Category Archives: best cardio
Gene Lawrence is a 73 year-old powerlifter who stays up-to-date with the writings and recommendations of his favorite strength coaches. Like many lifters, he finds the conflicting advice extolled by the various experts to be downright confusing.
I’ve been training with Gene for the past several months, watching him bust out 365-pound deadlifts like it ain’t no thang. Just recently he said to me, “I really wish someone would just write an article that taught me the rules. What are the things you have to do versus the things that are just nice to do?”
I pondered his question for several days, and came to the conclusion that there are only 8 laws in strength training.
At first I figured there’d be more, but almost every time I thought up a potential law, a refuting argument came to mind.
Now of course, it’s difficult to make hard-fast laws due to varying goals and genetics. However, in the end I feel that I was fair with my determinations.
These laws are based on what I’ve learned both as a lifter and researcher, and they’re formed by my current level of scientific understanding, meaning they’re malleable and subject to change.
Bear in mind here that I’m assuming that since you read T Nation, you care about both your strength and your physique.
In Part II of this series, I’ll give you the 8 laws, but in this article I’ll set the stage and present 20 potential laws that got shot down. Many coaches and trainers might determine that some of these are indeed laws, but not me.
The following 20 things are “nice” to do, but not absolutely necessary.
The 20 “Almost” Laws that Didn’t Make the Cut
1. You must foam roll.
Foam rolling feels good. Ask any foam rolling lifter if it makes them feel better, alleviates pain, or prevents injury, and the resounding answer will be yes.
However, there are millions of lifters who don’t foam roll who do just fine. To date, there are only a couple of studies that have been conducted on foam rolling, and to be frank, we really don’t know much about it as far as what it does and doesn’t do (Miller & Rockey 2006, MacDonald et al. 2012).
Right now we can speculate as to what it does, but at this point it’s just that – speculation.
2. You must stretch.
Stretching usually feels good too, and intuitively most lifters feel like it’s a good idea. Nobody wants to lose their flexibility, and it’s no fun being tight.
However, proper strength training itself involves stretching. Research shows that strength training is as effective as stretching at building flexibility, due to several factors (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011, Nelson & Bandy 2004).
First, the eccentric component of exercise, along with exercises that place sufficient tension on muscles at long lengths, induces sarcomerogenesis and actually increases flexibility through creating new sarcomeres in series and lengthening muscle (Brughelli & Cronin 2007). So resistance training is a viable form of loaded, active stretching.
Next, passive stretching can indeed decrease stiffness and increase pain tolerance to stretch, but it doesn’t regulate muscle length like active stretching does (Weppler & Magnusson 2010, Riley & Van Dyke 2012). If you regularly perform exercises like full squats, Romanian deadlifts (RDL’s), lunges, chin-ups, dips, and calf raises with good form through a full range of motion, you’ll possess good overall flexibility.
3. You must do cardio and/or HIIT.
Cardio sounds good in theory. After all, the heart is the most important muscle, right? But what exactly is “cardio?” Doesn’t the heart beat quite hard during strength training?
While prolonged low-intensity cardiovascular exercise does indeed have its own merits, strength training – particularly performed intensively close to muscular failure – provides many of the benefits that cardio does (Steele et al. 2012).
As long as you have an active lifestyle and lift weights frequently with sufficient intensity, cardio isn’t mandatory. If you’ve ever performed a set of 20-rep walking barbell lunges with 225 pounds, then you know that resistance training works the cardiovascular system very well.
Over the past decade, exercise scientists have raved about HIIT, pointing out that it leads to greater metabolic expenditure and fat-loss over prolonged periods compared to steady state cardio due to the effects of EPOC (Tremblay 1994, Hazell et al. 2012). However, lifting weights is a form of HIIT, as long as you train intensely.
4. You must go heavy (i.e., lift over 90% of your 1RM).
Recently, it’s been shown that lighter weights performed to failure can indeed provide a potent muscle hypertrophy stimulus, perhaps even greater than heavy weights (Mitchell et al. 2012).
It’s too early to tell as the studies have relied on beginner subjects, but at the very least the newer research shows that you can certainly build muscle without using heavy weights.
Ever seen Kai Greene train his glutes? He uses light weight for high reps and focuses on feeling the glutes moving the loads. Jay Cutler doesn’t go nearly as heavy as he did earlier in his career, but nevertheless he’s more muscular due to a shift in focus on muscle contraction.
Few bodybuilders go lower than 6 reps, and for lower body most stick to sets of 10-30 reps. For the most part, Andy Bolton, the first man to deadlift over 1,000 pounds, relies upon Dynamic Effort deadlifts to build his world class deadlifting strength.
5. You must train explosively (i.e., Dynamic Effort).
Many lifters benefit from the Dynamic Effort method. Explosive lifting increases muscle activation at the start of the lift and allows for more frequent training due to lighter loads being used.
However, explosive lifting also diminishes muscle activation in the latter half of the lift due to requisite deceleration of the load (Frost et al. 2010).
Most bodybuilders lift semi-explosively, yet they’re sure to control the weight through the entire ROM. Many seek to keep more constant tension on the muscles to maximize the pump effect.
Furthermore, many powerlifters have gained plenty of strength having never focused on lighter weight for maximum acceleration. Dynamic Effort work is a great idea for Olympic lifters and athletes, but it’s not mandatory for general lifters.
6. You must go to failure.
Growing up reading strength training articles, I was led to believe that the last rep of a set was the only one that counted and the only one that built strength. Now I realize that it was hogwash.
You can build incredible strength staying far away from failure. Sure you won’t build maximum strength if you don’t push the boundaries from time to time, but you can leave a rep or two in the tank and still be quite strong and muscular.
In fact, a recent article showed that maximum muscle activation during a set was reached a few reps prior to failure (Sundstrup et al. 2012). A decent case could be made that by avoiding the increased wear-and-tear on the joints and nervous system induced by going too heavy or too hard might lead to increased progress through decreased stress, pain, and injury, along with increased recovery.
7. You must squat.
The squat is the king of lower body movements, no doubt. But do you have to squat? Some lifters never seem to dial down their form on squats, and this has much to do with their anthropometry.
Ben Bruno has shown that it’s indeed possible to make steady progress with squatting strength through intensive focus on single-leg strength. Research has shown that single-leg strength and power training led to slightly better performance effects than double-leg strength and power training, though the effects weren’t significant (McCurdy et al. 2005).
Strength is highly dependent on the movement pattern, so as long as you perform a single-leg squatting movement such as a Bulgarian split squat or a reverse lunge, your strength on the squat won’t suffer dramatically.
Let’s say that week in and week out you performed a bilateral deadlift or good morning variation along with a single-leg squat variation, yet you never did bilateral squats. Your quads would still be muscular, your spine stable, and your hips strong.
8. You must deadlift.
If the squat is the king of lower body movements, the deadlift is the king of total body movements. Therefore you must deadlift to see great results, right?
Westsiders showed long ago that a lifter could build a very strong deadlift without deadlifting. They performed tons of box squats, good mornings, back raises, pull-throughs, reverse hypers, and glute ham raises – and their deadlifts were incredibly strong.
I’ve found that heavy-ass kettlebell swings can do wonders for building and maintaining deadlift strength. Max Shank can single-leg RDL 315 pounds for reps, which provides a huge training effect for the hip extensors, keeping the deadlift pattern strong while sparing the low back.
In terms of bodybuilding, many lifters prefer the blend of bent-over rows, T-bar rows, and back extensions for their mid and lower back development rather than deadlifts, as they’ve found that the deadlift just isn’t worth the risk to their body.
If your program contained heavy KB swings, box squats, good mornings, bent over rows, T-bar rows, and back raises, your deadlift would be plenty strong, and your back and hip extensors would display impressive muscularity.
9. You must bench press.
Now let’s move on to the king of upper body movements, the bench press. The bench press is without a doubt the most popular exercise in the world, but do you have to perform it? Many lifters’ shoulders just don’t agree with the bench press, and therefore, they need not include it in their programs.
