Conditioning Doesn’t Always Have to Come Last in Workouts

The following in a except taken from the The Ultimate Group Training Manual by Sarah Rippel and Georgette Pann. There are no affiliate links here.

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With the goals of improving cardiorespiratory function and positive body composition changes, conditioning is another important component of a well-rounded fitness program.

Designing effective conditioning pieces for small group training is a very broad topic with much to be discussed.

Designing Group Conditioning Workouts

There are several popular formats I like to use for conditioning work in the small group setting. Designing conditioning workouts to be aerobic or anaerobic in nature demands appropriate choices in terms of exercises, reps, loads, & rest intervals. It’s not as simple as choosing a handful of exercises, picking some crazy rep scheme, and telling your group to “get it done as fast as you can!”

For the purposes of what most of our clients are trying to achieve in the small group setting, conditioning work needs to be predominantly aerobic in nature. I can speak only for myself, but I believe that the main goal of a small group training program is to get people moving in a safe & efficient manner while building strength and improving body composition.

When you consider the fact that most of our clients are sedentary for most of their day, the hour they are spending with us needs to be rich in movements that help them progress forward, not knock them flat on their glutes! Programming long conditioning pieces that involve all-out sprint-type intervals without allowing for proper recovery is not the best way to promote long-term progress.

If your conditioning work consists of “for time” or AMRAP circuits that almost always result in people standing around trying to catch their breath for extended periods of time, you’re missing the effective programming boat. Not only do people begin to dread workouts that play out like this, you’re almost always going to notice a decrease in performance, not only during the workouts but in subsequent workouts over time.

Aerobic: Oxidative Pathway

I feel Ice Cube said it best when he rapped “life ain’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Aerobic work allows people to work at lower intensity levels over longer periods of time. In terms of distances, we are talking the 1500-meter sprint all the way up to the ultra-marathon. In terms of time, we are talking anything above the two-minute mark. “Low-powered, long-distance” is another way we can frame this type of work. It is

necessary for improving body composition and it increases cardiovascular endurance and stamina.


Anaerobic work allows us to exert great effort over short durations. This intense period enables our bodies to improve power, speed, strength, and muscle mass while also burning fat.                                                                           

Targeting the Phophagen and Glycolytic pathways enables people not only to increase power and speed and burn fat, but also to increase overall endurance.


High-Powered, Sprint-Type/Distance Activities: 10-30 sec


Moderate-Powered, Mid-Distance Activities: 30-120 sec

An easy way to determine whether an activity is anaerobic or aerobic is to use 60 seconds as the work period. If the work period is less than 60 seconds, then the activity is largely anaerobic. If it is greater than 60 seconds, then the activity is largely aerobic. Finally, if the work period is intermittent the activity is aerobic-alactic.

What is the GOAL?

In terms of conditioning, do you want the training piece to be aerobic or anaerobic? Is it going to be a longer “grinder” or a brief 3-5-minute “burner?”

I am of the belief that a healthy blend of sound strength work paired with conditioning work that favors the aerobic system is the best combo for most general population clients. The focus with training pieces that are aerobic in nature should be sustainable movement with an emphasis on pacing. There should be no “redlining,” nor should people be gasping for air. An easy way to determine if intensity is too high is to simply look at the faces of your clients. You can learn a lot just by observing peoples’ expressions and body language during workouts.

High-intensity conditioning segments are also important, but performed in a logical manner. In structuring these training pieces, one must pay close attention to rest intervals & stick with exercises that are very simple. This pairing allows for people to go “all out” and then have sufficient time to recover before they perform the next interval.

First or Last?

The traditional group training model places conditioning work at the end of a training session. This has proven to be effective & is a logical “flow” from warm-up to strength to “finisher.” I have used it with great success myself. In Build ‘N Burn, you will find that there are finishers on the strength-focused “build” days and longer conditioning pieces on the “burn” days. When I decided to move my program indoors & began to implement barbell lifting, I still included conditioning work at the end of workouts.

As I’ve mentioned several times in this book, I started to experiment with placing the conditioning work first in training sessions, basically creating a “warm-up on steroids” in terms of getting people fired-up to move on to the strength work. I have found this to be a very effective strategy and believe it has helped improve the results of my group training clients. They have more fun during our workouts and no longer dread the conditioning work at the end.

When planning your programming framework, the decision to put conditioning work first or last greatly impacts your exercise selection.

In putting conditioning work last, recommend using exercises that do not involve the movement patterns that have been emphasized in the strength work.

So, let’s say you had your group perform a moderately-heavy squat variation and their additional strength work further taxed the thighs. It probably wouldn’t be the best idea to program a conditioning piece to follow that involved moderately-heavy barbell thrusters and running. Ouch. A better option would be to choose something hip/glute-driven coupled with upper body, let’s say a kettlebell clean and press paired with a pull-up variation.

Post-Squat Conditioning – 4 RFT:

  1. Double Kettlebell Clean & Press (descending ladder) x 12/x10/x8/x6
  2. Rest 40 seconds
  3. Pull-Up Variation x 5
  4. Rest 40 seconds

In putting conditioning work first, I recommend doing the opposite – use exercises that involve the movement patterns that will be emphasized during the strength work. This gets the body warmed-up for the specific exercises. No surprise there, right? In addition, any exercise that may further enhance the strength work probably won’t be a bad idea.

So, using the squat again, let’s consider a solid conditioning-focused segment that will get clients prepped for squats. This could involve wall sits or goblet squat holds for moderate lengths of time (20-30 seconds), which I like because they both wake up the quads, but the goblet squat hold does a little more for opening up the hips. One of these exercises could be placed in a circuit with a moderately-loaded backwards sled drag to wake up the hips and hamstrings, as well as keep heart rates up, and a plank variation done for a moderate length of time (20-30 seconds) to emphasize breathing under tension & get the anterior core online.

Pre-Squat Conditioning – 12 Minute EMOM:

  1. Goblet-Loaded Wall-Sit x 20-30 seconds
  2. Backwards Sled Drag x 50’
  3. Plank x 20-30 seconds

EMOM stands for “every minute on the minute.”

Another thing we need to consider when taking survey of a program’s overall design is the fact that the strength work can also become conditioning-biased (if desired). This is another key element in the programming I designed that involves a “conditioning first” thought process. By arranging the main strength lift in a circuit (and possibly giving the group an estimated finish time), things are made more impactful and engaging!

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