Treadmills in the Workplace, Say What?

Recently got this question on my forum and thought I’d post it here for all to see.

Question:

I’m interested in your opinion on the following and whether it would negatively impact strength gains or maintaining strength.

My employer has made a number of ‘treadmill desks’ available to us. Basically, a treadmill below a standing-height desk, the idea being you walk on the treadmill at some speed so low that it does not interfere with your desk work, but provides some ongoing activity during the day.

Answer:

I don’t foresee this being a big deal at all once you get used to it and I think this is analogous to “mail-man GPP”, i.e. the mailman walks 20,000 steps a day but can still train heavy after work because he’s gotten used to that volume of LISS, if you will. A person who just started at the post office gets wrecked from day 1’s 20K steps and because he’s not used to it, he needs to modify his training accordingly to allow a bit of transient performance drop off.

Perhaps the most poignant issue I could raise with this style of “cardio” is with it’s effectiveness to do anything useful at all. How can we expect a modality, frequency, and intensity of exercise that does not perturb our homeostasis much- as evidenced by fatigue, transient performance loss, etc.- to cause a beneficial adaptation? In other words, because the thing is so easy, I don’t know how much utility it has with respect to caloric expenditure, cardiovascular conditioning, etc. I highly doubt that your “net” caloric expenditure has changed over a 24-48hr period due to this type of exercise simply because the body is readily adaptive and there needs to be some critical threshold of “stimulation” that needs to be crossed to drive any and all adaptations.

On the other hand, I think the benefits of this type of intervention is more realistically applied to orthopedic benefits. Anything that gets you up out of the chair, into a better posture, pumps blood through the muscles, and moves the limbs, sinew, and soft tissue structures through their normal anatomical range of motion can only benefit the person doing it, in my opinion.

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When Should You Do Conditioning?

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach, Starting Strength Staff

If you haven’t seen this article yet give it a read, as it should set the tone for this blog post. Just as an aside to those who disagree with this blog post or Mark’s article, save the ad hominem attacks and please present your analysis within the context of both anecdotal evidence and scientific evidence. If you’re going to use the latter, please make sure you read the entire study and look at the data before you make claims, as it will save everyone a lot of time and you some future embarrassment if you, ya know, missed something.

At any rate, I recently got hit with this statement and was asked for a response:

Quick question for you-my friend goes to Gold’s and one of the trainers there said it is “better to do cardio before weights”. I would love to get your opinion on the matter.

So instead of calling into question the validity of a trainer’s opinion who works at a Gold’s gym, which would be an ad hominem attack that doesn’t really address this statement, I thought I’d do this in a blog post about conditioning in general. I’m saving the heavily annotated discussion of this topic for my book and thus, this will merely be a reflection of what I believe the current science says and my experience in working with people as a coach.

To begin, we need to talk about what the goals of a training program, in general, actually are for an individual. In other words, WHY IS A PERSON TRAINING? If there is no clear-cut goal, I’d make the semantic argument that the person is just exercising for no particular reason, which is fine too. On the other hand, if a person does have a specific goal, yet is not taking specific steps to achieve this goal then the person’s training is, by definition, suboptimal. In short, we need to clarify what is the goal of the person we’re answering this question [When should I do conditioning?] in order to provide an accurate answer. Additionally, we need to get a clearer picture of what exactly the person is doing training or exercise wise depending on their current level of commitment to their goal. As you can see, there are lots of unknowns here that we can’t possibly answer and thus, the discussion needs to shift to be more general. So what we’ll do is go over the important considerations to determine optimal conditioning timing, frequency, etc. with respect to three general goals:

  1. Health
  2. Weight Loss
  3. Performance

Here’s the first question: How much conditioning* training is optimal? (cue explosions for dramatic affect)

* conditioning can be considered analogous to cardio (low intensity steady state-LISS, High intensity interval training (HIIT), circuits, etc.)

I’d make the argument that within the context of an individual who is following an intelligent training program that’s centered around planned progressive overload of the big lifts, e.g. the squat, bench, deadlift, press, power clean, and chin/pullup, that the optimal conditioning volume (total frequency and duration of conditioning efforts) should be the smallest amount needed to produce the desired goal. Let’s look at this from the health perspective first.

