In this article I am going to talk about a three part system to Make the greatest fitness gains of your life. This system is not based on some secret training program or supplement.
I am simply going to outline a stripped down version of what you can do to increase your fitness. Instead of making this topic infinitely complex, I am going to condense it down to the smallest amount of information that will convey the core principles you need to know.
After I discuss the main principles of “making the best fitness gains of your life, it is up to you to decide how you will use the information. Finally, if you want to dive into these topics in more detail, I will be writing a follow up to this series that discusses each point more thoroughly.
Alright, in order to increase your fitness as quickly and effectively as possible, you are going to focus on three things, increasing your biological power, increasing your relative strength and minimizing your overall stress load.
Wait, What Is Fitness?
An important distinction we need to make is what I am talking about when I say fitness. For the purpose of this article, fitness is going to amount to three main three main things:
- Your ability to complete any tasks you might encounter on a day to day basis
- Your ability to perform the movements or exercises you have decided to use as checkpoints for progress in the gym
- What your physique looks like
While that may seem like a short list, I want to keep this simple. The type of fitness I am talking about is broad and inclusive. The only part that is specific is the how you look part.
If you have any goals that you are shooting for on your own then this plan will also give you the best base of fitness to develop follow on qualities. The reason that “what you look like” is the only specific concern is that we will be working to develop overall work capacity once we have established healthy movement patterns.
Increasing work capacity will take all the extra effort you want to supply outside of the specific work to increase the appearance of your physique.
Alright But What is Healthy Movement?
Healthy movement is another topic that can become infinitely complex. What is important to understand is that many people have spent their entire lives trying to simplify this topic so the rest of us can get on with our lives and improve the way we look, function and play.
A good example of someone who has spent his simplifying the topic of movement is Grey Cook. he is the developer of Functional Movement Systems, a program for assessing athletes. The program is fantastic, it takes athletes through a series of 3 core movements and 4 supporting movements that assess functional movement.
The system grades movements on a scale from 0-3 where 0 = painful movement, 1 = unable to complete the movement pattern, 2 = able to move through the full range of the movement and 3 = able to move nearly perfectly with no compensations or imbalances.
When I say compensations or imbalances, I mean all the muscles are performing their functions in concert and non of the muscle are having to pick up any of the slack for any of the less developed or weaker muscles.
If you have no idea what this means, all you need to know is that it is safer and more effective for all the muscle to be working in balance. As long as they are working in balance you will be able to execute your movements more powerfully and more effectively.
People usually have at least a few movement imbalances due to developing muscles at different rates, maintaining static positions through out the day such as sitting at a desk, or through injuries that result in the development of faulty movement patterns.
Over time, these faulty movement patterns can become ingrained. When this happens dysfunction gets worse until someone starts to experience joint or muscle pain or even injury.
In order to prevent this, Grey Cook, along with his colleagues, developed Functional Movement Screenings to assess movement and create a plan of action to repair faulty movement.
In the past, you would have had to have specialized knowledge of corrective exercise in order to create a plan to fix these faulty movement patterns. After a while, some people realized that having a physical therapists level of understanding of human movement requires more time then most people are willing to invest.
A number of system’s of movement address the movement imbalances people face from sitting and standing too much. One of the most useful movement systems is the Ground Force Method.
The purpose of this system is to take the feedback provided by Functional Movement Systems screening and design simple ground based movement routines to restore fully functional movement patterns. Ground Force Method is designed to replicate the way we gain functional movement in the first place as an infant.
The purpose of re-learning the movement patters we had as children is to allow for a more broad spectrum of movement then most adults are capable of. If you think about it, this is really one of the keys to elite fitness.
there are far more adults that display elite strength, endurance or power then there are adults who display elite movement patterns. A truly rare individual is the man or woman who has both elite strength and power and elite movement.
When those two qualities come together you get someone like the real life Tarzan Ido Portal who is able to utilize gymnastics and acrobatics in a way that makes his movement look effortless.
The point of this section is to build your awareness of the importance of movement. Without establishing a broad base of movement quality you will not be able to enhance the other aspects of your fitness as much as possible.
The first order of business for any serious athlete should be to assess their own movement. You can do this by looking at how you move and comparing it to other athletes you aspire to move like or you can utilize a standardized system like the Functional Movement System.
