Conditioning Training Compared To Weightlifting Training
"Is conditioning training (running, pushups, etc.) a sham compared to weightlifting ?" is a question posted in Quora, and the amazing answer was from Darren Beatie who is a fitness coach and a blogger.
Darren Beatie says:
I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a sham (and I don't think that's what he is saying either, it's just a catchy title for a predominantly bodybuilding website), but it doesn't have nearly as much transfer to other aspects of your life nor performance as strength training would.
What I do think is that 'conditioning' has recently taken an undeserved limelight in the world of fitness. The interval training boom, combined with the Crossfit boom and their 'WOD's' in particular seem to have mostly contributed. The majority of WOD's are really Power Endurance 'tests' and are the equivalent to forcing kids to play soccer games three times a week with no practice.
To draw an analogy to sport, a WOD is like game time, strength training is like practice.
What do you think has more transfer to improved skill? Clearly Practice.
Strength training has more of a cascade effect into 'conditioning' or what I would term 'Energy System Development' than conditioning or ESD would have in the other direction.
One of the best analogies I've used is this:
Imagine one person with a filled 12 oz cup and one with 12 oz of liquid in a 16 oz cup. Theoretically the liquid represents the ability to do work (conditioning), and the size of the cup reflects the strength of the individual. Strength training increases the size of the cup and conditioning is what you fill it with. The person with 12 oz of liquid in a 16 oz cup has more room for improvement with any work capacity even though they are presently operating at about the same level of work as the individual with the 12 oz cup.
The greater strength one has, the lower the percentage of work 'conditioning' becomes comparatively speaking. For instance your 1RM bench press is 300 lbs, and a push-up is roughly 150 lbs of work, representing 50% of the work. The potential is there for this person to perform more push-ups relative to the person who can only bench 200 lbs.
Continuing to draw on the sports analogy, the objective of 'off-season' training should be to increase the size of the glass, while 'pre-season' work can focus on filling that glass with the appropriate liquid. There is still the need to work on both at some point, but increasing the size of the glass is harder to do, has the greatest carry-over, and gives you more room to fill the glass with later for the 'endurance' or 'conditioning' component.
When you look at athletic population research, improved strength (and by this I mostly mean nervous system development but also adhering to the Verkoshanky/Siff definition that includes explosive strength, speed-strength, strength-speed but not necessarily strength-endurance) has the highest correlation to improved performance of any general physical quality. It also lasts the longest, though must be maintained.
It might also have a greater correlation to longevity than cardiorespiratory fitness anyway: Effects of Muscular Strength on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Prognosis.
ESD is built very quickly, is very specific to the imposed demands, and is lost very quickly too. Meaning most of the general conditioning the majority of people have a tendency to use is not particularly useful in specific use cases, like training for basketball, because they aren't specific enough. High repetition Air Squats aren't going to make you a better basketball player, whereas improving your 1RM back squat most likely will.
That's not to say it is entirely useless, -- or that strength is a god-send miracle either -- it can be useful leading up to competition phases, for general health and fitness, for endurance sports or for sports that require high levels of highly varied levels of conditioning like MMA fighting, Crossfit, spartan challenges, etc...
There is evidence to suggest that the type of 'conditioning' most prevalent these days (High Intensity Interval Training - ALL THE TIME), or JUST heavy lifting on it's own could be leading to a thickened ventricle instead of a more elastic one. Morphology of the "athlete's heart" assessed by echocardiography in 947 elite athletes representing 27 sports.
However, we don't have a really clear picture on how that affects health just yet. In all likelihood, for health reasons and recovery reasons you should probably do some lower to moderate intensity aerobic work from time to time (not necessarily a ton, 20-30 minutes 1-2x a week, at 130-150 BPM is probably enough for most) and not just trying to go full tilt every workout. I know, I know, you're hardcore and you just want to get in and get it done. You're not going to hurt your gainz by doing a little aerobic work...We shouldn't be disillusioned into believing that there isn't different benefits for different activities and that a mix is probably most appropriate.
Sure ESD won't increase your force production, nor train your joints as well, improve your bone density, nor will it concrete nervous system patterns in the same way. It does however increase your resistance to fatigue if the training is specific enough to the demands. Resistance training by comparison is like glue for nervous system training, in concretes good patterns of movement.
When we look towards general population research we see that a lack of explosive power is one the biggest indicators in quality of life. Strength and Speed are the two major components in that equation, and naturally strength is generally the easier of the two to train and mark improvements in, as speed improvements occur on a smaller level. Going from a 4.8 to a 4.7 forty time (a significant improvement) for instance is a small margin of improvement relative to getting someone from a body weight squat to a 1.5x bodyweight squat. Although explosive strength should still be trained to a degree as well (jumps, hops, bounds, and other plyometric variations, etc...)
The more explosive power you have, the more self-reliant you will be, the fewer hip fractures, the greater neural signalling, the better absorption of force, etc...etc...
What he's saying is that strength training has a greater transfer to improved performance than 'conditioning.' ESPECIALLY the uncalculated, random style of conditioning most people utilize. There are many ways to utilize specific protocols to yield specific conditioning benefits that very few people outside of strength and conditioning coaches seem aware of.
And yes even if you're a runner, increasing the amount of force you can transfer in running, means less work over those 26.2 miles, where as the same isn't true for transfer the other way. Strength probably has more of a generalized waterfall effect into applying to all kinds of training, significantly more than anything else. I work with many runners and we all do some strength work, not as much as a percentage of volume as I might with some other clients, but it's still an important training component even for the endurance athlete.
I'd take it one step further and say that mobility actually trumps strength in this regard because the majority of people I work with have terrible mobility now-a-days. How can you get strong if you can't even get into a good position?
Ask a person with bad mobility to start Rippetoe's Starting Strength or Practical Programming programs and you have a recipe for disaster; even though both are sound programs.
Here's how I would order importance:
If mobility is good, then we maintain and spend more time on strength oriented work (which has many subsets for development). If strength is good then we cycle in more Work Capacity/Conditioning into the program where appropriate.
As a final note I would also like add, that there does appear to be an upper limit of strength development, in it's applicability to sport and every day life. This is most prevalent in my experience working with athletic populations and so may not apply to the more casual fitness enthusiast. Famous strength and conditioning coach Charlie Francis made this obvious to me in his work with Ben Johnson (yes that Ben Johnson) who could squat 600 lbs for 3 reps. Charlie's question was, is there a need to take him any higher at that point? Steroid use aside, it probably didn't make sense to increase the injury risk much above that weight for Ben because small improvements contribute less and less to technical performance, the stronger you get. What was important was to maintain that level of strength as best he could.
For athletic populations there is a trade off where increased loads increase the risk that is often not worth improving in my opinion. Powerlifting and olympic lifting may be notable exceptions only because the entire point of those sports is to lift the maximum weight.
For every day populations, I'm very happy if most of my male clients can lift double their body weight on the deadlift and most of my female clients can lift about 1.75x their body weight (Yes I have markers in my head relative to bodyweight for nearly every exercise). My rationale is that for many people moving above that weight (not always I have clients who are above and below those marks) safely, starts to require a belt. The same thing goes for a squat, when it starts to require a belt I don't see the carry over to everyday life in the same manner unless a person really wants to get serious about strength training or is heavily involved in sport.
Being serious about it requires significantly more dedicated strength work, that can be a distraction from every day life or their other physical pursuits though.
At the end of the day, context of the situation does matter.