Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Elements of a Strength and Conditioning Program

You want to start exercising on a regular basis. You want to TRAIN for a goal. Maybe fat loss, muscular strength, or to run a 5k. You need a program that's designed for YOU - not something you picked up in the latest issue of muscle and fiction magazine.

This article will discuss the elements required to build a strength and conditioning program.

Building a Strength and Conditioning Program

Any good exercise program will have fundamental building blocks of fitness. By this I mean a good exercise program will focus on developing the following characteristics:
  • Joint Mobility & Stability
  • Muscular Strength & Endurance
  • Cardiovascular Endurance
  • Improved Work Capacity (Short-term high-intensity tolerance)
  • Mental Toughness
Using these 5 basic characteristics, you can program a fitness plan to meet any goal (fat loss, sport training, general health). Let's look at each characteristic individually so we can better understand how to train for them.

Joint Mobility & Stability

Before we can stress the body with new exercises, we need to make sure each joint can handle the movements. Believe it or not, most of us aren't able to move the same way elite athletes can move. So why do we try to instantly copy their workout routines from websites and magazines? We first need to address mobility and stability.

Joint Mobility - The ability of the joint to move through it's entire range of motion. For example, the shoulder should be able to go fully overhead without having to strain. You should be able to raise your arms overhead without pushing your neck forward, straining your lower back, or compensating ("cheating") the movement. A recent article from Tony Gentilcore on T-nation addresses this topic and provides an illustration.

On the left - Excessive forward head and lower back arch.
On the right - No "cheating" or movement compensation patterns.

Joint Stability - The ability of the joint to move through the range of motion while maintaining it's structure. Basically, if you feel like your knee is "sliding around" when you bend or stand out of a chair, this is a lack of joint stability. This could be due to structural damage (the ligaments have been torn or the cartilage worn out), or a lack of proper muscular control (the quads are in-proportionately stronger than the hamstrings). 

Lack of joint mobility and stability can limit the availability of certain exercises, but with proper exercise selection we can improve these characteristics. 

Muscular Strength and Endurance

Muscular Strength - The ability of the muscle to produce a force against a resistance across a moment arm (joint). In this case, we're using the physics term of "moment arm".

Muscular Endurance - The ability of muscle to sustain force production utilizing short-term metabolic pathways to produce energy and resist fatigue. 

The ability of the muscles to produce force (and sustain that force) is crucial for posture, proper movements, sport performance, and overall health. Muscular strength is not just about being able to bench press 200lbs for a single rep (although that is an aspect of strength), it's also about the proper balance of strength.

Most good exercises require multiple body parts. Take the squat for instance. I've written about why I use the squat so much, but it does a great job at building both muscular strength and endurance in the legs, core, and upper body. In addition, it focuses on joint stability and mobility in the hips, knees, and ankles. A good squat requires a lot of physical ability. 

But muscular strength has even more benefits to the average person. Imbalances in muscular strength due to inactivity can directly affect your posture and your health. People who are constantly sitting and working on computers have a forward "slouched" position. This position shortens the front of the shoulders, and elongates / weakens the rear part of the shoulder. In short, it causes a neanderthal look.

Up Next: Shoulder pain, impingement, rotator cuff injuries,
back pain, knee instability, and cardiac arrest.

By properly selecting the right exercises based on your posture and joint mechanics, we can help reduce these imbalances and prevent injuries from happening. Furthermore, by training muscular strength and endurance, we can improve sport performance and reduce the build-up of fatigue within the muscles. 

Cardiovascular Endurance

The ability of the heart and lungs to provide sufficient blood flow and oxygen to the working tissues is required for overall health and athletic performance. Basically, if you can't provide fuel to the machines, they stop working.

Cardiovascular endurance also plays a significantly huge role in our health and longevity in regards to aging and premature death. I've written about the health benefits of exercise in previous articles. You can read about it HERE.

Improving cardiovascular endurance can be done in many ways - long distance, slow-intensity endurance training (running / swimming / biking) is just one method. Cardiovascular endurance can also be trained with short-term high-intensity exercises, circuits, and even some forms of weightlifting.

Even if your sport is 100% anaerobic (explosive, short-term, high-intensity), training for cardiovascular endurance can improve your recovery between workouts and improve overall performance.

Improved Work Capacity

Work Capacity - The amount of work which can be done in a given time. Think "As many reps as possible in 5 minutes". I find most people don't have a sufficient work capacity to train toward a simple weight-loss goal. Let alone elite athlete status. Let me give you an example:

Jake is a 16 year old kid who can't do a single pushup, but wants to look like the bodybuilders in the magazines. He buys an issue of muscle and fitness, turns to page 16 for the latest "bodybuilding workout". He's told to do 25 reps of pushups between bench press sessions in a single workout to help build his chest muscles. 

Do you think Jake can handle that workout? Probably not - his work capacity is too low.

C'mon Jake. Don't be a wimp...

In this case, just getting Jake to do a single pushup would be a 100% increase in "sport performance." This is why each fitness program must be build specifically for the individual to see maximum results. 

To build work capacity, I first start with basic stuff. Can you jog for 3 minutes straight? Can you do 15 bodyweight squats without stopping? Can you do a simple bodyweight circuit for 5 minutes? These are all examples of gradually increasing work capacity so that future workouts can be more productive. It's a slow-gradual process and there is NO SHORTCUT.

Mental Toughness

The last aspect of a good fitness program is the hardest for most people to grasp. It's simple 
  1. Do hard work.   
  2. Don't make excuses. 
  3. Don't quit. 
  4. Don't complain. 

Actually, I don't mind complaining as long as you do the first three.

Mental toughness is something that has to be earned. It can't be given. However, I find the people with the most mental toughness are the ones who survive the first few stages of the strength and conditioning programs.

If you can get past the initial soreness, time-management, and general fatigue, you'll be on your way to seeing the results you want deserve.

All the best,


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