How to Make Sure Your Conditioning is Helping, Not Hurting You

Dave Thomas San Diego Performance360Written by Dave Thomas

Conditioning is the little brother of strength in the “strength and conditioning” dichotomy, often failing to get the same level of respect as his bigger, stronger brother. Yet, like a leaky, unnoticeable hole that drips slowly each day, it’s an area that can sink your ship over time if you chronically misperform it.

We are all constantly chasing the “sweat”, which is the conditioning version of the “pump”. If we aren’t sweating hard, it’s not working. If I can stand after I am done, it must be ineffective. If you barf, you get a trophy. All terribly misplaced emotions. Without a close second, the majority of feedback I receive from our members is invariably the day after intensity is high and volume is short. We all love that sweet spot of 8 minutes, and people love telling me about it, and suggesting more of it.

I get it. It’s my favorite, too. Who wants to spend thirty minutes doing boring shit?

But can that be the be all, end all conditioning program? Is intensity really king all the time? We seem to to think it either has to be a knock out, drag down fight like Rocky versus Drago, or that it has to be kid gloves light sparring practice.

I’m just wondering…Why?

Intensity is a potent variable to stimulate change, but large doses of it come at a cost. We cannot have both high volume and high intensity. We just can’t. If we train all the time, the intensity strings have to be pulled to accommodate that level of volume. Volume and intensity reside at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet work closely together to provide you results. So, we pick the days we want to use the benefits of higher intensity, and on days we don’t, we appreciate the benefits of lower intensity, higher volume training.

There are benefits and disadvantages of varying kinds of conditioning intensities, and we should take full advantage of all of them. The truth is, if you have hit plateaus, it may may be that you need to pay closer attention to your conditioning.

1. Dose Your Conditioning Like You Do Your Strength. 

I want you to think of conditioning in the same manner as you do your strength. What do we consider productive, progressive strength training?

75 – 90%…ish, right?

We don’t train at 100%, right? The physiological reason we avoid max output is because of the stress on our systems. We’re not coming in and hitting one reps every time we we train, and your conditioning is no different. The conditioning version of the one rep max would be our lactate threshold, the point in the workout where intensities are so high that acidity builds up in the blood and muscles fail to continue to contract.

To enter the gym and expect to train at threshold every day is no different than expecting every lifting day to be training your one-rep max. Idiotic, right?

How to Ensure Your Conditioning is Helping, Not Hurting You

So, why do we think we have to be destroyed every workout?

I have heard athletes say that they feel cheated when they are not flattened after a workout, and they want that total hour block to leave them “crushed”. I get it. It’s rewarding to push yourself hard and get a good sweat going, but you wouldn’t feel gypped if you did a 5×5 back squat at 80%, right? You’d probably feel productive as hell, so why would conditioning at 80% feel inadequate?

Conversely, if you all you ever did was train your squat below 70%, you wouldn’t get much stronger, right? You’d be comfortable every workout and never really see much progression.

For these reasons, the range of conditioning that I most prescribe is between the 70% – 90% range of perceived exertion. Lower days closer to 70% and higher, less frequent days closer to threshold at 90%.

Most of the time we’re right around 80%-ish. I believe this level of intensity to be the most effective at marrying performance increases, work capacity, body composition changes, and health improvement. I’ve seen it work too many times with too many people over the last six years to be convinced otherwise.

But, it’s not perfect.

2. Appreciate Moderate Intensity

Just because the intensity percentage is most effective at higher percentages doesn’t mean intensity is void of efficacy at lower percentages. Continuing the point above about 70% squat not getting you stronger. While true, 70% won’t increase your strength, maybe that 70% isn’t intended to get you stronger. Perhaps it’s a volume day where you build muscle endurance, structural integrity, and hypertrophy.

That works too, right?

