The word cardio is thrown around a lot when it comes to general population. People who participate in sports use conditioning intervals often. However, when it comes down to it, there aren’t many differences. Cardio is usually a for m of exercise to increase aerobic capacity and overall healthy while trying to get in shape and lose fat(not really the best way, but I digress…). Conditioning intervals are used when an athlete needs to increase specific aerobic capacity for their sport and maybe even make a weight class.
So, they are pretty interchangeable. For the sake of this article, we are going to say that there are a few notable differences.
- Cardio is non-specific (doesn’t help skills in the weight room). Conditioning intervals are as specific as we can get (movement patterns mimic common weight training movements).
- Cardio is more of the LISS variety. Conditioning intervals are more like HIIT, or exactly like HIIT is more like it.
- Cardio is getting your heart rate up to a certain range and keeping it there for a long duration. Conditioning will be blasting your heart rate sky high for a very short interval and resting until you reach a baseline heart rate before repeating the interval
Post-Workout Heart Rate Recovery(HRR) Conditioning Intervals For The Win
You know I’m about efficiency and optimizing training and nutritional protocols. I optimize my workouts to be short, intense, and to the point, removing all the fluff. That’s the main reason I recommend doing your conditioning intervals in the same session as your lifting.
That isn’t the only reason to do it post-workout however. While this topic isn’t 100% validated (yet), research has shown that fat burning is higher when cardio is done after weight training, as compared to cardio before weights. There are also more reasons, less to do with science and more to do with common sense to convince you that cardio/conditioning after weight training is the best idea.
HIIT is not a trend. It is definitely something that should be staying for the long haul. According to research, aerobic capacity, skeletal muscle oxidative capacity, and markers of disease risk are all improved with as little as 3 HIIT sessions per week with less than 10 minutes of actual high intensity intervals per session. Compare that to jumping on the treadmill for 30+ minutes for 3-5 times a week. What sounds more efficient to you!
One downfall is that research has yet to establish the minimum amount of HIIT work that needs to be done to see positive changes, or how much is needed to maintain current aerobic capacity/overall conditioning. Even with that not known, several studies in different populations show great results with HIIT as the main conditioning protocol.
A meta-analysis shows that HIIT is effective and efficient for improving body composition in adolescents. While this only talks about individuals aged 13-18, several other studies note the same positive body composition changes in other populations.
Heart Rate Recovery Protocol
A lot of HIIT work is based on time. We are going to base our Conditioning Intervals on your heart rate, specifically it’s recovery between intervals. You’ve probably heard about these kinds of programs. You track your heart rate during your rest period (and probably during your intervals too) and you start the next interval when your heart rate reaches the lower baseline, which is probably around 60-65% of your max heart rate.
However, the baseline heart rate to start another interval cannot be the same number every time if you want to avoid too much rest. The research shows that Cardiac Drift affects HIIT work just like it does with longer endurance work. In simple terms, Cardiac Drift leads to an increasing heart rate without an increase in training intensity. That means during your rest periods, you are recovering similarly as previous rest intervals, but your heart rate isn’t dropping as low.
To combat this, we need a dynamic baseline heart rate to begin intervals. Since the increase from Cardiac Drift isn’t set in stone, we are just going to slight raise the baseline number for each interval.
Start with your first rest baseline heart rate at 60% of your max heart rate. Then, for each consecutive rest interval, raise it by 2.5%.
Specificity Of Conditioning Intervals
We don’t want our lifting to suffer just because we are doing cardio/conditioning regularly. Research has shown that more intense and more specific intervals are better for muscle growth, fat loss, and maintaining strength. You might be saying “why do I care, I’m not a powerlifter…”. That’s true, you are not. However, if you care about your aesthetics, you should care about what different types of aerobic exercise do for your body.
Loss of strength can lead to loss of muscle mass, due to your body realizing that it can let go of some muscle mass since you aren’t lifting as heavy in the gym. If you don’t aspire to be big, this still might be an issue that just doesn’t interest you. However, even the people who want to “tone” or “get more defined” need muscular hypertrophy and losing muscle will negatively affect your physique.
So, to avoid the negative affects of aerobic work, we are going to try and make the work as specific as possible. Starting with the fact that we are already doing high intensity conditioning intervals, we are already ahead of the curve.
We want to stick with certain movements for our intervals. What can emulate the work we do during our lifting? Squats can be emulated with sled pushes and pulls. RDL can be complemented with sled walks (if you haven’t done these, you probably doubt the work on the hamstrings, but it definitely works). Upper body push work can be worked with battle ropes like claps, circles, and just alternating up and down. Upper body pull work can be worked with ball slams, rope slams, and upper body sled pulls (pull with arms, not legs). Other things that can obviously be used are jump squat variations, burpees, complexes without any rest between movements, and much more. Get creative and make sure your muscles are working while you are doing the conditioning intervals.
Since we have discovered the research has yet to nail down the required amount of time, we are going to start low and build up from there. If you are bulking or maintaining your current weight, or just starting this program, stick to 5 intervals per workout and 3 sessions per week.
If you are trying to lose fat, you shouldn’t double this and cut calories right away. That is a quick way to plateau and lose motivation. Instead, I want you to add one extra session of 5 intervals in the week. Once that stalls out, drop calories by 10%. Once that stalls, add another HRRCI session per week. Another 10% drop in calories can be used when you stall out again. After that, we are not adding more sessions per week. Instead, we are adding another interval per workout, which still adds another 5 intervals throughout the week. The pattern continues until you reach your goals!
Remember, if you aren’t counting calories and just rely on eating clean, you aren’t doing yourself any justice!
HRRCI For You!
You don’t need to add any more cardio work outside of this, especially if you work cardio into your weight training like we do with our optimal training programs. The right nutritional program combined with the right weight training plan will complement HRRCI so well that you won’t need anything else to maximize your conditioning, health, and body composition!
 – Gillen, J. B., & Gibala, M. J. (2013). Is high-intensity interval training a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve health and fitness?. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 39(3), 409-412.
 – Gaesser, G. A., & Angadi, S. S. (2011). High-intensity interval training for health and fitness: can less be more?. Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(6), 1540-1541.
 – Costigan, S. A., Eather, N., Plotnikoff, R. C., Taaffe, D. R., & Lubans, D. R. (2015). High-intensity interval training for improving health-related fitness in adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2014.
 – Tocco, F., Sanna, I., Mulliri, G., Magnani, S., Todde, F., Mura, R., … & Crisafulli, A. (2015). Heart Rate Unreliability during Interval Training Recovery in Middle Distance Runners. Journal of sports science & medicine, 14(2), 466.