The Conditioning Conundrum: 4 Common Mistakes

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Setting the scene:  Jen Sinkler, former USA Rugby player, former fitness editor of Experience Life Magazine, current “free-agent/entrepreneur” fitness junkie, and 100% fashionista was asked a follow-up question when being interviewed by a reporter. When explaining how she prefers to train and not ONCE uttering the words treadmill, elliptical, or Thigh Master, the reporter incredulously asked……“but what do you do for cardio???”

Jen’s now viral answer:  “I lift weights faster!”

I’ve known Jen for coming up on six years now, and outside of being one helluva editor and awesome human being, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s more immersed in “fitness” than her.  You name it, she’s done it.

Powerlifting, Strongman, CrossFit, kettlebells, Tough Mudders, taming Dragons…..she’s done it all.  While never being more than five feet away from some lip gloss.

Told ya:  100% fashionista.

Knowing I was going to be away on vacation this week (it’s 75 degrees at 7:30 AM as I type this. What, what!), and knowing that Jen’s first solo product – Lift Weights Faster – was launching while I was going t be away,  Jen was gracious enough to write a superb guest post for me on common conditioning mistakes that people make.

For those who like short and to the point here are the Cliff Notes:

Forgetting time is money – quick run down on intensity, volume and density…and how people neglect taking into the importance of density and their conditioning.

Not taking a systems approach – the importance of a $2 notebook for training, people throw it to the side during the conditioning, and leave progress on the table.

Workouts Can Be Like Having a Birthday Near Christmas – putting too much stress on an already stressed out body, whether it be from work, relationship, and other chronic stressors.

Variety the Smart Way – last but not lest, forgetting to add variety in different structures, time versus rep-based, and letting mental creep set in and loath the workout.

The Conditioning Conundrum:  4 Common Mistakes

Thanks to a rash of new research, the viral spread of info over the internet (“lift weights faster,” anyone?) and your own common sense stemming from the fact that you can get just as winded doing sets of heavy kettlebell swings as going for a run, the idea that cardio and strength work can be blended is generally more accepted than it used to be.

Thank god, because that elliptical shit is for the birds. (Unless you like it, then yadda yadda yadda, carry on.)

If you are here on this particular website, however, chances are you’ve already bought into the idea that resistance-training circuits are a viable alternative to traditional cardio pursuits (and that when it comes to both performance and body composition changes, they’re superior).

But as the pendulum inevitably swings toward favoritism of metabolic resistance training and everything that falls under that umbrella, some people will naturally either redline the extremes, or simply misinterpret what smart circuit training really is.

Here are four ways you may not be doing it quite right.

Mistake 1: Not Being Dense Enough

Regardless of the type of conditioning you’re doing, there are three variables always at play:

Intensity: This is the how many pounds you’re lifting, or how much resistance you’re using. In the context of exercise, for the sake of precision, it is not how hard you try. It’s just cold, hard weight on the bar (or otherwise in your hands).

Volume: This is the total number of repetitions you complete of a particular movement. Whether you’re talking about one set or your entire workout, volume is the number of repetitions you complete. (To calculate total volume, multiply reps by resistance used, or intensity.)

Density: This is the time it takes to complete a bout of work — essentially, how quickly you get the job done, whether “the job” refers to a set or your entire workout.  (You can calculate it by dividing volume by time.)

If you’ve been strength training for a while, you’re probably inherently familiar with the three and how they play out in your strength program and progress, whether you’re conscious of it or not. You know that if you do much of X (high-volume deadlifts?), you’re wiped out when you try to do Y (Yvette), for example, and by the same token, what leads you to better performance. If you can lift heavier than you did a few weeks ago, you have a working knowledge of these concepts.

As a fitness community, we share a lot of notes about volume and intensity, but the variable that doesn’t get enough love is density.

Outside of CrossFit, people don’t really talk about how quickly they finished their workouts or work sets, but I think, perhaps, that we should — especially when your goal is better conditioning.

