Conditioning and Weightlifting: Some Thoughts on the Confusion for Strength Athletes

There’s a lot of talk about weightlifting, conditioning, CrossFit…and how they can all fit together if you want to do everything. The goal of this article is to help people make good choices for themselves with the amount of information out there in this department. It can be confusing because some coaches will say, “Absolutely don’t do conditioning as a weightlifter” and then other voices will contradict that because you’ll see some high-level athletes who incorporate a lot of conditioning work into their training while still having a reasonably high level of weightlifting ability, possibly even national-level competitors in the sport. One of the things that needs to be remembered in this conversation is that there’s a big difference between national-level weightlifting and winning a medal at an Olympics or World Championship. These are two completely different categories, and there are several other categories that apply to the rest of the 99% of the strength world’s population. Through my experience, the goal is to help people make good choices for themselves based on what category they fit into. 

     The first thing people need to do is identify what kind of athlete they are.  Are they a multisport athlete like a CrossFitter, where you have to be ready for anything?  Or are you an older masters-type person who got into weightlifting, but is also looking for conditioning to benefit health in addition to weightlifting? Are you a national level contender for weightlifting, looking to get selected for teams and competing internationally? Are you a recreational weightlifter, meaning you’re going to compete at the local level, but you also enjoy outdoor activity and want to do other things?  You like weightlifting and you want to compete, but you’re not looking to make a national team or anything. 

    A lot of athletes come and ask me about what kind of conditioning program they should be doing. So I ask them which category they fit into. Because that will determine what kind of program they should be doing. The other thing I’ll look at as a coach is the size and age of the athlete.

    If you’re training to be a US national team member in weightlifting and you want to go to the Olympics, then your training needs to be very specific to weightlifting. In that case, you should honor that sport and train specifically. I would argue in this case that conditioning is not needed because it’s not specific to that sport. 

   If you are a recreational competitive weightlifter, meaning you compete at the local level and want to do well, but you also enjoy some level of conditioning, whether it be for health or vanity or whatever, then there is some room for some kind of conditioning. But there’s only a very specific type of conditioning that I would recommend in those cases.

     If you’re a competitive multi-sport athlete like a CrossFitter, your sport requires you to be well-trained across the board and obviously some level of conditioning is a part of it, but that’s different from being the best in one specific thing, like being a pure weightlifter or a pure marathoner. Multi-sport programming is different from single sport programming. 

     So let’s take a look at some of the different kinds of conditioning there are. I am choosing these specifically because they are the ones I’m most often asked about. We’ve got swimming, biking, running, hiking, elliptical, cross country skiing, rowing, and high-rep lifting-based conditioning like CrossFit workouts.  I’m aware there are several other kinds of conditioning, but these are the ones people talk about most frequently when they want to incorporate conditioning in their weightlifting training. 

    What are the impacts of each of these types of conditioning? Let’s start with running. Running involves eccentric load, lots of muscle damage, and it’s really hard on your body. Even for a good runner who’s a small athlete, just 15 minutes of running has an impact. If you take an untrained heavier athlete (over 110 lbs) who doesn’t run 100 miles a week, and you do 20 minutes of running or more with any kind of intensity, this is absolutely the most damaging kind of conditioning you could put into your program. Now if you’re a CrossFitter, and you’re required to do running as part of your competition, then running is necessary. But if you’re a weightlifter, running is the worst choice for your source of conditioning. 

     Cycling is non-weight bearing and a lot easier on your body than running, but one of the things required to be an Olympic weightlifter is to have great flexibility in your hips and lower body. You also have to have great strength and power in your quads. As a cyclist, you’re definitely going to fatigue your quads.  Cyclists have big quads, but they aren’t strong quads in a weightlifting sense. They’re big and they’re good for millions of revolutions on a bike, but not for squatting. Cycling will also tighten up your hips, which works against being a good weightlifter. 

     CrossFit-type workouts are a touchy subject because everybody wants to say they do CrossFit and weightlifting. But if you’re a CrossFitter, you’re training to be a multi-sport athlete. You have to be good in all kinds of different athletic skills. If you’re not a CrossFitter and your goal is to be a single-sport weightlifter and you want to do CrossFit workouts for conditioning, you’re basically adding high-rep strength movements into your existing strength program in an effort to increase aerobic capacity. When you’re doing your weightlifting training, you’re already lifting hard, obviously. But now when you’re doing your conditioning workouts, you’re still doing strength movements. They might be rope climbs or bodyweight movements like pistols or air squats, and those aren’t barbell workouts, but they’re still strength exercises.  Now you’re just doing two different strength programs and increasing the risk of overtraining in your strength sport.  And none of this is going to make you a good Olympic weightlifter, which is where we started this example. So unless you’re a CrossFitter, I don’t recommend doing CrossFit workouts for conditioning. 

     Elliptical, water running, and swimming. These are the ones I would mostly recommend for recreational athletes, masters, and people who want to add in some kind of conditioning for health, etc. They’re not weight-bearing, they beat you up the least, your muscles remain loose, and fatigue is minimal for heart rate exertion. Swimming is great in particular because there’s a recovery component if you’re sore. Take rugby players and race horses, for example. Trainers will often put them in the water for recovery work, because they’re heavy and being in the water can loosen them up. So swimming would be my #1 recommendation. 

     It might look a little different if you’re a 130 lb woman vs. a superheavyweight male. These are some of the other things you have to look at.  When people come to me and want to ask about how to put conditioning into their training programs, my first two questions are, “What are your goals?” and “What is your size?”

     Hiking, rowing, cross country skiing, stand-up paddleboard, and many other forms of conditioning can be fun outdoor activities that are low risk and can be added in if they’re done with moderate intensity. With rowing, be a little more careful because it fatigues your quads the same way as cycling. 

     In conclusion, if you’re going for something really big in weightlifting and you’re trying to be the best, your training should be really specific for that sport. It’s a really short window in your life that isn’t going to be there forever, so you should honor that time period and train specifically for that sport. If you want to make an Olympic Team in weightlifting, stick to your sport. Don’t worry about adding conditioning into your training because it’s not consistent with your goals. If you don’t fall in that category and you fall into one of the other categories listed above, hopefully this is some food for thought based on your size, age, and what you’re trying to do conditioning for. Which one is going to be the safest for you while wanting to achieve some weightlifting goals? Always start with identifying what you want and the type of athlete you are.