3 New Conditioning Rules


3 new conditioning rules

Considering that we’re on the brink of the training technology revolution, with more fitness devices and gadgets becoming available almost daily, it’s surprising that in many ways, conditioning is still in the dark ages. If you were to go back in time and watch conditioning sessions for teams and athletes 50 years ago, chances are high that you’d see coaches and trainers doing the exact same things back then that are still doing today.

The sad truth is that unlike other areas of training, conditioning programs have not evolved and many are run the way that they are for no other reason than because that’s how it’s always been done.

In the last two articles, I’ve talked about how conditioning is an extension of Movement and Mental Toughness and introduced some completely new ideas and concepts. Over the last few years, my approach to conditioning has evolved significantly and my goal today and in my upcoming Conditioning Coach Courses is to help completely transform not just the way conditioning programs are written, but how they are coached.

The following 3 new rules of conditioning are just the start of bringing conditioning out of the dark ages and into the 21st century…

Rule #1: Conditioning Starts with the Brain

If you read my article last week on conditioning and mental toughness, one thing should be clear: I’ve spend a great deal of time and energy studying the brain since I originally wrote Ultimate MMA Conditioning.

The more I’ve learned about how the brain really works and how it’s tied to everything from movement to motivation and decision making, the more it’s become clear that even though conditioning may depend heavily on specific capacities and abilities within the body, the real driver of everything is the brain.

The best way to understand why this is the case is to consider just how complex performance really is.

Hundreds of muscles have to be intimately coordinated in an extremely precise manner, all within fractions of a second, for high levels of performance to be achieved.

Even more, the function of major organs like the heart and lungs, transport mechanisms like blood vessels, tissue signalers like hormones and cytokines, etc. all must be very tightly controlled and managed in order to facilitate the production of mechanical force and neuromuscular power output.

The more you start to dig into the dizzying web of what’s actually happening inside our bodies during high levels of work and performance, the more you appreciate the amazing ability of our brains to put so many different pieces together in exactly the right order in fractions of a second.

Consider for a second that the brain has something in the neighborhood of 80 billion neurons that are each connected to somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 other neurons.

When you look at both of these numbers together, there are trillions of connections that makeup the neuronal communication network within the brain.

Contrary to the old wives tale that we only use 7% of our brain, the truth is that we use it all, particularly when it comes to performance.

In many ways, high level performance, whether it’s hitting a ball, sprinting down a track, jumping over a hurdle, or punching someone in the face, is the ultimate test of the brain’s computing power.

Jumping hurdles
What all this means in terms of conditioning is that we have to consider the role of the brain in conditioning, and that starts with an understanding of some of the principles I discussed last week on mental toughness and conditioning.

To put it simply, the role of the brain in conditioning largely comes down to two things:

Visual, verbal and even nonverbal feedback cues have a huge impact on the overall effects of the conditioning program.

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First, you have to have a firm grasp on the specific problems that the brain must solve to perform a given task.

Second, you have to take into consideration that everything that is said, as well as the way that it is said, has an impact on the brain’s interpretation of what it’s being asked to do and how it’s going to respond and adapt.

In other words, visual, verbal and even nonverbal feedback cues have a huge impact on the overall effects of the conditioning program.

The take away of Rule #1 is that conditioning programs are much more than just a series of exercises written down on a sheet of paper.

The effectiveness of a conditioning program comes down how it’s coached as much as anything else. Coaching cues and feedback are a critical part of how the brain interprets the environment and thus how it responds to training.

The most well organized conditioning program in the world will only do so much good if it’s coached poorly.

This role of the brain in conditioning is about much more than the central governor theory or discussions of central fatigue that I discussed in my book. It’s an absolutely vital piece of the conditioning puzzle and something I’ll be discussing at length in my upcoming Certified Conditioning Coach course, in future articles and in my upcoming release of the second edition of Ultimate MMA Conditioning.

Rule #2: Conditioning is about more than just energy systems

Even though Ultimate MMA Conditioning mainly focuses on how the three energy systems work together to the produce the energy you need to train, compete and recover, there’s a lot more to conditioning than just measures of aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

That’s not to downplay the role of training programs designed around improving the function of specific energy systems. That said, let me reinforce the point that energy systems don’t exist in a vacuum and must always be considered within the broader picture of performance.

The brain will always attempt to solve whatever problem you give it. Consequently, energy systems are inherently connected to movement patterns, motor skills and cognitive performance.

One of the mistakes often made when it comes to conditioning programs these days is to underestimate the importance of not just which energy systems are developed, but rather how they are developed.

To truly improve conditioning in a way that will lead to real performance changes, the movements and exercises used, as well as the way they are coached, are absolutely essential.

When the emphasis is solely on heart rate at the expense of movement quality and movement relevance, the result is that energy systems may improve, but athletic performance often does not.

The take home message of Rule #2 is that any conditioning test that you’re using must look at more than just raw numbers.

