Monday, February 3, 2014

Conditioning Barney Style: How to Stay Strong While Also Not Sucking Ass at Running. (Without Actually Running.)

Preface: If your idea of sucking ass at running is finishing a 3-mile PT run in anything more than 20 minutes then this isn’t for you. Chances are if you’re this guy or gal, and reading this post, you’re currently weak as a kitten but kick ass at running. But now you want to make an acceptable sacrifice in running endurance in order to lift heavy shit. This post assumes you currently suck at running, but not quite so much at lifting.

If those last two sentences sounds a lot like you then continue reading. If you’re like the person described in the first then I have no idea how you got here. You must be lost. 

This isn’t the blog you’re looking for.

Alright, people I’ve had some requests to make a post describing how to be a decent runner (my definition of decent: finishing a 3-mile in sub 24:00 and being in the middle of the pack for formation runs) while also being decently strong. Below is how we get your ass in running shape while also maintaining some respectable level of strength.

Before I go on I should provide some stats so that way you know I’m not just some guy talking out of my ass about things I have no experience doing (like running and lifting,) and thus should not be giving advice out like an idiot; which seems the popular thing to do these days.

- 8 years, 6 months Active Duty Marine

- Best 3-mile: 18:36 (Ran in March of 2007, before lifting.)

- Worst 3-mile: 23:42 (Pretty sure that’s it, but it has been a while. Summer 2008. Just doing regular Marine Corps PT and not caring about my health, strength, or anything really. Before lifting.)

- Current 3-mile: 22:47 (As listed on April 25, 2013. 1x per year requirement that I don’t train running for whatsoever.)

- Current Physical Fitness Test Score: 271 of 300

- Current Combat Fitness Test Score: 293 of 300

Let it be known that I don’t train specifically for either of those events. I haven’t done so for the PFT since 2008 when I started lifting and haven’t done so since 2012 for the CFT since I realized training for it is stupid and a waste of my time. When company or battalion runs come along I can hang with the middle to the front of the pack as well. So I ain’t all that bad.

There's no way in hell that formation is going even 5mph.

According to my copious YouTube training logs it shows that I deadlifted 475x2 on April 17th (Eight days before the PFT), squatted 405x3 in wraps on April 30th (Five days after the PFT). Now these aren’t record-breaking numbers, nor are they too impressive considering my current strength levels. But for a guy who was about to run 3-miles in less than 23 minutes, and for a guy who had just ran that 3-miles, it’s not too damn bad.

Especially since my non-running self graduated as the Honor Graduate of Sergeants Course. During which time I pulled my first 500-pound deadlift. Sergeants Course has its share of weekly formation and individual effort runs that go upwards of 5+ miles, sometimes three or four times per week. Believe me when I say that I wouldn’t have finished as the #1 student if I had sucked ass at the runs and came in the back half every damn time.

Now that that’s over, and will probably be the last time I brag about my running abilities, let’s carry on.
Running on the Devil's doorstep sucked.

Someone is forcing you to run. Whether for military or maybe you’ve succumbed to peer pressure to run a 5k for charity. What do?

Above I said that after I ran my best 3-miler (18:36) I almost died. Well, it certainly felt like it. I pushed myself as hard as I thought I could go because the stakes were high- it was for a meritorious promotion. I ended up getting it so that worked out nicely. But I learned a valuable lesson afterwards.

A day or so later I approached a guy at my command named David. This guy was probably 5’8” and 200+ pounds, lean as shit, and could bench 3-plates for reps. At the time he was one of the stronger and more jacked and tan dudes in the command.

He would also consistently post sub 18-minute times on the 3-mile PFT.

It astonished me that he could do this. Even more so after I ran the hardest I thought possible and still didn’t beat his time. (Keep in mind at the time I was a whopping 5’5” and something like 140 lb.) I should have been a badass runner. So I asked him how he did it.

David’s response, “I grind my teeth.”

That guy was fucking hard as nails.  I then realized I could have run faster. I held back a little bit and in doing so finished 3rd in that part of the competition. Lesson learned- when life gets hard you grind your damn teeth and deal with it.

My second lesson came via epiphany- running faster makes the pain go away sooner. Remember these two lessons as we move forward.