Once you have an idea of where you are at and what your baseline movement is, you can determine how you want to proceed in correcting your imbalances. Again, this can be done by researching corrective exercises from a database or using a system such as the Ground Force Method.
Enhancing The Base of The Fitness Pyramid: Biological Power
Biological power is the sum total of your biological system’s ability to power and recover from movement. The systems that contribute to your biological power are the cardiovascular systems the metabolic systems (energy systems), the neuro-muscular system and the endocrine system.
Enhancing the functional capacity of these systems allows you to do more work in the gym and recover from more work. If you can do both of these things you can make gains in fitness more quickly and more directly.
Instead, most people focus on the development of one specific physical quality and ignore the development of other physical qualities that they need to increase overall work capacity. The reason for this is that it is hard to train and develop all of the major fitness capacities at once.
In order to do this you would need a training and recovery schedule like and Olympian. If you consider that the above 4 mentioned systems each have a number of training protocols that are used to aid in their development, you quickly realize that you could fill up your week with workouts and still not cover every types of training their is.
For an example, consider the Strength and conditioning book Ultimate MMA conditioning by Joel Jamison. In that book, he introduces the concept of biological power and the main workouts that are used to increase biological power over time.
Joel lists over 18 different types of workouts that are used used to develop the systems of the body that contribute to increased work capacity or biological power. Most recreational trainees are not familiar with a 4th of the workouts listed or the physical qualities the workouts are meant to develop.
At this point it’s enough to understand that increasing the amount of work your body can accomplish and recover from requires a concerted effort from a number of the bodies systems.
As an example, lets say that you increase your maximal squat. Initially, you might be limited by your ability to coordinate the muscles in your body in order to move the weight (Neuromuscular system).
After you learn to move the weight, you might be limited by your bodies ability to increase the contractile components of your muscles (myofibril hypertrophy). At this point your body would rely on the (endocrine system) to supply the hormonal environment needed to repair and enhance the muscle tissue.
After training the squat you might start to add volume and eventually begin to be limited by your bodies ability to power the muscular work (metabolic system). Finally, if you are training a number of other movements and other physical qualities you might start to be limited by your ability to recover.
Recovery ability both during a workout and in between workouts is limited by the (cardiovascular system) of an athlete. It’s possible that something like cardiovascular fitness which is not normally associated with strength training could potentially be limiting gains.
In order to avoid stalling out at each point where another one of theses system’s limitations takes over, its important to enhance your overall work capacity in concert with your gains in specific physical qualities. This is how you avoid serious weaknesses from developing and ensure you continue to progress.
Of course, planning your training to increase work capacity is more involved then setting up a workout program to allow you to reach one specific fitness milestone.
In later sections I am going to discuss how you can increase work capacity along with specific physical qualities. First I want to talk about the fitness quality that we are going to focus on, relative strength.
Whats The Most Foolproof Way to Increase an Athletes Performance?
In the words of physique and athletic coach Eric Minor, “Increasing an athletes strength to weight ratio“. Increasing the strength to weight ratio is one of the keys to athletic success and a better physique.
If you look at the world’s most incredible athletes and the most incredible physiques, the one thing they have in common is high levels of relative strength or a high strength to weight ratio.
Possibly one of the best and most overused examples of the importance of relative strength comes for the training programs of Barry Ross, famed sprint coach of Allison Felix (shown below).
As the story goes, Allison approached her high school strength training coach Barry Ross to ask him to train her over the summer. After he realized how serious she was he designed a program for her to increase her relative strength.
Ross realized that sprinters were limited by the amount of force they could apply to the ground relative to the weight of their body. This was in opposition to the commonly held belief that sprinters were limited by the turnover rate of their feet.
Realizing that his sprinters could benefit from increased strength without increased body weight, he designed training programs to increase his sprinters strength without drastically increasing their bodyweight.
To the horror of many high level sprint coaches, this high school strength coach had a serious impact on the world of sprint training by shedding light on many misconceptions in the world of strength and athletic training.
In his book, underground secrets to faster running Ross discusses his approach and the importance of placing a premium on relative strength. Whether or not Ross’s fame is deserved is another discussion, what is definite is that his concepts on training athletes have stuck.
