I thought I would post a quick fitness update. I may have stumbled upon the secret sauce for ectomorphs trying to gain muscle. Well at least for me. Last August, I posted Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? where I revisited the great book Body By Science and how ectomorphs might respond better to increase volume.
In order to increase the volume, I needed to decrease intensity. This turned out not to be a hard decision to make. My Glitter Gym keeps the temperature too damn high, so I’m unable to generate the intensity I am capable of doing the cool outdoors or in a real HIT gym. So I dropped the intensity and added some volume. Not too much, usually I’d just spread the intensity across 2 sets instead of one. Those looking for precise numbers, won’t get them from me. See the post Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important for why I no longer track any metrics and just focus on intensity.
Although the volume is greater and intensity is decreased, I am still doing the same exercises. Machines based movements such as the leg press, chest press, row and pull down performed slowly with static holds. I also do chin-ups and a shoulder press. I don’t do any bench presses, squats, dead lifts or other compound movements. Machines allow me to really slow down the movement and take out the momentum in a safe manner.
A typical week will have 1 or 2 workouts of about 20 minutes each, with 2-3 minutes of rest of between exercises. No rest between 2 set exercises.
The Magic of Kefir
In January I started to believe that dairy kefir was anabolic. Now I am more convinced. On most days I drink a pint. On workout days, I might drink more. Sometimes I blend in frozen blueberries or I might drink it plain. I don’t know what is going on, but I estimate that I’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle in the past year. I started the quest using ice cream, but switched over to kefir in December. For an ectomorph that has been lifting since 1994, that is an impressive number.
Fellow experimenter Richard at FreeTheAnimal is using dairy kefir to both lean out and gain muscle. If it possible to both gain muscle and lean out on kefir, then maybe a calorie isn’t a calorie? Perhaps an anabolic score could be established? Kefir and ice cream at the top. Beer and tofu at the bottom.
The Secret Sauce So Far
Here are the elements that I think provide the greatest bang for muscle gain for ectomorphs.
HIT with a slight increase in volume and decrease in intensity.
Drink dairy kefir or eat ice cream. You need a caloric surplus to gain muscle. These foods are ideal. Those that don’t like dairy can use coconut milk or cream.
Machine based movements done slowly with static holds. Those without a gym can do my Outdoor HIT or the HillFit workout.
Slow walks are fine, however excess cardio will make it harder to gain size.
Avoid injury at all costs. This means don’t engage in skill based fatiguing movements (bench, squat). Especially those performed quickly (CrossFit).
If he only mentioned this once in the book, I would have let it slide, but I think it was repeated three times. Taleb disses machine based weight training as being less effective than single rep max lifting. There are a lot of poor assumptions here.
The fact that it appears that those using machines are less muscular than than those using weights doesn’t mean that machines are less effective. It could be the application of the use of those machines, nutrition, rest or some other issue.
Taleb critiques machines because they lack the randomness of a “functional” movement such as the deadlift. But biomechanics aren’t random. Our muscles move in certain paths. When you violate those paths with heavy loads, you risk injury. Now, if your skill requires those movements, then by all means train them. However, Taleb’s motivation, like myself, is to just be strong and build muscle. What Taleb isn’t seeing are all the single rep max lifters that hurt themselves and are no longer working out.
He models his workout after his 60 year old friend who does a single rep max deadlift weekly. This was the most puzzling part of the book to me. How did Taleb conclude that this method was ideal based off a single survivor point of data? His friend might be brilliant or he might be the Bill Miller (Legg Mason) of exercise.
Taleb equates the deadlift with strength. The same as picking up a rock. Besides strength, the deadlift is also a highly skilled movement. Skill movements require more than 1 lift per week. When your skill level remains static as the weight you are lifting increases, you are increasing your risk of injury. I don’t think there is a single power lifting coach that would advise their clients to do single rep max lifting every week.
Taleb says it is easy to lift a lot more weight with machines and therefore it forces you into “endless repetitions“. Up until 2010, I felt the exact same way. I still see that 99% of the patrons using weight machines are in the words of Arthur Jones “throwing weights“. However, the fact that a machine is easier at an equal weight and equal tempo doesn’t make it inferior to free based weights. The key is to slow down the repetition, something that is unsafe to do, especially in the negative portion of a lift, with free weights. By doing repetitions very slowly on machines, you can remove momentum and make the movement more difficult and more safe.
Also in the spirit of the book Antifragile, a max lift deadlift doesn’t gain from disorder. If you attempt to lift too much or your focus is slightly off, you can really hurt yourself. Meanwhile, when I do a slow leg press I truly benefit from disorder. I am trying to get all my muscles fibers to fail. With machines I can still safely lower the weight at the point of muscular failure without risking injury to my joints. You can’t do that with free weights. Machines are Antifragile, not free weights.
I doubt Taleb will ever see this post, but if you are reading this I would encourage you to seek out a High Intensity Training gym and sign up for a workout. You will use machines, you will be humbled and your quest for strength will truly be Antifragile.
When I first started lifting weights in 1994, I read the muscle magazines which endlessly repeated the golden rule of bodybuilding, which was to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a wide variety of exercises. A typical workout would take an hour. These were the important metrics during my early years of lifting.
After a few years of doing this style of training, my gains stalled. I assumed the reason my gains stalled was that I didn’t workout enough. The new number I focused on was number of gym visits. Somehow I got it into my head that I needed to lift 3 times a week to maintain and 4 times a week to gain. If I worked out just once or twice a week, I’d be losing muscle. Boy did I have that one wrong.
Where did all that high volume, “go big or go home” nonsense lead me? Frequent injuries. I could go a month or two all out, only to be sidelined for an equal or greater period of time.
What About Reps?
Then in 2001, I read Pavel’s Power to the People. His approach was different than anything I had been exposed to up until that point. The primary lessons being to keep the reps low, increase the weight, work on a few key compound exercises and end the exercise a few reps before failure for safety.
As I’ve discussed in other posts, the period of 2001-2003 was when I turned things around and made the most gains. My injury rate dropped and I got stronger. I became a disciple of low reps. There are many posts on this site where I preach the gospel of low reps.
At this point, I was convinced the high weight plus low reps were the key metrics. The problem with higher weights is that when you do have that one rep that is less than perfect and you tweak your back or shoulder, the injury is worse. My concern with Pavel’s prescription for strength is that the exercises he uses to demonstrate strength have a high skill component. I discussed why that is problematic in the posts I No Longer Give a Squat About the Squat and My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.
The purpose of low reps with Pavel or any other powerlifting style protocol is to train the skill while the muscles are fresh. One is far more likely to have perfect form on reps 1 to 3 than 6 – 9. So by using low reps with extended rest, you reduce injury risk. The magic of low reps was no magic at all. It was a strategy to increase safety in complex skill based lifts. And increasing the skill component allows the lifter to increase the weight quicker. By moving to safer exercises with a lower skill component, I believe the low rep advantage disappears.
So many numbers. My workout white board from my Pavel era.
What About the Weight?
At this point in my fitness journey I had lost the faith that reps, sets or even number of visits to the gym per week were valuable metrics, but I still believed that the higher the weight, the better. Then I was exposed to High Intensity Training. I learned that by slowing down the repetition speed, a lighter weight became more difficult to move. By trading momentum for less weight, the exercise not only became more challenging, because I was using machines, it became safer.
The speed of a rep is the most powerful metric, with a static hold being the most challenging. Very slow movements and static holds allow me to safely recruit more muscle in a safer manner. Today my legs have never been stronger, yet I use a much lighter weight.
Intensity and Time Under Load
These days I could care less about reps, sets or even the weight. I’m going for intensity and TUL (time under load). The amount of weight I use on the leg press is often as little as 150-190 pounds. I do a few reps very slowly and then lower the weight into a static hold and then hold until failure is reached. When the movement is complete, I can barely stand up. At no point in the movement did I risk injury with complex movements or excessive weight.
How much intensity and TUL? I vary these from workout to workout. I no longer go to complete failure every workout. TUL might vary from 30 seconds at a higher weight to 60 seconds at a lower weight. I usually do a single set, although I might add in a second from time to time. I mix it up. I don’t write down any numbers and I’ve never been in better shape.
Last night I received word from Bill DeSimone of Congruent Exercise that my fitness mentor Greg Anderson died over the weekend. Greg Anderson ran Seattle’s Ideal Exercise and has been active in the High Intensity Training community for many years. Greg was passionate about fitness and High Intensity Training.
How I met Greg was pure luck. When my Tales From the Glitter Gym series was featured on MetaFilter, I got slammed with negative comments. One of the negative comments was specific to the fact that I was dismissive of cardio. I decided to do a more detailed post on the topic, so I wrote The Myth of Cardiovascular Training. Although there are some minor things I would change today, for the most part I am still proud of that post.
Shortly after that post, I received an email introduction from Greg. He really liked the new cardio post and invited me to his HIT gym for a workout. Greg’s gym was a short drive away from where I live in Seattle.
I detailed my first HIT workout with Greg in the post High Intensity Training at Ideal Exercise of Seattle. Prior to this workout I was attempting to practice what I had been reading in the book Body By Science. I was doing the movements correctly. I was even doing OK with the fluid movements and the timing.
What I didn’t get until my workout with Greg what intensity really means. After this workout and a follow-up session with Greg, I became a believer and disciple of HIT. People laugh when I tell them I workout just 10-15 minutes per week. They wouldn’t laugh had they experienced a HIT workout by Greg Anderson. Those first 9 minutes I spent with Greg will forever be seared in my memory.
Greg Anderson is my fitness mentor. I learned a lot from him. He will be missed. Dr. McGuff, the author of the greatest fitness book ever, Body By Science, just posted a nice tribute to Greg titled The Greatest Trainer in the World. Read it all.
I’ve read several claims that people tend to lose strength after they start a High Intensity Training program. I started HIT in December 2010. Have I lost strength? I guess it depends on how you measure strength.
My thesis is that using traditional weight lifting exercises as a metric for measuring strength is unfair when measuring the efficacy of HIT. The reason is the bench press, squat and dead lift are highly technical moves. When you stop training a technical move, you get rusty and are unable to lift as much safely. What you perceive as a loss of strength might really be loss of technique.
A Tale of Two Exercises
About 6 months after I started High Intensity Training, I took a break and did some flat bench presses. My “strength” was off considerably. I had to lower the weight by about 30 pounds. For a brief moment I was concerned. Then I realized there was no way my strength had declined. I had never felt stronger. In an instant, I knew just how worthless the bench press was for measuring chest strength. I wrote an entire post on why I believe this to be true. See My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.
Another strength exercise that is far less technical is the chin-up. You basically just lift yourself up and then lower yourself down. When I do a chin-up, I’m just thinking about pulling my elbows down to my side in a direct line. Unlike a bench press, I don’t have to worry about safety issues. If I fail to complete the repetition, I can safely lower myself down. Today I perform chin-ups in a slower controlled manner. None of that CrossFit Kipping nonsense [*]. Anyway, I can perform more consecutive chin-ups today than when I did traditional weight training. And I’m not using ballistic momentum movements to squeeze out extra reps.
[*] Before someone asks me what I have against the CrossFit Kipping pull-up, I’ll refer them to an interview with Dr. Doug McGuff on Conditioning Research.
