Of Sprinting, and Leptin Signaling Mimetics

My good friend Chris Highcock, of Conditioning Research, (and he by way of Andrew Badenoch, of Evolvify) clued me into the recent Journal of Applied Physiology article, Is sprint exercise a leptin signaling mimetic in human skeletal muscle?  

I won’t delve into the interesting details of this paper, as Chris has already done a wonderful job of that here, but I would like to add just a few of my own thoughts about these findings.

What’s more important, vis-a-vis, weight loss — diet or exercise?

I’ll get into this a bit more in a future post, but as a Physical Culture 2.0, new breed fitness educator, I am the interface between geeked-out science, empirical wisdom and a general public searching for accurate and articulate answers, to help them make sense of the never-ending, fire-hydrant-like gusher of (often times) conflicting diet and fitness “truths”.  Two big obstacles that I have to overcome in performing this function, though, are (1) that my answers are predicated upon a base understanding of a movement (Physical Culture 2.0), which itself requires the acceptance of there being no black-and-white answers — that in all instances, the notion of n=1 and “it depends” prevail, and (2) a general public which is too tired/stressed/overwhelmed with day-to-day life to undertake the due-diligence required for such an understanding; a general public who only has time for the ingestion of pat answers.  You see the conundrum here.  And I’ll get to why this matters in relation to this particular study in a moment, but for now let’s take a quick look at an extension of the above-mentioned study’s findings — the performance of fasted-state, High Intensity Interval Training.

Fasted HIIT (or, don’t let lack of scientific underpinnings spoil the empirical results)

Dan John has articulated as much in some of his prior writings, but let’s just say that you’ve followed a Paleo-like diet for 30 days (ala Robb Wolf, or Whole9), coupled that with adhering to a basic 5 x 5 weightlifting scheme and, lo-and-behold, at the end of that trial period you find yourself having dropped 30 lbs of fat and gained 5 lbs of muscle.  Now, did you lose that fat because you physically ingested fewer calories, or did that fat loss come as the result of a favorable hormonal cascade established by the diet and/or workout scheme itself?  Or what it some other combination thereof?  And hey, “everyone” knows that one cannot simultaneously lose fat and gain muscle, but your little experiment just proved the contrary.   And here’s the thing: do you really friggin’ care that you’re treading on shaky scientific ground?  Does lack of scientific confirmation negate your results?  Is the fact that you had to punch three new holes in your belt and that your shirts are now fitting tight across the shoulders (instead of across the gut) somehow now irrelevant?

I don’t bring this up so as to promote a Flat Earth Society mentality when it comes to matters of Physical Culture, but more so as to put some prospective on the weight afforded to the supporting science (or lack thereof, as the case may be) in this area of study.  In other words, empirical evidence means a hell of a lot to me.  Pondering the “whys” behind an empirically-proven methodology’s efficacy —  intellectually invigorating as it may be — ought not get in the way of actually utilizing that methodology in the real world.  I can always go back and tweak a methodology accordingly, depending upon the outcome of follow-on science.  That I cannot articulate precisely and unquestionably (as supported by science) what, at the cellular level, is precisely occurring as a consequence of HIIT training does not prevent me from utilizing this method of training or, more importantly, from reaping the benefits.  We’ve long known, in the strength and conditioning community, that performing HIIT in a fasted state just obliterates body fat even while precipitating lean muscle gain.  Of course, there was the ever-present chorus of “there’s just no relevant science to support that claim” who presumably sat this one out, waiting for scientific conformation one way or the other.  In the training of horses, though, as in the training of athletes, the proof is in the final product.  Can these methods be more finely tuned in light of prevailing science?  You bet.  Wait for the perfect answer, though, and you’ll never get under the bar or put spikes on the field.  In other words, get in the game, and don’t allow the perfect to get in the way of the good.

This sprint/leptin study is a good case-in-point to what I’m attempting to articulate in this post.  We know, empirically, that fasted HIIT works –

*note – I am extrapolating here, as this particular study only considered the performance of a single sprint on the resultant hormonal cascade.

