Heavy Conditioning

A one stop shop for strength and cardio

Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

Muscle mass and heart health are two of the best predictors of longevity and quality of life as you age. And both of them can be improved with exercise, but often we think of them as separate: do cardio like running or cycling for your heart, and lift some weights for muscle mass.

But what if I told you that you could do both at the same time?

Conditioning is one of those fitness terms that often doesn’t have a clear definition. Called “General Physical Preparation (GPP)” by some, “Metabolic Conditioning (MetCon)” by others, or simply working on “Work Capacity”, conditioning is training that seeks to fatigue your respiratory, cardiovascular, and muscular systems all at once. Unlike traditional cardio, conditioning focuses on manipulating resistance while your heart and lungs are telling you to stop, and doing that until you can’t anymore.

What I call “heavy conditioning” is the type of conditioning that uses decently heavy external loads with a focus on increasing how much weight you’re using — and as a side effect it improves your strength and cardiovascular fitness with one big bang-for-your-buck session.

Heavy Conditioning

Now that we know about what conditioning is and why we’d do it, let’s take a look at some specifics. I’ve already covered two methods of heavy conditioning here at Medium:

  • Complexes are a way to convert basic gym lifts into conditioning exercises, by doing things back to back and minimizing rest. Typical complexes use only a single barbell, one or two dumbbells or kettlebells, or an odd object like a sandbag or keg. If you want to get a lot of work done with only a single implement, this is where you want to be.

  • Density Training is another method to convert typical gym work into conditioning work — this time by doing only one or two exercises on a clock, aiming to get more work in the same time period (or the same work done in less time).

The above two are tried and true methods to cover whole body conditioning work without drifting too far away from what you may already be doing in the gym. But what else is there?

Carries and Sleds

The simplest and probably best form of heavy conditioning is the easiest to explain: you take some heavy thing and pick it up, push it, or drag it over there, then repeat a few times. There are many ways to carry things, and just as many ways to push or pull things, but the idea is always the same.

The most obvious questions people ask, then, are “how far?” or “how long?”. There’s no real answer to this — distance will be based on the space you have available. Begin with something of moderate weight and just go “down and back” to get a feel for things. You can change the type of carry you’re doing at either end of your route. Work on increasing this load from session to session.

Tip: Use Density Training methods with carries and sled work, focusing on doing as much work as you can in a set time, then working to increase it from session to session before increasing load.

Hill or Stair Sprints

Running, even sprinting, tends to fall into the realm of traditional cardio more than conditioning. Sprinting on its own is a great exercise and can do a lot for you. But there’s this one weird trick we can apply to move it into the realm of heavy conditioning: sprint up a hill or long run of stairs.

Hill and stair sprints are interesting in that they limit your maximum acceleration — which serves to reduce sprinting injury — and force you into a forward leaning posture to help with general sprinting technique. They literally force you to be a better sprinter.

Performing hill or stair sprints is easy — find a hill or long straight run of stairs, like at a stadium. Taking it easy for the first few trips, run up to the top, then walk down. After two or three slower trips, begin sprinting as hard as you can each trip. Use the walk down to recover, and run back up as soon as you’re able.

Tip: You don’t need a lot of this form of sprinting to get benefits from it. 3–10 sprints is probably sufficient. It’s exhausting, though, so do these at the end of a longer workout if you’re combining it with other things.


Rucking is the term military-like folks use for walking with a bunch of heavy gear in a backpack (or “rucksack”). For us recreational folks, it means getting a decent pack that won’t tear, and filling it with heavy stuff (bags of sand or cement from a home improvement store work great).

Most people will want to start with around 15–30% of their bodyweight in a pack, and walk for 15–30 minutes. If you’re not used to this much walking, start on the low end. Regardless of how many times you ruck over a week, you will increase either the load by 5% or the time by 5 minutes each week. I’d probably set the limit at 60% bodyweight and 60 minutes, but you might prefer longer or heavier walks. Each ruck should be brisk, without running.

Tip: Rucking is somewhat passive. It’s a great activity for off days or recovery. Throwing on a backpack for an after dinner walk is a great way to get some heavy conditioning work in without it feeling as intensive as the other options here.


Cardiovascular health and muscle mass are two of the most important cornerstones of physical health and fitness. Most folks that train focus on one of these, and those that focus on both usually seem to separate them into separate things. But eventually this training can get stagnant —whether you run or lift, it eventually becomes something commonplace you “just do”. Replacing these things with some sessions of heavy conditioning is a way to embrace what sucks and become a better you.

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