I am a self-confessed child of the eighties, a generation where Miami Vice was considered groundbreaking in TV cop drama and the highlight of my saturday night was watching Superstars with my dad. Oh, how things have changed, although spending a lot of my time living in Egypt as I currently am I still get to see Miami Vice and the A-Team on a regular basis, courtesy of the appropriately named 'MBC Action channel. Lucky old me.
Anyway, since well before the 80's, different methods and fads of exercise have come and gone. The latest craze in the PT world being a total abandonment of all aerobic type work and an almost evangelistic promotion of resistance training and strength work for the masses. Heck, I am mostly for it myself, and think that many people could benefit from adding resistance training to their workouts. I also believe that many people place too heavy a reliance on their jogging programme for weight loss. However, I don't believe that a total avoidance of 'aerobic' training is the way forward and don't subscribe to some of the arguments for this. Besides, if someone enjoys a jog round the park with their friend, then why not? The fact is that most people need to learn HOW to train, before they worry so much about WHAT to train. It doesn't matter whether you are running in the park, or doing the latest kettlebell routine, if the workout is done poorly, with insignificant volume or intensity to create a stimulus for change, then it simply won't be that effective. What is also true is that while aerobic training may not have been shown to be particularly effective in the research for weight loss, it has been shown to be a key factor in maintaining weight loss as well as improving several other markers of health, such as insulin sensitivity and mood. So before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, it is worth asking, is it what you are doing, or how you are doing it that needs to change?
In an effort to convey this message, I have gone back to the eighties. Where else? You see it isn't just about the type of exercise you do. Sure there are a ton of 'fat burning' workouts for sale on the internet, most of which are simply reinventing the wheel in terms of content. But, the fact is that none of them work if you don't pay attention to some underlying principles that apply no matter what you do. Indeed plenty of people do get results often with the most basic and sometimes terrible training programmes, so how do they do that?
It ain't what you do, it's how hard you do it
O.k so one of the biggest problems we see is that people often really don't train hard enough. They jog or bike at a level well below their lactate thresholds, which is no better than taking a weight you can press 20 times and only doing 10 reps with it. Whatever exercise programme you are doing, you have to train hard enough. That means training to a point close to (and sometimes beyond) fatigue with weights, and it means exercising for cardiovascular improvements at a level above that you can comfortably sustain, then using active recovery between bouts to raise fitness. In effect, we start to aerobic train a bit more like we weight train, working hard for a set, recovering, then repeating. When we look at the research it is clear, for both resistance training and cardiovascular exercise, higher intensities of work tend to bring an increased amount of benefits and improved markers of health in contrast to lower intensity work. So, remember, it ain't what you do, it is how hard you do it - that's what gets results.
It ain't what you do, it's how much you do it
O.k problem number two that we see a lot in health clubs all over the world, people simply don't do enough. Let's take for example the fat burning zone. This is sometimes called a myth and in some ways it is, although metabolic testing data will in fact tell you a heart rate and exercise intensity at which your body is primarily using fat for fuel, so it is a myth rooted in truth. However, the problem is that the actual total of fat calories expended at that level may be as low as 7 or 8 calories a minute. Now, when we take this a stage further, we can see that we would need to exercise for nearly 8 hours to burn through one pound of bodyfat. So, not exactly what you would call a particularly efficient method. Of course, we wouldn't typically do that in one go either, which means we would need to be doing essentially fasted sessions to do it that quickly. So, while it isn't so much a myth as a practical impossibility, you can probably start to see why your 5 minutes on the cross trainer, then 10 minutes on the treadmill, and 10 on the bike aren't going to make much of a dent in your fat loss efforts. Also, if you are one of those people who enjoys a sweet drink while you exercise then you will be raising insulin and preventing any of that fat burning taking place at all.
Now, of course the same in essence applies to resistance training. Insufficient volume of training will not exhaust enough muscle fibres to create improvements in muscle size and strength. Also, resistance training is a skill that needs to be developed and practiced and as such you have to spend time doing it. While the ACSM guidelines on resistance training (1 set of 8-12 repetitions) may be well-intended, they are not going to provide sufficient constant stress for adaptions to occur. Now, of course, there is a caveat here. Any training is designed to create a stimulus and is therefore reliant on sufficient recovery and adequate nutrition to allow that to happen. However, the research is clear, you need to be doing multiple sets of training to see continued improvements. So, if your own weights programme consists of one or two circuits of a few resistance machines then don't plan on seeing beach-buff pectorals any time soon. It's how much you do it, that's what gets results.
It ain't what you do, it's the way you progress it
The last section in our little homage to Banarama/Fun Boy Three, is to talk about progression. As we have already touched on, exercise creates a stimulus for change, recovery facilitates that change and consequently we become stronger and fitter. Essential to this is progression, yet we humans seem to have an affinity for repetition when it comes to workouts. I am not surprised, after all, learning HOW to exercise does not seem to be seen as a pre-requisite by anyone wanting to improve their health. However, like any other skill you need to improve your knowledge of it in order to progress and get better at it. Luckily, this is relatively simple with fitness training as in general it requires relatively little skill and therefore can be mastered by just about anyone.
The key to seeing ongoing changes is to ensure you are progressing your training. With cardiovascular work there are two main areas you can progress, you can either go harder or longer. Whereas weights offer a little more scope for progression, although altering volume and intensity are both principal methods. Adding an extra set for example would be increasing volume, whereas increasing weight for fewer reps would be increasing the intensity. Where weights allow for more progression is in the almost endless variety of exercises you can select to target a specific outcome.
Whichever it is remember, it ain't what you do, but the way you progress it, that's what gets results.
So, before you go abandoning your running or weights routine, ask yourself those three questions first. Are you training hard enough, are you doing enough of it, and are you progressing it with each workout?