Quality > Quantity

Quality conditioning is beneficial to all trainees and necessary for some. “Conditioning” itself is a vague term; any adaptation is a conditioning to a stress, but we use it to imply an adaptation to “work capacity” and is therefore a sub-set of “endurance”. The act of ,and adaptation to, conditioning can aid in recovery as well as express the application of all physical ability. In other words, light conditioning can help the system recover and being “more conditioned” can facilitate shorter rest times between sets and more energy for a training session. Conditioning also expresses strength, power, speed, mobility, etc. in sustained activities whether they are a strongman medley, working construction, or being in a fire fight.

However, the key is on quality conditioning.

We can think about this in two ways: 1) the quality of the conditioning programming and 2) the quality of the movements while conditioning. I’ve written about both of these topics for at least four years, but let’s expand on them.

Quality Conditioning in a Program

It leaves the scope of this post to try to make a comprehensive review of how to program, but the basis for any program is strength acquisition. Strength is a fundamental capacity that facilitates the development and application of other physical attributes, including conditioning. Several years ago I wrote about how CrossFit programs needed to sprinkle in conditioning with a barbell strength program — the same thing that strength and conditioning coaches have been doing for over 50 years. The article was rejected from the CrossFit Journal on bounds that it didn’t contain “observable, repeatable data” (it did), so instead I made a very basic article that turned into the “Strength and Conditioning Program“. Not only have thousands of people used this and accumulated success, but CrossFit Football launched with a similar style of program and has had the same results — strength programs with conditioning yield better athletes than programs with a high frequency of conditioning. Everyone learned this on their own over the last four or five years.

But let’s get back to why and how to program it with quality. A quote from my pdf:

Metabolic conditioning is a collection of movements and activities that are organized to A) produce and maintain a high metabolic output relative to the amount of time it is performed and B) minimize any necessary recovery, if any, between those bouts of high output. Subsequently the body mobilizes and distributes resources more efficiently and effectively – an adaptation that is gained and lost quickly. Even though metabolic conditioning is an important aspect of performance, it must be understood that its expression is strength-dependent. As strength improves, the effort to maintain an output becomes a smaller fraction of absolute strength, and/or there is a reduction in effort to maintain a higher output. Therefore, recovering for strength training maintains precedence over conditioning in this program.

 

The strength training must maintain priority in a training program. The only exception I can think of is if an athlete or applied fitness trainee (a term we use in FIT to represent fire fighters, LEO, military, etc. — people who require a given fitness level for their job or life) who is peaking for a specific event (like a deployment). In that case, their final phase before the event will consist of ‘sport specific’ activity as it weens off of traditional strength training. But, again, this depends on the individual and the circumstances.

Good guys that do bad things to bad people need to keep their structures adapted year-round.

What’s important is the presence of the strength training. The act of actually lifting is just as important as the adaptation to being strong. The fact that a trainee loads their entire body and takes it through a full range of motion to have all of their muscles working together is necessary. It not only maintains strength or lean body mass, but it keeps the muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, and nerves adapted to the activity. It also provides a systemic stress and subsequent adaptation that will keep the body adapted to work. And obviously the result of being strong will make someone more capable — nobody denies that.

If we accept the above, then we know the presence and recovery from strength training needs to maintain priority in a training program. This starts with the placement of training days and what occurs on those training days. In the S&C program, there are four, maybe five training days with two to four of them consisting of lifting. Yet the actual lifts done on those days will vary so that the same movements or muscle groupings aren’t repeated on consecutive training days.

When the strength training is programmed, the conditioning must be sprinkled in intelligently. It shouldn’t specifically go on rest days, because then those days are no longer rest days. The type of high intensity conditioning can vary — in FIT I define six different types of endurance training with five of them in the high intensity realm. How they should be implemented is explained in immense detail in FIT, but they shouldn’t be erratic or random. Conditioning workouts should compliment the strength training by not abusing the same musculature in the same day, by fatiguing muscular for a future session int he week, and the type of the conditioning should depend on the volume and intensity of the strength training itself.

If these factors are accounted for, a trainee will get stronger and either maintain or improve his conditioning. This is paramount to applied fitness trainees like soldiers who cannot avoid conditioning for the sake of barbell training; at the very least they need to maintain a structural adaptation to their job. The same goes for athletes; it wouldn’t behoove an American football player to show up to pre-season training camp de-conditioned — at worst he’ll be extremely sore, fatigued, and injury prone and at best hurt his chances of achieving a starting position.

Ray Lewis conditions throughout every off-season and is in his 17th year in the NFL with 13 Pro Bowls and over 2,000 tackles.

