Stop Skipping the Sweaty Stuff. Try "Tag -On Conditioning"
For most exercise enthusiasts, performing conditioning drills at the end of a arduous training session is about as fun as going to the Dentist on a Monday morning for a voluntary root canal. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable.
Honestly, it sucks.
There you are, an hour into your training session…You’ve squatted the squats, lifted the dead, and thrown more pull-ups into your program than a newborn baby. You are tired. You are hungry.
You are done…
Oh well shit, you still have another twenty minutes of conditioning. The high-intensity interval training that’s supposed to burn all the fat off your body faster than an open flame. Yeah, the stuff that uses equipment named “Assault” – an appropriate description if there ever was one.
There are those ten rounds of bike sprints that can make even the biggest atheist start searching for divine intervention. Then, after a short recovery, you must find that lovely Concept 2 ski erg – you know, the machine that makes you look like you are ripping down curtains, for time…
Upon completion you are relegated to lying on the floor breathing to survive, fighting nausea, and repeating your name and blood type out loud…just in case you close your eyes and wake up in the local hospital. You are trashed, but not in the fun, college-kid-on-too-many-white-claws way that at least gives you a story to tell with your suffering.
No, you feel like goo.
Your muscles are tired from the lift and your cardiovascular system is overrevved and desperate to increase your blood oxygen levels (while lowering the carbon dioxide concentration). Your nervous system feels akin to surviving a few rounds of a taser wielded by your local police department. Your gastrointestinal system is disarray. Your liver is busy processing metabolites and buffering various nutrients and coenzymes to ensure you survive.
Oh, and don’t forget how you’ll feel the rest of the day. Sure, in about an hour you are going to feel higher than a raver on day one of Burning Man. That dopamine is “gonna slap” as our lovely Gen. Z says…
But after that?
You’ll probably feel dead inside after you eat your first big meal of the day. Your body, desperate for oxygen, nutrient-replenishment, and a general reset of the central nervous system is going to try to put you down faster than Will Ferrell with a tranquillizer dart. Just a few hours and a thousand calories stand between you and the “itis”.
Goodbye productivity, personality, and any other ability to function at a higher level, at least for a little while. You'll work through your day and find a groove that allows you to be successful and contribute to greater society, but you won't be feel your best.
And you already know that tomorrow you are going to feel it. You’ll notice the muscle soreness while you turn over during the night, and especially so when your bare feet find the cold floor when you wake. You’ll feel the neural fatigue as you sip your caffeine of choice to no avail – and you’ll notice the biochemical disruption in your thirst, hunger, and general wellbeing.
All of this in the name of being more “elite” with your fitness routine. Do more, get more, as they say. You pushed all your chips into the pot and now you have to play the hand you're dealt.
Butchered Science Sucks
Not content with only challenging your body with a demanding lifting routine – the addition of the high effort, long duration conditioning at the end of the session was the cherry on top of your proverbial sundae. Science will justify this if you take that cherry and start using to pick through the data.
You can quote the classic calories-in, calories-out argument, otherwise known as energy balance. You can highlight how your EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis) was so high that it’s OK that your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) was a bit lower the rest of the day. You can look at the sum of total calories burned, compare to your calories consumed, and be excited about the probability of contributing to losing that all-so-important pound-of-fat this week.
Except, recent studies that track weight-loss and fat-loss training programs have noted that the most important factors for success are NOT the workout intensity/duration.
Instead, the number of calories burned via the NEAT pathway (AKA – be active through the day doing tasks like walking to your coworker’s desk to handle an issue instead of sending another damn email) have a greater correlation with long-term weight loss.
You could also highlight the favorite science-flex of graduating kinesiology students and newly certified personal trainers around the world – EPOC! Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption has long been used as the justification for high-intensity interval training.
Hell, an entire brand exists on the “theory” of getting into a specific zone and maintaining it for the bulk of the workout to maximize EPOC.
In short, the science of EPOC states that the greater oxygen debt created during the workout (do hard shit, barely catch your breath, and do it again) …the greater the deficit maintained post-workout. This deficit is then backfilled over the next 24-48 hours through your normal cadence of breathing and recovery. Sleep is necessary.
Yet, recent data suggests that this phenomenon is not as phenomenal as we once thought. While still TRUE – it isn’t the magic pill that so many thought it was. In fact, in a world where most individuals who are training hard for fat loss aren’t doing so with proper recovery – chasing EPOC could lead to long-term metabolic issues. The “on/off switch” of metabolic output can be an excellent jump-start to a fitness program and can be used in a shortened time frame when weight must be lost quickly…
But it isn’t meant to be a long-term strategy for weight management and body composition. It’s even worse when we factor in the diets that are often associated with this lifestyle and training methodology.
"So, what are you saying Mullins?"
One thousand words into an article and all you’ve got to show for it are cheesy puns and a rant. You might even feel ready to disagree with the sentiments above because you’ve trained this way and don’t feel like this is an issue. Maybe you think I don’t like conditioning (I do when I follow protocols like those outlined in this article).
The fact is, you need to train high intensity intervals (assuming you are healthy, capable of safely executing them and are cleared by your physician.) They are a piece of the fitness puzzle that far too many exercise enthusiasts omit from their training programs. It is the discomfort in training that changes our body after all.
The key is about frequency, intensity, and duration metrics.
