The Human as an Endurance Athlete?

Is it just me, or is there something missing in the whole “humans evolved as endurance athletes” story?  To wit, here’s an interesting story from the folks at NPR.  Interesting, no doubt – however, there’s an obvious (and, in my mind, at least) whole other half of the story that’s continually left unexplored.  And not only unexplored, but seemingly unacknowledged.

No doubt some humans are superbly suited for endurance endeavors; whippet-thin, slow-twitch dominant – all lungs, ligament, tendon and bone – and part of the problem here may be that the researchers themselves are, for the most part, (1) put together thusly, and (2) are themselves, endurance athletes.  Confirmation bias, anyone?  Seen through the prism of the endurance enthusiast, all of mankind is either a well trained, severely untrained, or badly trained, distance athlete.  And sprinters?  Simply a forced phenotypical expression (read ”ill-advised” and “ill-conceived”) that an underlying elegant and — quite natural! — endurance chassis must endure.

Now, I’m certainly not a trained professional in this line of study, but this “endurance” line of logic just doesn’t resonate with me.  Something, my logic tells me, is badly amiss.

Of course, I could be accused of the same manner of confirmation bias in my own insistence that there also had to be an evolutionary niche for the powerful, sprinting human, a niche that “endurance man” simply could not fill.

And, too, the idea of the “persistence hunt theory” – though no doubt part of the overall human evolution story – simply cannot be the whole, end-all of the story.  These “sprinting types” peppered about humanity had to have evolved from a set of specific evolutionary pressures that had little to do with endurance and persistence, and more to do with swift, powerful and lethal.

It seems to me that the energy expenditure to energy pay-off for persistence hunting (as defined in the “endurance” theory) has to be dreadfully low – even if we are to consider exceptional running mechanics.  I have no doubt that in some niches that this was necessary – surely, though we co-evolved in diverse settings that required a diverse set of evolutionary skills.

And possibly endurance evolved among humans, not for the purpose of persistence hunting, but for the purpose of scouting for the tribe?  Think overall calorie intake for the communal band as a whole – women and children included — not simply a few runners and one (relatively) small, and no doubt lean, animal.  A band of humans might more effectively and efficiently deploy scouts in numerous directions to locate promising hunting grounds and/or rich scavenging/gathering sources, allowing the tribe as a whole to find the best options within a large range. This method would, it seems to me, maximize caloric intake at a minimum of total communal expenditure, as the specialization within a group allows several to run for scouting/exploring purposes while the remainder can conserve energy for hunting (sprinting?) and gathering purposes once the most promising site has been found.

Again, this is not to say that I dismiss the “endurance theory” out of hand, but simply to state that I know there has to be a “rest of the story” left to be uncovered.  Simply put, I just don’t believe that the sprinting/power-inclined phenotype can be overlooked in an evolutionary sense, especially vis-à-vis the endurance path.  Of course, this opens up the debate about genetics in sport; a debate that either focuses on the “endurance gene” (what makes Kenyans and Ethiopians so dominant?) or on the “speed gene” (West Africans, Jamaica and the USA).  To be sure, it’s a debate that is heated, because it has anthropological, racial, cultural undertones.  It’s a debate for another time, though, and a bit beyond the scope of today’s post.

One thing that all runners benefit from though, is the superb spring/recoil characteristics of the foot structure.  For more on that most interesting story, check this out.

Ok, so in my humble opinion, not every human is naturally wired for efficient endurance endeavors, however, listening to Dr. Lieberman, though, would lead one to believe it so.  I think I’ve established here that I have to disagree with the good doctor’s stance – I do, however, think that Dr. Lieberman’s choice in footwear absolutely rocks!  🙂   Now if he’d just give my power/sprint-inclined phenotypical brothers some well-deserved love, already!

Moving on to Tuesday Evening‘s Iron Session –

I began this session with squat cleans – “greasin’ the groove” with 25 perfect rep singles at 135 lbs, with an approximate 7-second recovery between reps.  I returned the weight to the floor (i.e., no drop) after each repetition, took my hands off the bar, stood up straight, took a breath, re-gripped and hit the next rep.  Each rep was with perfect form, and as fast as I could make it.   The first 12 or so will make you feel like a well tuned machine; the second half of the set will make you feel as though you’re quickly coming apart at the seams.  This is a good, explosive lead-in to the meat of the evening’s workout.  Next up was a superset of the following:

reverse-grip pull-ups: 40 x 10; 60 x 6; 80 x 6, 5

barbell muscle-ups: 135 x 5; 145 x 4, 4, 4

A black-sky storm was rolling in, so I left the gym immediately following that superset.  Not that I would have done much else anyway, though; I was pretty well zorched after the chin/muscle-up pairing.  And lemme tell ya, there’s nothing like close proximity lightning strikes to put a little *umph* in your fixie get-along.  Holy sprint-wasted legs by the time I got home.  And by the way, I did beat the rain – again!  Still battin’ a thousand for this summer. I know this rain-dodge cockiness is going to do nothing but get me drenched here before long  🙂

…Which Leads Us to Wednesday’s Bout with the Iron…

Same idea as with Tuesday’s “greasin’ the groove” power cleans, only today’s lead-in exercise of choice was the whip snatch to overhead squat; 115 lbs x 15 singles, 7-seconds between reps.  Again, I went to the floor between each rep, then re-gripped & pulled easy to the power position, then hit it.  The ol’ PC was feeling it for sure by the end of this.  From here, I hit a superset of barbell lunges and btn jerks:

reverse barbell lunge: 115 x 10 (10); 135 x 6 (6); 185 x 5 (5), 5 (5)    Left leg(Right leg)

btn jerk: 115 x 5; 135 x 5; 185 x 2, 2;

Then, following the superset, I continued on with the btn jerk, 200 x 5 rest-pause singles.

