Maybe HIT Isn’t Enough?

I am a big fan of High Intensity Training. Nothing is changing here, but in the last year I have lost some conditioning and it is probably my fault. Before I say where things went wrong, let me go back to my first true HIT workout. It was in February 2011 from legendary trainer Greg Anderson at Ideal Exercise.

Unlike the Glitter Gyms, the temperature at Ideal Exercise was a crisp 61-62 degrees. I love it. Back when I was in Queen Anne at Prorobics, I’d open the window even in the dead of winter to drop the temperature in the free weight room.

I later learned from an interview with Dr. McGuff that 61 degrees was ideal for generating the most intensity. Intensity is not about increasing your core temperature and sweating off calories. Intensity is about recruiting maximum muscle fibers in a brief and safe manner. Weight training will increase your core temperature, so starting from a cool temperatures will allow you to be comfortable and not hot when lifting. Therefore you can direct more attention and energy into the weights.

So I took what I learned from Greg Anderson and returned to my Glitter Gym. Glitter Gym is the term I use to describe all the big corporate gyms with lots of lights, mirrors and shiny equipment. Basically all modern gyms are now Glitter Gyms.

The problem I ran into was that I quickly got headaches at high levels of intensity, because my gym was warmer. Because the intensity comes on so quick in HIT and it comes on faster when it is warm, I would get sharp immediate headaches. Over the years, I have resolved this problem by dialing back the intensity and increasing the volume.

For me the secret sauce of HIT is not primarily about intensity, it is about safety. By not getting hurt, one could on a long enough time horizon make more gains even if the workout was less than optimal. I strongly believe that most brotards under estimate the risk and duration of injury, especially as we age and the weights get heavier.

Enough background. I believe I’ve underestimated the volume needed to compensate for reduced intensity. Because I’m not hitting that deep level of failure at the hot gyms, just bumping up the volume to additional set or additional day at the gym has turned out to not be enough. I noticed this recently when I tried out the endless rope machine. It humbled me on just how unconditioned I had become. As the average temperature in my gym went from 68F to 71F (20C to 21.7C), my level of effort went down, but my volume stayed constant.

Dialing Up the Volume

The past few weeks, I’ve increased my volume from 2 sets to 5 sets for the major exercises. I’m still doing mostly machines at a slower tempo, but not the SuperSlow and not to failure. But this still might not be enough.

As much as I can complain to the gym, they will never lower the temperature. The temperature at the gym is not set for what is best for the patrons, but for the staff. It baffles me that a group of fit mostly 20 year olds need to wear layers of clothing in a 70F gym. I wear a tank top and get hot just doing warm up exercises.

Another View of Conditioning

I fully understand and appreciate the dismissive view of cardiovascular training from the HIT community. I’m on board with it, provided you can actually do true HIT at a cool temperature with a legit trainer. That is expensive and unrealistic for the vast majority of people wishing to get fit.

Regarding conditioning, I do believe there is a lot of differences in how conditioning is defined and how it differs from skill. I view skill in the context of a specific sport or recreation. By engaging in deliberate practice one can become “conditioned” to that sport. But if I am not a runner, why should I care to run? Or cycle? Or whatever your sport happens to be.

I am still a believer that if you don’t know what skills you will need, the best thing to do is to just show up with stronger muscles. My fitness mentor Greg Anderson wrote this:

Muscular strength is the single most trainable factor in endurance performance. It is the muscles that actually perform work. When strength increases, the relative intensity of any given task decreases.

If you don’t know if you will be called on to swim, hike, run, cycle, ski or climb, the best training course of action is to just get stronger. If however, you know what you need to do then it also makes sense to train that sport.

Dr. McGuff tells a story of two overweight soldiers that trained on a stationary cycle for a Physical Fitness test. While the rest of the unit was in better shape, when it came time for the test on the cycles, the overweight soldiers got the best times. Were they the best conditioned? Depends upon how you measure conditioned. Had these two been asked to run instead, they would have likely finished behind the rest of the unit who all had more general transferable levels of conditioning from being stronger. But on that day on those stationary bikes, those two soldiers demonstrated the highest level of conditioning.

General Transferable Conditioning

So recently I’ve been thinking about how to build a set of general transferable conditioning skills that don’t require the very high levels of intensity from HIT. And do it in a way that doesn’t compromise safety. My initial thought is to construct a higher volume, lower weight workout with low skill movements that match the 7 Primal Movement Patterns outlined in Paul Chek’s book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! They are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Push
  4. Pull
  5. Bend
  6. Twist
  7. Gait (Walk, Jog, Run)

paul-chek

The idea here would be the same in that I don’t know what skills I would need to demonstrate conditioning, as I have no sport, but whatever they happen to be these 7 movements would provide an additional foundation on top of weight training.

Maybe I am misguided here? Your thoughts?

