What does it mean to be “in shape”?
According to mainstream fitness media, it means some combination of being able to do a gazillion burpees, crawl through the mud, and get just the right amount of sweat glistenening on your bare muscles while staring off into the distance.
And if you ask most people, they’ll probably say that “cardio” and/or “conditioning” are the most important things to do to “get in shape” (and they might add that they usually neglect doing anything of the sort because they hate it so much).
In 2016, more than 64 million people went for a jog or a run in the United States, and approximately 1% of the American population go for a run on an average day. There are over 30,000 running events to accommodate them, yearly.
Then there are all the hardcore bikers and swimmers, and those that blend all three and pursue triathlons. Walk into any large gym, and chances are there’s a waiting list for the best ellipticals and other cardio machines. Class-based aerobics, Zumba, and other waves of fitness trends are focused primarily around the cardio aspect of fitness as well.
Cardio exercise, with its many variations, is arguably still the king of fitness within the minds of the general public. For many people, it makes up the bulk of their training. Or if it doesn’t, they feel guilty that they “should” be doing more.
There’s no question that training the cardiovascular system is important, and we go over it in detail in this cardiovascular exercise article.
But do you need to run on the treadmill for hours or train like a Navy SEAL to be in good physical condition? For the vast majority of us, the answer is simply no.
Let’s look at that phrase in more detail. “Good physical condition”. I bet this is what most of us mean when we say we need to, or should, do more cardio. And why saying cardio often goes hand in hand with saying conditioning.
The terms become synonymous with becoming more capable and fit for your chosen sports and activities. You want to do and feel better at those, and so it’s reasonable to think that more cardio and conditioning are the solutions.
What “Counts” as Conditioning? 4 Broad Categories
It’s a pretty broad term, and people use it to refer to a lot of different things. So let’s talk a bit more about the different types and as we go into more detail you’ll see that they can all have a place in your exercise regimen. But that doesn’t mean they all have to be in your program all at once!
1. Aerobic Training
Aerobic training in general refers to exercise targeting the circulatory system and the lungs, and it’s often used interchangeably with “cardio.” It does not have to be fast, nor does it have to be for any specific duration. If you are challenging your body’s ability to intake oxygen and distribute it to your cells, that’s the ticket.
Or to put it differently: if your heart is thumpin’ and your breath is puffin’, you’re doing some cardio.
Even though there are obviously many ways to make that happen, such as a particularly enthusiastic session of flipping pancakes, cardio for most people tends to evoke images of running, biking, circuit training, swimming, and machines such as the elliptical or rower.
2. LSD (Long Slow Distance)
Long Slow Distance is the good ‘ole boy of conditioning. Pick a pace, keep it mostly steady, and go a long time. This is often the approach taken by many marathon runners and hikers, as it follows the linear training mentality of “if you want to be able to do more of the thing, do more of the thing.”
This type of training is also sometimes called LISS (low-intensity, steady state) since it doesn’t necessarily pertain to distance-based training.
A big benefit of this style of training is that it’s relatively straightforward. You simply maintain a slow to moderate pace of whatever movement you’re practicing, and go for a set time at that pace. It doesn’t require a lot of thinking or planning.
One downside is that it can be a rut you fall into. After a stressful day, it’s often easier to lace up your shoes and go jogging than to strength train, or do something more specific to your goals.
Injuries are prevalent with this form of training, too–though statistics can vary widely on this point. Depending on who you ask, 30-75% of runners will get injured in their sport every year, and there are even estimates as high as 90%. No matter which estimate you’re looking at, though, it’s a lot.
3. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
High intensity interval training is definitely hot in the fitness world right now.
Interval training simply refers to a period of active work followed by a predetermined amount of rest, before repeating the active work portion. Beyond that, there’s a lot of variation.
Regular interval training can be as simple as doing one minute of jogging followed by one minute of walking until you make it around the block. But at a higher intensity, the goal would be to provide only enough rest to allow for another bout of near-max effort. It can also include higher-speed “finishers” or sprints.
Many of the benefits of LSD training can be found in HIIT, along with some additional ones:
Less time needed to get in a workoutHigher stimulus for the time invested (more work performed per minute)More sustained metabolic effectImproved VO2 max
On the downside, HIIT is often less enjoyable for those new to exercise, since the higher intensity portions of the workout can be quite taxing. But, of course, that’s a matter of preference.
4. Tabata Training
Named after Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata, the idea behind a Tabata workout is simple.
It is a very specifically structured variation of HIIT, intended to be the “ideal” interval for higher intensity work, usually sprints on an exercise bike or running. Over the course of four minutes, you are performing active work for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. But during those 20 second blocks, the goal is to go as hard as possible. Pretty soon, those 10 seconds of rest feel almost evil.
The short duration can make Tabata structured workouts very accessible and beneficial to all levels.
Autoregulation is made easier by the simple structure–simply go as hard as your current level allows, within the confines of decent form, and you will improve. Meaning each time you attempt the same Tabata workout, it’ll be similarly difficult because you’ll get further each time, but always be working hard.
How Conditioning Might Look for You
We talk about goals a lot at GMB, and this is a point at which you’ll want to consider yours. If you’re not sure what you’re trying to do, then it’s going to be hard to figure out how to approach a topic as broad as conditioning.
If you’re training for a marathon, for instance, you will indeed need to spend some solid time doing LSD-style training, with a little strength training and intervals thrown in. If you’re planning to hike across a mountain range with a large pack, though, you’ll probably benefit more from training your endurance by carrying kettlebells in various configurations than by running for hours.
It all depends. So start with your goal, and build your training out from that.
For most people without specific endurance goals, any strenuous exercise that gets your heart pumping harder will be sufficient.
