By: Barbell Logic Team
From general physical preparedness to sport-related tasks describes a kind of spectrum from general to specific conditioning-related goals. Conditioning lies somewhere between strength and skill. We can differentiate skill from strength in terms of the task. Strength training requires no specific task to be useful for increasing your physical fitness, but skill development doesn’t exist without a specific task in mind. There are some general components to conditioning work, but for the most part, if your goal is conditioning it should be targeted toward a specific task.
As it is most often used, “conditioning” is an imprecise term. A kind of catch-all for cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, the effects of carrying around unwanted body fat, or the quantity that determines whether you feel like keeling over after climbing several flights of stairs, conditioning often seems like that thing that is “not strength training” that maybe we should be doing anyway. Conditioning is probably the most lifter-requested change a strength coach will receive when a lifter feels stuck or like they are struggling. But when strength coaches receive that request, we almost always have to ask, non-flippantly, “conditioning for what?”
That’s because conditioning without context doesn’t really mean much. For some people, conditioning means they want to be more generally physically prepared, meaning they want to be in the best shape possible to lift, run, fight, swim, and have sex all in the same day—despite the incurable condition that they are, in fact, not a 90’s action hero. For others, conditioning seems integral to bodyweight issues and the challenges of improving your body composition. Still others have met some unexpected physical challenge and found their level of preparedness for that challenge wanting, or they want to take up some new hobby that isn’t lifting heavy weights in a controlled environment. Finally, there are those who play a sport or have physically demanding jobs for whom the task of conditioning revolves around specific aspects of performance.
This range—from general physical preparedness to sports-related tasks—describes a kind of spectrum from general to specific goals that we tend to connect to the idea of conditioning. This spectrum should also describe different approaches to conditioning work because conditioning is not like strength; it has no general, trainable expression that translates to all circumstances. Fitness is your physical competence to complete a task. You can quantify fitness by a combination of three broad factors: Your strength relative to the task, your level of conditioning as a limiter of your performance, and your skill at performing the task.
As a task, consider something we might think of as being strength-based: What will affect a person’s ability to deadlift a 225 lb. barbell as many times as they can in a two-minute interval? Let’s say that Lifter #1 has a one-rep maximum deadlift (1RM) of 500 lb., Lifter #2 a 1RM of 300 lb., and Lifter #3 has only ever lifted 200 lb. for a 1RM. Without any more data, we can predict who will perform more repetitions; we would expect that Lifter #1, for whom the task involves submaximal repetitions at <50% of his best lift, will outperform Lifter #2 for whom each repetition is about 75% and that Lifter #2 will outperform Lifter #3 who will be attempting a new 1RM personal record. Instead of predicting who will perform best, however, consider the lifters’ fitness for this specific task. For Lifter #1, strength is not a limiting factor. This will be a test of muscular endurance (a combination of strength and conditioning) and of his skill to lift without wasting energy. There is a significant conditioning component specific to the time domain of the task. For Lifter #2, strength will play a bigger role. Even if she is a more skilled lifter and better “conditioned” to a two-minute task than Lifter #1, she won’t perform as many repetitions as Lifter #1 simply due to the difference in their strength. Lifter #2’s fitness for this task will invoke a combination of her strength, conditioning, and skill. Finally, for Lifter #3, this will be a 1RM test. His limiting factors are strength and skill. This is the a vastly different task as compared to Lifter #1, for whom strength would not be a particularly limiting factor. For this specific task, conditioning only becomes an issue when you are strong enough (what that means is an article for another time). Strength, conditioning, and skill can each be described as being general or dependant on defining a particular task for their development.
Strength is general. Your muscles can only do one thing—pull—and you can train the coordinated use of muscles that cover most potential tasks with just a few movements. (See our article on The Problem With Strength.) This means that strength training will have a broad carryover for widely ranging goals. If your goal is to improve your fitness for undefined tasks, strength is going to give you the best return on your training time investment. It also means that if you are under-strength, then general strength training will make you better at specific tasks as well as general preparedness.
Skill is entirely task-dependant. Sports offer the most obvious expressions of physical skill, and there is a reason that improving your skill at something like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu does not simultaneously improve your ball handling skills in soccer. Some people are naturally talented and pick up skills in multiple sports quickly, but the actual development of a skill requires intentional practice, and the benefit you get from skill practice does not translate well to other high-skill activities. (Read more about deliberate practice Here, and Here.)
We can differentiate skill from strength in terms of the task. Strength training requires no specific task to be useful for increasing your physical fitness, but skill development doesn’t exist without a specific task in mind.
