A General Conditioning Program for Health and Fitness

The more you train, the more efficient the systems become, making you better able to sustain longer efforts and recover from high-intensity, short-burst activities. Training your energy systems also costs a whole lot of calories and requires that you be active, lending a positive impact on body composition, too. The associated benefits of conditioning training are legion and (like strength) almost universally beneficial. So, while strength training makes you better at everything, if you want to better meet the demands of your life, be more active, lose body fat, and tackle your health on all fronts, you need conditioning work, too.

Conditioning for Health and Fitness

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, Editor in Chief

Part I: Why Conditioning and Strength

I believe that improving strength is the best physical training a person can do to improve his or her quality of life. Any person, any age. Period. But few things will squash a love for training more thoroughly than being the strongest person in the room and feeling fat or out of shape. And that undermining feeling of lack—for fitness or health or aesthetics—is a too-common crony of the strength-only dogma where it exists. Sure, if you were going to be stranded on a deserted island and could only grab one piece of workout equipment from the plane as it’s going down, grab a barbell, fashion a rack from palm trees, and tie some rocks to the ends. You won’t lose any gains waiting for the rescue.

But we’re not on a deserted island, and far too often, the importance of strength as a training goal causes us to ignore other important areas of health and fitness. When strength becomes someone’s sole obsession, almost inevitably, one day that person won’t like how his clothes fit or how he looks in a candid photo, and he’ll decide that, despite how the value of strength training, it’s time to shift gears and “get in better shape.” It’s not unusual at this point for people to toss all their previous training out the window—bathwater, baby, the whole tub usually goes flying, too. And they retreat to the good ol’ standbys of diet and exercise: eat less and move more. This is the same mistake in reverse, a pendulum that is just a few swings away from the vegan-yogi-powerlifting-runner.

It’s also unnecessary. If the goal of training is self-improvement, then improvement on all fronts should be the first priority. As a matter of distinction, training means doing something with a purpose and a reasonable expectation of success. When we train for strength, we plan to get stronger, and we set up a program that anticipates results. Training to be fit, in shape, or well-conditioned (as is the focus here) is no different.

It’s important to understand that strength training does not prevent other types of training. When done properly, it enhances everything else. Even the marathoner will benefit from regular, dedicated strength training. If, however, someone’s goals include more than just being as strong as humanly possible (and they should unless you are a competitive strength athlete who gets paid), then a comprehensive training program doesn’t end with strength, even if it starts there.

I am not talking about looks, either. Abs are overrated, and I have clients with dad bods who can crush gym bros half their age in every physical category that matters. Their fitness is built on a solid foundation of strength training (always!) and honed with an active lifestyle, good eating habits, and dedicated conditioning work. The other aspects of the fitness triumvirate—nutrition and conditioning—cannot be ignored without consequences.

I am going to focus on conditioning because that is where most people that I work with get stuck. For nutrition help, I suggest checking out our ebooks (Nutrition 101 and Seven Strategies for Taking Charge of Your Nutrition). Here, I am going to lay out a regimen for basic conditioning work that works with most strength programs, maximizing the benefits and minimizing interference, with the goal that you be over-prepared for just about anything.

Why Conditioning?

Conditioning gets conflated with performance. Just because you get tired doing something does not mean you are out of shape. New or irregular activities will have anyone sucking wind at first. Ever start a long hike and feel like you are going to die in the first mile; then, 30 minutes or so later, you feel like you could hike Everest? Every physical activity is like that on some level. We adapt to the things we do often, getting better and more efficient. There are a lot of factors that contribute to that. Muscular endurance improves dramatically after we do a new activity just once, skills improve, and tolerance for discomfort grows. And, of course, conditioning improves, too.

Conditioning refers to the processes that fuel all our activities. The goal of conditioning training is to maximize one’s capacity for sustained output over a given time. It is a basic adaptation, just as strength is a basic adaptation. What does that mean? As an illustration, let’s compare conditioning to strength training.

