Maximize Your Training With Properly Designed Conditioning

Conditioning is a more “athlete focused” form of cardio. When doing conditioning work, you’re more focused on a performance goal than a health or body composition goal (although good conditioning will certainly aid in improving both). Athletes do conditioning for several reasons, most of which are geared towards  improving their sport performance or just their overall levels of fitness, also known as general physical preparedness (GPP).

The focus of this blog post is not sport specific conditioning for athletes, but rather a general population trainee who wants to improve their fitness. That being said, conditioning is a low-hanging fruit for everyone, regardless of circumstance, goals, or current fitness levels. It doesn’t matter if your goals are to get more jacked, lose body fat, be a world champion powerlifter, or just be the healthiest version of yourself, conditioning should be a part of your regular exercise regimen. 

The main areas of discussion for this post include why conditioning is important, the most needle-moving types of conditioning, and how to program it into your training week. I also include some sample workouts for each conditioning category that you’re welcome to use any time or tweak as you see fit.

Conditioning vs. Cardio

Conditioning and cardio are both very similar. I like to call conditioning “cardio for fitness fanatics” because we’re not just doing it because we know it’s good for us, we’re doing it with a purpose. Cardio makes you healthier, and many people think it’s the most important form of exercise for fat loss and body composition change (which it isn’t).

Conditioning, however, prepares you for the realities of life. It can make you stronger, less injury-prone, healthier, and more well rounded. It’ll also help you perform better in your resistance training sessions. Depending on how you implement it, it tends to be far less boring and monotonous than standard cardio for most people.

While just hitting the treadmill for 45 minutes is totally acceptable, if you want to broaden your fitness horizon and really maximize your performance inside and outside the gym, I suggest looking at your cardio work with a “conditioning” mindset. 

What Are We Accomplishing with Conditioning?

There are several different beneficial ways to perform conditioning, but in this post I’ll discuss the 3 most important. If you focus on just these three, and do them each once a week or every other week, you’ll have more than you need to maximize your fitness potential. A big point to  keep in mind is that the foundation to your success is going to be strength training (unless you’re an endurance athlete or have endurance goals). Conditioning alone is certainly better than sitting on the couch, but to maximize your overall health, fitness, longevity and performance, strength comes first, and conditioning is a close second. Being better conditioned will result in:

-Looking and feeling better

-Recovering faster between sets AND training sessions

-Improved health markers

-Lower resting heart rate

-Better response to stress and improved mood/outlook on life

-The ability to perform real-life tasks with less struggle (carrying kids, yard work, helping a friend move, being able to sprint or move for longer periods of time in an emergency…I think you get the picture). 

There are few people who don’t want to improve these areas of their life. Keep reading to find out how to do so!

The 3 Types of Conditioning to Focus On 

#1- Cardiac Output (Zone 2)

This one is the lowest hanging fruit. It can be a mind fuck because it’s easy, and you’ll feel like going harder. But you shouldn’t if you want the benefits of it. Yes, it’s easy (or at least easier than other forms), but also yes, it’s EFFECTIVE. Cardiac output or zone 2 training is the foundation of your overall conditioning. It’s low stress, easy to recover from and will not interfere with your gains when done in the appropriate dose and intensity. In layman's terms, improving your cardiac output will make your heart more efficient at pumping blood (which carries oxygen) to your working muscles, which not only improves performance, but also your overall health! There is no one that couldn't benefit from this type of conditioning.

There are several different ways to do it if you get bored easily (see below). Obviously, some forms of this training are safer and more joint/nervous system friendly than others, so be smart and be honest with yourself (if your running form is trash, maybe pick a bike or a rower). 

Cardiac output parameters

-Longer duration 30-60 minutes (over 60 is fine if you’re advanced and you eat enough calories)

-Easy/moderate intensity

-Remain at 60-70% of your max HR (usually about 120-140 BPM), or 

-A conversational pace (if you can’t say a 12 word sentence without a breath, slow down!)