You can build a strong bench press through other pressing movements. For example, a lifter who performed lots of weighted push-ups and/or dumbbell pressing from different angles will have muscular pecs and triceps, not to mention a reasonably strong bench press.
10. You must do unilateral or bilateral exercises.
Let’s say a lifter only performed squats, leg presses, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, glute ham raises, bench press, military presses, dips, push-ups, bent-over rows, chins, and barbell curls for his entire lifting career. I think we’d all agree that he’d be incredibly strong and muscular, provided of course that he gets strong on those exercises.
Conversely, let’s say a lifter only performed Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, single-leg RDL’s, sled-pushes, single-leg hip thrusts, single-leg back extensions, single-arm db bench presses, single-arm DB shoulder presses, one-arm DB rows, single-arm pulldowns, and alternating DB curls for his entire lifting career. He’ll also be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
11. You must train your core directly.
Free-weight compound exercise does a good job of activating the core musculature. Getting an aesthetically pleasing mid-section has more to do with being lean than possessing muscular abdominals anyway.
If you perform exercises such as chin-ups, push-ups, squats, deadlifts, farmer’s walks, military presses, and barbell curls, your core will be plenty strong and muscular. Combine this with proper nutrition and your midsection will look great.
12. You must use free-weights.
Free weights reign supreme in the strength training world. They allow for natural movement patterns and require real-world stabilization. Therefore they’re absolutely necessary, right? Not so fast.
Prime-mover muscle activation can be matched with machine training, and a lifter can gain incredible strength and size this way.
Moreover, there’s a big difference between a crummy machine program and an optimal machine program.
For example, if a lifter simply performed leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, pec deck, straight-arm pulldowns, and lateral raises, he probably wouldn’t get very far in terms of total body strength and muscularity.
However, if a lifter performed Lever squats, Hammer strength deadlifts, leg presses, lying leg curls, Hammer strength upper body presses and pulls from various angles, and cable curls, he’ll be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
13. You must always strive for progressive overload.
Earlier in a lifter’s career, progressive overload is mandatory. But later on, there are other ways of progressing. For example, you can use better form, emphasize a particular muscle, or exert better control.
Many bodybuilders, in an attempt to spare their joints and decrease the likelihood of injury, actually place heavy squats and/or deadlifts toward the end of the workout so they can achieve a training effect while not relying on such heavy loads.
Let’s say you’ve built your strength up to a 300-pound bench, 400-pound squat, and 500-pound deadlift, and you decide to stay there for a year while improving upon your form and honing in on your diet. You’d look better despite not using progressive overload. Progressive overload is critical, but it’s not always mandatory.
14. You must incorporate plenty of variety.
Variety is the spice of life. Training can be quite mundane, and it’s always nice to spruce your programs up with new exercises, altered stance and grip widths and ranges of motion, or other tweaks such as pause reps or drop sets. Failure to vary your workouts is said to lead to stagnation and “habituation”.
However, is variety truly necessary? Plenty of Olympic weightlifters from Bulgaria didn’t fall into this trap – they performed around six exercises year-round. And this is the crux of John Broz’s system – back squats, front squats, power cleans, power snatches, clean & jerks, and snatches.
Let’s say that a certain lifter performed the same five exercises his entire lifting career, and for 30 straight years he only did back squats, deadlifts, bench press, military press, and bent over rows. He’d probably have better strength and development than 90% of lifters.
Variety is nice – we all like it, it breaks up the monotony, and it keeps us interested in going to the gym, but if you don’t like change, then you don’t have to change in order to see excellent results.
15. You must periodize your training.
Periodization is essential for lifting success, right? The Russians were all about it, and American sports scientists have gone to great lengths planning detailed cycles of varying lengths. So it has to be mandatory for success, right?
The fact is, periodization is debated in the literature, and studies don’t tend to show a huge difference in gains between varying periodization models (Kiely 2012, Issurin 2010).
If you’re in tune with your body, you possess ample “common sense”, and you know the basics of program design, then you don’t really need to “periodize” your training.
But first let me clarify this statement. What is “periodization” anyway? It’s “planning”. How can any sensible lifter not perform some sort of planning when he trains? Even the biggest fools at the gym know what their “go-to” exercises are for the chest and biceps.
The vast majority of respectable lifters plan their training splits, training frequency, exercise selection, and order. Based on intuition and biofeedback, they tend to vary the intensity and volume on a particular day, but there’s some structure and planning to their methods.
Therefore, every single respectable lifter does in fact periodize his training. But do you need to jot down an annual plan full of cycles and phases? The vast majority of bodybuilders don’t do this, especially the top dogs.
Furthermore, “life” tends to force you into cycles and phases. Stress, new jobs, vacations, injuries, parties, holidays, work, deadlines, new relationships, and travel force lifters into varying their programming.
Moreover, periodization doesn’t allow for “on-the-fly” adjustments and can be too rigid. Chuck Vogelpohl was notorious for maxing out on his Dynamic Effort day; once he got ramped up he couldn’t resist going heavy. Are you going to tell him he’s not lifting correctly?
16. You must deload and/or fluctuate your training stress.
As mentioned above, life forces you into fluctuating your training stress. Nevertheless, should you plan recovery weeks? Probably, but what if you’re the type of lifter who simply “nails” the optimal training variables each week?
Some lifters lack testicular-fortitude and never overreach. These folks don’t need back-off weeks. Some lifters train balls-to-the-wall and are prone to overdoing it. These folks benefit greatly from deloading.
But there are certain lifters who intuitively understand just how hard to push things. They might slightly overreach by Friday, but after taking the weekend off, they’re good to go by Monday. They make steady gains despite never taking a week off or even taking a back-off week, due to the fact that they perform just the right amount of frequency, volume, and intensity for their body week in and week out.
17. You must train frequently.
I’m a huge fan of HFT. But is it absolutely necessary? Some of the best gains I ever made were from a HIT program. Every five days, I performed a full-body workout consisting of big basic movements such as squats or front squats, deadlifts or sumo deadlifts, bench presses or close grip bench presses, and chins or rows. I got incredibly strong and gained a lot of muscle. Mike Mentzer saw great success from infrequent, full-body, intense training, as have plenty of other strong lifters.
One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that you have to be in the gym all day long in order to see results. If more aspiring lifters knew that they could in fact see incredible gains from lifting just six days per month, they’d probably embark on a resistance training regimen.
The caveat is that you have to do it right – no wimpy isolation lifts allowed. Hammer the big basic movements every five days and you’ll see great results.
18. You must perform total body workouts, or you must split your workouts.
The vast majority of bodybuilders split their programs. Many powerlifters split things up too. Total body training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
On the contrary, Olympic lifters don’t split their workouts, nor do most strongmen or athletes. There are prisoners who’ve gotten incredibly jacked from daily full-body workouts. Split training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
19. You must perform multiple sets.
Research clearly shows that multiple sets trump single sets for strength and size (Krieger 2009, Krieger 2010, Rhea et al. 2002). However, think of it this way:
Let’s say that a lifter did one exercise per workout and squatted on Monday, benched on Wednesday, and deadlifted on Friday. He performs five sets in each session.
Let’s say another lifter did one set of five compound exercises on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They’re both doing 15 sets of exercise per week. Do you really think that they’d be much different in terms of strength or size?
Aside from a couple of warm-up sets, Dorian Yates performed one set to failure, and he had one of the best physiques in the history of bodybuilding.
The first set is by far the most important, with each subsequent set being less and less important. And if you end up hitting the muscles from more angles due to more exercises being performed, a case could be made that you can see even better results in terms of hypertrophy with single-set protocols versus multiple-set protocols.
20. You must consistently train balls-to-the-wall.
If you don’t go all-out every session, you won’t progress, right? Maybe not. Many experts feel that overdoing things holds more lifters back than underdoing things. Leaving a rep or two in the tank, choosing less-taxing exercise variations, and performing Dynamic Effort work allows lifters to train more frequently by sparing the nervous system and the joints from heavy pounding.
Pavel Tsatsouline advises lifters to “grease the groove” and quit obsessing about maximal performance on every set of every exercise.
