highland games are all purely alactic-anaerobic in competition, with the possible exception of a challenge farmers or stone carry in Highland games. Strongman presents a wider variety of tasks and with it a wider variety of energy systems from alactic-anaerobic events like a max log or deadlift, to highly lactic events like car deadlift and hussafel stone-with that being said, I’m of the opinion that you should spend as little time as possible training the lactic component of the sport as it interferes with maximal strength/power development.

So if most of these sports are just 1 all out effort every few minutes (alactic-anaerobic) why does contioning even matter? Well for a few reasons, 1-Being fat and having to catch your breath after tying your shoes or walking up a flight of stairs is lame. 2-Improved aerobic capacity will enhance your training by increasing your special work capacity, which means you’ll be able to do more high quality training. 3-Improve aerobic capacity will help you recover more effectively between intense training sessions. 4-An athlete with better aerobic capacity will perform better at the end of a day long meet.

Now that we’ve established the bioenergetics parameters of each sport, let’s look at the best ways to condition for them and enhance your performance…


Tempo based activity is a staple in my and all of my athletes training, regardless of sport. Popularized by Charlie Francis, probably the greatest influence on my training philosophies, tempo activity is designed to develop the aerobic capacity of the athlete in an alactic state, while promoting recovery between intensive training sessions. Francis had his athlete’s do their tempo work via running 100-300m because they were sprinters, but they are not limited to that.

Tempo activity is done at 60-75% of max intensity and while the durations will vary based upon the nature of the activity you’re performing and your requisite fitness levels, 15-45 seconds of work is a good guideline. These work intervals are interspersed with low intensity calisthenics like pushups, ring rows/fatman pullups and abs, or can just be rest periods.

My favorite tempo activities for strength athletes are done either on a bike, in a pool or with a light sled. These options will build the athlete’s capacity without compounding stress on their joints.

Bike tempos are done on an exercise bike, usually in the 100-130rpm range, depending on your fitness levels. Pool tempos are high knees in waist deep water at around 90-120 foot contacts per minute pace. Sled tempos are done by pushing or pulling a light (I’m talking 0-50 pounds added) for 20-50yds at 75% speed, ie. A running, not sprinting or jogging pace.

It is critical when performing tempos that you remain in an alactic state and that is done by keeping your intensity in that 60-75% range and allowing adequate recovery between reps. This is best done with a heart rate monitor and keeping your heart rate in your aerobic development zone. Without access to a heart rate monitor, a good rule of thumb is that if the first rep is done at 110rpm and that feels like a 7RPE, then the final rep must be done at 110rpm and a 7RPE, if the RPE raises to 9 that would indicate your heart rate is too high or if the speed dropped to 90rpm you wouldn’t be moving in the right pace. Setting a controlled active rest period, like 50yd walk is a good way to control your effort and rest, but just using the measuring stick of being able to speak in your normal voice (no longer breathing hard) is a fine tool.

Here is an example session of bike tempos…

Set 1

1st Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 10 pushups, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

2nd Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 20-30 abs, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

3rd Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 10 pushups, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

4th Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 20-30 abs, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

5th Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 10 pushups, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

6th Rep-30 seconds of riding of 110rpm followed by 20-30 abs, rest until heart rate returns to bottom of aerobic development zone or you can speak normally.

Rest for 3-5 minutes and begin Set 2.

Two sets of 6 is a good starting point and over a number of weeks build to 2 sets of 10 and maintain there.

Tempo work like this should be done 2-4x per week, I prefer to implement them on off days, or after upper body training sessions.

Tempo work isn’t limited to what I’ve listed above either, you can do them with running, rowing, biking, swimming, running in water, bodyweight or light exercises, versaclimber, etc all that matters is that you stay within the heart rate ranges for the proper durations.

Learn more from Chad in the videos of our Derby City Seminar, available in the Store.
Learn more from Chad in the videos of our Derby City Seminar, available in the Store.

Controlled Rest Period Training

The simplest and possibly most effective, certainly most specific, way to improve a strength athlete’s conditioning is through training with controlled rest periods.

