If you have any sort of experience with health and fitness, you’ve likely heard the terms “strength training” and “cardio” thrown around before. Strength training refers to exercise that focuses on building and strengthening the muscle through the use of some type of weight or resistance. A common example would be weight lifting. Cardio, on the other hand, is a much more general category that refers to any exercise that raises your heart rate. The purpose of cardio is to improve your cardiovascular system, and common examples would be running or cycling.
Other than strength training and cardio, there is a third form of training known as conditioning. Conditioning is sort of like a sub-category of cardio because it raises your heart rate, but it can also be a hybrid of both cardio AND strength training because it can involve weights. It refers to exercise that requires you to train at high-intensity for short bursts of time. Common examples would be sprinting, or if you’re familiar with the practice, HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
For the uninitiated, conditioning is extremely high-demand and is used by professional athletes and elite trainers alike due to its incredible training benefits, which include increased strength, power, muscle, and stamina. This is why you’ve seen total-body workout machines like the Total Gym become more popular in recent years; the conditioning-styled workout they provide is starting to get more publicly recognized as an effective exercise tool. In fact, HomeGymr even recommends total-body home gyms for weight loss over traditional cardio machines like exercise bikes or treadmills directly due to their conditioning workout nature (we’ll provide more on this below).
The issue we’re here to discuss today is the difference between cardio and conditioning. These two terms are often used interchangeably because people think they mean the same thing. While they may fall into the same general category of “exercise that raises your heart rate”, these two types of training are very different and will yield very different results depending on which you choose to use.
How Conditioning Is Different Than Cardio
We briefly explained above how conditioning is a more niche version of cardio that essentially focuses on training at high intensity for short bursts. By high intensity, we mean workouts or exercises that require the body to work hard and move fast, and by short bursts, we mean around 30-60 second bursts. So why are the results from this type of training different than the results from traditional cardio like running or cycling?
Cardio is a relatively low-demand exercise. Sure, it gets your heart rate up, but the issue with low-demand exercise is that your body learns to adapt to it pretty quickly. If you’re just starting out with cardio training, a 3-mile run will probably knock you out and burn a ton of calories. But after a month or two, that 3-mile run becomes a lot easier, and in order to get the same “knocked out” feeling, you’ll have to run 6 miles. And then 9 miles. Then 12. The cycle continues on and on because running is the same consistent motion with no variation in tempo or demand.
Conditioning is different because of the demand it requires from your body. Because the movements are inconsistent, your body is constantly being forced to adjust to new levels. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is the perfect example of this. Let’s say you’re performing HIIT on an open field. You start out by jogging for about 30 seconds, then you break out into a full sprint for 15 seconds, then come back to a regular jog for 30 seconds, then sprint for 30 seconds. You do this over and over with different intervals each time.
By constantly changing the intervals, your body can never become accustomed to the movements and is therefore required to continue exerting the maximum amount of energy to perform. What does this mean in terms of physical benefits? You’re not only improving your cardiovascular health and stamina more effectively than traditional cardio training, but the high-intensity portions also improve your body’s power and force. This builds strength and muscle as well, and if you throw a little resistance or weight into the mix, you can up the ante even further.
Which Is Best For Weight Loss?
Based on what we’ve just mentioned above, it should be pretty easy to tell that conditioning is going to be more effective for losing weight than cardio is. Studies have been done to conclude these results as well. Because of the higher intensity and unpredictable interval timing, the body must tap into its glycogen storage quicker and use more of it in order to continue providing the energy for the workout. The more glycogen your body burns (and the faster it burns it), the faster you can reduce fat.
In addition, conditioning not only challenges your body on a much higher level, but it also gives better results in a shorter time period. For example, a 20-minute HIIT session will yield essentially the same results as a 60-minute run (in terms of body fat reduction). This makes things much nicer in terms of time efficiency as well.
Wrapping It Up
This article isn’t to say that cardio is bad or cardio doesn’t work, it’s merely to point out the training differences between cardio and conditioning because of how often people mistake the two as synonyms. If you’re going to take away anything from this clarification, let it be this: cardio is great for people who just want to work on their general health and fitness, and it’s also ideal for those who are training for things like marathons or triathlons because its consistent temp builds your long-term endurance. However, if your goal is weight-loss oriented or you’re an athlete trying to improve your body’s overall performance, conditioning is going to be your method of choice due to its constantly varying tempo.
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Rohan Arora is a Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist and has been actively involved in sports and fitness for over 8 years. He now leads the team of fitness specialists and personal trainers who help people around the world with personalized workout and nutrition plans, along with providing the right information on sports supplements.