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Conditioning for “De-Conditioned” Clients

Conditioning for “De-Conditioned” Clients



Conditioning, it’s what 90% of all trainers use to help their clients lose weight and “get in shape”.  Almost every gym that runs group classes uses HIIT as a way to get clients heart rate up and help burn fat. The problem is are we really helping our clients in the best way?


Think about it, should a person who is 30 or more pounds over weight really be doing plyometrics of any type? Even jumping jacks can cause an injury to someone who is very overweight and out of shape. So why would have them do anything as physically demanding as a burpee? Should they do high rep, high speed bodyweight squats? Probably not.



What is “Conditioning”?

What does it mean? What does being “in-shape” mean? The answer is “It Depends”.  I know that’s pretty vague and cliché but it’s true.


What are you trying to get in shape for? To run a marathon? To do a powerlifting meet? To take the RKC Snatch test? To do a kettlebell sport snatch competition (10 mins, non-stop with 1 hand switch)? To play tennis, golf, keep up with the kids or grandkids?


All of those require different levels and types of conditioning. A marathon runner doesn’t require high rep explosive power, she requires slow (relatively speaking) steady pacing. A Powerlifter doesn’t really require any conditioning – any more than 3 reps is conditioning J. Tennis has different conditioning needs than golf, as does soccer and basketball.


Listening to Your Client

You really need to step back and figure out what the client needs and wants and program for that. You need to know their goal(s). If its fat loss they probably have an underlying goal of keeping up with kids or grandkids or being able to play tennis or basketball without gassing and without getting hurt. That is where you focus should be.


Once you’ve determined what they want out of your training you need to program appropriately keeping in mind their current fitness/conditioning level. Are the already fit? Are they a little over-weight (10-15lbs) are the fat (15+) or obese (30+)? Your programming needs to reflect that.


You also need to consider past exercise history. Were they active, did they play sports, work on a farm or do other physically demanding work? All those things should be reflected in the program you create for them.


Someone who is 30lbs over-weight but used to play football is going to have a different response to exercise than a similarly built person who has never played any sports or have never done anything beyond getting on a treadmill. But that doesn’t mean you can crush the ex-football player. You can’t train him today as he was trained in high school, especially if that was 10 or more years ago.


Determining their Current Fitness/Conditioning Level

Doing baseline tests/screen to get an idea of what a client can do is essential but you also need to beware of any limitations so a movement screen should be done first. Once you’ve seen the movement screen you should know what you can safely have them do to check their fitness level. For example, if a person is cleared by a movement screen to do squats (regular body-weight squats) then have them do as many good, controlled reps as they can in 30s. Take a pulse or use a heart rate monitor and check it before and after then check again after 1 minute. If their HR is through the roof or their HR hasn’t recovered by about 40 bpm you can be pretty sure they are de-conditioned.


For many people squats will be a safe, adequate test. If someone can’t squat, have them walk on a treadmill about 5 or 6 miles per hour checking HR before and after. If the HR shoots through the roof or doesn’t recover quickly within 1 minute of finishing the walk, it’s pretty safe to assume they shouldn’t be doing hard-core intervals. If they can’t squat they sure as hell shouldn’t be doing burpees or box jumps!


You should also use the subjective RPE measure. RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion is a way for people to identify how hard they think they are working. I use a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being doing nothing but sitting on the couch. 10 is a near death experience! During testing and in 80-90% of your workouts the RPE should be 7 to 8. In your workouts RPEs over 9 should be very infrequent, like testing a 1 RM.


Remember RPE is up to the individual and the same workout and same parameters may yield a different RPE on any given day depending on your client’s mood, sleep, food intake, work stress etc.


In a one-on-one situation its easy to gauge a clients level of fitness and program for it. In a group class the programming can be much tougher, especially if you have a variety of fitness levels.



Programming Considerations


Your programs should not be about conditioning, they should be focused on getting your clients to reach their goals, conditioning work is only a small part of it.  Most of your clients need to squat, deadlift, push and pull, and improve their mobility and quality of movement; conditioning is secondary and should be at the end of the workout. It doesn’t need to be done every session especially if you are training them 3 or more times per week.


A lot trainers want to throw burpees and box jumps at their clients. Most people, even those in good shape butcher burpees. Sure they get their heart rate up but fitness should be about moving better and smarter not harder. I’d rather see you do 5 perfect pushups than 20 crappy ones. Quality before quantity! Crappy movement leads to injuries.


