Category Archives: Conditioning 101
Here’s what you need to know…
Few lifters enjoy performing conditioning or cardio. Can you blame them? Weight training builds size and strength and makes you feel invincible. Cardio on the other hand – especially slow-go, hamster cardio – feasts on lean tissue, jacks up cortisol, and leaves you looking and feeling like a depleted, shuffling, treadmill zombie.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By following just seven simple rules, you can transform your soul-sucking cardio bouts into fat-stripping conditioning sessions that crank up your T levels and actually build serious muscle.
1. Get out of your comfort zone.
Brisk walking is a fine stress reliever and can help with recovery. Just don’t expect it to have any effect on body composition or physical capacities unless you’re so out of shape that walking takes you out of your comfort zone.
If you’re comfortable during a conditioning session – even if it looks challenging on paper – you won’t get much out of it. You must force your body to adapt if you want to change quickly. That’s why the best way to get leaner and in better condition is to do higher intensity work like sprints, hill sprints, barbell complexes, Prowler pushing, farmer’s walks, and intervals.
I don’t like to go by how bad a weight training session feels to judge its efficacy, but when it comes to conditioning work, it really is true.
2. Challenge the muscles.
The human body is built for speed and power. Yes, we have the capacity to sustain work for longer periods of time, but dropping the speed/power aspect out of the equation is a mistake as we risk losing that lean and muscular look we all want.
That’s why conditioning work that includes loaded and explosive work as part of an endurance session is the ideal method to improve the way you look. Farmer’s walks, yoke carries, barbell complexes, box jumps, medicine ball throws, Prowler pushing, wheelbarrow walking, tire flipping, sledgehammer striking, kettlebell swings, and overhead lunges are all loaded exercises that can be used as part of a conditioning session to not only lose fat and build endurance, but also develop a more muscular body.
3. Involve the whole body.
The bigger the engine, the more fuel it burns. So if body composition is your main goal, involving more muscles (bigger engine) during your conditioning session will result in more fuel (fat) being burnt. Furthermore, involving more muscles increases the demand on the cardiovascular system, which obviously has a greater affect on improving your conditioning level and work capacity.
Finally, physically demanding work using more muscle groups at one time leads to a greater hormonal response (especially growth hormone and Testosterone), which affects both muscle gain and fat loss positively.
4. Include speed and power.
Most coaches say that speed and power work should only be done in a fresh state. I agree, if the goal is to maximize these capacities. That said, doing speed and power work in a state of metabolic fatigue has a very powerful training effect.
I know from experience that doing speed and power work when the body is metabolically fatigued (but neurally fresh) causes a profound change in body composition, and the effect is seen very quickly. Whether it’s due to survival mechanisms or specific hormonal responses, I’m not sure. Regardless, it works!
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
5. Embrace the power of urgency.
Every time I’ve had to finish a workout within a certain time I’ve felt more focused, which led to better workouts. I also enjoyed fewer psychological inhibitions (e.g., being intimidated by a weight) and that allowed me to perform at a much higher level.
That’s why I love things like Every Minute on the Minute Sets (doing one set every time the clock hits 1 minute), trying to complete a specific conditioning session as fast as possible, or doing as much work as possible within a determined time.
It puts you in a different mindset, one that’s much more conducive to quality workouts. This is especially true for energy system/conditioning sessions. It seems to take your mind off the pain and physical discomfort and allows you to power through, ultimately leading to much better gains.
6. Crank the music.
Strength is a skill. When I want to maximize my performance on a lift, I need to be able to concentrate on the task at hand and not be distracted. Music can hurt my performance as I’m not one to bang heads listening to death metal before a bench press set.
When it comes to conditioning work, however, I actually like loud music that has great rhythm as it helps me focus on maintaining a fast pace. The fact is, my performance during conditioning sessions drops by about 25% if I’m not listening to music!
7. Use slow pace cardio strategically.
I’m big on higher intensity work for conditioning but that doesn’t mean that I’m against slow pace cardio. A good cardiovascular system is the foundation for solid performance at higher intensities of work and allows you to recover between bouts of higher intensity work (in part by increasing the conversion of lactate to glucose).
For example, I like doing things like 3-4 rounds of 200-meter farmer’s walk followed by 600 meters of jogging.
If someone has a lousy cardiovascular system, jumping straight into a super high intensity GPP routine probably isn’t a good idea. For such a person, building up their cardiovascular system with lower intensity cardio is necessary. Once you have a solid base, though, it’s best to use the lower intensity cardio as the active recovery part of a harder overall session.
