High Intensity Training, Pushing Beyond the Mind’s “Pull the Plug!” Signal, & Running and Hip Strength

A couple of things to ponder over the long weekend –

One topic that is central to any discussion of High Intensity Training is the understanding of what, exactly, constitutes “muscular failure”.  The point of muscular failure is, in fact, one of the key tenants (or gauges, or yardstick measures) of HIT-like protocols.  The thing is, though, what is commonly interpreted as “muscular failure” is most times simply the mind demanding that the trainee “pull the plug” on the activity.  This obviously adds another dimension to the HIT equation, as muscular failure cannot be thought of as a “hard” variable in the way that the number of sets, reps, load and total time-under-tension are considered.  “failure”, then, becomes a nebulous thing that’s not easy to corner.  Just how “nebulous”?  Well, check this out.  The point is, though, that it’s obvious – not only when we look trainee to trainee, but within the same trainee at different times – that this “shutdown switch” is affected by a myriad of outside – and inside — influences.

But back to the original question – are some trainees simply naturally “wired” (“cocktailed”?) in such a way so as to allow them to demand more of their bodies than others?  And if so, how does this affect the efficacy of HIT-type training in general?  It would seem obvious that, given two trainees with identical physiologies and epigenetic stimulus, the one “wired to go full-throttle” would progress much faster, and to a greater extent, than the trainee who cannot mute the brain’s “shut ‘er down” pleas.

The ability of some individuals to consistently push themselves far beyond that of what “mere mortals” can accomplish is, in my view, one huge reason why some experience phenomenal results from HIT and /or BBS-like protocols, and others do not.  Hang around a bunch of athletes, military-types, or even regular Joe trainees long enough and you’ll see the empirical truth to the claim (my claim, anyway), that most emphatically yes, there is definitely something – chemical, hormonal, learned…wiring? (and, more than likely, a combination of all) – something that allows some trainees to push their bodies to the point of self-destruction, while others are literally forced to “cool their jets” well before the body is in any real danger.  Now, add this “danger mute switch” ability on top of a set of superior genetic and epigenetic factors favorable to a given sport, and you’ve got yourself the makings for a Lance Armstrong level of athletic freakiness.

What exactly constitutes this factor, though, and what can be done – if anything – to enhance it?  Note that what I am not talking about here is the Golgi tendon reflex, which we know can be both trained around and, to some extent, blunted.  No, what I’m referring to is totally “in the head” – or in the central nervous system, as it were.  Granted, the Golgi reflex may very well play into this loop, but for today’s purposes I’m interested more in what lies further up the CNS stream.

Amphetamines, of course, can be used to blunt the brain’s fatigue signal, and even the more benign versions (Modafinil, for example) can be employed for sports-enhancement purposes; I’ll leave those discussions to more sport-oriented venues, though.  My aim here is to figure out what the regular guy can do to push the fatigue envelope.

Well, as you might imagine, the recommendations are…not so different than what your (Paleo) grandma would’ve told you: eat right, recover properly, and get plenty of sleep every night.  We shouldn’t be surprised, though, as these recommendations form the holly trinity of physical culture and continued wellness.

From this study (and this, a companion article), it would seem that dopamine is a big player in the cns “fatigue mute switch” feedback loop.  And here’s another article to back-up that theory.

I do seem to remember a study completed a few years back (though I can’t seem to locate it now) that seemed to indicate that some special forces recruits (in this case, Navy SEALs) were naturally “wired” so as to have a blunted dopamine reuptake response.  To be more precise, these guys had normal baseline levels of circulating dopamine, however, this baseline level was relatively unaffected by a severe stress stimulus, whereas a “normal responder’s” response would be a precipitous drop in freely available, non-bound dopamine levels.  I may not have the specifics exactly correct – it’s been a while since I read the study and, as I’ve said, I can’t seem to locate it at the moment (if anyone knows of this study, please clue me in!) – but if this is true, it my help shed some light on the “impervious to stress” types out there.

I do think, though, that there is plenty of room for the average Joe to improve upon his own “imperviousness to pain” via good, old fashioned, and conditioned mental toughness.  Like any other aspect of training, someone else’s enhanced natural ability should not dissuade or discourage us from chasing our own n=1 dreams.  As always, the name of the game is to make the most you can with what you’ve got.

A Couple of Interesting Things for the Runners Out There –

Here’s a study that sheds some light on the importance of runners developing and maintaining adequate hip Strength.  Now, I don’t think any of this comes as a surprise to this blog’s readership, however, it does give me the opportunity to once again implore my more endurance-leaning brethren to give strength training its fair and deserved due.  I know you endurance types loath being cooped-up in the gym with us knuckle-draggers, but as I’ve mentioned before, there are other options.  Gimme a mere hour a week at such a place as Austin’s Efficient Exercise, and we can boost your strength – and therefore, your performance – measurably…and get rid of those niggling knee (foot and ankle, too!) injuries that have you hobbled, in pain and off the road.

And speaking of knees, hips, feet and ankles (and lower backs, too!), check out these couple of clips from our friends at Vibram Five Fingers and a discussion of heel vs forefoot strike.  I absolutely love my Vibrams!   Apparently, I don’t have the fit problems that Richard has, and it’s actually very hard for me to tell that I even have them on.  But hey, that’s what n=1 experimentation, and the reportage of that experimentation is all about.  We all benefit from this vast collection of knowledge.

Below, Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman waxes poetic on heel strike vs forefoot strike:

and part 2 –

Good stuff!