Let’s say you train five days per week, never quite going to failure or maxing out on chain close grip bench press, feet-elevated inverted rows, chain front squats, heavy kettlebell swings, and farmer’s walks. You’d be very fit, strong, and muscular, and your joints would thank you.
I’m definitely not telling you that you shouldn’t do the things mentioned in this article. However, some of the tenets listed will be more or less important for you depending on your particular genetics and goals. Just keep in mind that these 20 items are nice to do, but not absolutely mandatory for success.
In Part 2 of this series I will disclose the things you must do to ensure optimal gains in strength training.
by Andrew Heffernan, CSCS – 6/01/2012
You know you’re supposed to do your cardio outside – studies show it, the guys at the gym tell you so. Besides, doing sprints and stair runs on a real trail, track, or stadium steps feels far more badass than doing them on a treadmill or stair climber, no matter what the blinking lights tell you about METS and calories.
Furthermore, it just feels wrong to lace up your running shoes, step out the door, and drive to the gym for an indoor run. Dress it up all you want, but a fake road is still a fake road.
Still, those whiny, cumbersome machines are just so damn convenient, aren’t they? Especially when you’re trying to sneak in a little cardio after a lifting session. Or when it’s negative infinity outside. Or when, against your better judgment, you’ve laid down good money to own one of these things and you’re tired of using it as a five thousand-dollar laundry rack.
But the last thing you want to do is some preprogrammed routine that’s going to eat up twenty minutes of your life, burn negligible calories, and bore you so much that you throw your neck out trying to read subtitles on CNN.
What you need, my weight-heaving, muscle-minded brethren, is some cardio options you can do in your average commercial gym that are hard as hell, fun to do, and won’t burn through all the strength and muscle tissue you’ve spent so much time building.
But when you’re in a commercial gym, you have to play by the rules. Get too creative with your workout and you risk looking like the chalk-covered, screaming, weight-slamming tool who decided to turn the family friendly fitness center into his own private powerlifting Mecca.
This plan, on the other hand, will have you shaking things up in a commercial gym friendly way, one that starts positive trends and leads to newbies, and maybe even the occasional cardio bunny, striking up conversations with you about what you’re doing and why. And that’s a guy you want to be.
The treadmill is the most popular cardio machine in the gym, and, as these things go, it’s still one of your better options. Your feet aren’t locked into pedals or footpads that force your legs into movements they don’t like; you can crank up the speed and incline to a pretty challenging level and the movement itself is about as functional as they come.
Downside? The natural hip-extending action that you normally do when you walk or run is partially taken over by the backward-moving belt so your butt doesn’t have to work as hard on the treadmill as it does outside – a fact that is of some concern to some glute-centric trainees. And of course, the unchanging surface doesn’t do much for the proprioception in your feet and ankles.
So how do you make the dreadmill less dreadful? One simple way is to grab some weights, crank up the incline, and do some fast, uphill, farmer’s-style walking.
Weight vests are great if you own one and are willing and able to schlep it to the gym, but holding a heavy med-ball or weight plate is a tougher challenge – and of course that’s what we’re all looking for anyway, right?
So hold that sucker any way you can – up on a shoulder, against the front of your abs, in one hand down by your side, and shift positions whenever you get tired. You won’t be using huge weights on this – you’re on a moving treadmill after all – but this is a simple way of getting some “loaded carrying” into your workout, something the redoubtable Dan John, among many others, heartily recommends.
Again, use a steep incline, but keep your speed moderate. Walking fast with a 25-pound plate in your hands is one thing; running with it is quite another. Two-minute intervals should be about right on this one. If that’s easy, go heavier and steeper before you go faster.
Stairway-to-Pain Tabata Intervals
Assuming you’ve figured out how to do Tabatas correctly (that is, at maximal intensity on each round), these things can be seriously humbling. If you’ve looked over the seminal, oft-quoted study, you’ll remember that many of the Olympic speed skaters that were Tabata’s original subjects could barely complete all eight twenty-second rounds, and most of them collapsed in a heap at the end of the allotted four-minute time period.
You may think you’re a well-conditioned stud, Freckles, but you’re no Olympic-caliber speed skater. So if there’s a Tabata interval on your training docket for the day and you’re not just a wee bit nervous about it, well, you’re just not working hard enough.
Parenthetically, I’d note that the “Tabatas-are-too-easy” mentality is fairly common. Numerous times in my life as a trainer and fitness writer, studies have come out showing that one lifting or conditioning protocol or another results in unusual levels of fat loss, performance enhancement, or gains in muscle mass, and is quickly adopted by trainees the world over – who then complain that the ‘scientifically-proven’ program didn’t work.
The missing factor is always intensity, which is closely monitored in lab studies (hence the good results!) but is hard for the rest of us to measure. It’s an age-old lesson, but it bears repeating: the best program in the world is only as good as the effort you put into it.
Now, back to the subject of the Tabata protocol. Although full-on, balls-out intensity during your work-sets is required for regular trainees, it’s not for newbies. Newbies can still do a version of Tabatas, but keep your effort level at about 75% of your max, then ten seconds of rest, for three to four minutes. The purists will gripe, but you’re just getting started, and you have plenty of time to get better. Plus, we don’t want you barfing on the equipment.
But how do you work at maximal intensity on a piece of cardio equipment where the machine controls the speed? The answer is that unless you’re on a stationary bike, you can’t really, and that’s yet another reason why cardio in the wilds of nature is usually preferable to cardio indoors: it’s easier to go for it. But you can come close.
Enter the step-mill. Not the stairmaster – we’re talking about the stair-treadmill that’s like a miniature escalator forever propelling you downward. Tabatas on one of those devices will kick your butt, and the consistent speed will force you to stay focused all the way through each work set. Just don’t touch those handrails, grandpa – they’re for rest periods and emergencies only.
Set the thing for five minutes, do one minute of easy climbing, and then bring it up to a speed you can just barely handle for twenty seconds. Then grab the handrails and step off, straddling the moving stairs for a quick ten-second break. Repeat that work-rest interval for six to eight cycles. Crying like a little girl at this point isn’t required, but since you’ll be doing it anyway, let’s just say it is.
If you want to make this tough routine even harder, grab a heavy med-ball and hold it while performing the above routine. Hold it any way you like: two hands, one hand, up high, down low. Between sets, you can dismount the machine or stay on, balancing the ball on the drink holder/instrument panel at the top of the device. This takes a little practice but it’s doable and it forces you to repeatedly do something that requires control and coordination while you’re tired – an added, real-world bonus to the workout and a good skill to have.
These workouts are tough. You’ve been warned.
No-Prowler Prowler Solution
T Nation guys love the Prowler. They give them fancy names and polish them daily. They forget anniversaries and birthdays, forget their wives’ and girlfriends’ mothers’ names, but they never forget how awesome the Prowler is.
Too bad you can’t find one in a commercial gym to save your life.
The reason is they require too much space. They scrape up the floor. They’re too “hardcore.” They scare the children. Who knows. Hopefully in ten years commercial gyms will clear out all the space-wasting, single-joint machines in favor of things like Prowlers and tires and trap bars. But I’m not holding my breath.
Everyone reading this probably owns, or has personally welded, their own weighted sled that they load up with odd-shaped stones and drag up Siberian mountains screaming “Drago!” But just in case you happen to find yourself in a commercial gym with no Prowler in sight, here’s how to create one without getting management all up in your business.
Go to the aerobics room. That’s the large, empty room with the hardwood floor and the rack of plastic weights that makes Hulk want to smash. Resist the urge. Instead, grab an exercise mat (one that will easily slide along the floor) or a thick towel and place it at one end of the room. Now gather up two to four 45-pound plates, stack them on the towel, and wrap the towel over the top of them so the weights can’t slide off when you shove the stack across the room.
Now get down in a down-dog-like posture, brace your hands against the front edge of the plates, and drive forward with your legs as powerfully as possible, pushing the weight stack across the room, just as if you were using a sled. When you get to the end of the room, you can either take a break, or quickly scurry over to the other side of the weight stack and push the other way.
