By John Christy

Are You in Good-Enough Shape to get Big and Strong?

Let’s get right to the bottom line. If you want to be as big and as strong as possible you’ve got to get in shape. I know what many of you continue to think, “Aerobic work will take away from my strength training and I won’t be able to gain weight”, or “if I do aerobics I won’t be able to recover from my weight training”. Wrong, wrong, wrong! And the FACT of the matter is that it will help tremendously with your strength training, it will help you recover from your workouts (as well as the set you just completed), and the bodyweight you lose doing “it” will only be fat weight! You know, while I’m at it why don’t I just give you a list of all the ways that performing aerobic work helps with your quest to get bigger and stronger. And then after I do that, why don’t we find out what kind of shape you’re in.

The List

  1. By performing aerobic work in between workouts you will be aiding in the removal of “waste products” that are “clogging” your muscles which in turn will promote faster and more complete recovery.
  2. Aerobic work will increase the amount of nutrients and oxygen that get to the muscles facilitating recovery. Think about it for a minute. If your resting heart rate is about the norm, 72 beats per minute, and you perform 30 minutes of aerobics at 140 BPM, you will be getting twice the blood flow to the muscles that you normally get. And remember it’s the blood that caries the material that heals your muscles – amino acids and oxygen to name a couple. So, that means you get twice the amount of nutrients verses if you didn’t do aerobic work.
  3. When you complete your aerobic session the additional recovery process continues long after you’re done. Your “metabolic rate” stays above a normal level for some time (the exact time is based on the intensity level of the workout). Even for low-level aerobic work (heart rate 50 to 65% of max) it’ll stay elevated for 30 minutes to one hour, promoting additional recovery.
  4. When you consistently perform aerobic work over the long haul, your body will add more capillaries that bring nutrients to the muscles therefore helping recovery even at rest.
  5. Aerobic work increases the volumetric mass of the left ventricle which in turn increases cardiac output. Every time your heart pumps you get more “blood per pump” and remember more blood equals faster recovery. And when I say faster recovery I not only mean between workouts, I mean when you’re resting between sets. This additional between-set recovery will make the difference whether you’ll make your goal reps or not. If you add up the difference between making that rep or not over a several year period it’ll mean the difference between being “developed” and “very developed”.
  6. Back to blood flow – aerobic work helps ligaments and tendons recover. Ligaments and tendons are “non-porous” relative to muscle tissue. What this means is that they don’t have nearly the amount of capillaries (which bring the blood that carries the nutrients) that muscle tissue has. This reason is why aerobics do a great job in preventing – and healing – injuries.
  7. I think aerobics are great from a mental standpoint. Let me explain. Like most serious trainees I love to train, and since I “only” get to train with the weights two days per week, aerobic training allows me to get in two more training sessions. I know that aerobic training is not as “fun” as hitting the weights, but it quenches my thirst to do something physical, to sweat, and to breathe relatively hard –especially if you mix in some other functional General Physical Preparation (GPP) work like throwing a medicine ball or doing some low level plyometrics (see my article from issue # 63 and 64) And it makes me feel good. I know many of you work at hard labor jobs and you may feel that you do enough physical work between workouts – but with all respect – it doesn’t take the place of aerobic work. My job requires me to lift and load many, many 45 lb. plates, 100 lbs plates, and handle heavy dumbells every day – but it still doesn’t have the same effect on your heart and lungs as aerobic work (in most cases).

The Test
There is a very simple test that you can perform to see what kind of aerobic shape you’re in. It’s called the Harvard Step Test. What you need to perform this test properly is a stopwatch, a box or other elevated surface that is 12 inches high, and a metronome. You can do it by yourself but having a partner will make it more accurate. If you don’t know what a metronome is, it is a device that most musicians use to keep or set the tempo of music. You don’t need to go out and buy one (although I’m sure they’re relatively inexpensive) just rent one or borrow one. Here’s how to perform the test. You will step up and down on the box at a rhythm of 96 beats per minute. Every time the metronome “beeps” your foot is coming in contact with either the box or the ground. A beat of 96 per minute is a moderate tempo so you won’t be stepping too fast or too slow. You continue stepping for exactly three minutes. After which you need to immediately sit down on the box and by placing your finger on either the carotid artery ( at the side of the neck) or the radial artery ( on the wrist) you need to count you heart beat for an entire minute. You must count it for an entire minute because we are trying to determine your recovery heart rate verses just counting it for ten seconds and multiplying by six to get your current heart rate. This is where a partner is helpful. It will be more accurate if your partner does the counting, and you just concentrate on relaxing. Use the recovery heart rate number with the chart below to see where you rank for your age and gender.

