Active Recovery? Conjugate for the Masses?

Many of those in what I would call the HIT-purist camp, most notably Dr. Doug McGuff (Body by Science), recommend a full recovery between workouts; that is to say, they don’t favor the performance of “active recovery” as it tends to alter/delay super-compensation following the inroad made during preceding workout.   And, to a certain extent (and for certain n=1 cases), I do see their point.  However, when I have attempted an extended period (i.e., more than one day) of out-and-out non-active, full recovery following even an off-the-charts inroading session, I always come out of that “activity hibernation” feeling a bit sluggish, both on the subsequent (after the first day post-workout) days off but, too, when I do get back in the gym, in the saddle or on the track.  In other words, if I take longer than a single day’s post-workout “activity hibernation”, I lose a certain amount of edge.  I wonder if this is more psychological and/or hormonal driven rather than a physiological reality.  Of course, there’s also the theory of endorphin and/or adrenalin addiction, but that to me seems a little far-fetched to me.  I don’t know any other way to describe this feeling other than a slight CNS sluggishness.  One day of post-workout idleness and I’m fine; longer than that and I lose a good bit of “pop”.  I’ve seen this in others, too, and so I know I’m not necessarily an “outlier” here.  Could it be that my definition of “CNS sluggishness” is actually what a “normal” or “non-jacked” CNS is supposed to feel like?  Quite possibly.  That said, though, I still like the idea of “active recovery” and relatively more frequent (albeit “Conjugated”) workout sessions.

Now maybe it’s due to my close and long association with sports performance, but I do tend to see things more along the lines of a track and field coach when it comes to this issue.  Of course, too, we need to recognize that the per-workout inroads here are not taken to the same magnitude as say, a true HIT beat-down.  In other words, a comparison of late-in-the-workout sprint times (or distance) to the “fresh” times would indicate that the drop-off is not all that severe.  Just another variable to be mindful of; again one size does not fit all.

A couple of things that ought to be defined here, first, though: one person’s “active recovery” may in fact be another person’s full-blown workout.  Metabolic conditioning and recuperative status obviously have much to say by way of influence here.  No big surprise, either – again, we’re talking, as always, n=1 protocol administration.  But we also need to consider that the type of recuperative activity in relation to the overriding modality of previous workout has a tremendous bearing on overall recuperation.  Huh?  Let me explain.

The chart above is the 30,000-foot view of my own, personal, overall training prospective.  HIT/HIIT methodologies tempered with Autoregulation and/or drop-offs (where appropriate), and with particular “strengths” (or aptitudes) cycled in and out of individual training sessions in a conjugate-like manner.  Very rare is a workout session of mine that extends beyond 45-minutes, and an all-out single-set-to-failure type workout might take as little as 15 minutes.   Where I guess you could say that I split from the HIT-purist camp is that I believe it is possible to train more frequently (and more completely) — and without overtraining, by the way — by cycling methodologies in a West Side-esque, Conjugate System manner.  Will this overall view still hold true for me tomorrow?  As far as I can tell, and from this vantage point, yes; however, and as always, I remain ready to shift sails according to prevailing winds and any newly-defined port-of-call.  Would I prescribe this prospective to everyone?  Not on your life; it does work for me, though, vis-à-vis my current location with respect to where my goals intersect with my place along the anabolic continuum.  Again, n=1 rules the day, and the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of trainee’s would see their greatest improvements by following a unique-to-the-trainee-tweaked, BBS-like protocol.  Simple, straight-forward, relatively easy to program and track and, most importantly, highly-effective with a minimum of time investment.

By the way, for a concise breakdown of West Side’s Conjugate system, and a bit of West Side “myth-busting” as well, check-out this Dave Tate post on the Ironbrutality site.  Myth #3 will give you the quick-and-dirty overview of the Conjugate method.  Actually, I’d add to that list myth #6 – that the Conjugate system works, but only for strength and power athletes.  With specific tweaks, any athlete – or bodybuilder, in my opinion — can incorporate this methodology into their overall training plan.  Again, the vast majority of trainees need not go there – but for those who do, the Conjugate system is a winner.

Tuesday evening workout –

A good bit of saddle time tonight prior to hitting the iron on Tuesday; probably the last of each prior to packin’ up the ol’ dog-and-pony show and headin’ down ATX way.

My intent tonight was to lead-off with some power clean work, however the rack was in use when I got in, so I had to alter things a bit.  Hey, I’ve got no problem with waiting on a guy to finish heavy pulls and squats in the rack – it’s the bicep curl crowd in that same rack that drives me nuts.  Anyway, I kicked things off with a kneeling jump squat, pull-up superset:

kneeling DB jumps*: 20lbs x 5, 5, 5

regular-grip pull-ups: bw x 10, 10, 10

no rest between sets, here.  Then, the following superset:

flat bench, single-arm DB press: 75 x 8; 85 x 8; 90 x 7

single-arm DB row: 120 x 6; 125 x 6; 130 x 6

again, blowin’ and goin’ here, with very little rest between arms or between sets, then a rapid-fire reps few sets of power cleans:

135 x 5; 165 x 5

Reps were fast as possible here, with rest between sets just long enough to add additional weight.  I followed that with a rest-pause set of 7 singles at 185.