I hear the poison-pen emails flowing already. “You’re not in the right position, isn’t that hard on the lower back, I’m never giving up my sled for that kind of candy-ass nonsense,” and on and on. Like anything you do in the gym, experiment and make sure it works for you before you go at it 100%.
I like this downward dog position because you get a little flexibility work in the shoulders, upper back, hamstrings, and calves that you don’t get when you’re more upright. And, like the mountain-climber exercise, it forces your hip flexors to contract more fully than usual, which can have some surprising benefits for posture and lower-back health.
A great improvised-sled workout is to pick a number of times you plan to cross the room – say, twelve – and do it in as few sets, and as little time, as possible. On the first round you might get four or five crossings before you have to rest; the next, you might do three, and so on, until you reach your final goal, at which point you’ll probably collapse in a sweaty pile, quads and glutes twitching like freshly caught fish.
If you like to keep track of such things, time the entire mini-workout and try to beat your total time the next time.
Cardio Machine Slam-Dance
As a T Nation reader, you’re probably aware that most smart trainers these days are blurring the distinction between pure cardio and pure strength training. Hill sprints and barbell complexes are great examples of hybrid exercises that exist somewhere in the no man’s land between heart-pumping cardio and muscle-building strength training. But as most readers know that no-man’s land is fertile territory indeed for slicing off fat while maintaining and even building muscle.
Too bad no one bothered to tell the commercial gym folks, who often put cardio machines and weights on different floors of the same facility, for Pete’s sake. It’s as if your muscles and your cardiovascular system had nothing to do with one another.
But just because gym owners are confused doesn’t mean you have to be. Grab some medium-weight dumbbells and farmer’s walk them over to a treadmill, step-mill, or, god forbid, elliptical trainer.
On a cardio-centric day, alternate one-minute stride-outs on the cardio machines with 40 seconds of strength training for a half-hour or so (ten seconds are built in for mounting and dismounting the treadmill). For a simple, continuous-action cardio routine, you could do something like this:
One minute run
1. 40 seconds pushups
One minute run
2. 40-second reverse lunge
One minute run
3. 40-second Russian plank
One minute run
4. 40-second two-arm dumbbell row
One minute run
5. 40 seconds 1.5 squats
Repeat above three times.
You can also do corrective moves during your rest intervals, substituting bird-dogs, single-leg deadlifts, standing YTWL’s, kneeling wall stretches, and crossover walks for the numbered exercises above.
The possibilities are endless, and these are just examples. The point is that just because no one else combines lifting and cardio machines in beneficial and intelligent ways doesn’t mean you can’t.
Stairwell Step Ups
Amidst all the talk of everyone’s favorite leg exercises, almost no one mentions the step-up. Why’s that? It’s compound. It’s functional. You can even use a pretty big weight. What’s not to like?
If I had to guess, I’d say the rhythm turns guys off: step up, step up, step down, step down. Repeat, repeat, and on, and on. It feels inane, like a dance routine for the hopelessly uncoordinated. So here’s my solution, adapted for the tough guy seeking a cardio stimulus.
Grab some heavy dumbbells, something of the order of 70% of your body weight combined. Find a stairwell – ideally not a super-narrow one where no one can get by you if they’re in a hurry. Hold the dumbbells either at your side or in the rack position. Walk up the stairs. Walk down the stairs. Walk up the stairs again. Keep going. Get the picture? You’re doing step-ups, but you’re doing all the concentric work at once followed by all the eccentric work. Way more fun, way more satisfying.
You can break this up in any number of ways, but whether you do one trip up and down or several, it’s best to finish each cycle at the bottom of the stairs so you start the next one going up, rather than coming down.
Like the sled push, this one is very versatile – you can go faster and heavier or lighter and a little slower. You can do one, two, or even three steps at a time. Any way you slice it, it’s a killer, and beats being a cardio zombie by a long shot.
That’s it friends – five new cardio options that you can do at any run-of-the-mill fitness emporium that won’t shrink your muscles or get you kicked out permanently. I like using them as finishers, but some days when I’m feeling spry – usually a conditioning-based day – I’ll alternate standard strength-building moves with work-intervals of one of these options for a seriously tough hybrid strength-and-cardio workout.
If enough of us start getting creative with cardio machines, weights, and med-balls in this way, soon commercial gyms will have to start rethinking their antiquated ways and reorganize their facilities for folks who actually want to do workouts that work.
We can always dream.
Strength athletes are a studly bunch. We’re consistent, disciplined, structured, and often blessed with a high tolerance for pain. We also tend to sport a bit of an ego, a result of having fellow gym rats stare at us in fear and admiration. That ego, however, can get us into trouble, like when it comes to cardio.
Strength athletes tend to embrace cardio the way a housecat does a cold shower. Some simply choose to avoid it, often resulting in a beastly strong individual that gets winded climbing one flight of stairs and whose gut more resembles a beer keg than a six-pack.
Others embrace cardio. This group studies up, and learns that “conditioning” is better for them than cardio. So they add a variety of HIIT workouts and brutal circuits and complexes.
Their conditioning workouts are often more challenging – from a fatigue point of view – than their strength workouts; a result of them applying that, “I’ll make my body do what I tell it to do” attitude that’s served them so well with their resistance training to their conditioning workouts.
The end result is usually an in-shape and physically fit individual that finds himself standing on the bronze medal platform instead of the gold. What are they doing wrong?
That aforementioned ego is steering them in the wrong direction. A big ego is great in the weight room – the four-plate bench press gets all the looks, not doing 225 for six sets of eight with 30 seconds rest.
But the cardio/conditioning workouts that get similar nods of respect are not ideal for the strength athlete. And it all comes to down to energy systems.
According to the principle of specificity, our body reacts specifically to the stimulus we present to it. Training brutally hard for several minutes or longer with minimal rest is likely the best way to test what the body is capable of – but it’s not the best way to keep a strength athlete in shape, as it’s challenging a different energy system.
Strength athletes are kings of the phosphagen energy system. The phosphagen or ATP/CP system is a short duration system, usually lasting for about six seconds at full power before petering out completely by 30 seconds.
It relies on ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate) for fuel rather than oxygen. It takes 30-60 seconds for a moderate recharge of its fuel reserves, and 3-5 minutes for a near-full recharge.
The glycolysis system is a moderate duration system – it starts kicking in at around the 15-second mark, hits full-speed by 30 seconds, and then starts to fade significantly after about the one-minute point. It uses glucose as a fuel source, which can come directly from the blood and, if the activity is long enough, can be pulled from the stored glycogen in the muscles.
When operating anaerobically, the glycolysis system lasts less than two minutes and produces lactate, which is associated with an intense burning sensation in the muscles that most fitness enthusiasts are familiar with.
However, the glycolysis system can also operate aerobically, which doesn’t produce as much lactate, although the power produced by way of this pathway is generally lower and lasts about five minutes.
The phosphagen system is the butt kicker in the gym. This is the system that powers massive squats and benches, powerful shot puts and slam-dunks, killer knockout punches and kicks, and lightning fast 100-meter dashes.
While these things are all badass, they’re not really that hard – they don’t produce the same level of total body fatigue as something powered by the glycolysis system.
The glycolysis system is the king of conditioning. This powers the 400-800 meter runs, the 500-1000 meter rows, maximal push-ups for time, and five set drop-sets on the leg press.
Too much time spent training the glycolysis system will cause the body to adapt to becoming proficient at that system, which usually causes a shift away from optimum performance with the phosphagen system.
It’s no coincidence that the guy who wins the 100-meter dash in the Olympics is rarely the guy that wins the 400-meter. Likely, the most performance-affecting shift is an altering of neuromuscular coordination for that activity accompanied by a shifting of motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber make-up.
So what do we do?
Strength athletes must leave their ego at the door when it comes to conditioning. That isn’t a license to get fat and out of shape, but we don’t want to be that guy in the middle of both the conditioning and strength world – too weak to be a good strength athlete, and not in good enough shape to kick ass in all the conditioning challenges.
We need to listen to our brain, not our ego. We need to focus on the phosphagen system.
- When conditioning, hard exertion should generally last 5-15 seconds – rarely more than 15 seconds, and never more than 30 seconds. When in doubt use a shorter work period.