You can only do kipping pull-ups or clapping pushups so long before you tear the labrum of your shoulder or injure your rotator cuff. Further, these injuries are not always acutely evident. You may tear your labrum in your 20’s and “mysteriously” end up with a frozen shoulder in your 50’s.
Did I Lose Strength Doing HIT?
I didn’t lose strength doing High Intensity Training. I lost technique, which is something I no longer care about. I can prove that my back strength is greater now. I can’t numerically prove that my chest is stronger today, but it is.
Since December 2010, I have been a huge fan of High Intensity Training. I’m in the best shape of my life and unlike my free weight days, I never get injured anymore. In other words, everything is going great.
A few days ago, I was reviewing some information in the outstanding book Body By Science regarding genetic potential and intensity. After a detailed explanation on all the factors that determine our genetic potential for muscle size, the book explains how some individuals respond best to High Intensity and other respond best to Modest Intensity.
Individuals who have two copies of the insertion gene (an “ii” gene) of the angiotensin converting enzyme tend to have high levels of slow-twitch fiberts and to be especially endurance oriented…
People with the “ii” version likely respond better to higher repetitions, longer TULs, and even multiple sets…
How did I miss the importance of this paragraph the first three times I read the book? He is speaking directly to ectomorphs. Maybe this one set to failure isn’t the best idea for the lanky lifter? I couldn’t let this drop, so I did some more research.
Dr. Doug McGuff in his article Grist For The Mill referenced High Intensity Training’s pioneer Arthur Jones.
Slow twitch motor units produce modest contractile force, fatigue slowly, and recover quickly. Because of their fast recovery profile, these are the motor units that might stand to benefit from repeated exposure to stress and fatigue (this has been borne out in data collected by Arthur Jones that showed subjects with a predominance of slow twitch fibers actually perform better on a second set after a first set to failure).
This opinion isn’t just that of McGuff, it is common. Mike Westerdal of CriticalBench.com in the article High Intensity Training versus Volume Training had similar advice for ectomorphs. In the quote below, VT stands for Volume Training.
Ectomorphs tend to respond better to VT better than HIT. Ectomorphs are thin, light-framed and sometimes have long limbs. For these guys, it takes longer to gain muscle than for your average mesomorph, who usually has a more rectangular frame with more muscle mass. A lot of ectomorphs really need the longer workouts and higher reps to stimulate muscle growth.
This got me thinking that I might be giving false credit to the one-set to failure. What else changed when I adopted HIT? Two things. I abandoned free weights for machines and I slowed down my movements. Free weight exercises were very hard on my body. I covered that already in the posts My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care and I Don’t Give a Squat About the Squat. At first I was skeptical about using machines, because the movements seemed too easy. Only when I slowed the movement down and experimented with static holds did I become a believer in using machines. I was no longer “throwing weights”, which is a phrase Arthur Jones used to describe fast moving weight lifting.
Returning to Volume
I need to know if the benefits I’ve gotten from High Intensity Training are really from using machines in a slow controlled manner or from going to failure. Starting with my next workout, I will lower my intensity and increase my volume.
If you are an ectomorph or have experience training ectomorphs, I’d love to hear your feedback. Also, if you have any ideas on how I should construct my volume workout, please leave a comment. My initial thought is to increase my workout volume to twice a week, increase sets to three, use a slow (not SuperSlow) movement and stop short of going to failure. The exercises would still be the ones used the Big 5 Workout. Maybe I’ll restrict failure to one movement per week or one week per month? Good idea?
One of the core principles to high intensity training and many other fitness programs is to record your workouts. I remember reading years ago that strength coach Charles Poliquin wants to see at least 6 months of workout data before he takes you on as a client. That may or may not be true, but the story always stuck with me. Back when I had a home gym, I recorded every workout. I have years of data.
My home gym had a huge white board, where I recorded workouts. Later this data was moved to a notebook. The board allowed me see weeks of data at a glance.
More Data, More Injuries
My personal experience with recording workouts is that it never improved my fitness over a longer time frame. In fact, I believe it actually led to more injuries. When I was in my home gym looking at numbers listening to Marilyn Manson blasting through the speakers, I got over confident. I’d either try to do too much volume or too much weight. I’d use prior weeks of data as proof that I was capable of that and more. I became more focused on the numbers and beating them than listening to my body. This is before I understood recoverability as well as I do today. The result was I’d often push myself too far and hurt myself.
When I sold the house and returned to the Glitter Gyms, I stopped collecting data. My numbers went down, but so did my injuries. I fell into a predictable boring limbo, but at least I wasn’t getting hurt. Also, I realized I never liked recording numbers. By listening to my body and not numbers in a notebook, my progress was slower, but it was more sustainable.
High Intensity Training
When I entered the HIT world, I was advised to record every workout. I didn’t. I haven’t recorded a single one yet. Unless you can control for every variable, I don’t believe you can measure intensity. By every variable, I mean not just the weight, but the repetition speed, sequence of exercises, rest between exercises, room temperature, seat position and days between workouts. For example, I have found my intensity drops off considerably when the room temperature gets above 68 degrees.
If I was working with a HIT trainer, they could collect this data during my workout and keep me focused on completing my workout at the highest level of intensity and in the safest manner. If I am doing this alone, then that role falls to me. I can’t generate maximum intensity safely and document the process with meaningful data. I believe that is a 2 person job. Focusing on numbers during a training session is highly distracting for me.
With High Intensity Training, I’m only working out once every 5 to 7 days. My workout will vary depending upon my interests. Sometimes it will be very slow reps, sometimes static holds or I might do negative work. The rep speed might vary from 4 to 10 seconds, which may or may not be constant throughout the set. Sometimes I start with full range repetitions and then gradually decrease the range until I’m doing a static hold. How do you quantify that movement? You can’t. As long as I am safely varying Time Under Load and going to failure, I’m happy.
The Limiting Factor
Assuming one is exercising in a safe manner with enough intensity, the limiting factor is not collecting more data to prove that fact. It is about increasing recoverability. That is where I’m focusing my efforts. I believe I’ll make greater gains by figuring out ways to speed up recovery than chasing numbers on a spreadsheet. Plus a major limiting factor to muscle gains for the ectomorph is stress. Do I need the stress of knowing that I’m not lifting as much weight as I did last week? I don’t think so. Been there, done that. When I leave the gym, I’m always a winner. I battled the weights and I won. Time for ice cream!
I could be wrong. My position is that if I ever feel my progress has stalled, I will start to quantify my workouts. Most likely I would work directly with a HIT Trainer. Until then, I’m just going to listen to my body. It seems to be working.
Three months ago I put out my 5 part series on exercise and fat loss. If you don’t wish to read it, my belief is that exercise is vastly over rated when it comes to long term fat loss. What looks like progress in the short term erodes when looking at longer time frames due to injuries and increased appetite in response to increased energy demands. In the post Fat Loss and the Case For Less Exercise, I outlined my updated minimalistic exercise plan.
Prior to outlining this plan, I was only doing HIT once every 5 days. Well my plan ran into some resistance. Shortly after doing that post, I got some unexplained back pain after one uphill sprint session, so I stopped running. The back pain went away shortly afterwards. I also stopped rowing, because my gym only has a single rower. Once the cardio junkies saw me using the machine, they got inspired and started using it. Unlike my 2 minutes of high intensity intervals, they would camp out there doing slow steady state rowing.
Another thing happened at my gym. The average temperature went from 66 to 71 and the air now feels muggy. There were a few times I came close to breaking a sweat! Long time readers know that I take pride in not having broken a sweat exercising in years. I have also discovered that exertion headaches doing High Intensity are triggered easier when it is warm, so I’ve increased my rest time between exercises. This is why HIT gyms often keep the temperature at 61 degrees.
My HIT weight sessions have gone from every 5th day to every 7th day. There is something extremely powerful about the Static Weight Max Pyramid. I’m getting a deeper level of fatigue and my recovery takes a little longer. If you are an ectomorph, I highly encourage you to try this workout.
So here we are in the summer of 2012 and I’m exercising just 15 minutes a week, which is a record low for a healthy me. I also spend half that workout standing outside the gym cooling down between exercises. And the result is I’m in the best shape of my life. Quality absolutely trumps quantity. Once fall arrives to Seattle and my gym is less stuffy, I’ll slowly resume rowing and uphill sprinting.
Photo by Lisa Parker. I’ll resume uphill sprints in the fall.
I’ve done the Max Pyramid leg press many times, but never with a static weight. The traditional way it is done is by increasing the weight (pyramid up) and then decreasing the weight (pyramid down). Static holds of about 20 seconds are held at each point. In Fred’s video, the weight is constant. He uses the position of the legs to increase and then decrease the difficulty. I had to try this out this morning.
Before I headed to the gym, I decided I would do the same static weight Max Pyramid approach on the chest press machine as well. For the back, I found another video Fred made that performs two static holds for each repetition of a chin up.
This workout is just 3 exercises, one set each. I used a lighter weight. It didn’t matter. This workout destroyed me. I suspect that ectomorphs will benefit tremendously from moving the position of the static hold up and down. One workout per week is all that is needed. If you can do two of these workouts a week, you either have superior recovery skills or you didn’t reach a high enough level of intensity. Give it a try. You will be humbled. Also, be sure to subscribe to Fred’s YouTube channel.
A quick note on breathing during static holds. Unlike traditional weight lifting where we time our inhale and exhale with the repetition, with High Intensity Training, you decouple the two. As the set progresses your breathing rate will increase. At times you might be tempted to hold your breath to squeeze out extra effort. Don’t do it. Relax your jaw so you don’t clench your teeth and let your breathing accelerate naturally.
My previous post I No Longer Give a Squat About the Squat, I outlined why I no longer perform the barbell back squat. This post will list the exercises I’ve used to replace weight lifting’s most sacred exercise. Before I begin, I want to clarify that I am not a personal trainer and the only client I’ve trained has been myself. I approach fitness in the same manner that I approach investing, which is a risk versus reward model. The squat without a doubt can provide huge rewards, but it is my opinion that the risk of injury increases over time.
To have strong legs, I do not believe it is necessary to back squat.
A Humbling Lesson From Pete Egoscue That I Ignored
During my squat heydays around 2001 – 2004, I was dealing with frequent back pain. It was during this time that I starting reading Pete Egoscue. His books had a serious of exercises used to correct alignment problems. One of the exercises in the book was an Air Bench. This is also called a Wall Sit in the Hillfit: Strength program and Wall Squat elsewhere. Read How To Do a Wall Squat for an exercise explanation.
What I learned very quickly is just how difficult this simple exercise can be. Even though I was squatting more than body weight for reps, my legs would burn greater on a 60 second Wall Squat. At the time I didn’t understand why the Wall Squat seemed to produce deeper muscle fatigue. I was still in the Pavel school then – which places greater importance on demonstrating strength without going to failure. But I was a good comrade, so I stopped doing the Wall Squat to failure and returned to my free weights.
The lesson I should have walked away with then was that the number of pounds lifted is a less important metric than intensity, which is more difficult to quantify. When I did the Wall Squats my leg muscles felt more taxed. When I did the back squats, my entire body felt destroyed, including at times, my back.