We know that training increases oxygen delivery to tissues, causes adaptations at both the tissue (macro) and cellular (micro) level, and alters hemodynamic properties (hemoglobin, blood viscosity, etc.) that all result in increased capacity to do work and sustain activity. The real question we should be asking from this perspective, however, is what sort of training most optimally reduces major negative health outcomes…ya know, like death, cancer, cardiovascular incidents, etc. Well, as it turns out the literature suggests that the stronger someone is, i.e. the more force they can produce with their muscles to move an external object, the lower the morbidity and mortality rates when compared to both sedentary populations and those who were more “aerobically developed” from doing typical conditioning/cardio training and, more interestingly perhaps, the same rates of morbidity and mortality as those who were the strongest and the most aerobically developed. As it turns out, there’s more than a nugget of truth on ol’ Rip’s adage:

Stronger people are harder to kill than weaker people, and more useful in general”-Mark Rippetoe

Does this mean I’m saying people who are training/exercising for health purposes shouldn’t do any sort of conditioning? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m implying that you get a pretty decent stress from weight training to drive conditioning adaptations that have an observably profound effect on clinical outcomes. If you desire additional capacity for another purpose, i.e. you want to be able to run further/faster or have more “wind” when doing a particular activity (e.g. pick-up basketball), then doing some supplemental conditioning work will be useful in achieving these goals. However, let’s not be confused with what the literature is saying about how this will affect health.

This being said, if someone is not training in an intelligently implemented manner with a focus on the only incrementally loadable, systemically stressing modality there is, e.g. barbells, then he or she will need to do more conditioning work in order to supplement the lack of actual training stimulus he or she is getting from the gym. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the obvious choice, as the adaptations and metabolic responses to this style of conditioning tend to mirror that of resistance training, whereas low intensity steady state cardio pales in comparison (though there is a purpose for this style training that we’ll discuss alter).

HIIT causes the skeletal muscles to move to relatively high velocities and contract with high forces compared to LISS. Because the demand for energy is so high during HIIT, it is appropriately referred to as anaerobic or glycolytic training, as the rate of energy production is so high that aerobic (with oxygen) energy producing pathways can’t keep up. When done appropriately, HIIT increases basal metabolic rate (BMR) significantly over many hours post exercise (more calories burned in total), increases mitochondria biogenesis (makes new energy producing and calorie burning power plants in the cell to increase BMR chronically), increases skeletal muscle’s uptake of nutrients (instead of fat), does not cause muscle catabolism (like LISS), and results in even more pronounced cardiorespiratory conditioning adaptations in the heart, lungs, and vascular tissues. HIIT works so well, clinicians are using it in COPD, MI, and Obese patient populations instead of LISS. Just sayin’…..

In sum, I don’t think there’s a good reason to do tons of conditioning work if you’re just interested in health UNLESS you need the extra conditioning work to produce other desirable changes, e.g. performance increases or fat loss.

So, how much conditioning is optimal for increasing performance? The answer (duh), is IT DEPENDS ON YOUR SPORT. If you’re a marathoner you’re obviously going to have a higher total conditioning volume than a weightlifter. Similarly, the types of conditioning are going to be different. Marathoners need steady state “tempo” work in order to develop efficiency in running, which is more strength and strength-endurance limited than it is limited by someone’s lungs/heart. In other words, you don’t stop running because you’re out of breath, you stop running because your legs are tired. This is a strength deficit, through and through, which is ameliorated by actually training to get strong AND doing longer runs to acclimate the body to become more efficient at running and therefore require less energy. If you’re a weightlifter, the only reason you’re doing conditioning is to improve your ability to lift weights, i.e. put pounds on the bar or improve recovery enough to increase training frequency (by being better conditioned) to aid in putting weight on the bar.

So the optimal amount of conditioning for a marathoner and a weightlifter are different, but the answer is still the same as what we covered in the health section, i.e the smallest amount needed to produce the desired goal. This will, of course, be different for everyone.

I bet you already know the answer to how much conditioning is optimal for weight loss (and you’d be correct): the smallest amount needed to produce the desired goal. Basically, we want to get the most out of the least so we have somewhere to go when we get stuck. Anyone who’s ever gotten really lean knows about getting stuck, which requires manipulation of conditioning efforts (usually adding more), training, and food intake (usually small reductions in carbs and fat). Unfortunately, people get greedy with results and think MORE IS BETTER, and cut out a bunch of energy (calories) and add a bunch of conditioning. Truth is, more isn’t better; BETTER IS BETTER.

By removing a bunch of calories when it’s not needed or, equivalently, adding a bunch of conditioning when it’s not needed you miss out on getting the best return on investment (ROI) possible and are, for no reason, reducing the amount of food you’re eating and increasing the amount of activity you’re doing. What do you think the body is going to do? It’s gonna say “Screw you guys I’m going home!”

Look, two things are happening here.

Thing 1: With calorie restriction, which is needed to lose weight, your metabolism slows down.