If you’re spending time on activities you enjoy, and you’re putting in a fair amount of hard work, you’re probably already doing enough cardio for your health. And if you’re not doing that just yet, you can start adding in a bit more targeted work.
Here’s a routine you can use to get your heart rate up. It may be different than most conditioning work you’ve done before, but you’ll get just as much benefit (if not more) than you would from a more typical routine.
Quick Bodyweight Conditioning Workout
This routine is an example of a fun alternative to get your heart pumping. And beyond just being more interesting than being on a machine staring at other people on other machines, this routine will engage your entire body in a variety of movements in a variety of ways. It’ll help you build strength and control, giving you the benefits of a conditioning routine with much less monotony.
For this routine, you will do 3 Bodyweight Squats in between the following movements:
Jumps Forward and Back (3 reps)Alternating Single Leg Jumps to the Side (3 per side)Weight Shifted Push-Ups (3 per side)Alligator Rolls (3 reps)
Let’s look at each of these exercises in more detail:
This is a staple move and one that is guaranteed to get your heart rate up! In this routine, this will be the base movement that is performed in between all the others.
Keep your form impeccable by staying as upright as possible in your upper body, dropping your hips right between your legs and keeping your weight in the middle of your feet. Go as low as you are comfortable, while maintaining good form.
Control is the name of the game here, especially when you start feeling fatigued. Don’t force yourself to jump fast or far, and always land as softly as possible with great control. To do this, err on the side of feeling you could jump higher or further if you wanted.
The goal here is to keep moving, but to feel in control for the entire duration of your workout.
Weight Shifted Push-Ups
This is a great push-up variation that provides some good increased resistance to one side of the body if you are ready for it. This is the first step into one arm push-up territory! But since both hands are on the ground, you can adjust your weight shift to suit your capabilities and complete the repetition count that you desire.
If this is too much for you at the moment, then you can certainly perform regular push-ups (or on your knees as needed).
A fun core exercise, the alligator roll works not just your core, but your whole body in motion. Take your time on this one, working on keeping your body tight, but don’t hold your breath!
Animal Locomotion Conditioning Workout
So what does this look like in real life? It will obviously look different depending on what goals you are working toward, but here’s how we do it in our Elements program.
We start with exercises to prepare the body for the movements we’ll be focusing on for the day.Then, we spend some time practicing and learning the movements for the session.After the practice session, we move on to what we call the “Push” session. This is our approach to conditioning, and it’s based around the same movements you are already familiar with, but now you will push those movements a bit further. We always follow the Push session with some targeted stretches.Finally, we finish up by taking some time to ponder and reflect on the session.
Here’s an example of a Push session from Elements:
|3 x 1 minute
1 minute rest between rounds
|Hold for 60 sec. each||• A-Frame
• L-Arm Stretch
• Lounge Chair
You’ll work on practicing the Bear for one minute straight, then take one minute in between rounds. Repeat 3 times. If you feel that it’s too easy, vary your speed. Go faster or slow down to change the intensity for your needs. Afterwards you’ll work on the focused stretches associated with the Bear.
The important thing to understand is that for this session, the Bear is the primary movement we are working on mastering. So, for our conditioning, we’re still focused on improving the Bear.
Don’t Get Stuck on the Conditioning Treadmill
So we’ve just given you two examples of how to use more varied and interesting movements to spice up your conditioning routine and make it just a bit more fun that repeat intervals on a treadmill. And it’s a solid way to get your heart rate and breathing up.
But it’s important to realize that if you’re like most of the people we work with, your actual conditioning needs are a lot less than you probably think–and that should definitely impact what kind of training you do.
There’s nothing wrong with conditioning. It’s useful.
But you shouldn’t build your entire routine around it by focusing on work capacity exclusively. That’s because, if you’re only focused on doing more reps in less time, your development in other areas–strength, skill, flexibility–would be neglected.
You may end up with fantastic endurance, but not much else, and endurance, past a particular extent, isn’t the only marker of your personal health, it’s only one part of a whole.
You are a multi-dimensional human being who has more than one side to yourself, your exercise program should reflect that as well.
A solid conditioning plan prioritizes full body movements that build a broad base of strength, mobility, and body control. And as you gain skill and proficiency in those movements, adjust the intensity and rest periods to build your conditioning. It’s not a random jog on the treadmill at the end of your workout, but rather, it specifically supports your goals.
What Do You Really Need from Your Body?
You may be a firefighter that has to lug around 70 pounds of gear, or a bicycle messenger that puts in 50 odd miles a day going back and forth throughout their city route, in which case you’ll have to be able to do much more.
Or maybe, it’s enough to be able to sprint to keep your kid’s ball from rolling down the driveway into traffic.
As we’ve discussed before, by examining your personal motivations and true reasons for training, you’ll be in a much better place to determine the distinct level of conditioning and “in shape-ness” that you require.
Are you going to be climbing a mountain next year? Or just headed to Space Mountain with the kids? Are you gearing up for the NYC Marathon, or just running to catch the bus?
The answers to those questions are what should guide you to your own personal definition of being well-conditioned.
Being realistic about where you need to be physically makes it possible to tailor your approach to conditioning to match your needs and goals, rather than doing something arbitrary out of a sense of “obligation.”
Elements will help you build a strong foundation, while focusing on attributes such as conditioning in a specific context. That way, you’re not wasting efforts, but putting all your efforts toward improving the most foundational physical attributes and movements.
Build a Consistent Training Habit With a Foundation in the Basics
With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control over 8 weeks, setting yourself up for a successful lifetime of staying fit and active.
Your Foundation for Physical Autonomy