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Simple Guidelines for Conditioning (And Why Conditioning Is A Misnomer)

Conditioning is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process of training to become physically fit by a regimen of exercise, diet, and rest.”

Additionally, it is “a simple form of learning involving the formation, strengthening, or weakening of an association between a stimulus and a response.” takes it a step further and gives us approximately 7,012,342 definitions, including “to put in a fit or proper state” and “to form or be a condition of.” Didn’t anybody ever tell that you can’t use the word that you are defining in the definition?

By these definitions, we can assume that conditioning is task-specific, as it relates to fitness. You could become “well-conditioned” to a certain stimulus (a 1rm squat, a 500m row, or a set of 20 pushups), or de-conditioned when you stop presenting yourself with that same stimuli.

And since we call ourselves strength and conditioning coaches (and we know that conditioning could theoretically be task-specific to strength), we should now be called Conditioning and Conditioning coaches. (I’ll be starting a credentialing program for CCCC, Certified Conditioning and Conditioning Coaches.)

So now that I’ve taken the word conditioning and ran it over with the proverbial Mack truck, let’s move on to the phrase work capacity.

Mel Siff has defined work capacity as, “the general ability of the body as a machine to produce work of different intensity and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body.” (Which, as you’ll see, is a ridiculously awesome definition.) Still, it seems like work capacity is hard to define. For example, check out this article written in 2010 by a Cressey intern.

For me personally, I’d like to take a more literal approach to defining work capacity. We’ll start with the word work, which means, “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” How about the physics definition? In physics, work is literally the force applied to an object multiplied by the displacement of said object.

And then we get to the word capacity. Google returns two definitions, including, “the maximum amount that something can contain” and “the ability or power to do, experience, or understand something.”

And after all of this, I’ve concluded that work capacity can be defined (simply) as, “the overall ability or power to perform activities involving mental or physical effort.” Good? Good.

And with this definition of work capacity, we can see that work capacity also seems to be task-specific, much like conditioning. If conditioning is the process of training oneself or becoming accustomed to a specific task, work capacity is the ability to perform that task.

You could have a high work capacity for many different things. For instance, maybe you have a high work capacity for solving Sudoku puzzles. Or, if you live in the Northeast, shoveling snow. In the realm of fitness and strength and conditioning (hereafter known as conditioning and conditioning), work capacity could be specific to the type, intensity, time, frequency, movements, or energy systems used during exercise.

More snow tonight!

So what does it mean to perform “general conditioning?” General physical preparedness (GPP) could be defined as “the overall ability or power to perform activities not specific to the task.” For Tom Brady, playing quarterback is the specific task that he must perform. However, becoming bigger, faster, stronger, etc, might help him become a better quarterback, despite the fact that it is not a “direct application of skill.”

Confused yet? Me too. Regardless, using the word conditioning implies that there is some element of progressive overload, one of the major themes of basic exercise science. Conditioning implies adapting and your body will only adapt to progressively greater stimuli.

Here, we can use CrossFit as an example. By definition (work capacity across broad time and modal domains), CrossFit doesn’t condition us to a specific task. By virtue of the fact the the programs are “constantly varied,” you can’t assume that there is any strategy of progressive overload.

Still, CrossFit works exceptionally well for those (that don’t end up with rhabdomyolysis) that have been sedentary or near-sedentary because any amount of movement becomes progressive overload. Even for a more advanced beginner, a simple system of repeated WODs or WOD elements could theoretically provide progressive overload if the frequency was appropriate to rest, recover, and subsequently  improve one’s score.

But this brings me to my next point. When we use the word “conditioning,” we are usually referring to a general type of conditioning related to energy systems. It becomes “general” because your body’s energy systems don’t care about the task or movement. By definition, CrossFit WODs/workouts do not develop skills or the ability to perform specific tasks, but the energy systems to perform random tasks repeatedly. And even then, the “constantly varied” nature of CrossFit means that we literally can’t even pinpoint what energy system we’re using. Every WOD is different. What is CrossFit? I don’t know. I literally cannot figure out what CrossFit is.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main idea of the post and some simple guidelines for “general conditioning”.