There are a few instances where conditioning can be ignored, but most of the time it’s inclusion will only benefit the trainee, provided it is programmed and performed with quality.

Quality of Movement When Conditioning

Too often we cringe while watching videos of people performing exercises under extreme fatigue, yet this is an acceptable norm in the realm of conditioning. There are several reasons that higher technique standards should be used while conditioning  It’s actually quite amazing that there aren’t more injuries, yet the weight is relatively light and injuries do develop with chronically poor mechanics. This is one reason “mobility” has been such a hot thing — not only will normal athletes need maintenance, but trainees who perform thousands of reps with crappy mechanics will eventually need repair.

Injuries are certainly debilitating to training, but what’s more important is using efficient mechanics to move a load. Poor technique does not distribute the force application throughout the necessary muscles and instead focuses it on a single or group of muscles that did not evolve to handle the effort. For example, it’s not uncommon to see a lack of hamstring involvement in CrossFit to result in an over development of the quads and under development of the posterior chain. Not only will the musculature itself be trained poorly or incorrectly, but the trainee is not performing as well as the could have.

If a trainee has adapted to conditioning with proper mechanics – and proper force distribution across the muscles — then they will be using the maximum number of muscles in a given movement, therefore applying more force and improving the economy of effort. They will either use less energy or become more resistant to fatigue since one specific muscle group is not bearing the bulk of the load and fatiguing quickly.

In other words, proper mechanics will yield better performance – in addition to decreased injury and better muscular development.

Note that using proper technique for the first time may result in slower conditioning times. This would be a result of the “muscles not being developed correctly” thing and will improve with consistent, quality technique and better strength training.

When I have to coach conditioning workouts (it’s not exactly fun), I coach two things: movement mechanics and overall economy of effort. The movement mechanics are the same, if not a more simplified, version of coaching the barbell lifts. “Knees out”; “chest up”; or “elbows up and in”. The difference is that I do not allow trainees to do it incorrectly. It’s the coach’s job to yield a quality training session for quality results. I’ve stopped the workout before to emphasize a point. I’ve lowered the weight (much to the trainee’s chagrin). I’ve made them stop moving or put the bar down for a short rest. Whatever I do, it’s to get them to move with efficiency.

Coaching “economy of effort” is easy, but surprisingly poorly done. During breaks I coach people to take a certain amount of breaths — between one and five breaths. They will do this at logical pauses in their sets. If they need to do a set of ten, they’ll stop at 5. If they are doing a set of 15, they’ll stop at 8. If the weight is simply too heavy to be performed, then we know I didn’t program the workout because if the weight is too heavy it’s not a conditioning workout. There are guidelines in FIT for that too.

Whether a coach or trainee, quality technique in the actual conditioning workout is the difference between a spaz session where everyone gets sweaty and an effective, muscle developing conditioning session that will improve performance in the future.

Summary

Conditioning is both loved and hated in the training community. The truth is that it’s a quality addition to most programs, but only if it’s done right. To do it right, it needs to be programmed and executed intelligently. If the time is taken in order to actually do it, then we should optimize our effort with the best results possible. Results start with good programming and end with quality execution.

 

42 thoughts on “Quality > Quantity

  1. Justin, couldn’t agree more with this article. Just curious, what’s the duration of your typical conditioning workout (excluding any outliers with extreme sport-specific work)? Do you consider energy system utilization? I’m someone who has lost interest in CrossFit and leaning more towards low-rep, quality-lift strength training, but feel like I still need a good old ass kicking every now and again…

    • From what I’ve seen Justin answer in the past…

      Any non stupid crossfit/Greyskull conditioning/shit you’ve made up yourself that doesn’t go longer than ten minutes.*

      *”non stupid” is the key part to this

    • He already answered this in the Strength and Conditioning Program link in the article.
      “Conditioning workouts should not be in excess of ten minutes and typically will stay
      around the six to eight minute mark. Anything exceeding fifteen minutes will not yield
      appropriate output levels to cause adaptive stress. There is a difference between being
      sweaty and training”

      • This would apply if we’re dealing with a general strength trainee. The conditioning would always fit the goal.

        Generally speaking I’d probably do two overall for a regular strength trainee. One would be exceptionally hard while the other is more of moving around or strongman stuff for x time. Still, it’ll depend on what that trainee does in life (sedentary outside of training? physical job?) as well as their body composition situation.

  2. Justin, I’ve got a question for you.

    I was recently diagnosed with a heart arrythmia and ordered by my doctor to quit lifting until we figure out what’s going on. I have a stress test schedule for Thursday and will go from there, but I’m hoping for some advice on what I can do.

