Conditioning, With Purpose
Written by Fritz Nugent

Ahh, conditioning. Love it or hate it. Maybe both. The scientists say it’s good for us. Coaches make us (for this singular sentence, I’ll lump myself together into the “athlete” category) do it because they think it does stuff to improve special terms like “cardio” and “work capacity”.

A majority of athletes perform conditioning to prepare for their specific sport. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that CrossFitters do conditioning to “feel like they are working out”. Where does that last part come from? I have heard many people say that they prefer our Performance and Fitness classes because they are “harder” than Muscle classes. I hear this often: “I don’t really feel that tired after muscle class, but sometimes I feel exhausted after P&F”.

I have even heard that people will sometimes go to a globo gym for another 60-90 minutes to train further after a CrossFit class because they didn’t feel like they did enough. I will tell you straight off the bat here that feeling exhausted after a workout is not a sign that it was a good workout. And you may not even be conditioning optimally. And that brings us to the meat of this topic: conditioning, with purpose.

Training for Specific Adaptations

I have written about this concept before! There is a magical principle called SAID which is an acronym for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Simply stated, how you specifically train directly influences how your body responds to the training. If you only bench press, you will probably get better at bench press. If you run, you’ll get better at running. If you train to suffer by pushing to your absolute maximum every time you enter the gym, you will most definitely adapt to that stimulus. You also risk a lot, and are probably a walking bag of injuries and complaints. Hopefully this article helps to highlight the potential benefits and pathways to improving conditioning while minimizing risk.

Potential Adaptations and Training Effects from Conditioning

Conditioning has a host of functions, some of which I mentioned above. Here are some adaptations that athletes can reap from conditioning:

Cardio-Respiratory – your heart and lungs improve function

Metabolic – your cells improve their ability to provide energy to all tissues, structures, and organs

Structural – no matter the type of conditioning, there will be an effect on your bones and connective tissues

Psychological – conditioning stimulates the release of endorphins and also has the ability to improve our sense of self

Cognitive – metabolic byproducts, specifically lactate, becomes a “preferential fuel” over glucose in the brain and body while in circulation

Complex Skills – conditioning can enhance the execution of complex skills at high levels of fatigue

Skill-Based Conditioning

I could write at length about each of the specific adaptations from my list above, but there is only one that I’d like to discuss today. So let’s chat about the last line item: enhanced skill execution as fatigue increases. For skill-based athletes, this is the main goal of conditioning: to improve skill function at high levels of fatigue.

Think fighters. With all else equal, the athlete who can execute complex grappling, striking, and evasion tactics more efficiently while under high fatigue will often win the match.

Think field sport athletes. At the end of a long game or a long season, the athletes who execute skills more proficiently at higher levels of fatigue will be victorious.

Think CrossFitters. When your heart rate is maxed out during “Helen” and you just stepped out the gym door to run your third 400 meters and you have to come in and hit swings and pull-ups and there’s a classmate right on your ass, the person who can keep it together will win. Or when your team is in the final workout of the CrossFit Games and they are exhausted and have to perform a high skill gymnastic or weightlifting task and are tied for second and first place is only a few points away…the athletes who can execute these complex skills well under that insanely high level of fatigue and stress will reign victorious!

Lastly, think life. Maybe you have kids, pets, a spouse, a job or own a company, and many other responsibilities in your life. Sometimes all of those things converge into one shitstorm of a day/week/month/year. The humans who can execute high thinking capacity (improved through appropriately dosed training) while maintaining consistent energy (from a healthy metabolism influenced by training) while keeping their head and not losing their cool (emotional regulation and self-belief) will be able to do what it takes to live their life well without having a breakdown.

Conditioning vs Training

Here’s an interesting question: Where is the line between conditioning and training? Are heavy snatch singles conditioning or training? I’d say both. Conditioning and training are one in the same.

If you are an Olympic Weightlifter, in order to be successful at your sport, you need to be able to perform maximally heavy snatches and clean and jerks with relatively short rest between attempts, and you must be very accurate. You only get three attempts for each lift. This is incredibly demanding on physiology and psychology. So for this athlete, heavy snatch singles serve as both conditioning and training.

I could create countless examples of this phenomenon. To summarize the concept that training and conditioning are one in the same, when we strength train, perform traditional conditioning like running, swimming, or biking, or hit a metcon, keep the goal in mind: SAID principle. Specific Adaptations. And those adaptations influence our ability to do well what we constantly practice.

A final example…Athlete ONE (let’s call her Sloan) follows a Kettlebell Program that looks like this:

Week 1: 5 x 5 swings, OTM (On The Minute)
Week 2: 6 x 5
Week 3: 7 x 5
Week 4: 8 x 5
Week 5: 9 x 5
Week 6: 10 x 5
Week 7: 10 x 6
Week 8: 10 x 7
Week 9: 10 x 8
Week 10: 10 x 9
Week 11: 10 x 10

After completing all 11 weeks of training with ONE weight kettlebell (53lb/24kg), Sloan goes up a bell to the 62lb/28kg and follows the same sequence. After that second 11-week block, Sloan starts a third cycle with the next bell up, the 70lb/32 kg. She completes the third 11-week block. On her final workout, the 10 sets of 10 kettlebell swings on the minute with the 70lb kettlebell, athlete TWO (let’s call her Samantha) enters our conversation.

Samantha, who is strong but hasn’t been swinging bells diligently for 33 weeks, asks if she can join Sloan for the final session, the 10 x 10. Sloan shines her best fake-smile and says “sure” but inside she feels that Samantha has been watching her swing the KB for the last 33 weeks and wants to prove that Sloan could have skipped the first 32 weeks of training and jumped straight to the end. Sloan agrees, and off they go.

Both Sloan and Samantha complete the workout. Sloan performed her swings with stellar technique, finished her sets faster than Samantha, held a lower average heart rate, and her heart rate dropped more quickly after each set. After the workout, Sloan felt good and could have done another 10 rounds. Samantha is lying on the ground panting and her back hurts and her hands tore and she now hates kettlebell swings.

Be like Sloan!

The Power of Progressive Conditioning

Hopefully this illustrates the power of appropriate and progressive conditioning. Samantha is Sloan’s alter ego at week one. Could Sloan have completed the 10 x 10 with a 70 at week one? Yes. But that doesn’t fast-forward her development 33 weeks. The demands she placed on her system stimulated adaptations, and they compounded over that duration to improve literally every cell in her body. The quality of her work at week 1 was much lower than at week 33. And that brings us to the purpose of conditioning (and training): to make what was once challenging less challenging, for training AND life.