When we use the word conditioning, in normal parlance, we tend to mean it as a synonym for cardiovascular endurance training. That isn’t to say that we mean it simply to be long-distance running. It could be interval training, CrossFit, or boxing. But, in any case, it’s meant as a form of training that gets your heart healthy. This is a mistake, and quite misleading.
In fact, conditioning does not mean cardio. It doesn’t even mean muscular endurance. It is your bodies ability to handle the specific demands of the training for your sport. It just so happens, that for a lot of sports, conditioning involves what looks like cardio work.
The word conditioning, obviously, comes from the word condition. Are you in the right condition to handle the training demands placed on you? If the answer is “no”, then the next step is to determine what specific kind of training will bring you “up to speed” so that you are in condition.
Not All Conditioning is Created Equal
Strongman competitors require massive amounts of pure strength, combined with a higher level of muscular endurance than Olympic Weightlifters and Powerlifters (or Throwers, for that matter) do. Their sport requires that you do exercises that look like pure strength exercises … but you them for a longer period of time or for reps.
For instance, the deadlift. A Powerlifter only has to lift it one time, and the goal is to get the highest weight possible. A strongman will have to lift a fixed weight for as many reps as he possibly can. The requirements for each sport are very different. Strongmen must incorporate into their training work that will condition their body for doing heavy lifting for a solid couple of minutes straight, rather than for only a couple of seconds.
Powerlifters may never lift anything for more than 3 reps, ever. Strongmen will go above that more often.
One might say, “Hey, CrossFit does deadlifts for reps. Maybe that would be a good conditioning for a Strongman.”
In CrossFit, one does moderate to light loads for high (sometimes VERY high reps). Rep ranges of 10, 20, 50, or more are not uncommon. This means the type of conditioning work they are doing is geared toward maximum muscular endurance and cardiovascular strength.
In contrast, Strongman shows, especially those at the national level and above, require one to lift in excess of 500 pounds or more on the deadlift for reps. But, the reps aren’t that high. Guys often top out around 5 or 10. Training with light weights in high rep ranges will never prepare you for lifting weights this heavy. In fact, it will hinder you. The body can only be good at so many things concomitantly.
Similarly, a CrossFit athlete would not benefit from dumping all their CrossFit workouts in favor of pure Strongman training. In Strongman the emphasis is still max strength, with enough muscular endurance to handle the demands of competition. In CrossFit the requirement is like that of a long distance runner. Events that last as long as 30 minutes require a build up of substantial endurance in the musculature which must be trained specifically. Having a 700 pound deadlift won’t save you on a workout that requires you to do 5 rounds each of 20 pull ups, 20 burpees, and a 400 meter run!
Team sport athletes often get more than enough cardiovascular and muscular endurance work during their “sport” training. A basketball player, for instance, when practicing the skills of their sport, will also be running up and down and up and down the court, sometimes for hours! They don’t need any more it. There’s a good case to be made, in fact, that they get too much of this type of training and it is causing them to be slower and less explosive because of it. (But, since Basketball is a high-skill sport, they really have no choice but to practice the skills as often as possible).
But, there are other qualities one must condition themselves for if they are a basketball player. People often don’t realize just how much of a contact sport basketball is. If you’re in the paint, you’re getting hit – hard. If you aren’t strong and stable enough to stand your ground, and make plays in the face of some serious abuse, you aren’t going to make it. Basketball players who don’t have the luxury of being as giant as Shaq, have to train to get strong enough to repel the big guys. (Shaq, of course, added to his genetics by training hard as hell and lifting some serious weight.)
Conditioning for the Olympic Weightlifter
It would be easy to say that Olympic Weightlifters don’t do ANY conditioning. But, that would require the synonomy “conditioning=cardio” to hold true. It doesn’t. Weightlifters don’t do cardio, as a rule … ever! But, they are highly conditioned for the demands of their sport.
It takes training to be able to do frequent maximal (or near maximal) lifts on the snatch, clean and jerk, and squats. I don’t mean that you have to get strong first. I mean that your body will feel “broken down” after just one session of this if you aren’t adapted to it, regardless of how strong you are.
When a new lifter comes in, they are lucky if they can lift maximally once a week. Even that is a bit much. Eventually, a top weightlifter is capable of doing maximal lifts (heaviest lift you can make for the day, not necessarily lifetime best) every day, 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. Extra cardiovascular endurance or muscular endurance won’t help you to do this. Those are the wrong kinds of conditioning. Only practice on heavy lifting as often as possible will condition your body to this type of training.
Conditioning is about adaptations to the specific demands of your sport. Find out what those are, and the best methods to train for them. Don’t just blindly assume that what you need is more time running on a treadmill. That kind of thing only helps long distance runners. If that is your sport, then yes, “conditioning = cardio”. But, for the rest of us, it’s much more complicated than that.
Now, if you’re really smart, you’ll hire a coach, so that you don’t have to think about these things.