Strength is the quantity of transferring force from your muscles through your bones and out into your environment. Every movement in sports and in life—everything that isn’t part of the automatic systems that keep you alive—involves a conscious muscle contraction. Practicing those contractions through big, coordinated movements with large ranges of motion around our joints, and making those movements stronger by training the muscles involved, means that strength training positively affects everything you do. Everything is a lot; so, it makes sense that strength would form the foundation of a general fitness program. The idea, however, that more strength makes you good at everything is incorrect. It makes you better.

Conditioning is similarly ubiquitous. All those muscle contractions require energy. Conditioning trains the metabolic systems that store and replenish that energy. The more you train, the more efficient the systems become, making you better able to sustain longer efforts and recover from high-intensity, short-burst activities. Training energy systems also costs a whole lot of calories and requires that you be active, lending a positive impact on body composition, too. The associated benefits of conditioning training are legion and (like strength) almost universally beneficial. So, while strength training makes you better at everything, if you want to better meet the demands of your life, be more active, lose body fat, and tackle your health on all fronts, you need conditioning work, too.

What is Conditioning, Really?

The following video clip comes from the Barbell Academy at Barbell Logic. In it, Academy Director CJ Gotcher explains the practical implications of the body’s three energy systems—the phosphagen, glycolytic, and aerobic systems.

Intuitively, we know how this works. You can sprint for a very short time, maintain a hard-but-doable intensity for a little longer, and you can walk or maintain low-intensity activities almost indefinitely.

All energy systems work all the time, but total power output depends on which system provides the most energy relative to that output. As your phosphagen and glycolytic systems fail to meet demand, total power output has to come down, and your aerobic system takes over. Hard training that empties your CP and glycogen reserves also forces your body to get better at replenishing those stores, improving your recovery and, in turn, improving your performance.

Part II: Conditioning for Life

One of the amazing things about the human body is that it changes to meet our environment’s demands. If you have the will, motivation, or good humor to suffer through hard physical training, you can sculpt nearly any physical lifestyle that appeals to you or suits your needs.

Baseline + Intensity

Cumulative periodic stresses lead to lasting changes. If you are not training for a specific sport or activity with clearly defined work-to-rest requirements, then your regimen should be generally useful: targeting specific physiological adaptations, namely improvements in your energy systems.

A general conditioning regimen has two basic components: (1) extended time spent at an elevated heart rate and respiratory activity without going beyond what is sustainable by your aerobic system and (2) recovery from shorter-burst, high-intensity bouts of activities. I like to think of this regiment as a strong baseline of activity plus high-intensity training.

Activity Baseline: a commitment to daily exercise or collection of habits that have you moving with an elevated heart rate for extended periods

High-intensity training: HIIT or high-intensity circuit training 2x per week.

Baseline Activities: Sustainable, Daily Exercise

For over fifty years, sports physiology textbooks have been recommending that conditioning be built on a base of aerobic fitness, and that is still good advice. Most types of training and most sports involve repeated work intervals followed by periods of rest. The ability to recover during those rest periods is a function of your aerobic fitness. So, while the crux of our recommendations here lies in high-intensity training, you will make that type of training better by building a decent aerobic base.

Another reason for lower-intensity activities is sustainability. Short-burst, high-intensity work and regular strength training do not take up much time, and they can be difficult to recover from. It takes a lot of movement just to counterbalance the other many hours of the week the average person spends sitting (if it is even possible to offset the effects of sedentariness). Low-intensity activities like walking, light jogging, easy biking, and swimming are things you can do almost every day without wearing your body out for regular strength and conditioning work.

What this baseline activity looks like will be a little bit different depending on who you talk to, but some common recommendations follow: You should look to balance your sedentary time with moderate to high doses of low-intensity activity. If you sit on your butt for more than six hours a day, you should be shooting for a baseline of five and a half hours of walking-level intensity per week.

Quantity matters. Five and a half hours per week qualifies an otherwise sedentary person to be considered “active.” So, if you are already active, you can scale back your baseline a little bit. At a minimum, however, if you are looking to build and maintain a high-level of general fitness, you should be engaged in at least thirty minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise per day, in addition to your strength training and the other high-intensity conditioning work in the next section.

