Defining Strength & Conditioning

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

Currently we have ‘Strength and Conditioning’ as a class on the schedule at Gravity. This means different things to different people and will comprise different elements / programming depending upon an individual’s level of fitness and goals. Whilst a complicated subject (plethora of books) I’ll try and reduce to some fundamental principles in this article.


In the hope of keeping it simple/relevant, this article is split into 3 sections. Readers are encouraged to progress sequentially through the sections as their interest dictates.


Section 1 provides some definitions by way of proposed class descriptions for Gravity. By splitting classes into a strength or conditioning focus, we can help members individualize programs to get the best possible results as aligned to their health and fitness goals.


Section 2 outlines the programming recommendation for Gravity.


Section 3 - For those wanting to know more, some optional ‘supporting detail’ is provided below.



Section 1 – Proposed Class Description for Gravity


Strength & Conditioning – Strength Training


Strength and Conditioning training with a focus on strength training. Using racks/free weights in the studio side of the gym - mix of compound and isolation1 activities, bilateral and unilateral training, lower reps, heavier weight (75-90% 1RM), fewer exercises, more rest (90s-2 min between same muscle group activity).


This class is suitable for those wanting to develop muscular power, strength or increased lean muscle mass (hypertrophy).



1. Isolation: one major muscle group is trained. Examples of these can include bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises. Compound: any exercise that involves the use of MORE than one major muscle group at a time. These exercises usually involve movements such as pushing, pulling, squatting and bend-and-lifting. Examples of exercises in this category are lunges, squats, push-ups, rows and deadlifts.


Strength & Conditioning – Conditioning Training (General Fitness)


Strength and Conditioning training with a focus on conditioning. Expect several stations, lower weight, higher repetitions, limited rest and plenty of intensity. A typical format may be High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) circuits.

These classes are suitable for all abilities and fitness levels; from the absolute beginner through to the competitive athlete.


Strength and Conditioning classes are a foundational component for Gravity. This 55 min class is designed to get/keep you strong, fit, healthy and ready for life. Through personal training within a group environment, we use functional movement to improve every aspect of fitness. You will regularly be asked to push, pull, squat, hinge, sprint, jump, swing, carry, stretch, support and most importantly HAVE FUN!




Section 2 – Programming recommendation for Gravity


Separate classes focused on strength from those focused on more general fitness / physical preparedness (conditioning).


Classes to be structured throughout the week that allow members to engage in training as best aligns to their health and fitness goals.


Caters for all levels of fitness and enables all levels of specificity. Avoids putting on one general strength & conditioning class that, by definition, can never optimally achieve results in either component.



Section 3 – Supporting Rationale


RULE 1: Prioritize your training goals (don’t try to do two things at once)


To simplify a complex and integrated subject area, let’s think of conditioning as general fitness. You may also think of conditioning in the context of “condition” of say a car. One might say that a car that looks clean, is regularly serviced, has no rust, dents etc. is generally in better “condition” that one that leaks, squeaks, is dirty and often breaks down.


Whilst an individual may be strong or powerful, i.e. can lift a heavy weight or punch hard, their level of conditioning will determine how many times in succession they can lift that weight, how many rounds of boxing they can maintain the same level of intensity for etc.


But the truth is, unless you’re a beginner or coming back from a long layoff, it’s extremely difficult to improve both strength and conditioning at the same time. When you think about your goals and the programming required to achieve them, you must start by asking yourself one question:


“Do I want to prioritize strength OR conditioning in this program?"


To be very clear, BOTH can be present, but one must take precedence. Trying to improve both at the same time is a recipe for poor results and is where a lot of people (and North American gyms) go wrong. Perhaps an oversimplified example, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s unlikely that the well built, powerful and strong 100m sprinter will incorporate the same training or be able to compete with a 10,000m, lean, cardio centric endurance runner. The sprinter will have some aerobic type conditioning training (and the endurance runner some strength/power) but the ratio of one to the other will be inversely related.


There is one primary reason for this dichotomy of strength and condition: energy. And if you want to make progress, the most important thing is to choose how you want to spend your energy.


Since building bigger, stronger muscles is an intensive process, it takes a lot of energy to repair, rebuild, and remodel tissues throughout the body. Likewise with conditioning, improving the vascular network throughout the body and enabling it to deliver more oxygen to working muscles doesn’t happen without the body devoting a significant amount of resources to it.


If you need to improve your aerobic conditioning, spend the majority of your time and energy doing just that, while only spending the minimum amount necessary to maintain strength and power. Conversely, if you’re trying to get bigger / stronger, conditioning work should be included in your programming with the distinct goal of maintaining conditioning levels, rather than trying to improve them at the same time. Doing more than that is not better.


Some guidelines for conditioning (fitness):

  1. Low level of conditioning: For low levels of conditioning, 3 days per week of 20-30 minutes should suffice to prevent it from getting any lower (this is in line with traditional basic fitness guidelines about getting the heart rate up a minimum of 3 times per week for at least 20 mins).

  2. Moderate level of conditioning: If you’re only trying to maintain relatively moderate levels, 3-4 days per week for 20-30 minutes should do the job.

  3. High level of conditioning: If you’re trying to maintain a high level of conditioning, you’ll likely need to include some form of conditioning work at least 4 days per week for 30-40 minutes. Try our rowing, boxing or circuit classes.

If you’re starting with very low conditioning (fitness), however, you’re likely better off improving it up to at least a moderate level before focusing on strength and power.


An easy approach is to start with these guidelines and then adjust as necessary. If you notice yourself losing conditioning, for example, then increase the volume by 5-10% and monitor to make sure it’s enough to maintain.