Muscle on Weight or Weight on Muscle?

I’m sure I’m not the first have this thought. I have no doubt many others have looked around a gym and noticed that almost everyone models their workouts as if they were machines designed to do as much work as possible. Should the muscle move the weight or should the weight move the muscle? Let me explain.

If our goal is to move more weight, more reps or work out longer, the weight is just along for the ride. We’ve taken a mechanical approach to getting stronger. More work means more results. And there is no doubt that this method works, but when you take a mechanical view of lifting, the way to make progress is to get both strong and more efficient. Efficient in the mechanical view is not about the most efficient way to target muscle fibers, but it is about the most efficient way to lift more weight or do more reps.

Efficiency in a mechanical approach is all about making the exercise as easy as possible. For someone lifting A LOT of weight, that might sound blasphemous, but it is true. Remember the goal with the mechanical approach is to lift more weight or knock out more reps. Anything that causes fatigue to set in earlier will prevent the mechanical lifter from reaching their number. Delaying muscular fatigue until the work volume is reached becomes the goal. By changing the rep speed and where the lifter takes pauses, one can do more work.

If you look across the gym, you will see most of the people doing two second reps. One second up, one second down. They use momentum to push up quickly past the sticking point, lock out briefly at the top, which allows a little recovery time and then control the weight as it falls, which allows more recovery time. At the bottom, they bounce the weight back up. This is the mechanical recipe for lifting. Minimizing the time spent on the targeted muscles will delay fatigue.

As the weight increases, the positive rep speed decreases, but it is still the optimal efficient speed, because to do anything less than optimal would reduce the weight or reps. Or in the case of heavy free weights, jeopardize safety.

chest press

Incline Press by ARC Equipment

The opposite of the mechanical approach is High Intensity Training (HIT). Here the goal is not to efficiently lift more weight or knock out more reps, but to efficiently target and fatigue muscle fibers and then leave the gym. The weight is strictly a tool used to trigger a biological process efficiently and with minimal risk of injury. The work is not moving the weight around. The work is what the weight is doing to the muscle. This means the rep speed is purposely inefficient. We aren’t trying to do more work, we are trying to get the weight to do more work.

The most inefficient set from a mechanical point of view would be a static hold workout like the one used in the book Hillfit. Here no work is getting done, but the muscle fibers are being effectively fatigued.

Today when I sit down at a chest press machine I have no rep or weight goals. Where the pin is at on the rack is not that important to me. The lighter the weight feels, the less efficient my rep speed will be. My goal is muscular fatigue not a specific amount of weight or reps. Once I’ve hit that level of fatigue, the workout is over. That might take as little as 5-10 minutes. But that is OK. I no longer have any interest in learning how to efficiently move more weights at the gym. The weights are tools to serve me.

Before I get push back in the comments, let me be clear: BOTH METHODS WORK. Whatever motivates you and is in line with your fitness values is the best approach.

Why Isn’t High Intensity Training More Popular? Part 2

In my last post Why Isn’t High Intensity Training More Popular? I covered a few reasons why HIT (not HIIT) doesn’t seem to be gaining in popularity. When I put the post together I was viewing HIT through my own experience and in doing so I missed a few reasons. I’ll conclude with my own definition of HIT which resolves these concerns.

HIT Can Be Too Efficient

Rob said this:

I do a traditional volume work out because I like the physical sensation of lifting the weight. I’m 52 and the list of things I enjoy doing seems to get shorter every year; lifting the weight still feels really good to me, so I do it as much as possible.

In an age where we always trying to hack this and hack that to get ever more efficient, does it make sense to be too efficient in the pursuits we enjoy? No.

Deep Soreness

Or as Stuart stated:

People don’t like the discomfort associated with high intensity training.

HIT taken to total failure, especially negative failure, will result in a deep level of soreness and fatigue. This may or may not be a bad thing. It was something I addressed back in 2011 in the post Training to Failure or Training to Quit Part 2. In this post I took the approach that certain professions which require a high level of daily performance might not be best served by HIT.

The High Intensity Training crowd is clear about taking the muscles to total failure and then allowing time to recover as the optimal method for building muscle. I’ve read the science and experienced it first hand. It works. However, if I had to perform at a high level on a daily basis, I wouldn’t be doing this method of training. When I return from the gym, I’m toast. The next day I move in slow motion. By day three, I’m still below baseline performance. This is perfectly fine for me, as I push pixels. I would not want to train like this if I were a lifeguard.

In addition to lifeguard, I also mention military and law enforcement. But maybe it extends beyond that. What if you needed to make an important sale or have some mentally taxing work to do? It can be hard to do when your body is recovering from a HIT workout. You could schedule your most important work around your workout if you have that luxury.