Conditioning lies somewhere between strength and skill. There are some general components to conditioning work, but for the most part, if your goal is conditioning it should be targeted toward a specific task. Conditioning affects the contribution of your energy systems to your fitness. Unlike the development of a skill, your energy systems contribute to all daily activities and all specific sports activities as well. Unlike strength training, however, you have multiple energy “pathways” that operate differently depending on the intensity and duration of the task you are performing. Your long-term energy system (usually called your aerobic or oxidative energy system) most directly affects long-duration activities like endurance events, including the greatest endurance event of existing. You also have short-burst energy systems that use the ready supply of energy in your cells and that convert glycogen stores into energy, quickly but inefficiently. These different pathways work together to provide energy for all the action hero stuff you dream about doing every day. Exactly how they work for you depends on the specifics of what you are doing.
There are other confounding factors. Muscular endurance is your ability to maintain submaximal contractions either in the presence of or while dissipating fatigue. Because muscular endurance involves submaximal contractions, it benefits from general strength training. The stronger the muscles the more submaximal the contractions, meaning you can either stay ahead of fatigue longer (go farther) or your submaximal contraction becomes stronger (you go faster) as a result of strength training… again a testament to the general nature and value of strength. Muscular endurance also depends heavily on the task itself, rowing endurance doesn’t translate well to running endurance since the specific muscular contractions are very different. The individual may have a high level of aerobic conditioning that makes them generally better at endurance tasks, but improving beyond that baseline requires the development of muscular endurance, which is part strength, part skill (efficiency), and partly a specific adaptation to the task of repeated muscular contractions in a coordinated manner. (Other things that cannot be changed or developed play a role here as well, like the distribution of Type I and Type II muscle fibers. Those are part of your baseline that you are stuck with, however, and of less concern when you are trying to get better at a specific task.)
Putting Into Practice
Work you do in training should be specific to the outcomes you desire. If you’ve bought into the idea that strength training is the most useful adaptation for general health and fitness and you are considering whether you need to include some conditioning work in your programming, you need to consider whether the conditioning work fits your goals, and you need to consider how it fits into your overall training plan.
This assumes that your goal is training, meaning you have a goal in mind and you want to use a structured, intentional approach to meeting that goal. We don’t reverse engineer goals to fit the desired training stress. (I feel like going for a run, therefore I am going to include running in my training.) Training means that every programmed physical activity is a means to an end; you squat, press, bench, and deadlift to get stronger, not because you want to. Unplanned exercise, just for fun, is perfectly fine—gasp—but not what we are talking about here. Here, we are discussing conditioning work to meet a goal. For that, let’s start with some common goals and the types of conditioning you might include in your training to meet them.
One of the main reasons you may want to add conditioning work to your program is to improve basic health markers. Everyone responds to what doctors call “lifestyle changes” a little bit differently. But, even if there is no “one size fits all” prescription, with easily predictable outcomes, there are a collection of positive changes that complement each other and that tend to improve basic health markers. Strength training, improved nutrition, and an increase in your physical activity each seem to independently and synergistically improve basic health markers, benefits that come with virtually no downside, an improbability with the inevitable medical intervention should you ignore poor markers of health. Strength tends to give you the best “bang for your buck” because general strength training, along with good nutrition practices, tend to improve these markers, or at least affect the ability to improve them in positive ways, while increasing your functionality and building muscle mass, which becomes a rare commodity as you age. The problem is that this won’t be enough for some people. Additional aerobic-based work may be in order to attack health-related problems.
Within the context of a strength training program, there are only salutory benefits to an increase in your overall activity level if you are otherwise fairly sedentary. By an increase in activity level, we mean daily activity that does not rise to the level of training, activities like extra walking, standing at your desk, or just decreasing the amount of time you are being still. There is no magic pill; a healthy lifestyle, hard training, and simple conditioning each can have independent effects on your health markers. If this is a concern for you, don’t just pick one. Use the opportunity you have given yourself by taking up strength training to overhaul other areas of your life, to eat better and be more active.
For general health benefits that won’t affect your lifting, you can take a more unstructured approach. Start with increasing your activity level throughout the day. You may need to add in some brisk walking. Ten to thirty minutes, three or four times per week (every day if you can), is a great starting place. Make some small changes and pay attention to how your body responds.
Walking or low-impact, low-intensity activities do make a difference. Keep in mind the goal is not to get better at walking. We are not recommending you talk up competitive speed walking. For general health benefits, start with activity. If your goals are more demanding, then more demanding plans are in order.