Bullshit. This guy never ran a day in his life.

How to not suck at running and not run at the same time?

First before we get into the nitty gritty just know that you can always accept the path of becoming a bench bro. Just bench, do other upper body stuff, and say that whatever running you do is your “leg days” and then call it good. If you want to take that way out, so be it. Just know that somewhere a teenage Russian girl is benching your squat.

But if not, here is what you came here for. First off lets have an airing of grievances.  You’re probably fat, your work capacity sucks, and you watch episodes of ‘America’s Next Top Model’ on your iPhone between sets.

That shit has to end.

And the show too, of course.

Running is a skill, but we don’t want to practice that skill. It isn’t a hard skill to learn so why waste your time perfecting it when you’ll be running a little 5k or some other waste of your time. That, or you’re probably running in a formation behind some other jokers so the skill wouldn’t apply anyways because the dumbasses in front and behind you keep chopping their steps and you’re packed so tightly in formation the term “nut to butt” is literal.

Your major limiting factor of running comes down to aerobic endurance. That is our concern here.

That’s what we’re going to train, although unconventionally, and not quite directly, but we’re going to focus on that and train it so you at least cross the finish line in front of the 80 year old grandfather, the 350 pound HAES activist, and the 20-year Gunnery Sergeant with two knee replacements and a whole unexploded RPG lodged in his ribs.

Endurance all comes down to work capacity. How much work can you do in a specific amount of time, and how well can you recover from it? That second part is pretty important so don’t forget it. (Thank you Greg Nuckols for that excellent post.)

If this guy can outrun you there's a problem.

We have to get your capacity up.

First of all, start timing your rest periods between sets. If you’re not lifting a weight that is greater than 85% of your training max (1st Tier) then you shouldn’t have to rest for more than two minutes max. If you’re currently the 5-minute rest guy sitting on the bench between warm up sets reading Seventeen Magazine then you seriously must quit that shit.

A great way to work on this and get in the habit of it is doing lifts Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM.) Take your favorite lift, say, the squat. Now get 50% of your training max, do it X amount of reps, every minute on the minute for one, three, five... 10... 20 minutes. If you’re new to this lean to the side of five or less reps at a time and five or less minutes. Gradually work your way up in both intensity and duration. I suggest adding two minutes or reps per week. When you’re done with those reps just rest until the next minute comes and then do your next set. It's that easy.

However, this can become brutally hard in so many ways. One time I was stupid enough to take 80% of my deadlift training max and do a 20-minute 1 Rep EMOM with it. Then like an idiot I decided to rep out the last set. Yep. 20 minutes later I had 23 reps of 405 and I felt like jumping in front of a bus would have been a better idea because that was workout #2 for that day.

Don’t be like I was. Don’t be a dumbass. To recap so far:

Step #1: Time your rests and do EMOMs.

(Get your rests as short as possible without causing an adverse effect on your work sets.)

The next thing we’re going to do is add in timed single exercise events. I’m talking things like bodyweight squats, push-ups, jump rope, or medicine ball throws, or hell damn near any low skill bodyweight movement you can do. Guess what, since your work capacity is on par with that of a three toed sloth you have to start small. We don’t want you to go insane for 20 minutes on bodyweight squats day-1 and not be able to squat the next day or the day after, or a month later.

I’m talking one minute at a time.  Gradually increase that minute by minute with linear progression. I recommend 3x per week. It could look something like this:

Monday: 1 Minute: Bodyweight Squats: Score Reps

Wednesday: 2 Minutes: Bodyweight Squats: Score Reps

Friday: 3 Minutes: Bodyweight Squats: Score Reps

So on and so forth until you get to 10 minutes of a single exercise. Now you can rest of course, but the idea is that the large majority of that time is spent working. When you rest you must remember point #1 above. When you get to where you’re doing 10 minutes of As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) with a single exercise we’re going to change it on you. Now when you get to that 10 minutes rather than sit around and rest like a pansy, you’re going to instead do another exercise.

