The Problem

Visit any gym you might choose, and you’ll likely see familiar faces plodding along on the treadmills and cross trainers, usually for hours at a time. The reality is that this is not a smart way to achieve fat loss, improve cardiovascular fitness or to maintain interest in a training programme. There are several problems here. I feel the need to add that I am not knocking the dedication of people who do this, merely highlighting that it is not the optimal path to fitness or fat burning.

Firstly, the more efficient your body becomes at performing a task (such as running on a treadmill), the less energy that is expended. This means that to further progress, you need to run further, faster or for a longer duration – say goodbye to your free evenings as your training commitments increase.

Secondly, it is well documented that prolonged exercise (especially at higher intensities) leads to an increase in cortisol. This stress hormone serves an evolutionary, short-term purpose, but it is not meant to sustain our training sessions or lifestyles on a permanent basis. It is highly likely we are adding more stress to an already-stressed body, from work and lack of sleep mainly, by grunting away on cardio machines. When cortisol levels are elevated on a regular basis you might experience increased fatigue, the feeling of your muscle being cannibalised (literally being used as fuel) and the development of increasingly stubborn areas of body fat. Strong and healthy bodies are not built on cardiovascular exercise alone.

Finally, you can’t outrun a bad diet. I know this message will be repeated for evermore, and people will continue to test this theory, but those 350 calories in an extra slice of carrot cake are better left uneaten – since that equates to about one hour’s rowing in the gym. Have two slices and you may as well take your sleeping bag. (Hint – mouse over the image!)

Cardio Or Conditioning?

When we talk about cardio it conveys a picture of someone beavering away on the treadmill, bike or cross trainer. Although these are cardiovascular in nature and hence serve to make your heart bigger and stronger, they are all highly specialised forms of training. Do you think that on their own, any of these would prepare you for a hard day picking up hay bales, or carrying buckets of water, or pushing a heavy lawnmower around? Personally, I don’t think they would.

This is where we draw the distinction between cardio and conditioning. Conditioning has many definitions, but I think there are two important aspects that define it.

  1. Good levels of general conditioning or General Physical Preparedness (GPP) allows you to perform nearly any task for an extended period of time.
  2. Good conditioning utilises many muscle groups, as well as placing a high demand on the cardiovascular system.

Good conditioning exercises might include sled-pushing/pulling, sledgehammer work, kettlebell exercises (especially those that are ballistic in nature such as the clean, swing, snatch and jerk), bodyweight circuits, sandbag work, rowing, sprinting or the assault bike. The heart is a dumb muscle, it doesn’t know what task it is doing, it just knows it has to work hard when it is asked to.

This is not an exhaustive list of exercises, but I am hopeful that you can see we are now looking at ways to add more resistance and additional muscle groups to cardiovascular work. These exercises are much more likely to prepare you for the demands of the real world, not to mention they will expend more energy due to the added muscular demands on the body.

Now I am not confining the stepper and cross trainers to Room 101, but I do believe they would be better suited to easy recovery work or Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) work rather than to body transformation goals.

More on this later…

So Why is Conditioning Important?

Balance is always good. Do you really want to be the strongest person in the gym, but be unable to walk up a flight of stairs without collapsing? Very few people would truly see this as a worthy trade-off. Most people have a bias towards strength work or cardiovascular work, but for optimum health, there is no doubt that we should be seeking a comfortable balance between the two. And don’t believe those gym myths that any form of conditioning will waste all of your muscle – have you seen Anthony Joshua, James Haskell, George St Pierre, Ronaldo or Rich Froning lately?

Well-planned conditioning will not only improve your fitness and ability to recover, it will improve your heart health and reduce the chance of cardio-respiratory disease too.

How to Programme Conditioning

An optimal level of conditioning sessions is likely to fall between 2 and 5 sessions per week. This will depend on your current level of fitness and your training goals. Strength training and metabolic conditioning are both energy intensive. This means that they are competing for resources and energy. If it is important to you to increase your fitness, then you should appreciate that your strength/muscular progress may be slower than if you performed less conditioning. If you are looking to solely increase strength/muscle or to lose fat then these are good guidelines to follow:

  • If you are new to training – It is likely you can make excellent gains in strength AND fitness because you have never trained before and your body will respond well to new stimulus. This means you could benefit from up to 5 sessions of conditioning without impacting your strength work. Obviously, consider the demands of your job and how much stress you have in your life before going in all guns blazing.
  • If you are an intermediate trainer – Then it is likely you have been training for a while. Strength and body composition adaptions will have slowed down, you may have already established a base of aerobic fitness and as such fewer conditioning sessions would be more appropriate e.g. 3 to 4. This would allow you to devote more energy to strength and muscle adaptions.
  • If you are an experienced trainer – It is likely that you are near the top of your training age, and this means that any new adaptations will need much more specialist work. In this case, 2 to 3 conditioning sessions are more appropriate since any more than this will likely eat into your recovery between training sessions.