1. For most people, conditioning refers to a general use of the energy systems.

Heavy breathing. Sweating. Exhaustion. And yes, I’m still referring to exercise. As I’ve noted, we could technically become “conditioned” to any stimulus. So from here on, we’ll refer to general conditioning as Energy Systems Development.

2. Energy systems development (ESD) is specific, not general.

With this is mind, we must know which energy system we aim to develop. We should move away from the word “cardio,” because long-duration cardiovascular endurance is not the only quality that we should want to improve.

We basically have three energy systems:

  • ATP-CP – for high-intensity activities; this system is exhausted usually within 10ish seconds.
  • Glycolytic – there are *technically* two types of glycolysis; the glycolytic systems will last you about 2-3 minutes.
  • Oxidative – low-intensity, will pretty much take you the rest of the way.

Think of these three systems as supporting a 100m sprint, an 800m run, and a two-mile run, respectively. By using different work-to-rest ratios (intervals) and intensities, we can work on developing all three.

3. Constantly vary your modalities.

Sound familiar? Maybe we’ve finally defined CrossFit. While (in my opinion), WODs cannot claim themselves as a complete approach to fitness or exercise, they are definitely good for ESD. In fact, many strength guys perform “WODs” all the time. We’re just too stubborn and egotistical to admit that CrossFit isn’t all bad.

Seriously though, the more you pound the treadmill, the more your body will adapt to pounding the treadmill. You’ll become a more efficient runner/slogger and we don’t need or want to be efficient at ESD. Constantly varying the types and times of your ESD workouts is a good thing.

*The opposite is true for building strength or size. We want to become efficient and familiar with the movements because it’s easy to add weight or reps to our squat. It’s hard to consistently overload a 5k.*

4. Avoid CNS-dominant movements. 

Things like grip-heavy work and high-level/intensity plyos (not to mention anything at 90%+ of your 1RM) is all very stressful to the central nervous system. If you’re already lifting (which you are), the last thing you want is to bring more unnecessary fatigue onto your CNS.

These CNS-dominant things don’t have much of a place in your ESD workouts. Just leave them for the days that you lift, there’s plenty of other exercises and tools that you can use for ESD.

Let’s avoid this, too.

5. Avoid technique-dependent exercises.

I always recommend avoiding technique-dependent exercises as it is tough to remain proficient with technique when fatigue sets in. As always, ask yourself if there’s a safer, equally effective way to achieve the same result. When it comes to ESD, the answer is almost always, “Yes.”

6. Avoid heavy eccentrics.

The same goes for heavy, eccentric-dominant work. High-tension eccentric movements create oodles of muscular damage, which will not only make you super sore, but will also make it much harder to recover from your ESD work. The role of ESD is to develop your energy systems, not build muscle or satisfy your sadistic need for soreness.

The same goes as above, leave the heavy eccentrics for your lifts.


So what is conditioning? It is “the process of training.” In fitness, it is the process of training and adapting to a certain stimulus in order to improve our work capacity. By definition, all of the exercise that we do could be considered “conditioning.” For most, it simply refers to energy systems development. We are conditioning our body’s energy systems to handle the specific intensity and duration of an activity.

Since energy systems development is specific to intensity and duration, we should use specific work-to-rest ratios:

  • ATP-CP – 1:12-20
  • Glycolytic – 1:3-5
  • Oxidative – 1:1-3

Simply match your intensity to the interval. ESD hinges on progressive overload and specificity, so we should constantly strive for improvement in our energy systems development. Additionally, you should remain creative with your ESD workouts. Find a bunch of difficult things and do them repeatedly for reps or time.

And most importantly, the credentialing program for Certified Conditioning and Conditioning Coaches will be live tomorrow (at my house). All you have to do is come shovel out my driveway.

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