*As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to use DBs for this exercise, but it really doesn’t make much difference; you can use a barbell as well, as in this demonstration, and in my experience you’ll be able to handle a significantly greater overall weight if you do so.  I think you can better transfer power to a barbell than to a pair of DBs, but that’s just speculation on my part.  The key is to really engage the hips in the movement.  If you’ve got sleepy hips in the Oly movements, this exercise will help fix that.  Also, if you use DBs for this movement, be sure to explosively shrug the weight up (as you would in a normal Oly/Oly derivative lift), as opposed to “arcing” the DBs outward and forward so as to provide upward momentum.

And speaking of effective and efficient power transfer through the torso (or “core”), check out this SpeedEndurance.com podcast interview with Dr. Stuart McGill.  Dr. McGill is known as “the back doctor”, but as you’ll hear in the interview, the good doctor also knows a good deal about performance enhancement, especially when it comes to power transfer through a rock-solid torso.

Also something interesting I ran across this week was a podcast interview with Dr. Joel Wallach, author of the book, Immortality.  The topic of the discussion centers around the depletion of minerals from the soil, and the effects of that condition on human physiology.  It’s a very interesting interview, especially for those concerned about the quality of their food.  I know I don’t need to point-out to folks who read this blog, but a food’s being labeled “organic” in no way ensures that that food was raised in a healthy-soil environment.  The interview can be found here, and it’s show #695 (Doctor of Ashes).  Good stuff.

So things are likely to get a bit silent around here for the next few days, as I complete my relocation to “the ATX”, and integrate into Efficient Exercise team.   Check-out the sidebar for Twitter updates from the road, as Meesus TTP and I meander on down Austin way.  So adios for now, and I’ll see y’all on the flip-side.  Be good, work hard, and of course, stay paleo  🙂

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13 responses to “Active Recovery? Conjugate for the Masses?

  1. I think for you, your workouts are also a stress release & when you go for more than a 24 hour period without working out you tend to get “itchy” because you haven’t had that release. Just my perspective. Another thought for the pile.

    • Heh, been more than a few times that you’ve politely suggested I go workout, huh? Non-workout bitchiness is an ugly side-effect that I neglected to mention 🙂

  2. Hi Keith,

    I know you’re a big fan of Vibram KSOs and I’m curious how yours have held up and if the fit has changed since they were new.

    My feet are not only slightly different sizes but they are really wide, so I’m deciding between a 45 and 46, which seem either too tight or perhaps too lose respectively (that is, if they don’t or do stretch, respectively). Ha.

    • I may be one of the lucky ones, but mine fit perfectly right out of the gate. I do think if I had too choose between too tight or too snug that I’d go with snug, as I believe they will stretch ever so slightly. Of course, you don’t want them so snug as to prevent your toes from extending fully, so it’s gonna have to be a judgment thing. I do think the KSOs have held up well considering the materials used in their construction; that said, they are, in my opinion (and in consideration of those materials), a bit pricey.

  3. Hi Keith,

    You’re probably one of the lucky genetically-gifted ones that McDuff and Little describe in their book: those who can train 4 times a week and _still_ not be overtrained.

    Me, I just tallied my recovery times for the past 6 months. Average time between standard BBS 5-exercise, to-failure workouts: 11 days.

    57 yo, 6 feet, 170 lbs, but working at an exhausting sales job with high stress factors and travel. Seems just about right for me!

  4. “garymar’s” post is interesting to think about a bit more. Specifically, I was wondering (Keith) if you or any of your readers might be able to point me to some literature on the issue of stress and recovery. That’s obviously very general and takes in pretty much everything. My real question is a bit more specific: that is, I was wondering whether the stress on the body of a one-day-per-week BBS/HIT session is greater than the stress of training 3 or 4 days per week at a lower level of intensity. If so, isn’t this (HIT-type) chronic stress – even though occurring only once every 7 days, ultimately deleterious to overall health/fitness goals?

    BBS, HIT, Superslow (all with important differences, I understand) are often promoted in the name of efficiency (understood purely in temporal terms) as well as for the protocol’s apparent reduction in stress to the body as a result of lower frequency of training ‘doses’. But, I’m curious (or, I should say, skeptical) about the assumptions that seem to inform both claims – i.e., how we might want to think about efficiency, and how we might want to think about the cumulative effects of training-induced stress on the body. Intuitively, hard/short/infrequent would seem to produce less stress than ‘a bit less hard/longer/more frequent’. But, is such an intuitive response supported by the research literature? (clearly, I’m using “stress” in a rather sloppy way – what I mean is the inflammatory response to systemic stress).

