A New Approach to Aerobic Training for the Ageless Athlete

Aerobic Training

Age cannot hold you back with your fitness goals.

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Aerobic training is an essential part of health-and-fitness bodybuilding. I've made that point a number of times over the past few years, as have many weight-training and fitness experts. As bodybuilders and health enthusiasts, however, we are always looking for a new approach to aerobics, one that complements our weight training but does not detract from it-and at the same time optimizes health.

There are several well-known approaches to incorporating aerobics into a weight-training program, and they run the gamut in terms of how much emphasis is placed on the aerobics. One popular arrangement makes the aerobic training entirely secondary to bodybuilding, doing it as a kind of afterthought and at a low level of intensity. The aerobic training burns some calories and, while not exactly inspired, does provide some level of fitness.

Classic studies on longevity (e.g., Paffenbarger et al., 1986), where the researchers simply used the average calories expended per week in various daily activities as a predictor of health and fitness, provide a precedent for this type of approach. Scientists have determined that burning about 2,500 calories per week in this way appears to be very health-protective; so there is plenty of justification for the aerobics-as-secondary-emphasis plan.

Another approach ups the aerobic contribution somewhat. The bodybuilder does some type of aerobic training every day, the program is a little more systematic, and the effort is usually moderate. For example, the athlete may jog two or three miles a day. The approach I had been using- and which I described in several previous columns-is also a daily regimen but requires more planning and equipment and involves using different aerobic activities in some organized and systematic plan to complement the bodybuilding program. Different sessions during a week are done at different intensities, and the goal is to keep interest high while developing and maintaining a reasonably good level of fitness.

A fourth approach incorporates high-intensity aerobic training in order to improve consistently and develop a high degree of cardiovascular fitness. Clarence Bass has been doing this recently and as a result has become an outstanding aerobic athlete. High-intensity aerobics also makes sense from the health perspective, as the most recent research (e.g., Blair et al, 1989) shows that long-term health effects are related to level of fitness, not just, for example, caloric expenditure.

A Fifth Approach

Like many readers I'm constantly tinkering with my routines, trying to come up with something better. I love the process of thinking, planning and experimenting with new approaches. It keeps my interest alive.

As it turned out, I was not happy with the daily, systematic aerobics regimen I was following. I was beginning to feel restricted and bored by it, and I discovered that it was making me tired and was cutting into my bodybuilding progress.

I knew that I was capable, with some focused training, of some very good aerobic performances, but I had to remind myself that that was not my major goal. I also knew that when I tried to do some very hard, interval aerobic sessions, the results were not good and my progress was hampered. To begin with, I found myself wanting to avoid those extremely hard sessions. Quite simply, they are painful. Secondly, they are exhausting, almost like doing another hard bodybuilding session, and they were wreaking havoc with my recovery.

Yet when I examined Clarence's recent aerobic training and the tremendous success it has brought him in this new arena, one fact was very compelling: He had reached a super level of fitness through hard, focused training sessions that were also brief and infrequent. This is exactly the prescription for success in weight training-but applied to aerobics. Ironically, it is also the precise approach I was trying to convince runners to use in the early 1980s, when the typical runner's regimen consisted of seven to 10 training sessions a week that were mostly done as "junk miles."

I have always felt that the training principles that guide us in bodybuilding could be used to great advantage with aerobics. Clarence is the case that proves the point.

I went back to the drawing board and worked out a plan that combines Clarence's approach with my own goals. I think that what I came up with will appeal to readers.

While I did not want to do aerobic sessions that were extremely hard, for the reasons stated above, I really enjoy "moderately hard" sessions. In fact, I like them better than "easy" or "moderate" sessions because they are more challenging and physically exhilarating. On the other hand, I wanted to construct a plan that reduced the interference with my body-building training while still increasing my cardiovascular fitness. I also wanted to continue my aerobic training within the overall periodization system that I have described in previous columns. Then I remembered a terrific approach I had used in my running days.

This was a cross between a highly systematic, hard, interval session and what is called a "fartleke," or speed play. It involved moderate-to-hard, steady-state training that is less planned and is interspersed with bursts of speed of varying intensity and duration. Since I'm far too obsessive to use any session that is not systematic and planned, I just combined the two ideas.

In this approach I work up to a good steady state, which for me is a heart rate of about 150, and I more or less maintain that pace throughout the workout-except that I do a series of planned repetitions. I perform these at about 90 to 95 percent of my best effort, which allows me to return to the good steady state and continue.

The results have exceeded my expectations. The sessions are hard but not painful. I can do more work in these sessions than I can in a very hard, interval session or just a steady-state session even though I have kept these sessions at the same length as I was doing before-that is, five-minute warmup, 30-minute workout, five-minute cool down. I'm happy to report that my short- and long-term recovery are excellent, and I can see tangible improvements. For example, with better sessions and recovery my work output (calories expended, distance) exceeds anything I did before. With better conditioning my resting heart rate has dropped from about 60 beats per minute to the low 50s.

Specifics of the Approach

Figure 1 shows two workouts on the Concept-II rower. I use that piece of equipment to illustrate the difference between my old and new approaches because the rower has always been a challenge for me. You can try this approach with any aerobic exercise, including, of course, walking.

In the figure "pace" refers to the time it takes to row 500 meters. The rower's monitor constantly indicates the pace and distance covered, plus other calculations. Most interestingly, the longest total distance I ever covered in the old workout was about 7,850 meters, expending about 450 calories. In the new workout I have done almost 8,700 meters in the same time, expending about 520 calories. And it felt easier!

Figure 2 shows my new weekly workout schedule, including both bodybuilding and aerobic sessions. Notice that while I have reduced aerobic training from daily to three times per week I have improved in both performance and in resting heart rate, which is a cardiovascular indicator of fitness. Notice also that by eliminating aerobics on the first day, I have reduced the interference from aerobics that was affecting my weight training.


I believe that the changes I have made in my aerobic training and overall schedule provide some valuable lessons. When you want to change your approach and routine, try to do it according to established principles of training; for example, hard but infrequent sessions almost always work best. And, more generally, you can keep your interest and progress alive by playful but careful experimentation

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