If you want to improve your health and fitness, one of the most important things to include is conditioning exercise. This includes what people call ‘cardio’, ‘aerobics’, or any other endurance exercise.
The purpose of this article is to explain what is meant by ‘conditioning exercise’. We’ll go over some fundamental concepts, and what current research can teach us. Finally, we’ll end with some simple examples to help you use conditioning exercise to reach your goals.
Understanding conditioning exercise will help you whether your goal is simply the maintenance of good health, or better athletic performance.
What is Conditioning Exercise?
Conditioning exercise focuses on increasing your energy and endurance for a particular task. Essentially, the goal is to make it easier to do something, and for a longer period of time.
Although the primary adaptation to conditioning exercise seems to occur in your muscles 1, particularly in the early stages of exercise, conditioning exercise also works the cardiovascular system. Exercise in general provides a plethora of health benefits 2, the most often cited being decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD, the number one cause of death in the world).
Similarly, conditioning exercise can give tremendous improvements in sports performance: namely through increased endurance, either by giving you more energy, or making your usage of energy more efficient.
How does Conditioning Exercise work?
Conditioning is, in a way, exercising your metabolism (at least that’s how I like to see it). When you place a demand on your body, it tends to adapt to make it easier. Require more force? Your muscles will get stronger. If you require more energy, your muscles make the metabolic systems that provide energy more efficient 3. For example, it may do this by regulating which pathways are used, deal with byproducts of exercise better, or changing the concentrations of enzymes involved in providing your muscles energy.
Another interesting adaptation is an increase in muscle capillarization. Blood (and therefore oxygen and nutrients) is brought to your muscles by capillaries, tiny little blood vessels. It appears exercise causes more of these little blood vessels to grow in your muscles, improving oxygen delivery and possibly metabolism 4.
Another possible adaptation worth noting is that of the nervous system: the practice effect. If you learn to perform a movement more efficiently, it will require less energy and become easier to do. This efficiency will then indirectly lead to better endurance. How big of an effect does this have on endurance? It’s unclear (I can’t find much research on it, besides running economy studies). It may matter mostly in the early phases of training.
It seems conditioning is very task-specific, but not so intensity-specific. Let me explain.
Someone wanting to have better running endurance may decide they should start cycling to “cross-train” and build endurance. However, it turns out that the increase in cycling endurance does not actually help with running endurance, especially with elite athletes 5, 6.
This is because endurance is very task specific. You have to train for endurance using the specific movements you want this endurance for. That way, the neurological and metabolic adaptations occur in the specific muscles you need for that movement 7.
For more info on specificity, read this:
‘Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand: the SAID principle’.
So what about intensity? Many people believe that to build endurance for some sort of sport or activity, you must do more ‘cardio’ (which usually refers to moderate intensity exercise performed for a longer period of time). Well, that’s one way to build endurance. But research is telling us that it’s not the only way!
While endurance seems task-specific, apparently it’s not so intensity-specific. Turns out you can improve your endurance just as well by doing short, but very intense exercise (like sprinting) as you would by doing longer, lower intensity workouts (running) 8, 9, 10.
Similarly, it appears that brief high-intensity exercise can provide much of the same health benefits as that of prolonged moderate exercise 11, 12, 13. So by doing high intensity sprints, you aren’t “missing out on cardio”!
It looks like the bottom line is that any exercise that demands a lot of energy will cause the same adaptations to your metabolism, whether it’s done through a longer workout, or a shorter (but harder) workout. Even strength training (performed a certain way) can cause many of the same benefits. 14
Basically: demand more energy = body will adapt to provide more energy (or use it better).
This could potentially save you a lot of time. Instead of spending hours a week doing endurance exercise to improve your sports conditioning, you could spend minutes a week. Of course, during that shorter time you have to work a lot harder, but then you can spend your time doing something else. Something important, like practicing your sport skills, or… spending time with your family! Furthermore, decreasing the volume of your exercise increases rest, and may reduce overuse injuries.
Of course, not everyone is able to exercise at a high intensity. I recommend you gradually work your way up to this highly-intense, ‘all-out’ exercise. Like all forms of exercise, you must progress gradually if you want your body to adapt properly, and safely.
So how do I do this?
If you choose to go with low to moderate intensity exercise, the usual recommendations are at least 30 minutes a week, for 3-5 days a week. If you simply want health benefits, a brisk walk will do. It shouldn’t be easy though… it’s moderate! By the end, you’re tired! If you are looking for more intensity for increasing endurance, you can run, cycle, swim, dance, whatever you enjoy!
If you want to go the high-intensity route, you only need about 10-15 minutes, once or twice a week. Keep in mind this is exhausting, full effort exercise. Examples are sprinting, on your feet or on a bike. Some good examples are ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ or ‘HIIT’. Google it, it’s pretty interesting.
Whether you choose to go with a moderate or high intensity, remember that if you are conditioning for a particular sport, you need to choose an exercise that matches what movements you are working towards. It has to be sport-specific movement.
For example, if you are training for competitive Basketball, you would do sprinting drills, like the ‘suicide’. Click here for some examples of Basketball drills. Notice how similar to actually playing the game they are.
Now you know what you need to know about conditioning. If you have more questions, I am planning on writing a gargantuan ‘how conditioning exercise works’ article in the near future.
I’m also going to write a ‘Conditioning for B-Boys’ article soon, for the dancers who follow me. I got your back!
Either way you do it, there are a ton of benefits to conditioning exercise. However, it doesn’t need to consume your life, or displace your time from what you really enjoy. Conditioning should be a complimentary component of your active lifestyle, helping you enjoy your ability to move with more vitality.