Thing 2: If your conditioning is mostly LISS, your metabolism slows down, i.e. you become more efficient at creating energy (no, this is not good). The current thinking on this mechanism has to do with reduced expression of uncoupling proteins in the mitochondria, which normally make the mitochondrial less efficient at creating energy (ATP).

So, imagine all the typical cardio bunnies starving themselves and doing hours of cardio on the elliptical; low intensity mind you because how are you supposed to read Elle magazine when you’re doing HIIT? Their metabolisms are slowing down from both ends and then boom, a big blowout weekend (or week) and what happens? Lots of fat deposition because their metabolisms are so depressed it’s the only thing that can happen. Yes Virginia, their BMR will increase transiently due to the “refeed” of a hypercaloric couple of days, but lots of adipose tissue will also get stored.

So, in short….how much conditioning should you do? The smallest amount needed to produce the desired goal.

The next question is rather obvious, what is the purpose of conditioning?

From a health perspective, there’s really not a lot of purpose for pure conditioning modalities unless it’s either facilitating another related (e.g. fat loss) or unrelated goal (e.g. more conditioning for sport) OR the person isn’t training and therefore needs something to supplement them.

From a performance standpoint, the purpose of conditioning is to drive the adaptations specific to that sport. Returning to the marathoner vs. weightlifter, the marathoner is obviously going to spend more time doing steady state stuff and their interval work will have different work to rest ratios (1:1-1:3 will be the bulk of it) versus the weightlifter not doing hardly any steady state stuff and sticking to interval work with 1:5-1:20 work to rest ratios. The only exception to the “drive the adaptations specific to that sport” mantra is if the sport is a weight class sport and thus the conditioning’s purpose may also include fat loss/weight manipulation

From a weight loss perspective, the purpose of conditioning is fat loss pure and simple. HIIT trumps LISS in this regard, as even though a longer LISS session certainly burns more calories during the activity, the HIIT burns more calories in total than the LISS by increasing resting metabolism over the course of hours-days post workout. People will say “Well you burn a higher percentage of fat doing LISS than HIIT”, which is true. On the other hand, I don’t really care about the percentage of fat I burn, I care about the total number of fat I burn, which is much greater in HIIT since the total energy expenditure is much higher. Kind of a dumb argument if you ask me.

The final question, which is the original motivation for even writing this things is: When should you optimally do conditioning?

Now, there’s really no reason to discuss the health perspective on this since the only reason to do conditioning for health is in order to increase performance or improve fat loss so we’ll stick with those.

Performance-wise, this all depends what kind of athlete you are. If you’re in a sport that’s conditioning focused then there will likely be plenty of times you’re going to be doing conditioning only during practice or programmed sessions. I could make the argument that if there are skills you need to practice that these should be incorporated first before the conditioning work, as it is highly fatiguing and might interfere with practicing optimal technique of the skill. This is the same for strength/power training, i.e. it should come first for virtually any athlete who’s going to train multiple modalities in the same day even if he or she is going to split them up into multiple training sessions in the course of the day (i.e. 2 or 3-a days). Will doing a heavy squat session first or in the AM negatively impact the ability to do a long tempo run second or in the PM? Of course, duh. However, the squat session is going to have less of an effect on the run as the run would have on the squat. Moreover, the runner is going to get a more useful stimulus from the squats than the run provided the context we’re discussing is the off season or GPP/accumulation phases. On the other hand, I could make the argument that during more specific training phases or in-season cycles, the runner should run first and then do a lighter, more attenuated squat session later to try and preserve strength during the season. Applying this same rationale to a weightlifter and the answer becomes crystal clear, conditioning comes after the weights 100% of the time with respect to developing performance.

When talking optimal conditioning timing concerning weight loss, the answer is really even clearer in my opinion. Optimally, you’d do conditioning (HIIT mostly) on your OFF days, i.e. days you’re not training with weights. See, resistance training provides a super potent stimulus to the body to increase metabolism, burn calories for hours post workout, partition nutrients favorably, and otherwise adapt to the stress imparted upon it. Adding conditioning workouts to a resistance training session, therefore, is not optimal in that you’re already getting a big time stimulus from training anyway and there’s MORE benefit to be had by doing it on your off days where you where previously receiving no stimulus (or a waning stimulus from the previous day’s training). Remember, the goal here is to signal as much possible increase in BMR, favorable nutrient partitioning, and net calorie burn as possible.

Understandably, many people do not have a flexible enough schedule to do this and so the crux of the matter becomes this: Should I do cardio before or after weights? Answer (you probably already know this): AFTER!!!!