The concepts discussed in his book relate to the idea that sprint performance can be determined by something called the Anaerobic Speed Reserve (ASR). The ASR is simply the difference between how fast a person can run at their peak speed or anaerobic limit vs. their aerobic limit.
This measure of anaerobic speed reserve can be determined using a number of tests. Once determined, the running performance through a number of distances up to 4 minutes in length can be determined with 97% accuracy.
This measure is important for 2 reasons. The first is that a run of up to 4 minutes in length can be used to predict running times for distances that take much longer then 4 minutes to complete. The second reason is that increasing relative strength is a reliable way to increase the anaerobic speed reserve.
Increases in anaerobic speed reserve, driven by increases in relative strength are a reliable way to improve running performance up to 4 minutes in duration. Most likely, increases in relative strength will improve running performance at any duration. The only difference seems to be that the importance of relative strength decreases as the speed at which a race is run slows down.
What all this means is that increasing your relative strength not only makes you a better sprinter, it makes you a better athlete in nearly any capacity. being able to move your body effortlessly and powerfully against gravity is a pre-requisite to any type of athletic success.
What Is The Most Foolproof Way To Enhance The Physique?
In the world of physique training, the importance of relative strength has been known for a number of years. in his book Beyond Bran (2003) author Stuart McRobert discusses the difference of a physique at 10% bodyfat vs. 15% bodyfat. He notes that the main difference in the two athletes will be in the relative strength of the individual at 10% vs. 15% bodyfat.
McRobert gives a number of recommended strength levels for a male athlete of 190 lbs. The standards include a 500 lb. deadlift, 300 lb. bench press, 400lb squat as well as a handful of other bodybuilding exercises. Similarly a number of other resources have begun to acknowledge the importance of relative strength.
One of the most useful is the guideline given by strength coach Martin Berkhan. His site and fitness standards are possibly the most widely distributed on the web. Martin, having read Stuart McRobert’s work, took many of the principles to heart and devised a system that maximized relative strength using intermittent fasting and strength training.
The results Berkhan achieved by using intermittent fasting and strength training astounded many people who had not considered the importance of maintaining a low bodyweight and ruthlessly maximizing for relative strength.
One of the first photos he posted is instructive as he details the routine he used to achieve around 5% bodyfat at a weight of around 190-195 lbs and a height of 6’2″. He also mentions his ability to deadlift over 600 lbs and squat with twice bodyweight for reps.
At this point anyone doubting the importance of relative strength should be seriously reconsidering. At least, that is what many people did when they were exposed to Martin’s work. If you take a look at Martin’s site Leangains he emphasizes the importance of a ruthless focus on the basics and progressive increases in relative strength.
In one of his most informative articles he discusses what he terms Fuckarounditis, or the lack of focus and planning in a work out routine. In this article he outlines what he feels are reliable strength goals for advances athletes training at least 3-4 years: a 1.5+ times body weight bench press and weighted pull up, a 2+ times bodyweight squat and 2.5+ times bodyweight deadlift.
Similarly, author “Mike Matthews” of internet fitness site Muscle For Life lists his advanced strength standards as 1.75 times bodyweight in the squat and deadlift for 4-6 reps, 1.35 times bodyweight in the bench press for 4-6 reps and 1.0 times bodyweight in the seated press for 4-6 reps.
Regardless of who’s standards you want to follow, relative strength is clearly an important measure in tracking progress toward your best physique.
How To Deal With The Body Weight Side of The Equation?
It seems that people have known for quite some time that strength compared to body weight is important for looking and performing your best. What many people fail to realize is that reducing body weight will yield faster results then increasing strength for most people.
Strength takes a long time to develop and requires patience. While many people are working toward developing advanced levels of strength, they should also be working toward the correct overall body weight. While I do not advocate getting smaller then you need to, I also think it’s important to have realistic ideas about the weight at which you can attain your best physique.
In another one of Martin Berkhan’s articles he discusses the maximum muscular potential for drug free lifters. He goes into detail about how he determines these numbers. Without getting into the specifics, for most drug free male trainers, their maximum muscular bodyweight at a ripped 5-7% bodyfat will be around a BMI of 25.