If you wish to change the emphasis from one end of the spectrum to the other then you simply need to adjust volume. For example, if you want to get fitter then add a conditioning session. If you want to get stronger then take a conditioning session away since this will allow more rest (and more energy) for strength work.

I’m sold. Do I do Conditioning Before or After Strength Training?

If your primary goals are strength gains, muscle building or fat loss then resistance training should come first. Resistance training will have the most impact on body composition and you will be able to put all your energy towards this goal if you do it first. Similarly, your central nervous system will be primed at the start of the session (remember to prime the CNS!) and you will also be able to benefit from the full stock of glycogen in the muscles. It is also argued that resistance training will exhaust your glycogen levels which means that fat will more likely be used as an energy substrate for any exercise that follows.

If you perform strength training AFTER conditioning then it is likely you will be pre-fatigued, and this will impact your ability to lift at the appropriate intensity. Also, an enzyme called AMPK gets released after sustained cardiovascular work and this can have a negative effect on our muscle building potential (causing a reduction in the MTOR enzyme which is key for muscle building).

Rules to Follow

1) The ideal timing is to perform conditioning as a separate session to strength training (at least 5 hours apart) but let’s be honest, how many people have the luxury of training twice per day?! In that case, conditioning should be tagged on to the end of the strength sessions. 10 to 20 minutes will suffice.

Consider Alactic and Aerobic intervals (see the previous article) since this will build explosiveness and aerobic capacity. An example might be 15 seconds of hard swings on the top of every minute for 15 minutes, or 20m max power sled pushes on the top of every minute for 10 minutes.

If you perform maximum effort glycolytic intervals (i.e. the intervals last from 30 to 90 seconds) then, as a rule, try to work with longer rest periods e.g. 1:2-6 work to rest ratio. If you are fit you might do 30 seconds hard with 60 seconds rest, while if you are less fit you might opt for 30 seconds hard work and 2 minutes rest. Listen to your body. We don’t want to be regularly training with high levels of fatigue and feeling like we want to chuck up.

2) Try to use a high-low split between sessions (as per the late great sprint coach Charlie Francis). This means try to use high-intensity conditioning on days where you perform strength training (which is also high intensity). And conversely, this means that low-intensity conditioning (LISS work) should be used on days you don’t strength train. This allows the body and CNS to recover better between sessions. If you perform strength training and then the next day perform high-intensity conditioning you are not allowing your CNS the time to recharge and recover. The likely impact will be decreased performance and ultimately persistent fatigue.

Also, consider using opposing muscle groups on days of high-intensity conditioning. If you trained upper body during your strength session then look to make the bulk of your conditioning session lower body by utilising exercises such as sprints, swings, or sled drags.

3) Add 1 or 2 sessions of low-intensity aerobic work to your week. This should last at least 30 minutes. This could be something as simple as brisk walking. The key here is to be able to maintain nasal breathing so test your self by putting a hand across your mouth to make sure you are not working too hard. If you put a hand across your mouth and you cannot get enough oxygen through your nose then you are likely working too hard – turn it down a bit. This is much lower intensity than most people are used to. An approximate heart rate for this level is called the Maximum Aerobic Function. This equates to “180 – Age”. This is the pulse rate you must not exceed during LISS work.

Aerobic or LISS work is important because it builds the foundation for all other conditioning work. It also enables you to recover quicker between strength exercises since it helps to regenerate ATP to the muscles. LISS is where you can utilise the stepper or cross trainer if you wish, however, LISS doesn’t need to be boring. As I mentioned before, the heart is a dumb muscle and doesn’t care how you are working it. This is where you can be creative. You might split your 30 minutes up as follows:

  • 5 mins row.
  • 10 mins bodyweight circuits.
  • 5 mins running.
  • 10 mins of sled pushing.
  • 5 mins of kettlebell snatching. (That’s 35 minutes but hey, you get the extra 5 as a bonus! And this is a personal favourite of mine…)

Or you can just jog for 30 minutes at the correct pulse rate.

Whatever you choose, just go out and have fun! And remember, adjust your conditioning sessions to suit your goal.

Be bulletproof,

Coach Craig.

Author - Craig Peterson - Personal Trainer & Mentor

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