Combining strength & conditioning:


RULE 2: Use complimentary training methods


After prioritizing your training on either strength or conditioning, the next most important element to effectively combine strength with conditioning work is to use methods that complement one another, rather than compete with one another.


Choosing the right conditioning methods to use with a strength program doesn’t have to be complicated. To understand how to choose the right conditioning methods, it’s important to understand where strength comes from in the first place.


Developing strength and power is the result of just four different primary factors:

  1. Improving Central Nervous System neural drive to the muscles to increase fiber recruitment.

  2. Building bigger muscles capable of producing more force.

  3. Greater sympathetic nervous system activation causing higher levels of hormones to be released.

  4. Developing better technique.

Creating the right environment for all these things to happen means emphasizing quality over quantity (and emphasizing lifting heavy and explosively.)


Training methods like max effort, dynamic effort, and plyometrics are all designed to improve nervous system function, while the repetition method is often used as a supplement to help increase muscle size.


The thing to take note of is that all of these methods primarily rely on the anaerobic-alactic energy system to drive the majority of energy production during the work periods. Given their short, high-intensity nature, the alactic system is the only one capable of generating energy fast enough.


Because the alactic system can’t produce energy by itself for very long, however, it’s up to the aerobic system to clear out the byproducts of anaerobic metabolism and restock the substrates the alactic system needs so it can produce energy again.


This means that strength and power training is primarily driven by alactic-aerobic metabolism.


So when we choose conditioning methods to complement strength work, we need to use methods that largely fall into the same category, like:

  1. Tempo intervals (often cycling, running, rowing)

  2. Sled push/dragging

  3. GPP circuits (‘General Physical Preparedness’)

  4. Tempo lifting (e.g. squats with 3-1-3 tempo – 3sec down, 1sec pause, 3 sec up movement)

  5. Explosive repeat (e.g. battle rope slams, squat jumps, explosive push ups, box jumps etc.)

  6. Alactic intervals (e.g. rowing 20/40 intervals, 5 x 100% effort hill sprints etc.)

  7. High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) (e.g. fast/explosive reps with 2-3 sec. rest between each rep)

  8. Alactic intervals (e.g. rowing 20/40 intervals, 5 x 100% effort hill sprints etc.)

All these conditioning methods use the same basic energy systems as strength and power training, which means they can be used to maintain aerobic fitness—without impairing strength and power gains.


When programmed intelligently, some of them can even help improve strength and power gains by improving recovery through an increase in blood flow to fatigued muscles.


To understand how to do this properly, we need to understand rule 3


Rule 3: Organize Training Effectively (Or, separate different types of training based on fitness level)


How you organize your training can have a substantial impact on the results that you see. The reason for this comes back to the bodies currency – energy.


Combining different types of methods in the same workout, or in the same day, will impact how your body stores and utilizes energy, particularly glycogen. And research has shown it can influence the genetic signaling that takes place as a result of the workout.


It’s this signaling that stimulate changes in fitness, so it’s important to organize your training program in the most effective way possible.


The specifics of how to do this, once again, depend largely on where you’re starting, since that dictates how much conditioning work you’ll need to do and how your body responds to training in general.


· Low fitness level: If you’re starting with a lower level of fitness, you can combine conditioning within the strength workout, but it should be done at the end of the workout. Methods like tempo intervals, HICT, sled pushing, work particularly well here.


· Moderate fitness level: At moderate levels of fitness, conditioning should be separated into different workouts if possible, but they can be done on the same day. If scheduling permits, conditioning workouts can be performed 4-6 hours after the lifting/calisthenics session as this will help promote recovery. Use fairly heavily loaded exercises with concentric-only methods like sled pushing and HICT.


· High fitness level: To improve strength and power at the highest levels, it’s best to separate conditioning work and perform them on different days. This separation is important to prevent any negative interference and to maximize the effects of the heavy strength and power work. Using a high/low approach where strength above 90% of max and lower intensity conditioning work are done on alternating days throughout the week is an effective approach for most.


As you can see, the higher your levels of fitness, the more important it becomes to separate different types of training away from each other. This is because as your fitness improves, it requires more and more energy be devoted to both the training session and the recovery that takes place after.


There’s a big difference in how much training and energy it takes to increase your squat from 400-500 pounds compared to how much it takes to increase it from 200-300 pounds. The further up the fitness chain you progress, the more important it becomes that as much of your energy as possible is focused on the specific demands of what you’re trying to improve.


This doesn’t mean your training needs to become entirely one-dimensional, however. It simply means that separating different types of training from one another becomes more important than ever—especially at the highest level.


What to do next


  1. Prioritize your training goals to ensure your body is spending energy where it’s needed most. It’s possible to maintain strength and power while boosting conditioning, just like it’s possible to maintain your conditioning while boosting your strength and power. Unfortunately, most coaches either try to improve both at the same time, or they focus on one and neglect the other.

  2. Use complementary training methods. Strength and power training is primarily driven by alactic-aerobic metabolism, which means the best conditioning methods to use are the ones that fall in the same category. (Like tempo intervals, sled dragging, GPP circuits, and more.)

  3. Work with your fitness level. Combining different types of methods in the same workout, or in the same day, impacts how your body stores and utilizes energy. Depending on your fitness level, you’ll need to organize the training program in a way that allows full recovery.


The anatomy of a training sessions at Gravity.


Typically, the two classes will be structured as follows:


Strength/Calisthenics:

1. Warm up and Mobility [8-10 mins]

2. Skill Work [5-10 mins]

3. Strength Work [30-40 mins]

4. Static Stretch & Cool Down [8-10 mins]

Optional; Conditioning as deemed helpful/necessary


Conditioning:

1. Warm up and Mobility

2. Circuit (includes muscular endurance, skill, balance, agility, coordination etc. elements)

3. Static Stretch & Cool Down



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