Strength or Conditioning?

Jordan Sellar

If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.

It’s an old saying but one which is often applicable when setting goals. It addresses the fact that the pursuit of difficult objectives often requires tunnel vision – chasing a single rabbit. In the field of Strength and Conditioning you can pursue improvements in a variety of physical characteristics – and to a certain point you can be successful while trying to do it all at once, but beyond beginner gains improvement requires planned and purposeful training.

The rise of functional gyms and class-based training in recent years has introduced a welcome alternative to globo gym training and bodybuilding. People are moving well, breaking a sweat and high fiving in record numbers. However, it often seems that the term Strength and Conditioning has become confused with group classes and circuit training within the fitness industry. As the heading of this article suggests, an appropriate way to think about your training may be in terms of Strength or Conditioning.

The concurrent training effect describes the interference of conditioning or cardiovascular training on muscle, strength, and power gains. There is evidence to suggest this is the result of residual fatigue reducing the quality of strength development sessions or the dampening of anabolic signalling pathways responsible for hypertrophy and improvements in maximal strength. Either way, completing strength AND conditioning within a single session often leaves us improving neither.

Training invoked stress provides stimulus for the body to adapt. It sends a signal. The concurrent training effect is our bodies way of letting us know that we are not sending a clear enough signal.

Maximal strength is best developed when working at high intensities. The most effective adaptation occurs when lifting loads greater than of 80% of an established 1RM for any particular lift. To complete the volume of work required at such high intensities, long rest periods of up to 5-minutes are needed to maximise the effect of a prescribed session. Further to this we know that adaptations in strength are load and velocity specific – this means that beyond beginner gains you will need to lift heavy to get strong and move fast to get faster. Any interfering with this principle will dilute the desired adaptation.

Similarly, when programming conditioning there is a wide variety of factors to consider. Central adaptations such VO2max and cardiac output (think heart and lungs) require significant amounts of time to be spent working above extremely high intensity thresholds relative to an individual’s maximal capacity. It is very difficult to sustain such work intensities during a session which includes high volumes of low-load resistance training due to the likelihood of local muscle fatigue becoming the limiting factor for sustained work rate and duration.

Peripheral adaptations on the other hand which include mitochondrial density, aerobic enzyme activity and capillarisation (think muscular endurance) can be developed at lower intensities. These adaptations are mode and site specific however – which is why an elite marathon runner is likely to get his ass kicked by a well-trained cyclist the first time he ever sits on a bike.

You certainly can improve multiple facets of physical performance over time – its how AFL or Rugby League athletes are able to combine formidable size and strength with a proficient aerobic capacity. In order to become a well-rounded athlete however, each session needs to have a defined purpose and send a clear signal for adaptation. Chase one rabbit per session and you’ll catch plenty.

Chase two rabbits and you’ll lose them both. 

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