- Each exertion period should be followed by 30-60 seconds of easy activity or passive rest; something one could easily do continuously for 30 minutes or more.
- Multiple rounds of the above work and rest periods should be performed 5-15 times (or more, if necessary).
- One should not be doubled over, nauseated, or puking during/after these workouts. Think about how you feel doing sets of three in the gym; it should feel a bit like that.
- Work hard for ≈5-15 seconds, shorter is often better
- Perform easy rest (active or passive) for ≈30-60 seconds
- Repeat 5-15+ times
- Avoid feeling like you’re going to die
Real World Example
Prowler. At my gym we have a challenge that’s 10 trips (about 35 yards) with the Prowler loaded to 90 lbs, performed for time. The guy who holds the current record is one hell of a hard worker and won’t quit, but he can’t squat 315 for a single. This is not the challenge strength athletes should be working on.
We have another Prowler challenge that’s a max weight pull for 10 meters using a harness. Guess who has that gym record? One of my powerlifting teammates.
Instead of a long and grueling event, it’s better to do a Prowler push of 5-20 yards (with longer distance use less weight) with 30-60 seconds rest, multiple times.
Ski Erg. Ski very hard for 10 seconds, then easy (just enough to keep the machine on) for 20 seconds. Repeat for 3 -10 minutes. The 20-second rest is shorter than standard recommendation, but 45-50 seconds of rest is too long for this drill. Note this is the inverse of the Tabata protocol, which can work well for strength athletes in some situations.
Jump rope. Jump for 15 seconds, rest for 30-45 seconds, depending on fitness and skill. Try to jump faster than normal since it’s such a short duration. Do for 5-15 minutes total.
Track. A spin on the classic “sprint the straights, walk the curves.” Sprint half of the straight, walk the rest, sprint half of the curve, walk the rest, etc., which works out to about 50-meter sprints or four sprints for the quarter mile. Do this for one-half to 1.5 miles.
Jacob’s ladder. Climb fast for 15 seconds (30-50 feet), rest for about 30 seconds, and repeat.
Complexes. You can still use barbell complexes, but only perform 1-3 reps per movement. This makes the complex much shorter and you can use a lot more weight. You can also perform more complexes if you desire (rest about a minute after each).
Five-meter sprints. I’ve always liked these and they can be performed inside an aerobic studio if necessary. Sprint for five meters (should take about 3-4 steps), stop, turn around, walk back to the starting position, and repeat. Repeating 10-30 times works well. Warm-up if you’re not used to sprinting, and it’s okay to go less than 100% while acclimating to this activity.
Heavy bag. Boxing kicks ass but boxers have to be capable of going three minutes, strength athletes don’t. To go for time, hit the heavy bag for 10-15 seconds. I prefer to count punches – 15-20 good punches and then rest. This ratio also works well with a sledgehammer and a tire.
Car push/pull. We’ve all seen strongmen struggle with a truck or freight train on ESPN for a full minute so we assume that’s best for us, but it’s not. Pull hard for 10-15 seconds, rest a bit and catch your breath, and repeat. Use a distance it might take you one minute to cover with the car and then break that distance into four sets.
Rowing machine. The rowing machine has a default program of rowing 500-meters with one-minute rest and then repeating. That’s a strength athlete’s nightmare. Instead, row 50 meters hard, then 100 meters very easy, and repeat that for about 2000 meters total.
Circuits. You can use circuits, but follow two rules: keep each station short (10-15 seconds) and rest about 30-60 seconds between stations. I do a car push/heavy bag/15-yard hill sprint next to my house, which makes for a great circuit. Get creative.
Of course this list is just meant to get you started. Apply the basic principles outlined here and you’ll be fine.
Choosing Your Rest
How you rest is up to you and the activity you’re performing. Some activities lend themselves to easy active rest like the Ski Erg, the rowing machine, or any piece of cardio equipment.
Generally, active rest should be no more challenging than a brisk walk. You need to be able to recover during the rest period, otherwise it’s too hard. At times the best rest will be simply standing still. If you’re pushing the Prowler for 15 yards hard with 30 seconds of rest, it makes no sense to do anything but just stand there and recover.
Steady state cardio. Walking is still a good choice for maintaining or increasing VO2 max and just making you feel healthier. I’ve long been a fan of walking and it causes little to no motor unit and muscle fiber transition. Most strength athletes can’t jog regularly without it affecting their 1RM’s.
You can still perform some grueling glycolysis-based conditioning events if you want to, but they should be done rarely (once a month sounds about right) and simply as a test to see where you are mentally and physically. Don’t try to master that “test” by practicing it too regularly – you might ace the test but fail the class!
Putting it all Together
Perform this strength-training friendly conditioning 1-4 times per week, depending on your goals and time available. Those with weight loss or lofty conditioning goals should be on the higher end of the scale. Perform it after your regular strength-training workout or as a separate workout – it would likely have a negative affect on your training if performed before the main workout.
Keep the conditioning workout under 30 minutes total (15 minutes works well) including the rest time, and again, don’t feel like you’re going to die during the workout. That sensation is the glycolysis system pushing your ego to the limit.
Put the allure of being “pretty good” at everything aside and focus on your specific goals – becoming a stud in the gym, and someone that can lift heavy-ass weight repeatedly with short rest for a long period of time. Your physique, PRs, and your ego will thank you for it!
Every successful career has hiccups along the way. Making mistakes and learning from them are the bricks and mortar of a long and productive career.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve stolen points from the best of ’em to advance my own training knowledge. In doing so, there were principles and exercises that I readily accepted as gospel and would defend from the tallest tree.
This is how it is. Disagree? Well, you’re just misinformed.
But times change. New research is performed, new information becomes available, and it only makes sense that methodologies would evolve. That is, unless you’d rather stay “right” than admit you were wrong.
1. My Revised Take on Cardio
My one-track mind nearly eliminated the possibility of using conventional “cardio” for fat loss. I sided with the many coaches who argued that slow-go cardio was a potential muscle-waster, not to mention woefully inefficient at burning calories.
Though there is some science to support this position, I realize now that there’s a big fat exception to this:whether to perform steady state cardio depends on the size and musculature of the individual.
Steady state cardio – especially the fasted version – can be a great tool for intermediate and advanced trainees that carry a significant amount of muscle mass.
People generally support interval training as it will have a greater affect on the metabolism, primarily because it promotes two things:
- Oxygen debt
- Utilization of fast-twitch muscle fibers
But if you’re carrying a lot of muscle, chances are you’ve lifted, pushed, and pulled a lot of heavy things to get there. That means your fast twitch fibers have been thoroughly exercised – since they’re the strongest fibers available – so it won’t be the end of the world if you add in a bit of steady state cardio during fat loss phases.
Bodybuilders are perfect examples. While some high-intensity cardio has made it’s way into their fat loss programs, isolation splits combined with a good, clean diet, and fasted and/or post workout cardio still dominate the scene. This improves thermogenesis – heat production within the body – that helps burn fat.
While anaerobic training is what makes athletes like sprinters and running backs get so lean and muscular, most of us are just regular exercise enthusiasts, not pro athletes, meaning we can’t expect to train – or look – like Adrian Peterson.
But we can lift weights and train our strength and anaerobic capacity. Once we’re big and strong, as long as we don’t go overboard, we can use steady state cardio to achieve some solid fat loss.
2. The GHR – A Little-Known Knee Killer?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to completely outlaw such a great exercise. But here’s what I’ve found.
I’ve had several clients complain of knee discomfort during or after a workout that involved a variation of the glute-ham raise (GHR), most often the eccentric GHR.
At first, I didn’t think that this exercise was the culprit, but a couple of sit-downs with a practitioner-buddy of mine had me thinking it might be something to use on a case-by-case basis.
Some say the GHR is a “closed chain” movement since the feet don’t move anywhere during the movement, but here’s the catch. Just like a seated leg extension, a GHR makes only one set of muscles act on the knee joint during the movement (hamstrings). There isn’t a co-contraction of muscles on both sides of the joint.
This can produce the same amount of shear from the opposing side, and therefore pull on the corresponding ligaments that attach to the tibia away from the femur.