Now, this baseline means it’s something that you are going to work up to and maintain. It does not mean you are supposed to start going progressively faster and farther during these sessions. You can. That’s fine. But the more you train to get better at your aerobic baseline activity, the more you will commit your body’s resources to that activity, which may affect your strength training and your high-intensity conditioning work. You can take advantage of your improving fitness without beating yourself up unnecessarily by doing this conditioning work for a set amount of time (as opposed to increasing distances). The fitter you get, the more naturally you will do more work in that time. If you go for a set distance, say a favorite walking path, the activity won’t scale up with you as you get fitter. You will finish faster, and you will become too efficient at doing the same thing every day.

Adding Intensity

Intense conditioning work must be intense. Similar to lifting weights, if you don’t lift heavy enough, the body is not sufficiently shocked into a recovery and adaptation cycle. High-intensity conditioning requires a similar strategy for accumulating enough volume at high enough intensities for it to be meaningful. In lifting, accomplish this similar goal through multiple sets across—the same weight performed for a given number of reps for several sets with just enough rest in between. With sets across, the lifter can lift heavy and accumulate fatigue; both are necessary for an adaptive response. The sets-across idea works well with high-intensity conditioning, too, using repeating work-to-rest intervals at something around a one-to-four ratio.

It’s best to start high-intensity training with a low-impact modality. The best options are a fan bike (like the Rogue Echo Bike) or a sled. The next best are low-impact exercises that require minimal skill but provide near-constant resistance, such as a regular exercise bike, a rowing machine, weighted walks up a steep hill, etc. You can do this type of work with any activity that allows for near-maximal effort for about twenty seconds of work, but you must be conscious of how different types of sprints will affect your body. Running sprints, jump roping, kettlebells, and other options all work well if you’re adapted to them. Other traditional endurance activities require too much skill and finesse, like swimming or sport rowing, and do not allow newbies to sprint or work hard enough over multiple intervals to be useful here.

Getting Started

On day one, you are going to perform approximately 20-second intervals of maximum-effort work. If you are on an exercise bike, you are going to look like a crazy person pedaling away from a rabid grizzly for 20 seconds. Then rest. For now, rest as much as you need to. A good goal to shoot for is to perform 20 seconds of work followed by 1 minute and 40 seconds of rest. Plan on two to four intervals on the first day. If you are using a heavy sled, you may need to cut yourself off early. The goal is to set a baseline, not make yourself sick.

Making Progress

Next, gradually increase the stress while training two times per week. There are three ways to increase stress:

(1) Add rounds: If you completed four rounds on the first day, then try to do five rounds next time. Then, add one round per week. Shoot for eight to twelve rounds before changing one of the other variables (rest or weight). Then, drop back to four to six rounds and repeat the process.

(2) Decrease your rest time: Work toward a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio. Start with as much rest as you need. Switch to a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio. You know your rest is appropriate when you feel your effort downshift on your second to the last interval. This feels like a sudden decrease in power output in the middle of the work interval. If you run out of gas sooner than that, increase your rest. If you don’t feel that downshifting, then you are either not working hard enough during your work intervals or resting too much during your rest intervals. Do not, however, decrease your rest to less than a 1:3 ratio. If the intensity is appropriately high, anything less than a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio should not allow you to complete enough intervals for effective conditioning training.

(3) Add intensity or weight: One reason sleds are so useful is that you can add weight to them, increasing the intensity of the work. Some implements will let you increase the resistance, which adds another dimension to your training. Make this the last factor you manipulate, however. Conditioning training is much more dependent on the intensity of the work and the appropriate rest.


Your baseline activity should be something you do almost every day. Before or after training does not matter as long as you keep the intensity low to moderate and stay consistent. Any initial interference with your strength will go away once you get used to it.

High-intensity interval training falls best between hard lower-body training days. So, if you are on a Heavy Light Medium program, you would put one session at the end of your Heavy Day or between your Heavy and Light Days. The next session goes after your Medium Day, giving you two rest days before your next Heavy Day. For a four-day split, these sessions work well at the end of a lower body day or the next day but should never go right before a strength workout.

If you are new to conditioning work, there will be interference with your strength training and other activities. This approach, however, should reduce that interference to acceptable levels while you work to improve your training on all fronts.




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