Sequential Muscle Fiber Activation
After I read the book Body By Science by McGuff and Little, I understood why the Wall Squat produced such a deep level of fatigue rapidly. By placing the body into a static hold, at first the slow twitch muscle fibers are engaged. They are fatigue resistant and recover quickly. These are the dominant fibers used in endurance sports. If the slow twitch muscles become fatigued then the more energy expensive fast twitch muscle fibers are engaged. They have a lot more power, but they fatigue much faster and take longer to recover.
When you perform a Wall Squat, the first half of the exercise is designed to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibers without allowing them the ability to recover. The goal is knock out the slow twitch fibers so you can directly target the larger fast twitch muscle fibers. This is where the exercise gets difficult.
Trust me when I say that a single Wall Squat taken to total failure can produce as much muscular fatigue as a 20 mile hike. Not every person will want to train to failure. I covered this in the post Training to Failure or Training to Quit Part 2. Because I have the freedom to have down days post-workout, going to failure works for me. If you are an in-season athlete, law enforcement or military and need to be near peak performance on a daily basis, then training to failure may not be wise.
When I engage in an exercise I want the ability to work to failure at ANY point during the repetition safely. Back to the Wall Squat. The worst case safety scenario for that movement is my legs completely give out and I’m forced to lower my body into a sitting position. Because I can safely hit failure without risk of injury, I can focus completely on generating more intensity.
You can’t do that with the Barbell Back Squat. When you begin a descent, you need to know you have enough strength left in the movement at any time to stand up and rack the weights. Exercising to failure is not an option with the squat. You’ll hurt yourself. Because you can’t safely exercise to failure with a barbell back squat, intensity is replaced with an increase in volume. That might be great for your legs, but in my opinion is subjecting your back and spine to unnecessary stress.
The Squat Replacement Exercises
Here are the exercises that I have used to replace the barbell back squat.
Leg Press (HIT – Static Holds) - This is my favorite leg exercise. Instead of doing reps, you perform a series of static holds. This is part of the Max Pyramid designed by John Little. See the video Max Pyramid for an example of how to perform a set. This can also be done with a static weight, which is perfect if you just have access to a plate loaded leg press.
Goblet Squat – When you move the weight off your back and place it in front of you, you don’t need nearly as much weight to provide a stimulus. Plus you can easily drop the weight should your strength give out.
Wall Squat / Wall Sit / Air Bench – As discussed above. Check out the book Hillfit: Strength if you wish to design an entire fitness plan around this exercise.
Park Squat – This is something I just named that was part of my Outdoor HIT protocol. It starts as a body weight squat or body weight plus kettle bell. Perform a few squats at a normal pace using a full range. As fatigue starts to set in slow the pace and reduce the range. When the movement gets too difficult drop the kettlebell (if you have one) and then freeze into a static hold. Hang on until you can’t stand anymore.
The exercises I listed are based upon High Intensity Training, but they can all still be done safely if you prefer to do a more standard volume approach. If you are new to High Intensity Training, learning how to breath is important. The advice Renaissance Exercise has on their Breathing post is to go slack jawed and don’t hold your breath. You do not want jaw tension.
Because I follow High Intensity Training, I only do one set to failure once every 5-7 days. I have more leg strength now than when I was back squatting and none of the pain.
UPDATE March 2013: In the comments below, Joseph alerted me to a post on Drew Baye’s site describing a very slow body weight squat with a 3 second hold in the bottom position. Check it out.
This is the 5th and final part on my series of posts on the role of exercise and fat loss. For the most part, I strongly believe that you lean out in the kitchen and not the gym. I think the role of exercise in fat loss is vastly over rated. The benefits we see in the short term tend to disappear when we account for increased appetite as a response to the exercise and the increase in down time due to exercising too much.
How Exercise Indirectly Kept me Fatter – I go through 20 years of my personal exercise experience to show that appetite and injury risk increase when exercise volume increases. What appears to be effective in the short term for fat loss isn’t sustainable or effective in the long term.
Fat Loss and High Intensity Exercise – This blog post digs into the science of fat loss that comes from High Intensity Training and why it is superior to steady state cardio. These are concepts I learned from Dr. Doug McGuff.
Maximizing Fat Loss with Exercise Prerequisites
I know I’m repeating myself here, but I believe you get healthy to lose fat not lose fat to get healthy. If you remove the toxins and eat highly nutrient dense foods, the body will become more healthy. A healthy body that is well nourished will drop excess fat. If you are not healthy yet, focus on that first. Adding a caloric deficit to an already under nourished body might result in short term fat loss, but that weight often comes right back once the body senses its survival is being threatened.
Enough with the disclaimer, here is the prerequisite list.
Remove Toxic Food – Grains, Sugar, Vegetable Oils and non-fermented soy. Dairy for some people. Perform 30 Day elimination tests to figure out what foods make your body tick. Recommended reading: 9 Steps to Perfect Health #1 Don’t Eat Toxins.
Eat Nutrient Dense Food – It isn’t enough to remove the toxic food. You will want to load up on nutrient dense food to send a signal to your body that you are surrounded by nutritional abundance. See the post High Velocity Super Warrior Foods.
Choosing Exercises For Maximum Fat Loss
Safety – Your bias towards safety is the most important exercise decision you can make. There are many exercises that may lean you out more in the short term, but have a higher risk factor for injury. Professional football players are amazing athletes, but have you ever seen these guys when they hit 50 or 60 years old? Their bodies are broken down and bloated. Be kind to your future self. Choose exercises that allow you generate high levels of intensity on the muscles without stressing the joints. I have found SuperSlow HIT on machines, rowing and uphill sprinting to be the three most effective and safe methods of exercising.
Minimize Appetite Increases – I know someone that spends 3 hours every week doing Cardio Dance. She is constantly eating grains, because she is hungry all the time. She wants to lose an additional 5 pounds, but can’t seem to do it. Her appetite now exceeds her activity level. She is not alone. Long duration low intensity exercising is highly stressful to the body. The body responds with stronger hunger signals. I could never eat enough when I was a cardio junkie or doing high volume weight training. High Intensity Exercise doesn’t result in an ever increasing appetite. It goes up a bit on work days, but falls back below baseline on rest days.
Exercise Timing and Nutrient Timing For Maximum Fat Loss
Train Fasted – Don’t drink a smoothie or eat a Cliff Bar before you exercise. This is a topic too large to cover in this post. The short reason is your body is primed for fat loss and muscle gain when you train fasted. This is how nature works. Recommended reading: Why Fast? Part 5 Exercise.
Train Recovered – It is during our rest periods, not the time we spend in the gym, where the body gets stronger. Going back into the gym before you’ve had time to recover interrupts this process. When we return to the gym prior to full recovery, we increase our risk of injury. And it is during this down period when you’ll gain back the fat you lost. Minimizing injuries are critical to getting the fat loss benefits of exercising. The young, genetically gifted and the pharmaceutically enhanced individuals can sometimes get away with more frequent training, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Recommended reading: An interview with John Little (Conditioning Research).
The Limiting Factor To Maximum Fat Loss From Exercise
Once we get past nutrition, sleep, safety, exercise selection, nutrient timing and understanding how to generate high levels of intensity while exercising there remains a single limiting factor to exercise and maximum fat loss. It isn’t exercising more. It is recovering faster. The limiting factor to fat loss from exercise is recovery speed. If we want to get the maximum fat loss benefits of exercise, we should be focusing our efforts on decreasing recovery time.
Right now it takes me 5 days to fully recover from a SuperSlow HIT workout. This means in a typical quarter, I can engage in 18 workouts. If I could figure out a way to reduce my recovery time to 4 days, I could engage in 22 workouts per quarter. This is not about gutting it out and pushing myself to return to the gym. Been there, done that. It doesn’t work in the long run. This is about training the body to recover faster. Some ideas that have come to mind include:
Specific Nutrition and Supplements – What foods or supplements can measurably improve recovery times? I’m getting good results drinking beef bone broth at the end of my workouts. What else works?
Cold Water – I have noticed that cold showers at the end of a workout decrease muscle soreness. I have not measured if this is the same as faster recovery, but I suspect it helps.
Even More Sleep – Adding in additional naps or longer sleep post workout might increase recovery speed.
Stress Reduction – This was the idea Keith Norris talked about in his podcast interview on the Latest In Paleo Episode #35. A stressed body takes longer to recover. This lines up with my own personal experiences, which I discuss in Health Goals – Late 2011 Edition (#2). I’m guessing that one could time stress reduction exercises (meditation, Morning Faces Therapy, yoga, nature exposure, etc) post workout to speed up recovery.
Massage – I can’t afford to add massage into my weekly schedule, plus I’ve had mixed results with it. I am interested in practicing more with my foam roller to see if it provides benefit.
I still believe dietary tweaking will still yield the most benefit when it comes to fat loss. However, I am interested in learning how to decrease recovery time from brief intense workouts. I think it is the key to maximizing fat loss potential from exercise. If you have ideas on speeding up recovery, please post them in the comments.
In my last post Fat Loss and the Case For Less Exercise, I explained how I’ve designed my exercise plan to be as minimal as possible to maximize my chances at fat loss without increasing my appetite or risk of injury.
My HIT workout takes about 15 minutes, which includes light mobility work. The sprint session takes about 10 minutes, where most of the time is spent walking back to the bottom of the hill. The rowing takes less than 5 minutes.Adding everything together I am exercising less than one hour per week.
To be clear, I am not saying this is the optimal plan for everyone. This is what has worked best for me. When I increase my exercise volume, I also increase appetite and risk of injury. I covered this in detail in the post How Exercise Indirectly Kept Me Fatter.
On the surface it appears the primary mechanism for fat loss is not burning calories, but increasing muscle gain. Increasing muscle increases metabolism which can result in greater fat loss. Up until I read Body By Science this is was the only fat loss pathway I was aware of when it came to resistance training.
Body by Science by Doug McGuff and John Little is by far the best book I’ve read on fitness.
Forget The Fat Burning Zone, Embrace High Intensity
The Cult of the Cardio loves to preach that exercising in a range between 60% and 70% of maximum heart rate maximizes fat loss. They call this range the Fat Burning Zone. When we lower our intensity into this range, not only can we exercise longer, but we access fat at a higher percent. Is this a good thing? Body By Science makes the case that it isn’t. Fat loss is not just about calories, it is also about hormones. Watch the two videos below (13 minutes in total) for a primer on High Intensity exercise and fat loss.
I’m going to list some of the fat loss ideas from Dr. McGuff’s book. I had to read this section three times before I felt I felt I understood it. If my understanding is flawed, please help me out in the comments below.
The greatest metabolic effect comes when all muscle fibers are recruited.
When we aren’t accessing body fat directly, we get our energy from glycogen stores. Glycogen provides “on-site” energy to the muscular system.
Fast twitch muscle fibers have the most glycogen stores.
Cardio does not tap the fast twitch muscle fibers. High intensity does.
Because cardio does not meaningfully empty glycogen stores, circulating glucose in the blood must be stored as fat. The muscle cell walls lose their sensitivity to insulin. High intensity exercise causes the opposite to happen.