– and now we see, presumably, one important (and no doubt interesting!) pathway in which this scenario plays out.  We also see that being fasted (at least carbohydrate fasted) is an important part of the overall equation, here (if weight loss is a mitigating factor), and so we can now tweak our methods accordingly, and rock on.

So what’s more important in weight management, diet or exercise? 

Asking a badly articulated/constructed question is worse than asking no question at all; the problem is that the person to whom the question is directed will feel an obligation to offer-up an answer, ham-strung as it may be.  Construct a question that legitimates a sound-bite answer and you’ll get exactly that (Poli-Sci/Stats 101).  You’ll also get an answer that only approximates the truth of the matter, if that.  Of what relevance is this to the sprint/leptin study?  Well, let’s consider how best to achieve a long-term fasted state to begin with, and still have the energy required to tackle a HIIT-like training session with adequate intensity.  The short answer here is that we’ll need to first establish an enzymatic and hormonal underpinning resultant of following a Paleo-like diet.   The blood-sugar roller-coaster resultant of a (for instance) Standard American Diet will throw a monkey wrench into the works from the get-go.  I see this play out all-too-frequently in real-world practice.  That far-far-away look in the middle of a HIIT throw-down?  Yeah, that’s blood-sugar crash, up close, ugly and personal, kiddos.  At the same time, though, we know that intense physical exercise potentates the expression of that same desirable enzymatic/hormonal underpinning.  So what we’re really talking about here, of course, is synergy.  Synergy is slippery, though, and not easily accounted for in a standardized-testing, sound-bite-answer world.  The masses want easily-digestible answers (especially if provided by Oz, Oprah, et al) and synergy simply doesn’t play in that house.  Sorry to disappoint, but there it is.  You can no more bust ass in the gym and on the field, eat crap and expect phenotypical perfection than you can eating as a Paleo purist while abstaining from (at least some modicum) of repeated, physical exertion.  And no, computer jockying does not count as “repeated physical exertion”.

Synergy, my friends; diet and exercise — it’s the one-two punch, and the only way I know, to attain phenotypical perfection.

Sunday’s MetCon circuit –

Being under a bit of a time crunch didn’t prevent me from sneaking this one in.  Short, sweet, and to the point.

– 10 second sprint

– 20 ft. rope climb

– 30 ft parallel bar hand-over walk

– 20 yd dual hops

– 5 muscle-ups

– 30 ft hand-over monkey bar traverse

– 7 tire flips (+ 5 extra on the last round)

wash, rinse, repeat x 3.

Trivia for the day – 26 tire flips = 51 yards (football field sideline to sideline) 🙂

In health,



“I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer.” – Aryeh Frimer

I like to revisit certain performance markers every now and again throughout the ebb and flow of the training season; markers that, over the years, I have been able to correlate, at least within myself, to a well-rounded athleticism.   These are not, mind you, performance maxes or PRs.   In other words, these markers are not the result of a performance driven by a particular dedicated and pin-pointed focus, but rather a performance indicator that, in a well-rounded athletic sense, things are as they should be; that no excessive imbalance exists between speed, strength and sprint repeat endurance.  In fact, I use such touchstones as an indication that any dedicated focus that I might be engaged in has not resulted in the degradation of another, “competing” factor.   For instance, pushing a max squat number at the expense of (in my case, at least), sprinting and/or repeat speed or performance.  Conversely, I know that a nice, snappy, 7 rep 2xBW deadlift, while I’m in the throes of sprinting/saddle-time season, is a good indication that I’m still good-to-go in the weight room.

15 under 15 and in 15

…or, as they were affectionately known back in the day, simply “15’s”

Hard as it is to believe now days, collegiate football players of the early 1980’s actually went back home during the summers and (the Brian Bosworth‘s and SMU‘s of college football notwithstanding) worked legitimate — and in my case, heavy-ass, manual labor — jobs over the summer break.  The coaching staffs at that time sent players home with the parting message that said jocks better (insert filthy string of pejoratives) return “in shape and ready to play”, lest they face some unspecified, but decidedly heinous, form of public castration.  In our case, said punishment would surely be performed in front of a full assembly of cheering Strutters.

