The A Game

Recently on social media I saw a post by Craig Liebenson, a well known clinician, regarding comments made by Mike Boyle, a well known strength coach. The summary of Boyle’s comments are that more people should train at a higher intensity. His argument is that most people have never trained hard enough and that they’re wasting their time on lower intensity work.

This is absolutely untrue and anyone who has actually spent a lot of time training people will know why. I know Mike has a great history with college athletes but as his business and reputation has grown he has moved from college strength coach to PT business owner. I doubt very much he is getting up at 5am to be there for his 6am members and run them through their workouts. In other words, like many training gurus online, he is out of touch.

Many people train for many different reasons. Perhaps the most common is aesthetics/ weight loss with performance in a recreational activity somewhere in the mix. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves the most important reason anyone enters a gym is health. To be healthier so that they can live a longer and more fulfilled life. To see their kids and grand kids grow up and to be a good role model for them. Health comes first. If you don’t believe me, try training for a marathon with a broken leg. You need to be healthy before you can worry about anything else.

If I could speak to the trainers in the room for a moment – you want your clients to get the best possible result right? Because you know that if you give them both what they want and what they need you’ll have a client long term. Here’s the thing… 70% of adults are overweight or obese. Of children aged under 19, 60% are expected to be overweight or obese by the time they reach 19. It has become common for people to be well beyond a normal BMI range.

And that’s the thing about common. We begin to call common normal. They are two very different things. 70% of adults being overweight is common. It is not normal. Science has spent a great deal of time figuring out what is and isn’t normal for the human body and we have mountains of research on millions of people that points to a rough size and shape that we should all be. However, as portion sizes have grown and snack foods have become more palatable and harder to resist then it has become more and more common to see people massively overweight.

So if we’re being honest as fitness professionals the most important thing we can offer someone is not higher intensity training. It’s fat loss. Because obesity is a leading cause of death. Not only are the high blood pressures and high cholesterol counts that come with it deadly but being obese has also been linked to 11 different types of cancer. If you’re not addressing this with your customers, turning a blind eye to the obese elephant in the room, you are doing them a tremendous disservice. The number one service we should be aiming to provide is how to exercise and eat consistently to ensure a healthy BMI is reached and maintained.

In weight training, higher intensity means one thing – heavier weights. Heavier weights need to be lifted with a thing called the valsalva technique. It is a natural breath holding mechanism we have to stiffen the core and allow us to lift heavy things more safely. Do you know what holding your breath does for your blood pressure? It sends it through the roof. If you’ve already got high blood pressure you may as well start each set by playing a round of Russian Roulette if your training involves heavy loads and breath holding. Sooner or later those odds won’t be in your favour and you’ll have a stroke.

Looking at the top three leading causes of death – heart and circulatory disorders, cancer, and respiratory disorders – I hope it’s easy to see a theme where exercise may be concerned. The heart and lungs are easily trainable through cardiac output training, which looks nothing like higher intensity weight training. Cardiac output training is usually set at 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm, which are levels that are easily met by just about everyone. For people who are fans like I am of the Maffetone method you’ll see that MAF sits pretty comfortably within that range for most people. While the link between the heart and lungs is easily recognised when it comes to cardiac output training it may seem that cancer is the odd man out. As I said before, being overweight has been linked to 11 different types of cancer. These include breast (post-menopause), bowel, kidney, liver, endometrial, ovarian, stomach, oesophagus, gallbladder, pancreas and prostate (advanced) cancers.

In the fitness industry these days it’s all the rage to push higher intensity sessions, particularly if you offer those on a reduced time frame. It’s far more common to see people advertising 3 x 30 minute sessions of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) than it is to advocate walking for an hour a day. I get it – people don’t like to exercise and are time poor so many fitness businesses would rather lie to you than try to sell you something they know is more effective. And, doesn’t it sound more reasonable that if you work harder more often than not you’ll be in better shape?