For some context a BMI of 25 is around 185 lbs for a man 6’0″ tall. If you are not familiar with BMI it is simply the body mass index, or your index of body weight to height. you can calculate your BMI for free here.
BMI is important for health physique and athletic success. In terms of health, BMI is important to understand as your body is put under additional stress for every additional tissue it has to profuse with blood and nutrients to keep alive.
It does not matter if you have extra weight in the form of muscle or fat, the additional stress extra weight puts on the bodies systems is remarkably similar. In terms of performance, there are standard BMI measurements that statistically correlate with success in a number of sports.
Consider the BMI chart below showing the average BMI of elite runners at a number of distances. It’s important to keep in mind that BMI is more strongly correlated to success at various running distances then height or weight taken alone, we will come back to that.
What you will notice is that the heaviest runners are the 100 meter athletes who have body weights from 21.5 to 25.5 with the average being about 23.5. To put this in perspective, a 6’0″ man with a BMI of 23.5 would weigh about 173 lbs. If you look at the highest BMI for 100 meter athletes at a BMI of about 25.5 the 6’0″ tall man would weigh 188 lbs.
You might look at this and say that you don’t want to run really fast, fair enough. It might be more appropriate to consider Olympic weightlifters. These are athletes who’s only job is to lift heavy things overhead. If you look at Olympic weightlifters as a whole, their body weights are higher then runners, no surprise.
If you look at BMI of the average lifter from the 2000, 2004 & 2008 games you will see that it is around 29.4. However, the highest relative strength, even for these athletes occurs around a BMI of 25. This makes sense as this seems to be the upper limit for lean body weight as discussed in the physique section of this article above.
The point at which athletes are optimized for a combination of strength and leanness is where the highest relative strengths will be achieved. An important caveat is that this weight will not be the weight you are going to want to stay at if your goal is to lift the heaviest weights you are capable of lifting.
The body weight that will allow you to maintain your leanest physique will require you to sacrifice some absolute power and strength. The trade off will be a leaner physique and enhanced athletic performance. If you can except that we can move on to the body weight side of the equation.
Getting Stronger At Your Ideal Body Weight
In order to reach and maintain your ideal body weight while training primarily for strength you are going to have to use some unconventional nutritional strategies. The reason for this is that you do not want to have to rely on a high level of cardiovascular activity in order to maintain a lower body weight.
Performing excessive amounts of cardio is not an effective long term strategy when trying to maximize relative strength. The reason for this is that long duration activity can increase the concentration of cortisol in your blood stream. This in turn can hamper your ability to recover and make gains from your strength training.
It’s important to point out that certain types of conditioning can be effective. However, the purpose of conditioning is to cause a specific adaptation that is beneficial to your performance. If you are using conditioning to lower or maintain your body weight you should be focusing more effort on altering your diet instead.
The above point might be obvious to many people but many athletes justify their less then ideal diet with their activity levels. They loose sight of their training and begin to focus more and more on increasing their activity just to prevent weight gain. In this study, researchers looked at a number of runners and found that their activity levels did indeed prevent weight gain.
So you can actually prevent weight gain with very high activity levels but you will be sacrificing your ability to adapt to more meaningful forms of stress then a bunch of movement.
In order to maintain a lower body weight without actually running around all the time we need a strategy that is effective for people at all ends of the activity spectrum. While there are a number of different strategies that have been used to help poeple maintain lower overall body weights there are two that stand out as being by far the most effective.
The first strategy is perhaps the most common, it has been used by runway models and fitness models alike, fasting, especially intermittent fasting has been shown to be an effective way to allow people to maintain lower body weights much more comfortably.
Since details about intermittent fasting can be found nearly anywhere on the internet I want to talk about the less popular topic of eating correctly for a lower body weight. One of the only methods of dieting that has any lasting success is increasing the nutrient density of a person’s diet.
Dr. Joel Furhman is possibly the most enthusiastic proponent of increasing the nutrient density of the diet. He regularly counsels obese patients to drop their body weights down to the point that they can maintain a BMI of around 22.5. For reference a 6’0″ man with a BMI of 22.5 would weigh around 163 lbs.
To be clear, I in no way recommend you attempt to reach a BMI of 22.5. Our goal is maximal performance, not maximal lifespan. In order to maximize relative strength and power you are going to be shooting for a BMI 0f 25 ± 2.