Shaky, post beat-down hands make for a lousy picture, but here’s a shot of my lunge/btn jerk set-up –

The problem that I have to deal with here of course is the lack of bumper plates and a lifting platform.  But, I do the best I can with what I’ve got to work with; that’s all any of us can hope to do.

Anyhow, put a fork in me after this workout – I was damn well done.  A well deserved and much appreciated off day is on tap for tomorrow; some light riding, maybe some barefooted strides, depending on the weather.

The Quick-and-Dirty on Calorie Intake, and an Evening Iron Session

Calorie intake as it relates to phenotypical expression; to cop a phrase from Robb Wolf: “Holy Cats!”  I really have nothing but the deepest of sympathies for people who do not happen to make Paleo/Primal, Physical Culture their geek-out hobby – I can only imagine what it’s like to stumble into this arena trying to find a sane voice.  Who to believe?

Bottom line, folks:  calories do matter – they’re just not the end-all, not the full story.  Taube’s axiom of “a calorie is not a calorie” is true, to be sure; it should not, however, be considered as license to unmitigated gluttony, free of consequences (especially fat gain).  Calories ought to be considered as the co-stars of a jam-packed, star-studded stage, wherein insulin could be considered the production’s glamorous diva.  Ok, that’s about enough of that analogy…

Skyler Tanner has posted a nice observation on gross calorie intake vis-à-vis its effect on body composition, with some poignant takes on how his own body reacted to a few weeks worth of decreased caloric intake as a result of his recent vagabonding expedition around central America.  Now, I don’t bring this up to throw Skyler under the H8R bus (don’t be hatin’!) – being the naturally lean guy he is, who’s free to engage in extended leisure travel – no, the reason I bring this up is that it’s a perfect example of the fact that as people drop weight, at a certain point, calories will have to be restricted to reach ultra-low body fat levels.  Now, we can prompt this calorie restriction in a number of different ways, the easiest being to severely restrict all carbs (to the point of going zero carb in some cases) and increase the fat intake.  This approach offers a nice one-two punch, in that fat tends to satiate one’s appetite quickly, and we get a lower insulin response to boot.  Now, at what point calorie restriction  is required to spur further weight drop is dependent upon a multitude of factors, not the least of which are sex, hormone/biochemical milieu, activity level…and on and on it goes.  Sometimes one might even need to increase calorie intake for a short period (to re-vamp the metabolism), then return to a decreased level.  One thing is for certain, though: drill down just a bit, and the weight loss/weight gain game becomes a highly n=1 affair.  For more on that, check out this story, from my friends at Efficient Exercise, in Austin, Texas.

Another reason I bring up the calorie issue is that I have received quite a few questions as of late specifically asking about lean mass gain.  Skyler has stated that he intends to engage in a little n=1, weight-gain experimentation of his own.  And he’s in a perfect position right now to do so, having dropped down to a single-digit body fat percentage.  And again I ask: how friggin’ fair is that?  The guy returns from an extended vacation to find his bodyfat chillin’ in the single-digits?  Ok, so how about we drop the hate-fest for the lucky guy, and set about monitoring his upcoming weight-gain technique and following his progress?  Can he pull-off some sizable lean gains without tacking-on too much in the way fat gain and/or water retention?  I’ll bet the (organic) farm that he can.  Skyler is an experienced trainer and, bottom line, he knows what in the hell he’s doing.  I think we’ll all learn a thing or two from his experiment.

And along those lines, here’s a way-cool web-based BMI, Waist/Height Ratio, BMR, %BF, Surface Area, and Willoughby Ideal Weight and Waist calculator that Skyler alerted me to.  My own numbers (6’-0”, 205lbs, 33” waist) equate to a pretty good return, especially if I focus on the “Willoughby Ideal”, and ignore the “establishment’s” BMI recommendations.

Tuesday Evening’s Workout –

reverse lunge + (btn jerk): 95 x 10 (10); 165 x 6 (6); 175 x 5 (3).  I then put 195 on the bar and hit 3 more sets of 2 in the btn jerks.  On each set, I completed the lunge reps on each leg, then, after a quick breather, moved into the btn jerk reps.

Notice I only did three sets of lunges.  This is in deference to the amount of biking and sprinting (coupled with the hip-dominant Oly-derivatives) I do during the spring, summer and fall; I don’t want to tumble into the dreaded overtraining hole, so *usually* I’ll opt to drop the 2nd “to failure” set if I’m following a classic APRE leg scheme.

Following the lunge/btn jerk combo, I played around with some single leg good mornings into a high box step-up – just some explosive, bw stuff.  My legs were pretty well dusted from the lunges and jerks, though, so I kept things quick & explosive and didn’t add any additional loading.  I did a total of maybe 20 reps each leg, at bw.  I really love this movement, though I haven’t done them in quite a while.  Check out coach Jimmy Radcliffe explaining and demonstrating the movement progression here (via Jason Glass Performance Lab):

I’ve been doing a lot of high-rep, feet elevated, push-ups lately, so I decided to throw the body a curveball and hit it with something I do rarely – machine flyes.  This particular pec-deck is of the “straight arm” variety (versus the variety which places the arm/elbow at a 90-degree position).   Anyway, it offers a nice change-up every now and again.  Consistency of movement, especially within the same rep range and intensity, is just another of the many factors that can lead to overtraining, and just the kind of easy-to-fall-into rut that I avoid like the plague.

Atlantis pec-deck: 150 x 12; 210 x 7; 225 x 7+; 225 x 5+