Proper conditioning is crucial regardless of your sport or fitness goals — it improves your endurance, your ability to translate strength and power, and has numerous health benefits.
But for optimum performance and results, it needs to be specific, deliberate, and effective. Often, it’s none of that.
Traditional Conditioning Problems
Here are some traditional ways to condition:
- Long runs
- Long jogs
- Jumping rope
- Long bike rides
- Football drills such as 25 yard shuttles, “gassers,” etc
- Timed miles
- Walking or hiking
Conditioning often becomes a long, moderately-intense cardiovascular bout with little reason behind the length or intensity — this holds true for both athletes and average trainees:
It’s also worth noting that some strength athletes skip conditioning all-together because they feel it takes away from their strength. I’d argue, however, that with specific conditioning, these athletes can actually benefit with some conditioning and improve their performance (which I’ll discuss below).
While there’s nothing wrong with each method by itself, the application needs improvement. Are we doing the right conditioning for the right person or athlete? (Even fat-loss trainees can benefit from more-specified conditioning.)
As we classify each one, it’ll helps us plan and program more-effectively instead of defaulting to a haphazard *I’m-just-going-on-a-jog* type of thing.
Let’s start by renaming “conditioning” to “energy systems development.”
Energy Systems Development (ESD)
There are three distinct ways your body generates and regenerates energy for exercise depending on exercise duration and intensity:
Used in short bursts of all-out work, typically up to 6 – 10 seconds (though it can vary). This method utilizes the energy that’s already stored within your muscles; because you only have a finite amount, however, that energy empties quickly. With exercise of this nature, you rely on the Type IIb muscle fibers, which generate the highest amount of power and strength, but exhaust the quickest.
After that point, you move to the next system:
Used in moderate-lengthed bouts of maximal or near-maximal intensity, somewhere between 20 – 90 seconds of output (again, it varies). This system utilizes other organs to regenerate energy to support this extended amount of work. This process, however, creates a waste product – the infamous “lactic acid” – which interferes with the body’s ability to perform.
This type of exercise will fatigue both the Type IIb and Type IIa muscle fibers.
There is no time-restriction on this energy system — used in sub-maximal work or switching on after about 2 minutes of intense exercise, the aerobic system supports everything from a 20-minute jog to an ultramarathon. Generally speaking, because exercise of this length is less intense, it uses your breathing (the oxidative system) to fuel exercise. It’s steady, efficient, and extremely common for “general conditioning.”
Aerobic exercise primarily uses Type I muscle fibers, which are the smallest and most fatigue-resistant.
Note that each category uses both different methods of regenerating energy and different muscle fibers. Knowing this is key to avoid overtraining or getting the wrong adaptations.
Also be aware that at any time, all energy systems are working — one simply dominates.
How To Develop Each One
Coach Dave Tenney of Seattle Sounders FC has been a pioneer in the research and training methods behind ESD and his work has influenced me extensively. As you will see, by focusing on each energy system separately, we can target the right ones and spend less time on the wrong ones.
Since alactic work is quick, it’s important to do drills that are quick in duration, but include maximal rest and recovery to be effective for several bouts. Rather than increasing the duration of the drill, focus on increasing the number of intervals performed.
Lactic work is longer and complete recovery between intervals isn’t as important. You can increase interval durations (up to a point) and also focus on upping the number of intevals. Some of the goals of lactic conditioning include increasing the “lactic threshold” – where lactic acid accumulation begins – and your power output in this phase.
Almost everyone can benefit from proper aerobic conditioning. Benefits include increased capillary and mitochondrial density within the muscle, better eccentric strength within the heart, and improved cardiovascular health.
The biggest mistake I see, however, is aerobic work that is too intense. Somewhere between 55 – 65% of your max heart rate is perfect; anything could start fatiguing the Type II muscle fibers, which will reduce strength and power numbers. It’ll also target the wrong adaptation.
Which One Do You Need?
It depends — every sport emphasizes different energy systems.
Some sports consist of short bursts of energy; others, prolonged efforts. But regardless of the game, understanding its unique demands shows us which energy system we need to prioritize in our conditioning.
In other words, if our sport primarily uses the lactic system, we shouldn’t spend all our time training the aerobic system. And if our sport consists of very quick displays of energy, doing too many 40-second sprits might actually be counterproductive.
You shouldn’t, however, neglect any of them. As legendary strength coach, Al Vermeil, would say, “keep a thread” in everything — as you prioritize one energy system during your programming, spend a little time on the other energy systems so as not to lose them.
If you are primarily strength athlete, for example, you could still benefit from some aerobic conditioning to improve your recovery in between events and remove waste from your system.
Problems only occur, however, when we focus on the wrong ones or try to do everything at once.
ESD For Football Players
Football involves incredible bursts of energy followed by consistent periods of rest. The average NFL play, for example, lasts about 3 seconds — that’s primarily the alactic system. Between plays, however, the rest is approximately 40 seconds, which utilizes the aerobic system to regenerate energy. Thus, football is an alactic/aerobic sport.
To train effectively, football players need to focus on their alactic energy system. Do this, they can use drills that last 6 – 10 seconds (at most) such as sprints intervals, ropes, footwork drills, etc. They also need aerobic training to build the adaptations to support quick, repeated bursts of exercises and recover in-between plays — long and slow jogs, swims, bike rides suffice.
If you run too fast — say above 65% of your max heart rate — you start shifting into the lactic part of conditioning. That will also fatigue your Type II muscle fibers, which isn’t what we want for a strength and speed athlete like football.
Now, with proper ESD, things like 110-yard “gassers” aren’t practical for football players — it’s far too lactic. It’s also not particularly sports specific: in the entire 2012 NFL regular season, only 13 kickoffs were returned for a touchdown (of the the roughly 1400 attempts). Unless you’re doing one or two a game, don’t worry about doing too many “gassers” for conditioning.
For punishment or masochism, however, that’s a different story.
ESD For Soccer Players
Quick quiz: what are the predominant energy systems in soccer?
Alactic and aerobic. Watch the Premier League sometime (Bluebirds!!) and notice than players walk and jog around — then, when needed, they’ll launch into a full sprint.
[Bonus: ESD For Fat Loss]
Which energy system is best for fat loss?
Well, the aerobic exercise uses the most fat oxidation — does that mean it’s best to get rid of your love handles? Not necessarily. (And I’ll explain later in this series.)
Get ready for the next part where I’ll discuss the most important part of designing a great strength program — the assessment. Without this, you’re not truly training for yourself. Nor will you know what direction the program is headed and won’t have much to compare your progress to.
Throughout this seres, I’m sure you’ll have a lot of questions, so be sure to ask using the comment section of this post. Feel free to reach out to me via Facebook and Twitter to get your question answered. See you soon!