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Some Assembly Required: Creating Crafty Conditioning Workouts

There is a weightless sled in the corner of my gym. It is yellow, which is my favorite color… usually.

Unlike most pieces of weight-training equipment, resistance is never added to this one. The reason why: The bottom is coated with rubber, and we have all rubber flooring in our facility. Operationally, this sticky-on-sticky combination makes it the heaviest thing in the gym.

It is also a fat-burning machine, and I drag it out at least once a week. My clients love-hate it. Mostly love. I do, too.

Jen Unweighted Sled

Over the past decade I’ve turned over every rock in the fitness landscape, and tried just about everything. As a longtime journalist, I love hands-on research. From certifications to hands-on workshops to seminars a dozen times a year, I’ve learned new methodologies and experimented tirelessly (OK, sometimes I got tired) to find out what works — and what doesn’t.

I’ve made it a point to help the people I work with understand that

…you don’t need to force yourself into someone else’s routine.

Rather, I’m into helping you find one that works for you, and gets you to your goals.

And, your way can be sans traditional cardio, if you aren’t that into running, swimming or biking. (To be clear, if you are into those things, carry on — and maybe add a little of the special sauce below, too.)

Instead, you can lift weights…faster.

Thanks to an explosion of research, forward-thinking scientists conducting new research, and communities like Girls Gone Strong, the idea that cardio and strength work can be blended for a time-saving, fat-incinerating, muscle-building extravaganza is being embraced much more readily than it once was. The proof is in the pudding.

At The Movement Minneapolis, the gym I own with my husband, David Dellanave, there exists not one piece of cardio equipment. Not a single treadmill, spin bike, or erg is in the building. What we do have are lots and lots kettlebells and barbells. As a facility, we have 100 percent bought into the “Lift Weights Faster” philosophy of fat loss.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Arthur Ashe’s quote sums up a smart approach to conditioning (or any aspect of life) perfectly. The idea isn’t to annihilate yourself, but rather to get better in some capacity. At our gym, we use Adaptifier.com software to track all workouts — even conditioning workouts — based on these three metrics, so that we can measure improvement. (You can use a pen and paper, too.)

Volume:

This is the total number of repetitions you complete of a particular movement. Whether you’re talking about one set or your entire workout, volume is the number of repetitions you complete. On a micro-scale, a set of pushups may have 15 repetitions. And for an entire workout, you may complete 50 pushups.  (To calculate it, multiply reps by resistance used, or intensity.)

Pushup- for article

Intensity:

This is the how many pounds you’re lifting, or how much resistance you’re using. In the context of exercise, for the sake of precision, it is not the amount of effort expended. It’s just cold, hard weight on the bar (or otherwise in your hands).

Density:

This is the time it takes to complete a bout of work — essentially, how quickly you get the job done, whether “the job” refers to a set or your entire workout.  (You can calculate it by dividing volume by time.)

Keep in mind that progress in the human body isn’t perfectly linear. Lift heavier for a particular movement and your volume and time may be adversely affected. Do more total repetitions and you may have to select a lighter weight. By the same token, try to complete the workout more quickly and your intensity may decrease.

In terms of tracking, move the needle on volume, density or intensity — even one of them — from workout to workout and it’s a win.

Style Points

I use a whole host of styles of metabolic resistance training in my own programs, and not just for the sake of keeping it interesting. Each will elicit a different response in the body, especially once you start manipulating factors such as density, intensity and volume. Regardless of the structure, those three factors will always come into play.

The Categories:

Circuits

Often used as a larger umbrella term, this simply denotes any workout that includes various consecutive stations, often using different pieces of equipment. Work-to-rest ratio and rep schemes can vary immensely.

Example: You might do five rounds of five stations — pushups, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, goblet squats, and Russian twist — performing each exercise for 30 seconds and then resting for 30 seconds after every exercise.

