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  • Writer's pictureJesse McMeekin

Cardio vs. Conditioning

I remember being told once that the Inuit had dozens of words for snow. There’s a word for light fluffy snow, a different one for cold blowing snow, one for hard packed snow… you get the idea. It occurred to me recently that personal trainers have almost as many words for conditioning as the Inuit do for snow; we call it HIIT, cardio, aerobics, conditioning, energy system development, interval training, metabolic conditioning, a finisher… again, you get the idea. The question is, are these terms just different names for the same thing, or, like the Inuit terms for snow, do they represent subtle but important differences?

At the end of the day, what you tell your client they’re doing should be about what gets them to work hard and come back for more. (On that note: I’ve long since stopped referring to a client’s “core”, opting instead to say “abs” as often as possible. Abs are sexy, and get people to work hard… at training their core muscles. Buy-in beats accuracy.) Our use and understanding of terminology is much less important to what we say than it is to what we think.

A full breakdown of every one of the terms we throw around to describe the last few minutes of a session is more than I’m ready to tackle at the moment, but there is one interesting distinction I want to examine: the difference between conditioning and any of the other terms we might use.

Let’s look at two key components of conditioning work.

1: Conditioning involves efficiency.
2: Conditioning is about performance.

In order to illustrate, allow me an imperfect metaphor: the body as a sports car. Most of the terms above—and the methods they correspond to—are focused on developing a bigger motor (I sound like I’m at the NFL combine) or a bigger gas tank: more power, more endurance, or some combination of the two. Conditioning introduces a third variable that seems conspicuously absent once you see it: fuel efficiency.

When it comes to true conditioning work, not only are we concerned with a bigger engine (speed and power) or a bigger gas tank (better endurance), we want to get more mileage out of both. It’s the difference between building a sports car and one trying to win the Daytona 500: better mileage means fewer pit stops means winning (first or last!).

That means that specifics like energy systems, movement speeds, and movement patterns all matter. Any and every one of the methods mentioned above can work as conditioning; the key is in their degree of specificity.

Training a wrestler on a rowing machine or a football player on an assault bike limits the transfer. Both modalities probably have their place, and both cold easily reflect the energy system demands of either sport (simply play with work/rest ratios), but at the end of the day, they need to spend the bulk of their time in movements that reflect their sports, improving not only their capacity for work, but their efficiency with specific muscles and movement patterns.


If you’re working with someone whose goals are more tied to body composition than they are performance, this probably doesn’t matter much—at the end of the day the combination of hard work, buy-in, and the dopaminergic drive that comes from finishing something difficult is enough. As for what you call it? I’d call it whatever they do. If they’re a CrossFit convert, give ‘em their MetCon, if they’re convinced they need to do HIIT for fat loss, call it HIIT. Again, buy-in trumps accuracy.

On the other hand, if you’ve working with someone who’d like to do something better—and I’d encourage you to consider helping your clients frame at least some of their goals around performance—then the devil really is in the details. The more you can understand about their specific activity (it doesn’t have to be a sport), the more you can help them improve. Battle ropes may not help your triathlete much, while short, power-driven sled work might be perfect for a football lineman.

Whether you’re looking to improve your own performance or someone else’s, I’d love to help. And if you’re looking for a jumpstart to writing smart conditioning programs, I’ve got a free download you should check out.

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