Superior Training Tactics

There are so many fitness fads these days it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all, but it’s my profession, after all and I’m going to go through a number of the more popular ones after talking about why these fads and scams keep coming back.

Over the last 30 years, the general exercising public and competitive athletes have been on separate training trajectories. Prior to the 1980s, most athletes didn’t spend a lot of time in the gym lifting weights. Tennis players played tennis, did tennis drills on the court to practice strokes, footwork, and techniques, and maybe did some cardio work to improve aerobic capacity, but none hit the weight room. They were afraid it would make them bulky, slower, less agile, and muscle-bound. Basketball and baseball players followed the same logic. So did track and field runners. a marathoner ran miles and sprinters did wind sprints and middle distance sprints. Maybe shot putters lifted weights as that has a strong strength component, but that’s about it. NFL linemen, linebackers, and running backs always lifted weights, but the “finesse” positions of Quarterback, wide receiver, corner backs, punters and kickers, almost certainly did not.

Meanwhile, the gym industry started its major growth faze, with Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s star leading the way, picking up the baton Jack LaLanne started with in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

These men were about physical fitness and; LaLanne especially; physical health and well-being. They might’ve performed athletic events (Schwarzenegger was a competitive power lifter before he became a body building champion, and LaLanne performed feats of strength and athleticism to highlight what physical fitness made possible. Interestingly, when Arnold was 19 he participated in a publicity strength challenge against 54-year-old LaLanne and LaLanne kicked Arnold’s ass!

Unfortunately, there were few female icons involved at this stage. LaLanne tailored his pioneering TV show to housewives, and did frequently showcase his wife. As a matter of fact the most popular professional female body builder of the 1970s and early 1980s was Rachel McLish, but the vast majority of female gym goers thought she was way to muscular and unfeminine to be considered a role model. To male body builders, she was hotter than a Playboy Playmate.


I think today, she would be almost considered perfect. Back then, most women recoiled in horror at her overly muscular physique! Click on her picture to see even more of this “unfeminine” woman (I always thought she was a true ideal)

Getting back to the point, with these two men as the inspiration, Americans started going to the gym in increasing numbers and lifted weights. Around this time another pioneer, Dr. Kenneth Cooper (Cooper Aerobics Center)of the US Air force published studies he did on servicemen showing the benefits and importance of cardiovascular fitness. He is called the father of Aerobics, and in fact coined the term “Aerobics” in the first place. A number of books by runners came out and the running boom began. This was all serious training. Logging long hours doing miles of running and hitting the gym to lift serious weights (subjective to the individual, of course) and this was work.

The problem was, most people don’t want to do hard physical work, and like any business, the fitness industry wanted to make more money, and that required more bodies in the gym. How do you make grueling, dedicated hard work fun?

Enter the age of recreational fitness, and STEP and Jazzercize were its first and second offspring. Originally, step was a very good workout, and very aerobic, as the choreography was simple and required very little skill to master. You made it harder by increasing the number of risers, and by moving faster. But slowly, creative impulses and waning attendance demanded change to keep the masses coming back. Choreography became more dance like (fun), more complicated, and required increasing levels of skill to perform without pause. Eventually, as much of the class time was spent watching and learning intricate choreography as actually moving vigorously. The class would be standing still the instructor breaking down the moves in slow motion, then having the class perform the single move back repeatedly, then learning another step, and so on, as if they were getting ready to put on a dance show. Half the hour is spent doing nothing physical at all, and steps had to be much lower to perform the complicated choreography.

Moving forward in time, athletes and their coaches started realizing that being physically stronger enhanced just about every athletic endeavor, and they slowly but surely incorporated traditional strength training into all their routines. Even the best swimmers now spend hours every week lifting weights to get physically stronger.

Meanwhile, in the consumer health club, men were dropping out of organized group fitness classes faster than raindrops fall during a tropical storm, and everyone who remained noticed they weren’t losing weight anymore. The public, looking at their athletic heroes, noticed how hard the athletes bodies looked and concluded it was all that athletic training that the athletes did, and group exercise classes got a second wind. Members started participating in all kinds of sports conditioning type classes; boxing, kickboxing, cardio kick boxing, sports conditioning, yoga, ballet workouts, P90X, Crossfit™, TRX™; while the athletes themselves spent ever greater time lifting boring old weights. Click on either Crossfit or P90X above to read a journal article about the research, but here’s the conclusion of the study:

In summary, though ECPs (extreme conditioning programs) such as CrossFit and P90X are very popular, this popularity does not appear to be warranted. There is little evidence from peer-reviewed studies that ECPs are safe and/or effective, particularly when compared to established training programs documented to improve military task performance. Though much more research needs to be conducted, ECPs do not seem, at this time, to represent training programs likely to improve military Guy Leahy, Med, CSCS,*D

Club members aren’t looking any fitter, by and large, but are, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning and the Journal of the American Medical Association dealing much higher frequencies of exercise related injuries. Athletic Performance has nothing to do with health, and everything to do with winning at all costs. Is this your goal? Is this important to you? Have you even thought about it?

