Here's what you need to know...
- Perform your conditioning work like the bad-ass predator that you are. Don't run from it like prey.
- To accelerate the benefits, perform conditioning work in the post-absorptive state or after weight training.
- Adaptation is the enemy. Rotate conditioning exercises and the results will keep coming.
We could start here by listing all the studies about the drawbacks of long duration cardio and running. Then we could list all the studies that show the benefits of shorter, high intensity conditioning sessions.
There would be lots of fancy acronyms and PubMed links. You'd feel smart reading it, but most likely you wouldn't apply any of it. Plus, that would be boring. So let's make the distinction between cardio and conditioning like this:
- Conditioning prepares you for battle. Cardio makes you really good at running slowly away.
- Conditioning fires up the metabolism. Cardio extinguishing it over time.
- Conditioning makes a man look good naked. Cardio makes a man look good in lavender skinny jeans and not much else.
- Conditioning builds legs of steel. Cardio builds legs of an underfed seabird.
- Conditioning makes you lean and hard. Cardio makes you small and soft.
- Conditioning gives you an upper body made of stone. Cardio gives you an upper body made of twigs and Jell-O.
- Conditioning makes you better at any physical activity. Cardio makes you good at cardio.
- Conditioning is sex. Cardio is cuddling and a chick-flick.
- Conditioning is testosterone. Cardio is cortisol and estrogen.
- Conditioning is pecs. Cardio is man-boobs.
- Conditioning is Westside Barbell. Cardio is Planet Fitness.
- Conditioning relieves anxiety, boosts all-day energy and fires up brain function. Cardio increases anxiety and cortisol. (Runners are only happy when they run. The rest of the time they're assholes. True story.).
- Conditioning is fun. Cardio is fun when it's over.
- Conditioning is for hunters. Cardio is for Bambi's mom.
- In short, conditioning is for predators. Cardio is for prey.
That was fun. Let's move on.
Predator conditioning, as we'll call it here because it's cool, revolves around two main principles:
Strength training is all about adaptation. You lift weights and the body adapts by getting stronger, building muscle, and increasing your capacity for being awesome. You add load, adjust sets and reps, and tweak exercises to keep the body adapting because that adaptation makes you better.
But the opposite is true when it comes to energy systems work. With traditional long-duration cardio, you adapt too, and quickly. It doesn't take long before you have to run 10 miles to get the "results" that 5 miles used to get you. In short, that form of cardio makes you better at doing that form of cardio, so you have to keep doing more.
Problem is, damage incurs – physical, metabolic, and hormonal – and the "better" you get the worse you look and the weaker you become. When the unavoidable injury occurs, your cardio-adapted body stores fat like a hoarder. (More on that here.) That leads to not only stagnation but fast regression.
Predator conditioning revolves around avoiding too much adaptation, mainly by switching exercise modalities or rotating them. See, you don't want to adapt to conditioning. If you get good at it, it has essentially stopped working, leaving you doing a lot of work just to maintain previous improvements. Nothing like working hard and putting in the time just to maintain a level of stagnation, right? And just adding more of the same type of conditioning leads to all the "cardio" problems mentioned above.
The good news here is that people have an innate desire for variety. Conditioning is your chance to scratch the variety itch while keeping your weight training well-planned and progressive, as it should be.
Let's preface this by saying that whatever time you have to get your conditioning in is a good time. A tough session at the "wrong" time is far better than skipping the workout entirely. But there are two times where conditioning works even better.
1 The Post-Absorptive State
The post-absorptive state is that time between being fasted and being recently fed. You're no longer fasted, but you're finished up with most of the digesting and the nutrients are available in the bloodstream.
"This is where fat oxidation and caloric expenditure are at their greatest," Christian Thibaudeau says. "Unlike fasted cardio, the post-absorptive period isn't catabolic to muscle mass."
Since many athletes and lifters like to do their conditioning work in the morning in a separate training session, what's the best way to take advantage of the post-absorptive state without having to get up at 3AM to eat breakfast?
