I’ve had a lot of people ask me about improving their strength without losing their ability to run fast and/or run long.
Some of the common questions I get sound something like this:
- “Can I still improve my strength without becoming slower?”
- “I’d like to train more strength but will that “bulk” me up and then slow me down?”
- “How can I get faster without giving up my strength?”
So the ultimate question is:
“Is it possible to get stronger AND faster at the same time?”
Military athletes (and really everyone else in my opinion) need a training program that improves fitness across a number of attributes including strength, speed, power, stamina, endurance, agility, balance, mobility, coordination, and accuracy.
For a typical athlete who participates in a sport and has “seasons” (i.e. In-season, off-season) designing a well thought out training program, to address each of these fitness attributes individually, can usually be accomplished without much of a problem. The benefit to this is that the coach and athlete can focus their attention on each individual training phase (Strength phase, speed phase, etc.) without having to worry about interference (one training focus taking away from another).
Unfortunately, a logical, sequential, training program like this doesn’t make much sense for an athlete who needs to be at the top of their game at all times. When dealing with a deploying military population it has been suggested that it is possible to design a training program that fits into a deployment cycle in an attempt to “peak” an athlete for deployment. However, this seems kind of silly to me considering this “peak” can’t last 6-12 months so you’d really just be peaking for part of the deployment… Although the deployment and training schedule needs to be taken into consideration to provide for optimal training AND optimal recovery during the workup, during the deployment, and upon return, a sequential training plan just doesn’t make much sense.
If you’re an athlete that needs to be prepared for any number of demanding physical tasks year round then your training program needs to be designed in a way to allow you to continuously improve across the broad array of physical characteristics (mentioned above) at the same time.
Unfortunately, too many people out there think that the only way to get strong is to spend all of their time jacking weights. On the flip side, there are a ton of skinny people out there that think the only way to be fast (over long distances) is to spend all of their time running.
If you were to look into the research on concurrent training (doing both) a cursory glance would tell you that you are right, aerobic training will take away from your strength gains. However, most of this research isn’t very strong.
For example, in a 2012 study titled “Concurrent training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises” studies were noted showing that concurrent training, in relation to resistance training alone, was shown to result in decreases in strength, hypertrophy, and power. However, the same authors also noted that a number of other studies show no decrements in strength training gains when endurance training is added.
So what gives?
How can a whole bunch of studies show one thing and a whole bunch of other studies show something different?
Well, it seems to me, based on reviewing the ‘Methods’ section of a whole bunch of these studies, that the weak point is in the training program design. In fact, in a study by Nader (2006) it was noted that concurrent training was only found to compromise strength when the concurrent training program engaged the same muscle groups at the same time.
Nader (2006) goes on to say that it was found that the studies that tested training methods that were more synergistic, rather than antagonistic, did not show an inhibition in strength (i.e. If the training was smartly programmed, there wasn’t a problem).
So the bottom line here seems to be this: If the training program is poorly designed then you will get weaker, but, if it is properly designed, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of strength training and aerobic training without a decrease in strength or power.
Let’s talk a bit more about strength training…
When most people think of strength training they think of a big dude in a tight singlet moving a shit ton of weight, right? (Or do I just know too many powerlifters?) Sure, this is definitely one way to view strength training however, I’d argue, that being a 300# dude who is injured on the battlefield is actually going to be a BIG problem for you (and the guys who have to go in to drag your big ass to safety).
I’d much rather you start to think about getting as strong as possible without gaining a ton of mass. Think gymnast, not powerlifter. A solid strength training program will get you stronger by improving performance via neuromuscular signaling, improved motor control, and increased fiber-recruitment (i.e. You’re using your current muscle mass smarter) Although, increased lean body mass is not a bad thing, you just need to be conscious of packing on a ton of weight.
Although I mentioned before that it’s definitely possible to build/maintain your aerobic engine without losing your strength gains a lot of research points to concurrent training being detrimental to maximizing hypertrophy (Growth). I’d argue that in your case, this is a good thing. If we can continue to get stronger and stronger without gaining a ton of mass we are going to be much more useful in our day to day jobs AND much less of a liability if we get injured. Although being huge and jacked is great on the beach it’s not very functional when considering the hazards and requirements of your job.
Although we cycle through a number of different strength protocols in our programming here you should design your strength program to focus on moving maximal loads for minimum reps (i.e. 5 set of 1-3 reps or similar) in order to maximize your strength without triggering a ton of hypertrophy. We like to combine this with a more dynamic effort (moving sub-maximal loads, fast) as well for a couple of reasons. For one, we can work on our power (bar speed) and two, your body just can’t handle that many max efforts days in a given week.
In addition to this, if you are looking to get faster and improve your endurance we like to perform 2-3 high-intensity aerobic interval training session each week as well. Doing so allows us to improve out maximal aerobic power (the rate that energy can be produced in a muscle via oxidative metabolism) without all of the downsides that come with long slow distance endurance training (fatigue, muscle protein breakdown, looking gross with your shirt off, etc).
As some of you may know I used a similar combination to get my 3-mile run time (USMC PFT) under 18 minutes while still maintaining 25+ pull-ups, 330+ back squat, and a 380+ deadlift. Although those aren’t the stats of a super athlete they sure made me ready for the job at hand.
In addition to my personal and practical knowledge that this type of training just works for a large majority of people it also provides for ample recovery time to ensure you aren’t smoked if you’re training during a deployment or any other high stress / high op-tempo time.
Wrapping it up
So, the question is: “Is it possible to get stronger AND faster at the same time?”
And the answer is yes, it sure seems as though you can as long as you are doing it in a smart manner and the training is programmed appropriately.
And the conclusion from that meta-analysis backs me up here stating: “Our results indicate that interference effects of endurance training are a factor of the modality, frequency, and duration of the endurance training.”
Would love to hear your thoughts on this so drop me a note in the comments and let’s start a conversation!
Nader, G. (2006). Concurrent strength and endurance training: From molecules to man. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 06, 1965-1970.
Wilson, J., Marin, P., Rhea, M., Wilson, S., Loenneke, J., & Anderson, J. (2012). Concurrent Training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.