When To Do It

The best time to do it is on a non-lifting day as a stand-alone training session, or at least separated by several hours (6+) from a hard strength training session. That said, since the demand for recovery and neurological stress is so low, it can essentially be done any time, assuming it’s not on the same day as another conditioning session. The biggest downside is that it takes longer. Being in zone 2 is good, but only if it’s maintained for a certain period of time. A 10 minute zone 2 workout is basically just a warmup (it’s fine to include it as part of your warmup but will not count towards zone 2 conditioning). Generally, 1-2 sessions per week is a good starting point, and you can even work your way up to 3!

Options- You can do this type of training as a single modality (think long slow run or ruck) or you can be creative and rotate through different cardio machines and other conditioning tools. Be creative if you get bored easily, you can’t afford to skip this training.

Here are some ideas (the equipment is arbitrary, choose what you like!):

Option A

45-60 minute run (if your technique is an A- or better), ruck (walk w/backpack), bike, swim, row, incline walk, sled drag or whatever you enjoy. *The airbike (especially the Echo Bike) can be difficult to avoid exceeding zone 2, so be aware. **running is more stressful on your joints and is not the top choice for the day before or after a high volume lower body day

Option B


10 min sled drag 

10 min row

10 min bike

10 min incline walk

10 min dball shoulder walk 

Option C

5/5/5 x3 rounds

5 min sled drag (rd1: froward, rd2: backward, rd3: lateral)

5 min row 

5 min ski


#2- Tempo Intervals

These are the middle ground between cardiac output training and HIIT in that they’re more stressful and have higher recovery demands than the former, but less so than the latter. These can be done by most people, although if you can relate to any of the HIIT red flags (see #3), be sure to tread carefully. Again, it’s advisable to build a solid aerobic base with cardiac output training for at least a few weeks before diving into tempo work. Tempo intervals are a great strategy for less advanced individuals, whereas more advanced and aerobically fit people can choose between tempo intervals and longer duration, single effort tempo training. Like cardiac output training, it can be done as a stand alone session (best option) or separated by 6+ hours (and adequate calories/refuel) from hard strength work. Keep in mind that the recovery cost is higher than cardiac output, so it may not be the best form of conditioning to do the day prior to a hard effort strength workout.

Tempo interval parameters

-Moderate duration- 20-40 minutes total (rest + work time)

-1:1-1 or 1:1.5 work:rest ratio

-2-8 rounds (fewer rounds if the intervals are longer)

-1-5 minute rounds (think 400-1200 meter run repeats or cardio machine equivalent)

-A good starting point is 2 minutes on, 2 minutes off

-Not all out like HIIT. More of an 8/10 effort/8 RPE

-1-2 sessions/week

Options- if you don’t have any specific endurance goals, be creative with it. Choose modalities that won't destroy you. E.G. if you suck at running (which most people do), don’t run for 30 minutes at a tempo pace…and get better at running if it’s important to you! 


In general, your pace should not be all out. You should be able to say a few words between breaths, but certainly not a whole sentence. You do not want to get into your anaerobic heart rate zone so you can repeat efforts at the same pace/intensity. If you prefer to go off heart rate, you’re looking at ~75-85% of your max HR (~220 minus your age- I’m 32, so my estimated max HR is 188). For most people, going off RPE (10 is all out, 1 is doing nothing) is a good gauge. If you’re significantly slower on your 2nd or 3rd effort than on your first, you went out way too hard. IT can take some practice to get your pace down if you’re new to this -be patient!


Rower 90 seconds on (8 RPE), 90 seconds “coast” (2-3 RPE) x5-6 rounds

Airbike 1 min on (9RPE), 2 min “coast” (2RPE) x6-8

400m run @ 1 mile pace, 2-3 min rest x4-6


800M run @ 1 mile PR pace, 2:30-3 min rest (walk) x3-4

1k row @2k PR pace, 3 min rest x3-4

Airbike 30 sec @ 9 RPE, 30 sec @7RPE, 30 sec @3 RPE 30 sec rest


10 minute run @5k pace, 5 min rest x2 

2k row @5-8 sec/500m less than 2k PR, 4-5 min rest x2-3

20 min run @ a pace you could hold for 30 minutes

30 min @ 5 mile PR pace (unless your 5 mile is sub 30 min, then go a bit slower)