Instead of burpees do body-weight squats for time THEN do pushups, quad presses or mountain climbers. Modify the exercise(s) as necessary to ensure proper form and safety. Over time, as your clients start to move better you may be able to progress them to full burpees, but take it slow.


Jumping jacks and their variants can be pretty good conditioning for many people. Still, there are some who may not be able to do a JJ so regress it; have them step the foot out while raising the hands overhead. To make JJ’s harder do a seal jack (hands go in front and behind instead of up & down) or a split jack (legs go front to back) or a split seal jack.


Tools for Conditioning


Some kettlebell exercises, battling ropes and prowlers/sled are great tools for almost everyone. The ropes and prowlers have no eccentric loading and are safe for pretty much everyone. If you are using kettlebells, swing variations are great for conditioning, IF your client has been taught how to do them correctly and their form is good. Remember stop them if their form starts to deteriorate!


The biggest thing with the ropes is to make sure the clients don’t use their back or shoulders too much. The ropes are self-regulating, as they fatigue they will slow down and the amplitude of the ropes will decrease. Since there isn’t an eccentric component there is very little risk of injury, but man will their HR go up!


Pushing, pulling and dragging the sled/prowlers are great ways to increase conditioning levels in a safe way, since, like the ropes there is no eccentric component.  Keep the load in the 70-80% range, guys always want to max out on prowlers; once in a while is okay, but never more than once a month.


I mix up the prowler work, some days we will push with the hands up higher (high posts), other days all low post. Some days we will push high post one way and low post on the way back down (I only have a 40 ft long run). Other days it may be low both ways.


Some days I will tie a battling rope to the prowler and have them push it down, run back and grab the end of the rope go into a squat and do hand over hand rope pulls to bring the sled back down.


We will also drag the sled both walking forward (sled behind) and walking backwards (you are facing the sled). All these variations are excellent for developing the glutes, quads and posterior chain while getting the HR up! 3 to 5 rounds is about the max for most.


If you don’t have a sled or prowler you can get weighted “speed bags” and drag those. Depending on your flooring you may be able to just push plates that are lying on the floor.


Loaded Carries

Loaded Carries are another good conditioning method. Simply carry a kettlebell or dumbbell and walk with it for time or distance will get your heart rate up, work your core and grip. You can do “suitcase” carries (arms down by your sides) with 1 or two bells. Rack walks (kb held in rack position), overhead walks, bottoms up walks etc. You can also do combinations, e.g. suitcase carry in one hand and bottoms up in the other.

Don’t go so heavy that your walking is compromised or you have to lean or use the opposite arm, in unilateral walks) to compensate.


Programming Examples

Kettlebell Swings (remember they MUST be able to swing with good form)

2h swings 30s rest 15-30s repeat4-5x. Also the 2 handed kettlebell high pull can be done the same way. The energy requirements of the 2h high pull are a lot more than the 2h swing using the same weight!


Battling Ropes Cycle through 4 or 5 rope exercises using a 20:20 interval. I use the Circle, the cross-over (in & out movement), Alternating Waves and Double slams, but there are many others. Are your client gets more conditioned change the interval to 30:15. You can also do planks or other low level exercises in between each rope pattern


Loaded Carries: 1 arm suitcase carry 30s/arm no rest between arms. Keep going for as long as you want. They client should be able to walk normally, if they lean, side bend or use the other arm for balance the weight is to heavy.

Double Suitcase Carry, just walk until you can’t hold on anymore, rest & repeat

Suitcase+Rack walk: Hold a heavy bell in one hand arm down and the other in rack position (bell on the outside of the forearm, thumb at the level of the collarbone, elbow in the lower ribs). Walk for 30s to 1 minute and switch the bells. Usually we go heavy on the down side and 1 bell lighter on the rack side.


Prowlers/Sled: As discussed above pulling, pushing and dragging. You can work on speed (light) or strength (70-80% max). You can push using a high post or low. If you have a rope you can drag it in front or behind you.

Distance is limited by the space you have available but 30-40 yards works well.


In Conclusion

Take the time to determine your client’s goals and their fitness levels and write your programs accordingly. For group training make sure you have designed regressions for those who aren’t ready for strenuous exercise and make sure they are aware that they can stop whenever they need to. It’s not a competition between them and other clients. They should be told to do the best they can. It’s your job to make sure they don’t overdo it; keep an eye on them, their recovery rate, and form where applicable and adjust the workout as necessary.



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