Far too many people who do conditioning drills are looking to max out each of these variables in every conditioning session. They want to do twenty to thirty minutes of intervals between 82-95% of their maximum heart rate three-to-four times a week. It’s the classic fitness folly: “do more, and I’ll get more”.
Initially, there will be results. There will probably be AMAZING results. Put simply, adding anything into your training at that range of effort and with that frequency will cause the entire system to freak out and adapt. But that’s in the short term.
Long term, this same level of intensity, duration, and frequency starts to wear on the body and make it harder to see improvements continue. As the body fatigues and breaks down from the stress – it won’t have the ability to positively adapt without an absolute commitment to recovery and nutrition (think of a professional CrossFit athlete’s routine).
Like nearly all things in life, there is a healthy middle ground.
"In the case of conditioning, we know that can push ourselves hard, sometimes. We also know we can push ourselves kind of hard, sometimes. And we also know that we can push ourselves very little, sometimes."
Together this all adds up to a highly beneficial training program that is optimized to burn fat, improve metabolic conditioning, and decrease your risk of overtraining associated issues.
Time to Play TAG
This is where the idea of “Tag-Along” training is very useful.
A tag-along is a programmatic emphasis that takes 8 minutes or less at the end of a training session that runs very opposite to the primary focus of the program itself. To paint a more vivid picture; this is adding hill sprints to the end of an upper body push/pull day or adding pushups to failure to the end of a heavy deadlift day.
In essence, the entire goal of this training methodology is to add a challenging, yet opposite, stimulus to the trainee before the cessation of the session. It's a great way to get in the work you don’t want to do a lot of, but know you’ll benefit from.
Most studies that look at optimal ranges of high-intensity interval training protocols and their benefits point to the sweet spot being somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes per week.
Add another 45 to 60 minutes of steady-state, low-intensity cardio per week and you’ll find that your entire cardiovascular training program is in check. This all-in addition to your resistance training and your pain-free mobility and corrective work, of course.
Regarding your high intensity intervals, the tag-along method parameters show us that we can add 8 minutes to the end of every training session to reap the benefits of conditioning without overtaxing our body.
If you are weight-training four to five days per week, then the math takes care of itself. You’ll do your training session as you’ve always done, then set the timer to eight minutes and choose whatever vehicle of destruction you like (or don’t like) to nail down your need for higher heart rate training.
Think about it…
Why do 30 minutes of suffering once per week only to see the benefits diminish over time when you can do eight minutes every workout and never stop seeing growth in your output and loss in your body fat totals?
Here is what that looks like programmatically:
Hinge, Pull and Core
8 Minutes Ski Erg (85% MHR)
Upper Push and Pull
8 Minutes Sprints (90% MHR)
Aerobic Recovery Cardio
Single Leg and Rotation
8 Minutes Rowing (80% MHR)
Full Body Training 1
8 Minutes Assault Bike (95% MHR)
Full Body Training 2
8 Minutes Sled Push/Pull (85-95% MHR)
Stretching and Recovery
The above program template ensures that you avoid throwing too much stress at your body in a single session, thus improving your recovery and the remaining workouts of the week. You’ll maximize the rewards while minimizing the risk. That’s the winning recipe in life.
Of Course, you have Questions:
On weeks where you can’t train as frequently?
You can either lower that week’s total time spent in your highest heart rates (ideal if you are feeling worn down or life is particularly tough), or you can double up and do sixteen minutes in one of your training sessions (if you feel great and want the challenge).
On days where you feel like you have a little extra in the tank?
You can add a few extra minutes to the challenge but avoid going over 16 total minutes IF you resistance trained that day as well. Your body doesn’t want both stressors at max volume.
On days where you don’t feel like lifting and just want to handle your conditioning?
Then go for a full half hour. Challenge yourself to push the entire session. Simply be wise in the following days and allow your cardiovascular and neurological system a chance to recover.
What if you don’t resistance train frequently and focus on your cardio? What does that program look like?
Simply replace all those complicated lifting breakouts with your distance or pace cardio events. Remember, you should be lifting at LEAST twice per week when training cardiovascular endurance to ensure your bones, muscles, and nervous system receive adequate stress.
What if you can’t do 8 minutes of conditioning in a single “tag-along”?
Start with 4 minutes of work, no less unless dictated by your medical professional or trainer. Do higher intensity intervals that only last twenty seconds while still doing sixty to ninety seconds of recovery. The goal should be to develop the ability to perform at a 1:1 work: rest ratio at the 8 minutes.
Ultimately, do what you can and work your way up to the higher totals.
Conditioning is a necessary element of your training protocol. Very necessary, honestly. Too many people skip doing the hard, and uncomfortable, work in their training sessions and wonder why they still have the stubborn body fat or are stuck on a plateau with no new results.
Yet so many others are out there literally breaking their body down. Long, arduous lifting sessions are followed by high intensity intervals that last for nearly a half hour (or more). Or they mix intervals in between their challenging lifts in the name of CrossFit.
Neither extreme is desirable for long term health benefits. Neither extreme has proven “healthy” for body composition except for those who are capable (and willing) to build their entire life around their training routines.
So, for the rest of us, which by the way is MOST of us, there is a better solution to solving all of our conditioning problems. Eight minutes at the end of the session, “tag-along” style is all you need to advance your fitness levels and avoid burnout. Eight minutes of work and you’ll be ready to play at a higher level than ever.