Training can involve numerous components depending on the trainee, desired outcome, and their experience, among other things. I’ve mentioned this before but more often than not I deal with people who don’t have a high training age. And, for that matter some may have a few years under their belt but not within any kind of quality program. That being said this post is about conditioning, intervals, cardio. Call it what you will. For numerous reasons, which I will not address at this time, I believe relatively short duration bursts of high intensity work followed by some sort of rest is the most effective way to not only get in “better shape”, whatever that may mean to you, but also prepare most team sport athletes.
I personally prefer to keep the higher skill work at the beginning of the workout where it can be executed at a high level of speed and strength as opposed to the end where fatigue may play a factor. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. The focus is always on quality. 2. I don’t want a high number of fatigue-enhanced reps performed at low quality because then low quality becomes the standard and potential for injury increases. It’s not uncommon to see high repetition push ups, squats or lunges used as a method of conditioning to make people really feel the burn. In my opinion almost all athletes/clients need to practice and further master such movements as a deep squat, push up, lunge, pull up or a jump and land, which is precisely the reason I choose not to program them as conditioning. To me those are almost always a strength exercise. Variations of those movements are really the center of most programs I design. I prefer that each person perform a small number of high quality reps, then another movement and repeat, throughout the training session prior to conditioning. As just one example, a basketball player does plenty of jumping during practice and games. That athlete may practice a few reps with me during a training session but certainly not at a high volume or as conditioning. There are much better choices if the goal is to leave someone gasping for air. At the end of the training session focus can be directed more towards an all out effort/pushing yourself with less emphasis on technique required from the coach or the athlete. Remember, just because someone can doesn’t mean they should.
So this interval training/conditioning thing is gaining popularity. How should it be done? Regular cardio equipment can work with my favorite choices being the Schwinn Airdyne or a Versaclimber (maybe not typical at most gyms although they should be). My favorites for most novices include sled pushes, heavy ropes, medicine ball slams, burpees (many times without the push up), the slideboard, shuttles and medicine ball complexes. For those that are more skilled, kettlebell swings and kettlebell complexes are a great choice. The important thing to note is that all the novice activities are self-limiting. Either your legs keep moving that sled or they don’t. Pedal the bike fast or don’t. It’s pretty difficult to hurt yourself while doing those things but yet an all-out effort can be put forth. The kettlebell work takes slightly more skill that is acquired through repetition. Not necessarily high repetition but higher volume over time (a.k.a. skill practice).
The lesson here is this, my experience has shown me that many athletes and coaches believe that if they are getting tired from the “cardio/interval” portion of their training then it must be good. To that I say, maybe. There are still good and bad choices based on the strength level and experience of the athlete as well as some things I just wouldn’t suggest for anyone regardless of how it makes them feel.
– Mike Baltren