Choose Your Own Conditioning Adventure: How to Design a Smart Conditioning Workout

I don’t prescribe cardio for my clients.

Actually, let me clarify — I don’t prescribe cardio for my clients unless it is helpful to reach their goals.

I work pretty much exclusively with clients whose main goals are general healthiness, fat loss, and looking good. For those clients, cardio isn’t necessary, and many of them are surprised to hear me say this.

That isn’t to say that my clients don’t do anything other than strength training. Instead of cardio, I suggest some form of conditioning workout. The difference between “conditioning” and “cardio” lies in what ELSE a conditioning workout does for your body — namely, promoting fat loss and muscle retention, reinforcing healthy movement patterns already learned during strength training sessions, and building the body’s capacity to do work.

For the non-fitness-geek, here’s a quick and dirty comparison between traditional cardio and conditioning workouts:


  • Longer duration
  • Pace tends to be steady, low to medium intensity
  • Only trains one of the body’s energy pathways
  • Contains no strength training components
  • Body adapts easily to duration and pace
  • Traditionally consists of walking, jogging, running, or riding cardio machines
  • Requires longer duration or faster pace to maintain results over time


  • Shorter burst of activity, including rest periods
  • Pace tends to be higher, but can involve periods of slower pace combined with faster pace
  • Trains all of the body’s energy pathways
  • Can contain strength training components
  • Variety provides less ability for the body to adapt
  • Does not have to involve traditional cardio machines
  • Improvements can be made without having to increase duration or pace over time

Cardio trains your body to be good at steady-paced cardio. Conditioning, on the other hand, trains your body to be better in a variety of ways.

So what, exactly, would a good conditioning workout look like?

Most people understand how to do cardio, and frankly, planning for a cardio workout is easy:

Find elliptical. Get on. Ride until you decide you’re done, or until your brains spill out your ears from boredom. Whichever comes first.

A conditioning workout, though, is just a little trickier to plan. And they can be easy to overdo.

There are four things I include in every conditioning workout:

1. A Cardio Component

Wait, what? There’s cardio in conditioning?

Yes — remember, conditioning is to train ALL of the body’s energy pathways, and cardio needs to be in there.

This doesn’t mean you need a cardio machine, though. And it doesn’t mean you need to run. Cardio can come from doing higher rep strength work, from doing weighted carries, from doing plyometrics, or from doing anything that requires some power output.

So doing walking lunges, carrying heavy things, doing jump squats, or doing KB swings can all count as a cardio component. These things also qualify as strength training components, but there’s no reason you can’t kill two conditioning birds with one exercise stone.

2. A Strength Training Component (or several)

Anything you would do during a strength training session can be used in a modified way for conditioning work.

Squats, push ups, lunges, and variations on these are the most basic (and equipment-free) strength components you might use, but you could also include dumbbell and barbell exercises, like shoulder presses, rows, and deadlift variations.

The number of reps you include in a conditioning workout can also vary. You could use squats and push ups in sets of 10. You could add a little weight and do lower rep sets. You could push the volume higher and do 20-25 reps as well.

The key, however, in adding strength components to your conditioning is insuring that your form is always on point.

There’s no benefit to doing 20-25 rep sets of push ups if you’re flopping through them like a fish dying for air. And there’s no point in high rep lunges if your depth degenerates into a quarter of what it should be.

Pick your strength components, then, based on your ability to maintain good form from start to finish. Choose exercises that hit the desired muscle groups, and consider using exercises that will help you bring up a weakness if needed.

3. A Rest Interval 

Conditioning work tends to push the intensity level higher than traditional cardio does, but in order to balance this intensity level, you have to include rest intervals.

Your rest intervals could be all-out rest. Maybe you work — and you work HARD — for 2 minutes, then rest for 2 minutes. But your rest intervals could also be low intensity work. Maybe you sprint for 15 seconds, then walk for 45. And you can also provide a rest interval by simply switching which muscle groups are bearing the brunt of the work. Alternating between a lower body exercise and an upper boy exercise, for example, gives one part of the body a rest while the other does the work.

There’s also a value for your heart in this kind of training. During your work intervals, you push your heart rate up. During your rest intervals, you allow the heart rate to lower again. Doing this kind of work repeatedly over time trains your heart to come back to its resting rate more quickly. And a healthy heart is one that recovers from bouts of exercise efficiently.

4. A Core Stability Component

This does not mean you need to “do abs” during your conditioning workouts, though you can if you want that.

Instead, I mean that a good conditioning workout will require your core to fire and stabilize in correct and appropriate ways — ways that reinforce healthy movement patterns that you will need to avoid injury and live your day to day life.

Sometimes, this core stability work is already inherent in the strength training components of your conditioning workout. Squats, lunges, push ups, and rows, for example, when done with correct form, all require core stabilization.

Even proper sprinting will work your core — if you’ve never had your abs get sore from sprints, you might need to correct your sprinting form.

The goal in a conditioning workout is to make your body function better. Your core’s ability to stabilize throughout a variety of movements has massive carryover to your strength training workouts and your everyday life.


Putting It Together

How you set your conditioning up beyond these four components can vary — you still have to determine how long your conditioning workout should last, which strength components you should include, how many reps of those exercises to do, and how long your body will need to rest.

Those are the variables that will change from person to person. How I program my own conditioning is different than how I program my boot camp, for example, though both achieve a similar end.

Here are two example conditioning workouts:

Individual with a Cardio Machine:

2 minutes steady pace on machine (I sometime increase the pace every round)
10 squats
10 push ups
Repeat x5-10 rounds


Boot Camp Class:

5 KB front squats (right side)
30 seconds front rack KB carry (right side)
5 KB front squats (left side)
30 seconds front rack KB carry (left side)
15 KB swings
30 seconds KB suitcase carry (right side)
15 KB swings
30 seconds KB suitcase carry (left side)
30 seconds forearm plank
5 push ups
30 seconds hollow-body hold
5 push ups
Rest, then repeat twice more


There are some final things to consider when designing your conditioning work:

  1. Your conditioning workout should make you better, not impair your future workouts. Choose exercises from which you can properly recover, so that today’s conditioning workout doesn’t interfere with your squat session tomorrow.
  2. Your conditioning workout doesn’t need to take forever. Intensity is higher, so duration can be shorter. Conditioning workouts that take longer than 30 minutes (not including warm up and cool down) are probably too long for most people.
  3. You can repeat the same conditioning workout, but try to get better at it when you do. Add more weight, more reps, or shorter rest intervals as your body adapts to a conditioning workout. And ditch a conditioning workout when it’s “easy.”

There’s no need for your conditioning to annihilate you for the day, or for several days, and there’s no need to use lots of fancy moves or equipment. If you have those bits of equipment at your disposal, and you enjoy them, you can certainly use them.

But at bare minimum, your conditioning should be like any other workout you do:

It should be purposeful, enjoyable, and doable.

Because if it isn’t those things, you won’t do it consistently. And consistency is where fitness magic really happens.


About Kristen

I teach literature to high school students by day. I lift heavy things, train clients, and eat peanut butter by night.