Trading Strength for Conditioning

I talked about my road to weightlifting the other day, to give you insight into my background. Having reached each end of the fitness spectrum, and after going back and forth between extreme conditioning and extreme strength, I look forward to sharing with you the lessons I learned along the way. As I work to regain the strength I lost over the last month, I want to highlight some of the consequences of that decision. In doing so, I hope to better prepare you for this difficult journey, and help you avoid some common pitfalls.

No matter which end of the spectrum you come from, moving to the other means opening yourself up to injury. As a 220 pound weightlifter, I could lift hundreds of pounds without a problem; outside the gym, though, I had trouble even with short runs. My weight caused shin splints, stress fractures, and knee bursitis. Ibuprofen, ice, and stretching helped some, but switching to low-impact exercises helped the most. When I decided to jump back into conditioning, stationary recumbent cycling gave me the benefits of running without the damage. To those thinking about making this switch, take note. The weight that makes lifting easy now will destroy your body if you go about conditioning the wrong way.

As they set out to go from strong to conditioned, some may also try to do both. Although possible, realize that these goals contradict each other. You can overcome this — to a degree — with a lot of hard work, but that progress will take much more time and effort than it already does, and yield mediocre results at best. I once knew an Infantry Captain who prided himself on “outrunning the lifters, and outlifting the runners.” For those with similar goals, balancing moderate strength and conditioning does not take a lot of work — but understand that the people who focus on one area will always win. For those without long to improve, or in need of significant improvement, accept that getting better in one area means losing ground in the other.

In a similar vein, some may also try to stick to their old diet during this process. Do not make that mistake. Your body no longer needs to build muscle; it must now strengthen the muscle you already have, burn fat, and build endurance. I never bothered to get into the weeds on this, but I did end up cutting out a quarter to a half of my regular intake, by volume, while conditioning. I also ended up eating more fruits and vegetables. You should expect a similar change in diet, to fuel your body’s new mission.

To reiterate, in trading strength for conditioning, you can expect to open yourself up to injury, get weaker, and eat less food — but you can also expect some positive changes as well. You will get lighter, faster, and better at bodyweight exercises, of course, but you will also have much more time on your hands, and more energy to make good use of it. For the hour I sat on the recumbent bicycle, I either read or worked on posts for this site; the second hour I used to spend on the tail end of my workouts, I spent churning out productive work at home. Weightlifting takes a lot of time and energy, and conditioning takes much less; I put that delta to good use on my many side projects.

If the prospect of becoming weak does not bother you, trading strength for conditioning has few downsides. Take care at the beginning not to hurt yourself, and this route has some real benefits. I have long maintained that conditioning is much easier than strength training, and my experience over the last month supported that; the long, hard road back to regain lost ground confirmed this for me, but I will save that for another post.