Resistance training provides a more potent stimulus than conditioning, period. Why? Because resistance training is heavier, has longer ranges of motion, and overall imparts more stress on the human organism (or at least it should). If you did conditioning before training, you’re fatiguing motor units, depleting the muscles of energy, and overall reducing possible intensity, volume, etc. that could possible be attained in the session as a whole. Now, weight training first will certainly attenuate the amount of intensity or effort a person can put into conditioning but this is not as severe as the opposite since, ya know, conditioning is easier than burying a heavy squat.

My stock recommendation for those who have to get in and out of the gym in an hour and can’t train more than 3-4x a week is as follows: Spend 45 minutes doing progressively heavier barbell training and 15 minutes doing HIIT everytime. Period.

-thefitcoach

Programming for the CrossFit Games Athlete pt. 1.5

Just a little pre-weekend update before I head down to Atlanta to hang out with the Starting Strength crew and help out at Rip’s seminar being held at AK CrossFit. Should be a good time, but I wanted to get into how I would go about identifying goals and programming them for the specific blocks in the macrocycle.

In part one of this series, we broke up the training into four phases:

  1. November 14-Dec 31= Block 1 (Preparation Phase)
  2. Jan 1- February 14= Block 2 (Pre-Season Phase)
  3. February 14- End of Competition (In-Season Phase)
  4. End of Competition- Resumption of Preparation Phase (Off-Season)

These blocks, or mesocycles, could potentially be further broken down into microcycles if one really wanted to geek out on this stuff. It’s been my experience, however, that trying to get overcomplicated with the programming before having any data or feedback from the athlete is a recipe for two things: wasting time (yours and the athlete’s) and over training. I prefer to identify the main goals of each block and then program accordingly, with the weeks further away being programmed more vaguely and the more immediate weeks being more detailed. I do this because I utilize feedback and data from the athlete to program each successive week. Ultimately, the over-arching goal(s) for the training blocks guide the programming.

When I sat down and started looking at the needs analysis of my athlete for the CrossFit Games I immediately started thinking about using the first block, The Preparation Phase, to primarily increase strength levels, improve high-yield skills, and maintain a good level of conditioning through dedicated GPP (general physical preparedness) work. It’s important to consider the compatibility of the attributes you’re trying to emphasize during a particular block of training. For instance, the goals of increasing strength and endurance are not compatible for an advanced-level athlete (strength or endurance). Neither strength or endurance gains would be very significant if the athlete made it through the block unscathed via an overuse injury or performance drop-off. A more complementary set of goals would be something like strength and hypertrophy, strength maintenance and conditioning, etc. Much of this information has been distilled down from past coaches’ experience, exercise science texts, and other resources laying out popular methods of periodization. At any rate, despite what some will tell you, a lot of this is just educated guess work based on both anecdotal and scientific evidence. It is very important, however, to take into consideration the tolerable work load of the athlete and how they’re responding to the training. If performance is trending downwards then either the work load is too much, causing overtraining-like symptoms, or the work load is not sufficient to cause the desired adaptation (increases in strength, work capacity, power, etc.), causing de-training like symptoms. This is why feedback from the athlete is so critical!

As mentioned above, the preparation phase will focus primarily on strength increases, dedicated skill work, and maintaining a good base of conditioning through GPP work. This is appropriate for my athlete who has a high level of conditioning currently, yet is lacking a little bit in the strength area. If the reverse were true, someone with freaky strength but a lack of conditioning, perhaps this block would be strength maintenance and conditioning-focused instead. The preparation phases’ programming will be focused around the Olympic lifts, the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. Each of these lifts will appear frequently and start on a brief linear progression before transitioning to a peaking cycle where intensity and volume will be inversely correlated. The linear progression will allow the athlete to acquire some volume with the lifts to become more efficient and also quickly increase their strength. Next, the peaking cycle allows the athlete to handle heavier loads for a few weeks in order to push strength and power levels to the absolute maximum. This of course, will be followed by a deload week, which will then lead into the next training block. Strength work will consist gradually decreasing volume and increasing volume as the block goes along. Each workout will have the rough template of:

  1. Olympic/Power variant: ex. Snatch x 2 x 6 (all exercises written as “reps” x “sets”) @ RPE 8*
  2. Strength: Press x 5 x 5 @RPE 8
  3. Assistance: Ring rows x max reps x 3 , close grip bench x 5 x 3 @ RPE 8
  4. WOD (skill based): AMRAP in 6 minutes of: 50 unbroken double unders, 15 butterfly pull ups (unbroken)**
  5. GPP: 5 x 500m rower intervals w/ 1:3 work to rest ratio (1:38-1:43 pace minimum)

*RPE scale is used to “auto-regulate” the effort of the athlete. Some athletes, especially those used to hard training will go into the gym and “overshoot” the required effort for the day. This causes problems in subsequent training efforts due to lack of recovery. Using an RPE scale allows for the athlete to modulate the efforts based on feelings for that particular day while still accomplishing the overall goals for the day. Here is my interpretation of the RPE scale:

RPE1-5: easy, recovery style work. 5-10 reps left in the tank.