Nothing like a little incentive.

And still, few paid the threat any mind.  Oh to be 20 and bullet proof once more 🙂

At any rate, every August, upon returning to camp in preparation for the upcoming season, linebackers, strong safeties*, and tight ends were expected to be able to reel-off 15 100-yrd sprints, all in less than 15 seconds each, with a 45 second recovery before the start of the next sprint.  Nothing superhuman here of course, but pulling this off does reveal a decent, base level of repeat sprint endurance.  Something to work with, something from which to build upon.  And I still use it as a yardstick test today.  Other, more accurate measures of sprint repeat endurance could surely be argued for, but this simple (on paper anyway!) test is at once a great workout in-and-of-itself, and pretty decent measure of fitness.

I’d just like to report that I passed this test with flying colors this past Sunday, just as I did every August during my career.  Yeah, I was one of those  guys, even back then.  One of those middling talent guys who had to “train” their way onto the playing field.

In health,


*note – that strong safties were considered “small, fast, linebackers” is, in itself, telling of a bygone era; defenses designed for a single purpose — to stop the option.

The Four T’s — Tools, Techniques, Time and Tenacity

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

True for many aspects in life, but no more so than in the pursuit of a long and successful life in the game of Physical Culture 2.0.

And what exactly *is* Physical Culture 2.0?  Well, in essence, it’s the fully integrated pursuit of a healthy and vibrant existence, including (but certainly not limited to) looking to our evolutionary past to construct a scaffolding upon which to layer ever more effective and efficacious “technologies” (both modern and stone-age) so as to produce an exquisite phenotypical expression of one’s self onto the world.

And speaking of Physical Culture 2.0, here’s Skyler Tanner and yours truly speaking truth to power about this emerging paradigm shift from what is currently understood as Physical Culture (or PC 1.0, if you will) at the August 2011 Ancestral Health Symposium:

…and the presentation’s accompanying slide show.

Revolution vs Transcendence

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the emergence of Physical Culture 2.0 is a healthy, lasting process — less so an anarchistic revolution as it is a phenomenon of transcendence — the building upon (“transcending” in every sense of the word) that which has come before; even that which we might be quick to label “malicious” at best.  Carrying forward that which is good and helpful, and simply leaving behind (and with no emotional attachment) that which is not helpful.  No failures, only feedback.  Learning from previous mistakes; moving forward with no baggage — emotional or otherwise — to drag about.

And while team sports certainly have their role in PC 2.0, for the most part, this is an n=1-driven phenomena; self-mastery, self-betterment…self-knowledge.

The Four T’s

…or one person’s “play” is another person’s metcon…

I’ll speak more to the idea of Exercise vs Activity (or play) in an upcoming post, but for now, let’s just say that activity (or play) to ===> exercise is an n=1-specific continuum, and concentrate here on tools, techniques, time and tenacity; the immutable laws of Physical Culture.  As a correlate to the four T’s, consider the speed of light and its position as an immutable law of physics.  Just as David Duetsch would say that anything is possible so long as it does not violate the immutable laws of physics, so too is our ability to transform ourselves, in a phynotypical sense, so long as we properly manipulate these four tenants of Physical Culture (diet being the other side of the same coin, of course, and with it’s own set of “immutables”).  Now this isn’t so “woo-woo” as it might first appear.  Let’s, for the sake of argument, consider my last outdoor metcon outing, which went a little something like this:

100 meter sprint

6, rapid-succession, tennis ball goalpost “dunks”

30′ parallel bar “sprint”

60′ dual-leg hops

30′ monkey bar “sprint”

5 tractor tire flips + immediate 40 yd sprint

20 yard blocking sled (think heavy-ass Prowler) push

60 yd change-of-direction sprint

Wash, rinse, and repeat x3.  I won’t get into a full-on explanation of all the individual elements (I’ll post a video of this in the near future), or hella-bitch about the temperature being a nice one-ohh-whatever-the-fuc! outside during this particular shindig…

Ozzie says, "Texas heat blows, yo!"

