In my career I've had several moments of clarity when I learned something new, or when something I had believed was either verified, brought into question, or flat out disproved.
These mini-epiphanies are what I call my "ah-ha!" moments. In every case, these "ah-ha!" moments allowed my thought processes to take a significant step forward, which in turn brought me to a new level in my training education.
I was talking to Mike Boyle ("the Barbara Walters of the fitness industry") at a recent seminar and I shared this idea of the "ah-ha!" moment with him. He suggested that it would make a good article, which I guess was another "ah-ha!" for me.
Anyway, here are a few things that I became aware of at some point over the past couple of decades that made a significant change in how I do things.
Ah-ha! #1: Poor range of motion may actually be an issue of stability, not of mobility.
This was from a Gray Cook presentation. Look at the two guys pictured above performing an overhead squat. The guy on the right can't get the depth. He's well above parallel with angles of above 90 degrees at the hip and knee.
So obviously, he has a problem with mobility, right? Now, is his problem tight lats, tight hip flexors, or maybe a restriction at the ankle?
The answer is maybe none of the above, because when we put these guys on their backs and remove the load, look what happens:
The mobility issue seems to resolve itself. Not completely, but very considerably. The person who couldn't get below 90 degrees has achieved a range well beyond 90 degrees.
So the difference in squat form and depth was not a mobility issue, it was a stability issue. Essentially, the body is shutting down the range of motion. Not because of tightness or a restriction, but because it perceives a threat due to the lack of stability.
Up until this point, I'd used a Vladimir Janda approach to movement dysfunction: if hip flexors are tight, we stretch them and strengthen the antagonist. Gray opened my eyes to this.
Conclusion: a range of motion deficit or asymmetry may not be related to tissue length or tension at all, but rather to core stability.
Ah-ha! #2: For fat loss, the post-workout period is where the most important "something" happens.
Here's a study that I came across about ten years ago (about 4 or 5 years after it was published, I'm embarrassed to admit):
Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C.
Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism.
Metabolism. 1994 Jul; 43(7):814-8.
The premise of the study was to compare twenty (20) weeks of steady state endurance training and fifteen (15) weeks of interval training.
When comparing total calories burned from exercise, the researchers found the endurance training burned 28,661 calories, while the interval training group burned 13,614 calories. In other words, the interval-training group burned less than half the calories of the endurance-training group.
However, when the researchers adjusted the results to correct for the difference in energy cost, the interval-training group showed a 900% greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group. In other words, calorie for calorie, interval training was nine times more effective than steady state exercise.
Additionally, the researchers noted the metabolic adaptations taking place in the skeletal muscle in response to the interval training program appear to favor the process of fat oxidation.
This piqued my interest because until this point we'd been told that it's all about "calories in versus calories out." So we assumed (or at least I assumed) that burning more calories in training would result in greater fat loss. This study (and several others since) have shown that to be completely incorrect.
So the "ah-ha!" moment showed me that we can't ignore the post workout period. That's where the adaptations happen. That's where the results are.
Why did this occur? I've hypothesized that it's related to EPOC, a post exercise elevation of metabolism, but some studies have shown that EPOC isn't as big of a contributor to caloric burn as we originally thought: calories burned during the exercise period is the biggest factor.
And it still doesn't explain the very significant difference in real world fat loss.
Simply put, the subjects doing interval training lost more fat by burning fewer calories than the steady state group. So maybe, as the study showed, total body fat oxidation seems to increase as a result of the adaptations to interval training.
But that still doesn't explain it. An increase in fat oxidation doesn't necessarily mean an increase in total caloric burn or fat lost (as other studies have shown that fuel source during exercise appears to be irrelevant, so fuel source at rest shouldn't matter either unless there is a total caloric deficit).
The bottom line is that perhaps we don't know why. But we do know that it's more effective because of something that happens post workout. And that something is beneficial.
Looking at aerobics for fat loss and ignoring the post workout period is short-sighted. If we studied weight training the same way, looking only at what happens during the workout and ignoring the post-workout adaptations, we'd have to conclude that weight training destroys muscle tissue, making you smaller and weaker. And we know that's not true.
Conclusion: the workout is the stimulus. The adaptation is the goal.
Ah-ha! #3: Cardiovascular programming is an ass-backward concept.
I don't know when I first thought this, but it was confirmed to me when viewing Lance Armstrong's performance in the New York Marathon.
Throughout my college education, countless training certification programs and seminars, I'd been taught the same thing: that cardiovascular exercise was necessary to improve the cardiovascular system and subsequently aerobic performance. But there seemed to be an inherent flaw in that argument.
Let's say I tested your aerobic fitness through a treadmill test.
Then let's say that for the next sixteen weeks, we developed a five-day per week aerobic training program that involved you running at various heart rates and for various lengths of times. The program would progressively increase in difficulty and duration, and the end result was a very significant improvement in your aerobic fitness.
At the end of this sixteen-week period, how much do you expect your swimming times to have improved? Marginally, if at all, right? It seems almost stupid to ask. But wait a second. If you have one cardiovascular system, why doesn't your cardiovascular system improve across the board regardless of the activity?
More to the point, why didn't Lance Armstrong, with perhaps the highest recorded VO2 max in history, win the New York Marathon? Or beat people with lesser aerobic levels than himself?