Let’s get real. Some gifted athletes can build a muscular, lean, powerful physique without performing a lick of cardio or even conditioning work. For ordinary humans – or those who want the best results possible – a little hard, intelligent conditioning can go a long way towards building a rock-hard, formidable body that’s built for bad. Just follow the seven rules above.
There’s no excuse to be out of shape. You don’t have to be a marathon runner and you don’t have to be able to fight five rounds for the UFC title, but there’s no acceptable reason for being an out of shape lard-ass.
Being in shape requires one thing: hard work. And working hard requires no talent. None.
For athletes, you can’t always be the strongest or fastest guy on the field, but being in better shape might be the thing that gives you an edge on both the competition and the up-and-comers trying to take your spot on the roster.
To be the last man standing after a game, you need to be the last man standing at practice. If you’re like me and had minimal to no talent, you need all the help you can get. Being in better shape and being stronger were two things I could control.
For competitive lifters, you certainly don’t need to be running miles every week, and you don’t need to be bored doing endless cardio. But a consistent conditioning protocol will help you recover better, have a lower resting heart rate, decrease body fat levels, improve sleep, and improve your general fitness level. This is especially important for the lifters that have done minimal or zero athletic work in the past five years.
For the everyday lifter, it’s about having pride in yourself. Respectable levels of conditioning, flexibility, and strength will help you personally, professionally, socially, and most importantly, improve your health.
Here’s a list of some of the conditioning activities I’ve done along with the pros and cons of each. As many of you know, I’ve been on both sides of the conditioning spectrum and I’ll never make the mistake of being out of shape again.
Much has been written about the Prowler and its benefits. While simple by design, the Prowler is one of the most effective conditioning tools an athlete can have. Any level of athlete, regardless of training level or sport, can use it.
The best thing about the Prowler is the “hard” level of conditioning it can produce with minimal wear and tear on the body. It’s very easy on the knees, hips, and ankles, making it great for older strength athletes.
For younger athletes, it’s a great way to build the lungs and legs/hips with minimal coaching; just load up some weight and push. It doesn’t require the technicality of a squat or the constant coaching of the deadlift.
The Prowler also offers a quick and efficient workout. A Prowler eliminates 60-minute conditioning sessions; in less than 20 minutes, an athlete can push his way to burning lungs and legs. This is a huge plus when running large groups or for the lifter that doesn’t have a great deal of time to train (job, school, family, etc.).
The Prowler also allows you to change weights and distances with ease; a stronger, bigger lifter can load the Prowler and use it along side a weaker, smaller, lifter. This makes it applicable to any size, strength, and conditioning level, a huge plus for personal trainers working with a large variety of clients.
The two biggest drawbacks of the Prowler are the price and the difficulty of “prescribing” a workout. Because the Prowler can be pushed on a wide variety of surfaces (cement, concrete, grass, or turf) that all vary greatly in drag coefficient, it’s hard for any fitness professional to accurately say what weight and distance to push.
People who own the Prowler may have only one surface to push on (for example, the street in front of their house) and this surface may be much harder or easier than what a prescribed workout was based upon. Thus, a Prowler requires some intelligent thinking of its owner, which can be a tall order, especially in the strength-training world.
- Efficient and effective.
- Requires little skill.
- Can be used by a large variety of people due to variable weights and distances.
- Price is well out of range for many athletes and lifters.
- No standardized surface and workouts.
Hill sprints are simply brutal. The legs and lungs are taxed heavily if the hill is steep and long enough. Because I grew up in the Chicago area, Walter Payton was a huge influence on me, and his use of hill running to prepare his mind and body for the rigors of the upcoming NFL season made any Illinois kid want to run hills. I’m sure his off-season regimen was partly responsible for his legendary strength and durability.
Anyone who’s ever run hill sprints knows the mental strength it can develop – even more so than a Prowler. There’s something very primal about lacing up your cleats and attacking a large hill for a training session.
Of course, the big drawback of running hill sprints is finding a decent hill. Many lifters live in flat, barren areas where there isn’t a hill bigger than a speed bump. And those that do live in hilly areas may find it difficult to find one that has a good enough surface to run on. So hill sprints, while extremely effective, have enormous geographical limitations.
The other drawback to hill sprints is the wear and tear on the ankles and Achilles. If you’re new to running or are trying to reclaim lost glory like yours truly, make sure you take the necessary steps to stretch and prepare before attacking the hill.
For those that want to find a hill, Google Maps is your friend; I highly recommend looking for sledding hills and reservoirs. These two places are prime areas for some steep hills.