Confusing Skill With Strength

I failed to add this in Part 1, but another reason HIT isn’t as popular is lifters discount the skill component in the classic lifts and when they try HIT they notice their numbers go down. They then come to the false conclusion that they lost strength. I cover this fallacy in the post More Bench Press Nonsense.

HIT doesn’t make you slower or weaker. You still need to train your sport. And if your sport is squatting, benching and sprinting, you need to squat, bench and sprint. Those are skill moves that require repetitions. Most fit-tards fail to understand this point. I used to try and explain it, but not anymore.

MyHIT

Over the past few years my version of HIT has drifted away from the one-set to failure model. In fact, on most days I don’t go to failure. I’ve traded intensity for volume. What I haven’t surrendered is a strict adherence to exercise safety. To me the key strength of HIT is not the intensity part, but the choice of exercises. By selecting exercises that allow me to safely go to failure or not, I can avoid injury. It doesn’t matter if my reps are 3 seconds or 10 seconds or 30 seconds or static holds. The movement remains safe.

The reason I dialed down the intensity and increased the volume was because of temperature and my somatype. Gyms are too warm. By my estimate most gyms are 10 degrees F too warm. Because I tend to get exertion headaches easy I’ve learned to drop the intensity for volume. Also there is research, even research mentioned in Body By Science, that suggests ectomorphs might do better with more volume. See the post Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? for an explanation.

So I don’t know what I should call my version of HIT. I still believe in the following:

  1. Select exercises that can be taken to failure safely – even if you don’t plan to go to failure.
  2. Exercises should be performed at a controlled (slower) pace. Avoid adding momentum to make the movement easier.
  3. Static holds can be utilized.
  4. You can reduce intensity if you increase volume.
  5. Longer rest periods between workouts. Spend more time above than below baseline.
  6. The true benefit of HIT comes from looking a long time horizon where an athlete doesn’t get hurt year after year. In the near term other training methods may be equal or slightly better, but once risk and a long time horizon is factored in, I believe HIT wins.
  7. Body By Science (machines) and Hillfit (body weight) are the best HIT books.
  8. Arthur Jones is a genius.

body by science

My version of HIT solves some of the issues others were having. It isn’t too efficient. Because I don’t go to failure all the time, I am not in deep soreness. I can workout more frequently and longer. I vary my rep speed and number of sets for novelty. Yet I do not subject myself to injury risk via poor exercise selection. In other words, I still don’t squat or bench. Best of both worlds.

Am I in better shape with more volume than I had I stuck to 1-set to failure HIT? Probably not, but unless I can find a gym that drops the temperature significantly, higher volume is better for me.

Why Isn’t High Intensity Training More Popular?

I am an enthusiastic supporter of High Intensity Training. I’ve done many posts on the topic, but the one post I haven’t done is why it isn’t more popular. I am a believer that good ideas spread and gain popularity. Poor ideas might be faddish for a while, but over time they fade away. HIT has been around since the 1970s. It hasn’t faded away, but it doesn’t seem to be gaining any ground on traditional weight lifting programs.

I’ve recently been thinking about why is this the case. HIT is sold as being more effective, efficient and safe than traditional weight lifting. But do most people who start a fitness plan care about all those attributes? I don’t believe so.

I would say the majority of those beginning a traditional weight training program are young and mostly male. They might be time rich, so efficiency is not a priority. And because they are young and still invincible, safety is dismissed. As for effectiveness, almost all fitness programs can be effective in the short term, especially for beginners.

If you are a young lifter looking to gain muscle and seeking role models, there will be far more examples using traditional weight lifting than HIT. Hell I didn’t even know what HIT was until 15 years after I first started lifting.

Attribution Bias

This is something I said in the Dorian Yates on Squatting post.

Most of the easiest gains come in the first year of training. Some would say in the first six months. Very very few lifters start with HIT. The young lifter associates their gains to their workout protocol and not the fact they are a beginner. This sets off a culture built on attribution bias. “I made the most gains with the squat” instead of “I made the most gains when I was a beginner”.

Because the vast majority of new lifters use traditional weight lifting programs to make those early and easiest gains, they develop a strong loyalty to those methods.

Volume Mindset

There is a deep ingrained belief in our collective fitness conscious that more is better. If a 10K is healthy then a marathon is more healthy. Squat more. Do more reps. Workout longer. Exercise more times per week. We have industries built around keeping the message that more exercise is better.

High Intensity Training challenges the volume mindset. But like religion and politics, most people are unwilling to listen, test or try it for themselves. They laugh at it. They’ll recall the times they most the progress as the ones where they did the most. They won’t question if they did too much or if what they were doing was sustainable or lead to an injury.

Overcoming the volume mindset is hard enough with an older adult, but next to impossible with the younger lifter.

lift-weights

Photo by US Navy 

Coaches and Team Strength Trainers

Let us imagine that you offered me a nice paying job as a strength coach for a college sports team. Would I remake the program with the HIT principles I believe in so deeply? Nope. Why not? Let us explore the incentives.