The seven-time winner of the Tour de France, the greatest endurance cyclist, quite possibly the greatest endurance athlete in the world, finished the Marathon in 868th place, and described the event as the "hardest physical thing" he'd ever done.
The flaw in this thinking was looking solely at VO2 max: the "engine," as it were. It's fair to say that Lance had a "Formula One" engine, but his wheels and chassis were built for a different kind of race. In other words, he just didn't have the structural development for running.
Lance was a cyclist: his body had adapted to the demands of cycling, but not to the specific demands of running. In fact, the longest distance he'd ever run prior to the Marathon was 16 miles. Lance had developed strength, postural endurance, and flexibility in the correct "cycling muscles," but it didn't transfer to running the way his VO2 max did.
The muscles don't move because of cardiovascular demand. It's the reverse. The cardio system is elevated because of muscular demand. We need to program the body based on the movements it's going to perform, not based on the cardiovascular system.
Basically, if that muscular system can't handle the stress of performing thousands of repetitions (which is what you're doing, after all, when running or cycling), then we have to condition that muscular system first. And by doing so, we automatically improve cardiovascular conditioning.
The only reason there's any demand on the cardiovascular system is because the muscular system places that demand: the muscles require oxygen in order to continue to work. In fact, cardiovascular exercise is impossible without moving the muscle first.
I've seen this across various sports. The cardio conditioning required to run a 10K won't transfer to motocross or jujitsu.
Conclusion: If cardio training doesn't transfer well from one activity to another, and it only 'kicks' in because of muscular demand, we should program muscular activity first in order to create a cardiovascular response.
A-ha! #4: Strength is the single greatest equalizer in sport; therefore strength training is the most important physical preparation quality
While in college we were in the midst of the aerobic training and endurance activity focused period. Strength training studies were few and far between, to be honest. And any strength training studies were rarely performed on the more advanced programs we have available today. It was as if strength development was ignored completely, as all "training programs" for sport were based around various cardiovascular improvement programs.
While competing in various martial arts systems it struck me that all combat sports exist in a weight category system. The idea was not to prevent a fighter from facing a heavier fighter; it was based on the idea that the heavier fighter was stronger and therefore more dangerous.
Also, men and women (even of the same weight) didn't face each other in fighting sports. Incidentally, Lucia Rijker, the female boxer and kickboxer, lost only one kickboxing match ever.
In the second round.
In a match against the male world champion at the same weight.
So matching athletes up had nothing to do with weight or sex; it had to do with the idea that males were stronger than females, and heavier athletes were stronger than lighter athletes.
And when I thought about it more, even looking at activities such as marathon running, long distance cycling or figure skating, activities where excess weight may be a disadvantage, males still tended to perform better than females.
Conclusion: Being stronger is the single biggest advantage in most sports. Obviously not the only advantage, but definitely a serious difference maker. It was at this point (when I was still in college) that I started to realize that improving strength had to be a primary objective in any sports training program, despite what my professors were saying.
Ah-ha! #5: Hypertrophy is a systemic response and effect, not a localized one.
All the talk about bodypart training versus full body routines, isolation exercise versus compound exercise, etc. is based upon a fundamentally flawed concept: that hypertrophy is somehow completely regional-specific.
Here's a study that examines this in a bit more detail:
Rogers et al
The Effect of Supplemental Isolated Weight-Training Exercises on Upper-Arm Size and Upper-Body Strength
Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie,
NSCA Conference Abstract (2000)
The researchers compared the effects of a weight training program on 5RM strength and arm circumference and divided the subjects into two groups. Group 1 performed four compound upper body exercises, while Group 2 used the same program but included biceps curls and triceps extensions.
The results showed that both groups significantly increased strength and arm size
However, the addition of direct arm training to group two produced no additional effect on strength or arm circumference after 10 weeks of training.
The additional localized training did not result in anything that the bigger compound exercises didn't provide.
Let me present a hypothetical example:
Twin brothers eating the same diet, working at the same job. Three times a week for the next 52 weeks, both brothers undertake a progressive resistance-training program, each adding weight, sets, or reps in a logical manner over the whole year. One difference: the first brother does deadlifts only. The second brother does arm curls only.
After a year, who do you think will have bigger arms? Obviously it will be the first brother, who put more overall stress and load through his system. Even though he didn't bend his elbow at all.
Charles Poliquin is fond of saying in order to gain an inch on your arm, you'd have to gain 10 pounds of muscle mass. If that's true, it'll happen a lot faster with an exercise like the deadlift than it will with the dumbbell curl.
The bottom line is that muscle growth is a systemic issue, not a localized one. If you put a stress on the forearm only, of course it would grow, but that growth would be limited because the systemic load is small. If you did deadlifts, on the other hand, the systemic load would be so big, everything would grow.
And when we think about anabolics or anything that can enhance muscle growth, they're injected or consumed into the system. You don't inject steroids in equal amounts into every muscle group, just as you don't rub Surge on your arms. Increased protein synthesis is a systemic phenomenon.
Conclusion: If hypertrophy is what you want, develop training strategies that target the entire system at once.
Learning is rarely linear: it tends to come in jumps. These were just a few events that significantly advanced my understanding of the training process, and shaped how I design programs.