Ask yourself why you go to the gym. Is it to get healthy, fit and strong, and to improve your appearance? Is it to improve your athletic performance in competitive or recreational sports? Is it recreational for you, in and of itself? All are valid, as far as I’m concerned, but you must be willing to match your reason to your method.

In conclusion,

If you’re trying to get healthy, fit, and strong to improve the quality of your life, be careful about’ training athletically! You will get hurt. Repeatedly. and 10, 15, or 20 years later you will feel every one of those injuries for the rest of your days. If you’re training because you’re a recreational or competitive athlete, make sure you pick a training style that transfers well to your sport of choice, and lift weights to enhance your physical abilities and reduce your risk of injury because you have a strong musculoskeletal foundation that can better withstand the stresses of athletics. If going to the gym is, in fact, your favorite form of recreation and entertainment, in and of itself, make sure you have a daily plan that minimizes your risk of injury so that you can continue for the long-term. Overtraining and improper form from overly complicated skill drills will have you convalescing at home far to frequently otherwise.



Intensity: Revisited

There is so much confusion regarding exercise intensity that I could probably write a column on this one topic every other day for a month, and not clear it up for everyone. I have to constantly remind myself that i’ve chosen to understand this topic whereas most people have no desire to. Then again, I understand how important calculus is to the modern world, and am grateful I don’t have to know it. So lets break this down.

There are two main types of Fitness Energy Zones: the Aerobic and the Anaerobic. Here are dictionary definitions.

Anaerobic Exercise: relating to or denoting exercise that does not, or is not intended to improve the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system in absorbing and transporting oxygen.

Aerobic Exercise: relating to or denoting exercise that improves or is intended to improve the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system in absorbing and transporting oxygen.

Now it seems to me that the general public and the media seem to privilege aerobic exercise over anaerobic exercise based on the premise that aerobics “make the heart healthier” and weight lifting is for certain athletes and other men who are trying to overcompensate for something. So lets dig a little deeper.

First, about those definitions. Most pundits and the general public seem to misread and stop reading the definitions at a certain point:

Anaerobic exercise “…does not…improve the efficiency of the cardiovascular systems…”

We’ve all read quotes that look like the above in a variety of contexts. When a writer decides to edit a quote from the beginning, in the middle, and again at the end, you should become immediately suspicious. Heres the second quote the way popular magazines tend to put it:

Aerobic exercise “…improves…the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system…”

Written like that, who wouldn’t say that aerobics is more important? But it’s a lie based on misreading and selective editing. All either definition is describing is whether or not the energy system involved involves the absorption and transportation of oxygen through the blood stream. It says nothing about whether one has greater overall health benefits. It doesn’t even say what the relative health benefits of each might be. If these readings were valid, all U.S. Marine, Army Ranger, and SEAL’s special forces must be very unfit.

The assumption is that anything that is “good” for cardio, is good for life, and by selectively editing the definitions presented above it seems apparent that aerobic is more beneficial. But did you know that anaerobic training has been proven to improve cardiovascular health? It improves heart action! Your heart becomes more powerful, just like it does with conventional cardiovascular aerobic training. This is referred to as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) to progressive overload. You do remember that the heart is a muscle, and like all muscles, will respond and adapt to what you put it through. A person is even training their heart; as well as every skeletal muscle, and even the integrity of the bones in their bodies; when they sit on a couch for 4 hours. The difference is, when you sit on the couch, your training consists of telling your body you don’t need a strong heart, you don’t need strong muscles, and you don’t need strong bones. Welcome to slugville (a negative response of specific adaptation to imposed demand).

Now, I teach Spin. I’ve been a body builder, a strength competitor (both strictly amateur) and a ranked racquetball player. I love athletic exercise, even though I don’t compete in any of those things, anymore. I’m not a dancer, so Zumba, cardio jam, the modern step class are not my cup of tea. That doesn’t invalidate these activities at all. We each need to find those things that get us going, get us excited, and get us wanting to put everything we have into them. The problem isn’t whether or not this class or that method is worthwhile, the problem is whether your effort is worthwhile.

So lets take our discussion of intensity to a deeper level. We talk about intensity zones like the fat burning zone (60-70% max heart rate). This is the zone where 85% of all the calories you burn will come from stored body fat, after the first 12-15 minutes of activity (how long it takes fat metabolism to kick in). At this level, the intensity of your activity is below the threshold necessary to improve actual fitness of the participant. You need to train in this zone for a significant length of time (90+ minutes) to get any appreciable caloric burn off.

The Aerobic training zone (70-80%) is where you get a well-rounded workout. You will still burn significant fat calories (50% of total), your calories/minute will be more significant, allowing you to get real results in about 60 minutes (the average length of most group exercise classes), and your heart and lungs will start getting enough stimulation to actually improve its functioning over time.

