“Conditioning”: Not All Burns Are Created Equal

It’s the conditioning portion of a workout. Behind door number one, you are huffing and puffing with hands on your knees. Behind door number two, you are shaking out your legs desperately trying to get them to keep working. We’re going to ask you an impossible question but – can you tell which one is most often your outcome?

Said differently, do your lungs or muscles fail first in a hard conditioning workout?

With conditioning, not all burns are created equal.

It’s very easy to paint in broad strokes when it comes to fitness and honestly, that is an approach we often prefer to deploy. Broad strokes are nearly almost always more effective than painting in detail when it comes to getting results, and teaching others the most effective strategies to do so. Just ask Bob Ross. However, there are instances when it helps to provide clarity for things that are similar yet also vastly different. After all, training strength and training to grow muscle are same same, but¬†different.

Today we’d like to shed a little light on why not all “conditioning” is the same, just as not all strength is the same.

There are two very basic forms of conditioning from a 50,000 foot view.

Muscular Endurance
Refers to our ability for local muscle to contract over and over again without fatiguing.

Cardiovascular Fitness
Refers to the efficiency of our heart and lungs circulating oxygen to our body.

While the two demands may and usually do crossover in a workout, there is always one aspect that’s more of a limiting factor than the other when it comes to our individual fitness. For most of us, either our lungs or our muscles fail first.

Take competitive benchmark “Frantic.”

50/30 Pull-Ups
200m Run every break

The limiting factor here is very likely not your cardiovascular system on a short 200m run a few times. Nor would you get significantly winded from performing strict pull-ups, but your ability to stay on that bar and do more reps without needing a break would fail undoubtedly. Lactate would build up in your working muscles faster than you could clear it. That is muscular endurance. Aside from having a requisite level of strength to perform 50 or 30 strict pull-ups, the folks who crush this workout are the ones who can physiologically sustain volume.

Now think about “Biathlon.”

800m Row
800m Run

It is very unlikely your muscles would reach failure on this before your cardiovascular fitness. The 800m row is not an all out sprint, so you wouldn’t fail here from a muscular perspective (unless you are a de-conditioned beginner). Sure, your grip and glutes would take a beating at 800m just below max pace, but the limiting factor here is likely your high end aerobic output. Most of us can hammer through an 800m row but once we get up and start running, our lungs say no mas a few steps in. Those who excel in workouts like these have a highly trained aerobic system that transfers. Absolute strength can get you through a 500m row for time, but it will fail you over the course of a mile’s worth of mixed work.

As you can see, two workouts that are “conditioning” but relying upon slightly different mechanisms.

There are training reasons we have competitive benchmark workouts, and spoiler alert, it isn’t really to be competitive. It’s that we’re trying to illuminate and expose where the breakdown occurs in high end fitness output. These challenges don’t just pop up on the advanced side, however. Every day you will be challenged either a little more in muscular endurance or a little more in cardiovascular fitness when it comes to conditioning.

With this knowledge, try to have an appreciation for all forms of it.

Further, can you spot workouts where you excel and workouts where you struggle? Over the next few weeks, pay attention to where that burn of yours runs deepest to find the weak points training opportunities in your fitness.