Jen Sinkler Goblet Squat- cropped for article

Complexes

In a complex, the same implement is used throughout the workout, and all reps of one exercise are to be completed before moving on to the next exercise. Oftentimes, you will complete the entire complex without putting the implement down, unless you need to rest.

Example: Using the same barbell, you might do 10 reps of conventional deadlift, 10 reps of bent-over row, 10 reps of push press, and then 10 back squats, and then repeat that for three rounds, resting for exactly how long it took you to complete the complex in between rounds.

Combos

Also known as a flow, this type of workout consists of one rep of each exercise involved flowing into each other. As with a complex, you don’t put the implement down between reps. Because the volume tends to be quite low, you can often ratchet the weight way up for combos.

Example: The classic Bear Complex is actually a combo and is one of my favorites (once I’m done) to do intermittently in my training. In the Bear, you do one barbell power clean, followed immediately by a front squat, followed by a push press, followed by a back squat, and topped off with another push press. All of that counts as one rep, and you repeat it for five rounds of five reps at a time. To measure progress I record my weight used and time to completion.

To give you a better understanding of how this combo looks, check out this video demonstration. Remember, it’s called the Bear Complex, but technically it’s a combo — and now you’re in the know.

Chains

This circuit style is Metabolic Effect’s blend of a combo and a complex. In a chain, you start with a combo-style workout, and add reps to only certain exercises with each subsequent round. This allows you to hone in on particular body parts you really want to work.

Example: You might do a squat thrust to a pushup to a jump squat to a biceps curl to an overhead press, and if you wanted to blast your shoulders, you would add one rep apiece to the pushups and the overhead press each round, keeping the reps for the other exercises at one. When you got to five pushups and five overhead presses, you would begin again at one rep apiece across the board. Chains are usually capped at a certain time, such as seven minutes.

Ladders

In an exercise ladder, you either add or subtract a rep or a number of reps each round, depending on if it is an ascending or descending ladder. Ascending ladders get progressively more difficult, while descending ladders begin with the max number of reps and decrease after that.

Example: Pairing two exercises, such as the goblet clean and the kettlebell swing, you might assign one an ascending ladder structure and the other a descending ladder structure, and perform them together. In this instance, you might begin with 10 goblet cleans and 1 swing, next performing 9 goblet cleans and 2 swings, and then 8 goblet cleans and 3 swings, and so on until the reps have been reversed.

Jen Sinkler Goblet Clean- cropped for article

Pyramids

Much like a ladder, a pyramid is when you begin with few reps, adding reps each round, and then — here’s where it’s different from a straight-up ladder — you come again back down in reps, retracing your steps the way you came.

Example: You might do one goblet clean, then two, then three, all the way up to 10 and then all the way back down to one.

Plug and Play

After you get a handle on the various metabolic-resistance-training structures, it’s just a matter of plugging and playing them within your routine, and discovering both what you enjoy doing and what helps you make progress toward your fitness goals. Go a little faster, add a little more weight, or do an extra round, and your body will respond.

You don’t always need outside resistance to lift weights faster, either — your bodyweight can be enough. You can get pretty creative — training with bodyweight alone is a great opportunity to work on developing 360-degree strength by moving your body in new ways.

In case you need a little help putting together your workouts, I’ve put together a huge collection of grab-and-go workouts. Every workout is organized by the equipment you have available and how much time you’ve got, including plenty of effective options that last anywhere from five up to 30 minutes (including one from GGS Co-founder Molly Galbraith!).

If you’re interested, you can learn more about Lift Weights Faster here!

About The Author: Jen Sinkler

Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer who talks about all things strength related at her website, UnapologeticallyStrong.com. She's a certified RKC 2 kettlebell instructor, and a powerlifting coach through USA Powerlifting. She also holds coaching certs through Kettlebell Athletics, Ground Force Method, Progressive Calisthenics, Onnit Academy, and DVRT (Ultimate Sandbag). Connect with Jen on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (handle: jensinkler).