Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Conditioning methods are likely one of the most overanalyzed, overcomplicated facets of strength and performance training. While often the unloved younger sibling to conventional strength, speed, and power modalities, conditioning serves a vital role in optimizing athletic/sport performance. I won’t even deny it myself, but you’d be hard pressed to see me doing any conditioning work in my own training, but that’s neither here nor there… as Uncle Sam once said- “do as I say, not as I do.”
Nevertheless, the disdain for conditioning is something I believe is tied to the lack of variability as much as it is the difficulty or “suck” aspect. It makes it kind of easy to shy away from something that is infinitely redundant and bland, even if you are good at it. But the fact remains, aerobic and anaerobic capacity and function are non-negotiable for athletes, and therefore must be an integral part of our training/ programming. If there is only one thing you take away from this article, it should be recognizing that conditioning doesn’t need to be relegated to what everyone lived by for 50 years (i.e. long, slow jogging, stationary bikes, or stair runs).
As we’ll break down in this article, conditioning methods are really only reliant on three factors: work interval, rest interval, and load/intensity applied. As such, this doesn’t need to be some miserable, mundane default routine that you force yourself (or your athletes) through out of obligation. This is an incredibly opportunistic time to get creative, try some new things, and/or address specific weaknesses. We shouldn’t keep conditioning modalities on the back burner, only to be intermittently applied with dread. We need to establish sound training parameters that are incentivizing, effective, and progressed no differently than any of our other training.
A half-assed mindset ultimately produces a half-assed result. Given the relative simplicity to conditioning, it’s easy to be duped into never planning or truly programming it. But not only are we missing a ton of low hanging fruit, we’re also shortchanging the athlete. The first step to getting your foundation is analyzing the athlete(s) for what they need and where they’re at.
-What sport(s) do they play, and what are the empirical/common work: rest intervals?
-->With emphasis on the highest work rate/intensities
-What are the common movements/actions/rhythms to their sport?
-What are the athlete’s present conditioning levels?
For those who don’t have a specific sport, or even a specific training parameter, my suggestion is to just incorporate a full aerobic-anaerobic spectrum throughout your training cycles. Once you assess the athletes for both aerobic and anaerobic baselines, you simply program what’s needed from there. Bear in mind, these can be loose evaluations, not every athlete/client needs a full gamut of testing batteries. I try to stay very broad and basic with my general conditioning parameters (as shown below). Where I look to have more variation is in the training modes and exercise selections/structures, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Once we have our requisite data and establish our broad training parameters the hard part is behind us. Conditioning parameters are governed exclusively by energy systems, meaning we have specific time windows where certain energy systems predominate. The training we provide in order to improve these systems exclusively need to match the time windows present in sport (or, specific to the system you’re targeting). The mode, truthfully, is much less of a factor in the equation. Our biology has absolutely no knowledge of whether our heart rate is up because we’re running or swimming or watching the super bowl- it just knows heart rate is elevated and a host of subsequent metabolic process’ need to occur.
A Few Distinctions
I.) Effort and intensity
There’s been a longstanding belief that conditioning must be to complete exhaustion every time. This isn’t only untrue, but significantly counterproductive. Sure, some conditioning sessions should be gut checks, but these should be few and far between- especially with young, healthy athletes. When we beat the body down repetitively, not to mention with lackluster mindset/effort, the damage can be extensive. Look to balance the energy systems and train each independently. Once aerobic capacity has been established, it doesn’t take much to maintain it. So there’s really no justification to weeks on end of mindless, depleting aerobic training. Don’t beat a dead horse.
Conditioning is no different than strength training- it needs to be wave-like, and/or periodized. We need to know when to push the gas and when to pump the brake, and we need to understand that undulation is required for adaptation. Doing the same thing over and over without variance is wasteful. And for most people, conditioning is redundant and arduous by default. Consider the repetitive compressive stress, the degradation of joints, and wearing on soft tissues that occur during prolonged stagnant conditioning. Don’t be afraid to switch up the exercise selection, or the way the training is performed every so often. As long as the time parameters are met, we’re meeting what we need in regard to specificity.
III.) Exercise/set duration
Another unfortunate misconception is that when we’re doing conditioning (especially aerobic), it needs to be 60 second, or even 90 sec. work intervals. Longer duration sets like this aren’t inherently good or bad, but what needs to be considered is the exercise choice. Truth be told there aren’t many conventional exercises anyone can perform for 60 seconds with good technique (at least not with enough resistance to make it worth it.) Don’t shy away from staying below the 40 or 45 second mark, and even only sparingly that long. I can still get a good aerobic effect from say 25-30 second sets that are much cleaner technique wise. The tradeoff is we just do more rounds rather than longer sets. And in this case, the technique stays sharp- no wasted reps, we can add a little more load, and we keep a higher pace throughout the session.
My Conditioning Pillars
I need to preface this section by first saying a good majority of my conditioning protocols have been loosely adopted from Cal Dietz over the years. But nevertheless, what Cal really opened my eyes to was the tragic misguidance of conventional conditioning modes (i.e. run, stationary bike, rower). As he so succinctly explained it to me- “physiology is physiology.” Meaning, we can do lifting circuits with time and intensity parameters to meet conditioning demands and check the box. This was a game changer for me.
I.) Contralateral based movements
Among the countless items I’ve extracted from Cal, this is something he introduced some years back. The general principle behind contralateral movement is that it challenges the body in a more natural or behavioral way that is more reflective to sport/human action. I believe the added benefit with conditioning is applying this while also under fatigue. For all intents and purposes, any movement that is contralateral or unilateral is fair game. I just try to just select exercises that are either reflective of sport or address individual weaknesses.
--> With my contralateral circuits, I really like to perform these by having my athletes perform all one side consecutively, then the other side, then rest. (Examples below).
II.) General Movement (Flow) Circuits
Sometimes I like to use just an assortment of movements for conditioning circuits. Typically, these are low or no load, light-mod intensity and designed to include a very wide spectrum of movements/exercises/positions. The main reason I look to include these is to utilize as a restorative or recovery-based circuit. Great option for the middle of the week or weekends to compliment your training.
III.) Breathing Parameters
Breathing parameters for conditioning are like tempos for strength training- they’re too universally beneficial to ignore. I’m not saying this is something that is done inherently, but I do strongly encourage you look for ways to add this in. I will use two primary breathing protocols in my conditioning- hypoxic and nasal only. The hypoxic parameter is designed to help increase our CO2 tolerance, and ultimately our CO2/O2 efficiency. This is a protocol I use seldomly. The second, nasal only however, is something I apply often. I did a webinar recently discussing exercise progressions/regressions and covered a bit more on the breathing piece. For those interested, you can check out more here.
I recently had a post that closely resembles the training split below. See here for more.