Whatever your motivation for wanting to improve your conditioning may be, you’ve likely scoured the internet and sites like 8WeeksOut to try to figure out exactly what you should be doing to get in better shape. And I’m sure that you’ve found a mountain of information. On this site alone you can find a ton of articles – 5 ways to improve your conditioning, 3 tips to stop gassing out, 3 new conditioning rules, 8 principles that will transform your conditioning, etc.
I’ve covered everything from the specific exercises you should do, to how to structure different methods to achieve your goals and just about everything in between.
While I suggest you take the time to read through all these articles and more, I know it can be time-consuming and easy to get overwhelmed by all the things I’ve told you to do to improve your conditioning.
So rather than tell you more tips, tricks, and rules to get you in peak condition, today, I’m going to do the opposite…
This article is to tell you exactly what you should stop doing if you want to improve your conditioning. When it comes to conditioning, the truth is that sometimes less really is more.
Let’s get started.
1. STOP using only High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Over the last several years HIIT has taken over the training world. You know the disciples when you see them: half the time they look like their heart is about to explode and they feel like they are about to die.
No pain, no gain…right?
Perhaps this sounds a little too familiar to you.
Proponents of HIIT only training often back up their beliefs and training methods with rationales such as:
- Research shows better results from high intensity intervals
- Slower methods take too much time; I want the most bang for my buck
- My sport/activity requires me to be explosive and anaerobic, not slow and aerobic
There’s plenty of good research on the subject out there, so when we investigate a little further, we find that:
Yes, HIIT can be a great way to see increases in aerobic fitness (measured by VO2max, in most cases). BUT…
Those increases don’t continue for very long.
“Making lasting progress in your conditioning takes time and effort.”tweet this
My favorite demonstration of this comes from the infamous Tabata research, one of the most readily cited resources for downplaying the importance of low/moderate intensity methods.
The Tabata research showed that the interval training group did see improvements in VO2 max faster than the group performing steady-state cardio.
However, these improvements plateaued after just 3 weeks. The steady-state group, on the other hand, continued to see increases in VO2 max throughout the entire research period.
While this study is just as much an argument for the importance of context in framing results as it is anything else it is, it still demonstrates the flaw of using only HIIT over the long term.
Continued use of this training method will result in plateaus and stagnation – even though you still feel like you’re crushing yourself.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t train hard and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be using intervals, but I am saying if that’s all you’re doing for conditioning, then you need to stop. Start including some moderate intensity work like Tempo Intervals and even low intensity methods like the Cardiac Output method into your training.
Not only will you enjoy conditioning improvements for longer, you’ll also help stave off the cumulative effects of fatigue that can push you over the edge into over-reaching and over-training.
This ties in closely to my answer to the “slower methods take too much time” complaint. Low/moderate intensity methods do take more time than HIIT, but this is part of why you’ll see more consistent improvements for longer.
Making lasting progress in your conditioning takes time and effort. Anyone that tells you that you can get in the best shape possible in just a few minutes a day is selling something
The concept that you shouldn’t use low/moderate intensity methods because your sport requires you do be explosive seems reasonable… but isn’t.
Most sports require short, explosive bursts of activity followed by active “rest” periods. In such cases, you need to highly develop both your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems.
For example, an MMA fighter doesn’t throw every single strike as hard as possible. The punches and kicks are highly repetitive and delivered with submaximal power.
If every strike was thrown as hard as possible, the fighter would gas out inside of the first round
Even if your sport is entirely explosive, such as sprinting, you still have need for low/moderate intensity exercises. These exercises allow you to increase work capacity without accumulating significant fatigue—a must if you want to stay healthy and high performing throughout the competitive season.
In short, what I’m giving you a free pass to not work as hard each and every workout. High intensity methods have their place within the training week, but so do low and moderate intensity methods as well
The key is to strike the right balance so that you continue to see progress while still being able to recovery between training sessions. I have yet to see someone achieve this balance using only HIIT.
ACTION: If you’re not currently doing anything but high intensity intervals, start by cutting them back and adding in the two methods in the videos below first. I guarantee you’ll be amazed when all of a sudden your conditioning starts improving even though your training doesn’t always feel like it’s killing you.
Tempo Interval Method
Cardiac Output Method
2. STOP trying to improve strength and endurance at the same time
This next “don’t” is the most commonly abused one, largely because there is a ton of misinformation out there about how the body adapts to training.
Who wouldn’t want to believe that you can develop inexhaustible endurance while simultaneously building lean muscle mass? It’s not a tough idea to sell.
Here is the problem: your body doesn’t work that way.
When you work out, your training acts as a signal that initiates your body’s response: changes in gene expression. These changes in which genes are “turned on” or inhibited manifest into what is ultimately your body’s adaptation.
While this is an oversimplified version of the cellular processes involved, it’s enough to demonstrate the problem:
The signals from endurance and resistance training trigger different responses and different adaptations.
When trained independently, resistance training causes a signaling cascade which alters gene expression resulting in a higher rate of protein synthesis relative to protein degradation. The net result is muscular hypertrophy.
Endurance training leads to its own signaling cascade which promotes an aerobic adaptation: the creation of new mitochondria, or mitochondrial biogenesis.
When both endurance and resistance training are performed in high volumes together, neither of them lead to their respective adaptations as effectively and results are compromised. In other words, concurrent training causes sub-optimal activation of both signaling pathways for everyone but beginners.
Think of it this way…recovering and rebuilding new tissue in the body takes a ton of energy and the body can only produce so much of it. You can’t expect it to have the energy to build a bunch of new muscle tissue while at the same time building a better vascular network, increasing the number of mitochondria, etc.