Glycogen storage can diminish over time when we do not engage in exercise at high enough level. When those glycogen stores stay full, excess glucose goes to fat storage. This can lead to both muscle atrophy and insulin resistance.
High Intensity Exercise activates hormone-sensitive lipase. Low Intensity doesn’t. Lipase permits the mobilization of body fat.
Cardio produces more oxidative free radicals and inflammation than High Intensity.
Body By Science goes into much greater detail. I highly recommend buying that book. You’ll never step on a treadmill ever again and you’ll be leaner for making that decision.
When I embraced High Intensity in late 2010, my volume of exercise dropped. Because my intensity increased, the result was precisely what Dr. McGuff said in the videos above, I got leaner. In my next post, I will conclude my thoughts on exercise and fat loss with an idea on where we should be directing our resources to maximize fat loss potential.
This is the third part on my series about exercise and fat loss. Part one was the post Walking Didn’t Lean Me Out, where I showed how all my fat loss was a result of diet and how exercise played no role. Part two was titled How Exercise Indirectly Kept me Fatter. In that post I covered how twenty years of varying exercise protocols not only didn’t lean me out, but increased my appetite above my activity level during down periods of injury. For the past 3 years I have firmly stated that fat loss occurs in the kitchen and not the gym. I still believe that.
On the surface it appears obvious that exercise would result in fat loss, but the long term success rates are awful. Appetite will rise to meet activity level. Increase the exercise and not only will your appetite increase, but so will your risk of injury. Trying to out exercise your appetite is a losing battle. Your buff personal trainer will blame your lack of discipline, but the reality is the body sees chronically exercising in excess of caloric intake as a threat to its survival. At some point its survival plan exceeds your willpower to override it.
Not For Everyone
This post is not for the typical overweight person. If you are still consuming toxic foods such as grains, sugar, soy and vegetable oils then you should devote your resources into the fixing that. Remove the toxins and load up on highly nutrient dense foods. In other words, get healthy to lose fat, not lose fat to get healthy. An hour learning to cook will have far greater of an impact than an hour of exercising.
Eating nutrient dense foods like kimchi will do more for fat loss than exercise. Going into energy deficits before you’ve fixed nutrient deficiencies is like trying to a row a leaky boat. Fix the leak first.
The second group this post is not for are the young and genetically gifted. By young, I mean all you 25 year old CrossFittingParkour junkies with Kevlar joints that scoff at us mere mortals. This post is for the normal sane healthy person that wishes to leverage exercise in a way to accelerate fat loss, while minimizing injury risk and honoring recovery. If your sport requires a higher volume of training, then by all means do what is necessary to be successful. If you like to spend hours every week spinning or jogging, because it is good for your mental health, that is wonderful. This post is just about fat loss.
The Case For Less
Let me start by saying that I am not a personal trainer and the only client I’ve trained is myself. I will say that I’ve read numerous books and a ridiculous number of articles written by industry professionals. I’ve studied the failures of conventional fitness and arrived at a few core principles regarding the role of exercise in fat loss.
The limiting factor in exercise is not desire, it is recoverability and results. Without sufficient time for recovery, results will be limited and risk of injury will increase.
Some people have amazing recoverability skills. Modeling your workout with the gifted is a mistake.
During periods of injury recovery, appetite does not fall to baseline.
The #1 way to maximize results is don’t get injured.
Injuries are most likely to happen when volume is too high and recoverability time is too short. The importance of quality sleep can not be overstated. Never sacrifice sleep for exercise.
The key to leveraging exercise for fat loss is minimizing down time, not increasing volume. Bias should always be towards safety. Be patient with your body and focus on the long term.
My exercise plan for fat loss is based upon low frequency, low stress and brief periods of high intensity. It is not about burning calories and volume. I believe those approaches fail in the long run due to increased appetite and risk of injury. For me I want to push the boundaries of what my body is capable of performing. Increase strength and speed in an energy conserving manner and the body will respond in a positive way.
High Intensity Training (HIT) – The number one exercise is weight training. I use a HIT protocol of SuperSlow and static holds. I favor machines over free weights, as they both honor biomechanics and are safer as the movement approaches failure. Reaching full failure on a leg press is perfectly safe. Going to failure with a back squat will hurt you. I perform a single HIT workout once every 5 to 7 days.
Uphill Sprints – About 1-2 times a week and never on the day I do HIT, I perform 4-8 uphill sprints modeled after Phil Campbell’s Sprint 8 plan. The twist I added is to improve safety is to only run uphill. Sprinting has been shown to spike growth hormone levels, which can accelerate fat loss.
Rowing Machine – I got this idea from frequent commenter GWhitney. I’ve been rowing now for 2 weeks and I love it. It is a sprint for the upper body. Go all out for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and repeat for 6-10 sets. Or something close. To see excellent form, watch this 24 second video of Rob Smith. Right now I am rowing about twice a week, although I could see going up to three times as this is even less stressful than uphill running. I do not row on the day I do HIT.
That is it. My HIT workout takes about 15 minutes, which includes light mobility work. The sprint session takes about 10 minutes, where most of the time is spent walking back to the bottom of the hill. The rowing takes less than 5 minutes. Adding everything together I am exercising less than one hour per week.
All my exercising is done in a fasted state. Prior to weight training, I do supplement with BCAA. I don’t know if it helps build/preserve muscle, but it is cheap insurance. After my HIT workout, I consume starchy carbs and protein. After my sprints and rowing, I continue fasting for another hour.
Not only am I leaner than I’ve ever been, but I feel better than ever. I’m not dog tired like I used to be when I was a runner and I don’t get the aches and pains I did when I did volume based free weights.
I’ve only being doing High Intensity Training for a little more than a year now, so I am far from an authority on the topic. Before I became a believer in the effectiveness of HIT, I really didn’t pay much attention to its supporters or detractors. However, in the last year I’ve read numerous fitness articles and comments on the Internet attacking HIT.
Now I’m just regular person. I’m not a personal trainer and I don’t have a client list to prove to anyone anything. What I’ve discovered in the past year is that HIT is highly effective for me. I did it the other way for 16 years. In my N=1 experiment, High Intensity Training is superior to traditional weight lifting or explosive training. I’m not saying HIT is superior for everyone – just for me.
Is Coca Cola Better than RC Draft Cola?
One of the things I constantly read from fitness “experts” is how HIT is flawed because they see better results with clients that don’t follow a High Intensity Training protocol. They say this as if it is proof that HIT is less effective. For starters, I don’t discount that statement is true. But it is not for the implied reason.
Way more people are exposed to traditional weight lifting protocols than HIT. I’d be surprised it HIT made up 1% of all strength training. It only makes sense with that huge of an advantage that non-HIT trainers would have a greater pool of successes. Also, those athletes that respond well to classic strength training are going to be less likely to give it up and embrace HIT. So we don’t know if they would do better or worse on HIT, what we know is they aren’t going to be as motivated to switch.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was still drinking cola. I preferred Coke over Pepsi. One day I spotted RC Draft Cola and tried to recall if I liked it as a child. I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to give it a try. The taste blew me away. It was superior to Coke, probably because it used raw cane sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. For a few months I recall telling friends and co-workers about RC Draft Cola. With one exception, I don’t think anyone tried it. Coke was working for them, why should they seek out a far less popular cola option? I was able to get one die-hard Coke fan to try it and agree with me.
The fact way more people prefer Coke to RC Draft Cola isn’t proof that Coke is superior. And the fact the majority of elite athletes don’t use HIT isn’t proof that traditonal strength training is superior.
Just as Coke has far more fans than RC Draft Cola, more people have quit drinking Coke than have quit drinking RC Draft Cola. The same is true for strength training. There are far more lifters that quit or got injured doing traditional weight lifting than High Intensity Training. Popularity cuts both ways when it is used a metric to measure efficacy.
Instead of repeating the same old arguments for and against HIT, why not just try it for yourself? Seek out a top trainer in your area and schedule a workout. I thought I understood intensity after reading Body By Science and watching a few videos online. I didn’t. After my workout at Ideal Exercise, it all clicked.
UPDATE (Feb 4, 2012): I changed the title of this post to be more descriptive.
One of the reasons I left the Glitter Gym was that they kept the temperature in the gym too warm. From the post No Longer a Gym Germaphobe:
People continually confuse sweat with intensity. If you are sweating it is because your body is trying to cool you down. The resources and energy that could have been used for deeper muscle recruitment have been shifted to temperature regulation and now are a limiting factor in generating more intensity.
Today I think I found the flip side to this rule. If you are too cold, the body will devote resources to staying warm that could be used for deeper muscle recruitment. Those resources might just be mental, but I discovered that even after an extended warm up period, I was too cold to completely focus on the exercises. My time under load was decreased. My hands were frozen and my feet were cold as well. I should have brought gloves. Maybe I should milk another free week pass at a new Glitter Gym until spring comes?
For the past few years I have been reading the fitness blog Conditioning Research by Chris Highcock. Although I would be hard pressed to name a favorite nutrition blog, I can easily say Conditioning Research is the best fitness blog. When I started reading the site, I had yet to be convinced on the effectiveness of High Intensity Training. I was still in the Pavel camp of low reps, high weight and high rest between sets. My progress had stalled and I was ready to try something different.
Photo of me hiking slot canyons outside of San Diego in 2007. I would have benefited from Hillfit back then.
It was Chris Highcock that convinced me to give High Intensity Training a try. Not directly though. I saw he shared the same opinion that I did on many other health related topics. Maybe Chris was on to something with this High Intensity Training? So a little over a year ago I went all in with HIT and haven’t looked back. High Intensity Training is a highly effective and safe method for developing strength in minimal time. I refer to High Intensity Training as the espresso of weight training.
In November, I left my gym and took my High Intensity workouts outdoors using body weight exercises. I describe my current workout in the post Escaping the Glitter: Taking High Intensity Training Outdoors. Although I am proud of this post, it probably is not that useful to someone that is new to the concept of HIT. They will need guided instructions, photos and background information to help them get started on constructing their own High Intensity Training program. That is exactly what Hillfit: Strength by Chris Highcock does.
The 52 page Hillfit e-book is the most user friendly introduction I have seen on High Intensity Training. All the exercises in the Hillfit: Strength program can by done from home without purchasing any equipment. Although the book’s title and early pages suggest the audience is for hiking, the reality is that developing strength will benefit you no matter what your sport happens to be. Even if your sport is playing with your kids. I highly recommend Hillfit: Strength as an introduction to High Intensity Training.
UPDATE APRIL 2013: Version 2.0 of Hillfit is now available.
I am pleased with my consistency. The Seattle winter hasn’t discouraged me. All I need is a brief pocket of decent weather to get to the gym. I also found another playground even closer to my home. I used it once during the winter school break. It wasn’t perfect, as the jungle gym used thick bars, which isn’t ideal for doing chin-ups, as it puts the stress more on the forearms than the back.
This might be a question for Aaron at Aspen Paleo, but I experienced very tight muscle knots in the shoulder following a few of my workouts. I never got those in the Glitter Gym. Could a lower outdoor temperature be the cause? Or maybe it has something to do with the static hold finish? Maybe I need a longer warm up period?
