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Okay, Here's the Thing About Cardio... Weightlifting & Conditioning
Matt Foreman

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I’ve been thinking I should start doing some cardio.

My doctor told me I should. I think he said it would help me avoid death or something like that. But the whole idea doesn’t make any sense to me, because doing cardio makes me wish I was dead anyway. So what’s the point?

I probably wouldn’t need to do much of it. Absolutely anything would be an improvement over what I’m doing now. I could jog to the end of my yard and back, and that would be a dramatic increase over my current cardio routine. Jeez…that seems like a lot of work, now that I think about it.

There are a few reasons why I don’t do cardio, and they aren’t pain or laziness. I’m fine with pain and I’m sure as hell not lazy.

Cardio isn’t good for weightlifters, you see. Now, before you get your little twizzer tweaked, make sure you understand who I’m talking about when I say “weightlifters.” I’m referring to people who are full-time competitive Olympic lifters. I’m not talking about CrossFitters or strength generalists. These people generally do a lot of cardio, and that’s fine. It fits in with what they’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re an Olympic lifter, however, cardio shouldn’t be part of your training unless you’re in some kind of down-time phase when your squats and competition lifts aren’t going to be too challenging. Or if you’re trying to drop a weight class (which is rarely a good idea for a competitive lifter anyway), cardio might be a necessary addition. Aside from rare situations like this, cardio and OLifting don’t mix well.

I’m not just throwing out some random opinion, either. I’ve been an Olympic lifter for over twenty years and I’ve trained with several athletes who were world-level competitors, in addition to being a top national contender myself. I’ve never known a successful weightlifter who included cardio as any significant part of their program.

Cardio adds some fatigue to your body, usually your lower body specifically. Your squat workouts aren’t going to forgive this. Every step you run and every pound you shed when you’re doing cardio…you’re going to pay for it when you put your hands on that barbell.

Again, I’m not talking about people who are incorporating Olympic lifting into their CrossFit workouts or whatever. That’s a different situation entirely.

Some of you might be reading this and saying, “This is a bunch of crap. I go to weightlifting meets and see athletes who are hitting big weights, and I know they do cardio.” Yeah, okay. But you need to remember that you’re probably talking about local meets with local competitors. I’m not belittling anybody or disrespecting people who compete at the local level, mind you. I’m saying that when you move up to national-level meets (especially if you want to make a run at getting some medals at those meets), you have to do things differently.

Lifters who do cardio usually have a pretty close gap between their snatch and clean and jerk. I’m talking about guys who snatch 93 kilos and clean and jerk 115, something like that. Or 105/125 maybe. Since I’ve been going to local meets and seeing a lot of CrossFit guys competing over the last few years, I’ve noticed this quite a bit. A properly developed male athlete who trains specifically for Olympic weightlifting should have a minimum gap of thirty kilos between the snatch and clean and jerk. If you can snatch 110 kilos, you should be able to clean and jerk 140. If you can snatch 130, you should be able to clean and jerk 160. And thirty kilos is the minimum. It’s usually higher than that for elite lifters. You can look at national/world competition results and you’ll see what I mean. For women, it’s closer to twenty kilos. A woman who can snatch 60 should be able to clean and jerk around 80, etc.

You’ll see an occasional high-level lifter with a closer gap than this because some people are just much more talented in the snatch than the clean and jerk, and the lightest class lifters sometimes have smaller separations. But aside from these particular examples, the standard minimum gaps are around what I mentioned for full-time competitors.

If the gap between an athlete’s competition lifts is much closer than what I stated, it likely means they don’t have the strength level necessary for big clean and jerks. Snatches are a blend of speed, strength, and athleticism, so lifters who have these qualities can often snatch well. The clean and jerk requires these same traits, but it’s much more connected to plain old horsepower than the snatch is. You’ve gotta be a strong son of a buck to hit big clean and jerks. Lifters who devote a lot of attention to cardio just aren’t going to end up with the necessary lower body strength for this. Their lower body energy is going into running or biking instead of squatting.

