Most conditioning protocols are worse than useless.
If they simply did nothing particularly helpful or hurtful, I would have no issue with them (even though working hard for no real benefit certainly seems like a waste of time).
But the truth is, a poorly designed conditioning routine can quickly lead to losses in hard earned strength and lean muscle mass.
How do I know? Well, let me share my story with you…
For over 20 years, I have been on a quest to build muscle and increase strength. Just about all of my training and experimenting has revolved around those goals. In fact, for most of my career, I rarely did direct conditioning work because I felt it was unnecessary (and I also hated doing it!).
But from time to time, something would motivate me and I would embark on a conditioning journey. I took the best protocols that the scientific and athletic community had to offer, and added them to my training routines.
You name it and I did it. Interval training, HIIT, circuit training, German Body Comp, etc. I experimented with every conceivable variation of intensity, frequency and exercise selection.
Much to my dismay, my dedication and intense efforts only resulted in my becoming smaller and weaker. The craziest (and most surprising) result of all was that all of this extra conditioning/cardio work didn’t even increase my rate of fat loss!
These dismal results didn’t stop me from trying from time to time during my career. Finally, after about 20 years of stubbornly banging my head against a wall (and having nothing to show for it except less strength and muscle), I mercifully threw in the towel.
No more mindless conditioning workouts for me! And guess what? My conditioning level is now better than it ever was.
There are many lessons that I learned along the way in this strange journey, but none more powerful than this:
Improve your conditioning level through strength and power training.
Yes that’s correct, don’t even waste your time doing traditional conditioning methods.
Here are some of my favorite training methods that will help to build muscle, increase strength/power and improve conditioning simultaneously.
Sprinting is one of my all time favorite exercises. The key is to keep the duration of the sprint between 4-20 seconds. Extending longer than that could result in compromised recovery and thus increased risk of lean muscle loss.
Strongman training is amazing at increasing muscle and strength while improving conditioning levels. Try a high rep log clean and press, farmers walk or a heavy sled rope row and see where your heart rate goes.
Prowler Sled Pushing
The prowler sled push does require a special sled but it’s well worth the investment. Load the sled up heavy and raise hell with it for 5-20 seconds. It’s like doing a unilateral lower body strength exercise while jacking up your conditioning like nothing else.
Barbell squats done with a heavy weight for high reps is another crazy effective muscle building technique that boosts conditioning levels better than most conditioning methods do! Just one heavy set of 20 reps will do the trick.
Just like squats, deadlifts have an unparalleled effect of building muscle, strength, and conditioning simultaneously. Make sure your form stays strict on this movement. It’s not uncommon for inexperienced trainees to lose their positioning when fatigue sets in. Follow the same protocol as the squats.
For those of you who don’t know, Kroc Rows are a cheat version of a heavy one arm dumbbell row. Get out a heavy dumbbell and knock out 20+ reps per side. These will help your pulling strength, build up your back and have your conditioning soaring through the roof. Here’s what they look like:
Barbell complexes are basically several barbell exercises done consecutively without ever putting the bar down. Done correctly, they are another great option. Done incorrectly, they can quickly become a circus act.
The key is to choose the correct load and movement patterns. Go relatively heavy and try 5 reps of this complex: power clean-front squat-push press combo.
Hill sprints, although tough, are fun and incredibly effective. Just like regular sprinting, you should sprint for 4-20 seconds. To a large degree, the size of the hill will dictate your work interval, so be sure to find a hill that is an appropriate size.
Most athletic goals require you to train specific skills and techniques. The “side effect” of this type of training is often a conditioning effect. This conditioning is specific to meet the demands of your sport or goals. Oftentimes, this is all the “conditioning” an athlete needs.
Well, there you go! Those are some of my favorite options. Include any combo of these a couple of times per week and your muscle, strength, and conditioning level will thank you for it!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with hard conditioning work. Did you lose muscle? Strength? Please share in the comment section below. See you there!