What does it mean to be in shape?
Well, without some defining context, it doesn’t really mean much at all.
For all intents and purposes, if you are making it through your day’s activities without dying from oxygen deprivation, you are in adequate physical condition.
I’m actually pretty happy with my physical condition.
- I’m able to work
- I can carry my daughter (and lift heavy shit as needed)
- I can do some neat tricks practicing Parkour
- And I can walk up and down our steep hill to the grocery store and back without being out of breath
With all the talk over the internet about how you need to be prepared for anything and have the conditioning of a Navy SEAL, it probably sounds like blasphemy to be satisfied with my current level of conditioning. I mean, shouldn’t I be striving for my absolute potential?
Whatever that means…
Sure, it sounds cool to say, “You should be prepared for anything!”
Being “prepared for anything” means a whole lot of nothing.
You may be a firefighter that on a call has to lug around 70 pounds of gear, or a bicycle messenger that puts in 50 odd miles a day going back and forth throughout their city route, in which case you’ll have to be able to do much more.
Or could it be enough to be able to sprint to keep your kid’s ball from rolling down the driveway into traffic?
Yeah, we use the “for your kids” example a lot. That’s because Ryan, Jarlo, and I are fathers. But you can choose your own metrics that fit your own life.
The definition of being in shape has been debated for years:
- Is it how fast you can run 400 meters, or a mile, or a marathon?
- Is it how long it takes you to do 20 pull-ups and 100 squats?
- Or is it something else?
There’s no one answer.
You can ascribe to any arbitrary measurement you want, but numbers don’t mean too much if they don’t truly match what you are doing in your daily life.
For all the platitudes thrown at you, feeling good about your training is worth far more than meeting someone else’s standard of conditioning.
Keep reading to find the right style for you.
Conditioning – How to Do it Right
If you’re like most of the people we work with, your actual conditioning needs are a lot less than you probably think – and that should definitely impact what kind of training you do.
There’s nothing wrong with conditioning.
It’s useful. But you shouldn’t build your entire routine around around it by focusing on work capacity exclusively.
That’s because, if you’re only focused on doing more reps in less time, your development in other areas – strength, skill, flexibility – is going to be pitifully slow. You’ll end up with fantastic endurance but not much else.
A better general plan puts your conditioning routine as an adjunct to your regular training, which we would argue should focus on building skill and strength.
Ideally, this routine would be performed after you’ve completed the bulk of your day’s training. Your conditioning should improve your endurance in the movements you’re focused on mastering for your own goals.
So it’s not just a “cardio” plan tacked on to your workouts, but one that relates directly to your goals.
How we Approach Conditioning at GMB
In the GMB Curriculum we include conditioning as part of the program to augment its effects, but it’s certainly not the focus.
Each of our programs includes a two conditioning components:
- An optional “prep” program that uses basic exercises and sprints to prepare you for the workouts ahead
- Non-stop repetition of movement routines in Phases 3 and 4 of each program cycle
Conditioning complements the training by improving your work capacity in primary muscles and movements for that program.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Why So Many Training Programs Emphasize Conditioning
First, to remove any strawmen from the field, if you desire to compete in an event of some sort, such as a local 5K, Tough Mudder, Big Climb, or other endurance competition, of course you should train for it and focus on your conditioning for that event.
Otherwise, not so much.
But if it’s not important, then why is conditioning such a major focus of so many training programs?
There’s a couple of reasons.
1. Endurance is extraordinary
Ironically, we tend to emphasize endurance as measure of being in shape because it’s outside the scope of our typical daily existence.
Not many people run 26.2 miles or bike 112 miles on the regular.
In a world where many people walk only as far as the distance form their front doors to their cars, it seems amazing to think of going that kind of distance. So it makes sense to ascribe great levels of health and fitness to people such as triathletes.
“They must be healthier than me, because I can’t do that shit!”
As it is, they may very well be healthier than you, but not necessarily because they can run dozens of miles a week.
Endurance, past a particular extent, is a poor marker of health because you can always add more miles or time, but that doesn’t correspond with increasing levels of fitness and health.
It just means that person can do more of the same.
2. Working out until exhaustion is easy
The common denominator between a novice exerciser and a seasoned athlete is that both will experience fatigue and exhaustion at a certain point.
And perhaps even within the same timeframe when working at their respective full capacities.
Anyone can work themselves into the ground with some effort and a repetitive task.
This points especially to the less experienced personal trainer who feels a job well done when his clients are collapsed in a sweaty heap. It takes little to no technical coaching to make someone tired.
Yes, you’ve just been “worked out,” but what did it really do for you?
If your only goal in training is to sweat a lot and feel tired, then this is a great way to judge the efficacy of your training. But if your goal is improvement, then being tired at the end of a session tells you nothing.
It’s how your performance changes over time that matters.
How to Add Effective and Appropriate Conditioning Work to Your Routine
It’s tempting to make an inflammatory statement such as, “Cardiovascular conditioning is useless and won’t help you in any way,” a sentence deliberately designed to incite argument and get people yelling either against or in support.
But just like anything of substance, it takes no small amount of critical thinking and appraisal to find what’s best for you and your situation.
The benefits of regular aerobic activity are indisputable, from markers of cardiovascular health to mental state, it’s patently obvious that raising your heart rate to higher levels for a period of time is incredibly beneficial.