Newbies and intermediate lifters don’t totally fit in with this analysis for two reasons: A) they’re going to make progress regardless of anything because they’re so new and B) they probably haven’t mastered the snatch yet anyway, so their snatch numbers will be down.

Am I dissing people who do cardio, saying that they’re not hard-working lifters with respectable lifts? No.

Am I saying it’s impossible to make progress in the OLifts while including cardio in your training? No.

Are there elite weightlifters anywhere in this world who include cardio as a significant part of their training? I don’t know, maybe. I’ve never heard of any.

At the end of the day, am I saying cardio is evil? No, not at all. I just think it’s something you have to avoid if you want to be an elite weightlifter. As I said, it all depends on the demands of your goals.

I figured this would be a timely post since Thanksgiving is coming up and we’re all going to eat until we hyperventilate. I guess that’ll be my cardio for the week…lying on my couch with a distended abdomen and sweat beads on my forehead, sucking in deep breaths like a carp on a sidewalk. Now that’s a workout I’m looking forward to.

Matt Foreman is the football and track & field coach at Mountain View High School in Phoenix, AZ. A competitive weightliter for twenty years, Foreman is a four-time National Championship bronze medalist, two-time American Open silver medalist, three-time American Open bronze medalist, two-time National Collegiate Champion, 2004 US Olympic Trials competitor, 2000 World University Championship Team USA competitor, and Arizona and Washington state record-holder. He was also First Team All-Region high school football player, lettered in high school wrestling and track, a high school national powerlifting champion, and a Scottish Highland Games competitor. Foreman has coached multiple regional, state, and national champions in track & field, powerlifting, and weightlifting, and was an assistant coach on 5A Arizona state runner-up football and track teams. He is the author of the books Olympic Weightlifting for Masters: Training at 30, 40, 50 & Beyond and Bones of Iron: Collected Articles on the Life of the Strength Athlete.

