Conditioning Circuit Design
Greg Everett

Nathan Says: Hi Greg and Aimee, Before I ask a question, I'd just like to say thank you for all the knowledge you have provided in your book. It is simply the best book on the market and will be for a long time to come. It has made me a better athlete, but more importantly, a better coach for it. Thank You.

I have always been an advocate of the shorter conditioning circuit as opposed to the 20+ minutes popularized by CrossFit. The short circuits you prescribe after the workouts are excellent and a great finisher. Do you have a template for the design of these or are certain goals considered before assigning exercises to the circuit?

Greg Says: This is a great question and I hope I can give you an explanation that makes sense enough to be helpful. The process for me is not very regimented, so I’m going to just make up some steps to see if I can make it simple and clear.

First, how I approach designing a workout depends very much on whom the workout is for and what the goals of the program are. This is rule number one: if you’re not taking into consideration the athlete or client and what they want or need to accomplish, you’re missing the point. If the client’s primary goal is not related to conditioning (the workouts I post on this site would fall into this category), what is the primary goal? This is going to be the foundation of the program and the conditioning workouts will need to be designed in a way that they don’t interfere with it and ideally complement it. In the case of the workouts here, that usually means very little conditioning work for the legs because this tends to have a dramatic effect on leg strength and speed.

Next, I have certain bases I want to cover in any given situation. One, I want to balance the work done in the basic movements like upper body push, upper body pull, hip hinging, etc. Within the upper body push and pull, I want to balance vertical and horizontal movements. When I say balance in this instance, I don’t necessarily mean matching volumes, but just keeping the relative amounts in mind and making sure nothing is neglected while the things needed most are emphasized appropriately. As an example, in a week of conditioning work on the site, I generally make sure I have at least one upper body push and one upper body pull exercise; over the course of a cycle I try to keep things fairly in balance. I do consider what has been done in the strength workout as well; for example, if there were push presses in the main workout, I’m probably not going to put a bunch of upper body pushing into the conditioning workout, and if I do, it will most likely be horizontally oriented.

Another consideration is what kind of duration, volume and intensity I’m looking for. When it comes to the site workouts, generally I will put in more volume earlier in a cycle, just like with the strength work. This doesn’t necessarily mean longer duration, just more total reps of non-monostructural exercises. I will bump up the duration of workouts by using monostructural work like rowing, jumping rope or running rather than increasing the rep volume of exercises—this allows me to get a bit more of an endurance lean without totally annihilating people in a counterproductive manner. I often also start doing more monostructural work toward the end of a cycle to keep the conditioning in without taxing the athlete as much.

For other individuals, usually I will still start with more volume, but also longer duration, and progress to briefer and more intense conditioning workouts as the strength work follows the same progression (this is what you would see in the programming for the fitness classes at Catalyst, for example).

I never use the barbell Olympic lifts in conditioning workouts, with the exception of maybe power cleans up to 5 reps in a barbell complex for a client who is experienced and reasonably proficient with the lift. I see no reason to include them in conditioning work, and quite a few reasons not to. I prefer to use dumbbell or sandbag variations of the Olympic lifts.

There are certain other exercises that may be great in isolation but a bad idea within a conditioning workout, and others that straddle the line. Box jumps are example of the latter – you’ll notice that if I put box jumps in a conditioning workout, it’s usually no more than 5 reps at a time and often it will be following a programmed rest period. You’ll probably notice that I rely on a fairly small pool of exercises that I find to be most effective, safe and accessible. I’ve made the point before and I’ll make it again here that I believe more work with fundamental exercises will carry over into more complex ones without the same risks (as an example, someone who is strong and mobile can knock out muscle-ups without practicing muscle-ups constantly).

For the classes at Catalyst, I do literally have a template that my coaches follow if they’re designing a cycle. This template lays out the strength program in full detail, and then defines various parameters to guide the design of the conditioning and supplemental work each day. It basically just helps ensure that the above points are covered and that our clients are getting exposed to a balanced collection of exercises, appropriate volume and intensity, and enough variety.

Also you can see this article I did recently that has some more information regarding conditioning workout design. Hope this provides a little help.

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Nathan Greaves
January 11 2012
Thank you for the in depth answer and thanks for the quick response. Now to put it into practice!
Steven Platek
January 11 2012
Thanks. This is just what I needed as I've started a new O-lifting cycle. I've been struggling with what conditioning to do, when, how much, etc. This helps a lot. thanks!
February 11 2012
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