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Easily the most popular form of conditioning, HIIT is highly effective but only when done properly, at the right dose, and for the right person. Sadly, if you’ve been doing HIIT workouts posted by your favorite IG influencer, you’ve probably been doing them all wrong. There are also prerequisites for HIIT, it is not for everybody. It’s a highly stressful form of conditioning, and also takes longer to recover from. See below for the best times to do HIIT training with respect to your other workouts.  

But first…

People who should not do HIIT (this is not a “you can never do HIIT” sentencing if you fall into any of the below categories. Once you’ve managed your situation, you can start adding it in):

-High stress people who haven't implemented stress mitigation strategies. HIIT may make you feel good and less stressed temporarily, but it will NOT improve your stress hormones/response long term

-People with a poor aerobic base. Zone 2/cardiac output training needs to be your first priority. If, for example, walking puts you in zone 2, you’re not ready for HIIT

-Those following a training program with too much intensity and not enough lighter/low intensity days

-Those who have poor technique for the activities that lend themselves well to HIIT

-Those who struggle to recover between training sessions

-If none of these sound like you, but you feel shitty or have low energy most of the time, don’t do HIIT

When to do HIIT

Because HIIT is a high stress activity with high recovery demands, it should not be done frequently. For most, 1 HIIT workout a week (or even 1 every other week) is excellent. HIIT should also be done either as PART of a higher intensity day, or 48-72 HOURS BEFORE or AFTER a high intensity day. E.G. If you do max effort lifts today, you can do HIIT afterwards (obviously you’ll need to reduce the volume or completely eliminate accessory lifts). Or, if you do max effort lifts on a monday, you should wait till at least wednesday, but preferably thursday to do a HIIT workout. HIIT is actually quite difficult to program because it needs to be done at the perfect time. For this reason, I usually only do true HIIT once in a while.

HIIT Parameters

HIIT should be SHORT duration 10-20 minutes max

HIIT should be 10-15 seconds all out, followed by PLENTY of rest to perform another round with the same intensity

HIIT must be programmed with only certain movements/equipment. It needs to be cardio based, and not weight lifting based. The best ways/equipment to do HIIT are:Airbike, Rower, Ski erg, Curve Runner, Hill sprints, Sled sprints. YOU CANNOT DO HIIT CRUNCHES, PUSHUPS, AIR SQUATS ect…


  1. Airbike (or any other listed above)

10x10 seconds at 100% effort, 50 seconds rest (10 total min)

  1. Rower ((or any other listed above)

8x15 seconds at 100% effort, 1:15 rest (12 total min)

  1. Hill Sprint

Run a steep hill 95% effort (i don’t recommend sprinting 100% for most), walk back down is rest. Repeat 6-8 times 

Example training week following a 4 day/week upper/lower split (conjugate/hypertrophy style)

Monday- Heavy/max effort lower (squat)

Tuesday- Cardiac output x45 min

Wednesday- Heavy/max effort upper (press)

Thursday- 25 min tempo intervals (rower)

Friday- Lower body pump/hypertrophy (post chain dominant)

Saturday- Upper body pump/hypertrophy (pull dominant), 12 min HIIT finisher

There are many many other ways to skin the cat. But notice that the intense intervals are spaced out as best they can be from the max effort lifting. Looking at this template, you’d obviously have to consider the modality you choose for Thursday's tempo intervals because it’s the day after max effort upper body, and the day prior to a lower body pump session. Another option would be to alternate weeks of doing tempo work and HIIT, and always doing 2 cardiac output sessions. There is no perfect way to program, but perfect is the enemy of good.


I hope you found this post helpful and that it allows you to think through your conditioning programming a bit more clearly. Conditioning is highly important, regardless of your goals, but it needs to be programmed appropriately. 

How do you program conditioning? Will you change anything about it after having read this post? Let me know in the comments below!

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