RPE 6-7: Moderately hard, but still 3-5 reps left in the tank.

RPE 8: Hard, but not a limit effort, 2 reps left in the tank.

RPE 9: Very hard, near a limit effort, 1 possible rep left in the tank (maybe with compromised form)

RPE 10: A limit effort for the day (may or may not be a true 1RM). No reps left in the tank.

**only unbroken sets count towards the “round” total. This is used to develop the capacity and skill set needed for fast “cycle” time of these commonly seen elements in competition workouts. This also limits the amount of rounds, reps, and overall volume that the athlete can do in a given workout, thereby facilitating recovery.

Block 2, the pre-season phase, will see a transition to more strength maintenance and a heavier emphasis on sport-specific conditioning work. Given these priorities, strength work will primarily be limited to singles, doubles, and triples, and have an overall time-cap on how long during each session the athlete is allowed to work on the lift(s) programmed on the day. More time, however, will be dedicated to metabolic conditioning resembling typical CrossFit workouts, i.e. those combining elements of weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, and monostructural conditioning. Some days will include multiple workouts as the schedule allows and some infrequent Open, Regional, or Games-type days will be included to test the athlete to see where they’re at and give them the confidence and mental toughness needed to be successful for the upcoming in-season block and competitions. Each training day would be based off the following example template:

  1. Strength/Power- Clean and Jerk x 1 x 5 @ RPE 9
  2. Front Squat x 3 x 1 @ RPE 9
  3. WOD: 5 rounds of the following: 10 R-arm 2 pood KB snatch, 10 swings (2 pood), 10 pistols L leg, 10 L-arm 2 pood snatch, 10 swings (2 pood), 10 pistols R leg
  4. Cool Down/Endurance: Row 2k @ RPE 7

These workouts are just examples of what I think will be in the template as of today. As I get more information I will refine the programming and share what I’m working on with you. I’ll also discuss more RPE stuff, programming for WOD’s over the course of a training block, and legitimate strength programming. Hope all of you have a good weekend and I’ll be back here Monday!
-thefitcoach

Old Country Strong

Old Country Strong

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lifting weights and the physical changes resulting from a steady diet of squats, presses, and pulls. I know, I know, it’s shocking right? What’s really been on my brain, however, is how America’s media outlets have given many, if not all, severe body image issues. Women and men alike seem to want to be waif thin or lean, athletic, and toned rather desiring to be strong, powerful, and capable. These ideals died with the ghosts of meathead’s past and somewhere Jesus wept.

When exactly in history did this ideology become so prevalent? In order for a woman to feel good about her figure, and by this I mean really good, she needs to be a size 4 or less and have arms the diameter of fettuccine. A man, by contrast, must look part Abercrombie model and part marathoner, lest someone proclaim that he is muscle-bound. Have we really come so far from the days of Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn? Do men really not aspire (even a little) to be like Arnold, Columbo, or Zane?

My thoughts on the matter are simple: we’ve been conditioned to believe that there is a perfect ideal for each sex that we’re to aspire towards that’s been defined by the media, societal pressures, and other factions. Let me be crystal clear, the idea that you (or I) am supposed to look a certain way to fit into the current conventional definitions of health or wellness is just plain ridiculous, and it’s costing us our quality of life.

If I were to poll ten thousand people and ask them point-blank, “Are you happy with your body’s current shape, size, and composition?” I can safely assume that 9,995 would answer “No” followed by innumerable rationalizations. Could it be that this current ideal body-type is actually unattainable? Is there something in our society’s psyche that prevents us from being content with our physical morphology for even a moment, lest we be considered a slacker or lazy? What if I told you that what we fundamentally value, as a society, with regards to health and wellness, are impeding our attainment of true fitness?

Sometimes for fun I like to cruise YouTube for weightlifting videos from recent (and not so recent) Olympic weightlifting contests. To me, the most physically impressive attempts to watch are the male superheavyweights (SHW), 105kg (231lbs) and up, to see how much athleticism and strength they can display. When I watch clips of Hossein Rezazadeh clean and jerk 263.5kg (580lbs) or the late Vasily Alekseyev strict press 503lbs overhead I am awed by their strength and the work ethic it took to get there. Interestingly, when I peruse the comments on these videos the first things I inevitably see are posters calling this elite athletes “fat” and “disgusting”. Nothing is said about their performance, they are competitive athletes after all, but the entire focus is about their physique. Why are people so obsessed with body image and weight?