Actually, the converse is true. As it turns out there is no real gain to be had beating yourself senseless week after week. As it turns out far greater gains in fitness can be had by doing easier sessions than harder ones. This scientist, Seilor, did some studies on a lot of athletes over a period of decades and what he found may surprise you. He found that the best athletes in the world spent roughly 80% of their training time below 70% intensity. The remaining 20% they did indeed work hard but as total volume went up, and more and more time was spent at these lower intensities of 70% and below, their results improved. Training volume was dictated by sport more than by anything else with runners having the lowest total training hours per year and cyclists and rowers at the high end, with swimming in between. (That’s quite normal as running is far more stressful on the body than cycling or rowing so it’s not that the athletes don’t want to train more it’s that they can’t as their recovery needs are higher).

At higher heart rates the heart never is never able to fully fill before it is forced to pump blood around the body again. That’s a problem when it comes to developing a bigger, stronger pump. To force the heart to become bigger it needs to hold as much blood as possible for an extended period so that the tissue adapts. Only at these slightly lower intensities in the 120-150bpm range does this happen. Higher intensities do not see this adaptation take place. Nor, interestingly, is it possible from strength training despite the rise in heart rate during training.

At this point people will say that strength training is different in how it forces change in the body and that higher intensities are needed. Well, it’s not. We have one CNS and it responds to stress the same way regardless of whether you go for a run, lift some weights, or fight off a tiger. When your body is stressed all it cares about is survival – that’s why it’s called fight or flight mode. We only improve physically – whether that be dropping body fat, running faster, or lifting more weight – when we are in the rest and digest side of the nervous system. And Russian research on lifting shows this to be true as well with elite lifters averaging 72% intensity year round. So again, regardless of whether we’re talking about strength or fitness this 70% number seems to crop up an awful lot.

So that’s for elite athletes, but what did his research say about recreational athletes like you and me?

Interestingly enough there aren’t many studies done on recreational athletes. But a recent one by Esteve-Lanao showed that recreational runners performing 4-5 sessions per week and totaling 6-10 hours of work benefit with the same polarised training effect as elites do seeing an improvement in their 10km run times at the 7 and 11 week marks. I mention this because what normally happens at this point is that people hawking HIIT will suggest that people don’t have 15+ hours per week to train like an elite athlete and that HIIT is a far better way to get the best bang for the buck in terms of training. That is completely untrue as the science shows.

And where does this leave something like walking – the lowest intensity activity you can do and still call it exercise? As it turns out walking has a lot of good stuff attached to it, and features heavily in my 28 Day Challenge as a corner stone of health based training. Recently, this article here described what happened to a man who spent a month walking all day long. He spent 29 days walking 486 miles along the Colorado Trail. The end results are quite interesting. The summary:

  • Body fat dropped from a healthy 13% to an amazing 5%.
  • Resting heart rate dropped from 48bpm to 40bpm.
  • Blood sugar dropped back to within normal ranges, cortisol decreased, testosterone doubled.
  • He went from burning 66% fat/ 34% carbs at 110bpm to 91% fat/ 9% carbs. At 145bpm he went from 52% fat/ 48% carbs to 70% fat/ 30% carbs. His lactate threshold went from 153bpm to 168bpm.

What does all this mean? Well, he lost body fat and increased performance massively solely by walking for 8-10 hours a day. As an older guy I would love to double my testosterone production while simultaneously nearly halving my cortisol production and body fat.

