Conditioning- What is it Exactly?

Conditioning- What is it Exactly??

Ok, so I wrote an article a while back that was titled Strength Training- What is it Exactly?, and since I’ve gotten into the habit of writing article series recently, I figured why not keep the momentum rolling?  Think of this as a long-awaited sequel to that initial strength training article.  

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of a dialed-in strength and conditioning program.  An effective S & C protocol will improve all four main indicators of a human’s mortality.  I wrote an article on that subject as well, so make sure to check that out if you haven’t already: The 4 main indicators of a human's mortality.

But anywho, let’s get back to the subject at hand: conditioning.  What pops in your head when you hear that word?  Lungs bursting on a bike?  Legs turning to jello on a run?  Nearly drowning while swimming laps?  Well, all of those are apt connotations for conditioning, but what if I told you that conditioning encompasses much more than just a run, bike ride or dip in the pool?  Well, that’s the truth, but in order to start delineating between the different types of conditioning and the varying strategies used within them, we need to start with some basic information.  

First, what is conditioning?  Well, the term ‘conditioning’ when applied to physical activity is really referring to the body’s level of adaptation in each energy system.  Human beings have three different energy systems: 1. Creatine phosphate(anaerobic) 2. Gylcolytic(anaerobic) 3. Oxidative(aerobic).  Each system uses a different process to produce energy, and I’m not going to bore you with the details, but I will give you a quick run-down.

  1. Creatine Phosphate (CP).  Think of this as your sprint energy system.  It lasts roughly 10-15 seconds.  Fast-twitch athletes excel in this area.  100m sprints and 1-3 rep max lifting predominantly use the CP energy system.  This is an effective but inefficient system.  You deplete CP very fast and it takes a considerable amount of time to replenish, so isolating this energy system in training is very time-ineffective.  Despite that, it’s still part of a well-rounded conditioning protocol so it should be incorporated into your cycle rotations.  I personally don’t have the time to rest 15 minutes between sets, so if I’m going to train the CP energy system, I will do 10-15 second sprints followed by 2 minutes rest.  This allows enough replenishment to improve my CP output each round.
  2. Gylcolytic.  This can be considered your mid-range energy system.  Glucose (base form of sugar) is used to convert fuel into energy that you need for this specific system.  Depending on your fitness level, this energy pathway will range from 10-20 seconds to 2-3 minutes.  Both the creatine phosphate and the glycolytic energy systems are anaerobic which means that they don’t need oxygen in order to produce energy.  
  3. This leads us to the third energy system: the oxidative/aerobic.  When you are training steady-state cardio you are operating within this energy pathway.  The oxidative system is aerobic, meaning it uses oxygen to convert fuel into energy.  I call this the infinity energy system because it ranges from 2-3 minutes to infinity.  Your oxidative system is the foundation for your overall fitness level.  If you want to work within the other two systems you have to start with your aerobic base.  

So, the above is a very crude explanation of the three energy pathways, but how does this fit into your training program?  Well, let’s break that down next.  

Monostructural Conditioning/Single Modality Conditioning-  Mono obviously means one, so this type of conditioning is relegated to a single exercise.  Running, biking, rowing, swimming are all examples of monostructural conditioning.  All three energy pathways can and should be trained using monostructural apparatus.  See examples below.


Go for a 30 min Run


4 rounds

2 min bike

2 min rest

Creatine Phosphate

10 rounds

10 sec sprint 

2+ min rest

Another avenue of conditioning is called Mixed Modal.  If you are familiar with Crossfit or HIIT-style training then you know what mixed modal aerobic training is for sure!  In a nutshell, mixed modal conditioning is employing multiple types of training into one circuit.  You can use this style of conditioning with both the oxidative and glycolytic energy pathways, but not with the creatine phosphate because of the time restraint.  10-15 seconds isn’t enough time to switch between movements while keeping the intensity intact in order to stimulate the proper adaptation.  See examples below for both glycolytic and oxidative.


5 rounds

10 pull ups

15 pushups 

20 air squat

Rest 90 sec btw rounds


4 rounds

30 sec mountain climbers 

30 sec KB swings

30 sec skip rope

30 sec burpees

Rest 2 min btw rounds


5 rounds

10 pull ups

15 pushups

20 air squats

No prescribed rest btw rounds, go as fast as you can while keeping PERFECT technique


15 min AMRAP

5ea KB snatch

10 KB swings

15 KB deadlifts

*AMRAP= As Many Reps/Rounds As Possible in 15 min running clock

So as you can see, there is more to conditioning than just lacing up the running shoes.  You’ll want to make sure to account for all energy pathways and the various styles of training them into your program.  And just remember that everything starts with your aerobic base, so get out there and put some miles on those legs!



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