Base Building: Conditioning

Base Building: Conditioning

As an athlete begins barbell training, ensuring the training plan is all-encompassing and leaves no aspect of physical performance untrained is important. Too often, individuals become totally focused on gaining strength and mass while neglecting their conditioning. Doing so ultimately limits gains in strength and size because these individuals lack the conditioning necessary to escalate training and tolerate increased levels of training intensity, volume, and density.

At Westside, we have long understood the importance of improving conditioning to allow athletes to escalate training. For many years, Lou stressed the importance of GPP and conditioning work, which has become as much a part of the Conjugate Method as the max, dynamic, and repeated effort methods. Not only will a high level of conditioning allow an athlete to escalate training continuously, but it will also allow an athlete to recover properly each training week.

Simply put, athletes who fail to improve their overall physical conditioning set themselves up to hit a wall in training. Whether this means training can no longer be escalated or recovery timelines begin to extend, a lack of physical conditioning will place limitations on training that cannot be solved with the barbell.

To become the best athlete you can be, you must address all aspects of strength and conditioning. Below, we will discuss a few simple ways to improve your level of conditioning without having to make drastic changes to your overall training plan. Here are a few simple ways you can modify training to become a better-conditioned athlete.

Training Density

For beginners, it is crucial to take small steps when attempting to improve physical conditioning. Considering a beginner will already be dealing with having to learn new movements, deal with new types of physical stress, and manage recovery, we don't want our initial conditioning-focused modifications to drastically increase stress and recovery timelines.

As we modify training to improve conditioning, increasing the training density is one of the best ways to do so without risking disruption of barbell training and recovery. This means athletes will shorten the rest periods between sets, focusing on resting only as much as necessary to complete the next set with proper form. By doing this, we can acclimate the athlete to increased conditioning-related demands without adding additional training volume into the mix.

This is a reasonable first step in the quest to increase conditioning and will allow a coach or athlete to gauge their current overall level of conditioning. If an athlete struggles to deal with increased training density, we know we should wait to add conditioning-focused exercises. If the athlete handles the increased training density without issue, we know we can begin adding conditioning-focused work soon.

When increasing training density, it is vital to do so where it makes the most sense. For beginners, this means increasing training density during accessory exercises. Considering our main exercises already require specific intent and place a significant demand on an athlete, we want to avoid adding another layer of difficulty by forcing an athlete to take short rest periods during max or dynamic effort training.

However, as athletes become proficient in the main exercises, we can increase training density during dynamic effort training days. Max effort training days will typically be left alone, considering we want to take enough rest between sets to allow an athlete to lift the heaviest weight possible for that training day. We do not want to miss a PR top set due to excess fatigue caused by short rest periods while working up during a max effort training session.

Sled Training

Once an athlete can handle an increased level of training density, we can begin adding conditioning-focused exercises to the training plan. One of the best ways to do this is to start with sled training. The sled is an integral part of our training days at Westside Barbell, considering the variety of ways it can be used.

At Westside, we use the sled to execute warm-ups, improve work capacity, and increase conditioning levels. When used as a warm-up tool, we can execute forward and backward sled pulls using light to moderate weight to prepare for a lower body workout. During upper body training days, we can perform movements such as sled triceps extensions, sled face pulls, sled chest presses, or sled rows to prepare the upper torso for training.

We will use moderate to heavy sled weights to improve work capacity and conditioning. We often start beginners with a basic forward sled pull, typically for 10-12 trips pulled for 20-30 yards. After a few weeks of forward sled pulls, we can begin adding in sled variations such as backward sled pulls or sled pushes. Sled pushes can significantly increase the demand on an athlete, considering we can push the sled from a high or low position.

Programming sled work is simple. If used as a warm-up, we will perform the sled pulls before the start of a training session. If used to improve work capacity and conditioning, we will execute sled pulls at the end of a workout. As athletes acclimate to the demands of sled training, we can increase the exercise difficulty by performing more trips, increasing trip distance, increasing sled weight, or adding additional aspects to the sled pull, such as carrying dumbbells or a loaded safety squat bar.

Adding in a Conditioning-Focused Training Day

Another way to improve a beginner trainee's conditioning levels is to add a conditioning-focused training day. This strategy is often reserved for individuals limited to two- or three-day weekly training schedules. If an athlete new to training is executing four training days per week, with increased training density and sled work added in, there is usually no need to add a fifth training day dedicated to conditioning work.

When implementing a conditioning-focused training day, the goal is to execute 30-45 minutes of training using common cardiovascular-based exercises. For instance, an athlete can choose to use conditioning training tools such as a treadmill, assault bike, or rower, setting a time or distance goal. We can also use other training tools like belt squat walks or kettlebells to achieve conditioning goals.

Here are a few examples of basic workouts when performing a conditioning-focused training day:

Incline Treadmill Walk - 30 minutes

Assault Bike - 15 minutes + Light KB Swings - 3 x 1 minute

Rower - 1500m + Belt Squat Walk - 5 x 60 steps

Trail Hike - 45 minutes, carrying a light backpack

Treadmill Jog - 15 minutes + Treadmill Walk - 15 minutes

The idea is to keep things simple and use basic training tools and exercises to place demand on the cardiovascular system and improve an athlete's overall level of conditioning. Remember that the exercises listed above are merely suggestions and should be modified to meet the athlete's current conditioning capabilities. We want to avoid turning an additional conditioning-focused training day into a gut check. The goal is to provide worthwhile stimulus without disrupting barbell training and expected recovery timelines.

Building a Complete Athlete

Barbell training aims to increase an individual's strength while improving physical composition. However, strength and muscle mass means nothing if an athlete lacks the gas tank needed to escalate training and reach the next level of performance. An athlete's conditioning is of significant importance, with improved conditioning levels helping to expedite recovery timelines and improve overall training quality.

Aside from the training quality and recovery benefits, improved conditioning levels also help improve overall quality of life. It doesn't matter how much you can bench press or squat if walking up the steps makes you run out of breath. What sense does it make to have all that strength and size if you don't have the gas tank to display these qualities no matter the situation. 

At Westside, we have always focused on building complete athletes. We want to gain strength and muscle mass and build work capacity and conditioning levels to allow an athlete to use their strength and size to their advantage. Whether in the gym, on the field, or on the mats, we want athletes to have the gas tank required to display all their athletic skills at full speed.

The days of the out-of-shape lifter or athlete are long gone. If you want to become the best athlete you can be, get your conditioning in order.


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

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk is the Digital Content Manager at Westside Barbell and a Conjugate Method strength coach. Training and studying under Louie Simmons over the past decade, Burley has attained the experience, knowledge and understanding necessary to master the Conjugate Method.

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