With an actual GHR machine, it’s normally not that bad. But when we go into variations like the makeshift eccentric GHR, the shear is intensified since the entire weight of the body is resting on the tibia, inaddition to the hamstrings’ contraction pulling it even further. That means a lot of stress on your PCL.
Still, some are more resilient to shearing forces than others. We all know guys who’ve been doing leg extensions and other open-chain movements for years with zero joint problems, while others get shooting pains if they so much as look at a leg extension machine.
The moral of the story? If you’re using the eccentric GHR in your training, be cautious of its effects. Hopefully you don’t fall into the contraindicated group.
3. “Functional Training” Revisited
The more I looked into it, the more variety I found in trainers’ definition of the term “functional.”
Sure, we have the basic exercises that have carryover into typical day-to-day situations like squatting, deadlifting, and standing pressing. But do we avoid biceps curls, hamstring curls, or bench presses because they seemingly don’t carry over to our daily grind?
Fact is, functional training can take on whatever description we want it to. A hamstring curl action has very little “real life” application, but one of the functions of the hamstrings is to flex the knee, and hamstring curls recreate this movement.
I advocate the big bang movements as much as the next guy. If our muscles aren’t performing their prime actions the way they should, then the number one exercise choices should always be those that enhance those prime actions.
However, I’ll humbly add that most T Nation readers seek strength and hypertrophy. What if we want bigger arms, and we’ve already spent the last three months overhead pulling, farmers’ walking, and close-grip pressing our way to oblivion?
Do we continue to avoid biceps curls because they’re “isolation” movements despite the stimulation for the biceps they provide? Do we still steadfastly avoid skull crushers or pressdowns, even though our horseshoes better resemble shoelaces?
Focus on the must-do’s first, keeping your muscular and skeletal health in check, but sometimes building up your body means training like a bodybuilder. In certain cases, that means isolating right down to the muscle.
4. Stretching and Foam Rolling
For a long time I used this stuff as an “answer.” Today I use it as a “prescription.” In almost all cases, muscles become tight because of a deficient muscle somewhere else. Usually the tight muscle is taking on the role of a muscle that isn’t pulling its own weight. A perfect example would be a pair of tight hamstrings picking up the slack for a set of inactive glutes.
A good rule of thumb is that when a muscle appears deficient, the answer isn’t always to give that muscle more attention. Considering this, we should be able to look at our weak links to see which smaller muscles aren’t doing everything they should to contribute to a functional body.
Flexibility and ROM increases will come immediately through restoring your antagonistic balance. This can be as simple as activating dormant muscles that for a while have been compensated for by the big dogs.
The true “answer,” in my book, is mobility. One of my favorite books is Assess and Correct by Eric Cressey. It has hundreds of drills that make small muscles fire up to create or restore range of motion.
I’m not saying that stretching and foam rolling to respectively lengthen and improve tissue quality is a waste of time. I still use them, and you should, too.
My advice is to turn it into a tactical approach. Instead of prescribing stretching and rolling to any ailment under the sun, start thinking in three ways: improve tissue quality first, activate muscles second, reduce inhibitions third.
Use foam rolling for myofascial release, dynamic warm ups to add range of motion and activate dormant muscles, and then static stretching to muscles that are “blocking” proper movement patterns, such as tight hip flexors affecting pelvic position during a back squat or Romanian deadlift.
5. A Quiet Tweak to Training Volume
This might be stating the obvious, but not all programs are for everyone.
Training volume should be tailored to each athlete, and failing to recognize this is what keeps some athletes from seeing continued progress.
I first experienced this as a collegiate track and field athlete. We sprint athletes would have our workouts set by the coach, though we’d train alongside the athletes from other disciplines (the jump athletes, etc). This was done for simple time management reasons, as it was the easiest way to train a bunch of athletes at the same time.
But each athlete isn’t going to respond to the same training volume the same way – especially when our “base” workouts, usually Mondays, would often look something like this:
- Dynamic warm-ups/flexibility work
- Plyometric/ballistic training – Static jumps, stairs, uphill jumps, med ball work
- Base training workout – 300m + (2)200m + (2)150m @ 85% of max effort
- Core training circuit or weight training circuit
Needless to say, that’s a tough workout and would leave me destroyed. I’d be so sore that it would sometimes affect the practice on Tuesday.
This example is intended to show that quality is everything where training for performance is concerned. Big, tough, and heavy workouts have their place, but if you want to get stronger, bigger, or both, you haveto know when your body is working at its physiological peak, and when it’s starting to go down hill.
Once that line is crossed, it’s a good idea to cut your workout short, or heavily modify its contents.
I’m sure my track coach had the best of intentions, but not everyone’s going to have the same threshold and work capacity. Some levels of DOMS don’t need to be reached, and certainly not repeatedly.
Since you’re not training with a team and can control your workout, don’t be afraid to modify your programming. It may not take longwinded workouts to make your muscles big and strong.
Don’t Worry, I Haven’t Turned Into a Pansy
The smarter I get as a trainer, the more I’m reminded that there are many methodologies, techniques, and strategies for doing things, and many ways to achieve a desired result.
However, true wisdom comes from recognizing that what might work supremely well for person A could be a disaster for person B. In reality, it’s not the exercises that are contraindicated, but the people who do them. Stay aware of that and play your game, not someone else’s.
With age comes perspective and more importantly, wisdom. A lot might change in the next five years, but I can’t see that principle going anywhere.
1) You’re Eating Too Many Carbs
2) You’re Eating Carbs at the Wrong Time
3) You’re Eating Too Much Fat
4)You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
5) You’re Drinking Too Many Protein Shakes
6) Your Liver is Over Stressed
7) You’re Eating Nuts
8) You’re Eating Fruit
9) You’re Not Training Heavy
10) You’re Overdoing Cardio
11) You’re Not Running Sprints or Doing Sled Work
12) You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
By: Matt Fitzgerald
Exercise machines weren’t created to punish guys who eat too much. That’s what diets are for. But men spend hours, day after day, churning their arms and legs and waiting for the StairMaster or treadmill to make their bellies vanish. The result: They make it about as far as the average rat.
But your machine workout doesn’t have to be a road—or row—to nowhere. “By decreasing the duration and varying the intensity of your exercise sessions, you’ll get better results in less time,” says Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems and coach to Lance Armstrong.
Try our guide to the five most popular exercise machines, with a high-intensity 20-minute workout geared for each. Your goals: Bust your exercise rut, and your gut, in record time.
The Knee Saver
Burn rate: 13 calories per minute
The benefit: Researchers at the University of Mississippi found that elliptical trainers provide the same cardiovascular benefits as treadmill running, without the impact on your joints. So they’re a perfect solution if you’re a runner who wants to stay in race shape without excessive pounding to your ankles, knees and hips.
Do it right: “Instead of holding on to handles, pump your arms as if you were running,” says Kerri O’Brien, C.S.C.S., a trainer in Phoenix. It improves your balance, which will help you whether you’re running 2.6 miles or 26.2.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “alternating interval” fat burning exercise workout from Lance Watson, a coach of Canada’s Olympic triathlon team. By alternating between levels of high resistance and those of high speed, you’ll be able to work at a higher relative intensity for a longer time. Warm up, then increase the machine’s resistance level until you’re striding at 80 percent of your full effort. After 2 minutes, lower the resistance to the level you used during your warmup, but increase your stride rate so that you’re still exercising at 80 percent of your full effort. Continue alternating between a high resistance and a fast stride every 2 minutes for a total of 20 minutes.
The Total-Body Builder
Burn rate: 11 calories per minute
The benefit: “Rowing machines provide the best total-body workout of any cardio machine,” says U.S. Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti. This is because they require equal effort from both your lower and your upper body, which could lead to greater gains in overall cardiovascular fitness.
Do it right: On the back stroke, your knees should be almost completely straight before you squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the handle to your sternum. Your back should stay in its naturally arched position during the entire movement. Got it? Now sign up with the Million Meter Club at http://www.conceptII.com. Record your distance online after every rowing session and see how you rank against more than 3,700 other club members. (Stay motivated by finishing your second million in less time.)