As a male in a notably male-dominated field, strength and conditioning, I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards females looking to get into legitimate training. A female who gets into lifting weights is cautioned against too big and bulky and advised to stick to lighter weights and high reps. Moreover, whenever a female hits a legitimately heavy personal record (PR….not Puerto Rico) like a 200+lb squat, for instance, their expert friends clamor with judgments and remarks about how they wouldn’t want to do that. Meanwhile, they keep running on the hamster wheel or wearing out the elliptical, not looking any different then they did last year. What the rest of this article is about is the idea of being Old Country Strong. As a throwback to the previous generations it’s high time we do something about our weak society. No longer will we feel overwhelmed by challenges, but rather we’ll embrace the obstacles that are presented to us. After all, a heavy set of 20 squats will prepare you mentally for any line at the DMV, any meeting with your boss, and any amount of work you need to knock out. A heavy pull from the floor requires that you have the mental toughness to overcome a “sticky” situation at work and a completing that last set of sprints up the hill demands the kind of work ethic that only the cream of the crop in the business world exude. The generation who lived through the Great Depression and World Wars didn’t feel entitled to a job or even a meal; they knew that hard work was part of the equation to receive such “niceties”. By becoming Old Country Strong we can shift the paradigm in our society and we’re not going to get there by trying to emulate the airbrushed models that we’re constantly bombarded with either. Nope. The only way to get there is through consistently showing up and putting in the work, period.

So what is Old Country Strong all about? It’s about being capable, of anything, being strong, coordinated, powerful, and FIT. Fit doesn’t mean, nor has it ever meant, being skinny, thin, or good at Zumba Tone. Nope, fitness is a blend of equal parts strength, conditioning, and a large capacity or motor to complete the task at hand.  Body morphology will be determined in the kitchen, but the fact remains that we still have to build the engine.  Let’s outline how to build the engine while giving you some firepower for that haters you’re sure to encounter.

As you might have guessed, strength training is very important. Of all the basic elements of physical fitness, strength is the most important and here’s why. Strength, or ability to overcome a resistance, is so general that training it develops all other facets of physical fitness including endurance, flexibility, coordination, power, etc. To prove that strength development applies to endurance let’s use cycling as an example. A pedal stroke requires force turn the cranks on the bike, and we can safely say that this force is some submaximal percentage of the rider’s maximal force production- for this example we’ll say it’s 45% of the total leg force that the rider can muster. This means that every time the rider “pedals” the bike forward he or she is using 45% of their total force capacity, or strength, to turn the cranks. Moreover, the rider must maintain this force production to keep moving forward at whatever pace this force produces. During a dead sprint or climb up a steep grade, the rider increases their force output to the pedals, as both of these challenges require extra force to maintain or increase the rider’s speed, let’s say that in order to increase the rider’s speed from 18mph to 22mph the rider must now use 75% of their maximal force production. This is not sustainable for long periods of time because it is too close to their maximal force output, and thus is more fatiguing than their cruising pace’s force requirements, 45%. If we can coerce the rider to squat and he or she can do 135lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps on their first session, then after 6 weeks of training the squat (and other movements) their squat will likely be closer to 185lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps., the rider got stronger. It still requires the same amount of force to ride at the 18mph but this is now a LOWER percentage of the rider’s maximal force output, because they got stronger. The rider can now maintain their prior pace for longer or ride at a faster pace for the same period of time because they’ve gotten stronger. This same analogy can be applied to running, swimming, rowing, etc. “But what if the athlete gains muscular weight, wouldn’t that increase the force requirements?” Right you are, however, to the degree that the athlete might gain muscular weight (a few pounds over a long time) their strength will be developed in spades comparatively. Besides strength development DOES NOT REQUIRE BODY WEIGHT GAIN, as strength is developed by the nervous system (brain, nerves, etc.) and any muscle mass acquisition is likely mitigated by excess body fat loss if the trainee actually pays attention in the kitchen.