    Rather convoluted, I know, but the question occurred to me when reading ‘garymar’s’ comment and from seeing Doug McGuff talk about the “metabolic devastation” of a single workout. Such devastation, if it actually occurs on the level suggested, would seem to be ‘unhealthy’ in its own right, but also it would seem to inhibit the amount of activity one should (or would want to) engage in between training sessions (my bias is that I see frequent activity as a good thing). This may seem an incredibly simpleminded question for HIT veterans, and I’m a bit hesitant to take up space here asking it. I’m assuming Body by Science (the book) addresses this directly – and I plan on reading it soon. But, I thought I’d ask for some pointers to any other literature in the field. This stuff and your discussion are all very interesting. I’m 52 and I wish I would have been exposed to this approach much earlier in life. Thanks.

    • I think we need to first differentiate between acute (“good”) stress and chronic (“bad”) stress. And, too, we need to keep in mind that, much as nature abhors a vacuum, biology abhors homeostasis — we’re either in some aspect of anabolic (building) or catabolic (breaking down) phase. At first, these may seem as non sequitures, but in fact, these ideas are very much related — related in a yin-yang kind of way. That is to say, the anabolic condition first requires a shock (i.e., dose, stimulus) of sufficient magnatude to force the issue into existance. Now this condition is “metabolically expensive”, and so in evolutionary perspective (which must always be considered), we understand that we require a bit of “poison” to force production of the requite anabolic response. Pushing this vacine metaphore a bit more, we see that innoculating the patient with too heavy a dose (analogous to too much stress) overloads the body’s recovery mechanisms. Overtraining really is as simple as that.

      Another notion I’ll leave you with is this: that elite sporting performance begins where superior health ends. Now, how do we force (or rather promote from a favorable gene expression) an elite sporting performance? Essentially, it’s via controlled, acute (and sometimes even short periods of chronic) overtraining. This is a tough idea for most folks to grasp, being that on the outset, it’s counter-intuitive.

      The key, though, is to find that perfect amount of acute stress that will prompt the maximum recovery response without overloading the body’s recuperative abilities. Whether that stimulous ocurrs once every 7 days or 5 days per week is of little consequence (in my opinion) so long as the “running total” places us mostly on the anabolic side of the ledger. That point, though, is different for everyone and, quite frankly I believe the point is not fixed but is dependent on a multitude of extrainious factors.

  5. I just came across your health and fitness blog. Your article about active recovery was especially interesting. I especially liked your comments about which exercises to perform at a resting state. I am adding you to my favorites. We’re in the same industry, the business of encouraging health and fitness. We market a product called The AbStand: http://www.theabstand.net. We would love for you and your readers to check out our ab workout product. Any feedback would be appreciated as well. Thanks!

    • The graphic at the top left of your website says $14.99 plus shipping and handling (which is $34.50).

      Full stop. No asterisk — nothing.

      That’s all your graphic says. This, you know, is the part of your website many people read because it is “above the fold”.

      And then the order form itself says the price is $199.00 or $14.99 plus 5 monthly payments of $39.99 plus shipping and handling.

      Not cool, Elise, not cool.

  6. I think the inroad theory as simplistically explained by McGuff in his book, by Jones, Darden et al. is wrong.

    Useful, maybe, but wrong.

    They say it’s like filling a hole. You work out, you create a hole, and unless you allow enough time to fill the hole (presumably with new protein in your muscles, your goal, after all) and then some, you’ll get progressively weaker, not stronger.

    And yet many people do make gains with a more frequent volume approach. As efficiently as possible? No, I doubt that! But they often get significantly bigger and stronger than they were when they started.

    So how to explain this?

    Simple, the inroad theory is wrong, or at least it’s very imprecise and there’s more going on there. What you’re really doing when you work out is sending a signal to your body that you’d better improve your capacity in this area or you could get into some real trouble out here in the environment. Then — and this is the key — your body changes its internal hormonal environment toward one of anabolism.

    So it isn’t so much that you’re damaging so many muscle cells and proteins that you create an inroad (although sure, that’s a factor, but much less of one than HIT folks say) … you’re really just signalling your body to make hormonal changes, and then it epigenetically gets to work.

    And there’s more than one way to do this: brief, hard workouts; longer less intense workouts that are still demanding and performed more frequently; etc. Bodies may respond in different ways to each stimulus and rest interval, but in all but the most extreme cases they are likely to respond — on average and over time — with an increased amount of strength to one degree or another. The inroad/hole theory predicts the opposite, and it fails.

    In short, HIT works, but it isn’t the be all and end all. What it is is very efficient and, performed slowly, very safe. And these are good reasons to do it for many people.

    Those are my two cents.

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