Thursday Night’s Workout –

The name of the game in this superset was speed-of-movement in each exercise.  If an on-looker were to witness the bar (in the high pull) or my body (in the dip), it would seem as if each would “float” to the top-end of the movement after the initial umph from the bottom-out position; in other words, the movements should appear effortless to the casual observer.  Those in “the know”, know better, though.  J

high pulls from the floor: 135 x 5; 155 x 5; 175 x 5, 5, 5, 5

dips: 45 lbs x 3, each of 6 rounds

Followed that up with some repetition method work (done in superset) –

feet-elevated (approx. 24 inches) push-ups: bodyweight x 55, 45 (rest-pause last 10 reps), 40 (rest-pause last 10 reps)

GHR: bodyweight x 25, 25, (no 3rd set)

A Friday Night Push/Pull Session –

I came into the gym tonight with the idea to do close-grip floor presses in a superset with bent-over rows; sets of 3, strength-speed emphasis.  Once I had everything set up, though, I thought, “what the hell, why not go ahead and add in some snatch-grip shrugs as well?”.  I mean, I had to reposition the bar from the floor press pins to the floor between sets anyway – might as well do something with it while it’s in my hands, right?  Right.  Here we go (all with a fat bar) –

Close-grip floor press: 135 x 3; 165 x 3; 185 x 3; 195 x 3; 205 x 3

Snatch-grip shrug: 135 x 3; 235 x 3; 275 x 3; 285 x 3; 295 x 3

Clean-grip BOR: 135 x 3; 235 x 3; 275 x 3; 285 x 3; 295 x 3

Snatch-grip shrug: 135 x 3; 235 x 3; 275 x 3; 285 x 3; 295 x 3

So 5 rounds of that, with 2 sets of shrugs within each round.  Then I tacked-on an additional set of close-grip floor presses @ 215 lbs x 5 rest-pause singles.

Enjoy the extra-long holiday weekend, everyone.  Have fun, be safe, and stay Paleo!

Hey, Don’t (Fill in the Blank), It’ll Wreck Your Knees!

TTP reader Matt asks the following question:

Hi Keith,
I’ve been enjoying your blog for quite some time, so thank you for providing such a fantastic resource. I eat, workout, etc., in a similar fashion as you and also happen to love riding fixed. But I’ve recently gotten a bit concerned about possible long term knee damage from grinding up hills, bigger gears, and fixed in general (I want to still be sprinting 20 yrs. from now!). Have you read about or explored this at all? Just wanted to get your take. Thanks in advance, I truly appreciate your time.

Oh yeah; my God, have I ever heard this one.  This “dude, fixie kills your knees” thing kinda falls into the same bro-science department as “full squats will blow-up your knees”….or hack squats, or Zercher squats, or Oly squats, or plyometrics, (or hell, name your poison of choice) will damn your knees to friggin’ hell.  The thing is, if there were any merit to any of these arguments, I should be a friggin’ cripple by now, as I’ve been riding fixed for well over a decade, and I’ve been hitting every squat and plyo variation imaginable for — well, I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly ol’ dinosaur, but it has been some 30+ years.  And before that what was I doing?  Riding single-speed bikes, skateboarding (without a helmet and pads!!), jumping off of roofs, climbing ropes, and generally being a little body-bashing hellion.  And yeah, at one point I did blow up a knee.  But what my ACL and MCL finally gave into was the result of a freak, instantaneous commingling of speed, cleats, natural turf, and force x mass x acceleration delivered  at a “perfect” angle and point-of-impact.  But hey, that’s another story for another time…

…the point is, I still I have no knee pain at all, and none as a result of any hard-and-heavy fixie riding or squatting, or whatever else, for that matter.  Of course, I am an experiment of only one.  In all seriousness though, Matt, I have no doubt that some people do experience knee pain that results from huckin’ it fixed and that some people do suffer knee pain from squatting and other “questionable” forms of exercise.  What these folks fail to realize, though, is the difference between cause and correlation.

In short, what huckin’ it fixed, squatting, plyometrics and all other “knee destroyers” are actually doing is (1) exposing an underlying muscular weaknesses and/or imbalance, and/or (2) serving as an indicator of crappy/sloppy form.  And, if truth be told, in most instance we’re dealing with both — as one condition inevitably leads to the other, in a kind of self-perpetuating death spiral.

Now, this should not be interpreted as me implying that if your are suffering knee pain as a result of these “villainous” activities that you should just suck it up and endeavor to persevere.  No, what I’m saying is that the resultant knee pain in these cases is simply a correlate, or indicator of another underlying, root problem.  In other words, banning fire engines from responding to fires will do nothing to prevent fires in the first place.  Address the underlying weaknesses and imbalances, and practice proper form.  Once a solid base of strength has been established in the body’s basic movement patterns (push, pull, squat, deadlift, press overhead), any potential knee problems will be avoided.  Know, too, that the “base” level of strength required to inoculate one from knee pain is relative.  For pain-free fixie riding, we’re not talking about much; for a 900 lb squat, we’ve got a bit of work to do.

In short, Matt, get strong, stay strong, and huck-on with no fear of wrecking your peg hinges.

And hey, speaking of the ol’ fire/fire truck analogy, there’s this recent Mother Jones article, Death by Hamburger to deal with. I twittered about this yesterday, but this damn thing has the feel to me of — I dunno — Cliff Notes for the China Study?  I mean, how many ways can it be said that correlation does not imply causation, that just because fire trucks are frequently seen near raging fires does not imply that they cause those same fires?  For every article the mainstream knocks outta the park, we have to endure tenfold of these.  Sheesh.  And I like Mother Jones, if for no other reason than they force me to think outside of my comfort zone.  I appreciate that in a publication.  Anyway, good ol’ MJ missed the mark on this one.  In fact, in honor of that piece, this is what I had for dinner last night –

That’s a nice porterhouse, brother — with some locally grown, fresh beets.  Eatin’ my way to an early grave, no doubt 😉