We are going to be borrowing some of the same strategies these obese patients are using to get such outstanding results. In order to wrap your mind about why this has anything to do with athletes I am going to take this opportunity to introduce a quote.
In the META chapter of Tim Ferris’s book The Four Hour Chef he discusses a quote from a leading product designer, Dan Formosa, on thinking about the creation of something new.
“We have clients come to us and say, ‘Here is our average customer.’ For instance, ‘Female, she is 34 years old, she has 2.3 kids,’ and we listen politely and say, ‘Well, that’s great, but we don’t care . . . about that person.’ What we really need to do, to design, is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the strongest, the fastest person, because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”
If you can get someone who can barely move to healthfully reduce body weight without increasing their activity levels, any athlete who is struggling with their diet should take notice. In this case the extreme measure that should inform the diet strategies of the athlete is nutrient density.
Nutrient density is simply the amount of nutrients that are in the diet divided by the amount of calories consumed. In this case nutrients refers to micronutrients: vitamin, minerals and phytochemicals. We are not talking about macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Also if you are unfamiliar with phytochemicals, they are plant based nutrients that are just beginning to be discovered by nutritional scientists. In the words of Dr. Furhman:
“When consistently consumed in adequate quantity and variety, phytochemicals become super-nutrients in your body. They work together to detoxify cancer-causing compounds, deactiviate free radicals, protect against radiation damage and enable DNA repair mechanisms”
While all that is important, I understand it doesn’t exactly relate to looking better with your shirt off. After all, getting lean is simply about eating the correct amount of macronutrients or Macros. The problem with this is that in the long run, eating too few micronutrients will cause your body to begin to starve.
When you follow a diet that advocates only paying attention to Macro nutrients, IIFYM, you are setting yourself up to starve from the inside and eventually get way more hungry then you otherwise could be. The reason for this is that micronutrients along with plan fibers are one of the key satiety signalers in your diet.
What this means is that the most nutrient dense foods are the ones that make you the most full for the longest period of time. Most people who feel that “eating a salad” does not keep them full do not understand the type of diet people who focus on nutrient density are eating.
For a quick example, consider that Dr. Furhman suggests that his patients who are trying to loose weight eat at least 1 pound of fresh vegetables and 1 pound of cooked vegetables each day along with 2-3 pieces of fruit.
Everything else they eat is layered on top of this. So next time you think a salad doesn’t make you full consider the fact that a normal salad has about 2 oz of vegetables vs. the 32 oz Dr. Furhman is instructing his patients to eat.
Now, before you click away from this article, consider that many people who want an extremely good looking physique or outstanding athletic performance would claim they will do just about whatever it takes. When rubber meets the road the desire for abnormally good results is met with the realization that these results require abnormal strategies.
Whether we are talking about meticulously tracking workouts, actually getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night or eating a socially unacceptable amount of vegetables, you will have to do “not normal” things to get “not normal” results. This doesn’t mean you will have to work harder or be better, just that you are not going to be doing what is average if you do not want average results. You need a new system.
This system has actually been around for quite some time though it is more of an underground bodybuilding thing. In his book Extreme Muscle Enhancement, Carlon Colker MD discusses a little know technique to bust through fat loss plateaus.
He uses strategic fasts that include a large raw vegetable meal and no other food to break through fat loss plateaus. He says that he is “not sure why” but that this seems to reliably break thorough fat loss plateaus he experiences on traditional bodybuilding diets.
My guess would be that the raw vegetable give the body exactly what it needs on a traditional bodybuilding diet of protein and starch, namely micronutrients.
By combining flexible dieting and intermittent fasting with nutrient dense foods you can easily modulate your level of calories in the diet without experiencing any of the hunger pains associated with traditional reduced calorie diets.
Using high nutrient density food to make hitting your macros or calories for the day or week is the system that will make maintaining the body weight you want nearly effortless in the long run. I say long run because it will take some work up front getting used to making things you like with nutrient dense foods.
Changing your tastes so that you eventually crave different types of foods is well documented and will happen if you actually eat different foods. As you introduce new foods and combinations you begin to crave whatever it is you continue to introduce to your diet in greater quantities. If you need proof, consider all the fruitarians who have learned to live off meals of 1 fruit (Boo).
