Cardio or Conditioning?

There is always this ongoing debate on whether I prefer straight-up cardio or conditioning. I know many of us dread the C-words, but they’re necessary evils that have to be done if you wish to get anywhere in fitness. Cardio and conditioning are a part of what I call the Fitness Trinity: Resistance Training, Nutrition, and Cardio. Without just one of these elements, you’ll have a much harder time succeeding. In fact, unless you have a blessing in one of these three components, your success will be very hard to come by, I’m afraid.

What is very interesting is the fact that many people tend to choose either resistance training or cardio, while neglecting the other. Again, unless you have a genetic blessing in one of the components, success in fitness is going to be very hard to come by. You need to have both, along with sound nutrition. To that point, those who nail both resistance training and cardio typically slack in nutrition, and vice versa. We all have our strengths and weaknesses in fitness, and we always will, but that doesn’t mean we neglect our weaknesses.

Take me, for instance. I can do both resistance training and cardio all day, every day, but I’m not about to meal prep and spend my entire day eating leftovers. I did it for a time and it wasn’t fun. So for me, nutrition is (ironically) my biggest weakness. Especially in the summer, when the grill is going. Well, in the winter we need to scavenge more with temptation all over the place. Sure, I can resist the temptation, but if it weren’t for Lenny and Larry’s, I wouldn’t be doing as good of a job doing so. And Quest Bars. Oh, Atkins Bars too. Sweet potato fries as well. Whole wheat buns. Turkey burgers. Tacos too. Okay, pretty much everything that is not on a competitor’s contest diet is what I tend to eat, but if you look at the list above, that is written in incomplete sentences, everything I’ve written is practically a healthy substitute for something that is bad for me. This is honestly how I stay lean, and do so all year round. And I’m quite okay with that. Perhaps not contest lean, but close to.

But one of the weaknesses in many is cardio, and on both sides of the spectrum. We have those who struggle to do cardio as is, and we have another camp who do so much cardio they’re inadvertently breaking their body down. Yes, you can indeed break down muscle if you do too much cardio. If you fall into that crowd, you need to learn how to incorporate some sort of resistance training program immediately. Also, doing nothing but steady-state cardio is such a recipe for failure, not only will you continually break muscle down, but you’re also going to end up deconditioning yourself. Seriously, nothing good has ever come out of this.

Now I’m led to my second point, and it’s the title of this article. Is it cardio or is it conditioning? If you aren’t conditioning, you aren’t doing any good for yourself. Unless you happen to be a cardiac patient with severe limitations, you need to be conditioning, and I don’t care how old you are. We can make conditioning a broad term by means of fitness level, but I’ll define it as this: Conditioning is placing your body in a very unstable, unfamiliar environment, which in time will force an adaption. We must continually force our bodies to adapt, because if we allow them to adapt and continue to remain in our comfort zone, we will never maximize our benefits from a fitness standpoint.

We must condition, even during our cardio workouts. We need to keep the intensity level high, and must become comfortable with discomfort. I’m not saying we need to be so uncomfortable we’re going to ache for days after the workout, but if we train to the point of slight discomfort, you know you’re doing something correct. If you’re breaking a sweat, it doesn’t always mean you’re working hard. The body just cools down when it sweats, so you can simply get the same effect by turning the heat up in your car on a ninety-degree summer day.

All in all, you need to ensure your body is not a comfortable environment when you want to change something. You’re in the gym to improve yourself, and the only way that’s going to happen is if you put forth the amount of effort required. If you walk merrily on the treadmill, go at a slow, steady pace on the bike, and glide on an elliptical, you aren’t doing anything positive for yourself. You aren’t going to change anything. If you’re serious about changing something, you’re going to condition when it comes to cardio.

With that, if you’re merely doing cardio, it should be in conditioning mode. Even during steady-state cardio, you need to be conditioning, and this is possible. It’s more than possible. All you have to do is up the intensity to where you feel yourself entering that zone of discomfort.

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