Easy. Consume the right amount of di- and tripeptides, which are transported directly into the bloodstream without the need to be further broken down. Couple that with a small amount of a special carbohydrate mixture that increases metabolic rate and drives supraphysiologic levels of these di- and tripeptides into the muscle cell.
"That's where Surge® Workout Fuel shines," Thibaudeau says. "It's readily absorbed. You can drink it and go do your conditioning work soon after."
In other words, the post-absorptive state induces faster fat loss than a fasted workout, with none of the catabolic drawbacks.
"I find that Surge® Workout Fuel pre-conditioning boosts metabolic rate and helps me get leaner even faster. Two scoops roughly 20 minutes prior to your workout is all you need," Thibaudeau adds.
This is easily applicable in real life. Wake up, drink a serving of Mag-10®, and do your conditioning.
2 Post Weight Training
Not a morning person? Then simply do your conditioning work directly after your lifting session, choosing wisely among the choices we'll get to below. In short, body fat stores are more easily tapped for energy after you've already had a full weight training workout. It doesn't take much to target excess fat when you've already been going hard for an hour or so.
Don't expect any Draconian tempo and duration rules here. You know the difference between sucking wind and, well, just sucking. Conditioning is about short, hard intervals. Kick ass, rest a little, kick some additional ass, repeat. Like this:
- Choose a conditioning exercise. Go hard for 15 to 30 seconds, roughly.
- Catch your breath. Don't "rest", just wait for the black spots to fade from your vision.
- Stop after 10 to 20 minutes.
As a general rule, 10-minute sessions are perfect for post-weight training. Longer sessions, up to about 20 minutes, are best for separate conditioning sessions in the post-absorptive state.
Remember, don't get too "good" at one form. Avoid adaptation. The more you suck at one form of conditioning the higher the impact it will have. Conditioning isn't a competition (CrossFit aside), it's a tool for getting a job done. Focus on the goal you're after, not the tool used to get there.
Conditioning is all about variety, so it's fun and never boring. The list of exercises is endless, but here are some good ones:
- Battle Ropes: This is like sprinting for your upper body. Use a variety of undulation techniques. If you can go much over 30 seconds every round, then you're either a world class athlete, you're using dental floss, or you're phoning it in. Go hard. Make noise. Leave some blood on the ropes.
- Sprints: Flats, hills, glaciers, with Jim Wendler on your back, etc.
- Heavy Bag Work: Beat it like it's wearing an Affliction T-shirt.
- Loaded Carries.
- Fast Jump Rope: Double-unders if you have the coordination.
- Medicine Ball Work: One of the best exercises here is to take a 100 to 150 pound med ball or Atlas stone, pick it up and toss it over one shoulder. Then turn around and repeat. Sadly, 100+ pound med balls are hard to find in most gyms, but they're out there.
- Prowler or Sled Work: Push it, drag it, or throw it.
The rule here is that if you can do it while checking your iPhone, watching TV, or carrying on a conversation then it isn't predator conditioning. If it would get you kicked out of Planet Fitness, it's predator conditioning.
The goal is not to throw up, but you're on the right track if you get close to it. Train to the limit of your capacity. When you think you can't go a second longer, add five seconds (because you can, sissy), then take a quick breather. Then do it again. This will feel like the longest 10 to 20 minutes of your life, not counting that vasectomy.
- Bonus Tip: To really accelerate the effect and perhaps even target abdominal fat loss, do ab work during "rest" periods.
If your knees are already buckling after leg day, don't go run hill sprints. Instead choose an upper-body based conditioning exercise. Reverse that for upper body days. Do what you want if this is a separate training session.
If you're doing conditioning work three times per week, choose a different exercise modality each session. Or, do the same exercise for a week, then switch to something new on week two. Remember, keep sucking and it'll keep working.
We could've talked about HIIT, the glycolysis system, EPOC, fartlek, or Tabata, but predators don't sweat the details, at least not when they're hungry and see a doe in front of their conveniently forward-facing eyes.
No, let's keep it simple. Attack your conditioning like a predator. Don't run from it like prey. Hunt it down, kill it, and eat it.