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try Teti’s routine. It’s designed to max out your muscles during each interval, while the recovery periods help increase the efficiency of this fat burning exercise routine. Set the rowing machine at a resistance of four. Then perform sets of 10, 15, and 20 power strokes—pulling the handle to your torso as fast and as hard as you can. Separate the power strokes with 60 seconds of easy rowing at about 50 percent of your full effort. Repeat the cycle until you’ve rowed for 20 minutes.
The Health Master
Burn rate: 12 calories per minute
The benefit: Yale researchers found that men with insulin resistance—a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease—who exercised on a stairclimber for 15 minutes 4 days a week improved their sensitivity to insulin by 43 percent in just 6 weeks.
Do it right: The obvious: “Leaning on the handles can cut your caloric expenditure by 20 percent or more,” warns Mike Merk, C.S.C.S., director of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland. So, for a better calorie burn, pump your arms as if you were walking or running briskly. Or you can just turn around. A study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that the retrograde version—facing away from the console—burned more calories than the traditional method.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “escalating intensity” workout from Edmund Burke, Ph.D., author of The Complete Home Fitness Handbook. After you warm up, increase the resistance level by one unit while maintaining a pace of 60 to 80 steps per minute for 2 minutes. Then increase the resistance by one unit every 2 minutes until you reach your 20-minute goal. You’ll gradually work harder as your workout progresses, so you’ll be maxed out at the end of the session—which trains your body to finish hard.
The Mood Lifter
Burn rate: 14 calories per minute
The benefit: Researchers at the University of Northern Arizona found that cycling on a stationary bike for as little as 10 minutes reduced fatigue and negative moods, while improving energy levels. The stationary bike is also the perfect vehicle to prevent chunky guys from hurting themselves as they lose the chunks. That’s because cycling is not a load-bearing exercise, says Kate Heelan, Ph.D., an exercise researcher at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Do it right: Many cyclists develop lower-back pain because of their semifetal posture. “Stand up every 5 minutes and pedal as if you were climbing a hill for 60 seconds,” says Robert Morea, C.S.C.S., a trainer in New York City. “It’ll take the pressure off your lower back, force you to use different muscles and break up the monotony of your workout.”
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this workout from Carmichael. It varies your sprints to challenge your cardiovascular system and muscles in different ways. Following your warmup, start cycling at an intensity that’s about 95 percent of your full effort for 90 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery interval at about 40 percent of your full effort. Then, using the same intensities, perform 60-second and 30-second intervals. After the final 30-second recovery period, cycle at 70 percent of your full effort for 4 minutes, then repeat the entire set of intervals.
The Energy Guzzler
Burn rate: 17 calories per minute
The benefit: A 2001 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise determined that the treadmill burns calories at the highest rate of any exercise machine.
Do it right: If you want to mimic road running, raise the incline of the treadmill to 1 percent before starting your run. Researchers in England found that that’s the degree of treadmill elevation that most closely approximates outdoor running.
The 20-minute fat-burner: Try this “up the incline” interval method from Liz Neporent, coauthor of Fitness for Dummies. It’ll build your leg strength and prepare you for the toughest road courses around, while helping you shed fat fast. Pick a speed that’s about 2 minutes per mile slower than your average outdoor pace. Run at that speed for 2 minutes at an incline of 1 percent. Then raise the incline to 4 percent for another 2 minutes. Continue to raise the elevation of the treadmill by 2 percent every 2 minutes until you reach a 10 percent grade. Then step it back down 1 percent at a time—in 2-minute intervals—until you complete your 20 minutes.
by Nate Miyaki
There are only two types of people I hate in the fitness world: (1) people who are intolerant of other people’s exercise choices, and (2) runners!
I should qualify that second part. I hate people who dogmatically insist that any form of long duration, sustained cardio activity is the best and only way to lose fat and change a physique. Actually, I don’t really hate anyone (although I would like to slap a guillotine choke onto a few people), but I’m going for a little Hollywood dramatic effect here.
Anyone who’s been in the physique game long enough — as an athlete or a coach – will tell you that the hierarchy of body composition transformation goes something like this: nutrition is by far the most important, weight training is next, and the “C” word is a distant third.
Traditional cardio is at best a minor importance in the physique enhancement game. And under many circumstances, it becomes the worst form of exercise a relatively fit body type could do for body composition enhancement.
So if you chose to run, make sure you understand the real reasons why you’re running. You’re running for performance enhancement, or sport specific training, or stress relief, or general health, or endorphin rush, or to prove something to yourself, or just because you like to do it.
But if you’re running to drop body fat, remove that last little layer of flab from around your midsection, or look good at the beach, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons — unless your last name is Hasslehoff.
Most strength trainers, or anyone who’s ever taken a physiology class, have heard the ol’ sprinter vs. marathon runner comparison a thousand times. You know the drill. Marathon runners that engage in primarily low intensity, aerobic activity are usually skinny-fat, jiggle when they wiggle, and are so injured and beat-up that they look like they’ve come straight out of a Resident Evil movie. Sprinters that engage in primarily high intensity, anaerobic work are generally more lean and muscular.
It’s amazing to me how many intelligent people understand this on a conceptual level, but don’t practically apply it within their training protocols. “Yeah, marathon runners are losers.” Then that same allegedly intelligent person will go out and do cardio three times a day to try and reach low single-digit body fat percentages.
No physique athlete has any business spending two hours on a stationary bike, unless there’s a hot chick with a nice ass on the elliptical machine sweating in front of you. And even then, either man-up and make your move or go home and cry to your buddies about what could have been, but don’t waste your time on a glorified coat rack.
The fittest “looking” people in the world, and the smartest coaches in the world — the Testosterone crew, bodybuilders, figure girls, fitness models, etc. — base their exercise programs around strength training. They all lift weights — both the men and the women. Cardio may be a part of the plan, but it’s not the foundation. Christian Thibaudeau didn’t become The Beast (as an athlete or coach) on an elliptical machine.
And on a side note, I would say most physique athletes do cardio out of traditionrather than necessity. Diet and strength training are what changes physical appearance. Cardio is supplemental at its very best.
Traditional cardio is for pussies, and sucks for fat loss, period. That’s the end of today’s lesson, my young apprentice. I wish you could just take my word for it, go out, lift like a madman, eat with the discipline of a warrior, and travel down the most efficient path to “rippedness”.
But I know the Nation followers are more educated than the average fitness population and need a little more science to back up those claims. Cool with me. And besides, I wouldn’t take me at my word either.
I’ve fallen asleep in many scientific lectures in the past, and watched the clock drag in several others, so I’ll save you the dissertation and give you the cliff notes version of the science behind why the majority of your training should be anaerobic (strength training/interval cardio) vs. aerobic (traditional cardio) in nature:
• The physique transformation process is more complicated than the simple calories in vs. calories out theory. The real keys are to use your diet and exercise protocols to elevate your resting metabolic rate AND manipulate your anabolic, lipolytic hormones and enzymes. Strength training has a much more powerful effect on these processes than aerobic training.
• Many who focus on just “calories” and the slash and dash mentality end up with destructive patterns — extreme calorie cuts and/or excessive aerobics. This sets off an alarm state in the body where the body sheds muscle tissue to lessen energy demands and stores/hoards body fat as a survival response. Once this physiological state is reached, it becomes impossible to lose any more weight no matter how many calories you cut or how much aerobic work you try and add. What you end up with is someone who is on starvation level calories and performing excessive exercise, yet is still flabby.
• Muscle loss due to excessive aerobics drastically lowers the resting metabolic rate and inhibits natural hormone production. When this type of person goes back to even just normal, healthy calorie and exercise levels, they gain all of the weight back plus a few extra. This generally results in a vicious cycle of huge swings in body weight and appearance. Whether it’s housewives following fad diets or bodybuilders alternating between competition shape and off-season obesity is irrelevant, it’s still “yo-yo’ing.” Sometimes the damage to the metabolism and hormones becomes so great over time that it’s irreversible without medical intervention.