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Andrew 2012-11-20
Right there is that word Elite again Well most people aren't and have no intention of being Elite even though your elite is Euopean Youth stardard, Instead your article will now convince a bunch of sheep who think they're Elite not to do any cardio in the fat US Nice work
Larry 2012-11-20
I am a newbie lifter and I don't do any cardio AT ALL, just weightlifting, and I go 105/126... Feels bad man... I am just weak even though I am not doing cardio instead of squats.
Matt Foreman 2012-11-20
Larry, I feel your pain. I had a twenty kilo split between my SN and C&J for my first two years of competition. Hell, I went to a meet in 1991 and did 110/125 once. It wasn't because I was weak, it was because I hadn't learned how to C&J properly yet. When I made some technique changes in the jerk and gained some experience, the gap got wider. You'll make the same progress if you keep working at it. Keep hammering and don't get discouraged.
Kyle 2012-11-20
Matt, So no more 5's in the squat either? Cause I'm pretty sure that constitues cardio...
Martin Bingisser 2012-11-21
There are two main reasons why, if your goal is to be the best you can be a lifting (or any power sport) cardio should not be a focus. The first reason is just as Matt explained: the cardio exercises itself hurts your training. It uses different energy systems and can result in a loss of muscle and various other effects which will reduce your power and strength while increasing endurance (something that is not needed, except unless the lifter is so unfit that they cannot make it through a normal workout). But the second reason is the opportunity cost. Each athlete has a limited amount of time and energy. When you spend it doing cardio it is not only harmful, but in addition you are missing out on spending more time lifting and getting the benefits related to that. Spend that extra time and energy lifting and you'll get a double bonus.
Travis Cooper 2012-11-21
So there have been a ton of arguments about body composition and optimizing your body composition. Do you believe that the right weight class is the weight class in which your bf% is the lowest? If someone has a strict diet already and they have a relatively high bf% do you think that doing cardio to gain a better bf% would be beneficial. I personally don't know what I believe, but I think this is a great discussion.
Matt Foreman 2012-11-21
Hey Travis, You’re right, great topic. If a person has a strict diet and a high bodyfat percentage, I guess cardio would be a good idea because it doesn’t sound like the OLifts are that person’s main issue anyway. A person like that should probably make it the top priority to just get their body under control before they start focusing on weightlifting progress, in my opinion. The question of, “Do you believe that the right weight class is the weight class in which your bf% is the lowest?” is a good one that’s been discussed a lot, like you said. I guess my basic answer would be “yes” but there are several variables that come into the picture. I’ve always thought a person’s height had a lot to do with picking their optimal weight class. When I was a junior, I was 5’11 and weighed 88 kilos, and my lifting was going nowhere for over a year. I switched coaches and my new coach told me, “At your height, you need to go up two weight classes.” I started gaining weight (which my body was definitely ready to do) and within a year my total had gone up almost 40 kilos and I was ready to move up to senior national level. I was definitely adding some bodyfat in addition to muscle, but it all benefited my lifting. 120 kilos was where I eventually did my best lifting, both on Sinclair and in terms of national ranking. I think it’s a best-case scenario for a lifter to have the lower possible bodyfat in their weight class, but I don’t think reducing bodyfat should be a top priority for a lifter. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not. I think there’s an intuitive sense of when a lifter is in the right weight class, and it’s largely determined by height and the basic body structure of the athlete. Good coaches can usually make solid determinations on this. From what I’ve seen in weightlifting, moving up in weight class is almost always a better idea than moving down. Most of the lifters I’ve seen who moved down in weight class lost most of their leg strength. Obese people are exceptions to this, obviously. I’m basically talking about athletes with a level of basic conditioning and body composition that’s somewhat normal. Superheavyweights are just a whole different conversation. They’ve basically gotta stay big at any costs, unless their positions are being destroyed by excess bulk (as happened to Chemerkin after 1997). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a SHW move down to 105/110/108 and have more success. This is long-winded, but I should probably write a separate blog about it because it’s an important issue. In a nutshell, I don’t think bodyfat reduction should be a high priority for a weightlifter. That’s a simplistic statement though, and there’s much more to it than that. Matt
dj bobo 2012-11-22
Just to clarify - there isn't a single elite or world class weightlifter in US with the exception of a certain Russian guy in Boston area. Some foreign elite lifters do jog, maybe half a mile per day, or play soccer, or swim. They don't call it cardio though. They are professional athletes. If you can't run a mile and maintain strength, you are less than mediocre athlete.
dj bobo 2012-11-22
Sorry, just noticed Mr Andrew explained it already.
Greg Everett 2012-11-23
Travis - I would say that the athlete's height is a much more important factor in determining weight class than BF. How lean (or not) an athlete is is more a function of genetics than anything else, so for many athletes, chasing after an unnatural level of leanness just keeps them confinually weak and underfed and performing below their potential. There's also something to be said about training in the weight class you naturally fall into as well as possible - significant changes in bodyweight can be very difficult and taxing to maintain, both physically and psychologically. However, to be competitive based on height, often this has to simply be disregarded. And of course, you have to take into account how the athlete performs and feels at any given bodyweight - this is not always what you might expect. So I I guess I would say the bottom line is that BF% is something to consider, as of course the more muscle mass a lifter has at a given weight, the more potential he/she has to lift more weight, but it's only 1 part of the issue and arguably not the most important.