The point of this is that you do not need to experience cravings on any type of diet, there are foods that will keep you full at nearly any calorie level. I explore this in detail in a number of other articles. for now it’s enough to know that a diet where reducing calories is simple dies exist.
In the next section I am going to talk about stress load and introduce some simple ideas to help you think of ways to allow yourself to improve results in the gym by transforming your stress load.
Transforming Your Stress Load
Everything you do through out the day contributes to the stress load that your body is under. This is good, the body is designed to counteract the challenging aspects of it’s environment. However, problems start to crop up when people try to compartmentalize their training efforts from the rest of their life.
As Andrew Read says in his article Is Stress Ruining your Fitness
“That time your boss dropped a big pile of work on your desk that had to be done before you left the office was just as traumatic for your body as a max effort squat day.”
The best thing you can do to attenuate the affects of a stressful lifestyle is to simply become aware of how it is affecting your body. Are there certain days when you always seem to be off in the gym? Maybe there is something you are doing something the morning of your workout or the day before that is causing your poor performance.
The point is that below or above average performance in the gym is not caused by anything in the immediate environment. It is most likely the effect of something in your environment in the 96 hours before you got to the gym. In order to have more consistent progress you need to become aware of the many factors affecting your body.
There are a number of different ways to become more in touch with your body, the easiest is to simply keep track of all the dietary, emotional, work related and physical sources of stress you are dealing with from w eek to week.
This does not have to be a complicated practice, it is enough to simply move your workouts around based on what is going on during the week. Nearly every really successful trainee I know has learned to listen to their body and will simply push hard when they feel they can perform and go easy when they are feeling off.
For some of the most advanced trainees I know this instinctive form of training can be something as simple as skipping the gym altogether when they notice the weights feeling heavier, going to the gym and just doing some light cardio when they are feeling off or just cutting down the volume of work they perform.
On the other side of the equation is knowing when you are feeling above average. These are the days where the successful trainees I know will go after PRs. Maybe they have been waiting to hit a new PR on one of their lifts. Most of their workouts might simply be maintenance. Since they know they are going for a new record they simply wait out their bodies recovery cycle and when they notice they are feeling above average they decide to push past their previous limits.
This is obviously not a straight forward process that can be exactly planned out. Recovery is one of those factors that is affected by a nearly infinite amount of inputs. In trying to account for the many different factors that affect recovery a number of smart trainers have come up with systems to account for these sources of stress.
BioForce heart rate variability systems are an example of one of the heart rate variability systems developed to measure stress in athletes. They are a system developed by conditioning coach Joel Jamison to indicate the recovery status of the individual by measuring the day to day changes in heart rate variability.
Another way to use heart rate variability is to train to lower your resting heart rate variability over time by utilizing guided breathing sessions similar to guided meditation. This is my favorite method of recovery enhancement as it allows you to enhance your resting heart rate variability and increase your ability to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Over time this allows you to go harder in the gym and recover faster as your body is able to more powerfully switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. In other words you can turn on more and then shut off more completely allowing you to increase performance in the gym and recovery outside the gym.
Outside of becoming aware of the your recovery status, you can also take advantage of many systems that have been developed to moderate the stress you are experience during your workout. One of the easiest ways to avoid burnout and make more consistent gains is to avoid a high volume of training that is exceptionally stressful.
In there book solving the paleo equation Dr. Garrett Smith & Matt Stone discuss the problems with extremely low carbohydrate dieting while exercising intensely. One of the things they discuss is the idea that a major role of dietary carbohydrates is to help the body to maintain hormonal balance when it is under stress.
They talk about how many people are creating un-necessary stress by eating in order to strictly follow specific diets like the paleo diet. While excessively restricted carbohydrates are definitely a problem in many diets, there are a number of dietary issues that could be causing you un-needed stress.
If you are not sure if you are eating correctly its enough to be aware of the fact that you might be thwarting your efforts to increase your performance by a lack of nutrient balance.
Another issue brought up in the book is an over reliance on lactic training. Lactic training is the type of training that is associated with a burning sensation in the muscles. While this sensation has more to do with an accumulation of Hydrogen ions H+ then lactic acid, it is lactic training that causes many people issues.
