Whether you’re trying to achieve a specific fitness goal or looking to maximize the benefits of your various fitness components, incorporating strength training exercises along with conditioning will help you build a balanced fitness foundation and prevent overuse injuries.
No matter what we’re doing in life, the ability to move freely in the world around us unlocks more and more possibilities the more access we have. The more you can lift, the heavier the door you can open, right? The more languages we speak, the better we can follow directions or find our way home.
Adding this intention to our fitness approach can lead to a dynamic new plan, a re-structured priority list, and an overall deeper understanding of why certain things are important to us.
Are we building muscle to defend ourselves, or mostly to look good in those cute pants? Either reason is great. Maybe we have this abstract concept that we want to be able to experience the world upside down with the same degree of strength as we do right-side up. (For the circus-minded..!) What do you really want?
Finally, even when you do try to integrate different styles of exercise, there are so many questions: will one interfere with the other?
While endurance training can hinder strength gains, it’s important to note that packing on muscle isn’t necessarily the top priority when it comes to durability skills like surviving dozens of hours swimming, biking and running.
For a level of overall fitness capable of taking on new challenges with strength and agility, mixing up strength training and conditioning is essential. The relationship between yourself and the world around you will not only become more tangibly malleable, but the sense of self – and confidence – grown through added strength will surprise you.
Strength training vs. conditioning
Two things you hear all the time in the athletic world are strength training and conditioning, two types of exercises that focus on two different aspects of physical fitness. Whereas the primary goal of strength training is to improve muscular strength and endurance, conditioning aims to improve cardiovascular fitness, endurance and overall stamina.
Strength training challenges your muscles against resistance, such as with weights, resistance bands or bodyweight, while conditioning exercises focus on elevating your heart rate and keeping it that way for an extended period – like with running, biking, swimming and HIIT workouts. By targeting building muscle strength and size, it also ultimately improves bone health and joint stability as well.
There does, of course, exist crossover in the ways you could approach the two aspects of training. Typically, strength training involves lifting heavier weights with fewer repetitions (around 3-12 reps per set) to build muscle size and strength. However, for muscle endurance, you want to use lower weights and focus on more repetitions – a foundational aspect of conditioning.
Conditioning can vary in intensity and engage a range of muscle groups depending on the activity, but its primary focus always comes back to improving our cardiovascular system and the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles.
Creating a well-rounded practice
Perhaps you do a sport like Muay Thai which already includes elements of both strength training and cardio in its class structure, with bodyweight exercises built into the conditioning sequences.
If you’re like many of us, though, your athletic practice has probably evolved as a fusion of several different elements, and you’d like to still maintain them all – plus get a good night’s sleep. When that’s the case, the best way to maximize your athletic hobbies’ benefits and your performance comes down to seeing how they all work together.
Depending on your fitness level and goals, doing some form of strength training around 2 – 4 times a week is a good benchmark since it allows time for muscle recovery and growth.
As long as you create space for rest and recovery, conditioning workouts can be performed more frequently than strength training, aiming for around 3-5 sessions a week to see results in your cardiovascular fitness.
To ensure that you’re balancing your conditioning and strength training so that you don’t hinder muscle growth (if that’s your goal), research suggests using heavy weights and fewer reps. Doing this maximizes the metabolic signals for muscle growth while minimizing metabolic stress and calories burned.
Benefits of both
Our bodies quickly adapt to consistent training routines, leading to plateaus in progress. Adding variety into your workout routine can help prevent plateaus and overuse injuries. By alternating different exercises and intensity levels, you challenge your body in new ways, promoting continuous growth and improvement.
Mixing strength and conditioning exercises also helps improve functional fitness – the ability to perform everyday activities with ease and sans injury, like lifting and carrying things. If your goals include higher-level athletic performance, integrating these two types of exercise into your routine allows you to develop specific attributes you may need with more nuance.
If you want to add something new into your life but are not sure where it fits on the balance scale, you can first see whether it falls into the strength training or the conditioning bucket.
Where do you fall on the scale? Do you have too much in one bucket and too little in the other? If you add that extra thing, will it tip?
Switch it up. There are other ways to get your strength training in without lifting any weights. Spend an afternoon rock climbing, or take a pole fitness class. Much of the body-awareness skills in those kinds of athletic environments require just as much physical strength as mobility.
Ultimately, any kind of regular exercise, as long as it’s properly executed, is good. It helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, and is associated with better long-term health.
Both strength training and conditioning exercises are also known to have positive effects on our mental well-being, reducing stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. Endorphins released during exercise also boost our mood with a sense of instant gratification after our work out.
To get the most out of mixing up these two complementary practices, see where all of your sports activities fall on the spectrum, and then fill in the blanks.
If you have plenty of daily cardio with morning runs and yoga, try lifting weights or switch up your yoga practice to one that focuses more on strength. For example, while Vinyasa yoga is a flowing style linking breath to movement, Hatha yoga involves holding poses for longer periods of time, which can challenge and strengthen various muscle groups.
Ashtanga yoga is popular with athletes due to its rigor and physically demanding nature, holding each pose in a series for a specific number of breaths before moving on to the next.On the other hand, if you’re looking for something more fully physically engaging to supplement your set-in-stone morning gym routine, try a sport like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or Muay Thai to engage with strength and technique in grappling and striking!