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How to Work Out
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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Have you ever reached a “plateau” where you just stop getting results from your exercise program? Congratulations. You've adapted to it. Once that happens, doing the same exercise program becomes a sure-fire way to stay the same. For instance, some people always work out on the stationary bike. Every workout, there they are on that bike. The result? They get really good at riding the stationary bike, but they still get winded running up a flight of stairs.

Here's one of the keys to fast fitness - you want to maintain a persistently high level of metabolic activity every day. The best way to do this is to provide your body with two things – variety and challenge. It's not enough to follow an “exercise routine” where you always do the same exercise, the same way, at the same speed, for the same amount of time.

Aerobics + Wind Sprints = Improved Fitness + Afterburn

The most effective type of cardiovascular exercise is known as "High Intensity Interval Training" (HIIT). This involves a combination of aerobic exercise, and higher intensity "wind sprints." There are several variations of HIIT, but all involve alternating between moderate and high intensity for intervals anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes each.

Start by warming up for 2-3 minutes. Following your warmup, you move to a moderate level of intensity. At this point, you should be "conversational" - breathing deeply and rhythmically, but still able to carry on a broken conversation. The majority of your energy here is coming from aerobic metabolism (burning glycogen and fat using oxygen). Don't lean on the bars. Keep a good posture, with your shoulder blades pulled very slightly toward each other. Mentally picture your muscles working deeply, not just at the surface. Try to recruit as much muscle activity as possible from your arms, legs, back and buttocks (without looking like a dork). 

Near the end of the "aerobic" portion, you raise your intensity enough to bump you out of your "comfort range". This is still aerobic, but more challenging. Finally, you add a periodic "wind sprint" which, by definition, should get you somewhat winded. If at the end of your wind sprint, you feel that you could continue on at that level of effort for a good while, it's not quite intense enough.

At this level of effort, your energy demands are above what can be produced aerobically, and you are challenging your anaerobic systems - right at the threshold where lactate starts accumulating. Near the end of your wind sprint, you'll probably start feeling a burn in your muscles.

After your wind sprint, you drop back down to a moderate level of intensity and do it again. Notice that's a moderate level. You don't drop to a snail's pace or stop altogether (harder than it sounds). This is important. After you challenge your lactate threshold, you want to move down to a level that is still a reasonable effort - it's called "active recovery". That active recovery phase produces tremendous improvement in your metabolism, because your body is forced to recover from the wind sprint while still working. Then you do it all again.

Try not to "tighten up" during your wind sprint. Focus on your out-breath (the in-breath will take care of itself). Relax into it, smile, and visualize yourself as a swift animal or a well-oiled motor. You'll get more power, and you'll reduce the cardiovascular resistance that way. The last 20 seconds of your sprint may seem like forever. They do for me. By the end of your last sprint, you're toast, so you drop down to a "cooldown" level. Keep moving and get your breath back to a fully conversational level before stopping. The intensity you've experienced will have you burning a lot of calories for even hours after the workout - something you don't get from long, low intensity aerobics. This kind of interval training contributes greatly to your aerobic performance, and has also been found to improve the neurological pathways your body uses for recruiting muscle fibers.

A WORD OF CAUTION HERE : While you are trying to hit new personal bests and strive for progressive improvement, wind sprints do not require extreme exertion. For very unfit individuals, a "sprint" may simply be walking up a hill. The key is to push enough to get somewhat winded. No gasping as if you've just been held underwater. If you are just starting a fitness program, you really should have a physician look you over, especially if you have high blood pressure or any family history of heart disease or stroke. Again, the goal is not extreme or painful exertion! Take this seriously, because especially in individuals with hidden problems, gasping your way to cardiopulmonary stress can be life-threatening. Just try to hit a new personal best, preferably with enough effort that you feel a burn in the muscle and have to catch your breath. 

Athletes who incorporate periodic interval training (“wind sprints”) into their workouts show much greater performance gains than those who use long-duration, low intensity training. There's no scientific evidence that multiple training sessions or very long daily workouts improve performance more than a single well-structured session. In competitive swimmers, subjects that trained for 3-4 hours a day, 5-6 days a week actually lost muscular strength and speed, compared to those that trained just 1-1.5 hours a day.

Cross-training + Muscle Confusion = Continual Progress

Cross-training basically means using a variety of exercises to achieve your goals. As Charles Poliquin says, "A training system is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it." Your body is very good at adapting to stress, and if you give it the same set of exercises every time, it will become very efficient at those exercises, and the pressure to adapt will diminish.

One of the best ways to kick-start your results from a plateau is to add a new aerobic exercise to your week. You can also add a different aerobic exercise on alternate workouts (e.g. treadmill one day and stationary bike two days later). My main cardio exercise is outdoor running. My main cross-trains are the Nordic Track and Schwinn Airdyne (both which require coordinated upper/lower body movement). Jumping rope is another excellent cross-training exercise.