…no, actually what I want to do is look at this workout through the tools, techniques, time and tenacity lens.

…enter “the study”…

From the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, consider the following:


What’s the take-home message here?  Quite simply, this: that Sprint (or High Intensity) Interval Training — even at moderate intensities — can impart some pretty damn impressive physiological adaptations.  That’s smart and efficient training, folks; training, by the way, that requires little in the way of tools and, if performed moderately (or “scaled”, if you prefer), only a modicum of tenacity.

Additionally, I’ll tell you this about HIIT/SIT: this manner of training will, in short order, devour an enormous amount of calories, both during — and for many hours following —  said exercise bout.  And while the metabolism remains jacked for up to 24 hours following a SIT/HIIT bout, there is an even more important shift taking place in the musculature at the fiber-type level: a preferential shift to fast-twitch dominance and a preservation of this fiber type (Bending the Aging Curve, from the above-sited talk and slide presentation). In addition, there will be an up-regulation of anaerobic, ATP, and aerobic enzyme activity.  In other words, all energy systems will become more efficient at generating energy and burning calories.

Simply put, training in the anaerobic-glycolytic pathway via proper manipulations of SIT/HIIT methodologies up-regulates all energy pathways (yes, including aerobic oxidation), making them more efficient and, as a result, making you a better conditioned Physical Culturalist.  So high-intensity exercise elicits a high output from all metabolic energy systems — however, this does not work both ways. Training for endurance (aerobically, i.e., long and slow) will not lead to equal up-regulation of  ATP and CP or anaerobic glycolytic enzyme activity/pathways, simply because aerobic type training does not stress these systems.

Now, let’s shift environments (and available tools), and see if we can produce the same type of metabolic effect using old-school black iron.  Check out this workout from earlier in the week.  I also ran a few of my more advanced clients through this same, Martin Rooney inspired, black iron circuit, which can, of course, be scaled (or exercises can be swapped) so as to suit any ability level.  Remember the emphasis here is on metcon/energy system training, not strength, per se.  Since the “rules of the game” are such that I have a 30-minute time limit, and that I’ll need to rely on old-school tools to accomplish the task, I’ll have to select exercises that can be performed safely under some pretty severe fatigue.  Uhhh, so yeah — that means Oly lifts/derivatives are out 😉

So here’s what I ended up with:

power sumo DLs x 10

T-bar swings x 20

alternating lead-foot BTN jerks x 10 total

wash, rinse, repeat x3.

Tough?  Yeah, you bet your sweet ass it is.  But the cool thing is that anyone, in any condition, can perform this basic theme (scaling and/or subbing exercises where necessary) and — as the study sited above demonstrates — derive some fantastic benefits from it.  So my “play” might be somebody else’s beat-down, but that’s the beauty of this Physical Culture thing — it’s all about the n=1 experience.

In health,


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  🙂

Of “Failure”, “Intensity”, “Inroad” and “Frequency”

TTP reader Will asked the following question, in reference to my recent “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post – and just as I was beginning work on this piece; nice timing, my man  🙂  Here’s Will’s question:

A very thought-provoking post (and comments). Thanks very much from a new reader of your blog. I do have a question about how you and your readers conceive of ‘HIT”. I do a modified version (with free weights and cable exercises) but I do not go to absolute failure, stopping instead when my form begins to break down. In terms of ‘intensity’, I question whether absolute failure is necessary (and, therefore, I question whether machines – while they may have many benefits – are necessary to a HIT program. For what it’s worth, my own program usually results in two full-body routines with no more than one set per exercise (but, multiple exercises for larger muscle groups). To restate my question: what evidence is there to support the claim (and, I’m not sure you or your readers are necessarily making this claim) that ‘high intensity’ = absolute failure in a given set?


