“What’s the difference between cardio and conditioning?”
The two often look very different: Your average gym-goer hops on a treadmill for 20 minutes at a moderate pace and calls it “cardio,” while your average CrossFitter performs a WOD for 20 minutes and calls it “conditioning.” These visible differences don’t really matter, though — in theory, a 20-minute session on the treadmill has the same metabolic effect as a 20-minute WOD of similar intensity. So what actually makes “cardio” and “conditioning” different?
“Cardio” usually refers to steady-state exercise in which an elevated heart rate is the primary goal. Sometimes, a person doing cardio will monitor his or her heart rate and try to keep it within a certain target zone. Whether or not the heart rate is actually being monitored, the goal of cardio is to produce sufficient exertion to raise the heart rate, which in turn will (hopefully) accrue to the exerciser the benefits of cardiovascular training: weight loss, improved blood lipid levels, etc.
“Conditioning,” on the other hand, usually refers to training in which improved performance is the primary goal. The heart rate will almost always reach or exceed the levels used in most “cardio” workouts, but is usually not monitored. The goal of conditioning is to produce a stimulus that causes the body to adapt in such a way that the athlete’s ability to perform a certain task is improved.
So the main difference between cardio and conditioning is the goal of the person performing the exercise. If you want to sweat for a little while, you’re doing cardio. If you want to get better at something, you’re doing conditioning.
But there’s a little more to it than that. This difference in goals creates a different attitude between the person doing cardio and the person working on conditioning. The cardio-doer is suffering for a set amount of time with the goal of experiencing the minimum amount of pain necessary to achieve his or her health-related goals. The athlete performing a conditioning workout is pushing him- or herself as hard as possible in order to achieve maximum performance gain.
This difference in attitude produces a difference in intensity, because the cardio-doer is trying to minimize suffering (low intensity) while the person doing conditioning is trying to maximize gains (high intensity). This difference in intensity produces a difference in results: The athlete working on conditioning not only improves his or her performance, but because he or she is working harder, the athlete also sees faster and more significant improvement in the things that the cardio-doer is trying to achieve (changes in body composition, cholesterol levels, etc.).
This is why we track our results. This is why we celebrate PR’s and strive to be just a little bit better every time we step into the gym. This is also why, time after time, I see people who switch their focus from pounds on the scale to pounds on the bar make quantum leaps in both performance and body weight. Training for performance is the fastest, most efficient, and most fun way to make your body more capable and healthier. That’s why we do “conditioning” instead of “cardio.”