Fitness Ranking Men 18 – 35 Men 36 – 55+
Very Poor 164 – 149 158 – 145
Poor 148 – 133 144 – 130
Fair 132 – 117 129 – 115
Good 116 – 102 114 –101
Excellent 101 – 86 100 – 87
Superior 85 – 70 86 – 72


Fitness Ranking Women 18 – 35 Women 36 – 55+
Very Poor 154 –140 152 – 140
Poor 139 – 127
125 – 113 112 – 100 112 –100
Excellent 99 –86 99 – 87
Superior 85 – 72 86 – 74

Evaluating the results
In order to be considered in decent shape you will need to be in the good category. If you are not there then that should be your primary goal. If you really want to maximize your ability to recover from workouts then you’ll need to score in the excellent category. But there is a caveat to this. If you scored in the good category or above it in no way means that you shouldn’t do aerobic training. Yes, it means that your heart and lungs are in good condition (probably via genetics, age or previous athletic conditioning) BUT, in order to derive the recovery benefits that I listed above (and enhance your weight training efforts) you still need to do aerobic work!

The Program
Alright, so I’ve convinced you (or the test convinced you) that you need to get in shape. The first thing that you must realize is that it isn’t going to happen overnight. Just as with weight training, you’ll need to lay a foundation first. If you jump right into full-blown mid level aerobic work (and you’re not conditioned for it) it will hamper your weight training. So, if you’re just starting out, or if you’ve committed to re-starting an aerobic program you will have to start with what is commonly referred to as low-level aerobic training. Now, don’t think that this level of aerobic work won’t bring home any benefits – because it will. You’ll derive many of the benefits that I listed above – just to a lesser degree. You should plan on staying with this type of aerobic training for at least six weeks before making the transition to mid-level aerobic training. I will discuss how to transition later.
Low-level aerobic training

1. You will be working at approximately 50 to 65% of your predicted maximal heart rate. A simple method to determine this is to subtract your age from 227 for the women and 220 for the men. Take this number and multiply by .5 and .65 to get your training heart rate range. So if you’re 30 it’ll go like this: 220 – 30 = 190, 190 x .5 = 95 beats per minute for the 50% rate. If you want to use a more accurate method to determine your training heart rate zones, that takes into account your current conditioning level (via your resting heart rate) you can use the Karvonen formula presented below.2. Perform your low-level work two days per week. Low-level aerobic training should be performed for 45 minutes to one hour – but don’t start at this level if you scored in the very poor to fair range – start with 30 minutes and build up two minutes per workout. If you scored in the good category or better start right at 45 minutes. IF YOU SCORED “GOOD” OR HIGHER – AND YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PERFORMING ANY AEROBIC WORK — YOU STILL MUST START WITH LOW-LEVEL AEROBIC TRAINING – IF YOU START RIGHT INTO MID-LEVEL WORK IT WILL TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR WEIGHT TRAINING.3. Perform the aerobic training the day before or two days following your weight training.4. After six weeks start to “convert” one of the low-level sessions to a mid-level workout by performing the first five minutes in the 70 to 80% range. Then add one to two minutes to that session every week till you build up to a minimum of 20 minutes. (See parameters below). After four to six weeks maintaining this level you may start to convert the other workout in the same manner. If you try to rush this process it could take away from your weight training by hampering recovery.
Mid-level aerobic training
1. You will be working between 70 and 85% of your maximal predicted heart rate – perform the calculations as described above.

2. Perform the mid-level work two times per week for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not exceed 30 minutes! You don’t need more than this to accomplish all the benefits I listed above. If you exceed 30 minutes at this heart rate level it could take away from your weight training efforts by hampering recovery. Now, if you need aerobic training for more than enhancing your weight training efforts (i.e. sport specific conditioning) it’s a different story, you would need to make other modifications to your overall training program and to cover this is beyond the scope of this article.

Other tips
Select a form of aerobic conditioning that you enjoy and does not cause any joint pain. If you want use running as your form of conditioning get some good shoes and break it in slowly to protect your joints. If you closely follow the low-level heart rate recommendations that I gave above (for a running program) you will find yourself starting off doing more walking than running – and that’s okay – in time you will be able to run the entire 30 minutes in your mid-level zone.

I strongly recommend that you purchase a heart rate monitor. I never like to recommend that you spend any money unless I feel that it is more than worth the cost. Heart rate monitors are relatively inexpensive now-a-days (about $65 here) and you shouldn’t even have to replace the battery for several years. Get one that straps to your chest and “transmits” your heart rate to a watch you wear on your wrist. This is so much more effective than having to stop and take your heart rate via the “counting the beats” method.

I urge you to check out issues 62 and 63. I cover other issues (including other functional conditioning exercises and flexibility) that are very important to your overall training program.

The Wrap-up
Strive not to be just big and strong – but strive to be a big and strong athlete. It