VJ 2012-11-25
Thanks for the article, lots of fantastic info! I'm a crossfitter and I spent a few months this year training for the Melbourne Marathon. I wrote a blog on the pros and cons and the effect that it had mostly on my lifting. I can't seem to add a link here but it's the Grow Eat Run blogger (just google it) if you want to check it out. I'm still running 5-8km, but no more 28km for awhile! I hope this gives a perspective on a huge cardio increase in training and its effects.
S M 2012-11-26
Guys, While we are on this topic, does anyone here have any suggestions on how to get rid of the "power belly"?
James 2012-12-19
I am an ex crossfitter who has made the switch to Weightlifting and I still do one short met con a week (except during a comp phase). the purpose behind it is to help promote some solid blood flow and I find it actually reduces fatigue and soreness and allows me to train a little harder on the platform because it makes me feel better. so I think a little bit is good for over all wellness. I would love to hear some feedback on this observation of mine
Matt Foreman 2012-12-19
S M- For losing the belly, I think changing the diet, reducing portion size and, unfortunately, cardio are probably going to be necessary. If getting rid of the gut is a priority, I think you'll probably have to do a combination of these things. James- What you described (one short met con a week when you're not close to a competition) doesn't sound like anything that would cause a problem. That's probably not enough cardio to hurt you and it sounds like your body responds well.
James 2012-12-20
I also pray that it will help me avoid becoming a super heavy weight which is something I want to avoid as silly as this may sound
JustinTungate 2013-02-05
I actually just watched an interview on YouTube (can't seem to find the link) of Ivan Abadjiev saying that cross country skiing was an important part of training for his athletes and that he believed that cardio changed the physiology of the muscle in beneficial ways for Olympic weightlifters. He did not specify how often cardio was implemented in the training cycle. This was an interview conducted in Swedish(i think) through an interpreter and then translated to English, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. I watched it on YouTube, so it's there somewhere. I apologize for not being able to find it.
Greg Everett 2013-02-06
Justin - I'm not aware of that interview, but I would be very skeptical. Abadjiev's whole philosophy is based on specificity. XC skiing couldn't be further removed from the demands of weightlifting. What I have been told by him and some of his former and current athletes would suggest that this was either an inaccurate translation, a joke, or is so old it preceded his move toward the training methodology he became known for.
Justin Tungate 2013-02-06
I found the link after a little searching. I believe the interview is actually conducted in Finnish. "Bulgarian Training System Part 6 Questions and Answers" The salient part begins at 8:30 into the interview. He talks about how they would go to high altitude training camps in the winter and do cross country skiing to help with lung development, which he believes is important to support muscle function in the olympic lifts. In this segment he's specifically talking about the training progression from the late sixties to the late eighties and it's possible that I'm misinterpreting what's being translated (it's somewhat hard to follow in places), but to me it looks like Abadjiev is very much a believer in developing "lung function".
Justin Tungate 2013-02-06
To be clear, I have not watched the rest of the series, and I don't believe that he's talking about lung function in the sense of true cardio at the levels of a runner or any other distance athlete.
Justin Tungate 2013-02-06
I would actually start watching from around 6:50.
Matt Foreman 2013-02-10
As Greg mentioned, I would be very skeptical about this. If there is any truth to it, it was probably done after the World Championships when their training wasn't as brutal as it was throughout the rest of the year. Some countries back off their top athletes for a while after the Worlds so their bodies can rest a little before they start training hard again for spring competitions like the European Championships. This would fit what I said in this blog about doing cardio during "some kind of down-time phase when your squats and competition lifts aren’t going to be too challenging." But still, I have doubts about all of it. Knowing how hard the Bulgarians trained year-round and what Greg mentioned about specificity, it's hard to imagine any type of cardio training being a high priority in their system unless it was done for a very short amount of time when the athletes weren't in a period of intense training.
Daniel 2014-04-10
What about Sprints varying from 20-200m? I would call these anaerobic and not cardio/aerobic but what do you think? Could it be beneficial for power and strength in the lifts? Great read btw!
Brandon Green 2014-04-10
I believe in the basic idea of your article. Having read all the old Soviet sports reviews and Charniga's translated books i do believe that some form of cardio does help with recovery although at what cost ? I don't think the Bulgarians use any cardio at any time of the year. However there is some contradictory evidence-Thomas Kurz (if you know who he is)a polish martial artist and author has stated that ALL athletes need some for of cardio and Charlie Francis(the recently deceased track coach of Ben Johnson) has had great results with his sprinters with extensive tempo(running speeds below 75% of max.
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