5 min read

Is Conditioning A Sham?

go-faster-stripes II
CC Norma Desmond

I received a question recently (who had directed me to this article in their question) about ‘conditioning.’

If you haven’t already you should read up on my Energy System Development articles and my Interval Training articles.

For the record I hadn’t read this particular article at the time I received this question, but I am very familiar with Mark Rippetoe’s work.

He is very well known in my field and has authored a couple of fantastic books including Starting Strength and Practical Programming (both with Lorie Kilgore and both of which I’ve read more than once — seriously they are good training books).

If you’re objective is weight loss then conditioning has more of a role than it may for other objectives, but not at the expense of developing the underlying fitness qualities.

What Mark is saying is that conditioning doesn’t have nearly as much transfer to other aspects of your life, particularly ‘performance’ as strength training would.

Mark does strength, and he does it big.

He was one of the first Americans to highlight strength as an important quality for training, particularly in athletics.

In the 1970’s most of the research, particularly into athletics were all about ‘aerobics’ and building the ‘aerobic’ base, which we now know is almost completely nonsense (though a lot of people still cling to this notion — and I still see a lot of injured or post-rehab endurance athlete clients to this date).

After 8 years now of training hundreds of different people, this is how I think training should evolve for the majority:

Physical Quality Development Pyramid

Mobility is always the thing that people struggle with the most, and by mobility, I don’t mean flexibility.

Mobility means the ability to move effectively and you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) build strength, power or endurance on top of bad movement.

See this article on mobility for more…

Then strength/power, I didn’t want to get too technical with that drawing, but I would probably put that I think strength needs to be present before you can build ‘explosive’ power, which is a precursor to endurance (synonymous with ‘conditioning’).

*Note: Localized endurance which is a term you may hear around the fitness world, is what I would refer to as stability and stability is required for mobility, so please don’t confuse that with cardiorespiratory endurance or muscular endurance (high repetition training).

Now there are moments when you might be training all four of those components together, and a lot of other gray matter we could discuss but I want to focus specifically on stamina and muscular endurance (conditioning) as it pertains to other abilities in importance.

In recent years ‘conditioning’ has taken an undeserved limelight in the world of fitness.

Crossfit ‘WOD’s’ in particular and the current HIIT interval craze seem to have mostly contributed.

These are mostly power endurance ‘tests’ or ‘Muscular Endurance Tests,’ in that they typically force people to do high volumes of work, and with high volumes of work, you end up with fatigue and then typically bad form.

This is why rest is so important, in order to keep the quality high.

Intervals were all the rage for the last five to eight years (yet another form of conditioning) and now the new buzz word seems to be ‘finishers.’

I get it, it seems hard, therefore hardcore, and that’s cool right?

It may not be apparent when you’re 20 and feel invincible (believe me because I’ve been there and felt that) but thousands of repetition will take a toll on your body, particularly when you’re grinding through bad movement.

Let’s look at someone like Rafael Nadal, who has struggled with tendonitis and other chronic overuse injuries a lot lately and compare him to someone who executes nearly flawless tennis technique, like Roger Federer.

Roger’s technically stunning to watch, where as Rafael is a workhorse, even if he sacrifices good body position to make a shot.

While I admire work ethic, from my experience, Roger will feel a lot better 30 years from now than Rafael will (who will probably deal with multiple surgeries but at least extensive rehab).

Roger = Good Movement

Rafael = Sub-Par Movement

Now if you add a lack of strength to bad movement, you just doubled your chance of serious injury.

This is what Mark Rippetoe is getting at.

Strength training has more of a cascade effect into ‘conditioning’ or what I would term ‘Energy System Development’ than conditioning or ESD would have in the other direction.

People right now, are doing too much conditioning and focusing too much on it at the expense of these more important components of fitness.

You will lose strength and mobility, faster and more dramatically as you age, than you will lose cardiorespiratory fitness.

The Importance of StrengthThis is how I explain this concept to clients:

Imagine one person with a filled 12 oz cup and one with 12 oz of liquid in a 16 oz cup.

Theoretically the liquid represents the ability to do work (conditioning, endurance, stamina, whatever you want to call it), and the size of the cup reflects the strength of the individual.

Strength training increases the size of the cup and conditioning is what you fill it with.

The person with 12 oz of liquid in a 16 oz cup has more room for improvement with any work capacity even though they are presently operating at about the same level of work as the individual with the 12 oz cup.

This is why strength training improves every day life, more significantly than conditioning does or ever will.

The greater strength one has, the lower the percentage of work ‘conditioning’ becomes comparatively speaking.

For instance your 1 rep max of bench press is 300 lbs, and your push-up is roughly 150 lbs of work, representing 50% of the work.

The potential is there for this person to perform more push-ups relative to the person who can only bench 200 lbs, because in relation to the max tolerance the percentage of work is lower (50% instead of 75%).

In a sports analogy, the objective of ‘off-season’ training, should be to increase the size of the glass, while ‘pre-season’ work can focus on filling that glass with the appropriate liquid.

There is still the need to work on both at some point, but increasing the size of the glass is harder to do, has the greatest carry-over, and gives you more room to fill the glass with later for the ‘endurance’ component.

Strength development and motor skill development also lasts longer.

Energy system work is built very quickly, is very specific to the imposed demands, and is lost very quickly too.

How This Applies to You

This it not to say that conditioning training is entirely useless — or that strength is a god-send miracle either — because it can be useful for weight loss.

It just shouldn’t take precedence over moving well and being strong enough to tolerate high volumes of endurance work.

Don’t kill Peter to pay Paul. Get long, get strong, then blast your energy systems.

Too many people try to get ‘fit’ by running, biking, rowing, or other cardiovascular exercise modalities, without first getting adequate amounts of mobility and strength and they end up injured.

Don’t let this be you.

Start first by working on your mobility and strength first, then add appropriate amounts of conditioning as icing on the cake.

Conditioning is still a great way to shed fat mass, but work out your priorities and don’t skimp on the other stuff.