Strength and Conditioning, Simplified
I've written 10,000-word articles about strength and conditioning. Diet and nutrition, too. But sometimes, to really drive a point home, it's better to strip away the complexity. Here are five "naked" truths that even advanced lifters sometimes have a hard time understanding and accepting.
1. "Not the Best" Training Is Still Great
I see a disturbing trend in training. A lot of people see exercises and training methods in a very binary way: it's either "the best" or it's worthless. Never mind that something can be quite effective even if it's not the absolute best.
One example is circuit training. This is a tool I've been using for a long time with elite athletes and regular clients who want to improve several things at once.
Circuit training is not the best at anything. It's not the best way to train for maximal strength or maximal muscle growth. It's not the best way to improve VO2 max and mitochondrial density. It's not even the best way to lose fat.
But it is effective at improving ALL of those things at the same time!
High-intensity circuit training improves:
- Muscle mass (increase)
- Fat mass (decrease)
- Blood pressure (decrease)
- Blood viscosity (decrease)
- VO2 max (improve)
- Mitochondrial density (increase)
- Strength (increase)
- LDL/bad cholesterol (decrease)
- HDL/good cholesterol (increase)
- Blood triglycerides (decrease)
If you want to MAXIMIZE strength, size, or endurance, you might want to adopt a training program specifically designed for one of these purposes. But hardcore circuit training has the benefit of giving you everything. It gives it to you in smaller amounts than when using a targeted/specific plan, but it leads to significant improvements across the board.
If you want to improve most fitness/health markers simultaneously, it might be worth considering.
To learn more about the benefits of circuit training and how to design circuits to maximize your gains, check out The New Circuit Training Workouts.
2. Conditioning Workouts Must Hurt to Trigger Adaptation
Conditioning work is a lot like lifting for muscle and strength. In both cases, improvement in function is an adaptation to imposed stress. If the stress level is insufficient to present a challenge, the body has no reason to spend resources adapting.
The best comparison is lifting light weights, but not to failure. If you're completely sedentary and have no lifting experience, even this type of low stress, comfortable training will be enough to get cause some improvements.
But once you're past that detrained stage, you need to challenge your body. Either use heavier loads or go to failure to keep progressing.
It's the same with conditioning work. Whether you focus on building an endurance base, VO2 max, anaerobic capacity, or lactate threshold, you need to make it hard. It needs to hurt, at least a little.
At first, very low-intensity work like "talking intensity" (an intensity level where you can still have a conversation) might be enough if you're completely detrained. But pretty soon, you'll need to get uncomfortable to improve cardiovascular function and conditioning.
Walking is awesome for health. But if that's all you do, even if you do it four hours a day, it won't make you any better conditioned.
True conditioning work sucks. Even steady-state cardio to improve cardiovascular function sucks because it needs to be done at an intensity level that's higher than talking intensity. If you can chat about your weekend, you're not going hard enough to improve function (though that's fine for active recovery). At the most, you might be able to say "F**K OFF!" to someone who talks to you while you're training.
The key point is, regardless of the physical training you do (cardio, strength, hypertrophy, power), you need to challenge yourself and be uncomfortable. That's how your body forces adaptation and improvement.
3. Training Volume is More Than Sets x Reps
One training theory says that as you get stronger and more advanced, you need to increase the training volume to keep progressing. The problem? Most people think increasing volume means doing more sets and/or reps per workout or per muscle.
Wait, did YOU think that?
Gradually adding total sets to your training as you become more experienced often leads to overstressing your body. In fact, it's the opposite: stronger lifters should start doing fewer total work sets as they progress, not more.
First things first: Volume is not sets x reps. Volume refers to tonnage, or even more accurately, work. Tonnage is reps x weight x sets.
Work is similar, but it also takes into consideration the range of motion of an exercise because work is force x displacement. The greater the range you must move a load, the more work you have to do. That's why a set of 10 reps on squats won't have the same systemic impact as a set of 10 reps on calf raises.
Okay, it might sound like semantics, but hear me out. As you get stronger, you will use more weight on your exercises. Using more weight for the same number of reps de facto increases volume (tonnage).
- If you do 10 reps at 100 pounds, that's a tonnage of 1000 pounds.
- If you do 10 reps at 150 pounds, that's a tonnage of 1500 pounds.
So automatically, just by getting stronger, you're doing more volume.
So, it's technically accurate to say that more advanced lifters need to do more volume, but it doesn't mean they should do more work sets!
Add to that, stronger lifters normally have to do more warm-up sets to get to their work-set weight. More advanced lifters are more neurologically efficient, too – each set is actually more effective. Put all that together and adding more work sets could do more harm than good.
In fact, if you've been around very advanced lifters, you'll notice that they do fewer total work sets than when they were less experienced.
4. Bulking is a Young Man's Game
"Bulking" is when you consume a very large caloric surplus to maximize muscle growth. The big surplus invariably leads to a decent amount of fat gain, but this is often seen as acceptable if it helps speed up muscle growth.
Without going into all the boring details, "bulking" works mostly by increasing your natural levels of several anabolic hormones (IGF-1, insulin, and testosterone) as well as activating mTOR to a greater extent and decreasing cortisol. This leads to a higher level of protein synthesis, leading to more muscle growth.
Bulking can increase the rate of muscle growth, but not to a point where you exceed your natural growth rate limit. While bulking will allow you to maximize your growth rate, it can't force your body to add more muscle than your natural physiology is programmed to do.
Here's a key thing to remember: The more muscle mass you've already built, the lower your possible rate of growth.
A beginner can likely gain 1.5% of his body weight in muscle per month. For the intermediate, it's about 1%, and for the advanced lifter, it's more like 0.5%. After that, it becomes a matter of adding minute amounts of muscle here and there (sadly). At some point, the muscle migration effect kicks in.
The point is, once you're experienced, older, and have already built a lot of muscle, your possible rate of growth is much lower. Remember, while bulking allows you to maximize your rate of growth, it cannot make you gain faster than your rate limit.
When your potential rate of growth is low, there's no sense in bulking! Why? Because it's "easier" to reach your growth limit rate because it's much lower. If you try to eat your way to more muscle, you'll simply gain more fat.
Not to mention, bulking isn't really healthy. When you're young, it likely won't lead to problems, but as you get older, it can become an issue.
Bulking is great when you first start training. But once you're more experienced, a moderate to slight surplus, or calorie cycling, is a better approach.
5. Exercise Selection: Hammers vs. Saws
When building a house, you use tons of different tools. Each of these tools is best suited for a specific job and should be used a certain way. If you try to use a hammer as a saw, your results will be poor.
It's the same thing with training: there are lots of tools to use to improve our bodies. While each tool is effective for its own purpose, it might suck for others.
Kettlebell swings are great for conditioning and can also be used to practice rhythm and force absorption, but they have a limited value when it comes to hypertrophy and strength development.
The Olympic lift variations improve strength-speed and can have a moderate impact on strength, but they're not that great when used to build muscle mass and can be dangerous if used to improve conditioning.
Big basic barbell lifts are your best bet to improve strength. They can also be useful for hypertrophy, but for many people, they're not enough to maximize growth. Using them to build endurance might not be the best idea either due to the technique degradation that comes with fatigue.
A hammer is a great tool. So is a saw. Just choose the right one for the right job.