Conditioning or ‘cardio’ as the term often gets thrown around is something of a paradox, we seem to have developed a number of engrained cultures that are at odds with one another.

  • In one corner we have body builders that on the whole promote the notion of long-slow-steady-state ‘cardio’… walking
  •  In the other corner we have Crossfit that promote ‘exercise in the extremity’ with pushing every lift, every movement, and every run as fast and as hard as they can until total failure.
  •  Then in the middle we have power and weight lifters, that fear and loath anything that might increase their heart rate for more than 30 seconds
  •  Finally, we have those who could be considered ‘pros’ at conditioning, Tri-athletes, Soccer players, runners, and so on, that I suspect cringe at the thought of all three.

In understanding these cultures I think we can summarize it down to

  •  Body builders fear anything that might be catabolic, furthermore; and this is subjective, I suspect most body builders are taking so many pre-workout supplements that their resting heart rates are simply too high to engage in any moderate or high intensity conditioning work.
  • Crossfit have developed a culture of all or nothing within the ranks, you don’t front up to a CF box to train at 80%
  •   Weight and power lifters have always questioned the relevance of conditioning work as their sport requires little in terms of aerobic development. Furthermore; fatigue management remains a constant issue in the current trend of high volume workloads.

A Brief Background on Energy Systems

Before I continue, I’ll give a brief background on energy systems; the human bodies principle source of energy is Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and can be thought of as a “molecular unit of currency” (wiki). The body has three energy systems, Alactic (ATP-CP) for immediate energy, Lactic (Glycolytic) for intermediate energy and aerobic for long term energy supply. These three systems all work to produce ATP, they simply work in different manners (Oetter, 2011). For an extremely comprehensive review of energy systems, then I strongly suggest you read Joel Jamisons work HERE


Understanding the Need for Conditioning

We all need some level of conditioning, Lou Simmons first detailed this as General Physical Preparedness, I have also heard it defined as ‘being fit enough to train’ and I think I once heard Boris Sheiko advocating walking, so long as you had two dogs with you (I suspect a bit got lost in translation there) furthermore; having a reasonable level of conditioning may help us recover between sets and also between sessions (Nuckols, 2015).

Understanding the Flaws in our Current Ideologies

It’s reasonably well held belief that training to absolute failure has a negative impact on our bodies’ ability to recovery and thus increase strength (and size for that matter) (Stone, et al 1991).

It is also reasonably well reported that in order for our bodies in incite any form of adaptation, we must exceed a certain ‘threshold’, in lifting this seems to be around 50% of 1-rep-max and in terms of conditioning this seems to be around 100% of our maximum aerobic speed (MAS) (Ill come back to MAS later) (Schoenfeld, 2013; Wong et al, 2010; Baker, 2015). At this point you can cue the (well researched) argument for high intensity interval training (HIIT) over long slow steady state.

So you can see on one hand, we have a core belief that conditioning needs to be performed ‘flat out’ and to complete failure, and then on the other was have a sub-max culture that may be just trundling around their neighbourhood meeting the local dogs at 530am every morning.

Anecdotal Concerns with HIIT:

I have long had my own reservations, not about the validity of HIIT, but more so the way we prescribe it. For example: we often use various sprints, sled, prowlers, hills, and so on, we have also created a number of fascinating drills like tire flips, sledge hammers, Kettle bell complexes and the list can go on forever and day.

What we (myself included) have failed to do is prescribe these drills in a periodized manner, for example; and I am admitting guilt here: I have lost count of how many times I have sent a client outside for hill springs ‘KGO style’ with me screaming ‘flat out’ at them, not monitoring their speed, some weeks doing a whole heap, other weeks, doing 4 or 5 then hitting the foam roller.

If you need more proof of this; just go watch your local boot-camp class for a few sessions, workload and intensity tracking and periodization are all but forgotten.

So this now presents the question: at what intensity and volume should we train conditioning? First we need an understanding the importance of baseline testing:

Heads down, hands up: Who reading this article knows their maintenance calories but not their one-rep-max? and conversely, who knows either/or but not their maximum aerobic speed?You should know all three!