The anaerobic zone (80-90%) is the next step up. Your body will consume very high amounts of calories/minute. 85% of those calories will come from stored carbohydrates, and only 15% from fat stores, as fat metabolism requires oxygen, and your burning energy too fast to use the oxygen delivery system efficiently. This intensity level severely limits the duration of an exercise session. Most people will become utterly exhausted within 10-20 minutes. Ever worked out so hard you felt like throwing up (or did)? Welcome to the anaerobic zone.

Max Zone (90-100%) Nausea, dizziness, light headedness, even fainting, can occur in an unprepared exerciser. This level should generally be avoided unless you know your fitness level. The problem is, no one knows their true fitness level or heart rate zones. All our tools at the consumer level are no more than good estimates. Get a stress test to determine your true max heart rate and then you can get reliable personal zones (mine is 177 bpm).

Where does this leave us? As intensity goes up, fat burning seems to go down, but this is misleading. At the fat burning intensity you burn so few calories/minute that you have to train for an exceptionally long time to get any significant benefit. If you want results in this zone, train for 2 or 3 hours without stopping. This is the zone competitive marathoner’s spend most of a marathon in, pushing up into higher intensities only as the race nears the end. A runner who was leading most of the way and faded at the end miss timed their kick. They pushed their intensity up too soon, or their opponents were better trained, or both. Of course, this is equally true of a Tour de France or Ironman triathlete competitor.

So why bother with anything besides the Aerobic zone? Based on those original definitions, you’d think higher zones are counter productive or a waste of time. What’s happening is you’re consuming energy (calories/minute) faster than your aerobic capacity can produce it, and your body starts switching over to the lactic energy system. This doesn’t mean that your aerobic system has shut down however. It is desperately trying to keep up with the demand, as it is the energy system your body is most efficient at using. Here’s why you want to include the anaerobic energy zone.

Your body is really just a conveyor belt of energy (calorie) distribution. During fat burning you start burning glycogen (starchy sugars) stored in the muscle directly. As these start depleting, your body sends spare energy stored in your liver to your muscles, replenishing them so they can continue to move, or do more reps. After 12-15 minutes of continuous movement without rest, fat metabolism starts up and fat is converted to glycogen and sent to the muscles and the liver to replenish them. Move up the intensity 1 step (aerobic zone), the process accelerates a little. Move into the Anaerobic zone and fat metabolism still occurs, but the workout duration will be shorter because the energy is being burned faster than the body can convert and transport energy to your muscles. Remember, fat metabolism begins 12-15 minutes after you begin exercising. Most people become exhausted 10-20 minutes in. See the problem? Even if you’re very conditioned, and you can go 30 or 40 minutes, you will only get 15 or 20 minutes where fat metabolism is even happening at all. But it doesn’t matter. At the anaerobic intensity level, your body is burning large amounts of calories/minute, your liver is desperately trying to replace the muscle glycogen so you can keep going, and your aerobic energy (fat metabolism) can’t keep up. When you are finished, your body still needs to replenish the muscle and liver sugars (glycogen) that you depleted, as quickly as possible, because the body does not like deficits (homeostasis). This forces your body to stay at an enhanced metabolic rate for 4-6 hours to quickly convert fat into sugar (glycogen) to get the liver and muscles full. At the end of traditional aerobic exercise, the human body returns to its original pre workout metabolic rate within 30 minutes.

We’ve seen how fat burning percentages go down as intensity goes up. The inverse is equally true. The less intense your activity level, the greater percentage of fat your body can use as an energy source. Want the highest fat metabolism rate? Sit on your ass. Go to sleep. There’s a great weight control strategy.

Here’s a great secret for the gym, whether the aerobic class, Spinning, or the weight room. The more you adapt your body to train in higher intensity zones, the better your body gets at training at every intensity below that threshold. If I spend my time in the weight room doing leg press with 75 lb, 3 sets, 15 reps every other day. I will reach a certain level of fitness and then my body will stop responding. If I leave the weight the same and increase the number of reps, I’ll get better at doing more reps, but will eventually plateau. On the other hand, if I start increasing my weight to 100 lb., even if I can no longer complete 15 reps initially, my muscles will get stronger, and my ability to push lighter weight (75 lb.) for higher reps will still improve; and at a faster rate with less risk of plateauing. As the heart is a muscle; in arguably the most important one we have, it responds to all these intensity zones in just the same way. For the athlete, it’s just a question of knowing when to apply each level of intensity during training and competition. For everyone else, it’s all about physically manipulating your body through them to help you achieve your goals. In the Spin room, use a heart rate monitor if possible. The more time you spend in the higher intensity zones, the longer you will be able to train at the lower intensity zones, when the circumstances dictate. And we want to prevent plateau’s as much as possible. That’s why official spin classes are 45 minutes, not 60 like other classes.

Good luck.