Utilizing Conditioning Workouts

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Utilizing Conditioning Workouts

by Dave Randolph

Many trainers want to have their clients do nothing but conditioning workouts, HIIT all the time just to make them tired & sweaty, because it’s easy to do and requires no knowledge of proper program design. But that is not the sign of a good trainer or coach. Sure it will make your clients burn fat (for a while) but how long can they hold up? Day after day of HIIT, even every other day, causes a tremendous amount of stress to the entire body, not just the muscles. High levels of stress cause a cascade of hormonal dumps, which can actually lead to fat gain, not to mention the increased risk of injury.

I was guilty of running HIIT circuits all the time in my early days as a trainer. But, I saw more and people get injured or people would sign up a four-week trial program and they’d disappear after two weeks. I slowly realized my programming sucked. As a result, I started studying programming from Alywn Cosgrove, Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle and many others. If you aren’t following those guys you are missing out on some great knowledge.

Because of what I learned, I now keep the HIIT to every couple of days and focus more on strength and power with all my clients. Since my client base is predominately women in their late 30s to mid 50’s, I have to focus on what is going to make them move and feel better, get them stronger, and of course, leaner.

I primarily run medium sized group training; we do a lot of kettlebell deadlifts, swings, rows and squats. The ladies seem to be less intimidated by the bells versus a barbell and they are more willing to attempt heavier lifts. Using kettlebells (also bodyweight and resistance bands) helps them to get stronger and used to moving weights around. They also get their heart rate up so there isn’t as much need to do a lot of HIIT training.

Now that you have over 101 conditioning workouts in hand (or on your phone) it’s easy to just pick a workout and run it, then another, then another. But I want you to step back and think about using these workouts twice per week at most. How many HIIT sessions you give your clients per week depends on how many times per week they train with you and you should also take into account what else they may be doing outside the gym

For example, you train a client or group 3 days per week, say Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Have them do strength and or power on Monday and Friday with the HIIT session on Wednesday.

If you only train them twice per week I would still do strength or power both days, and make the conditioning the last part of the sessions. Take one of the conditioning workouts in the ebook and cut it in half. They’d get about 15 minutes of strength/power work and another 15 or so of conditioning with the rest for warm-ups and cool-downs.

Obviously you need to adjust the times based on how your sessions are laid out. I do about 20 minutes of “warm-ups” which includes foam rolling and pre-hab work (glute bridges, Dead bugs etc) and a little bit of dynamic work like med balls or low level plyos. Then we hit the main part of the workout for 20 minutes or so. After that we’ll do a 5 – 8 minute conditioning circuit, then stretch for the rest of the hour.

I do have some people in my groups who train 5 days per week. Typically we do Monday, Wednesday and Friday’s as I described above. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we will do some sort of conditioning workout. It might be a 20:10 or 30:15 circuit, or it might be EMOMs or ladders. I mix it up and try to keep the intensity level and the exercise selection in line with what they did the day before and what they will be doing the next day. Have a plan for your workouts over the course of four to six weeks and don’t be afraid to make changes on the fly as necessary if clients are struggling or you can tell they just need a less intense workout.

I understand that you may have clients who think that if they don’t puke, or come close, they didn’t have a good workout. Then there are others who think that using teeny tiny weights and doing a bazillion reps will get them “toned”. I hope you know that neither or those methods work. It’s your job as a coach to educate your clients on the right way to lose fat and or build muscle, strength and stamina. Of course your programming must also be based on their goals. In a group setting it can be tough but it is doable. Proper progressions and regressions allow you to customize your programming for each person in a group, and unless you have a lot of elite level athletes, everyone will get better and move closer to reaching their goals. If you do have elite athletes they shouldn’t be in your group classes unless it’s for a specific reason.

Just because you have them doesn’t mean you should do them all the time. Everything in moderation as the saying goes. And a little goes a long way so be reasonable in your use of these workouts and take your client’s training level into account when using these workouts

Example of a good conditioning workout

Exercise Progression Regression Work Rest Notes
Split Squat R Loaded Supported 30s 15s  
Split Squat L Loaded Supported 30s 15s  
Plank Super Plank   30s 15s  
Jumping Jacks   Step out instead of jumping the feet 30s 15s  
Unicycle Hold the non-working leg slightly off the floor with the leg straight   30s r/l 15s  
Kb 2 handed swing 2h high pull Hip Hinge 30s 30s  
Repeat 4-5x         Adjust the rest as needed based on clients ability and conditioning level

In the above example we hit the legs with some rest between sides to allow for recovery of the trailing leg before it works as the lead leg. When I teach Split Squats I focus on pushing through the mid foot to the heel of the lead leg to activate the glutes on that side. I try to minimize the back leg pushing but it still gets hit. By giving the trailing leg a chance to recover before making it the lead leg your clients should be able to complete the interval without stopping.

 If your client has a tough time with the split squat have them hold the handles of a suspension system or something else they can use to stabilize with. As their legs and core get stronger they should be able to stop using the support.

From there we target the abs and upper body with a forearm plank. It’s a low level exercise and will let the client get their HR and breathing back down a bit while still hitting the core and upper body. Those who can hold a good plank for a long time, should do the super plank. This going from a forearm plank to the top of a pushup by placing the hands on the floor where the elbows were then going back down to the forearms. This is a lot tougher for the upper body and core than a plank. Focus should be on keeping the hips from shifting and maintaining the plank/neutral spine.

Getting back up off the ground is work in itself for some people so I like switching between standing and ground based movements. The Jumping Jacks are a low-level active recovery exercise; they should allow the client to get their breathing down while they continue to move. If they can’t jump for whatever reason, have them step one foot to the side when the hands come up. Bring the feet back together when the hands come down the repeat on the other side.

Back to the ground for some core work. The unicycles are a little bit of thoracic flexion, a little rotation, and some hip flexion and extension. The movement is a cross body pattern; the left elbow and right knee come together. They are tough and get the heart rate up quickly. You have to make sure the client doesn’t do more than lift the shoulder off the floor. I emphasize bringing the knee up to meet the elbow in the centerline rather than trying to bring the elbow to the knee. It a subtle difference but usually keeps the client from lifting the torso off the floor.

After that, we get back up and grab a kettlebell for 2 handed swings. You can make this more “cardio” by going lighter and being active on the back swing or make it more strength/power by using a heavier bell and focusing on the explosive hip snap.

For those clients who can do swing well and have the “wind” should progress to the 2 hand high pull. This is a swing but at the top you retract the shoulder blades and bring the thumbs to the forehead. You then push the bell forward and let it arc back through the legs. The arms straighten out as the bell travels through the legs.

If your clients can’t do swings for whatever reason have them practice the hip hinge. This is just the swing movement without weight, sometimes referred to as the “air” swing.

As for the intervals 30:15 is a good work to rest ratio but you might cut the rest to 10 seconds if your clients are up and ready without showing signs of too much fatigue. On the other hand if they are barely ready to go by the end of the 15 second rest period you may need to increase it to 20 seconds. You may also adjust the rest between sets too. Watch your clients and see how quickly they recover and adjust things accordingly. There is nothing wrong with making these kinds of modifications in the middle of a workout. In fact a smart trainer should be doing just that, especially with a one-on-one client. In groups you have to learn to gauge the overall fatigue level of the group. You will always have some that gas early and others that never seem to get tired. Throw those out and go with the majority. In the long run you and your clients will benefit from doing just the right amount of work and not getting run into the floor

As you can see it’s not about killing your client, making them puke or otherwise run them down. Conditioning, and training in general, is about making people move better and feel better. Helping them get stronger so they can live a better, more active life.

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