As an athlete, your conditioning decides a lot about the success you’ll have in your sport. Failure to maintain proper conditioning levels relative to your sport will lead to decreased performance, loss of ability, or worse - injury.
Your overall level of conditioning is one of the foundational athletic traits that athletes must develop to realize their full potential. A high level of conditioning allows an athlete to perform better in sport, train at higher levels of volume and intensity, and recover faster post-workout. No matter the sport, an athlete with a high level of conditioning will always have the advantage when building strength and sports skills.
Today, thanks to the popularization of CrossFit, the mindset people have regarding conditioning training has changed. Formerly, most assumed that you must sprint, run, or use machines dedicated to cardiovascular endurance development such as a treadmill to improve your conditioning. Now, the average person understands that conditioning can be improved using exercises commonly associated with strength training.
Using a barbell to build conditioning provides a higher level of beneficial stimulus to an athlete, forcing the athlete to accomplish more meaningful work than a treadmill or bike. Instead of focusing solely on cardiovascular development, we can develop multiple traits and abilities simultaneously.
Barbell conditioning exercises not only challenge the cardiovascular system, but the musculoskeletal system also benefits from high rep training, which causes positive training adaptations for the muscles, tendons, and ligaments depending on the selected exercise.
Instead of wasting time on a treadmill focusing solely on one athletic trait, you must choose exercises that provide multiple benefits. Unless you run marathons or cross-country, you should avoid any coach that thinks endless amounts of running is a wise choice when developing your overall physical conditioning.
Here are a few barbell exercises we use at Westside Barbell to raise the overall conditioning levels of athletes:
High Rep Box Squats
The name is self-explanatory; this exercise aims to develop overall cardiovascular endurance while specifically targeting the lower body. The ideal box height is either parallel or slightly below. It is recommended to refrain from using a low box during this exercise.
This exercise can also be performed using different stances, specialty bars, or accommodating resistance setups to alter the training effect or increase the difficulty of the movement.
SSB Belt Squats
This exercise can be grueling and is a great way to condition football players and fighters. The SSB belt squat stresses two specific places that experience a great amount of demand in sport; the hips and the upper torso.
SSB belt squats force an athlete to deal with multiple problems, focusing on keeping the hips engaged while maintaining a braced trunk to keep the chest elevated to manage the SSB. The goal is to maintain proper hip and trunk tension while executing clean and controlled repetitions.
If you want to become tough to knock off balance or take down, this exercise can help you.
SSB Sled Drags
To enhance your conditioning, you must get a sled involved. However, there comes the point where athletes progress and will need to be challenged further while performing sled drags. This is where the SSB comes in.
If you’ve trained athletes using a sled, you know that athletes can begin to go through the motions with their sled drags after a while. Instead of focusing on foot strikes and stride length, sled drags turn into a walk in the park. When the SSB is added in, the athlete is forced out of their comfort zone.
Similar to the SSB belt squats, using the SSB during sled drags will force you to maintain a positive brace in the trunk throughout the exercise. With this added focus, you will notice athletes suddenly perform their sled drags with more discipline, and the benefits associated with sled drags are enhanced.
At Westside, we will substitute a wheelbarrow instead of a sled. If you have access to a wheelbarrow, it is also recommended to include it in your conditioning plan.
With most conditioning exercises primarily focusing on the lower body, it is important to include conditioning exercises that also challenge the upper body. The push press is a great option to develop overall physical strength and conditioning.
Proper execution of a push press involves the entire body. You must accelerate the weight by bending at the knees and pushing the weight up, using your legs, trunk, upper torso, and arms to accomplish the task.
The push press is one of the most excellent full-body exercises you can perform. Few exercises compare when you consider the number of muscle groups involved in a push press. For this reason, it is a great exercise to include when improving overall conditioning with a barbell is the goal.
How to Program
Programming barbell conditioning work is relatively simple. These exercises should be performed at the end of your workout, as we do with most GPP work. As far as sets and reps go, that will depend solely on the athlete. Remember, the goal is to train and improve your conditioning, not destroy yourself and increase your recovery demands.
For barbell movements, it is recommended to start by performing three AMRAP sets. Keep track of your best rep count, which becomes your goal to beat every time you perform that specific exercise. As your PR improves, you are forced to challenge yourself further. This keeps the athlete accountable using easily-trackable training data, not just turning them loose for a stroll around the parking lot with a sled.
For movements involving a sled or a wheelbarrow, you can choose to count trips or time. When counting trips, distance is important. Your initial workout will be ten trips at a distance you know you can accomplish with some difficulty. When counting time, you will perform the exercise continuously for a specific time. Initial exercise time will differ depending on the athlete; however, our athletes typically begin using two minutes.
As you progress, you can either increase the weight used, the distance traveled, the number of trips performed, or the amount of time to enhance the difficulty of these exercises. Remember that your success with any of the exercises mentioned above depends on how you program and perform these exercises.
Don’t be fooled into running until you puke. Ideal sports conditioning involves much more than just running. If you are not using a barbell, you are missing out on many additional conditioning benefits that will improve your athletic performance and lower your risk of injury.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.