Glitter Tune Up
Today I signed up for a one week free membership at a Glitter Gym for a tune-up workout. I got the idea from Geoff.
Still I wonder whether it might make sense to pay the day rate at a gym once every 8 weeks or so to test yourself against an objective measurement like McGuffs Big 5? or a deadlift challenge just to get a sense of the effect your training has had. I still find it helpful to test myself every so often to see where I stand.
I did a 15 minute Big 5 Workout and my intensity was higher than before I left the last Glitter Gym. I really think I’ve benefited from the breathing techniques I learned by doing push-ups HIT style in the cool outdoors. I’m getting much better at doing that fast shallow “choo-choo” style breathing.
A Little Sprinting
I’ve also added a few sprints into my workout. Props to G.Whitney for helping me on this. The beautiful thing is I can sprint in 40 degree weather and still maintain my goal of not breaking a sweat. I also learned that my body prefers to run uphill. I think it is less pounding.
My membership to the Northgate 24 Hour Fitness has ended. During my 2 year relationship with them, they upgraded their facility from a small gym (Express) to a monstrosity (Super Sport). The fair deal that I once paid would no longer be enough. They need more money to pay for all those treadmills, Zumba classes and other crap I never use. It was time for me to find a new gym.
My original plan was to play the gym hop game. Spend a month or two going from gym to gym scoring free trial passes before negotiating a sweet deal somewhere. Then I got another idea that involved taking what I learned about High Intensity Training and applying it to an outdoor workout.
I sort of had a plan on how I was going to do resistance training on the cheap. Seattle’s Green Lake Park has two sets of pull-up rings. Add in some push-ups and your cooking. Today I tested out my new gym and it was successful.
Back then my workout was:
5 Pull Ups + 10 Push Ups repeated for 7 sets (30-40 seconds between sets)
I now view that workout as focusing too much on volume and too little on intensity. After a few weeks I felt like I needed to lift something heavy, so I returned to the Glitter Gym. In order to make my return to outdoor training successful, I’d need to figure out a way to safely increase intensity in a body weight environment.
My new gym
Learning From Art De Vany and John Little
The goal with High Intensity Training is deep muscular recruitment. One set to failure. Then allow time for full recovery. Any additional work is unnecessary and would short circuit the recovery progress. Doing this with machines at a gym is pretty easy. Just drop the pin into the weight stack at the resistance level you want and go. With outdoor HIT, the only weight in the “gym” is what you weigh.
Art De Vany is a fan of lifting a lower weight for 15 reps for the first set. He states this pre-exhausts the slow muscle fibers. At that point he adds weight, reduces the reps and targets the fast twitch muscle fibers. But since I’m outside and have no weights, I’m just going to use his idea to get started. Then I’ll conclude the exercise using a strategy that I learned from John Little to target the fast twitch fibers. Static hold.
John Little developed a protocol called Max Pyramid that involves holding a weight in maximum “moment arm“ to recruit and fatigue all muscle fibers. So instead of moving the weight through a full range of movement, you resist against the weight at the point where the most muscle is engaged. And then you hold it until complete failure is reached. Using the pre-exhaustion technique offered by De Vany, I theorized you could use a far lower weight for the Static Hold. More specifically, your body weight.
My Outdoor HIT Workout
Yesterday I did my first Outdoor HIT Workout. Here is the plan I designed:
Push-ups at a normal pace until the movement is difficult and begins to lose fluidity. At that point, I lower my body into a static hold where maximum tension is placed upon the chest. Then I hold. At this point breathing will go from normal to rapid. Once total failure is achieved, I lower my knees and end the exercise.
Chin-ups until the movement gets too difficult or jerky. At that point go to the top and lower into a position where maximum back muscles are engaged. Now I hold until total failure is achieved. Then I lower myself down.
Using a 25# kettlebell, I do as many goblet squats as I can until movement gets choppy, at that point I lower myself into a static hold until failure is achieved. Once failure comes, I’ll pull the kettlebell close and then lower it to the ground. Note that you don’t need a kettlebell for this exercise. Straight body weight should be fine.
For shoulders, triceps and biceps I did a few movements just using kettlebell static holds. This is optional.
That is it. My entire workout took about 7 minutes. I reached a deeper level of fatigue than I had in months at the Glitter Gym. The reason is the outdoor temperature was 43 degrees. This allowed me to generate more intensity without having to break a sweat. Long time readers will know that I haven’t broken a sweat exercising in years.
I was skeptical when I drove out to the park for two reasons. First I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to generate enough intensity to create an effective workout. My second concern was weather. If 61 degrees is the optimal temperature for intensity, 43 might prove too cold, even for someone that practices Cold Weather Exposure.
Did it work? Absolutely. That brief highly intense workout kicked my ass. It was safe and it required no gym membership. A public park with a pull-up bar was all I really needed. Since my workout, I’ve located a much closer park with a jungle gym that I can use to replicate a chin-up bar.
Is it sustainable? I believe so. Unlike the energy foolish, I’m not working out 3-5 times a week for 30-60 minutes. All I need is about 10 minutes maximum once every 5-7 days. As crappy as the weather gets during a Seattle winter, I should easily be able to find a brief pocket of weather similar to my first outdoor HIT workout. Then as we move into warmer weather, I can just move my workout to the early morning hours.
I’m going to share my dark embarrassing secret. My bench press sucks!
Since I started lifting weights in 1994, there have only been three periods where I could bench more than my weight. And then I could only muster up an extra 10 or so more pounds. Until recently this has always bothered me a little. How much a man can bench press has for longest time been one of the three metrics for success in the gym. The other two being the squat and dead lift.
In the article Are You Strong? author and fitness professional Tim Henriques makes the case that a decent bench press is 225 pounds or 1.25 times body weight. Achieving a good bench press requires 315 pounds or 1.5 times body weight. This means that for vast majority of the time I’ve been lifting weights, I’ve been less than decent. This used to bother me. Not anymore.
Why I No Longer Care About the Bench Press
#1 Accepting my Somatype
I am 6 foot and 2.5 inches tall (189 cm). My arms are long and my wrists are small. I am an ectomorph. Ectomorphs across the board suck at the bench press. We have greater weak points in the movement. Shorter guys excel at this movement, as do men with thick wrists.
Back when I was a member of a hard core gym in South Tampa, the guys that could bench 400+ pounds were all under 5′ 10 and had stocky builds. Seeing a true ectomorph bench more than his weight after college is a rare site.
#2 Understanding that the Bench Press is a Technical Move
The bench press isn’t just a way to develop strength. It is a technical movement. The goal is to lower and lift as much weight as possible without hurting yourself. Although the primary muscle being targeted is the pectoralis major, the bench press will also target the anterior deltoids, serratus anterior, coracobrachialis, scapulae fixers, trapezii, and the triceps. Each muscle has a limiting factor. Getting them all to work together to share the load via form and timing isn’t just about having more strength. Like any sport, one needs to train the movement itself.
That may all seem like common sense, but the reason many men go to the gym in the first place is to build muscle, not have a better bench press. We later – falsely – draw the conclusion that in order to have more chest muscle we need to have a greater bench press. I care about muscle, not bragging rights to some number.
#3 Embracing The Negative
One of the aspects of High Intensity Training that I’ve learned to love is the focus on negatives. By slowing down the lowering of the weight, you will recruit more muscle and fatigue much faster. From Negative Training for Positive Results by Dave Durell:
During the negative, or lowering, phase of a repetition, the muscle fibers involved are lengthening under tension. Your muscles are much stronger during this phase than during the positive, or lifting phase. Even when you reach positive failure during an exercise, and can no longer lift a certain weight with good form, the truth is there is still a lot of strength left in that muscle. Negative training allows you to tap into that unused strength, overloading the muscle at a much deeper level, and stimulating it to respond by growing bigger and stronger.
This type of overload has tremendous strength and muscle building properties. It is possible to get VERY big and strong VERY quickly with negative only training.
In order to get a higher bench press number, you’ll want to avoid negative fatigue so you have enough strength to safely complete the positive portion. So if my choice is to slow the negative portion of the lift using a lower weight or having a higher bench press number with less muscle recruitment, I’ll take the lower number.
#4 Avoiding Injury
To get good at the bench press, you need to bench press a lot. This brings us back to our old friend survivorship bias. I see lots of guys in the 20s slamming serious weights. I see a few guys doing it in their 30s. Where are the 40-60 year old guys at? Occasionally I’ll see one, but it is a rare site. Where did all those guys that had amazing bench press numbers 10-20 years ago go? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: People do not en masse voluntarily quit participating in something for which they are highly skilled doing. What happened?
The fitness websites are filled with reports if injuries related to bench pressing. The body doesn’t have an unlimited capacity for recovery. And because the bench press is a technical move, being off a few inches or a second in timing can result in injury.
#5 The Modern Gym
Assume that I changed my opinion about the bench press and my goal was to get decent or even good at it. To be safe, I would need to have a spotter. Back in the pre-iPod days, guys in the free weight room acknowledged each other. Sometimes they even spoke to one another. Real conservation! We asked for spots and we offered them. Not anymore. I haven’t been asked for a spot in over 5 years now.
Gym walls today have flat screen TVs showing sports highlights and MSNBC. Back in the day, the walls displayed photos of Frank Zane and Arnold. The free weight rooms went from a group of fellow lifters helping each other out to a room full of iPod wearing, TV watching zombies. Even if asking for a spot wasn’t considered old timey 20th century behavior, I wouldn’t trust anyone in the modern gym for a safe spot and that includes the staff.
Life After The Bench Press
I’ve done thousands bench press repetitions. Although it did help me gain some muscle, it also resulted in a rounded mid back and contributed to my wrist surgery. Was there a better, safer way to develop chest muscles? I now think so.
In the past year, I have done High Intensity Training using Super Slow and static hold movements with machines. No more free weights. No more bench presses. For the first time in years, I actually gained new muscle. And I didn’t have to beat my body senseless to earn it.
How much can I bench press? I don’t know and I don’t care.
Skip to the 2:00 mark to see what a chest exercise looks like using the Super Slow method and machines.
My dietary tweaking over the past three years has led me to discover what many others in the elite fitness community have already discovered. That is the superiority of a cyclical approach to fitness and nutrition. Eating the same number of meals and calories day in and day out at the same time is too command and control. Nature isn’t like that. Paleo man knew all about cyclical nutrition and fitness.
Paleo man is hungry and the area he is at has no food. So he travels to a new area. No Cliff Bar or smoothie. He is motivated by hunger and the reality that if he doesn’t acquire food, he will die. It is OK that he doesn’t have a fanny pack full of snacks. He has something better: body fat. In the absence of glucose, his insulin levels drop and his body becomes efficient at accessing stored fat. To preserve muscle, his growth hormone levels increase.
Paleo man comes across an animal and engages in the hunt. He uses high bursts of energy and strength to capture his meal. Note that he didn’t jog up to the animal using some nonsensical target heart rate and he didn’t stand one-legged on a Bosu Ball during the hunt. Paleo man, like any other mammal keen on survival, starts eating the animal’s organ meat first, because that is where the most nutrients are. Then he goes for the fatty cuts of meat. Lean meat might be left for the buzzards.
