Most people have seen the term “strength & conditioning.” We all have a very solid idea of what strength and strength training are. But what the hell is “conditioning?”
If you turn to the dictionary we get an answer of sorts. It turns out that the word is pretty new with the first use being in 1861. Another interesting thing about the word is that its synonyms and related words are all specific to physical fitness training. The first definition listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is, “the process of training to become physically fit by a regimen of exercise, diet, and rest; also : the resulting state of physical fitness” (Merriam-Webster).
To the thinking man that’s not very helpful. That means that conditioning is just physical fitness training and it gets more confusing because strength is a component of fitness and fitness training. So why the duplicity? It turns out that the real fun and the real meaning of the word isn’t technically about physicality at all. It’s about physiology or biochemistry and it was first used to describe behavior in the field of psychology. However, the working of the brain and the working of the muscle are both biochemical/physiological processes. Conditioning is specifically, “a simple form of learning involving the formation, strengthening, or weakening of an association between a stimulus and a response.”
This physiological definition is ultimately of far greater value to us. In psychology, there is classical and operant conditioning. I recommend you study that in detail sometime. But this issue of stimulus and response is the heart of the matter. It turns out that exercise is a stimulus, to which, the body has a response. This is where the first definition we explored comes from; the fact that we can develop the human body via stimulus and response. So yes, all of physical fitness training is conditioning. However, sports scientists decided to use the term for something very specific, which we will now discuss.
The formation of general strength, maximal strength and so on is a simple process of overloading the muscles. In response to that stimulus, they get bigger and stronger. That has several benefits for people, especially athletes. But strength, if not properly integrated, is worthless. That integration falls along two lines. First is neurological skill. Second is endurance. To understand the issue, let’s use a military example. Let’s say we have a very strong and technically perfect Roman Centurion. This centurion is big, strong and cannot be beaten in battle, except for one big problem. Strong as he is, he can only apply that strength and perfect technical skill once before he completely falls apart. This is a terrible thing because a battle requires him to perform at that level for hours under unfavorable conditions. What he lacks is what we call “conditioning;” and now we find ourselves at that place where we must define what this form of conditioning is in this context.
Simply put, conditioning in this context is the process of increasing endurance. Now you’re really going to dislike me because now we need to know what the hell endurance is. I’ll save you the mental anguish of tracing endurance and a few other terms in the same way we did with conditioning. The bottom line is that the word endurance is associated with duration, suffering, strain and so on. Defined by the sports science community, it is, “the capacity to perform work for an extended time.”
To close the book on this all we need to know is what that means from a practical point of view. To increase capacity, the tissues must be toughened to withstand the rigors of continuous work and the biochemical processes must be altered to allow that work to be fueled properly. In our Centurion example, he lacked the tissue durability and the physiological adaptation that would allow him to continue fighting with high skill for the duration of the battle.
So now we come to my favorite way of capping the issue. Conditioning is specific or non-specific physical training that toughens the tissues and improves the physiological capacity of the energy systems to fuel high quality (skill) work for the desired duration. Want that even shorter? It’s energy system development training and it must be performed for both general and specific physical preparation. Conditioning in the professional realm is extremely specific. It is specific to the energy system, movement patterns, muscle groups, individual muscles, general and specific skills, team positions, and so on. I use no less than twenty-five (25) types of conditioning in order to ensure the right adaptation is being stimulated.
Now let’s talk about some of the demon spawn fitness industry lies that have been born of this term. The first one if “metabolic conditioning” (METCON). This is by far one of the dumbest things the fitness world has dreamed up. Not content with their complete misuse of the word “cardio” and “conditioning,” they decided they needed to sex it up and call it “Metabolic Conditioning.” There’s a huge flaw with that. The fact is that everything we do and eat is metabolic conditioning. Metabolic means of or related to metabolism and metabolism is simply the sum of the physiological processes that utilize energy. The human body is either becoming more efficient at using energy or more efficient at storing energy. Sitting in a chair all day is just as much metabolic conditioning as is specific physical training or a specific diet. In this case, all “they” did was come up with a sexy sounding new nonsensical name to justify smoking the living daylights out of you at the end of a workout. What’s the truth here? METCON is nothing more than intensive glycolytic work performed to exhaustion, which is and always has been a very stupid idea.
Then there is the old term that is still always thrown around: “Cardio.” This term is also not understood at all. When performed properly it actually is a great form of general conditioning; specifically, intensive aerobic conditioning, which is of immense value. The problem is that nobody in the fitness industry knows what that is. Because of this, what passes for cardio is both appalling and decidedly NOT an improvement in one’s cardiovascular capacity. Just the opposite actually. The same goes for the 99.9% who think anything that makes you sweat hard and get so out of breath you collapse is “conditioning.” It’s not.
So, what’s missing? How about an example or two of what conditioning actually is? That’s easy!
- If we’re talking about running, anything that is considered to be interval training is conditioning; specifically conditioning you to run faster. You are conditioning the tissue durability and energy system efficiency at a specific higher than normal power output in the locomotor/gait pattern of running. The interval method is a volume building overload method used to convince the body that adaptation needs to happen.
- A general fitness example is running for 20-30min in your endurance heart rate zone. This improves cardiovascular capacity and health while accumulating much needed locomotor workload.
- A specific resistance training example is performing 50 repetition sets with 40% 1RM to develop local motor endurance.
There you have it! I hope that helps you to understand what conditioning is and is not. I want to leave you with just one last thing. Many of you are probably wondering what real conditioning actually feels like. Is it supposed to be easy, hard, impossible? What should you feel?
When performing conditioning, it is always tied to an energy system. It will have a proper load, speed, and duration prescribed. There is a false assumption that the more aerobic, the easier and the more anaerobic the more difficult. This is not the case. The real pain and suffering come anytime you are challenging the limits of your tissues and physiology. The truth is that whatever you are poorly conditioned for is going to suck a lot. It’s going to hurt and burn and you will be acutely aware of your shortcomings. What you’re well conditioned for will be no problem. The other thing is that typically if you’re performing more extensive conditioning (longer duration), the more pain and suffering you’re going to discover. The take-home message here is that some of it will be easy and some of it will make you change your religion. At all times you and your coach must be careful that you’re doing just enough conditioning because too much will negatively impact your ability to train and can rapidly lead to over-training syndrome.
Last word – We all love that soul crushing work for some reason. The last word is that conditioning is extremely important so do it right the first time. If you’re going to puke your guts out it would be nice to also improve your performance and physique because that sort of punishment for no gain is just stupid.
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