So, why can’t we have the same type of complimentary percentage effect with our conditioning? After all, our aerobic energy system operates in a similar complimentary manner to our anaerobic system. I get that no one loves longer aerobic work, but low to moderate intensity training is very beneficial for nervous system recovery, nutrient absorption, the oxidative capabilities of working muscle, our cardiovascular system, and our ability to use fat as fuel in workouts.

If you want some very base level info on anaerobic versus aerobic, go here. I’ve already gone down that rabbit hole. The main synopsis is that aerobic training is when we use oxygen that we breath to fuel our working muscles. It’s lower intensity, longer, and slower. Anaerobic training is when we use other things, like lactate. It’s higher intensity, shorter, and faster. A huge point you must understand is that none of our training is exclusively aerobic or anaerobic. None. We don’t have any 10 second max distance row tests last time I checked. Sure, different workouts skew highly towards one or the other, but they don’t live in a vacuum. So, it makes a little more sense to think not about energy system, but intensity level instead.

If every training day is at peak intensity, then we are constantly battling lactate accumulation. When we battle lactate every single day, we don’t really improve our endurance, because lactate will not let us go long enough. By nature, the mere existence of lactate suppresses the very possibility of endurance work. Sooner or later, lactate/hydrogen will accumulate in the blood faster than we can buffer it out, and hit the fail point. For most of us, it’s a short amount of time like a few minutes. A few minutes ain’t endurance building.

In the world of aerobic endurance training, our aerobic capacity is referred to as the engine. By training more aerobically, and at lower to moderate intensities, we’re not battling lactate accumulation and failure like we do at higher intensity anaerobic work, so we are actually able to build our engine, not rev it to the floor before it burns out.

This is the major flaw in most conditioning programs! It takes an engine not yet built, and performs test after test on it. Sure, operating at very high anaerobic intensities will definitely put you in a position where you can better tolerate lactate/acidity and improve your threshold, but that’s not the only way to improve threshold, and that way comes at a very high training cost on the rest of your week. Building a larger engine is another way, and that’s done at lower intensities, higher volume, and with a much lower training cost. (In his Periodization Training for Sports, Tudor Bompa talks about a simple 10-20% volume increase to improve threshold.)

I also believe higher volume, moderate intensities are effective for fat loss. Short, high intense workouts also play a role but during the workout, we’re burning carbs mostly, not fat. Diet and strength training rules all in weight loss, but if you want conditioning to play more then mix in the extended work bouts a bit more often.

I have always been a very, very big fan and believer of the moderate intensity workout, and I think it’s why our athletes can go from never testing their mile to running a sub 6 mile for higher end women, and sub 5:50/5:40 for men while also maintaining three and four hundred pound squats. Lower intensities combined with higher intensities work, and when dosed properly, they will not have any adverse effects on your strength.

3. Know When to Go All In

Know the hand that you hold. You don’t see professional poker players going all in with their chips recklessly. It’s calculated when they know they have a good hand. Just because there is an opportunity in your gym to test doesn’t mean that you always take that opportunity. A true conditioning test will take that particularly energy system very close to if not near or past its threshold, and it will need recovery. Whether it’s a one mile run, a power clean and row ladder for time, a 500m row…the tank will be emptied.


You know that feeling when you’re in a daze for a few hours after a particularly grueling workout and you have that mental fog? That’s your tank being emptied.

Ensure that tank has enough in it to empty, and that it doesn’t need to be refilled for anything important on your goal priorities for the next 48 hours. If you’re testing, testing, testing and not recovering then you get used to operating below sub-maximal, and sooner or later that will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and will reduce your actual maximal.

Not everyday should be a competitive scenario with yourself.

When you begin to think about your test days as that, a test, you start to be able to see them in a different light. You should never perform a test  because you “want to get a good workout”. It should be calculated and designed to show you improvement. By nature, it should exist to reveal work you have put in along the lines of that system. 

Constant full throttling of your daily workouts will have adverse effects that include hormonal imbalance, sleep disruption, and elevated cortisol levels that will decrease your performance and store body fat.