Now Paleo man is full. Time to rest and relax. No spin class is needed for him to keep his cardio edge. That is energy foolish and could bring him closer to starvation. It wouldn’t be until the late 1960s that man would get duped into believing that we need cardio for a healthy heart. And then it would be a few decades more before science would show that cardiovascular training is a myth.
Back to the present. A few months ago, I began a TKD (targeted ketogenic diet). On the day before I went to the gym to lift weights, I would engage in Intermittent Fasting and low-carb dieting. I put myself into a ketogenic state. The next day, I would enter the gym in a fasted state* and “engage in battle”. Unlike Paleo man, when I demonstrate strength I can control for safety and work specifically with machines based upon human bio-mechanics. For 10-15 minutes, I do an all-out High Intensity Training workout. One set to failure for about 5-7 exercises.
Then I eat. I eat a lot. Protein, carbs and fat. I am pulling myself out of ketosis and fueling the anabolic process. Then I rest. I won’t return to the gym for another 5-7 days. Sure I will go for walks or 2-3 very short sprints, but anything more would be energy foolish and send the wrong hormonal signals to my body. Doing cardio is ridiculous as it is highly inflammatory, suppresses your immune system, catabolizes muscle and reduces your insulin sensitivity.
Between workouts, I vary my food intake. Some days I eat more and some less. Some days are low carb and some are moderate. I may skip breakfast or not. Like Paleo man, my food intake is not predictable. There is never a point in the week, where I have to eat. My body has become hyper efficient at regulating my energy levels. No sugar crashs or naps needed.
I started this cyclical approach a few months ago. It is freakishly effective. My metabolism is rocking fast. I exercise far less than I used to and I eat more. By removing the big 4 toxins (sugar, wheat, soy and vegetable oils) and adjusting my nutrient intake and timing, I am in the best shape of my life.
In the post Training to Failure or Training to Quit, I discussed the disagreement about training to failure that exists between my fitness mentors. Pavel and Arthur De Vany believe you shouldn’t train to failure, whereas Dr. Doug McGuff and the rest of the High Intensity Training community believe you should. If you haven’t read the initial post, go do so now. I’ve now had three months to think about a way to reconcile this disagreement.
Understanding Pavel’s Motives
The target audience for Pavel is someone that needs to be at top performance at a moments notice. He works directly with law enforcement, military and in-season athletes. If you are in this group, going to total failure HIT style would clearly impair your performance. Power to the People (PTP) is designed in a way to recruit strength with minimal soreness. I did it for almost 10 years and found it did exactly that.
I credit Pavel from rescuing me from the high-rep, multiple set, lower weight nonsense that is peddled by most trainers. All that did was leave me sore with minimal strength gains. However, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realize that I was never the target audience for his style of training. I was an office worker that wanted to gain muscle. Although I did gain muscle at first, whenever I tried to ramp us his program using the Russian Bear method, I’d injure myself.
It makes sense that Pavel and De Vany would favor lifting plans that avoid going to failure. For Pavel, his clients need to be ready to fight or perform at a high level on a daily basis. De Vany is a student of evolutionary fitness and I can see how the threats of nature would need to be addressed at all times. Going to failure on a regular basis could make you more vulnerable in battles where you did not have time to recover.
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.
Since my goal is to gain strength and muscle and could care less about day-to-day high level performance, HIT works perfect for me. I also could care less how many pounds I dead lift or bench. More muscle is my mission. Other metrics no longer concern me.
The real issue is determing if repeatedly going to failure sends a negative signal to neural pathway. De Vany and Pavel believe this to be true. Repeatedly sending failure signals is a concern. Jim’s comment in the previous post got me thinking more about this.
From my point of view, it just looks too mentally exhausting to be able to continue for a prolonged period of time (e.g., five years). For me, this would outweigh any benefits over other protocols.
Other than to state that many people have trained for years on HIT, I didn’t have an answer for this concern. Then I listened to a 2009 interview between Jimmy Moore and Dr. Doug McGuff. Dr. McGuff explains the concept of going above and below baseline. When we lift weights, our muscle breakdown and we temporarily go below baseline as our body rebuilds the muscle. After recovery, we are stronger than before and now above baseline.
Now it may take four days to get back to baseline. Instead of immediately doing another HIT workout, Dr. McGuff mentioned that he may not train his clients for a full week, so that they spend additional time above baseline. In his interview on Conditioning Research, he said the same thing.
Keep your training frequency such that you experience more days above baseline than below baseline.
To be above baseline to me is a positive neurological signal of success. I think this would address the mental exhaustion concern Jim had. Pavel’s PTP sends the lifter below baseline for shorter, but more frequent periods. HIT combined with McGuff’s extended recovery goes deeper below baseline – followed by more days above baseline.
Confession time. I am heading right back into the gym every 5th day for another HIT workout. I am clearly spending more days below baseline than above baseline. This is intentional. I am weaning myself off the volume I used to do and the novelty of HIT is still exciting to me. Also, I suspect that I’ll see many of the gains from switching to this protocol in the first year. At that point, I’ll scale back to once a week lifting per Dr. McGuff’s advice.
My highly artistic attempt at explaining PTP vs HIT and baseline.
The above chart shows a week where the Pavel PTP lifter does 3 workouts, never to failure and the HIT lifter does one workout to failure. Both spend time above and below baseline, albeit in different intervals. The Pavel lifter never goes too far below baseline and is ready for a high level of performance on a daily basis. The HIT lifter, who less concerned with day-to-day performance, goes well below baseline and then (if they listen to Dr. McGuff) spend a few days above baseline before returning to the gym.
Who is Right?
I’m here to make the peace between both sides. I think both sides are right and it just depends upon who you are and where you are at in your fitness journey as to which protocol is right for you. Because I just care about gaining muscle and have no need to demonstrate a high level of strength on daily basis, HIT is right for me. If I were in law enforcement, active military, emergency response or an in-season athlete, I’d favor Pavel’s PTP.
When it comes to coffee, my favorite drink for years has been espresso. No milk, no sugar. To me and others, espresso represents coffee at its ultimate potential. When I’m hosting an event for the Coffee Club of Seattle, I will occasionally get a comment that my drink selection was too small and that had I gotten something other than espresso, I’d still be sipping on and enjoying my beverage. I correct my critics by stating that I am still enjoying the beverage, as the memory persists.
My love for espresso has helped me really appreciate High Intensity Training. Less can be absolutely be more. Going to the gym every 5th day and engaging in an all-out brutally tough, albeit safe workout, is now yielding me greater results than I was getting with High Volume training. When my daily coffee drink switched from french press to espresso, my caffeine intake dropped and my appreciation for the beverage increased. I began sleeping better, even though my flavor stimulus was greater.
In the book The New High Intensity Training, author Ellington Darden states that HIT training has lost popularity in the past 25 years. I believe it. As far as I can see, I am the only person at my Glitter Gym doing HIT. In fact, I can’t recall a single person doing HIT at any of my previous gyms. That isn’t concerning to me, since I look for results and am uninterested in what is popular at the moment.
When I visit coffee shops across Seattle, I also noticed that the espresso is a minority drink. Most patrons want to stretch out the experience by adding water, milk or some form of frozen sugar sludge. Back at the Glitter Gym, I see patrons stretching out the experience by adding more sets, working out more days and choosing ridiculous exercises that favor injury over muscle growth. They remind me of the guy that repeatedly hits the crosswalk button until the light changes.
The biggest criticism I’ve read about High Intensity Training is that some people will lose motivation if they only go to the gym 1 to 2 times per week for highly brief workouts. I’m only 7 months into my HIT journey, so I am far from an expert, but all I can say is that like espresso, the memory persists. I don’t dilute my espresso and I don’t dilute my workouts.
The economic forces in fitness are always geared towards more. More sets, more workouts, more gear and more supplements. What I’ve learned from my study into evolutionary health is that the economic patterns of nature are not geared towards more. Nature rewards efficiency. The “go big or go home” nonsense is energy foolish and may actually keep you from achieving your fitness goals.
It has been a while since I last posted on Cold Weather Training. For those new to the site, I began experimenting with cold temperature exposure back in 2008 as way to “toughen up” after living in the perfect temperatures of San Diego for seven years. What I learned was that not only does cold temperature exposure increase your personal comfort zone, but it has many health benefits including fat loss and a stronger immune system.
I thought I had nothing new to add to this discussion until about a month ago. While studying the High Intensity Training approach to weight lifting, I wondered if those concepts could be applied to cold temperature exposure. HIT workouts are extremely intense, very brief and highly effective. The goal is to trigger certain physiological and hormonal responses and then allow the body to respond. I love Dr. Doug McGuff’s analogy of hitting an elevator button. Once the button is pressed, pressing it more won’t make the elevator arrive faster.
When I approached cold weather exposure, I gradually increased the duration I spent outdoors as the temperatures were falling. I went from requiring a jacket at 65 degrees to spending hours outdoors in the 30s with just a short sleeve shirt. It took several months, lots of planning and raw grit to get the benefits. My experiment was interesting to others, but not inspiring or empowering. It also violated my Minimal Effort Approach philosophy.
What if one could do a High Intensity approach to cold temperature exposure that achieves the same benefits in far less time? This is all theory and self experimentation. I have no clue if this will work, but I’m thinking it might. After taking two months off from cold weather training, I started this method about a month ago. I’m getting rapid adaptations. It could be my prior training or it could be the new method. I want to find out.
Welcome to version 1 of High Intensity Cold Weather Training. Here is how it works.
Cold Water Exposure
At the end of your daily shower, turn the water to as friggin cold as you can handle without having a heart attack. Do deep slow breathing and relax. Aim the cold water directly between your neck and shoulder blades. Hold this for 30 seconds. End the shower. That is it. If you want you can do a quick rinse on your legs, but that is optional.
Cold Ambient Temperature Exposure
I don’t know if cold water alone will build temperature resiliency. For this you will need to go outside when it is chilly. Wear one less layer than you normally would. Go for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, many people will discover they have already started adapting to the colder temperatures. Most people baby their metabolism. Force it to work for you! After five minutes, you can put your jacket back on. Do this repeatedly and you’ll soon discover the need to always grab a jacket will disappear.
This post was written as we head into summer. This means take advantage of early mornings and late evenings.
I’d love to get feedback from others if they try High Intensity Cold Weather Training. I’m already well adapted to both cold water and cold ambient temperatures. For me this method is about maintaining my temperature resiliency. I have no desire to swim a mile in icy water. I also suspect that extreme exposure to cold temperatures could have the opposite effect on fat loss, as the body would respond to the chronic temperature stress by increasing body fat.
The three things to look for are:
Increased temperature comfort zone. You should begin to feel more comfortable with lower temperatures.
I violated a core HIT rule. I didn’t record any workout. …My training philosophy is the Minimal Effort Approach. As long as I feel I’m moving in the right direction, I wont try and complicate things.
Back when I had a home gym I did go through a long period where I recorded my workouts. I did find it useful to see the numbers prior to initiating an exercise. Instead of using pad and pencil, I had huge whiteboard with markers in my gym.
My most successful workout journal to date was a huge whiteboard in my old home gym.
Two workouts from July 2004.