Here’s the thing about lower intensity training that all the salesmen who are out of touch miss – it’s healthy for you. Higher intensity training raises cortisol. That’s one of the markers typically associated with being stressed. If you’re in your 40s or beyond, with kids, a stressful job, and you’re like 70% of the world and you’re overweight, guess what…? You’re already stressed. The body can only ever adapt to so much stress at once and if you’re up to the eyeballs in stress your chance of increasing fitness is zero. The best thing you can do for yourself is to remove stress and lower intensity training does this. It’s not uncommon for guys in the 28 Day Challenge to drop 4-5kg in a month because of a focus on correct eating and stress reduction. The training is actually incredibly easy – because the focus is on stress reduction so the body can adapt. We make zero effort during the Challenge to stress the body more. Suggesting that an overweight, stressed out, father of three, who is the sole bread winner should come to the gym and smash himself with higher intensity may as well be suggesting that the best thing for him is to let a pro boxer beat his brains out. What he needs is a figurative fitness hug so his body can drop some of that stress and actually adapt to training. In general, in today’s world, people need stress reduction in their training, not stress addition.

If we’re all being really honest with ourselves in this health first training paradigm then what we should also be admitting is that we want daily activity, not sporadic activity. There are plenty of studies that show 10,000 daily steps to be a cut point for health and weight control. There are likewise many studies to show that daily activity is far healthier than sporadic 2-3 times a week hard gym sessions. Again, in the fitness industry there is a split between trying to advise people what is best and what is easy to sell. Many sadly choose the latter, although probably have far less money stress than I do. I doubt the guy who invented P90X worries about money.

The reality is that if you asked a trainer which they’d prefer – a client who trains 2-3 times per week or one who does something every day, I know what their answer will be. Only a fool, or someone with something to sell, would ever tell you that less is better. And the way exercise works is that we adapt to it. One of those adaptations is decreased muscle soreness. So my guy who does something every day will actually suffer less muscle soreness than the person who trains intermittently. Watching people at this time of year try to make change in the gym it is easy to see how discouraging muscle soreness can be to the untrained. I would rather have a client finish a workout and have zero muscle soreness so they could come back the next day than be so sore they need to take a few days off to walk normally again. Because at the end of the day my client who trains 6 times per week will have 300 hours of exercise at the end of the year. Meanwhile your client doing HIIT is going to have 100-150 hours. And who do you think is going to be in better shape? And forget just the first year. As I tell the guys in my 28 Day Challenge it’s not about this month or even this year. This is a game we’re playing for the next 40 years.

So who is in better shape at 60? If we say they start worrying about their health at 40, they’ll accumulate 20 years of training. My guy has 6000 hours of health and fitness activity. Your HIIT guy has 3000. My guy is literally twice as fit and conditioned as your guy despite never having to been destroyed in the gym – as if he has another 20 years of training on top of what your guy has accomplished. Let that sink in – in the same period of time I gave him an extra 20 years of training in comparison. I have gradually, and easily, over time gently nudged my guy’s fitness ever forwards. Meanwhile you’ve savaged him with beating after beating to try to get him there, knowing all along that it is a fruitless endeavor, because volume trumps all eventually.

Circling back to cardiovascular training at low intensities and stress we also need to understand that lower intensity aerobic work has a stimulating effect on the nervous system. It removes stress. If we picture our typical client – over 40, overweight, stressed, and needing to change surely we should be picking a training method that will help him fix all that as fast as possible? And lower intensity, high volume and frequency, continuous output aerobic training is it. It will teach the body to more effectively utilise stored fat as a fuel, burn more energy than any other form of training (especially if really overweight as the body is forced to carry a greater load), and lower stress in the body. While strength training is an important part of the overall fitness equation, if I have to pick one gift in the gym for my client I will pick longevity and health always over anything else.

If you’ve skipped to the end hoping for me to sum things up succinctly, here it is:

  1. Most people are stressed and overweight.
  2. Leading causes of death are more likely influenced by being overweight and having a weak set of heart and lungs so training should reflect that.
  3. Adding high stress workouts to a system already under pressure won’t make things better in the long term.
  4. Higher intensity isn’t actually the most beneficial form of training – for strength, fat loss, or cardiovascular improvements – and will likely slow down progress at best, or cause eventual injury or a health issue at worst.
  5. A focus on intensity and performance neglects what should be a health first focus.