Body Composition and General Conditioning
Body composition, like general health, is a side effect of what you do and what you eat. For body composition goals, you are concerned about two conditions: an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat, both being targeted adaptations to nutrition and strength training. You can target a change in body composition with nutrition and general strength training, directing your energy balance and how your body uses calories in ways that affect your body fat levels and your lean muscle mass.
Conditioning work is really a subset of controlling your energy balance. The more active you are, the more demand you put on your system to produce or replace energy, the higher your caloric cost. You can adjust your physical activity to fine tune your caloric needs after you’ve gained control over your nutrition. The problem is that there are interference effects between certain types of physical activity and strength training. Long-distance training or high-endurance events, the kinds of things that burn copious amounts of calories, are more catabolic in nature. If you layer long slow distance training on top of your strength training program, you are going to find it more difficult to build muscle and get stronger.
This is where low-impact, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) plays an important role. Using a sled, exercise bike, or rower, HIIT tends to complement strength training better than long slow distance training. The “high-intensity” nature of HIIT maximally taxes each of your energy pathways in a short amount of time. The net result is that your body is forced to replace ATP and glycogen stores for up to 24 hours following a relatively short bout of HIIT conditioning. Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, a side-effect of both resistance training and HIIT, bumps the caloric “cost” of HIIT to levels that make it useful for fine-tuning your energy balance. If done with low-impact implements it does not interfere with your strength training as much as long-distance or endurance training.
If that last paragraph made no sense to you, watch this video:
How to Start HIIT Training
To start HIIT training, pick a low-impact modality. We like sled pushes, rowing machines, and exercise bikes, but you can use other implements as well—hill sprints work in a pinch. Flat out running tends to be too hard on your joints and some activities like swimming are not intense enough. You need something that you can perform at maximum effort in just 15 to 30 seconds.
On day 1, 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, meaning you will start each interval at the two-minute mark. Plan on 2 to 4 intervals on the first day. If you are using a heavy sled, you may need to cut yourself off early. The goal is not to make yourself sick, but to set a baseline.
After Day 1
Your goal should be to gradually increase the stress. With HIIT you have three ways to do this. (1) Add rounds: If you completed four rounds on day 1, then try to do five rounds next time. (2) Decrease your rest time: A good goal is to shoot for a 1:3 (work:rest) ratio. (3) Add intensity or weight: One reason we like sled pushes so much is that you can add weight to them over time, increasing the intensity of the work. Pick one variable and increase it gradually. When you can perform 10 rounds at your given intensity, then add weight or decrease your rest time and start over. Usually, two HIIT sessions per week, with increases in intensity once per week is enough. The goal is to burn through your energy stores. As you do so, you will also improve your body’s ability to replenish energy and you should experience a notable improvement in your recovery between rounds.
Sports or Task-Dependant Conditioning
If your goal is to get better at a specific task, then you need to consider both the energy requirements of the task and the roles that strength, skill, and conditioning play in your chosen sport or activity. Keep in mind the specific task. If your sport requires you to run several miles, then you are going to dedicate some training time to running. This might be the case if you are a striker on your soccer team. But, if you are the goalie, then forget the running, stay in the gym and get as strong as humanly possible.
Some examples of training and sports
A lot of task-dependent conditioning training is moot when you can use practice time as conditioning training. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as an example because it is difficult to mimic the precise muscular contractions that make up that sport without actually practicing it and without a partner—it’s difficult to grapple with yourself in non-figurative ways. But, if you show up for training every day trying to win you probably won’t develop your conditioning very efficiently either. If, however, you treat your practice time like training, you can use that time to develop your conditioning. Identify your own baseline: “I can roll 3 six-minute rounds with 1 minute of rest in between.” Then, use your practice time to improve that baseline: “Today I am going for 4 rounds. Next week 5.” You can use practice to improve the specific conditioning needed for your sport. Where you have these opportunities to titrate up the stress of your conditioning work in a practice environment use them. Where you don’t, get as close as possible.
You can use the HIIT training outlined above to improve your general conditioning for sports, but without the specific muscular contractions and demands of the sport itself, the benefit of that general conditioning will have limited carryover.
When you have a task in mind, conditioning work must become more specific. In this, how you train for strength and how you improve your conditioning for your sport are going to follow slightly different principles. General strength training will always improve specific expressions in sport and life. But the carryover of general conditioning is much narrower. At some point, you need to practice your sport or mimic the energy demands of the task in order to improve your conditioning for it. And that will be one area of improving your fitness for the task, along with strength and skill development.
All of this is an invitation to clarify your own goals and consider the physical principles involved in reaching them. That’s really the starting point for all good training decisions; think about where you want to go and how you can spend the foreseeable future getting there.