Strength And Stamina - Can You Train For Both?

Strength And Stamina - Can You Train For Both?


insanity | ɪnˈsanəti |
noun [mass noun]

• extreme foolishness or irrationality: it might be pure insanity to swim around the mainland of Great Britain, without once stepping foot on land...

...But, that is exactly what endurance athlete, Ross Edgely accomplished. It wasn't his first crazy bout of fitness, nor will it be his last miraculous feat of us. 

Physical heroism aside, graduating with a sport and science degree left Edgley with a somewhat, obsessive interest in staying up to date with relevant research papers in his field. His latest fixation; can strength and stamina really co-exist? 


. . . 

A long-established belief within gym folklore is that strength and stamina cannot co-exist. 

For years, strength training athletes would lift heavy, eat lots and live in fear that anything that sent your heart rate above 85 beats per minute would plunge your muscles into a catabolic state. Equally, endurance athletes would run, swim and cycle but avoid the weights rack in fear that their muscles would "blow up" and ruin their biomechanics. 

"In short, training for strength and stamina are too often treated as polar opposites."

But on November 04th 2018, I emerged from the sea, standing 5ft-9 and weighing 94kg after swimming 1,800 miles (in 157 days) around Great Britain. 

In the process, I managed to prove that strength and stamina can co-exist and my debut book, "The World's Fittest Book" sold thousands of copies around the world and became a No. 1 Sunday Times Bestseller. Now (since arriving back on dry land) I've subjected my body to tests at the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Loughborough University and continue to study the intricacies of our human physical potential to find out more. This is what I've learned so far...

Firstly, why do so many experts believe that strength and stamina training cannot co-exist?

Well, this is partly related to the work of Robert Hickson and his idea of "Concurrent Training". For those not familiar with concurrent training, this is where an athlete trains more than one fitness component (strength, speed or stamina) at equal amounts of focus, all within the same workout. In Hickson's view - supported by research from the field of molecular biology and his own experiences - this approach will produce less than optimal results.

To understand this, here's a brief back-story...

Robert Hickson was a keen powerlifter who had followed a traditional protocol for most of his athletic career. This was until he went to study in the laboratory of Professor John Holloszy. Holloszy, is considered the "father of endurance exercise research" and every lunchtime he would leave the Washington University Medical Campus and run through the nearby Forest Park.

Keen to make a good impression, Hickson decided to break from his usual training protocol and accompany Holloszy. But, weeks into his new routine he discovered the strength and size of his muscles were decreasing. This was despite the fact he was still doing his strength and conditioning training at the same frequency and intensity. When Hickson approached Holloszy with his strength and conditioning dilemma, Holloszy suggested this should be his first study.

So, in his new laboratory at the University of Illinois in Chicago, that's exactly what he did.

Published in 1980 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, he concluded that concurrent training dilutes your effectiveness to improve a specific component of fitness (e.g. strength or stamina). Your body doesn't know whether to become stronger or more endured, since the "potency" of you training a specific component is lost.

It's not important to understand the intricacies of each for now. 

Just know that, according to research from the Division of Molecular Physiology at the University of Dundee, training for strength and training for endurance bring about very different adaptations within the body. Combining both forms of training "blocks each others signalling" to adapt.

Now worth noting that for beginners, this is true.

Their bodies are relatively un-adapted and they also lack the Work Capacity - the body's ability to perform and positively tolerate training of a given intensity and duration - to train 2 things at once. The topic of "work capacity" is extensively covered in, "The Worlds Fittest Book" and would require a series of articles to fully explain the intricacies of it, but for now, let's assume you're not a beginner and have the training experience to train for strength and stamina at the same time...

Does sport science suggest strength and stamina can co-exist then?

The answer (supported by Swedish scientists) is yes. In fact, it's even been shown that stamina could help improve strength as research published by the Department of Health Sciences at Mid Sweden University in Östersund proved cardio could actually, "Elicit greater muscle hypertrophy than resistance exercise alone." What this means is, combining cardio with weight training, could actually increase muscle size.

To test this theory Swedish scientists took 10 healthy men between the ages of 25 and 30 and subjected them to 5 weeks of unilateral knee extensor exercises. One leg was trained in a manner similar to the most conventional strength training routines. Completing 3 sets of 7 repetitions at 75%-80% of their 1 rep max. The other leg was subjected to exactly the same strength routine but was coupled with 45-minute cycle bursts during each session.

