Trading Conditioning for Strength

I talked about my road to weightlifting a few months ago, and then the price of trading strength for conditioning. Today I want to look at the other side of that coin. After regaining the ground I lost in February and March of last year, I want to talk about the challenges of trading conditioning for strength.

Most people do not know how to build strength. I saw this in high school and college, and see it today in the Army, too. They start by going about it wrong, which leads to poor results. Some just try harder, and get hurt. Both ways, they end up settling for weakness — and a few even try to justify it. “I could never deadlift 400 pounds anyway.” “Squatting more than three plates is just for show.” “There’s no reason to bench more than like 225.” I’ve heard it all, and it’s all a lie. I do not want to focus on the right approach, though, or poke holes in those excuses. For now, I will assume you have both the will and the way to become strong, so I can talk about some of the consequences of that decision.

As I said last time, moving from one end of the fitness spectrum to the other means opening yourself up to injury. A body built by conditioning has the endurance to push through heavy lifts, but lacks the power to back it up, and the durability to keep from breaking at the point of failure. I faced this again after the APFT. After spending March retraining myself to run, switching back to weightlifting almost caused some bad injuries. It will take time to recondition your body, so take that slow. Many jump right in and get hurt — like I almost did — and then never try again. Do not ease into it for long, but do not gloss over this step, either.

High endurance mixed with low power and durability also tends to cause strength training to feel ineffective. Used to a few high repetition sets, switching to many low repetition sets spread out over a long period may seem easy at first. Many give up too soon and then fall back on their old ways. Again, it will take time to recondition your body. Once you make the switch, though, you will begin to see a marked change in your workouts. Do not use reconditioning as an excuse for easy workouts, but understand that it does take time to feel the effects of hard weightlifting.

As you start building strength, you can also expect to lose conditioning — slowly at first, and then all at once. Making significant progress in one area means losing ground in the other. Your body will try to hold onto that endurance for a while, but will soon accept trading it for power. That point marks the beginning of a period of explosive growth. After the APFT, I added ten to twenty pounds to my bench press, squat, and deadlift each week for over a month. Progress slowed once I reached my pre-conditioning plateau, but even then it did not stop. Committing to strength training, and sticking with it through your body learning to cope with this new type of stress, yields remarkable growth.

Although you can fuel this growth with a normal diet, it will slow your progress. Building strength means adding muscle, which your body cannot do without an excess of fuel. Most people over think this: just eat a lot of food, often. As long as you work hard for long periods of time, that food will turn into muscle.

Because strength training takes so much more time and effort than conditioning, making this switch will also leave you with less time, and far less energy to make good use of it. Even at the height of my conditioning, when I would run or ruck miles a day, my workouts lasted for about an hour. Today I spend almost twice that long in the gym, working much harder than I ever have before. Plan for this. If you do not, you will both limit your potential and slow your progress.

Get into strength training with eyes wide open. Avoid getting hurt by taking it slow at first, but do not let a lack of progress discourage you. Take some time to retrain your body, fuel it well, and then get after it. It takes a lot of time and energy, but the hard-won rewards make it worth the struggle.