Maximum aerobic speed (MAS) has been defined as the lowest speed at which VO2 maximum (VO2 max) has occurred and is often presented as meters or kilometres per second (Baker, 2015). There are a number of very simplistic tests to obtain your MAS, I won’t go in to their full protocols or reliability here however some includes:

  •  Bangsbo Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test
  •  Multistage (beep) fitness test
  • Various treadmill protocols
  • X-minute time trials (eg. 1320 meters (distance) divided by 300 secs (time) = MAS 4.4 m/s)

For more information on MAS testing then I suggest you read Dan Bakers article HERE

The concept now get’s really, really ridiculously….simple.

Understand, just as in lifting, there is no one ‘ultimate’ rep and intensity range, there is periodization. For example; we have long been using linear periodized approaches to lifting, where we start at sets of 10 and knock this down to singles over a 12 week period, while increasing the relative intensity (load).

The concept remains true in terms of conditioning, consider what you are specifically trying to achieve first, if you’re a power lifter, then conditioning drills will typically be shorter and more explosive, if you’re a body builder wanting to reduce fat content, then higher volume, lower intensity is probably desired.

Development of an Applied System:

Research has reported that broadly speaking; to increase aerobic capacity, we should be working around 120% of our MAS (Wong et al, 2010; Baker, 2015)

  • Example: MAS=16kph therefore; (16*1.20=19.2kph (5.3 M/PS))

This would become broadly the speed at which interval running would be considered most effective.

This can be applied in terms of distance covered by time, for example’ I have my athletes typically cover a distance over 15 seconds, rest for 15 seconds and repeat for two sets of 4 minutes.

  •  Example: 5.3 M/PS * 15 (secs) = 79.5 meters per 15 seconds (this can easily be partaken on a treadmill if space is limited).

Don’t stress too much about these equations; once you get your head around the concept, it’s incredibly easy to create a spreadsheet template or I can do it for you with your gold membership


Again, I am not going to go in to a whole lot of detail here; I would direct you back to the incredibly well written article by Dan Baker HERE. However, there are a number of methodologies for periodization.

The general concept I typically apply with my clients is a 3-up-1-down approach of increasing distance by 2.5 meters per week. This method not only increases volume (run further in the same time) but also bounces the intensity between 120-140%

This is not to say my ideology is a constant, it’s just a generalized approach to training, see back to Bakers work.

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Conclusion: the research shows HIIT is far more beneficial than slow steady state in terms of fat loss (Sloth et al, 2013). However, what remains is the paradox for those wanting to increase their performance levels; what ratios of sub max Vs intramax conditioning should we take part in. However, I want to make point of the above system being SUSTAINABLE. Often all out HIIT programs are simply too taxing on the body to performed session in, session out and completely lack a periodized model. The MAS model allows for effective periodization and intensity levels within a threshold that is obtainable based upon individual conditioning levels.

Author: Ben Cove Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science, Graduate Certificate in Clinical Rehabilitation, Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Level One, Master of Strength and Conditioning (cont).

Contact: Facebook: Ben Cove Web:



Oetter, E (2011) Research Review: energy Systems, Interval Training & RSA

Nuckols, G (2015) Avoiding Cardio Could be Holding you Back

Wong, P-L, Chaouachi, A, Chamari, K, Dellal, A, and Wisloff, U. Effect of preseason concurrent muscular strength and high-intensity interval training in professional soccer players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24(3): 653-660. 2010.

Baker, D (2015) Implementing High-Intensity Aerobic Energy System Conditioning for Field Sports

Schoenfeld, B (2013) Is there a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training Induced Hypertrophic Adaptation? The Journal of Sports Medicine 43:1279-1288

Stone, M et al (1991) Overtraining: a review of the signs, symptoms and possible causes. Journal of strength and conditioning research Vol5:1 35-50

Sloth, M et al (2013) Effects of sprint interval training on VO2max and aerobic exercise performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 23 pp341-352