High intensity training has taken the world by storm and is now one of the most popular training styles across the globe. Makes sense as to why; shorter workout time, metabolism is ramped up longer afterwards and you feel like you just conquered the world. All good things. The issue here tends to be the misconception of prioritizing fitness or conditioning over a general strength program. If it sounds like I’m figuratively “shitting” on conditioning, you’d be mistaken. Intelligent conditioning programs are crucial for both athletic success and overall health/well-being. I’m a STRENGTH & CONDITIONING Coach. STRENGTH comes first.
For those who know me, I’m a HUGE advocate of getting stronger. If you do nothing else in the gym except build a greater capacity to exert force, you my friend are winning. The reason I believe strength is priority numero uno is that it literally is the foundation of which all other physical capacities stem from. I believe that there is no better way to increase work capacity than by simply increasing your ability to produce force.
Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of conditioning, fitness, cardio or whatever so I think it’s important that we all get on the same page. Conditioning is preparing your body to complete a task or goal whereas fitness training is the act of improving overall physical capacity. That’s not to say there isn’t overlap however conditioning in itself is more specific in nature. That’s not to say it’s only suitable for athletes because every single one of my clients undergoes a conditioning program. I’m saying that conditioning (when programmed intelligently) is a more task oriented or goal oriented training style.
Being task oriented means conditioning requires more than just your stereotypical sprint or run type exercises. Tasks such as being able to tackle a player, shoot the ball when tired, chase a crook, lift multiple bricks on the job site or performing countless rounds of CPR at the hospital can require a more tailored approach. Again, there IS overlap with fitness training because having a greater overall capacity generally leads to improvements in all tasks anyway.
Strength Should ALWAYS Come First
Like I mentioned above, strength is foundation. Strength is hands down the most useful physical adaptation as all other capacities improve along with it. Want to get bigger muscles? Improve your strength. Muscle fibers under greater loads adapt by remodeling themselves to become larger to handle the stress. Balance and coordination improve with free weight strength training as you control your body through space with loads of higher intensities. Hell, even your VO2 max improves a bit due to the stress and pressure your cardiovascular system undergoes when lifting near maximal weight!
Before I go any further, I want to assure you readers that I’m not saying you’ll become the next Lance Armstrong by simply lifting heavy weight. Endurance training for sport is a totally different animal. What I want you to understand is that most novices, general folk and elite athletes need to develop some sort of strength base first before planning conditioning. This means you should be able to at least squat your body weight, deadlift 1.5x your body weight and carry 50% of your body weight. Keep in mind these are general male guidelines as females would be a bit on the lower percentage end.
Strength is a longer term adaptation. It requires a couple months to build and even more time to refine piece by piece. The good news is that once someone increases baseline strength, it’s very hard to lose it. Even if someone doesn’t lift heavy for many months, they will never be as weak as they once were (unless you age significantly, can’t help you there). An improvement in strength means an improvement in power. For example, if you improve your max deadlift from 200kg to 250kg, it’s extremely likely that your ability to power clean has improved as well. It’s Newton’s 2nd Law in action (read my article Why You Need To Max Out for more details on this theory). Increasing your ability to produce force means you can push off the ground harder to sprint faster, jump higher or hit harder. For those looking to lose fat, barbell strength training builds larger tissues which require more energy to fuel. Watch yourself melt and grow after a few months of good ol’ fashioned heavy lifting.
Just as strength is a long term adaptation, conditioning will come and go rather quickly. If you haven’t had your heart rate up in a while, it will only take a couple weeks to adapt to whatever training you are doing to bounce back. If you haven’t ran 5 miles in a while, see how you do after 2 weeks. It’s crazy how fast you can return to baseline (whatever that is for you) after only a few weeks. This is due to changes in your metabolic environment WITHOUT having to do a larger tissue remodel as what happens with strength training. Easy come, easy go.
For the athlete or enthusiast who has a solid strength base, conditioning will be extremely important if tailoring towards something specific that requires a higher fitness level. Most cases it’s explosive type movements being done repetitively however this isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s the average person who lifts boxes all day or spends hours on their feet. These average folks want to be able to get through the day without being exhausted or drained from their jobs. Whatever the scenario, conditioning programs can be intelligently programmed to better the body physically for the tasks at hand.
Intelligent conditioning typically involves a combination of strength type work with higher intensity activities that raise your heart rate and burn the crap out of your lungs. I’ve included a list of modalities below and some points on how to use them in your conditioning program. Prepare to be prepared.
Push it, pull it, haul it, hate it. The sled is one of the best conditioning devices out there. It’s joint friendly, easy to learn and can be used for longer/faster training programs or shorter/heavier ones. It’s great for finishing off your legs on a heavy lower day or burning your lungs when you’re fresh in your program. No matter what you decide to do, just do it. Load some plates up, tie a rope to yourself and see what you’re made of. I guarantee it’ll be iron alloy when you’re finished.
Whether they be skipping ropes or battle ropes, get yourself some yardage. Rope work is tremendous for conditioning the upper body. If you are jumping rope, aim for a few doubles every couple of hops. Jump rope can be used between exercises or on it’s own to keep your heart rate up while yielding some athletic benefits. Battle ropes were made to make you miserable. Build grip strength while frying your shoulders and lungs. Want more bang for the buck? Combine full body movements (tidal waves for example) with arm sprints to hit your heart rate and brutalize your muscles. Getting bored? Tie one end to a heavy object and tow that shit like luggage.
Sprints & Stairs
The explanation is in the name. Whether you go on a hill, up a set of stairs or along the straightaway, run as fast as you can for 30 seconds and rest for 60 seconds. On a set of stairs? Skip one or two steps every push to feel your pulse climb and your legs crumble. Simple, effective, no-nonsense. Think it’s too easy? Decrease your rest time to 30 seconds and/or throw on a weighted vest. Call me when you taste blood.
It’s not sexy but it can still be effective. Combine mountain climbers, burpees, push ups, chin ups, jumping jacks or whatever other movement you want into a 5 round circuit performing 30 seconds of each exercise with purpose. See how many you can do in the allotted time with good technique. After a full round, break for a few seconds and then hit it up again. Word of advice for athletes, you STILL need to be doing some sort of running type training.
Use the list above to freshen up your program and boost you closer to your goals. If you are a novice starting out, you need to build a general baseline strength level first. No negotiating. Learn to squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge and carry before you start staring at a set of ropes or at a prowler sled. It’ll all come in due time. Stay consistent, progress appropriately and build your capacity to produce force. Do that and watch what happens to everything else.