Thank you, Will, for the thought-provoking input.  The tough part about answering any question related to “intensity”, “failure”, “thorough inroad” and “training frequency”  definitively is that these factors are inextricably tied to highly individualistic intangibles such as training “age”, available tools, and the trainee’s personal goals.  Of course, individual genetic factors also come into play here as well, especially insofar as these factors influence each individual’s recuperative ability.  And, too, we need to keep in mind the differences between effective and efficient strength and metabolic conditioning, sport-specific training, and what I generally categorize as “play” – a catch-all phrase encompassing anything from tennis to Metro Dash, to a couple of my personal favorites, fixie riding and mountain biking.  Add cyclocross to that list as well, as this is on my “new sport to dabble in” RADAR.

So when attempting to answer a question such as yours, I first have to ask “what is your ultimate intent, or, what do you hope to achieve with this training session?”  Now this usually invokes a WTF?? look on the face of the trainee, but I assure you that it is the most important question a trainer can ask of a client, or that a trainee can ask of himself.  And the answers here can be as varied as the individuals themselves – everything from “dude, I jus’ wanna get swole” to “I wanna be a better, faster athlete”, to the stay-at-home mom (or dad) who just wants to be as fit as possible with a minimum time investment.  The thing is, these are all legitimate answers to the same question.

Now, if our ultimate intent is to strengthen and/or hypertrophy our muscles to the greatest extent possible and reap the anaerobic (and by extension, the aerobic component as well) metabolic conditioning benefits in the safest (i.e., easy on the joints, tendons, ligaments), most time-efficient manner possible, then yes – in my opinion, a machine-based, HIT/single-set-to-failure, infrequent, total body workout is the way to go; the ideal, so to speak.  The first limitation we’ll encounter, however, when attempting to realize this ideal, is access to the proper tools – in this case, machines which exhibit proper strength/force curves for each exercise movement.

A quick aside/caveat: yes, I wholeheartedly believe that free weights do indeed play a significant roll in the training of an athlete (a topic for another day).  However, even when the trainee is an athlete (or has athletic aspirations), I do believe that the individual’s strength/hypertrophy gains are best realized via the aforementioned HIT/single-set-to-failure methodology.  Sport-specific skills, including sport-specific explosiveness, proprioception, power-production, CNS efficiency and coordination, rate of force development, etc., are all entities that must be trained appropriately and in addition to strength acquisition.  Note, though, that the degree to which any (or all) of these other aspects must be trained is in direct proportion to level of importance placed on athletic achievement and the available time commitment.  That is to say, a professional athlete has much more at stake (and more available time to commit to training) than the weekend warrior.  And your average trainee, who is simply in search of maximizing his/her health and fitness in a time efficient manner, need not worry at all with these additional aspects.   First things first, though: it’s the rare (and I can’t over-emphasize the term “rare” here enough) individual indeed — from accomplished power athlete to housewife to grandma and grandpa – who wouldn’t benefit from becoming stronger and in possession of a better-conditioned, anaerobic metabolism.  In fact, the dilemma of the necessity of chasing further strength gains only really becomes an issue when available training time is at a premium; in other words, if as a coach I only have a finite amount of time to devote to improving an athlete’s performance, how best do I approach that?  What attributes do I endeavor to improve – and how do I prioritize those attributes – under a given time constraint?  For a little more about that, see this post.  One HUGE benefit, then, to HIT/single-set-to-failure protocols, performed on appropriately designed machines, is that training time then becomes as near a non-issue as can be imagined.  Hell, I can always find a half-hour every 5 days or so to devote to strength training, especially given the fact that performing strength training in this manner will substantially decrease the amount of time I need to devote to anaerobic conditioning.  Indeed, it’s a time-efficient, two-for-one special.  The problem, of course, is access to appropriate and available tools.