An athlete with a lower anaerobic threshold, or less power at anaerobic threshold, for example, may look less conditioned on paper, but they will often outperform an athlete with better numbers if their movement quality and ability to understand and adapt to their environment is high.

The right way to approach conditioning assessments is to evaluate a person’s movement quality, decision making and technique during the test as much as their times, work rate, heart rates, etc. All of these are key elements that affect one another and all must be considered together as an integrated whole when developing effective conditioning programs.

Fatigued movement assessment
This is why I teach a fatigued movement pattern assessment as part of my Certified Conditioning Coach’s course.

If you don’t understand how a person moves and how they compensate and how their decision making processes work when they are fatigued, then it’s next to impossible to have an accurate understanding of what type of training will lead to the greatest improvements.

In the end, energy systems are extremely important when it comes to conditioning…but so is everything else.

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Rule #3: The environment matters

Millions of years of evolution have taught us that survival largely depends on the ability to be well adapted to one’s environment. Species that are highly adapted to their environment survive and thrive, while those that aren’t, eventually go extinct.

This basic tenant of evolutionary biology is just as applicable to conditioning. All things being equal, the athlete that’s the best adapted to the competitive environment is the one that’s most likely going to win.

Although it’s impossible to completely recreate all the details of what it’s like to be in actual completion during everyday training, understanding how to simulate the environment as closely as possible goes a long way towards developing conditioning that translates into the competitive arena.

All too often, some of the most important elements of the competitive environment are completely left out of training. If you’re a combat athlete who competes in a cage, for example, then doing all of your training on the mats or in a ring isn’t going to prepare you or improve your conditioning as well because the environment is different.

If you are going to be competing at 11am EST but you live on the west coast and train at 7pm, then once again, your body isn’t going to be as accustomed to your competitive environment. The closer you get to a competition, the more important it is that you begin training at the exact time that you will be competing.

The reason the environment is so important comes back to what we discussed in rule #1. It takes a lot of work for the brain to analyze and understand its environment. All of our senses, from visual to auditory and even smell, play an integral role in this process.

The less familiar the brain is with its environment, the more time and energy it has to spend trying to figure it out. This means there’s less energy and resources available for performing the actual movements and skills.

You can’t separate movements and skills from the environment that you’re performing them in.

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The flip side of this, of course, is that the more comfortable the brain feels in the environment, the more it can focus on the high-level aspects of performance. What this means in terms of conditioning is that anytime you write a program, you always have to start the process by analyzing and understanding the environment the athlete will be performing in.

Having a field sport athlete, for example, do a good percentage of his/her conditioning work and sprints on a treadmill will not be nearly as effective as having that athlete train on a field.

It would be even better training if this athlete runs sprints on the actual competition field. This provides the most realistic and effective simulation of what he/she can expect to see, hear and feel during a competition.

Likewise, a combat athlete that’s getting ready for a 3- round fight in a cage won’t be as effectively conditioned if they are primarily sparring for 8-10 rounds in a ring or just on some mats.

Conditioning in the ring

Even though it’s obvious to train movements and skills the same as in competition, the reality is that you can’t separate movements and skills from the environment that you’re performing them in. Everything, from spacing to timing to rhythm to the feel of the canvas, is going to be different in competition than in training. This is going to have an impact on how the brain will try to solve the performance puzzle.

Once again, the main lesson to be learned here is that conditioning does not exist in isolation, but rather is always a function of the interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment it’s in.

The more thoroughly you understand the environment an athlete has to perform in and the more accurately you can recreate aspects of it during conditioning, the more effective the program will be.

The Conditioning Revolution

Applying the 3 new rules of conditioning effectively requires a modern approach to conditioning, one that’s built on the premise of understanding how the brain, body and environment are all intimately connected to performance. The days of conditioning programs being based solely on one single idea, that all you have to do to get in shape is work as hard as possible, need to be forgotten and “the way it’s always been done” must be left in the past.

If you’re truly committed to learning how to put all the pieces of conditioning together and helping to bring about a revolution in the way coaches, athletes and trainers approach conditioning, make sure to join me for one of my upcoming Certified Conditioning Coach courses – just enter your name and email below to get an invite.

I’ll also be posting much more in coming months about how to build the right foundation for long-term success through this new approach to conditioning and training as a whole. Make sure to look out for the release of the long-awaited second edition of Ultimate MMA Conditioning this fall as well. Stay tuned, there’s a whole lot more to come…



  1. Hey Joel!
    I am extremely excited for the second edition of Ultimate MMA Conditioning! I’ve used your first edition religiously and did your course out in Ireland, fantastic information!
    Just a quick couple questions, one, is this second edition book meant to add onto the first, or is it replacing information from the first? I know from your course lots of new information is being added but I guess I’m just curious in regards to all the information in the first edition.
    Second, any hints on when I’ll be able to get a copy of that second edition 🙂

    Thanks for your help and time,

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