Prescribing a hill sprint workout is much harder than prescribing a Prowler workout. There’s no standard hill length or grade so the athlete is going to have to use his best judgment. As with anything in weight training, set a small, reachable goal the first time out and build slowly.
- Great workout for the legs and lungs.
- Builds the body and the mind.
- Very hard on the ankles and Achilles tendon.
- Not everyone has access to a hill.
- No standard hill, requiring the athlete to develop his own training and programming.
I’ve used the jump rope since junior high and it’s a great way to warm-up the body and hit some basic conditioning work. It’s great for your feet and agility, and I always feel more “athletic” after I’ve jumped rope for a training cycle.
As a warm-up, I used the jump rope for 500+ jumps before training in high school. This was mainly used with double foot and single foot jumps and was followed by a thorough stretching session.
And if you don’t have time to warm-up, you don’t have time to work out. Of all the different warm-up options, this is the most efficient way to get the heart rate up and get some sort of athletic benefit.
There are two drawbacks to jumping rope. First, not everyone can do it. I learned this when I was personal training and saw way too many people trip over the rope or receive a stinging whip from an errant jump. Simply working on technique and slowing down the jumps can solve this problem.
The second drawback is shin splints. In college, I used to jump rope in my apartment and after several weeks of 1000+ jumps/day, I suffered from a nasty bout of shin splints.
Despite these things, the jump rope can be used very effectively for conditioning during the workout. After you perform the main lift of the day, use the jump rope between assistance lifts.
|C1||Jump Rope||5||50 jumps||60 sec.|
|C3||Jump Rope||5||50 jumps||60 sec.|
|C4||Hanging Leg Raise||5||10||60 sec.|
|C5||Jump Rope||5||50 jumps||60 sec.|
|C6||Glute Ham Raise||5||12||60 sec.|
** per leg
This allows you to get your main lifts in without sacrificing the strength portion of your training, along with getting your conditioning in while doing your assistance work. This is optimal for people who have minimal equipment, especially during the winter when the weather won’t allow you to get outside. It’s also a great way to maximize your time in the weight room.
- Time and space efficient.
- Makes you feel more athletic.
- Shin splints.
- Requires skill and agility many people don’t possess.
One of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done was running up the press box side of the University of Arizona stadium. The steps get steeper as you go farther and your legs and lungs are on fire. I remember walking back to my car and my legs shaking like a young Elvis. Very humbling.
Like hill sprints, stadium steps build the legs and lungs to a high degree, but also like hill sprints, the area you live in and the size of the stadium largely limit you. Also, the stadiums near your home may not be open to the public.
However, if you can get in, do yourself a favor and run stadium steps.
Stadium steps are also easier on the ankles than hill sprints. And like hill sprints and the Prowler, they’re very knee friendly as the vertical distance of the footfall is much less than running on flat surface.
For people living in big cities, running stairs is a much easier option. Apartment and office buildings have huge amounts of stairs that can be used and abused.
- Great for building lungs and legs.
- Easy on the ankles and knees.
- Limited access to stadiums and tall buildings.
The first time I used a weighted vest I was surprised at how much it affected my low back and traps. I thought my lungs would be the first to go but by the end of the walk, my back and traps were screaming. I’ve used the weight vest on walks around my neighborhood and the hill I sprint. For the hill, I did not run with the weight vest on, I simply walked up the hill. This killed my legs.
The weight vest is a great way to turn simple tasks, like walking, into something very difficult. We all have access to the outdoors and thus have access to someplace to walk (and I’m not talking about a treadmill).
Add in the low back and trap development one can get from using a heavy weight vest and you have a tremendous conditioning resource. Also, weight vest walks can be done any time of year, unless you’re living in blizzard conditions year round.
I think the weight vest is a great option for older lifters that don’t want to be bored by traditional cardio equipment. It’s also easy on the body (meaning your knees aren’t pounded), yet still requires enough effort and strength to make it challenging and not feel like you’re “just taking a stroll.”
I recommend using the weight vest for distance (e.g., walk for 1 or 2 miles) rather than time.
The drawback to the weight vest is the price. Like the Prowler, it’s out of many lifters’ budgets. And there’s a big difference between using a well-designed weight vest and a backpack stuffed with weights and textbooks.
- Can make walking around the neighborhood more manly.
- Great for total body conditioning.
Body Weight Conditioning
Dave Tate, who learned it from John Davies, introduced this to me. I’m not sure if Davies is still part of the fitness world but this simple bodyweight-conditioning workout was short and brutal. It consisted of the following:
|A||Jumping Jacks||30 seconds|
|B||Mountain Climbers||30 seconds|
|D||Split Squat Jump||30 seconds|
Don’t be fooled, this is a brutal workout. With people that have limited space and funds, this is a great conditioning alternative. This is also great for when the weather won’t allow you to get out and stretch your legs.
