Conditioning Confusion- Part 1

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Fitness

Even though my last post ended up being one of the most popular of 2010, and the majority of readers got it, there still seems to be many unanswered questions regarding the topic of conditioning in many people’s minds. Hopefully I can clear those up today.

How Important is Conditioning?

Conditioning is extremely important. Like Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It can literally be the difference between winning and losing.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should train for conditioning in the weight room.

If you’re an athlete how much conditioning you need depends on your sport and your weaknesses. Football players and mixed martial artists need to work on conditioning more than golfers and baseball players. That much should be obvious.

If you’re a non athlete then I place nearly equal importance on both strength and conditioning. I believe in being as strong as you look but also possessing a decent level of athleticism and overall conditioning. My goal with anyone I train is never to turn them into a big, powerful blob that can hardly get up a flight of stairs. I would rather see a guy squat 405 instead of 500 but also be able to jump rope like Ali, run hills like Walter Payton and hop right into a pick up game without any problems.

Assess the Need for Conditioning

Before you start any type of conditioning program you need to determine exactly how conditioned you need to be. Mixed martial artists come to mind as those needing a very high level of conditioning. Because of that many people approach the training of combat athletes all wrong by turning every workout into a conditioning fest. That shouldn’t be.

I am in full agreement with guys like Martin Rooney and believe that combat athletes need low volume strength and power training in the weight room. Jon Chaimberg has GSP do similar type workouts.

Steve Baccari, a strength coach who works with many UFC fighters says, “In my opinion, easy strength training is the only productive way a competitive fighter can strength train. But most people think if you don’t break a sweat it must not work. This used to bother me a lot, but not anymore, because I think it is one reason why my fighters win so much.”

To determine how much conditioning a combat athlete needs, be he a high school wrestler or a UFC fighter, you need to see what his weakness is first. Is he gassing out early? Sometimes simple strength training can be enough to fix that because as he gets stronger everything he does requires less effort.

Also, you need to find out how much conditioning the athlete is already doing at practice each day. If it’s a high school wrestler chances are pretty good that his coach has an old school “train to death” mentality and is giving them more than enough conditioning. In that case all this athlete should ever do in the weight room is explosive power and strength work, again with 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps. If he needs to stay in a certain weight class the volume may need to be even lower. If muscle gain is a priority a few back off sets of 6-8 or even ten reps could be used. And that’s really the only training he needs. If he’s already on the mat for several hours per week and running quite a bit on top of that, all more conditioning is going to do is break him down and increase the chances of injury.

UFC fighters will usually be a different story because at their level of much of their sport specific preparation will be skill training without as much conditioning thrown in. Not always, but a lot of the time. In this case one or two low volume strength training workouts along with another one or two conditioning workouts per week will be warranted. This depends on the athlete and there are obviously infinite combinations that could be used here.

Always Separate Strength Work & Conditioning Work

Before we go any further I need to stress the importance of separating strength and conditioning. Many athletes need both. That doesn’t mean you train them at the same time, however. When you do that you end up with a weak, overtrained athlete.

All athletes need strength training. Again, this usually means 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps with adequate rest periods. All too often, nowadays, you see coaches take a good strength training workout and ruin it by throwing conditioning drills in between two or three basic strength exercises. That’s a huge mistake. The two qualities need to be kept separate.

For years I have always followed the advice of Charlie Francis and had my athletes do high intensity work (strength and speed) on one day followed by low intensity work (conditioning/active recovery) the next.

That means that if you choose to run hills or push the Prowler the day after a heavy strength session you shouldn’t run at 100% intensity. Technically, running on this day should be at about 75% instead of 100%. But that’s getting a bit too technical for most non athletes. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to go all out on this day because you will run the risk of frying your CNS.

In my opinion and experience, separating the two qualities is the most effective way to train both strength and conditioning. That’s not about to change any time soon.

If your time is limited to just three training sessions per week in total, the other option is to follow up your strength workout with ten (and even twenty, in some cases) minutes of conditioning. This is not the best option as a truly productive strength training workout should have you leaving the gym more amped up and feeling better than when you walked in. Conditioning can negate that. But when it’s your only option you sack up and do what you gotta do.

Take  note, however, that the most explosive, powerful athletes in the world (such as Olympic lifters and throwers) do no conditioning whatsoever. That is because any level of conditioning will have at least some small negative effect on your power development.

Another important thing to remember is that lactic acid production needs to be avoided like the plague by all power athletes. Keep that in mind when choosing conditioning drills, sets, reps, duration, etc.

Now, just because, in this time limited option, you will be training strength and conditioning on the same day… YOU DO NOT COMBINE THE TWO. They must be kept separate or results will suffer. That means no 400 meter runs or sets of burpees in between heavy push presses or squats.

Strength first… and then conditioning.

For the ten minute conditioning finisher you could jump rope, push the prowler, drag a sled, hit a heavy bag, or use battling ropes. These exercises will have a very minimal effect on your recovery ability and are very joint friendly (except for maybe the heavy bag).

Other options include swinging or snatching a kettlebell, barbell complexes, sledgehammer swings, or doing bodyweight exercises such as burpees, deck squats, etc. These are all great choices but you must remember that they are all forms of strength training that can and probably will place greater demands on your recovery ability.

If you’re a non athlete that’s fine.

Athletes, on the other hand, and serious strength training enthusiasts who want to reach their highest level of strength and performance need to consider their finishers more wisely as they don’t want maximal strength and power development to be compromised.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll cover kettlebell conditioning, football players, combat athletes and that time I had a foursome with The Pointer Sisters while Tom Petty played guitar in the next room.

In the meantime leave your comments, thoughts and questions below.