How To Improve Your Aerobic System

This article is a two part series.  Read part one here:

If you’re looking to improve your conditioning, your priority should be on training your aerobic system.  Not only is your aerobic system the most susceptible to training improvements, but as your aerobic system becomes more powerful, it improves your anaerobic system as well.  

Improvements in your aerobic system is like the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Improving your aerobic system boils down to improving two main physiological functions:

  • Increasing the oxygen supply to working muscles
  • Increasing how much oxygen the muscles themselves can utilize

So, what’s the best way to make these improvements?

The current fitness dogma is to focus on high intensity interval training, also known as HIIT.  This stands in stark contrast to the old training principles of long, slow distance where you gradually increase your total training volume.  So, which side is right?

The answer is that both sides are right.  You need variation in both volume and intensity in your aerobic training to maximize its power.  This is why CrossFit athletes have been so successful and can seemingly never get tired.  They cycle both volume and intensity in their aerobic training.

I’ll outline a handful of training protocols we like to use in our gym and why they are effective.  Unlike some coaches, we don’t like to just tell someone what to do, but explain why it is effective.  For each method, I’ll outline what it is, why it’s effective, and a sample workout so that you have a strong understanding of what is going on.

A caveat:  Both the volume and intensity of your training should align with your goals.  If you want to compete in marathons, you’ll need more volume, compared to if you want excel in your flag football league, you’ll need more intensity.

Improving Oxygen Supply

Method One: Long, Slow Distance

The goal here is continuous movement where you heart rate stays between 130-150 bpm (beats per minute).  You can use circuits or monostructural work.  You can even incorporate drills specific to your sport as long as you keep moving.

Benefit:  Increases the size of your left ventricle in your heart.  Your heart is a muscle, and as it expands (hypertrophy), it can push more blood with each pump.  The result is a lower resting heart rate, lower working heart rate, and improved cardiac efficiency.

Sample Workout

30min AMRAP

  • 800m Run
  • 25x Air Squats
  • 20x Russian KB Swings
  • 1x Rope Climb
  • 60sec Plank

Method Two: Power Intervals

The goal is high intensity intervals where you work hard for 60-120 seconds, followed by long rest periods of 2-5 minutes, or until your heart rate drops to 120-130 bpm.

Benefit: Where method one increases the total volume of the heart muscle, power intervals increase the thickness of the heart muscle. This allows for improved contractility, meaning each pump of the heart is more powerful.

Sample Workout

5 Rounds

  • 10x Power Cleans @ 50% 1RM
  • 200m Sprint
  • Rest 2 minutes

Improving Oxygen Utilization

Method Three: Tempo Lifts

The goal is constant movement while under load.  To do this, you’ll pick big, compound lifts like the back squat, deadlift or press, and move the weight with a two second eccentric and two second concentric. You’ll do this with no pauses at the top or bottom for 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps.  Rest 6-8 minutes between sets for full recovery.

Benefit:  Increase the size of slow twitch muscle fibers to improve oxygen utilization of the muscles.  Additionally, larger slow twitch muscle fibers improve the endurance capabilities of fast twitch muscle fibers by improving how quickly waste products can be removed from lactic oxidation.  

Sample Workout

  • Back Squat: 3x8-10, 2sec down / 2sec up, no rest at top of bottom, rest 6 minutes
  • Bench Press: 3x8-10, 2sec down / 2sec up, no rest at top of bottom, rest 6 minutes
  • RDL: 3x8-10, 2sec down / 2sec up, no rest at top of bottom, rest 6 minutes

Method Four: High Resistance Intervals

The goal here is low speed intervals with a heavy resistance.  Most interval training relies on fast cycle times to increase heart rate, but by increasing the load, we can do low cycle, high resistance efforts.  Think sled pushes and pulls, hill sprints, or high resistance rowing / spinning.  You’ll want to work for 10-12 seconds and then rest 30 - 45 seconds.

Benefit:  Improves the aerobic abilities of fast twitch muscle fibers, which allows for improved sustained power.  This occurs through increased mitochondrial density within the muscle fibers.

Sample Workout

20min EMOM

  • 3x Snatches @ 60-70% of 1RM

Method Five: Anaerobic Threshold Training

The line between aerobic and anaerobic work is a blurred one, but to complete proper threshold training you’ll need to train within +/- 5 bpm of your anaerobic threshold.  A good rule of thumb is to train at 85%-90% max intensity. Your anaerobic threshold is the point where lactate begins to accumulate in the body.  The best way to train this is through longer intervals of 3-10 minutes followed by incomplete rest.  Any cardio movement or circuit that you can move quickly through works well.

Benefit:  Improved lactate clearance and mitochondrial density allows for greater endurance of the fast twitch muscle fibers, which allows you to go harder for longer.

Sample Workout

3min AMRAP

  • 10x Wall Balls
  • 10x Lateral Burpee Box Jumps
  • 20x Single Arm KB Snatch

*Repeat 5x times, rest 3 minutes.  Each passing round, the rest decreases by 15 seconds.

Ok, we’ve just outlined five different training methods to improve your overall aerobic system.  The intended training result is different for each one, but all of them look to either increase the total amount of oxygen available or improve the rate at which your muscles can utilize oxygen.  There are more methods, but these five are a fantastic starting point.  

In future articles, I’ll tackle anaerobic training methods and how to build a program that effectively takes advantage of all these methods. Until then, you can always stop by our gym to get a taste.

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