Here at LoveFitLiving have often stressed the importance of micronutrient-rich foods in emphasizing specific health benefits and in maximizing exercise performance. We have also gave, for good reason, a rather stern review of the sports nutrition industry, but at the same time made recommendations where warranted. Today, we conclude by looking at the four dimensions of proper training and how you can tailor them to meet your personal performance goals.
A common mistake among casual gym-goers and even some fitness enthusiasts is overemphasis on one dimension of training and, even worse, concurrent disregard for one or more of the rest. Personal experience, research, and client results have shown me that physical training has four necessary components: joint conditioning and muscle flexibility, which are mandatory for everyone; anaerobic (strength) and aerobic (endurance) training, which should vary in focus depending on your performance goals.
The Sum is Greater Than The Parts
Whereas insufficient focus in the latter two dimensions results in sub-par performance, inadequate attention to joint conditioning and muscle flexibility leads to both sub-par performance and a much greater chance of injury. This is readily noticeable in casual gym-goers, mostly men, who mistakenly believe that resistance training and large muscles are all they need.
We highly advise against this approach. It always has and always will lead to eventual injury. In the case of poor flexibility, the damage occurs when a muscle attempts to exert maximal power outside the accessible range of motion. In the case of poor joint conditioning, when the joint is not sufficiently mobile or when surrounding ligaments can’t sustain the resistance, even though the muscle might be able to.
Likewise, others, mostly women, engage exclusively in moderate aerobic training out of fear that resistance training might result in overly large muscles. How much lean mass one can support depends largely on hormone levels. Females simply do not generate enough testosterone to support as much muscle as men, nor will their muscles hypertrophy (grow) as quickly.
To clarify, this does not mean that women are weaker. With equal training and time commitment, women can perform just as well as men in terms of strength relative to lean mass (body weight minus body fat). Avoiding strength training altogether eliminates this equality and also increases the risk of injury. A forgotten muscle cannot be a strong or functional one.
Realize the inter-connectedness of every part of you and you will realize that the sum is greater than the parts. Your body works in harmony and so it should be developed. A flexible muscle allows you to exert power throughout the entire range of motion without excessively stressing joint ligaments, which in turn maximizes joint mobility. Aerobic training not only increases endurance but also reduces body fat and promotes cardiovascular health, allowing us to maximize our power output relative to bodyweight (because you carry less bodyfat) and to better support the increase in lean mass from resistance training.
Consistency is King
Most people understand consistency when it comes to moderate aerobic training. This is because the performance variables—time, RPM, heart-rate, difficulty level or intensity—can easily be measured and therefore consistently improved upon. For example, we can keep exercise time constant but progressively increase heart-rate by marginally increasing the difficulty or intensity of each session. Alternatively, we can keep intensity, RPM and heart-rate constant while marginally increasing exercise time.
All this seems to fly out the window when it comes to resistance training. Everyone seems to have a different set and repetition scheme each week, or workouts so inherently different that week-by-week comparisons of power output become impossible or inaccurate at best.
The first step in the right direction: drop the set-rep mentality. Then consider the main variables at play: concentric time, eccentric time, work time, rest time, and total resistance. As with aerobic training, true progress can only be gauged by marginally changing one variable.
For example, we can set the concentric and eccentric times for a squat at 1sec and 3sec for a 1:3 ratio and keep this constant throughout our training program. Likewise, we can set work time at 30sec and rest time at 90sec, also a 1:3 ratio. Each session, however, we marginally increase resistance and gauge the resulting progress in power output.
This is also known as the progressive overload principle. Unfortunately, because of inconsistency in performance variables, it is almost never applied to its full potential. Forget about reps and sets. Start viewing your workouts in terms of intervals and take control of each variable involved. Don’t leave your progress up to chance.
Timing Is Everything
Most people imagine endurance training when they see the word interval, and deservedly so. High intensity interval training (HIT) has in many ways challenged and improved the way we do cardio, definitely from a cost-benefit (time-result) standpoint.
HIT calls for alternating brief work intervals of maximal physical exertion with short rest intervals. That is another way of saying bouts of energy exertion followed by periods of energy recuperation. Such a model, as described in the section above, can be used quite effectively in resistance training.
I will soon write an article about energy expenditure and how to adjust the above ratios according to the type and intensity of exercise. For now, remember to keep your concentric -eccentric and work-rest ratios consistent to accurately measure and improve performance. Intense anaerobic training such as power-lifting deserves longer rest periods. Moderate anaerobic-endurance routines like circuit training require a work-rest ratio closer to 1:1. As the rest time decreases to 0, we approach continuous aerobic exercise.
Cause For Further Study
Dr. Martin Gibala, a professor and Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University, recently wrote about the benefits of HIT in a Globe and Mail article titled High-intensity interval training: Is it really the holy grail of exercise?. In his article, which I highly recommend reading, he describes a study that compares HIT with moderate aerobic training. To paraphrase, subjects were divided into two groups and both trained for 6 weeks. The moderate aerobic group cycled for upwards of 1 hour, 5 days a week. The HIT group engaged in all out 30sec bursts 4-6 times with a few minutes of rest between each, 3 days a week.
Dr. Gibala presents the findings: “Both groups showed similar improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and various cardiovascular and metabolic indices of health after training, despite the fact that the HIT group performance 90 percent less total exercise, and the total training time commitment was only a third of the other group.” In short, HIT training allows you to do the same amount of work in less time, or more work given an equal exercise time.
As Dr. Gibala points out, however, these are short-term benefits and findings. It remains still to be seen what long-term effects such intense exercise would have, if any, on joints, bones, tendons, and overall health in both healthy and non-healthy subjects. In the mean time, this is yet another reason to include a thorough flexibility and joint conditioning routine in your overall performance program.
You Are In Control
Whatever your training method or sport, remember that you are in control of the four components that determine exercise performance. If you play football, combine intense anaerobic training with moderate aerobic work. If you’re a track and field athlete, ramp up your aerobic training but do not drop strength and resistance training altogether. If you are just starting down fitness avenue, find a moderate and healthy balance of both. No matter what, make sure your flexibility and joint conditioning keep up with the rest of you.
Don’t go hard and get injured. Go smart and get better.