If I switch the program to HIT and the team performs as well as before or even slightly better, there is no or very little upside for me. If however, the team does worse they will look for blame. What changed? Fire the radical strength coach. In the event the team sucks and I use a similar strength program that other schools are using then I’m less likely to be faulted.

I see the safety benefits of HIT as becoming more pronounced over the years. They matter more to the average 30+ year old than the 20 year old gifted collegiate athlete. Young athletes bounce back quickly, so the safety advantage I believe HIT has is far less visible with that group. So there is little incentive to shake things up.

These coaches and strength trainers serve as additional confirmation that traditional lifting is the better path, which may or may not be true.

Can Be Expensive

Hiring a HIT trainer in a HIT gym is not a trivial cost. Getting a membership to a regular gym and figuring out something on your own is cheaper. Now you can do HIT at a regular gym, but having a few sessions with an experienced HIT trainer is super valuable for understanding how to generate intensity.

Young lifters tend to be time rich and have less money. Hiring a HIT trainer is probably not the best use of their money. The benefits of a HIT trainer increase as one becomes more busy and is earning more money.

Note that HIT doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get Body By ScienceHillfit, and/or The New High Intensity Training for not much money. Add in a few YouTube videos and you can start on a budget.

Can Be Boring

HIT can be boring. It was for me when I first started. From the February 2010 post Is Slow Motion Weight Training Superior?

What I did learn was that slow training is boring. Apparently, I am not alone. That study that the slow motion group throws around has a back story. Even though the group had a 50% strength gain, the lead researcher discovered that only 1 out of the 147 people in the study continued training. Most felt it was too tedious.

It took a year and a session at Ideal Exercise for it to click with me. I doubt I would have been this patient in my 20s. I would have given up and moved onto something else. If being bored keeps a young man from gaining his first 10, 20 or 30 pounds of muscle then it isn’t a good program.

Wrapping It Up

There are more reasons why HIT is not that popular, but those are the most important. And although I am a fan of HIT, I completely understand why it will never be as popular as traditional lifting. I’m OK with that. It’s not my battle.

Always Answering the Wrong Fitness Question

Normally I don’t read T-Nation, but an article being shared on Twitter caught my eye. I knew it was going to be lacking, but I had to look. The article is titled 6 Reasons Why You’re Always Hurt.

Can you guess what reason never made the list? Exercise selection.

Never in the article does the idea that some exercises are more prone to injury risk than others make it to print. Another article that begins with the assumption that one must squat and deadlift. Because you know, you have to. Uggh. The article is answering the wrong fitness question.

The problem with weight training is something that took me a long time to learn myself. Built into almost every discussion on how to gain strength and size in the gym is the assumption that one should use the protocol that gets the most results. Risk is not even factored in. I’ve said it before, but I favor an approach that yields the highest percentage of success, not necessarily the most results for a handful of outliers. Classic free weight training protocols often dismiss injury risk as failures of the individual. See my post Fitness Professionals Fail to Understand Survivorship Bias for a deeper discussion.

There is a poll on the site asking readers to vote on their level of injury.

poll-vote

So in the quest for more muscle, 84% of T-Nation readers are having some form of injury. This is all unnecessary. I’m not going to go through the case for High Intensity Training again. Been there, done that. If you are interested, read Body By Science (machines) or Hillfit (body weight).

Even if traditional weight lifting is twice as effective as HIT, which I don’t believe, the math is not in your favor on a long enough timeline, because it has a much higher rate of injury. Because HIT uses very low skill movements done slowly that allow the exercise to be taken to failure safely, the risk of injury is almost 0%. So even if you never hit your true potential, which I don’t believe, you also avoid the risks that cause the pain and sideline one with injury.

Let us for the sake of argument say that compound weight lifting is twice as effective as HIT. I don’t believe that, but let us start with that assumption, because I don’t feel like arguing the point anymore. But the injury rate for the “twice as effective” is 84%. The bro-tards don’t see it, but as their training timeline extends they are running head first into math. They are getting older, the weights are getting heavier and stakes are getting higher.

Why spend thousands of hours training to be brawny at 30 only to be broken at 40?

Think Like an Investor

Common advice in investing is that young people can take greater risks. They have a long time horizon and can start over should they lose money. As the investor gets older, the portfolio gets moved to more conservative investments. This protects the downside and locks in the gains made when they were younger. This is common wisdom and most people understand it. Yet this same lesson applies for weight training as well.

Why subject yourself to excessive injury risk when you are older and have already made significant gains? Why not lock in those gains by reducing risk? Step out of the squat rack and head over to the leg press. It isn’t as glamorous, but neither are injuries.