Once I sold my home, I stopped recording my workouts. For a few years I struggled to find a balance between making gains in the gym and avoiding injury. The numbers became less and less meaningful. Instead of looking at my numbers to determine what to lift, I really listened to my body. If I felt great, I’d dial up the weight. If I didn’t, I’d lower it. Success went from lifting an ever increasing weight to leaving the gym without hurting myself.
I had been thinking about starting a workout journal again when Roger from HIT Charting Journals saw my 6 month update post and offered to send me one of his workout journals. I just got it in the mail and it is pretty nice. I’m going through the pages and thinking about how I can get back in the habit of recording my lifts. I’ll probably start slow and record dates and exercises first. Then if I can keep that up, I’ll begin entering weights and then finally times.
HIT Charting Journal
We will see if I can start up my old habit of recording workouts. It has been *gasp* 5 years since I stopped keeping track.
Today I strained my back attempting a Max Contraction exercise in the gym. It was just last week that I read and reviewed the High Intensity weight training protocol of Max Contraction Training. Even in my review I had a concern with the plan.
The problem I see with Max Contraction Training is that for a few exercises, the weight I can hold for just 1 to 6 seconds is much greater than the weight I can safely lift into maximum contraction position. This is where a trainer or spotter can help.
Instead of using a trainer or spotter, I theorized that I could recruit muscles unrelated to the movement to get into position and then release the weight onto the targeted muscles. That was the theory. I should know better than to attempt MacGyver moves in the free weight room. I guess I needed the spirit Gods of the gym to thwart my arrogance.
Using the seated row machine, I pinned a weight about 20 pounds more than what I weigh. Then using both arms AND my legs, I yanked the weight back. Then I tightened my hold and tried to contract against the weight. I probably should have tried a lighter weight first, as I was unable to hold the weight. Instead of letting go, I exhibited some bad form to gain control of the weight. That tweaked the left side of my lower back.
It didn’t hurt until I got home. I don’t foresee this being a sidelining injury. I’ll probably miss 1 or 2 workouts at most.
Going forward I am going to primarily do the safer Max Pyramid protocol for most of my exercises. I really think you need a skilled trainer to do that protocol safely. I wouldn’t even trust the average spotter.
UPDATE JUNE 2011: This injury turned out to be nothing. To be on the safe side, I delayed my next workout by 3 days. I’ve since lifted a few times with no problems.
Max Contraction is different from other weight lifting protocols in that there are no “reps”. The weight is lifted slowly to the point where the muscle is in maximum contraction. At that point the weight is held fixed for 1 to 6 seconds. Then the weight is slowly lowered. That completes the exercise. You’re done. You’ve triggered full muscle contraction. Move on to the next exercise. If you were able to hold the weight more than 6 seconds, it was too light. Increase the weight.
It takes me about 10 minutes to do a Body By Science workout. With Max Contraction you’ll spend more time moving between exercises than doing the exercises. You can probably finish in under 2 minutes. I’m not going to cover the science or defend the plan. You can read the book for that or watch the first 30 minutes of this 60 minute Max Contraction System video on YouTube.
The problem I see with Max Contraction Training is that for a few exercises, the weight I can hold for just 1 to 6 seconds is much greater than the weight I can safely lift into maximum contraction position. This is where a trainer or spotter can help.
This concern is addressed in the updated version called The Max Pyramid Protocol (h/t Conditioning Research for finding this). This version of static holds stresses TUL (time under load) over poundage. For more information on that plan read:
I’ve done a few lifts using the Max Pyramid Protocol and found they were effective, especially the leg press. Starting next week I plan to test out the full plan using Max Contraction / Max Pyramid. I’ll let you know how it goes.
It was last December when I started up a super slow HIT program. For those unfamiliar with High Intensity Training (HIT), it differs from traditional weight lifting in the following ways:
1 set to failure
slower movements – the goal is to remove momentum from the lift
as little as 1-2 exercises per body part
The common element is taking the targeted muscle to complete failure and then allowing sufficient time for recovery to take place. Additional sets or longer workouts, necessitate a reduction in intensity, which is not ideal to stimulate maximum muscle growth. Also not allowing your body time to recover from the previous workout short circuits the repair process when muscle is built. High Intensity Training is about hitting it very hard, very brief and then resting. Or as James Brown would say, “hit it and quit it“.
My HIT Protocol
There are several different HIT training protocols and they differ slightly from one another. I mostly used The Big 5 Workout plan outlined in Body by Science and used by Ideal Exercise. Often I would add two additional arm exercises. During a second workout at Ideal Exercise, I learned how to incorporate a technique called pre-exhaustion into my workouts. That method is covered in detail in The New High Intensity Training by Darden. In addition, I did some experimenting with John Little’s static hold techniques, which I plan do more of after I finish reading his book Max Contraction Training.
Most of my workouts last just 10 minutes and I only workout every 5th day.
Leg Press by Oliver DelaCruz. I used to believe the leg press was a worthless exercise. Once I learned to really slow the movement down and not lock out, I became a fan. 99% of the people in the gym use this piece of equipment wrong. SLOW DOWN!
Was HIT successful for me? Before I can answer that question, I wanted to define what success means. Given my age, training age and the fact I’m an ectomorph, I do not think it would be fair to expect noticeable muscle gains. If I were a 25 year old newbie mesomorph, my expectations would be much higher. So for me, I will measure success with these metrics.
Do I Feel Good? – Yes. Unlike traditional weight lifting, I never get shoulder or back pain. My muscles are more sore, but my joints feel great. Using machines and slowing down the movement has taken the fear out of lifting. For the past five years, I’ve always held back in the gym on the last few reps out of a fear that I was going to injury myself.
Am I Getting Stronger? – Yes. Especially in the arms and legs. I am 6 foot 2.5 inches tall and I can tell you that Dr. Doug McGuff was dead on correct in the book Body By Science when he made the case for machines with taller athletes.
Is this style of lifting holding my interest? -At first it didn’t. It was tough getting the right mindset in the beginning. I had to undo the hesitate style I had been using for so many years. Visiting Greg Anderson at Ideal Exercise really helped me understand what is meant by intensity. Clarence Bass felt HIT was too tedious for him. I didn’t. I enjoy it more each week.
Show Me the Numbers
I violated a core HIT rule. I didn’t record any workout. Times and weights are very important to HIT. Since you are typically only doing a few exercises for a single set, you don’t have the luxury of dialing in the weight across multiple sets. My training philosophy is the Minimal Effort Approach. As long as I feel I’m moving in the right direction, I wont try and complicate things. For me the first 6 months of HIT were about unlearning old habits, practicing slower movements, better breathing techniques and listening to my body.
At some point if I feel my progress is stalling, I’ll start recording things.
In the post Training To Failure or Training To Quit, I theorized that I might cycle between periods of High Intensity Training and a more traditional Pavel style workout program. Well, I am going to stick with HIT for now. Every week that passes I become more convinced that HIT is right for me.
This is an early photo of me striking a bicep pose.
The New High Intensity Training: The Best Muscle-Building System You’ve Never Tried by Ellington Darden Ph.D. is an outstanding book on the principles of High Intensity Training. It starts with a history lesson on the early days of HIT with Arthur Jones, Casey Viator and the Mentzer brothers. At first I wondered why it was important to put the history of HIT inside a training program, but it made perfect sense after reading those chapters. Much like the nutrition book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, it really is essential to understand how we came to know information that ended up being completely wrong.
Darden does an excellent job covering genetic potential for muscle growth. I already knew that as an ectomorph, my somatype was the least ideal for gaining muscle. After doing the two tests in the book, I confirmed that my physique has the absolute worst potential for size. I’ll share those tests on a future post.
For those unfamiliar with High Intensity Training, it differs from traditional high volume training in the following ways.
Shorter more intense workouts.
1 set to failure.
Slower more controlled movements.
Fewer workouts with a focus on recovery.
There are different methods for High Intensity Training, but those are some of the most common principles. The New High Intensity Training covers a lot of different HIT methods.
The New High Intensity Training is beautifully edited. The book is packed with very tight writing. It has excellent photos that clearly demonstrate each exercise. While reading this book, I was inspired by the photos to try out a few exercises. Last Friday I did negative dips and negative chins using a weighted belt. I used 90 pounds for the dip and 45 pounds on the chin. My arms still haven’t recovered.
My only complaint with this book was the nutritional advice. It was awful. Darden recommends calorie counting and eating such nutritionally empty foods such as whole wheat bread, low-fat dairy, beans, snack bars, orange juice and microwave dinners. This book was written in 2004. I hope his thinking has evolved on this topic. I was misguided back then myself.
One of the key components to the success of High Intensity Training is recovery. My belief is that eating highly nutritious whole foods would help facilitate that goal. What should bodybuilders eat? The foods outlined in the book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, with a bias towards more calories and carbohydrates on training days and less during recovery.
The New High Intensity Training, despite the few pages on nutrition, was excellent. I read lots of books on fitness. Very few will ever make it into my personal library. This book will.
There is a split in opinion with my fitness mentors on training to failure. Training to failure means that you completely exhaust your muscles to the point you can not do another repetition. I’m going to break down their arguments for and against training to failure and see if a conclusion can be drawn.
Enter Pavel Tsatsouline
Yesterday I posted Power To The People – 10 Years Later. It details my experience following the advice of my first real fitness mentor, Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel made a convincing case against training to failure in his book. His points:
He stated the strongest men in the world never or very infrequently train to failure.
He openly disagrees with High Intensity advocates that claim total muscle failure is secondary to the amount of weight you are lifting.
He mentions that neuroscience shows that you can stimulate a neural pathway when the outcome is positive. In other words, training to success leads to more success.
This made sense to me when I first read the book in 2001.
Enter Art De Vany
My second real fitness mentor is Art De Vany. Like Pavel, Art does not advocate training to failure. He cites two reasons in his book The New Evolution Diet.
He mentions safety concerns on the last repetition. Breaking form and gritting your teeth as you go for muscular failure can result in injury.
He mentions that the brain records every failure and that the goal should be to seek success.
De Vany confirmed with me what I had learned from Pavel.
Enter Dr Doug McGuff
When I first read about High Intensity Training years ago, I was highly skeptical and never tried it. It was Dr. McGuff’s book Body By Science that convinced me to give it a try. His Big 5 workout routine involves doing 1 set to failure on five machine exercises. The movements are controlled and slow.
He details how sequentially recruiting and fatiguing the different muscle fibers increases strength. The book makes a strong case that not going to failure actually limits the muscle fiber activation.
He addresses the neurological argument by explaining there is a difference between strength training and skill training. Skills being what you use your strength for, be it rock climbing, hockey or whatever. He writes that science shows that total muscular failure is optimal for strength training and that the neural pathways for success should be achieving during skill training.
Body by Science made such a strong case for High Intensity Training that I came to the conclusion to give it a try.
Enter Greg Anderson
When I visited Ideal Exercise, a High Intensity gym in North Seattle, I brought up this question to Greg Anderson. He said something I’ll never forget.
If you aren’t training to failure are you training to quit?
It really is an interesting way to look at the flip side of Pavel and De Vany’s neurological argument. At that moment when things are getting hard, do you end the workout (quit) in a success mode or you power through and recruit more muscle until total failure is achieved? Does the brain recognize quitting as success and maximum effort as failure?