There are two drawbacks. The first is that it’s a very short workout, something that can be remedied by longer rest periods, more exercises, more reps, and more sets. Suffice it to say, doing these exercises as listed above isn’t easy, especially for those who carry more muscle.
Second, of all the conditioning stuff I’ve done, this is by far the most boring. That may be my personal opinion but I’d much rather run hills or push a Prowler.
Feel free to mix and match exercises, time, and rest periods with body weight conditioning, but remember that there’s no need to get too fancy. Simple is always best.
- Requires little space and equipment.
- Great for the winter time.
- Not terribly exciting.
- Athletes still need to run.
Incline Treadmill Sprints
This is by far my favorite winter conditioning tool. Since most people train in commercial gyms, it’s very easy to prescribe. Running treadmill sprints is also easy to do.
- Turn on treadmill.
- Ramp up the incline as far as it can go.
- Start at 6 miles/hour.
- Run for 15 seconds.
- Hop off treadmill (feet on the sides of the belt) and rest for 45 seconds. During the rest period increase speed .5 mph.
- Repeat until you get to a speed that is challenging for you.
- Do this 20-30 times.
Incline treadmill sprints have a great built in warm-up (starting at a lower speed) and allow you to adjust the speed for your conditioning and speed level. It’s very easy on the knees and hard on the lungs. Plus, you can do more work in 20 minutes than people who fart around for an hour.
A good option is doing these with a partner – he rests/you go. You can be a little more lax on the rest times than what I listed as it doesn’t matter that much. The key is to run the sprints without taking too much rest in-between.
- Requires little space and equipment.
- Great for the winter time.
- Not terribly exciting.
- If you misstep, you will fall and people will point at you and laugh.
Sled pulling garnered popularity due to the heavy endorsement by Louie Simmons. He got the idea from Eskill Thommason, who visited Finland to see why they were such great deadlifters. He noticed that many of them were lumberjacks whose job required they pull trees down the trails for the trucks to pick up.
Sled dragging is terribly simple – hook a sled up to your lifting belt or harness and walk forwards or backwards. You can add more weight and pull for shorter distance or use less weight and go for time. Jim Hoskinson used one-mile sled drags to rehab a very bad knee injury and returned to the platform for some very strong lifts.
I like hooking up a 100-foot rope to a sled and pulling it hand-over-hand. This is a great compliment to your regular conditioning (which is usually centered around the lower body). This is also great for the upper back and lats, and provided the rope is thick enough, will tax your grip and arms, too.
While standard sled dragging (forward/back) has fallen out of favor due to the popularity of the Prowler, it’s still a great conditioning and strength tool, especially for younger lifters. Like the Prowler, it doesn’t require much skill to walk forward or backward.
- Easy on the body.
- Requires no skill.
- Prowler can have double use as a sled.
- Not nearly as taxing and efficient as the Prowler.
Putting Conditioning into Action
Many years ago, I was at a standstill with conditioning and uncertain where to put it in my training. When do I do it? What if I get weaker? Will my legs be able to handle it? I had a million reservations and none were valid. They were simply excuses.
I believe that if you want to get something done and you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen. I’ve had some of the best squat workouts during my heavy conditioning phases (which were mainly hill sprints). It didn’t start like that. My legs were exhausted. They shook when I walked out light weights during squat sessions. I lowered my training max and simply willed the weights up when I felt awful.
Eventually my legs got stronger and in better shape. Sure, it took a few months, but 60 days in a lifetime of training is nothing, because training isn’t about an 8-week program – it’s about building your body and your strength over a lifetime of training. If you’re looking for another empty promise of the “6-Week Six Pack,” you’ve come to the wrong guy.
My training plan is simple. It’s three things per training session, usually done 3-4 times/week.
That’s it, and that’s all you need. If you stretch hard, lift heavy, and run fast, everything else seems to take care of itself. I’m not forging new ground here, but what I am doing is rekindling the things that were taught to me by “the ancients” that have lost meaning and glam in today’s world of complexity for complexity sake.
Now Go Do It!
Do yourself a favor and embrace what some of the strongest people on earth have done – combine stretching, lifting, and conditioning into a balanced program.
These three things make up the N.O.V. (North of Vag) training program, and these things make up my training past and my training future. A future that will assure my “Sell By” stamp will never have a date on it.