Concurrent Training: Strength And Aerobic Training At The Same Time?

Periodization and planning are always hot topics as the way in which coaches program various qualities – strength, power, capacity, endurance, etc – is something that gets debated often.

Concurrent training is one method that many coaches employ as it consists of training multiple qualities at equal amounts of focus within the same training phase and often within the same workout. The biggest issue that can arise from this sort of programming is that often times the two or three qualities one is looking to enhance end up competing with each other for adaptation.

All types of training, whether it is strength training or long distance running, will produce specific responses from the body which trigger gene expression and molecular changes that in turn cause the body to adapt to the training stimulus in order to make us more prepared to tackle this stressor should we need to face it again (our next workout or competition). One of the arguments against concurrent training is that the adaptations that the body’s internal environment under goes in response to the differing training stimuli brought on by the multiple qualities being trained in the training day or training phase are on different ends of the spectrum thus confusing the body as to how it should respond and leading to less than favorable adaptations. This is referred to as the Interference Phenomenon. You can’t be an elite powerlifter and an elite marathon runner at the same time. In addition to the arguments about performance outcomes another big issue with concurrent training is the reported overreaching or overtraining that tends to occur when an athlete attempts to cram several training qualities into a workout or training phase, detracting from their recovery time and increasing the amount of training miles they are placing on their body.

Interestingly, despite these arguments against concurrent training studies looking at the effects of concurrent training appear to be mixed in regard to the results with some studies showing it to be effective and other studies showing it to be detrimental to strength, power, or endurance adaptations. Of course it is important to take into consideration the subjects in many of these studies, who are often college aged exercise science students with minimal to no training background, thus they may respond in a different manner than someone with a higher training age or more elite in status.

Recently, Wilson and colleagues (2012) conducted a meta-analysis in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis Examining Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise.

This analysis looked at 21 studies on concurrent training to better understand its application and potential detrimental effects when looking at parameters such as hypertrophy, maximal strength, power, and VO2max.

Some of the interesting findings that they noted:

  1. Hypertrophy and max strength did not differ between the strength only and the concurrent training groups, however, power was significantly decreased in the concurrent training group versus the strength training only group.
  2. No decrements were found in VO2max between an endurance only group or a concurrent training group which indicates that aerobic capacity may not really be inhibited by this method of programming. An interesting aside is the same result has also been seen in elite endurance athletes.
  3. Concurrently performing strength training and running led to significant decrements in hypertrophy and strength gains however this result was not found to be the case when strength training was performed concurrently with cycling. The authors hypothesized that his may be due to the fact that cycling is more biomechanically similar to many of the strength tests used in the study or since running has a higher eccentric component (while cycling is primarily concentric) there may be potential for greater muscle damage. However, despite the performance decrements, concurrent training with running led to a greater decline in fat mass versus concurrent training with cycling.
  4. While the common ground between long duration endurance training and resistance training is low (as I indicated above when discussing the interference phenomenon) there does appear to be a common ground between short duration, high-intensity, sprinting and resistance exercise due to the way the neuromuscular system is recruited for these tasks.

Thoughts on application for team sport athletes

Research is great but at the end of the day we have to figure out how to really apply this stuff in order to drive change in our programs. Team sport athletes are unique when it comes to fitness qualities as each sport has different needs and demands. Team sport athletes don’t often need to be able to display the uppermost limits of their individual strength or power (like a powerlifter or olympic weightlifter, for example), however they do need to be able to display high amounts of power efforts and then posses the capacity to repeat those efforts over and over during the course of a game. The athlete who can display a high amount of power output but then needs a significant period of rest to do it again becomes a detriment to the team when they are on the field (and potentially an injury risk). While concurrent training may appear to be helpful in this instance it can also be a detrimental as the athlete doesn’t have the time to develop specific qualities to a higher potential (qualities that may be important to success in their sport or the position they play on the field) and ends up being a “jack of all trades; master of none” thus holding them-self back from greater success.

That being said, there are times when concurrent training can be very useful and warranted – total beginners or even during some inseason periods when training time is cut short due to more frequent competitions and practice – however, it would be wise to prioritize specific qualities during specific training cycles when you can so that the athlete is able to (a) work on whatever qualities are a weakness to them that need to be better developed to play their sport and (b) to get those most of your training and ensure you are developing your abilities to their highest potential within the construct of the team sport environment.

For example, if the goal of your first phase of training is to develop the aerobic capacity for an individual that is out of shape or lacking in that area, using a powerlifting program while throwing in a few aerobic activities at the end of the workout would not be the most productive way to go about it. It would make more sense to reduce the intensity of your lifting program (<80%) and perhaps even the frequency (2-3d/wk seems to work well) as well as using training methods that would be advantageous to your goal of improving aerobic and general work capacity. The other days of the week would be more focused on aerobic development using a variety of methods and modalities which target that athlete’s individual needs. Rather than concurrently training during this phase and “getting a little better at everything” you can take the time to focus more specifically on a single quality and reap the benefits of it which will then support your training in later phases when you shift focus towards a different quality.

So much can be said about periodization and planning and the topic is very interesting. One thing to keep in mind is that no two athletes will respond or adapt the same way to the same training program. Just because something worked for one individual does not mean it will be optimal for another individual. It is best to keep the individual’s needs in mind with regard to where their current level of fitness and development is and how that level of fitness and development relates to their sport, their position in that sport, and what other athletes who have had success in that sport posses.