As it is, very few trainees have access to a well-appropriated bank of intelligently-designed machines – those designed with a proper strength/force curve.  Nautilus and MedX are the gold standard for the most widely (relatively speaking) available equipment; by far and away my favorite, though, is CZT equipment.   What a properly designed machine allows the trainee to do is reach utter muscular failure – both total (i.e., the muscle/muscle group as a whole), and of each muscle fiber type within the muscle/muscle group as a whole (slow, intermediate and fast twitch).  Free weights, irrespective of all their other benefits (and there are many), simply do not allow for reaching this level of intensity and the attainment of ultimate muscular failure safely, and while maintaining proper form.  If you look at the embedded video of me in the CZT link, you’ll realize that there is simply no way that I could approach that level of intensity, and push to that degree muscular failure (and therefore, degree of inroad) via the use of free weights.

More specific to you question, though – is the achievement of muscular failure necessary, or, is ‘high intensity’ necessarily defined as absolute failure in a given set?  Well, kinda, maybe…sort of.  I guess what really needs to be kept in mind here is the difference between the spirit and letter of the law.

My own personal feeling is that all single-set-to-failure type protocols are a subset of like-intentioned protocols that would collectively and appropriately fall under the HIT — and its fraternal twin, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) — training philosophy.  Personally, these labeling distinctions mean little to me beyond the point of facilitating ease of communication.  I much prefer to look at questions of training in a “desired outcomes”, “available time”, and “available/appropriate tools” kind of way.  This also prevents me from slipping into dogmatic mentality, or attempting to shoehorn a trainee into an existing protocol/modality.  Even through the bulk of my training is centered around a multiple-set framework, with no single set taken to the level of failure reached in (for instance) my run-in with the CZT, I’d still consider it to be HIT/HIIT-like training.

As an example, compare and contrast the RDL hyper-reps I performed on the CZT machine vs what can be approximated via the use of free weights; you can read my post-workout notes here, but the gist of the matter is that I totally wrung all that I could from this movement in a single, 5-repetition set that totaled approximately 50 seconds.  Now, how many sets of conventional RDLs would I need to perform to even come close to this level of accumulated intensity and muscular failure?  Quite a few.  And, in pursuing the conventional route, I’d have to maintain vigilance, as I approached muscular failure, against injury.  As anyone can tell you, pushing one’s self to the ultimate edge, and safeguarding against injury are two conflicting ideas and, ultimately, the safeguard against hurting your fool self will throttle-down your intensity no matter how deliberate you your attempts otherwise.  It’s simply human nature, my friend.  The machine then adds a “safety net” factor which allows for the psychological “freedom” to push further into the failure abyss.  The key, however — in each of these scenarios – is the reaching to, and tapping-out of, all available muscle fibers; especially so, the fast twitch fibers.

All easy enough you say – straightforward, even.  Ah, but there’s one other element we have to account for, and that little variable is time; specifically, Time Under Load (TUL).

So, yes, ideally we want to fatigue the fast twitch fibers in a given muscle (or group of muscles), but we also want to fatigue the slow and intermediate twitch fibers as well, as we’re looking for total bang for the buck here (note: in some instances this will not be the case [e.g., weight-class athletes], but that’s a topic for another discussion).  What machine-based protocols allow for is a specific loading, such that a specific and continuous time-under-load can be utilized until total muscular failure is realized in a single, prolonged set.  And set duration is of the essence here, with the requirement being that failure must be reached within a time span of (roughly) 40 to 90 seconds.  Why such a precise time requirement?  Because this forces the fast twitch fibers – which will not engage unless the lesser fibers have either failed, or their force production is inadequate for the task at hand — to engage and fail before the slow and intermediate fibers have had a chance to recover and re-engage in the effort.  This is tough to accomplish with free weights and thus the necessity, when free weights are the only tool available, of multi-set (and more frequently performed) protocols.  The same ends can be approximated, it’s just a much more efficient operation when utilizing proper machines.

