Task-Dependent Conditioning

Conditioning goals exist on a spectrum from health- to sports-related outcomes, giving us a way to organize conditioning training that takes us from general to specific tasks. This spectrum should inform our different approaches to conditioning work, because conditioning is not like strength. It has no general, trainable expression that translates to all circumstances. The more specific your needs, the more conditioning training requires that you improve with a specific task in mind.

Task-Dependent Conditioning

By: Nick Soleyn

The term “conditioning,” as it is commonly used, is an imprecise term—a kind of catch-all for cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, or the quality that determines whether you feel like keeling over after climbing several flights of stairs. It’s that thing that is not strength training that maybe we should be doing anyway. Conditioning may be the most oft-requested addition to a strength-focused program. As coaches, when a lifter broaches the subject of conditioning, we almost always have to clarify, “conditioning for what?”

Conditioning without context may not mean much. For some, the desire for conditioning just means they want to be better at everything; they want to be in the best shape possible to lift, run, fight, swim, and have sex all on 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 body composition. Still others have met some unexpected physical challenge and found their preparedness for that challenge wanting, or they want to take up some new hobby that isn’t lifting heavy weights. Finally, some people play sports or have physically demanding jobs for whom the task of conditioning revolves around specific aspects of performance.

This range—from general physical preparedness and health to sports-related performance—describes a kind of spectrum for conditioning goals, giving us a way to categorize different approaches to conditioning work. Whether we like it or not, conditioning training is not like strength training. Its most general expressions do not translate to every outcome and every type of activity. Pushing a sled will improve many aspects of your fitness, but after a short while, those improvements will not transfer to other activities and sports that involve different tasks and different sets of skills.

If we think of fitness as a person’s physical competence to complete a task. Then we can quantify fitness by a combination of three basic factors: one’s strength relative to the task, level of conditioning, and skill at performing the task.

For example, what will affect a person’s ability to deadlift a 225-lb. barbell as many times as they can in two minutes? Let’s say that Lifter #1 has a one-rep maximum deadlift (1RM) of 500 lb., Lifter #2’s 1RM is 300 lb., and Lifter #3’s is 200 lb. Without any more information, we can predict who will perform more repetitions. For Lifter #1, the task involves submaximal repetitions at <50% of his 1RM. Lifter #1 will outperform Lifter #2, for whom each repetition is about 75%. 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 endurance (a combination of strength and conditioning) and of his efficiency with the deadlift. 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, with no conditioning component to the task. In terms of energy systems, skill, and strength, Lifter #1 and Lifter #3 are performing vastly different tasks. In this example, conditioning is only an issue when you are strong enough. So, we can describe strength, conditioning, and skill as being general or as being dependent on a particular task for their development.


Strength is general. When we train for strength, we start with the coordinated use of muscles that cover most potential tasks with just a few movements, adding a few additional lifts to help spur progress but never really getting away from improving the basics. Building strength, as measured by these few lifts, has a broad carryover for wide-ranging goals. If your goal is to improve your fitness for undefined tasks—the unknown or unexpected—strength has the best return on your training investment. If you are under-strength, then general strength training will make you better at specific tasks and improve your general preparedness.

Skill is entirely task-dependent. 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 actual skill development requires 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. 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 all: 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. Exactly how they work for you depends on the specifics of what you are doing.

Another factor to consider is muscular endurance—the 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 either you can stay ahead of fatigue longer (go farther) or your submaximal contraction becomes stronger (you go faster) as a result of strength training. Muscular endurance also depends heavily on the task itself—e.g., rowing endurance doesn’t translate well to running endurance since the specific, coordinated muscular contractions are 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 an adaptation to specific types of repeated muscular contractions.

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, consider first whether the conditioning work fits your goals and how it fits into your overall training plan.

General Health

One of the main reasons you may want to add conditioning work to your program is to improve basic health markers. Strength training, improved nutrition, and an increase in your physical activity each seem to improve basic health markers, independently and synergistically, with benefits that have virtually no downside. While strength training has incredible bang-for-your-buck value, it isn’t enough for some people. They may need additional aerobic-based work to address health issues.

Within the context of a strength training program, only good things come from an increase in overall activity level if a person is mostly sedentary outside of training. Increased activity may be as simple as 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, consistent training, and simple activities can each have independent effects on a person’s health.

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. If your goals are more demanding, then more demanding plans are in order.

Body Composition and General Conditioning

Body composition is the result of what you do and what you eat—at least, those are the factors you can control. Targeting an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat starts first with nutrition and 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.

In this context, conditioning training is a subset of energy balance. The more active you are, the more demand you put on your system to produce or replace energy, and 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 damaging to your muscle-building efforts in the gym.

This is a good time to introduce low-impact, high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT tends to complement strength training while helping to improve energy balance and reduce body fat.

To start HIIT training, pick a low-impact activity: sled pushes and air bikes are best; rowing and exercise bikes can also work well; other activities may require that you are well-adapted to them to maximize intensity and minimize how hard they will be on your other training. You need something that you can perform at maximum effort in just 15 to 30 seconds that isn’t going to wreck you.

Day 1

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 to set a baseline, not make yourself sick.

After Day 1

The goal is to gradually increase the stress. HIIT training is very much a journey-is-the-destination type of training. 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) are 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-Dependent 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

Sport-Specific Strength Training for Sports Performance

In-Season vs. Off-Season Strength Training for Sports

Strength and Martial Arts: You Can Do Both

Getting Started in Strongman

Training to Have it All: Organizing and Prioritizing Your Strength Training

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 sports and life. But the carryover of general conditioning is 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.




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