That lactic energy production system is used for intermediate duration activity that is high intensity. From your bodies point of view this is the worst types of activity, the type that is hard and lasts for a while.
Unlike aerobic based training which is lower intensity or alactic training which is extremely high intensity and extremely short in duration, lactic training has the worst of both sides of the intensity and duration equation.
While this training is very effective for making people feel like they are working hard it has a limited ability to case sustained adaptation to exercise. This has to do with the idea that the lactic energy system can only be enhanced to a small degree.
Unfortunately many people are beating their bodies to the point that they are not recovering by overusing this type of training. While this type of training is important and can drastically increase short term fitness gains, it relies on the base of fitness developed in the aerobic and alactic systems.
Lactic training should simply be thought of as icing on the cake, it should never be a focus. In Solving The Paleo Equation the authors tell trainees who are doing crossfit style circut training to simply avoid excessive muscle burning in most of their workouts.
They advise trainees to focus more on the weights they are using and the overall volume of work. By slowly increasing the weights and overall workload per workout they can avoid overly fatiguing lactic workouts and make better progress in the long term.
Another smart trainer who advises clients on a similar system of managing fatigue is Dave Dellanave. In his online mini courses he talks about how he trains his clients to think about stress. He points out that stopping sets at the point where serious fatigue sets in allows for much faster increases in overall workload.
As I mentioned in the first section of this post, increasing workload over time is one of the most reliable ways to ensure long term fitness gains. Increasing workload requires you to be recovering from the stress you are subjecting yourself too.
When you are constantly monitoring your perceived effort level you are able to notice the subtle indicators that your training has crossed the line from productive to unproductive. You work up to this point by slowly upping the overall workload of your training.
This approach to progress is completely different from most recreational athletes approach to training which involves jumping aggressively over the line of pushing too hard before swinging wildly back toward training not quite hard enough.
Instead you should focus on tracking workload, increasing slowly using both frequency, volume, intensity and density. if your unsure what that means I would go check out Dave’s article how to PR every day.
More Work Capacity & Relative Strength, Less Stress
Since that was quite a bit to absorb in one post I want to recap what I talked about and simplify it a little bit. In order to make the best fitness gains of your life, you should do the following.
- Assess your current ability to move using a system like Functional Movement Systems so that you can understand how to improve your movement.
- Utilize a system like Ground Force Method or MovNat in order to fix the faulty movement patterns identified in step 1.
- Include some training designed to build up your work capacity over time by incorporating a range of workouts that stress your aerobic, lactic and alactic system. This can be as simple as adding in some inclined walking, lower intensity jogging or a few sets of intervals 1-2 days a week. For the relative strength focused athlete 1-2 days per week of lower intensity exercise is fine. To learn more about all the different ways to enhance work capacity I recommend Joel Jamison’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning.
- After establishing a base of movement and work capacity you should be completely focused on increasing relative strength. In order to do so most effectively you should pick a number of lifts that have well established strength standards and focus on building up your specific work capacity related to increasing those lifts. In order to build this specific work capacity most effectively and continue to progress I would follow a workload based progression model like the one outline in “Set a PR Every Day“.
- Next I would learn a little bit about nutrient density from the man himself Dr. Furhman and start to brainwash yourself with the nutritarian Koolaid. Finding simple ways to add nutrient dense foods into diet will make it easier to eat at a lower calorie level if you are cutting weight or to just make room in your diet for less nutrient dense foods like candy or alcohol.
- If you still are having trouble meeting your calorie requirements utilize intermittent fasting in order to add flexibility to your diet and make meeting your calorie goals simpler.
- Utilize a structured method of managing stress such as heart rate variability training or heart rate variability monitoring. Simply becoming aware of lifestyle stress and adjusting the intensity of your workouts or workout plan is enough for most people to re-start stalled progress. For a detailed description of potential lifestyle stress check out “Is Stress Ruining Your Fitness?“.
Hopefully this provided you with some insight about a fitness topic you were unaware of. This information is intended for the intermediate trainee who has made some progress but reached significant plateaus in training. My hope is that at least one of the ideas in this post well help to get you back on the road to progress.
If you have any questions or feel there is a topic I should have addressed or more or less detail, please comment below and share what you would have liked to see. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please forward the article to anyone you might feel would benefit from this information.