Cardio vs Conditioning

As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, I have seen the following situation many times:  I walk into the weight room to find an athlete putting in some extra (a lot of extra) time in on the cardio machines.

What’s the big deal you might ask? Well, nothing if these athletes were endurance athletes, but inevitably these individuals are athletes who either play a team or power type sport, and are usually the same offenders a regular basis.

When I ask them what they are up to, the most common responses are that:

  • They are trying to lose a couple extra pounds, or
  • They are trying to get an leg up on the competition

But, what these athletes don’t realize is that this added (and un-prescribed) “cardio” training could very likely have a NEGATIVE effect on their sports performance. (For the purpose of this article “cardio” is defined as long duration, slow, distance/endurance work including running, biking, elliptical, stair stepper, treadmill etc.)

Negative Effects of Concurrent Training

Concurrent training is defined as the simultaneous training of strength & power and aerobic endurance during the same block of time (a period of weeks or months).

Multiple studies dating back to the eighties have documented that concurrent training in athletes can:

  • Decrease strength gains
  • Limit muscle growth
  • Diminish power output

These adverse effects on muscular properties can greatly decrease sports performance in team or power type athletes where maximal strength, size, and power are big factors in the athlete’s ability to compete. [On a side note, strength training does NOT hinder endurance performance, so runners, lift away!]

Additionally, concurrent training carries an increased risk of overtraining, especially when athletes add in extra cardio work (in addition to all their normal workouts and practices) on what are supposed to be their scheduled rest days. This is an issue because scheduled rest and recovery are necessary for optimal performance and health.

Team and power type sports are intermittent in nature; requiring short bursts of high intensity exercise broken up by periods of jogging or walking. Thus, in addition to having negative effects on strength and power gains, traditional “cardio” training is not even sport specific as it lacks the intensity of most sports.

Conditioning vs. Cardio


Conditioning, sometimes known as metabolic conditioning, consists of short but very intense bursts of activity which are repeated after short rest periods. Many different exercise modalities can be used for conditioning, as long as the work is of high intensity.sprintersprintersprinter

The difference between cardio and conditioning is that conditioning can be made more sport specific. It can be used to train the particular energy systems utilized during the sport, thus better preparing athletes for the demands of competition than cardio. Conditioning can also be used for weight loss; in fact, I’d say it’s a more effective tool for weight loss than cardio.

In summary:

  • Endurance training interferes with strength and power development in non-endurance athletes
  • Added cardio can result in overtraining and does not improve sports performance
  • Conditioning improves sports performance and can lead to significant weight loss

So, if you feel like you aren’t getting enough out of team training sessions, or you want to drop a couple extra pounds, don’t just go hop on a cardio machine for an hour. Talk to your Strength and Conditioning Coach, and (if they feel that it is really necessary) they may be able to add some extra conditioning to your training in a way that won’t interfere with your scheduled recovery or hinder sports performance.

Stay tuned for more on when is the best time to condition, how much is enough, and different types of conditioning workouts!