Studies of this subject, as I alluded to in the “Single Set vs Multiple Set Debate” post, are kinda like statistics in that the same data set can be used as support to argue both sides of the debate.  The problem is that the control variables are just so damn hard to account for.  Again we get back to trying to nail down terms such as “intensity” and “failure”; add to this fact that the all-important recuperative ability is an ever-changing and highly individualistic factor.  That said, though, here are a couple of studies that seem to support the single-set-to-failure methodology:

The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function

Strength training. Single versus multiple sets

My suggestion is to use studies such as these as indicators in formulating your own, n=1 path.  My own n=1 experience leads me to believe that, given access to the proper tools, single-set-to-failure is the best method by which to gain strength and hypertrophy, with a kick-ass side benefit of improved anaerobic metabolic conditioning to boot.

Sprints and Iron; Yeah Buddy!

I hit some Vibram-shod sprints on Saturday, then took my dog-and-pony show inside the gym for a little iron tossing.  Not a bad way at all to spend a pleasant Saturday afternoon, I must say.

I set up the sprints in a 15-seconds-for-max-distance format, full recovery (about 2 minutes or so) between efforts.  As my CNS is much more cycling-specific tuned these days, I decided to pull the plug (assign a drop-off) of being when I ceased to improve, distance-wise, in a single effort.  You just can’t imagine how movement-specific your CNS becomes until you concentrate on one endeavor, at the near exclusion of another, for quite some time.  In my first few sprints I felt as clumsy as a school kid.  In attempts 4 though 7, though, I felt like I was flying.  In attempt #8 I failed to better my previous mark, and so I pulled the plug, headed inside and readied the iron.

I hit a superset of BTN push-presses and Atlantis machine pull-downs.  Not that I think the Atlantis machine necessarily offers a particularly suitable strength/force curve mind you, but because I left my friggin’ weight belt at home.  Ugh…anyway –

btn push-press: 115 x 6; 145 x 6; 165 x 3; 185 x 3, 3; 205 x 1; 215 x 1, 1, miss; 185 x 3, 3

Atlantis pull-down machine: 180 x 8; 270 x 7; 360 x 5; 410 x 4, 6 (rest-pause singles).  Each concentric was performed as fast as possible, each eccentric was at a 6-second count (6-0-x-0).

I finished –up with a round of Nautilus 4-way neck work: 55 lbs x 12 front, side, side and 65 lbs x 12 to the rear.  Total TUL for each of the 4 angles is approximately 45 seconds.

Workouts for the Week of April 12th, 2009

“Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.”

Bernard Berenson

Strap on the seatbelts, here we go for another week’s worth:

Sunday afternoon, home

Ahh, Easter Sunday, and no better time to squeeze in a good workout. The weather took a turn for the better, and that gave me all the nudge I needed to jump outside and into this impromptu, Easter Sunday mash-up:

  1. 50 kettlebell swings, alternating arms every 10 swings, then every 5 after 40
  2. Fixie intervals to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium: approximately 3 hard miles or so
  3. Various and sundry stadium sprints, hops and jumps, coupled with an interspersed 8 sets or so of ballistic, decline push-ups (7 to 10 reps/set).
  4. Fixie intervals sprints back to the house, another 3 miles worth
  5. 50 kettlebell swings, alternating arms every 10 swings, then every 5 after 40

So this is another example of a “workout” that’s properly better qualified, I suppose, as “play”.  It’s difficult to quantify this kind of a “workout” — kinda like trying to quantify x-number of hours rock climbing, or kayaking, say — so just use the example here as a “type model”, and nothing more.

Hey, how'd that fixie find it's way to the upper deck?

Hey, how'd that fixie find it's way to the upper deck?

Tuesday morning, YMCA

Notice the shift in my in-house “gym” workouts as of late — a definite move toward the strength-speed/raw strength modality.  The reason behind this shift is that due to my circumstances: I’m able to work on both sprinting and speed-strength modalities over the weekends, outdoors, and at home.  As the weather continues to warm and the spring rains dissipate, more and more I’ll be able to get in speed/power workouts at my “playground” (see the pics below).  For now, though, let’s look at what I did this Tuesday morning.