It’ll look something like this:
10 Minutes: Squats and Push-ups, alternate as needed. (AMRAP of each): Score Total Reps

Now at this point in time I want you to simply focus on increasing your total number of reps on those 10 minutes. Don’t sweat going above 10 minutes. Two exercises, as many reps as possible, for 10 minutes. That stuff is lung collapsing. If you can do this you’re pretty much there for being able to handle a 24-minute 3-mile run. Do this 2-3x per week. If at this point in time you can go ballistic for 10-minutes the other 14 is spent grinding your teeth and finishing ahead of the guy on crutches.

But not this chick. Always finish behind her. Always.

To recap:

Step #2 Single exercise AMRAPS with linear time progression to 10 minutes. Then 10 minute two exercise AMRAPS. Count your reps.

Simple and effective. Just the way I like it. Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. KISS.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “C’mon, I don’t suck this bad.” Or, “That sounds boring as fuck.” Ok great. Well it’s about to get a lot harder and more interesting.

Now it is time for bar, dumb, and kettlebell complexes.

These are fun as hell, effective, and can keep you interested. Now, there are plenty of really good ones out there but I’m just going to list my three favorites. I’m not even sure that’s the word I should use to describe them…

Power Clean to Front Squat to Push Press to Back Squat to Push Press. 

Rinse. Repeat.

Complete eight rounds of: Eight double kettlebell front squats and 20m farmers walks.

Complete the front squats then drop the kettlebells to your side and walk. Thats one round. Clean then back into the front rack position and start squatting for round two. 

And my personal pride and joy,

Comerade Fran: 21-15-9 of Double Kettlebell Thrusters and Strict Pull-ups.

There are many more out there, but I’ll leave it up to you to find the complexes you find most interesting. The idea here is that you push yourself hard as hell for somewhere in the ballpark of 10 minutes.

Now that you’re on the level with complexes you should ease yourself into them. Because you’re moving an object instead of your body there is going to be slightly more risk- but not that much, so don’t let that keep you from crushing a few rounds of the Bear or beating my 7:26 time on Comerade Fran with two 53 lb. kettlebells.

That guy is probably overtrained. Someone should stop him.

To recap once more: 

Step #3 Bar, Dumb, and Kettlebell Complexes. 10 minutes. 1-2x per week along with at least one 10-minute two exercise AMRAP.

Now comes the worst part about all of this, you’re going to have to do more of this nightmarish conditioning work per week if you want to get better conditioning. The trouble is walking that fine line between too much and too little. I recommend undulating the durations of your conditioning workouts. Lets say you up them from two to three times per week. Maybe make the one in the middle a 5-Minute AMRAP. Then lets say you up it to 4x per week of this madness. Alternate that stuff.

“But that sounds a lot like CrossFit!!!” Yeah, exactly. Except all I'm saying is that if you follow those three steps you can maintain a respectable level of strength and do the bare minimum level of conditioning. That way you're not a shame to your family during a charity run. I'm not trying to forge the elite here, just making you less shitty at running. 

I guarantee the amount of effort you expend in these ten minutes is going to be significantly greater than whatever slog of a run you’re likely to go on. If you can last balls to the wall for 10 minutes with the bear complex any stupid run that comes around shouldn’t be a problem, you will likely run with the pack, and not die in a gelatinous heap of disgusting fat body Gomer Pyle powerlifter with a sadistic Corpsman shoving a thermometer up your keyster. 

I sincerely hope this isn't you.

And if it starts to get a little tiresome just remember what David said and grind your teeth.

(Yes, it can get a lot more complex than this and sure there are some other factors at play when it comes to programming this stuff into your current lifting schedule. However, those things are highly individualistic and I’m not going to waste my time spelling out every tiny step a lifter needs to do in order to not have garbage conditioning. Follow those three easy steps above and you’ll likely be able to still become stronger and faster than 90% of the people around you. "But what about sprints?!" That's running, shut up. "Prowler pushes?" You got money for that shit?)


  1. I skipped all the lame bodyweight stuff and went straight to the bear complex, and my heart exploded. Wat do?

  2. Begbie approves this message

    1. That's all that matters to me in this world.

    2. Begbie would squat your PR's and hand the weights back to you, weighing less than they did before. Every time Begbie lifts weights, some of the weight lifts off of the plate, floats through the air, and weighs down the chest of shit bags, making them get out of his beloved Corps.

  3. Great article! I am going to start the GZCL method into my leg workouts!
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