    Long story short, I developed a heart problem about a year ago in the prime of my ultrarunning-strength training endeavors. I was partying on top of running 20-30 miles a week (sometimes in 1 run) with 4 work outs in the gym a week. My heart started hurting but I ignored it. I gave up running in April but it’s only gotten worse. I thought I was having a heart attack after doing a 500m row the other day for brief conditioning and finally decided I needed to figure it out once and for all. The doctor wasn’t too concerned the first time I went so I kind of swept it under the rug.

    Anyway, it could be 1 week to god knows how long until I can lift again. Possibly a few months to let my heart fully recover. All I can do is walk for exercise. I want to compete in powerlifting and possibly olympic weightlifting as soon as I can. What can I do? I know I’m going to lose strength and I’m not going to be stupid and not lift. But besides mobilizing all the time and walking, is there anything you would recommend to not totally waste all my time?

    Thanks man.

    • Well, the first thing is to learn what is wrong with your heart and what the recommendation is to fix it. Then you need to do what they say to heal your heart.

      It’s clear to me that you were doing too much shit. The fact that it’s your heart is interesting (I would have thought something else would have failed), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was hormonal related. If you’re going 8,000 mph without any rest (as you were doing by training in the gym, running, and partying), you are going to skew your hormonal system and consistently put yourself in a recovery deficit. You were probably overtrained in the classical sense — high resting heart rate and blood pressure, mood swings, depression, etc.

      True overtraining can take months to overcome. Barring anything seriously wrong with your heart, you will probably need to have an unpleasantly long and steady progression of getting back into activity. The heart works hard in lifting and adapts to it, but right now your heart has something wrong with it. At the very least it’s over stressed, and lifting on it right now would not be good.

      I don’t know how much of a break you’ve had, but take it easy. Go for walks. I’d eat paleo (any time a person has something abnormal in their health, this is a good suggestion). Go to the doctor, and learn. Start researching this stuff because some times doctors miss shit or they are not an expert on your particular problem. Your own research can sometimes help them get ideas.

      • Yes, Cavemen had prowlers. I meant that literally. You deadlift 315 yet? ‘Cause my pregnant wife has and she was wondering what made you an authority on strength and conditioning. Take it down a notch, Chief.

        Look, you can’t screw up “push”. You can’t hurt yourself with the prowler – like, orthopedic injury hurt – unless you fall down.

    • Or, just push a fucking car… start with 5 minutes and just push it non stop. After a few sessions sprinkle in some “sprinting” bouts… Try to push it a certain distnace and measure the time it took, then come back and try to beat that time… it will work wonders for your leg strength and recovery… and since there isnt an eccentric part of the movement, you wont get any doms! hooooray!

  3. Great post. Im not gonna do any conditioning just to be extra safe like.

    I always wondered why in Crossfit we would do 3 x 5 BS followed by a met con of 300 air squats or some shit? Or snatch work followed by 75 33lbs snatches with terrible form.

    Sheeple.

  4. Interesting article, especially with Rips latest article on T-nation (regarding the role of conditioning in novice trainees) and a Carl Paoli video on bodyweight movements and the power athlete. I commented on the Paoli video and I think it is relevant here that a shitty rep is a shitty rep and a ton of shitty reps is like putting a cherry bomb on a shit sundae.

    Recently I have been training with a group of young football players and have found that minimal conditioning or finishers (typically under 6 minutes) is all that is necessary and that you can also use it to add in a bit of volume. Specifically I will use a 15 second work to 45 second rest ratio to allow the athlete to recover and maintain technique. Taking a cue from Dan John though I have found that load carries are a valuable tool for conditioning along with the prowler.

    • I also noticed the timing of this article with Rip’s on t-nation. Both are good reads and they compliment each other quite well.

      This also reminds me of an article in the WSJ a couple weeks back that noted that although running may improve mortality rates, the benefit disappears for those who run the most.

      http://on.wsj.com/Tk2948

      As Rip points out, it’s frustrating to live in a culture where high-intensity endurance sports are treated with such reverence while strength sports are largely ignored.

      • 1. The thing with football players is that it’s not merely a strength + conditioning consideration. They need to have coordination and agility. So “agility” work should be a regular part of the program and can even be used as the conditioning. Especially if you’re doing it with kids (18 or below) because the majority of them don’t have a good understanding of where their body is in space or how to move properly. For some of them, they will never learn, but working on the skill consistently throughout the year will make them a better football player (along with the strength and conditioning part, but I’m saying agility should be a part of regular conditioning).

