When we were competing in Olympic lifting as members of the York Barbell team, Tommy Suggs and I devised a program to enhance our cardiorespiratory fitness by using weights. We were already playing racquetball, volleyball and soccer with the York College teams at least once a week. We were pleased with the results we were getting from those sports, which kept us in motion for an hour plus, but we were still wanting a routine that we could do in the weight room to improve our stamina.
Although it may not seem all that important to increase cardio fitness for competitive weightlifting, we found that the better shape we were in, the better we could perform at the very end of contests, which was when the winners were able to do more than their opponents. There were some very long contests on the East Coast during that time. At one Philly Open, there were 18 lifters in the 198-pound class. I began my warmups at 4 p.m. for the presses and did my final clean and jerk at 2 a.m. the following day. Stamina was essential in order to finish strongly.
Another reason we wanted a program that used weights was that all the so-called authorities in the field of conditioning, including the guru of aerobics, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, had insisted that it was not possible. Cooper wrote in his best-selling book Aerobics, “There is no way I know of to lift a strict muscle-producing exercise into an oxygen-demanding activity so that it produces a training effect.” Other authorities had agreed with him, but we found that the tests they used were always done with rather easy exercises and only light or moderate weights. A good many were done with machines, like the leg extension.
We decided to use the one exercise that is the most demanding on the cardiovascular-respiratory system and that builds the most strength in the body—the full squat. We did our experiment in the summer, during the off-season for Olympic-lifting. As I mentioned, we had already established a solid cardio base. We were able to play a vigorous game of racquetball for more than an hour and were handling heavy weights on squats in the York Gym. Both Tommy and I were capable of a 500-pound single and could do 405 for five without any difficulty. That was helpful, as it enabled us to use the same weights for our sets in the experiment, which we called “timed squats.”
We would do five sets of 10. Nothing new about that, but the twist we added was the time factor. We would time how long it took us to complete our sets each time we did them, and then compress the time at the next session. To add another element of pain, we would also increase the amount of weight used on the final two sets.
At our first workout we did 135, 175, 205, 255 and 275. After 205 we didn’t change weights, we just added more to the bar. That saved a bit of precious time. It took us each 10 minutes to complete all of our sets. We were completely exhausted, huffing and puffing like asthmatic rhinos. We flopped on the floor and put our feet up on a bench to help drain the blood out of them. It took 15 seconds before we could get a count on our pulse. When we did, we both got readings higher than 180. It took another 10 minutes before we were breathing normally again.
So we proved that we could attack our cardiovascular and respiratory systems with this routine, but we also wanted to find out if we could get stronger at the same time.
The time started after the lifter stepped out of the squat rack and got set. Tommy would do his set and quickly replace the bar on the rack, and I would step in and do my set. When I finished, we would change the weights. After 205, we didn’t change the weights any longer; we just added plates. That was faster. Neither of us sat down during the first three sets; then we did, stretching our abused legs as best we could. We did the first three sets in less than five minutes and then had to slow down for the two heavier sets.
Those two work sets were brutal. It was like running up a hill where the incline increases every 20 yards. I once ran a hill like that in Carmel Valley, and while it was tough, it still wasn’t in the class of timed squats. We did this insane routine twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, to give our legs a chance to recover. The rest of our workouts during this stretch of time we did mostly in the power rack.
We stayed with it for a month, for a total of eight workouts. At our final session we squatted 355 for 10 in seven minutes, an eighty-pound increase and a reduction of three minutes.
The shrinking time factor was much more difficult than moving the numbers up. There was no way we could change and add weight any faster than we did at the first session, which meant we had to train faster in order to cut down on the time.
After four weeks we’d had enough. We had proved we could push our heart rates to the max as well as improve our strength. It was just too mentally demanding to continue. We were tapping into our nervous systems to a greater extent than we had before. Total concentration was required on each set because it was essential that we do each rep perfectly. No rebounding or allowing our form to waver even a tiny bit. It was not possible to elevate our pulse rates to above 180 by running, swimming or working out on any cardio machine.
Perhaps the most important thing we learned from the timed squats was that our bodies could take a lot more stress than we thought. On the final two sets I could no longer feel my legs and I was breathing so deeply, I was dizzy and seeing little white spots in front of my eyes. Yet I was always able to complete my sets, and so was Tommy. We were able to push our bodies beyond normal limits, dipping into that huge reservoir of strength that we all have but rarely use except for physical emergencies.
What we learned doing timed squats carried over to our other training and most certainly helped us when we lifted in long, drawn-out contests. And should we have to follow ourselves on platform, no problem. Compared to doing that final set of timed squats, it was a piece of cake.
There is no doubt in my mind that cardiorespiratory fitness can be greatly improved in the weight room. While you may not be masochistic enough to subject yourself to the torture of timed squats, if you use your imagination, you can come up with a way to force your heart and lungs to work beyond their normal limits. Doing a very fast-paced circuit of three exercises that hit the large muscle groups and staying in motion for 20 or 30 minutes is an excellent way to challenge and increase your stamina.
Enhancing cardiorespiratory fitness is certainly beneficial to strength athletes because it helps them train longer and harder, but it may be even more important for older athletes who are eligible to join AARP. Keeping the organs strong and functional enables everyone to take part in a wide range of physical activities and achieve a higher quality of life as we grow older. Building cardio into your fitness program may not be something you enjoy, but it’s well worth the effort.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com.