What can be argued is just exactly how you should increase your heart rate. If you are actively expending a good amount of energy to pick your heart rate up and maintaining that for a certain amount of time, and do this consistently, you’ll reap the benefits of regular conditioning exercise.
You don’t need to do this on a treadmill.
A Better Way to do Conditioning and Endurance Work
The mere thought of spending an hour on the treadmill makes me want to shoot myself in the head.
If you’ve been following us for a while, you probably know by now that GMB is not just about getting stronger, but enjoying what you’re doing. So, instead of promoting “cardio,” we promote “play.”
There are plenty of fun ways to get your heart rate up, like sports, games, or just running around with your kids.
Playing like this also more realistically matches the conditions under which people were designed to use their endurance.
If you ever need to run from something or someone, you won’t be able to say,
Hold on a minute. Let me make sure my treadmill settings are okay.
You’ll just want to get the hell out of there.
Play has many characteristics, but here are a couple:
- It’s spontaneous and gives you that ability to move your body naturally.
- It has natural ebbs and flows of the levels of intensity you put forward, and this in itself is good training.
The ability to go from high levels of work, to rest, and back again, are signs of a well conditioned body, adapted to the real needs of daily activities.
For much of the time, life isn’t lived at a steady pace.
It’s a game of hurrying and catch-up interspersed with periods of slower moving. Get all your errands completed before rushing to an appointment, then sitting in the waiting room until they call your name. This stop-and-go hectic maneuvering is just a part of our everyday lives.
You aren’t going at full blast with every step or move you make, but instead, you have variations in intensities of effort and with different time periods for resting.
Applying this Approach to Conditioning
I recently started training using a combination of dynamic and static exercises in a circuit-type program.
I set up my program so that the addition of weight vest and other variations turn it into a progressive program versus just high rep exercises with no end in sight.
With the weight vest and leverage changes, I chose a repetition range of between 6 to 8, and a rest period of a minute, so that I had enough rest to build strength. I was interested in what my heart rate would look like in this type of program so I wear a monitor for the sessions.
Even with these rest periods, because of the high level of effort, I reach a peak heart rate of 174 with the average heart rate in the 130 to 140 range.
Done with enough rounds to reach 30 to 45 minutes, this is almost exactly what is recommended for aerobic activity, but I’m achieving it in a much more beneficial and fun way than listlessly jogging on a treadmill while watching bad talk shows in a gym.
Whose Metrics are You Trying to Live By?
Whether it’s the Presidential Physical Fitness test to which every U.S. elementary school kid is subjected or physical requirement assessments for police, military, or firefighters, there are a multitude of benchmarks and measures thrown out there as arbiters of strength and physical capacity.
There’s even a criterion “Every man should be able to save his own life” test on Art of Manliness (which on the face of it is pretty damn cool).
But it’s still arbitrary.
- What if you needed to swim a mile or two back to shore?
- Or had to run 5 miles to a hospital, or 10, or more?
Would you consider yourself a failure if you can’t meet these marks? It’s a slippery slope to compare yourself to a measure perhaps wholly unrelated to your normal daily life.
So what’s a better metric for fitness?
Well, this study provides much more interesting data to me.
Over the course of several years researchers analyzed subjects’ activity levels in conjunction with mortality risk and life expectancies.
Compared with individuals in the inactive group, those in the low-volume activity group, who exercised for an average of 92 min per week or 15 min a day had a 14% reduced risk of all-cause mortality, and had a 3 year longer life expectancy. Every additional 15 min of daily exercise beyond the minimum amount of 15 min a day further reduced all-cause mortality by 4% These benefits were applicable to all age groups and both sexes, and to those with cardiovascular disease risks.
15 minutes a day is not a lot of exercise, and neither is 45 minutes in regards to decreasing your chances of falling ill and dying. These numbers are more important to me than some random “you should be able to do this” standard.
Listen, I’m not advocating accepting some minimal version of yourself.
You should feel challenged and strive for more than just existing, but you better be doing it for the right reasons, and not because someone else tells you to, or to meet a particular set of arbitrary numbers.
You should exercise, train, and play because you want to, because it fits your needs, and because you feel value in what you are doing.
What Does Conditioning Mean for You?
As we’ve discussed before, by examining your personal motivations and true reasons for training, you’ll be in a much better place to determine the distinct level of conditioning and “in shape-ness” that you require.
How conditioned do you want to be? And why?
These are the important questions.
Health and wellness takes a surprisingly small amount of endurance and physical capacity. Especially when compared to the daunting standards and pronouncements thrown at us by the internets.
Are you going to be climbing a mountain next year? Or just headed to Space Mountain with the kids? Are you gearing up for the Honolulu Marathon here in December, or just running to catch the bus?
The answers to those questions are what should guide you to your own personal definition of being well-conditioned.
Being realistic about where you need to be physically isn’t the same as giving up your aspirations of strength and health for a life of mediocrity.
It’s just the acknowledgement that there are other options between training yourself to extreme fatigue, or lying on the couch all day.
It’s not either/or in your exercise.
The happy medium can be just that. Instead of chasing “optimal fitness,” take a look at what’s actually optimal for your needs and health.