        2. It’s not really frustrating that strength sports are ignored and it makes total sense. Powerlifting is fucking boring. Weightlifting can be pretty boring, especially to someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate it. Strongman is the most popular because it looks impressive, but still it doesn’t compare to team sports that bring in millions of dollars. The reason that they bring in millions of dollars is because they are more entertaining than watching guys deadlift the end of a car. That’s just the reality of the situation.

        Not to mention that the American strength athletes on average are just not as good as their international counterparts. When fans watch MLB, NFL, or NBA, they know that those athletes are the best in the world. American strongman competitions are impressive to us as lifters, but those guys are often not the best in the world.

        • So for your average trainee coming through, who clearly needs a basis of strength before doing any conditioning work, how do you make the program entertaining enough for them. So that they keep training the right way and not just drop off to go run around a field with the rest of a bootcamp?

          • Uh you dont. You program what works and the results retain them. People are going to do what they want. Packaging it in a pretty package obviously helps. But programming to be “entertaining” and programming for effective stress adaptation are two different things most of the time.

            • The above is true. “diegowhite” clearly read Rip’s article and is upset because I don’t completely agree with Rip (since this is deigowhite’s first post).

              It’s possible to develop a perfectly good base of strength while also building or retaining a conditioning base. If we are talking about a regular ol’ trainee who doesn’t compete in anything and has a desk job (and they aren’t fat), then I probably wouldn’t have them do conditioning for a while. But when you’re talking about a military member, even in boot camp, they need to do conditioning to either do their job (like in combat arms) or to be ready for a worst case scenario (like a supply girl whose convoy gets attacked). You cannot neglect conditioning for performance or structural adaptation reasons.

              Having said that, I agree with Rip that the conditioning that IS being performed is shoddy. Of course they’d be better if they had a barbell program, but they’d also be better if they improved how they implement conditioning. But, we also need to keep in mind that some of the conditioning done in basic training serves a disciplinary purpose. Whether or not we agree with it, it teaches lessons.

              At the same time, have you, diegowhite, ever seen some of the people that are entering military service? I mean see the kids the day they leave home and ship off. They are some of the most measly, un-fit people I have ever seen. Though basic training is full of ineffective training, for a lot of trainees it’s their first exposure to exercise or training period, so it does accomplish something. That doesn’t mean it’s optimal or that I think it’s good, but it is a reality.

              Conditioning itself is not bad. However, doing it crappy is.

              • Thanks for the reply Justin, it wasn’t an emotionaly driven comment I made, what you have written makes sense. I’ve been reading your posts for quite a while and there is a lot of quality in your writing.

                This may be covered in your book which I have on order, but
                I was more interested in how you program for that regular ol’ trainee and less interested in military or sports persons (who I agree with, require some form of conditioning for their occupation). How do you make it attractive for that guy (or girl) to do programmed strength training versus doing random conditioning. The latter which can be done in a possibly more enjoyable group setting?

        • I would say that football, baseball, and basketball are boring. I mean sitting down and watch a ball move back and forth on a field or court for a while doesn’t excite me like seeing strength athletes go for their attempts. I stayed up late to watch Olympic weightlifting for the Summer Games since I live in Japan and even though I have a fantasy football team I am not staying up to watch a football game that starts at 3am.

          The only reason why US football, baseball, and basketball players are the best is that we invented those sports and are pretty much the only country that cares about them. “Normal” people are also indoctrinated from their days from middle school and high school playing those sports.

          • I forgot to add that marathons are boring as well. Running 26.2 miles along some streets sometimes draws pretty big crowds along the routes in big cities. That is more popular and significantly more boring than strength athletes lifting

        • I agree with the coordination part. I like to incorporate the ladder into a dynamic warm-up and whatever people’s opinion on the ladder is I have found that footwork improves dramatically. As for conditioning, I eventually want to add in some short pass routes and/or pushing the sled with a turn and sprint component. Being only two months removed from the season though, I am focused mostly on strength (w/ the caveat on bar speed). I am incorporating some of cal dietz’s triphasic methods and am seeing results (but most importantly the kids are buying in and working hard).

          Thanks for the response.

  5. Pingback: Strength vs Conditioning | CrossFit Locus

  6. Damn, Justin is doing an impromptu Q&A in an early week post! In that case, Justin, why do I sometimes get brachialis pain when benching? It can range from barely noticeable to quit, pack up and go home type pain. And it’s not every bench session.

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  9. Interesting article.
    In order to boost my energy before workouts I take Navy Seal Formula, manufactured by MGNutritionals. This stuff is amazing, my endurance and strength has got much higher and I still have energy to burn after a workout. I’m now loosing fat and putting on muscle much faster.

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