A Note on Testing: I prefer tests to be a large aerobic footprint on them. An anaerobic test is going to royally fuck you up because you will likely redline and that takes real recovery. I like tests to be a bit longer, very intense, but long enough to where duration naturally caps intensity. I find the recovery is faster and the test still serves its purpose of building both fitness and performance. Just my personal preference.

4. Longer, Slower for Beginners

Your training age and current physiology will also greatly influence the make-up of your conditioning. Newer athletes will benefit more from longer duration, lower intensity training where the focus is on health and muscle endurance. This practice is called “based building”, and it is very important to build your engine before you test it, as we just reviewed.

A new athlete that tries to bypass endurance building and go straight into higher intensity is setting themselves up for injury, bad movement pattern, and poor structural development. We provide new athletes touches of higher intensity, but never ever remotely near threshold. We simply do not allow new athletes into that zone at Performance360 until their base is developed.

Intensity Guide

Here is a helpful guide to pace your intensity on a give week. This is a very rough guide and will absolutely not be exact for every person. (This coincides with how I like to write conditioning at our gym.)

  • Low – This is a 6 as far as perceived rate of exertion. Usually, the aim on these days is to build muscular endurance, not aerobic capacity. You should be able to carry on a conversation on these days. These days are generally 20 minutes, possibly longer. Very repeatable.
  • Moderate – 7. You are pushing the pace, but you are leaving some in the tank because on these days you might be asked to go a little bit longer, like 15-20 minutes. It’s still tough, but it’s repeatable. Hands are on your head when finished.
  • High – 8. Your heart rate should be very high and you should not really be able to carry on a conversation intra-workout. Rest is very minimal, only a few seconds here and there when needed. Barely repeatable. Hands are on your knees, but you’re standing.
  • Max – 9. This is your all-out affair for a short amount of time. No talking is possible. Recovery takes hours. There is no repeatability. Usually a few short minutes, or if longer, it is interval style in the form of you-me relays and ladders. You’re on the floor, but you didn’t quite take it to the level that Chris Hinshaw describes as “The Everest Death Zone”.
  • Threshold – Which is here. A 10. I don’t really take people here often. Unless you are a professionally competitive athlete and need this for sport, this is not necessary save for rare occasion. Recovery may takes days. You’re on the floor, and you’re in noticeable physical pain.

The difference between a 9 or 10 is very slight, but very significant. Advanced athletes are generally the only ones who can hit a true 9 or 10, and most of the time, they can tell the difference between truly going all out and leaving a little in the tank.

For general fitness and performance, I recommend 70-80% of your training live moderate to high, with low intensity and max intensity comprising the other 20-30%. A breakdown might include:

  • Low – 15%
  • Moderate – 20%
  • High – 50%
  • Max – 15%

I like to have balance on “high vs. low” days, as indicated by both low and max being in the 15% range.

It’s also important to understand that the mere nature of a 60 minute class precludes us from proper aerobic training. It just does. That, you’ll have to do lower, slower, and on your own. I don’t want to pretend like the training we do is excellent for your aerobic conditioning, because frankly, it isn’t. It will help it, you will get in all around shape, but by simply looking at time domains, we are limited with what we can do.

ultimately, it’s easy to look at that intensity chart and the benefits of each style of intensity and start to see where you might need a little work. If you’re extremely powerful yet burn out quickly, you need to improve your ability to sustain (more moderate intensity aerobic work). If you can go all day and lack the ability to “kick” when it counts, you likely need the ability to push through discomfort (higher intensity anaerobic work).

Don’t find yourself getting caught into one particular format of conditioning because it leaves you feeling a certain way. The daily addiction to thrashing is something I have worked very hard at preventing in our programming over the years, and it is a key component to understand that “harder” isn’t always “better”.

Vary your days, workouts, and training goals and there is literally no end to the progression you can enjoy.

-Dave Thomas

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