  1. Front Push-Press (barbell) x 3’s
  2. Glute-Ham Raise (added weight held at chest, then shifted to forehead level for a little added eccentric force) x 3’s
  3. Reverse-Grip Pull-Ups x 3’s

4 rounds of this complex.  As is my usual, this workout was preceded by an approximate 10-minute, dynamic warm-up, then 2 “bridge sets” of the actual complex, (at a lighter, then semi-heavy weight), the purpose of which are to serve as a step-up to the actual working weight.

Thursday morning, YMCA

For more early morning, caffeine-fueled fun, try this one on for size!

Drop Squats (aka, snatch catch), 3 sets of 3; followed by:

Box Squats, 5 sets of 3

I couldn’t locate a decent snatch catch demo video.  The exercise, however, is performed thusly: rack the barbell across your shoulders as if you were to perform a high-bar, Oly-style back squat.  From this starting position, immediately transition into the snatch catch position — think overhead squat, done blindingly fast.  “Jump” the bar off of your shoulders and into the fully-extended, overhead snatch catch position, while at the same time transitioning your lower half into the catch position.  This basically amounts to a full snatch without the pull portion, if you will, and is meant to more efficiently practice the low catch portion of the exercise.  This has always been my weak-link in the exercise, as I’m a much better “puller” than I am a “transitioner” or “catcher”.   If I had to guess, this probably has to do with a lifetime of overall, posterior chain emphasis.  As I’m not a competitive Oly-lifter, though, and only use the exercises and their variants as a means to better overall athleticism, I’ll take the hit.

*Quick editorial note.  I have made arrangements to shoot some video clips of some of my more “off-beat” exercises.  I realize that seeing an exercise being performed makes all the difference in the world in understanding and modeling.*

Here’s a good article, written by Dave Tate (for T-Nation), that spells out the advantages of — and the proper performance of — the box squat.  Note that I am as far from a power lifter as one can be; however, this doesn’t prevent me from copping good ideas from the sport.  All athletes, regardless of discipline, require excellent glute, ham and hip strength and the box squat is one of the best ways I know to improve those.

An additional word about box squats: as this is primarily intended as a hamstring/glute/hip strength exercise, the knees must not travel in front of the ankles on the decent into the hole (or, on the concentric portion of the movement, for that matter).  This position/motion will limit the contribution of the quads.  Sound easy?  Try it; it’s not by any means.  But if you take the time (and suffer the humility of having to used reduced weights until the hams/glutes/hips catch up in strength) to lean to perform the exercise properly, you’ll be rewarded with a set of very strong (and shapely, if that’s your game) hams and glutes.  The box squat and the glute-ham raise are unsurpassed, imho, for effectively building posterior chain strength.  Couple these exercises with the deadlift/low and high pull variations and (in the power realm) the clean and snatch variations and you’ve got your base, posterior chain work covered.  Then, take that newfound strength and power to the field and sprint, or, if you like, chunk heavy stuff for distance.  Want to blow-off some serious steam?  Pretend you’re performing an overhead caber toss with your bosses head.  Hehe, juuuuuust kidding — seeing if you’re paying attention 🙂

Saturday — Fun at “the playground”

My kind of playground
My kind of playground

...as seen from the backside
…as seen from the backside

Another one of those workout/play combos today.  I put an emphasis on muscle-ups (performed on a pull-up bar) and what I call the “Werner Clean & Press”; check out the second exercise shown in the opening seconds of this video clip of hammer thrower Koji Murofushi.  Koji emphasizes the pull portion of the exercise (i.e., the weight is thrown higher, almost a power snatch motion) more so than does Werner in his execution of the same, basic movement; each athlete is looking for a slightly different effect from the movement — more shoulder/chest/triceps explosion contribution for Werner (a shot-putter); more hip explosion for Koji.  Subtle, though important differences in exercise execution, and good examples, in each case, of morphing a basic exercise to fit specific needs.

  1. “Werner” Clean & Press x 5’s
  2. Muscle-ups x 3’s

I did 4 rounds of that superset.  Then I played around with a few sets of hurdle hops and overhead caber tosses for distance.

All-in-all, a very satisfying workout week.  So glad to see the warmer weather return!

In health,