Here's what you need to know...
Lifters often avoid conditioning work, but including it will increase athleticism while preventing fat gain. Even hardgainers need to do it.
Sprinting before lifting is ideal for improving performance in athletes and potentiating the nervous system for heavy lifts and explosive training.
Complexes use major movement patterns in succession to challenge the cardiovascular system and muscles under fatigue.
Jumping rope is a low impact exercise to preserve muscle mass while improving footwork and conditioning.
Sleds provide additional training volume without undue eccentric stress, thus preserving recoverability.
Build Muscle Without Gaining Fat
Don't be like most lifters who avoid conditioning like it's an Ebola-laced Kleenex. Conditioning work will not make your muscle gains hemorrhage out of all your orifices.
However, doing moderate intensity steady state cardio, ultra low volume, or even skipping conditioning completely isn't the answer. Sure, you'll grow a smidge bigger by dumping all types of conditioning work, but the price you'll pay will be pathetic athleticism and gaining enough marbling around your abs to make a T-Bone steak cringe.
Drop the "conditioning keeps me small" sob story. It's time to maximize your training with well-planned and precisely executed conditioning. These four conditioning methods will build renewed athleticism and get you jacked, even if you're a hardgainer.
Option One: Pre-Lift Sprints
Sprinting before lifting is ideal for improving performance by potentiating the nervous system for heavy and explosive training.
This comes with a risk versus reward trade-off as sprinting done before training must be enough to spark the nervous system, yet low enough in volume and intensity to not fatigue the body and hinder lifting ability. When fatigue is managed, strength performance, conditioning, and athleticism will skyrocket.
After your dynamic warm-up (that you're already doing, right?), do some submaximal speed drills like skips and low intensity sprints for 5-10 minutes.
Related: An EZ Guide to Sprinting
Low volume, short distance sprints performed before strength training help prevent injury and improve performance, as opposed to doing a technical, neurologically demanding exercise after training when fatigue predisposes you to injury.
Perform sprints two days per week. Start with 5 sprints of 10-20 yards with 30-60 seconds of recovery and add one sprint per week, maxing out at 10 sprints.
Option Two: Sprints Conditioning After a Lift
Sprints require sound mechanics and practice before you can pile on tons of volume, a process to which most gym rats aren't willing to dedicate time. With that in mind, sprinting for conditioning must be done sub-maximally on either a hill or incline to prevent over-striding and hamstring injuries.
Start with running two days per week on a treadmill or hill. After a warm-up and some speed drills, sprint for 10 minutes with 10-second sprints and 50-second rests, increasing sprint time by one second and decreasing sprint rest by one second each week until you build up to 15-second sprints.
Week One: Sprint 10 seconds, rest 50
Week Two: Sprint 11 seconds, rest 49
Week Three: Sprint 12 seconds, rest 48
Week Four: Sprint 13 seconds, rest 47
Week Five: Sprint 14 seconds, rest 46
Week Six: Sprint 15 seconds, rest 45
Remember, all of these should be ended at the 10 minute mark. Increase your speed before jacking up the incline to preserve technique.
2. Conditioning Complexes
No, I'm not talking pairings between heavy compound lifts and explosive movement skills for increased performance. Instead, I'm referring to fat shredding, lung-screaming conditioning complexes.
Conditioning complexes combine a series of movement patterns performed in-series without rest, such as a squat, press, row, and RDL before starting a second set.
Your goal is to move as fast as technically possible through the lifts with light weight and full range of motion. Range of motion and light weight are important because your goal is to activate as much of the body as possible, yet not crush your recoverability or conflict with the main strength work.
Start with an unloaded 45-pound bar and progress slowly – your technique should be the limiting factor. A progression of 5 pounds per week is plenty for most and will leave your heart pounding right through your shirt.
A. Hang Clean 3x6, rest 0
B. Deadlift 3x12, rest 0
C. Military Press 3x12, rest 0
D. Front Squat 3x12, rest 60-90 seconds
Repeat 2 more times.
A. Push Press 2x10, rest 0
B. High Pull 2x10, rest 0
C. Hang Clean 2x10, rest 0
D. Front Squat 2x10, rest 0
E. Front Squat Reverse Lunge (do a reverse lunge while holding the bar in a front squat position) 2x10 (5/leg), rest 60-90 seconds
Repeat 2 more times.
The Widow Maker
A. Hang Clean 2x6, rest 0
B. Overhead Press 2x10, rest 0
C. Back Squat 2x10, rest 0
D. Reverse Lunge 2x10, rest 0
E. Front Squat 2x10, rest 0
F. Bent-Over Row 2x10, rest 0
G. Romanian Deadlift 2x10, rest 0
H. Front Squat Lunge 2x10, rest 0
I. Biceps Curl 2x10, rest 0
J. Front Squat Calf Raise 2x10, rest 90-120 seconds
Repeat 1 to 2 times.
Related: More on complexes
Complexes are actually an ideal conditioning tool for hardgainers who need to spare all the muscle they can. They're short duration and high-density. As a result, the conditioning spans beyond the immediate workout due to exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC).
In other words, your heart rate stays jacked up for greater cardiovascular benefit to keep you leaner while you're building muscle. Only do them once per week, though.
3. Jumping Rope
Hardcore exercises like sled pushes and sprints get all the glory, but the jump rope is one old-school tool that doesn't get the attention it rightly deserves.
Jumping rope is low impact and not-overly catabolic. Beyond that, jumping rope is safer than most conditioning drills for two reasons.
First, jumping rope is a self-limiting exercise. To jump rope without failing you must stay in an aligned, joint stacked position, forcing your trunk to stay engaged and resilient under the load of movement. If you mess up, the exercise ends. All of this makes it extremely unlikely you'll overdo it.
Second, jumping rope is a low-impact movement, despite a high number of foot strikes. For skinny runts, the low impact doesn't create a hyper-catabolic environment that erodes your precious hypertrophy like other forms of cardio. This means yes, you'll get shredded without dropping lean body mass.
When it comes to skipping rope, keep it simple. Take 15 minutes, two days per week and get after it.
4. Sled Pushes
Some lifters are terrified of conditioning exercises overloading their recoverability and zapping their hypertrophy.
Luckily, sled pushing doesn't involve eccentric stress, which is the stress incurred on the "negative" portion of resistance training exercises that's also the most damaging to muscle. That's why the volume accumulated with sleds won't hinder recovery to the same extent as traditional training methods.
Once the force applied to the sled exceeds that needed to overcome friction, all muscular actions are concentric based. As a result, you train with a higher volume to increase protein synthesis for muscle building while conditioning your body and trying to prevent Prowler flu.
Take ten minutes at the end of your workout and spend some time on sled pushes. Keep your arms locked out, abs engaged, and body at a consistent 45-60 degree angle while punching the knees up and fully extending the hip with each step.
Sample Conditioning Week
Hoisting weights is obviously the driving force for building muscle. Regardless, well-planned conditioning is imperative to improve work capacity, improve athleticism, and keep you lean while you're bulking. Perform conditioning drills two or three times per week, but no more.
Ensure your diet is on-point first. Then, if needed, drop a day of conditioning to preserve calories.
Monday Upper Body Training
Tuesday Sprint Work + Lower Body Training
Wednesday Off or Jump Rope
Thursday Upper Body Training
Friday Total Body Training + Sled Work
Saturday Off or complexes
The hard-to-swallow fact is you still need some conditioning even if your goal is to gain mass. Hypertrophy training is no reason to get fat and out of-shape. If you do, it's a result of laziness and poor planning. Don't be that guy.