When I began competing in Strongman, I hadn’t done any conditioning, or what is traditionally thought of as conditioning, in several years, yet I didn’t struggle in medley or other endurance based events. This can most definitely be attributed to the style of training I did which often featured heavy lifting with short rest periods.

This training was introduced to me by my boy, Josh Bryant, who had me do AWFUL things like 10 sets of 4 deadlifts with 500 pounds with 1 minute rest between sets, or singles of 500 pound dead squats on 30 seconds rest. While it was awful doing this kind of thing, particularly the first time I was exposed to it, it made a huge difference in my strength, physique and conditioning.

I carried this idea over into the development of the Inverted Juggernaut Method. The first few weeks of the Inverted Juggernaut Method are a true test of an athlete’s mental and intestinal fortitude because of the short rest periods. Give this, the first week of the program a try and see how you feel…

10 sets of 5 squats or deadlifts at 60% of 1rm, with 45-60 seconds rest b/t sets.

Make sure you are moving the bar as explosively as possible in every rep.

Now there are many different ways to approach controlled rest period training so I’ll just go through and list some of my favorites for each sport…


-Controlled rest periods on backdown sets. This could be range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes for sets of 2-5 reps at 60-80% of your 1rm. There are too many options to list here but you get the idea, get the stop watch out and monitor your rest.

-Density training. Set a time cap like 5 or 10 min and see how much work you can get done in that time. Put 70% on the bar and see how many triples you can do in 5 minutes, and the next week either try and beat that number of reps with the same weight, or match it with heavier weight.


-Controlled rest periods on event training. My online clients probably hate me for this but they’ll love me on competition day. I love using this on Yoke and Farmers training. After working up to a heavy set for 50’, I will back down to 60% of my top set and go as far as I can in 10 seconds, then add 30-50 pounds and go again, on 1 min rest. I’ll continue adding weight and doing these type of sets until I fail to go 50’ in the prescribed time.

Controlled rest periods can also be done with things like Every Minute on the Minute training (or every , :30, :90 or 2 min).  My favorite way to do this is either with Stone over Bar or Axle/Log Clean and Press, but you can do it with basically any event. Do this by doing 1-3 reps on the set interval, obviously the reps and rest will depend on the intensity. Try a 10 min EMOM of Medium/Heavy Stone Over a High Bar for doubles.


-Every Minute on the Minute Training, of Every Whatever Interval You Want, is a great option to improve special work capacity. My favorite progression here is the following…

Week 1-Snatch 6×3 at 70% EMOM, Clean and Jerk 5×3+1 at 70% Every :90

Week 2-Snatch 7×2 at 80% EMOM, Clean and Jerk 6×2+1 at 80% Every :90

Week 3-Snatch 12×1 at 90% EMOM, Clean and Jerk 10×1 at 90% Every :90

-Density training is also a good option for weightlifters, but I would keep it to more of an off season period. Density training is just trying to do more work within a set period of time, like how many doubles you can do with 80% of your max in 10 minutes. This will also make you good at CrossFat (CrossFat is a registered trademark of CWS and is the Heavyweight division of CrossFit, just kidding, don’t sue me CrossFit)

Highland Games/Throwing

-All of the options listed above can be applied for throwers in their weightroom training to improve conditioning.

-Density training with medball throws is a great way to enhace special work capacity. To do this perform a medball throw (overhead backwards, scoop, rotational, shot, etc) and then jog/walk to the ball and throw again, count the total number of throws you can do in 10 minutes and try to exceed that the next week.

Well there you have it, my thoughts on conditioning for strength athletes. Nothing complicated or revolutionary, just well planned, hard work that will make you stronger and fitter. Good luck.

Related Articles: 5 Questions with Alex Viada 

Chad Wesley Smith is the founder and head physical preparation coach at Juggernaut Training Systems. Chad has a diverse athletic background, winning two national championships in the shot put, setting the American Record in the squat (905 in the 308 class, raw w/ wraps) and most recently winning the 2012 North American Strongman championship, where he earned his pro card. In addition to his athletic exploits, Chad has helped over 50 athletes earn Division 1 athletic scholarships since 2009 and worked with many NFL Players and Olympians. Chad is the author of The Juggernaut Method and The Juggernaut Method 2.0.
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