Teach your body to crush a circuit, recover quickly and ask for more, and you’ll crack open a new metric by which to measure your progress, both in how you feel and also how you look, if you want to lean out.

Mistake 2: Not Tracking Your Workouts

McDonald’s is one of the most profitable businesses on the planet, not so much because their food is delicious and high quality, but because they’ve taken a systems approach to make everything easier. Easier to produce, easier to measure, easier to manage.

Every piece of that business has a process and system in place, and if you approach your strength and conditioning from the same angle, you, too will be able to more easily measure and produce progress.

Bar none the best piece of strength training equipment in the weight room is the two-dollar training journal you bring in with you. The amount of feedback you can provide yourself, along with the ability to troubleshoot stalled progress, is big. Big. Huge. (Why yes, I am quoting Pretty Woman!)

But time and again, I see people toss their journals by the wayside when it’s time to finish up with a quick circuit. And yet, there is much valuable info to be gleaned, even here.

Track your volume, density and intensity, here, too, and you can figure out new ways to PR. In fact, even in your circuits, try setting your mind to moving the needle on one of those factors every time you train.

Mistake 3: Going Overboard

My rule of thumb: Regardless of your fitness level, if it feels like too much, it probably is.

What may not look difficult on paper will play out very differently while you’re in the gym. A whole lot of plyometric exercise, heavy lifting and hard circuit training can take a toll after some time.

Stress hormones such as cortisol are by no means always the bad guy — in fact, they’re quite useful for saving the day, in whatever form that takes for you. Chronically elevated cortisol levels, however, are a different story, and we would do well to note that our bodies don’t differentiate between types of stress. Piling training stress on top of work stress, relationship stress and money stress on a long-term basis can lead to a pretty major crash and burn.

Research points to lifting weights at maximal velocity spiking cortisol levels when compared to lifting at a lower rep speed, so if you’re piling on elsewhere, it’s probably better to cool it on conditioning. One to two sessions a week is plenty, for many people.

Mistake 4: Joining the Circus

Humans are hardwired to seek novelty — we have a deep-seated tendency to constantly seek out new, different, shiny. It can be good thing, this neophilia, in that it helps us assess risks, to learn new skills, to become more capable.

But new is everywhere now, including the gym. In her book New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher writes: “We already crunch four times more data — e-mail, tweets, searches, music, video, and traditional media — than we did just thirty years ago, and this deluge shows no signs of slackening. To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.”

You know what that means? It means being selective about what is worth your time and what is not, not embracing variety simply for variety’s sake.

If your training time is limited, seek productivity in your conditioning sessions, exploring variations of skills you’re proficient in and finding ways to manipulate volume and work-to-rest ratios.

Changing a circuit of “three sets of 10 repetitions” to “three rounds of 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest” will evoke a different psychological response. New structure, new progress. Win-win.

The Total Package and Then Some A Lot

I get it — it’s easy to feel stagnant or overwhelmed by the prospect of putting together productive conditioning circuits. With that in mind, I compiled 130 grab-and-go workouts in my Lift Weights Faster product (including two guest workouts from Tony G.!).

Complete with a full exercise glossary that includes written descriptions and photographic demonstrations of approximately 225 exercises, from classic moves to more creative ones, I leveraged my background in magazine publishing to create a clear-cut, easy-to-use resource.

Every workout is organized by the equipment you have available and how much time you’ve got, including plenty of effective, hot-n-heavy options that last less than 10 minutes and also over 35 different workouts that require minimal equipment for when you’re traveling or outside the gym.

—–> Lift Weights Faster <—–

About the Author

Jen Sinkler (, RKC, PCC, PM, USAW, is a longtime fitness journalist who writes for national magazines such as Women’s Health and Men’s Health. A former member of the U.S. national women’s rugby team, she currently trains clients at The Movement Minneapolis.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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