Survivorship Bias and Safety Concerns
Pavel’s argument about how the strongest people don’t train to failure is weak. There is a survivorship bias with lifting an extreme volume of weight. The freaks of nature will always be able to recover faster than us mortals. If a body can tolerate high weights on high volume, then it would necessitate reducing intensity in order to squeeze in more workouts. Pavel also works with elite military and law enforcement, both of which weed out all but the most gifted candidates. The fact they don’t train to failure is not relevant.
De Vany’s safety concerns are addressed in the High Intensity community. Machines and slow movements prevent bad form. High Intensity also has its own breathing techniques and jaw position that differs from conventional weight training to prevent teeth mashing or holding of the breath. Watch this video and notice how the lifter keeps his head in a locked position and does rapid breaths to prevent grunting or passing out. His movement is always controlled and bad form impossible. I agree that going to this level of failure using free weights is not safe.
What Shall I Do?
I went from a training protocol that never went to failure to one that always does. If De Vany’s point about neurological failure is accurate, then I should be concerned. In nutrition, De Vany makes a solid case for not overloading one form of metabolism (glucose vs fat) and instead diversify for resilience. Perhaps a similar approach is needed here at the neurological level? Could altering the success and failure outcomes be the best hedge?
I suppose Dr McGuff would advise me to train my skills to success. But what if I don’t participate in any other activities besides pushing weight at the gym? Do I need to find some movement based activity outside the gym that I can train to successful outcomes? Maybe a sane version of CrossFit? Or the other option would be to occasionally take a break from High Intensity Training and cycle in a few Pavel 5×5 workouts.
Am I the only paleo blogger that isn’t embracing the extreme “functional” workout program known as CrossFit? I’ve read articles from their journals, watched videos and talked to members. To me CrossFit seems like another lunatic over-training program. However, I accept the premise that I am still uninformed, so I am keeping an open mind.
If you play the video, turn down the volume lest your hears will be punished with music as EXTREME as CrossFit. Ugh!
Injury prone – Highly technical moves, climbing ropes to the ceiling and other extreme exercises seem like highly inefficient ways to target muscles. When I watch the promo videos for CrossFit, all I can think about is survivorship bias. The ones that succeed are those that didn’t injury themselves or those with superior recovery skills.
Momentum is Not Strength – Doing something fast may feel great and provide a wonderful sense of accomplishment, but when you flip weights or hold things in lock out position, you are taking tension off the targeted muscle. Your joints take the beating. But you’ll be 20 forever, so who cares?
Beat Your Body Into Shape Mentality – I know this exists everywhere, be it CrossFit, spin or Zumba. This idea that we need to run ourselves to complete exhaustion via extreme volume or extreme movements in order to become more fit is dead wrong. You should work with your body not against it. Do what it takes to trigger results and no more. Dr. Doug McGuff uses the elevator button analogy. Once you’ve hit the button, wait for the elevator. Don’t keep pressing the button. That body you beat up in your 20s and 30s is the same body you’ll have when you get older. Treat it well.
The Commercialization of Extreme – This is the main thing that most turns me off about CrossFit. Every few years another extreme fitness program surfaces. P90X anyone? The promise of turning your lumpy weak body into an Olympic athlete with some extreme program sure sounds appealing. Sadly, they all have high failure rates. Some people will succeed doing any program and then falsely credit whatever program they did instead of superior genetics, youth or a good diet.
Look I understand the appeal of CrossFit. It looks like fun and it has a great sense of community. The people that do stick with it and don’t get injured tend to be in awesome shape. I personally think they would be in awesome shape following most workout plans and that CrossFit offers nothing superior.
Almost ten years ago when I had my own home gym, I went to Home Depot and bought a thick rope. With it I constructed a setup where by I could do rope pull-ups. I felt like a bad ass doing that exercise. That is until I lost my grip and tore a muscle in my ring finger. I was sidelined for months while it healed. During that time I couldn’t close my left hand. I lost far more strength during my recovery than I ever gained doing that silly exercise.
I would love for someone to explain what CrossFit offers that can’t be achieved in a safer, more efficient manner. Frankly, I just don’t understand it.
A few months ago I started doing a High Intensity weight lifting protocol. Slow movement, machine based and one-set to failure. I’m guessing it will be another month or two before I know if it is right for me. So far I am impressed with HIT and I continue to learn more about it every week. I suspect that HIT holds promise, especially for us ectomorphs. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Today I discovered a wonderful side benefit that High Intensity has over all other exercise plans.
When 24 Hour Fitness built their new Northgate monstrosity, they were only able to allocate a small number of parking spaces in the garage below. In fact, there are probably two or three times as many pieces of equipment in the gym as there are parking spaces in the garage. The solution they came up with was to have the members park at the shopping mall and then play Frogger running across 5th Ave. Not a fun game to play in the winter or when it rains. And it does rain in Seattle.
In the past I’ve posted on dumb things Glitter Gyms do, but I’m ready to give props to 24 Hour Fitness Northgate for doing something brilliant. They put 30 minute limits on about 30% of the parking spots in the gym parking garage. In other words, they just provided me guaranteed parking. All you cardio zombies doing Zumba, spin or other highly oxidative low intensity “exercise” can park at the mall. Same goes for you marathon meat-heads that spend so much time in the free weight room that you aught to have your mail forwarded there.
Today I was able to complete an entire workout and be back in my car in 24 minutes. That included signing in and doing 10 minutes of mobility work. And unlike the staff at 24 Hour Fitness and other patrons, I actually rack my weights. For more information on the High Intensity protocol, I highly recommend reading Body by Science by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little.
John Little is one of my favorite writers in the fitness field. He co-wrote the definitive fitness book Body by Science. Recently, I listen to an outstanding interview with him on High Intensity Nation. In the interview he discussed a style of training called Max Contraction Training that sounded interesting, so I checked to see if the book was in my library. It wasn’t, but a book with a similar title co-written by John Little in 1999 was there.
Static Contraction Training by Peter Sisco and John Little is a very quick read. This is a style of high intensity training that uses 1 set to failure for a handful of exercises. Instead of moving the weight slowly like is done in Body by Science and other slow training methods, this uses – as the title alludes to – a static hold of a heavy weight.
The premise is that when you raise and lower a weight, no matter how slow you go, tension is reduced at different points in the movement. An example mentioned in the book is that if you are lifting 200 pounds that no matter how slow the descent, you must lower the tension below 200 or the negative portion of the repetition can not occur. With SCT you take a weight that is so heavy that you can only hold it for 5 to 15 seconds. As soon as you can hold it longer than 15 seconds, it is time to increase the weight.
Safety was my primary concern when I read about this training method. You should be using either a trusted training partner to spot weights, machines or a squat rack with pins in the right position. The weight you can hold will be significantly greater than one you can lift. I think the book could have done a better job in explaining how to do these exercises safely. I’ve been lifting since 1994 and I still have questions on 30% of the exercises mentioned. My guess is this topic is expanded upon in the updated Max Contraction Training.
I did have one problem with this book. The photos. This book has lots of photos of professional body builders who used steroids and built their body using techniques other than SCT. If I were editing this book, I would have taken out all those photos which make up for over half the book and instead put photos or drawings on how to perform each exercise in a safe manner. The book has several photos of Craig Titus, who was later convicted of murder, arson and kidnapping. Not exactly an ideal role model for a training protocol.
What do I think of SCT? The reviews on Amazon are love and hate. I haven’t tried it, but I will. John Little is a smart guy and I respect a lot of the people that respect him. One of the points that John drives home in his podcast interview is something I know to be true. Most people in the gym are over training. They aren’t allowing their body sufficient time to fully recover. Maybe some of the critics to this program are those gym rats that lower intensity in order to squeeze in additional volume? Or maybe it works better for some than others? I’ll let you know how it goes.
After posting The Myth of Cardiovascular Training, I received an email invitation from Greg Anderson to come visit his North Seattle gym. Ideal Exercise is not a glitter gym (bright lights, treadmills, etc) nor is it a rust gym (hard rock and free weights). Ideal Exercise is all about coached High Intensity Training using specific machine based exercises. What does High Intensity Training meaning? Although it has several definitions, in this case it mirrored the training protocols outlined in the phenomenal book Body by Science.
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. My goal was not to sweat, but to lift heavier weights. Heavier weights, not sweat is what makes you stronger. 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.
High Intensity Training is about using slow controlled movements. After a failed start with this method last spring, I restarted a slow protocol in December. After 16 years of lifting the other way, I have been trying to learn how to generate high intensity safely using the slow method. During my workout with Greg Anderson, he gave me lots of tips and information to assist with my knowledge. He explained breathing, jaw position, where to focus your eyes and tempo.
After getting my height and asking a few strength questions, Greg set up the Big 5 workout for me. The Big Five exercises are:
Each exercise is done 1 set to failure. For my workout, failure was not defined as the inability to do another rep, but the inability to even move the weight another inch. This was an important concept for me to understand. At the completion of one exercise, I was quickly moved to the next one. The entire workout lasted just under 9 minutes. It was the hardest most brutal workout I’ve ever done. Greg – through coaching, never yelling – was able to push me to intensity levels that I didn’t know I was capable of reaching.
In this video Dr. McGuff explains the background the Big 5 Workout.
The level of intensity that this type of workout requires would not be safe to do with free weights. For the next 48 hours I was sore, but sore in a good way. Unlike the soreness you get from doing low-weight, high repetitions where it hurts to move, I was functional sore. My movement was fine and fluid, just a little slower. I was still able to go snow tubing on Saturday.
I am still a student of slow movement high intensity training. I’m not ready to endorse or dismiss it yet, although I am liking it more each week. I’m going to keep at it and report back on this blog. One thing I am already convinced of is how important it is to slow the negative portion of your lift. Don’t let gravity take the tension off your muscles. Control that movement.
If you are interested in trying this type of workout and live in North Seattle, I highly recommend contacting Ideal Exercise.
Ideal Exercise is located in the Bitterlake Center (behind Car Toys) at 929 N 130th St Ste 4, Seattle, WA
Earlier this year I decided to abandon my normal weight lifting protocol and try slow motion weight lifting. Body By Science is a stellar book and it made an excellent case for slow motion weight training using machines. How did my test go?
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.
I went back to my old classic weight lifting program. It was just more enjoyable to me. However, I haven’t been happy with my progress recently. My strength levels peaked in November 2008. Since then I have focused way more on diet, but even when I dedicate myself to lifting, I’m not putting up the numbers I did two years ago. For my age and body type I am in pretty good shape, but I can only go so long without seeing concrete gains before I decide enough is enough.
Recently, I read an interview with Luke Carlson about functional training on Conditioning Research. It addressed many of my doubts about using slower more controlled movements on machines. It was enough to convince me to try slow motion weight training again.
Even though it has only been a few weeks, I feel like this time it may stick. For someone that has only known how to generate intensity via explosive high momentum moves, I am slowly figuring out how to generate even more intensity using a much slower movement. I still think that the extremely slow moves are too boring, so I have found a middle ground of 6 second reps to play with (2 seconds up, 4 seconds down).
I’ll stick with this plan until spring and then reassess.