Following 5 weeks researchers used an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) and muscle biopsies to determine any changes in the cross-sectional area and volume of the leg muscles. Specifically, the vastus laterallis (muscle that's located from the side of the leg) and the quadriceps femoris (muscle found at the front of the leg) were analysed.  

What did they find?

The leg subjected to both cardio and strength endurance training was noticeably bigger than the leg that performed strength training alone. Results revealed the vastus lateralis had increased by 17% in size in the cardio-strength trained leg compared to 9% in the strength-trained leg. Furthermore, the volume of the quadriceps femoris had increased by 14% in the cardio-strength trained leg compared to 8% in the strength-trained leg.

"These results provide novel insight into human muscle adaptations...and they offer the very first genomic basis explaining how aerobic exercise may augment (improve), rather than compromise, muscle growth induced by resistance exercise."

- American Journal of Physiology.

So, where did this gym-based wizardry come from?

It's hard to say, but it's widely known that performing any form of cardiovascular training dramatically improves your capillary density. Capillaries are the small blood vessels that network through the muscles and by increasing their density you also increase your own ability to supply the working muscles with blood, oxygen and nutrients during training.

This is one of the most overlooked aspects of strength training as power-based athletes arguably place too much emphasis on shifting iron than looking after their capillaries. However, using the sport of Strongman as an example (a sport that contains some of the world's largest and strongest athletes) it could be argued that most past champions were well aware of this fact.

Five-time World's Strongest Man, Mariusz Pudzianowski was famously a boxer before taking up the sport of strongman and notably incorporated intense skipping sessions into his training before most weights sessions. Also, despite weighing 150kg Strongman legend Geoff Capes was rumoured to have a pretty impressive 200m-sprint time clocking 23.7 seconds. Equally 3-time world's strongest man Bill Kazmaier was a huge advocate of cardio training and heavily incorporated it into his training throughout his career.

"But, let's put anecdotal evidence aside for the moment..."

It seems research could also support this idea of caring for your capillaries. That's because a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology set out to monitor the adaptive changes in the muscles that occur during intensive endurance-based training. Scientists took 7 athletes and had them complete a 24-week training program that was heavily cardio based. After 24 weeks muscle biopsies were taken and it was found that athletes displayed:

"An increased capillary supply of all muscle fibre types."

- European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology.

They concluded that this would improve the efficiency of the entire cardio respiratory system.

For strength athletes, this would also mean faster recovery rates between sets and therefore an ability to increase work capacity. But most notably a well-designed cardiovascular routine has been shown to work very well in conjunction with German Volume Training (GVT) to increase muscle mass.


Often referred to as the "ten sets method" this is one of the oldest and most effective forms of training that involves completing 10 sets of 10 repetitions. Believed to have originated in Germany in the 1970s is was made popular by Germany's weight lifting coach Rolf Fester, who advocated its use to weight lifters who wanted to move up a weight class during off season.

Canadian weightlifter Jacques Demers - silver medalist in the Los Angeles Olympics - also famously used this training protocol and credited it for the renowned size of his thighs.

Now, the entire program works on the premise that you subject the muscles to an extensive volume of repeated efforts on a single exercise. The muscles are then forced to adapt and grow as the body is loaded above its habitual level (what it's accustomed to). Typically, it involves choosing a large compound movement such as the squat, bench or deadlift and using a weight that's roughly 60% of your 1 rep. max (or a weight you could perform 20 repetitions with). You then perform 10 sets of 10 repetitions, with 60-90 seconds rest in between.

As a muscle building training protocol, it's believed very few workouts are supported by as many experts as German Volume Training. But it's clear to see how cardio and an improved capillary density can help you in those final sets. Since even the strongest of athletes would struggle without any endurance capability and as a result would be unable to complete the workload recommended by GVT training to increase muscle mass.

In summary, know that sports science is still trying to fully understand how strength and stamina can optimally co-exist, which is why I will continue to write these blogs and books to bring you the latest research to expand our understanding on the topic. But for now, hopefully this article has helped to initially expel some of the myths around "loosing your gainz to cardio" and - as per the teachings of "The World's Fittest Book" - has taught us, "there are many ways to get fitter, stronger, and leaner. You shouldn't discriminate against any or strictly favour one. As soon as you do, you close your mind and limit your potential."





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