Is This a Conditioning Exercise? (Technique vs. Fatigue)

Strength Faction Mentor Ross “The Boss” Oberlin is the author of the fine piece of strength and conditioning literature you’re about to read. He’s the owner of RC Training and Fitness in Oak Park, IL. Ross will have a regular series running here on the Strength Faction blog.  


Which exercises make sense as conditioning exercises and which don’t? How about a simple decree to help guide that thought process?

“Do No Harm.”

Let’s start there as we begin to consider where technical and non-technical exercises fit into our training sessions.

As trainers and coaches, our values and beliefs dictate what we do, and what we allow to happen in the sessions we’re responsible for.  Each of these values and beliefs is a filter that eliminates certain exercises, positions, and protocols from our training systems.  Whatever remains is the menu from which you will build our training systems and programs.

We can debate almost all of these different filters, and in a respectful forum (like Strength Faction’s) it’s a lot of fun to discuss and fletch out these ideas with other coaches and trainers!

“Do No Harm” is the most-essential filter.

So let’s assume that regardless of how we choose to do fitness, we can at least agree to Do No Harm.

Let’s think of this from two angles. “Unharmed” people are able to continue attending your gym and remain your client, i.e: pay you money.  The rational, business minded side of your brain should like this idea.  The idealist, purpose driven side of your brain should like the fact that you’re doing right by your people.  Either angle results in a more successful, sustainable business for you.

In respecting that rule of do no harm, there are certain protocols that are immediately eliminated for me.  They’re largely determined by their placement on the fatigue vs. technique scale…and where they fit into a training session.

If an exercise is highly technical, it really isn’t going to appear in the conditioning portion of my programs.

Why? Because the higher the technical demand of an exercise, the faster you’ll reach technical failure. And technical failure is…

the point at which you can no longer execute an exercise with correct form and technique.

Here are some examples of what does and doesn’t pass that filter for me:

  • Never Passes: Barbell Snatch
  • Depends on the Individual/Circumstance: Kettlebell Swing
  • Always Passes: Sled Work

Never a barbell snatch, because the lift is just too technical.  Most people have no need to do a barbell snatch anyway, but if they were to do one, it would be earlier in the training session and used to train skill and power, not during added to a fatigue-laded conditioning session. When a trainee is fresh and capable is the correct, and safest, time to be executing a highly technical lift like barbell snatches.

The kettlebell swing depends on the competency of the trainee doing the exercise.  If they’ve just recently learned the exercise, it should remain early in the session, and the dosage should remain small.  If they have a solid kettlebell swing, and understand that they can stop, rest, or change weights should they reach technical failure, then the kettlebell swing can be a great (and brutal) conditioning tool.

The sled is almost always a viable option for conditioning.  There is very little risk involved, because technical failure results in the trainee simply being unable to push the sled any farther.

Let’s add a bit more to the filter with some mind’s eye imagery and consideration of worst case scenarios.

What are the worst case scenarios for the never and always examples for the exercises we’re discussing?

Barbell snatch: a client is so fatigued that they drop the barbell when it’s overhead, and it comes crashing down on them.

I don’t wish that on anyone, but it happens, and usually when someone is severely fatigued and can’t react quickly enough to get out of the way of the bar – something they could otherwise do if they were less fatigued.  That’s why we never do barbell snatches in any of our conditioning protocols.

Sled push:  A client can’t push the sled any more.  That’s about it.

Both of those are very real scenarios.  Which are you more comfortable with happening under your watch?


What About Low-Skill Exercises That Can Still Cause Harm?

Let’s swing the pendulum back the other way and ask: Is there a scenario in which technical failure is at such a high-threshold that it’s difficult reach it and since the exercise requires so little skill we push clients too far?

This is especially dangerous with new trainees. And it usually happens on simple-to-use pieces of equipment. One of the usual suspects–the air bike.

Respecting the do no harm concept, we’re initially going to be limited with our options for what sort of exercises can fit into a newbies training program.  The Air Bike immediately comes to mind, because you pretty much set the seat at the correct height, hop on, and go!

But let’s pause for a minute and consider a few factors:

  • This is a new trainee with a likely low level of fitness and even lower level of recovery(capacity for output exceeds capacity for recovery).
  • The Air Bike requires almost zero technique, which means this person can go full throttle right out the gate.
  • A new trainee may not have a good sense of how to properly pace themselves.

This means that without a technical failure threshold in place, this person can quickly take themselves to a physiological level they either haven’t been in years, or have maybe never been.

The result?  They get put on “spin cycle”.  They either puke or have one of those signature “I’m dying” moments.

Look, I want people to train hard and get amazing results at our gym.  I also want them to come back after day one.  If their first training session with me is the closest they’ve ever been to dying, then those odds of them returning drop significantly. And we’ll never reach the necessary consistency to build the muscle they want to build and drop the fat they want to drop.

To be clear, we use the air bike in the first month of almost every new member’s training program due to the easy learning curve.  We make a point to be judicious with how we program it though, considering dosage, intensity (RPMs), and work:rest ratios.

While the air bike is one of the more likely culprits, it’s more important to understand pushing the threshold with low-skill activities as a real and present danger, rather than demonizing the air bike.

Here’s a quick, illustrative story:

One of our gym members rowed crew in college.  When she joined, she had not rowed in a while, and was not regularly engaging in an exercise routine.  What would have happened if I slapped her on the Rower and said “go for it”?  Her technical threshold would be so high and she’d be able to go so hard, that she’d bury herself–similarly as new clients would be able to on the Air Bike. This is capacity far output exceeding capacity for recovery in action.

Even when choosing safe exercises, we are still faced with the challenge of appropriate dosage.

This is where your knowledge, experience, and intuition come into play for giving your clients and members the best possible training experience.  An experience that will keep them coming back, and talking about you to all their friends.  If someone feels like you pushed them to the limit, but not over the edge, I promise they won’t be able to shut up about you.

At the end of the day, a more positive training experience will lead to better results, better client retention, and a better reputation in your community.  That means a better bottom line, and a better chance that you stay in this industry for the long term, making a positive impact in people’s lives!

Do No Harm.

Here’s Ross and his beautiful family.



In 2010, two dudes Chris and Todd, started the business that would eventually become Strength Faction.

You know how they say the rest is history? Well, it’s not.

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