Again, even holding the level of effort constant, variety is perceived as more intense, so in your weight training, you should occasionally vary the speed of your repetitions, and the amount of rest between them. Changing your weight routine once every 4 weeks is also effective - even changes as small as switching from the flat dumbbell press to the incline dumbbell press for the chest, or switching from side raises to the overhead dumbbell press for shoulders. You'll feel it the next day. Don't change your lifting routine every week, because you want to develop "neuromuscular coordination". But do toss in something to keep those muscles confused about every 4 weeks. Your body will be forced to adapt.

The reason for varying both the weight and number of repetitions for each set is that you are trying to train two sets of muscle fibers, generally called "fast-twitch" and "slow-twitch". The fast-twitch guys have more force and size, relying more heavily on the ATP-CP and anaerobic energy systems. You train them with low-rep, high-weight sets where time under tension is as little as 20 seconds per set. For variety, some lifters include high-weight sets of just 1-2 reps in some exercises (which you can insert after your set of 6 if you use a spotter and are careful about your form). Strictly speaking, those very low reps (1-4) do not put the muscle under tension long enough to cause much of the micro-damage that leads to muscle growth, but they do improve neural coordination and build strength in general. So they can be helpful, indirectly, by allowing you to recruit more motor units and lift heavier in your other sets. The slow twitch guys are the endurance fibers and the fat burners. You train those with high-rep, lower-weight sets, where time under tension is still only about 45-70 seconds per set.

It may also be helpful to vary the length of your rest periods from time to time. Always rest for at least 45 seconds between sets (except when you're intentionally doing back-to-back compound sets to exhaust the muscle). The shorter and heavier the set, the longer you should rest. Longer recovery (up to 3 minutes) allows you to use heavier weight and more tension per set, while shorter recovery forces the muscles to improve their glycogen storage ability. Ideally, you should include both.

Contraction + Tension = Muscle growth

The same intensity principle applies to the weight training workouts. Weight training is essentially an anaerobic activity, since you expend a very high level of concentrated effort in a succession of short sets. Your ATP-CP system runs like mad during a weight training workout. If you alternate moderate duration, high intensity weight training and aerobic/interval training, you'll develop every energy system in your body, but with workouts that are brief enough that you can do it again and again.

What you're trying to do in weight training is contract the muscle enough to make micro-tears, which then stimulate new growth and repair. In order to do that, you should go relatively slow (never jerk the weight), concentrate on contracting the muscle more than moving the weight, contract the muscle hard at the top of the concentric motion, and keep the muscle under tension during the eccentric (lowering) motion as well. You should use a variety of tempos for the concentric motion; generally about 1 second, occasionally longer, occasionally using "explosive force", but never recruiting momentum. On the eccentric motion, it should generally take you at least 2 seconds to lower the weight, and you should feel some real stress on the muscle as you lower it. Go slow! That's harder than it sounds, but again, the point is to cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers, and you don't get that just by swinging a heavy weight up and letting it drop. Don't lock (fully extend) any joint, as it reduces the stress on the muscle and the resulting benefit. Remember, it is contraction and tension, not how long you work out, or how many exercises you use per body part, that stimulates muscle growth. Not feeling sore? Slow down your eccentric motions! Take 2-4 seconds to lower that weight. 

EXHALE. Never hold your breath. Proper breathing is essential to avoid putting undue pressure on your arteries and other blood vessels, or spiking your blood pressure (particularly after the age of 40 or so, or if you have a family history of heart disease or stroke). You can do wind sprints in a way that gets you winded without gasping. You can lift weights in a way that causes micro-tears, repair and growth without ever holding your breath. 

Does a reasonable amount of aerobic activity reduce muscle growth? No. A recent research study (Neuromuscular adaptations to concurrent strength and endurance training) put subjects on one of three fitness programs: 1) high-intensity strength training, 2) endurance training on stationary bicycles, or 3) both. The goal was to find out whether aerobic training would interfere significantly with muscle growth. The study found that both groups 1 and 3 (strength alone and strength plus aerobics) demonstrated similar gains in strength and muscle growth. The cycle-only group enjoyed only a small 3% increase in thigh muscle area. 

So as long as your aerobics are in a reasonable range (up to 40 minutes, with no more than 20 of that involving high-intensity interval training), there's no evidence that you'll significantly compromise your muscle growth. As I always emphasize, the research is clear that you'll get more out of your weight training if you follow it up with even a few grams of whey protein (which contains the amino acid leucine). You can wait 45 minutes to have a more complete meal, but that immediate intake of leucine appears important. Vitamin C and glutamine are also useful post-workout supplements to lower cortisol (a stress hormone that can interfere with muscle growth).

Related Articles

The Principle of Overload
Muscles adapt when they are forced (with proper form) to overcome a resistance they haven't experienced before.

Ten Keys to Fast Fitness
A good fitness program isn't accidental.

Body for Life Support Page
My take on why Bill Phillips' BFL program works, and information past EAS Champions have shared.

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