The Hybrid Athlete

Think You Can’t Do Both Weightlifting And Cardio? Time To Get Out Of The Stone Age

I was exceptionally out of shape. I could deadlift 740 but was being beaten by 13-year olds in the 5K, and it was a humbling experience.

Although my PR is 315, my max bench right now is about 275 — because old.

Maybe I should amend that to “because dumbass.” I tore up my left shoulder about five years ago in a drunken swimming race, and it’s never been the same since.

Anyway, in addition to having a decent bench for a guy who is 6’0″ and 170, I can also run a pretty fast marathon, qualifying for Boston last yearwith a time of 3:24:31. Then I collapsed and puked, but whatever.

When I started this whole fitness thing 21 years ago, it was all about lifting because I was so poor at motivating myself I could only force myself to work out at the one activity that I actually liked: iron. It took a decade before I was ready to embrace being rapidly bipedal.

But back then there seemed to be less hate towards the runners than there is now. I don’t remember hearing that running sucked or hearing people referred to as “cardio bunnies.” Times have changed. Now there is hate a-plenty in the lifting camp for all things cardiovascular, “cuz it killz gainz, brah.” Even nutrition expert Alan Aragon, when he found out I ran Boston, poked fun at me by saying, “You’re a runner? Geez, I thought I knew you.”

The major reality check, however, is that a lot of lifters just don’t like any type of cardio, so rather than just say “I don’t want to,” they make up excuses and write science fiction articles with titles like “Cardio Kills” or assert that cardio makes you fat.

I have respect for the man who says, “I don’t want to run,” and doesn’t try to demonize the activity with pseudoscientific bullsh*ttery.

To me, lifting and cardio never seemed like an “either/or” choice. They can be complementary, with both creating positive adaptations in physiology and psychology. I love both ends of the spectrum, and divide my time between cardio and weights based on what I feel like doing.

And while there can be some interference between them, it’s probably less than you think. At elite levels, marathoners don’t want to be jacked and powerlifters don’t want to risk losing any strength — but are you elite? What are your goals? Just how far can one go as a hybrid athlete?

To answer that last question, I spoke with Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance, a 34-year-old trainer of hybrid athletes in Durham, many of whom are in the military, because such people need both strength and endurance to do their jobs.

When he got into running, Alex weighed 242 as a powerlifter. “I ran 5K on a bet and realized there was a gaping hole in my athleticism. I was exceptionally out of shape. I could deadlift 740 but was being beaten by 13-year-olds in the 5K, and it was a humbling experience.”

Viada told me there are a large number of powerlifters who think aerobic training limits potential and is a waste of time. “I can’t understand why being able to move yourself quickly over long distances would be a bad thing,” he said.

But he made mistakes in becoming a hybrid athlete, taking “the meathead approach” to injury management. “I got every running injury there is, and after three marathons my time wasn’t improving and I was limping my way in. My lifts were stagnating too, so I decided to take a more scientific approach.” This involved breaking it down into components of strength training vs. aerobic training. “I realized that I can’t sprint every day or run long distances every day and I can’t lift heavy every day. It’s important to understand your body’s recovery.”

And once he figured things out, Alex became a prime example of how you can be good at both strength and endurance. His raw (no equipment) lifting PRs are: squat: 705, deadlift: 715, bench: 465.

That’s pretty heavy. Also, he’s done two Ironman triathlons, and while the first “went horribly,” in the second he finished in under 13 hours, which is a pretty good time. He’s also run a 5K in 17:12 (very speedy) and, get this, can run a mile in a blistering 4:28.

He looks pretty beefy with his shirt off too.


Of course, Alex hears a lot about being a genetic freak, but points to his military clients “who are both extraordinarily strong and have incredible endurance. These people are out there,” he said.

“For someone who wants to be strong, aerobic conditioning benefits every athlete. You can work out longer and harder and be able to recover faster,” Alex told me. “For the endurance athlete you’re going to be stronger and more resistant to injury. It’s less about sports performance and more about longevity of the athlete.” And he spoke of having clients at both ends of the spectrum who are great at one, but making improvements in the other. One is a pro strongman who weighs 315, and yet can run an 8-minute mile, and the other is a nationally ranked duathlete who weighs only 163, but can deadlift 405.

Brandon Crabill is one such power lifter who is seeing the benefits of endurance exercise. The 31-year old from East Lansing weighs 222 and his raw PRs are squat: 615, deadlift: 625 and bench: 445.

“Endurance is something new to me,” he said. “I used to get red-faced just tying my shoes.” Back in April his fastest mile was 9:45 — pretty slow — but now he’s running in 7:11, with a goal to get faster. “I want to be able to do the 666 challenge,” he said. That’s a raw squat and deadlift of 600 pounds each, and running a 6-minute mile.

“The cool part is that it is developing my lifts as well,” Brandon said. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice strength to hit the endurance end, and that was where things got interesting, because the endurance conditioning helped with my recovery both between sets and between sessions. I’m hitting PRs in my lifts by going for a faster mile.”

And Brandon is looking at some longer distances, because he finds he enjoys running a few miles on Sundays, and is contemplating a half or perhaps even a full marathon. “Running is something that I’ve absolutely come to enjoy,” he said.

That’s what it’s mostly about. It was easy for me to get into lifting, but running was a struggle. Nevertheless, I didn’t make excuses like saying it would kill me or make me fat or cause me to lose muscle or strength, but approached it as a good thing that would benefit my body, and so I persevered and came to love it as much as I love the iron.

And once you stop making excuses or saying that a certain exercise is “bad,” then it opens up a whole new world of experience and athleticism.




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