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Are We Over-Conditioning Our Athletes?

No, not that kind of conditioning.

That sounds a bit outlandish at first. “Over-conditioning”?  How is that possible? That’s like saying that an athlete is too strong, right?

Actually, it’s not all that crazy and it’s something that we should be paying attention to as professional coaches of strength and conditioning. In fact, I’d say that over-conditioning is a problem with not only high school athletes, but also middle school athletes, college athletes, and the fitness industry in general.

And remember two seconds ago when I hinted at how preposterous it would be to call an athlete too strong? Well, that’s not crazy either.

Chasing excellence in either strength or conditioning is ridiculous if you’re a football player. You need to be chasing excellence in football. The same goes for hockey, baseball, basketball, golf, NASCAR, and table tennis athletes.

So why is over-conditioning becoming a problem in athletics?

Because conditioning can be non-technical, done with very limited equipment, and easily facilitated with large groups of participants.

This makes it ideal for a team environment or within a large health club focused on revenue. Any coach, with or without a background in strength and conditioning, can easily create an off-season turf-based workout for a team consisting of running and plyometrics.

Of course, the conclusion here is not that conditioning is over-rated and nobody should condition, ever. In fact, activity-specific conditioning is essential to any well-rounded strength and conditioning program (the word “conditioning” is literally in our job description).

Not this kind of conditioning.

High School Athletes

This is one of the most common instances of over-conditioning and there are many factors which contribute to this.

First, coaches are often simply teachers at the schools who have played the sport themselves. They have jobs outside of coaching the teams and cannot be devoting their free time to researching the latest strength and conditioning methods. And most schools do not have the funds to hire a S&C coach or outfit a gym on the school’s campus. With outside activities and homework as competing demands, high school coaches are handed the tall task of creating better athletes with very limited resources and time.

But why do we immediately think that every high school athlete is in poor condition? Conditioning won’t help you break tackles, win the battle for the puck in the corner, or run the 100m sprint faster (because you only run it once). It also won’t help you protect the ball at your feet, drive the ball further off the tee, or hit more jump-shots.

At no point in time does a soccer player run a consecutive mile as fast as possible. Nor do any hockey, football, baseball, or basketball players.

Over-conditioning can occur in fitness, too. How many times do I need to use this picture?

Could We Be Too Strong?

How about we take this over-conditioning conundrum and apply it to strength. Could an athlete be too strong? No. An athlete couldn’t be too strong, but the quest to be strong could be disadvantageous to the ultimate development of that athlete in his or her sport.

Dan John likes to separate sports into four quadrants that compare skill level with number of skills. Here’s what I mean: gym class requires you to be moderately good at many skills, so that’s quadrant #1. Quadrant #2 is most team-sports, especially collision sports like hockey or football. You must be exceptional at many things. Quadrant #3 contains only a few skills, and you most likely aren’t very good at them. And quadrant #4 contains very few skills, but you are exceptional at those (this would be like the 100m sprint or powerlifting).

Now, if we continue to direct high school athletes into quadrant #4 in terms of their conditioning, we leave valuable strength, size, mental skills, sport-specific skills, and intangibles like teamwork on the table. We will have worked so hard at making them exceptional at running that they don’t have time for anything else.

Now apply this to strength. Powerlifters are good at powerlifting, but the best powerlifters wouldn’t make very good football players, and vice versa. Neither of them have the correct skill set.

Of course, they could develop those skills. But if a champion powerlifter decides he wants to be a running back, he will have to leave his days of being a champion powerlifter behind.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing him on the Pats O-line right now.

A Case for Strength

I’d like to make a case for strength right now and use the evolution of the sport of football as an example (we could also use hockey, soccer, baseball, or basketball).

I’m going to pick out a few players real quick: Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Adrian Peterson, Joe Thomas, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham. Can anybody tell me what these guys all have in common? (Besides being arguably the best in the world at their positions?)

They’re all big and strong.

They’re all big and strong in addition to being fast and explosive. In fact, Joe Thomas (OT for the Browns) ran his 40yd dash in 4.92s. How fast is your 40? Each one of these guys is bigger than the fast guys, but faster than the big guys. And they’re all serious match-up problems.

As it turns out, football is evolving into a sport where your team is better suited to be filled with a bunch of genetic lottery winners than skill guys. It’s becoming too easy to be smart or fast. And check out some NHL examples: Crosby, Malkin, Toews, Ovechkin, Chara, Weber, Datsyuk, Stamkos. They all weigh at least 195lbs. It’s not enough to be the smart, fast guy anymore. You need to put in the time developing some real strength.

You may be thinking, “I’m doomed. I have no athleticism to speak of. I didn’t hit the genetic lottery.” That’s not true. While you might not have a standing vertical of 40″, hard work still beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. And the fact of the matter is strength just may be the most responsive to training out of all the skills that you need to succeed in athletics. All you need is time and dedication.

Do you know anybody that weighs over 230lbs and can jump 42.5″?


So we still have this question: Could we be too strong or too well-conditioned? Of course not!

I would argue that there is a strength and conditioning asymptote, a level we can approach but never reach because we’ll always keep improving, if only by a little bit. However, I would also argue that there is a finite amount of hours in the day, in the week, in the year. Your career is only so long. If you are in high school or college, you only have four years to prove to the next level that you should be there.

It comes down to your time as an investment. If you are an athlete in a team-sport, you must decide where to invest your time. Consider that, after sleeping for 8 hours, you have 960 minutes each day to invest in yourself. You may have school, work, or obligations to family and friends. You must invest in food, because food is an important part of recovery and, well, life itself. You must also invest in skill development. Whether that’s studying tape as a quarterback or stick-handling a golf ball outside the rink. And then maybe you have 60, 120, or 180+ minutes invested in structured practice.

You may invest your time in strength training, but then you cannot invest in lengthy, twice-daily conditioning. You will not be able to recover. So you may invest your time in conditioning instead, but will your return-on-investment be equal?

I would never argue that you could be too strong or too well-conditioned. But you could spend too much time attempting to improve these. Or you may prioritize them incorrectly. It takes months and years to build up appreciable strength levels, but only weeks to regain your conditioning. So instead of filling your summer with captain’s practices and turf conditioning workouts, find a coach, get yourself into the weight room, and build a little bit of strength. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the return on that investment.

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