Strength training also increases flexibility. I’m not sure where the notion came about that everybody needs to be so flexible as to be able to do the splits and perform contortionist acts but the fact is that people need only to be as flexible as their life, or sport, demands.  I know of no quicker way to develop mobility in the lower body than to perform a loaded barbell squat. The movement itself requires full range of motion articulation in the hips, knees, and ankles while the soft tissue of the muscles, joint capsules, etc. are loaded. No amount of static stretching will result in the same tissue qualities as a loaded movement, especially since the joints and their surrounding soft tissues are not actually moving through their natural range of motion during the oft-prescribed stretches. Sure there are movement deficiencies that might need remedial attention in some folks, but the idea that stretching by itself outside of proper training results in any significant morphological changes in the way the body moves is foolish.

Coordination is also developed by strength training in that each movement requires a certain motor pattern, or firing of muscles in a sequential fashion, in order to complete the lift successfully. Most people without any formal training cannot activate a very significant amount of their muscles, and furthermore, they cannot do this in any coordinated manner. By training movements like the squat, deadlift, press, row, and chin the trainee will learn to use their muscles in very general patterns. This carries over to more nuanced movements wonderfully since once you are able to recruit muscles to a greater degree you can devise ways to actually accomplish tasks that you might be unfamiliar with.

Finally, strength training develops power quickly, which is useful for athletic endeavors. Power literally refers to a force being displayed quickly. When you see an athlete jump, punch, kick, or sprint you’re witnessing them showcase their power. You might intuit that the stronger someone is the more power they will be able to display, which is correct to a point. Power, in its purest sense, will always go up when someone gets stronger. As a trainee’s deadlift increases their power clean will go up, given proper technique training. Who has a larger power clean, the athlete with a 200lb deadlift or a 500lb deadlift? While the relationship is certainly not linear, as power expression has a large genetic component, it certainly doesn’t harm the athlete to get stronger. Like Rip says, “All things being equal, the stronger athlete always wins.”

Above- Klokov just hanging out….

Klokov snatching 197kg (434.5lbs)

All this background information should lead you to the conclusion that in order to be proficient in all physical fitness qualities you must be strong. I know of no better way to get strong than to perform the classic barbell lifts; the squat, deadlift, presses, chins, rows, and Olympic lifts, in a manner that results in progressive overload over time. What this means is that week-in and week-out (or monthly for advanced trainees) weight needs to be added to the bar and more stimulus needs to be applied to the trainee. By doing so you will maximize your strength potential and be well suited to any other activity that you fancy. The caveat with this is that it’s just bloody hard work. After the novice phase where everything is easy and each lift goes up despite other confounding factors like lack of sleep, food, excess conditioning work, etc. strength training demands that a trainee starts paying attention to these other things. Unfortunately, the ideology that is all too prevalent in today’s society discourages the acquisition of big-time strength, and instead rewards those who’d rather aspire to be skinny, weak, and fragile.

While I’m certainly guilty of having aspirations of a certain body image, I can say without reservation that it has not left me in the skinny, weak, or fragile category. Because I understand strength training’s effect on the physiology of the human body I realize that without this style of training I’d never get anywhere at all. Even if your ideal body image is different than mine, we still require the same training with only a few exceptions. Want to be really lean, conditioned, and look like an athlete? You need strength training. How about being toned (God I hate that word) and fit? You need strength training. Finally, do you desire to be the best version of you this world has ever seen? You need strength training.

You see, there is no such thing as firmer or tone-er, only leaner or fatter. You can’t lengthen muscles and you certainly can’t just lose fat in your derrière. Muscles are firm when there’s less body fat covering them compared to the amount of muscle mass that’s present. If you have either bigger muscles or lower levels of body fat you’re muscle will be more firm and taut (like a tiger) when you touch them. Muscle tone, or tonus more correctly, refers to the nerve innervation of the muscle by your nervous system. In the absence of a neurological deficit your muscle’s tone remains unchanged, only your body fat or composition can change. Finally, you can’t just lose body fat in one area of the body unless you suck it out with a cannula during your liposuction procedure. The point of all this is to say, you must get strong to develop your muscles and you must eat and condition yourself according to your own body image goals or wants.

The beautiful thing about strength training with females is that it does not develop big and bulky muscles, quite the contrary. You see there are only two different types of muscular growth that occur in the human body, myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Strength training typically revolves around 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps which is prime real estate for myofibrillar hypertrophy. This style of hypertrophy slightly increases the size of the muscle fibers as they adapt to the stress and damage caused from lifting heavy (relative) weights. This muscle mass gained from this style of training does not result in large, bulky muscles but rather just a slight increase in the density of the muscles that you already have. Therefore, if firm and toned is what you’re after- you guessed it- you need strength training. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, on the other hand, requires high reps, moderate weights, and incomplete rest periods, to inflict damage in the muscles to a great degree while also increasing the release of certain cellular waste products into the blood stream. These waste products, or metabolites, initiate a cascade of inflammatory repair signals and a concomitant hormonal response that results in growth of muscle tissue and the non-contractile elements around the muscle. This is why bodybuilders have larger muscles than strength athletes like powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and strongman competitors.

