At M&F, we advocate for building a symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing physique in the gym. We also champion a healthy lifestyle, and a body that’s functional enough to both show and go when called upon. A recent trend has emerged amongst lifters who are already strong and muscular: They want to get faster and tougher, too.
The concept of a hybrid athlete is nothing new, and while some CrossFit gyms blend strength and endurance, any weightlifter with a few years’ experience can become an endurance athlete under their own power. One of the most notable hybrid athletes is powerlifter, bodybuilder, ultramarathon runner, and triathlete Alex Viada C.S.C.S., A.C.E.-C.P.T. and owner of Complete Human Performance in North Carolina. We reached out to the genetic anomaly to talk all things hybrid training and becoming a better athlete without losing hard-earned gains.
Follow Viada’s eight essential tips to successfully improve endurance, build muscle, and crush your first or next endurance event.
Before Viada shared his actionable tips, he shed light on which endurance sports his bodybuilder clients tend to favor.
“A lot of bodybuilders are interested in obstacle course racing because they like the competitive side of things, and it’s a lot more interesting than trotting away on a treadmill,” says Viada. “Bodybuilders also express a good amount of interest in triathlons. There’s a certain challenge associated with a triathlon, and many bodybuilders don’t mind the idea of getting on a bike or getting in the water.”
Physique-minded lifters are better than they think when it comes to aerobic endurance. Viada says that he personally knows several physique competitors who go through contest prep, and their cardiovascular conditioning is phenomenal afterwards.
“If you’re doing an hour of steady-state cardio every day, you already have a fantastic aerobic base,” Viada adds. “If I can get them fit with a proper pair of shoes, get them outside to start to build some of that toughness and agility for their legs, and teach them how to ride a bike, they may be surprised at how good they already are.”
“I recommend that anyone, not just bodybuilders, do 80% of their cardio work at 70-75% of their maximum heart rate, which is zone 2,” Viada says. “If they’re already doing 3-3.5 hours of that per week, they only need to add another 1-2 hours of specific training for their sport to their workout schedule.”
Viada explains that as long as a strength athlete is carefully monitoring how many calories they’re burning and replacing, essentially making sure they eat enough, they usually can add on 1-3 hours of zone 2 work per week without dealing with much fatigue. This means that you don’t actually need to change your cardio intensity much if you’re the “morning elliptical, incline treadmill walk, Stairmaster for 40 minutes” type of athlete. What you will need to do is actually take your cardio outdoors to better train for the endurance event of your choosing.
The other 20% of all aerobic training for bodybuilders is high-intensity intervals performed as a couplet, or two exercises back-to-back, within a weightlifting workout.
“I still have a lot of athletes weight training 4-5 days per week, and the most important thing is they learn the value of using weight training days to pre-fatigue for the some of the endurance work,” says Viada. “For example, if they’re training legs, that’s a day to do stationary/spin bike sprints or uphill running sprints in the middle of the workout. That way, you get the dual aerobic and hypertrophy work.”
The exercises done during interval training—the bike sprints, for example—will replace a typical accessory lower-body move, such as a leg press. They both build muscle, but technically one is more high-intensity and specific for triathlon.
The thing with bodybuilders and strength athletes is that they already have power, they just need to express it over a longer period of time.
“Many strength athletes love burning themselves out for 20- to 30-second intervals, smashing through five rounds, and feeling like they’ve wrecked themselves,” Viada says. “I tell them ‘OK, we want to do this speed and power work to get you faster, but we’re not going to have you running this race at a full sprint. So, let’s do intervals at 85-90% of maximum speed.’ The purpose of intervals is getting them to move fast but not sprinting.”
Viada’s suggested work-to-rest ratio during interval training is 1:2 or 1:3 when first starting with an athlete, since pacing and movement quality is of the upmost importance at this stage. After a few months of interval training, Viada will increase the intensity to a 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio. In general, the work portions during interval training start as a way for you to learn how to use energy quickly, yet still keep some in the tank.
Accessory exercises refer to single-joint exercises that are done after a compound, multi-joint exercise during a workout. For bodybuilders, accessory moves are there to maximize blood flow to the muscle and achieve colossal pumps. There’s still room for building muscle during your workout, but this will be at the beginning of the workout.
“I typically have the race-specific stuff replace the accessory work,” Viada says. “You have to economize: You can’t do six accessory bodybuilding exercises when you’re training for an endurance event. Your accessory work will be geared toward making you a better runner or cyclist, but you’re still keeping in your bread-and-butter lifting exercises to maintain size and strength.”
A sample of how this would play out on legs day is starting the workout with the barbell back squat, then, instead of doing a leg press or hamstring curl, do walking lunges. Next, stepups, Bulgarian split squats, and other unilateral exercises done for 15 reps will be the best options for legs day. Viada mentions that low rep ranges are rare in his world.
“If someone has a powerlifting background, I may have them in the 3-5 rep range to start the workout but that’s the only case we’re going to get low with repetitions,” says Viada.
Many bigger athletes are worried that a regular road bike is going to break if they use it often, but Viada says this is not the case.
“I’ve never seen a road bike frame break under a big athlete, and I’ve worked with 300-lb guys,” says Viada. “The most important thing when looking for a bike is to find something that’s comfortable. If you’re a bigger guy, a bad-fitting bike will punish you.”
Viada’s other tip for aspiring cyclists is to make sure the wheels have a high spoke count.
“If you talk to someone at a bike shop, you don’t need the ultralight wheels, you need the sturdy ones.”
For bodybuilders looking to improve their swimming ability, Viada suggests starting the process by swimming while wearing neoprene weightlifting pants.
“Neoprene lifting pants give you just enough buoyancy to help keep you stable in the water when you’re first learning your stroke,” says Viada. “It’s a huge help because strength athletes find themselves sinking, and they never get good because it’s too frustrating. The pants limit that learning curve.”
In terms of learning to swim, Viada says the most important thing is exactly that: learning to swim properly, instead of trying to swim a bunch of laps with improper technique. For the first few months of swimming practice, keep the same distance and try to perfect your stroke by reading a swimming guide or book.
“There’s no need to spend two hours in the pool when you first start out because your quality will decrease after 10 minutes,” Viada says. “If you get out of the pool after 10 quality laps and you feel like you got something out the session but still have energy, go on a step climber for another 20 minutes or jog for 20 minutes.”
Viada recommends physique athletes keep their core diet the same to train for an endurance sport. With that said, those same athletes will be burning more calories than they’re used to, whether that’s through the added interval training or sports-specific training. Viada suggests tracking how many extra calories you burn during aerobic endurance training than you normally would if just following a bodybuilding program. Then, you’ll need to replace those calories with mostly carbs.
“The key is to make sure those additional calories burned are replaced using a macronutrient ratio of 75% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 5% fat,” Viada says. “That’s on top of the regular diet. I’m assuming the athlete is already taking in enough protein and fat.”
For example, if someone figures out they burn 450 calories during a three-mile outdoor run that they added to their typical weightlifting and cardio routine, they will be able to take in 450 calories, using the ratio above.
BY MARK BARROSO