The body simply isn’t made to improve everything all at once. So unless you’re a beginner, you need to pick your battles.
What this means for our purpose of improving conditioning: don’t expect to increase strength and power while at the same time improving endurance. When you’re trying to improve conditioning, the goal should simply be to maintain strength. That’s it.
Typically, you can maintain strength and power with 60-70% of the training volume it takes to improve it. This means if you’re following a conditioning program, don’t overdo the strength work and if possible, try to do strength and power work in separate training sessions from your conditioning.
If you’d like to dig into the review of the molecular response to training research, you can download the pdf here:
ACTION: Rather than trying to improve everything at the same time, separate your strength workouts from your endurance workouts as much as possible to get the most out of each. When you are trying to increase your conditioning, more of your days should be spent doing aerobic work than strength and power work.
Remember, the goal of your strength workouts should be to maintain your current level of strength as your endurance improves. This can be usually be achieved with 60-70% of the volume necessary to improve strength.
If you are new to planning out workouts and structuring them within the training week/block, the best resource I can recommend is my book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning.
In it, you’ll find which training methods promote certain training adaptations (explosive endurance vs. aerobic work capacity, for example). You’ll also learn how to organize these methods to achieve your overall fitness goal. If you train to compete, I’ll show you how to vary your methods as you approach your completion for peak performance.
3. STOP using “altitude training” masks
This final “don’t” is the easiest to change if you’ve been doing it.
To start, why would you wear an “altitude training” (or hypoxic) mask in the first place?
The rationale is that reducing the amount of breathable oxygen with the mask mimics the lower oxygen concentration of high altitudes. Thus, you’ll trick your body into signaling all the beneficial adaptations of altitude training to occur.
These well-documented adaptations include:
- Increase in EPO—stimulates red blood cell count for greater oxygen transport
- Improved VO2 max—the maximum amount of O2 that can be delivered
- Increase in capitalization leading to greater oxygen delivery to muscles
- Increased ability to buffer cellular acidity and tolerate anaerobic exercise
- Greater total blood volume
However, there is a 2-part problem with this line of thinking:
First, the results about whether training at high altitude in its true from actually improves endurance are mixed, at best.
Some studies have shown performance increases, others have shown no difference from sea-level training results, and still others have shown decreases in performance.
These decreases are generally understood to stem from the facts that it’s much harder to train at higher intensities when you have less oxygen and prolonged exposure to high altitude often results in loss of muscle mass.
However, the cause of individual performance differences from altitude training is largely genetic. This means that there is little-to-nothing you can do to change the way your body will respond, even if the response is negative.
So there is no guarantee that your body will stimulate positive performance changes from altitude training, even if you work your ass off.
Even if your body has the capacity to increase performance in response to altitude training, there are several other factors that can limit or negate the benefits, such as:
- The exact altitude used for living vs. training
- The length of your stay at high altitude
- The type, amount, and quality of your altitude training
- The sport/position you play
- The amount of time spent back at lower altitude following altitude training
Unless these factors are dialed in and you have the right genetics, your time spent altitude training could just as well be spent at sea level. The results will be much the same, if not better from lower altitude training.
The second problem, and it’s a big one, is putting a mask that restricts your breathing DOES NOT simulate the high altitude environment in the first place.
There’s a world of difference between simply throwing on a mask that makes it more difficult to breathe and the changes in the partial pressure of oxygen that occurs as you gain altitude.
Aside from the differences in air pressure, there are also changes temperature, humidity, UV-exposure, etc.…
In other words, “altitude masks” have nothing to do with simulating high altitude and do little more than making you look like someone training to survive a chemical weapons attack.
Think about it this way: if these ridiculous masks really did anything to improve conditioning, then every endurance athlete on the planet would have been using them for years. There’s a reason high-level athletes spend thousands of dollars on real high altitude simulation tents instead of a hundred bucks on a mask
Bottom line: “altitude training” masks may seem like a more convenient alternative to high altitude training, but they don’t come remotely close to replicating high altitude conditions. Even if they could, individual responses to high altitude training are extremely variable at best.
ACTION: Rather than depriving yourself of oxygen, increase your ability to utilize it by taking supplements that support mitochondrial energy production. These include Ubiquinol CoQ10, Pirroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), and nicotinamide riboside (NR).
You can find more information about these supplements, how to use them, and where to find them here: Conditioning Supplements That Really Work
Summing it up
Improving your conditioning isn’t always about making sure you’re doing the right things. It’s also about making sure you’re not wasting your valuable training time doing the wrong things. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and only so much training your body can recover from.
While it can be easy to buy into the idea that all you have to do to get in shape like the pros is throw on a mask and go to town on some high intensity intervals every day, or that you can improve your conditioning while adding pounds of muscle at the same time, the truth is that it’s just not that easy…
If that’s really all it took, pro fighters would never gas out and those people at the gym that always looks like they’re about to die would be world class athletes.
Conditioning isn’t rocket science, but more than anything else, it takes consistency.
You have to consistently spend your time doing the right things, using a variety of intensities, managing your training, not overdoing the strength work, etc., while avoiding the gimmicks and over-hyped training methods that far too many people buy into.
Avoid the three things I’ve covered above and be consistent with your conditioning work and I guarantee you’ll find that less really is more.
For my readers who are coaches and trainers:
It's important to know the methods and exercises that improve conditioning and the ones that don't. What's more important is knowing how to put them together in a way that delivers results while preventing overtraining and injury.
Fitness professionals always tell me the same thing:
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