• The calories burned during an exercise session are relatively small compared to the amount burned the other 23 hours of the day during the recovery process (at rest). Most fat oxidation occurs between training sessions, not during. As such your exercise sessions should primarily be geared towards building muscle and boosting the metabolism, not “burning fat.Ó
• Upon cessation of an exercise session, strength training raises the metabolic rate (the after-burn effect) for longer periods of time than aerobic work — up to 48 hours. This is because all of the steps involved in the recovery process from strength training (satellite cell activation, tissue repair, protein synthesis, etc.) require energy (calories).
• Aerobic sessions elevate cortisol levels. Long sessions can lead to excessively high levels, and too frequent sessions can lead to chronically elevated levels, neither of which is good for body composition enhancement. Cortisol can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue, convert it to glucose (gluconeogenesis), and use it as fuel. It also leads to increased fat accumulation, especially around the midsection.
• Strength training raises cortisol levels, but it also raises Testosterone and growth hormone — potent muscle building/fat burning hormones that offset cortisol. The net hormonal effect (assuming proper dietary support) is protein synthesis/lean muscle gain.
• The body burns predominantly fat during aerobic work. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store body fat. The body burns predominantly glucose/glycogen during strength training. As a result, the body adapts by up-regulating the enzymes that store muscle glycogen.
• Strength training has more powerful, positive nutrient partitioning effects than cardio, meaning nutrients are diverted more towards muscle cells (where they can be used to build/maintain lean muscle tissue) and away from fat cells (where they can be stored as body fat).
• There are certain “intermediate” muscle fibers that can take on the properties of either slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers, depending on different modes of exercise. Endurance-based training leads to the conversion of those fibers into slow twitch fibers. Strength training leads to the conversion of those fibers into fast twitch fibers. The latter is the more desirable result for physique enhancement because fast twitch fibers have the greatest potential for hypertrophy. This process is what firms and shapes the body, boosts metabolic rate, and leads to increased fat burning even at rest.
We can even look at our evolutionary past for clues. In terms of “formal activity” or “exercise,” our bodies were designed to be anaerobic in nature. Yes, for most of the day we performed sub-maximal (and what could technically be termed aerobic) activities. We walked around, gathered food, tracked prey, cooked, cleaned, etc. But we didn’t run to keep the heart rate up or reach some type of fat burning/aerobic zone. None of what we did was formal exercise; we just completed the necessary tasks of the day, whatever that may be. In fact, we used as little energy as possible during most of the day in order to conserve energy for when it was absolutely necessary for survival.
And when it was time to move, we frickin’ moved, baby. We sprinted away from predators or towards prey. We climbed trees, hoisted objects, swung weapons, and clubbed stuff to death with maximal exertion. These are all predominantly anaerobic activities. We’re not meant to reach arbitrary fat burning zones for arbitrary amounts of time. We’re meant to alternate periods of kicking back with periods of kicking ass. That’s how you efficiently build an attractive, functional body.
So we can take two things away from our cavemen brethren: (1) the majority of our formal exercise sessions should be anaerobic in nature, and (2), walking is one of the most underrated forms of activity around. And I don’t mean walking on a treadmill or anything “exercise” specific. I just mean real, outdoor walking as an informal activity. Remember, that’s what we did in our evolutionary past. We walked every day to hunt, gather, travel, track, etc., all just as part of our regular day. We didn’t sit at a computer all day eating M&M’s.
Walking gives us many of the same benefits as traditional aerobic activity (calorie burning, lowered blood pressure, lowered resting heart rate, lowered cholesterol, increased cardiac output, increased capillary density, increased nutrient/oxygen delivery, etc.) without all of the drawbacks (musculoskeletal injury, joint wear and tear, elevated cortisol, muscle loss, lowered metabolic rate, etc.). Simply put, it’s the aerobic activity we were meant to do.
Just like everyone can benefit from a little more Nate Miyaki in their lives, everyone can benefit from a little more walking in their lives. This covers the entire spectrum, from the severely overweight and deconditioned beginner to the advanced physique athlete looking to peak.
What, being entertained and educated isn’t enough? You actually want to know how you can apply this information to your own training protocol? Okay, if you’re ready, let’s get this thing rolling:
1. If you’re over 20% body fat, you need to start being honest with yourself — you’re not bulking up or retaining water or using the extra mass to your advantage in a sport (unless it’s sumo wrestling or competitive eating). You’re fat, plain and simple.
2. Diet has and always will be the biggest factor in the fat loss equation. You need to get your ass on a targeted nutrition plan. This is where 80% of fat loss comes from, and amazing fat loss results can be achieved with diet alone. I would check out one of Christian Thibaudeu’s carb cycling diets and/or one of John Berardi’s fat loss plans.
3. Walk 30-60 minutes a day — 5 days a week. This will help you burn some calories and get some of the fat burning hormones and enzymes going (hormone sensitive lipase, catecholamines). Go first thing in the morning, at lunch, after work, or after weight training, whenever you have the time. And if you can’t fit it in, then (a) you’re either lazy as shit or (b) you really don’t give a shit. Either way, you probably shouldn’t be reading T-Nation. Try Vagina-Nation.
4. If you’re fat, you’re probably putting a lot of extra weight on your joints, are out of alignment, and are suffering from some type of chronic pain. I’d check out one of Mike Robertson’s mobility/stability, corrective exercise routines.
1. Train 5 days a week. All of your training should be anaerobic in nature.
2. I prefer all of my training to be strength training, but that’s my personal bias. I’d rather wear the 80’s MC Hammer jam pants and string Gold’s Gym tank top than the sac-showing, high-and-tight running shorts. But if you’re a cardio-junkie, that’s cool too. You can do a mix of strength training and interval-based cardio.
3. So 5 days of strength training, 4 days of strength training + 1 day of interval cardio, or 3 days of strength training + 2 days of interval cardio. I would do a minimum of 3 days a week of strength training. Remember all of the metabolic and hormonal benefits of strength training?
4. Interval cardio essentially means alternating periods of sprinting/maximal exertion with periods of recovery. You go hard for something like 30-60 seconds, then back off for 60-120 seconds, and then repeat, i.e. wind sprints. Do a 5-minute warm-up, 20-40 minutes of intervals, and a 5-minute cool down.
5. If you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What’s worked best for myself, and a good percentage of my clients, is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
6. This article is more about getting you to back off on traditional cardio than it is about specific strength training protocols. But you do need a plan designed by experts to get results. If you’re a bodybuilder-type, check out one of Scott Abel’s plans. If you’re a power and strength-type, read Christian Thibaudeau’s or Dave Tate’s stuff. If you’re a sport performance-type, look at what Charles Poliquin or Eric Cressey have to say.
1. Don’t take advice from anyone who hasn’t gone through the process themselves. What looks good on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. At the same time, just because someone competes or is ripped doesn’t mean they have any clue about the physique transformation process. Learn from people who have both a scientific background AND practical experience.
2. We’re back to diet as the most important factor to get to low single digit body fat percentages. Check out Scott Abel’s, Dr. Clay Hyght’s, or Shelby Starnes’ diet advice.
3. Ditch cardio work completely, even interval work. At this point you don’t have a lot of body fat left to burn, and are more susceptible to tapping into muscle tissue as a reserve fuel, which results in a loss of muscle and a soft, flat appearance.
4. You should be strength training 4-6 days a week. Focus on building, preserving, and maintaining your muscle mass with your training. Let your diet “burn off” the body fat.
5. Again, if you have more fat to lose, then walk, not as a formal exercise session, but simply to increase non-exercise induced thermogenesis. This will help you burn off a few extra calories without catabolizing muscle tissue. This is an individual-thing, so add in as much walking as it takes to reach the desired body fat result. What’s worked best for myself and a good percentage of my clients is 4-5 days of strength training coupled with 2-3 45-minute walks per week.
Heading to the gym tonight? You better be heading towards the gym floor and not the stationary bike!
<img alt="A lot of runners look like they stepped off the set of Resident Evil” border=”0″ src=”http://www.t-nation.com/img/photos/2010/10-648-04/resident-evil-380.jpg” style=”margin-top: 100px;” />