Myofibrillar vs Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. I don’t know about “useless” muscle mass, but you get the picture.

The type of training greatly influences the morphological changes in your muscles. Finally, large amounts of muscle mass cannot be developed in the absence of testosterone, the predominant male sex steroid. This is why it’s easier for men to accrue muscle mass than women, if they can at all. Women lack the machinery, testes and their Leydig cells, to pump out significant amounts of testosterone, especially in the amount required for big and bulky muscles.  Women certainly do produce some testosterone from the adrenal (on top of the kidneys) glands, but this amount pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Whenever you see a woman with hyooooge muscles do not be fooled, they have taken specific steps (and chemicals) to achieve this look. Finally, do not buy into the idea that doing lots of reps with low weights will result in long, lean, and firm muscles.  This is exactly what a typical bodybuilder’s program looks like- high volume (sets and reps), moderate to low weight, and short rest periods. Why would you train like a bodybuilder whose goal is to grow the maximal amount of muscle mass when you yourself don’t want to grow big muscles? Similarly, if you actually want to grow significant amounts of muscle mass to either facilitate more strength gains or for physique aspirations, then sticking only in the 1-5 rep range is also foolish. While some level of muscle mass can occur with this training style, especially if the weights used are very, very heavy or the trainee is living chemically enhanced, there is a reason that top strength athletes do some higher rep training in their programs as well, because they want to develop additional muscle mass and more reps is how to do it.

Natural female figure competitor (left) versus chemically enhanced female bodybuilder (right).

The bottom line is that strength is paramount for any goal one might have. Body image wise, however, the key to your success or failure is your conditioning and nutrition. By adjusting these two variables you can achieve anything you desire. On the other hand, I’d like you to wrap your head around the idea that you’re great just the way you are, really. Even if you slack off on the nutrition and conditioning, if you strength train you’re doing the best thing for your physical and mental well-being. It just comes down to if you’re motivated enough to stick with a conditioning and nutritional protocol in order to achieve the body composition you want. If not, no big deal, just get strong and have fun when you train! No other type of training will account for dietary or conditioning indiscretions anyway, so you might as well make yourself useful if you’re going to go to the gym.

Hopefully now you’re motivated to get Old Country Strong and maybe I’ve piqued your interest in changing your nutrition and conditioning program so that you can optimize your body composition while training appropriately. What follows is what I consider the least intrusive way to implement conditioning and a sound nutritional program into one’s daily life. Here we go (cue Bud Light commercial).

The proper conditioning level is highly variable for each individual and it depends on his or her needs (athletic, activities of daily life, etc.) and body composition goals. While I’ve recommended high frequency low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, etc.) in previous articles that focused on leaning out big time, I’m going to buck the trend with these recommendations. Assuming you’re actually pursuing Old Country Strength and aren’t massively calorie restricted then we will be best served by employing a few bouts of high-intensity interval training each week.

I don’t particularly care when these are done in the training week, as it’s largely a matter of personal preference. Two days out of the week do an interval session on a bike, treadmill, track, rower, airdyne, jump rope, etc. in the following manner:

  • 5 minute warm up
  • 30 second sprint (go all-out ish, if you’re running go at 85% or so as until you’re used to sprinting you run the risk of injury until your muscles adapt)
  • 1:30 easy effort
  • Repeat 10 times
  • 5 minute cool down

One day per week go out and do a long distance effort like a 5k run, 10k row, 1-hour walk, 20-mile bike ride, etc. This is chicken soup for the heart!

Nutritionally speaking, there are many protocols I’ve written about but I’m going to pare it down to 5 easy-to-follow steps:

  1. Eat single ingredient foods. More than one ingredient on the list? Skip it.
  2. Eat 3-4 times per day with 3 hours between meals (minimum) or 5 hours maximum.
  3. Have protein in every meal that’s about the size of your fist.
  4. Eat a serving of carbohydrates before and after your training session and skip the fat at these two meals.
  5. Alter your fat and carbohydrates in the remaining two meals based on your goals and progress. If you want to lean out, start pulling out the carbs first in these meals followed by the fat. If you want to pack on the muscle start adding carbs and fats to these meals and/or throw down a post-workout shake of whey protein isolate + waxy maize (20g pro: 60g waxy maize).

Well there you have it, you’re guide to Old Country Strong. I hope you enjoyed reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay strong out there and get under the bar!

-thefitcoach