James Heathers is an applied physiologist working on his PhD, and a stage strongman who doesn't mind the odd bit of pain.
He also likes using himself as his own lab rat and has a ton of equipment most people don't. Most importantly, he's a proponent of the Open Access movement, making scientific research freely available to the public.
After reading a study on the physiological effects of walking one mile every hour for 1,000 straight hours (repeating an ordeal first completed on a bar bet 200 years ago), James began thinking of ways to push physical limits in an unconventional way, learn a few things, and share the results.
Inspiration – Angry Fat Men and a Swinger's Club
A Youtube video titled 1,000 Pound Squat opens with what appears to be an angry fat man being electrocuted in a squat rack. Eventually one realizes that what's actually happening is a 1,000 pound Anderson squat, which is started off pins from the bottom position.
Bud Jeffries, the man in the video, was incredibly strong, but like many men who have spent their lives pursuing maximal strength above all else, he was also fat.
One day he set out to change this, with the goal of retaining his strength.
How? Kettlebell swings. Hundreds of thousands of kettlebell swings.
"...From my all time highest bodyweight of 385 pounds, I'm down to 275 (was 360-ish starting this particular style of training). That's 110 pounds in total. I've lost 15 inches off my waist and am wearing pants smaller than when I was in high school. I can still one arm shoulder-press and snatch a 150-pound dumbbell, one-arm row 300 pounds, do 15 rep sit-ups with 500 pounds on my torso, bend spikes, pull 700 pounds from below the knee and 1,000 from above, as well as do partials with over 1,000 pounds."
As Jeffries and many others have shown, kettlebell swings work well for body composition changes, especially when they're done at a high volume and with a significant anaerobic emphasis. They can also be used to hit some pretty impressive levels of work capacity.
There's even a group of people on Facebook who latched onto this idea and made 10,000 swings during the month of January a goal.
It was with all this in mind that James formulated an experiment. High volume swings could do some remarkable things, but current research hasn't delved much into the results of taking them to extreme levels.
There's also good sport in torturing oneself for research purposes. The 10,000 swings in a month idea was okay, but really, it sounded easy.
James settled on 10,000 swings in 10 days, with as much extra work added in as possible. His goal was to put his body through maximum survivable volume and find out what would happen. He'd be able to test out a few interesting ideas on pacing strategies and see for himself if this thing called overtraining really exists and what it feels like.
Shortly after announcing the project, a handful of people volunteered to join in. They didn't have as much lab access, but they'd be able to track body composition through BodPod and monitor basic data like waking heart rate and even HRV in a few cases. The experiment now had multiple lab rats.
With his toys, James would be able to monitor a wide array of variables on himself:
- Blood triglycerides, cholesterol, and fasting glucose
- Resting metabolic rate (RMR)
- Full body composition
- Lactate provocation/recovery
- Blood Omega-3:6 ratio
- Tape measurements
- Heart rate variability (HRV)
- C-reactive protein
This raised some interesting questions. What was going to happen?
James interviewed a handful of strength coaches and received an influx of responses from people making their own guesses. Some were less than optimistic. His top three favorites:
- You'll get compartment syndrome. Kiss your arms goodbye.
- This is a recipe for severe and rapid overtraining.
- You have deep-seated emotional problems.
(To be fair, James works in a lab where shooting electricity through living people in the name of science is a daily occurrence, so #3 may not be that far off.)
The Useful Thing
Of the less apocalyptic responses, Matt Perryman of myosynthesis.com made one of the most thoughtful (and eventually accurate) statements about what the subjects would experience:
"High volume/high frequency anything sucks ass the first week or three. I'd expect a lot of fears of overtraining and adrenal fatigue, plenty of second guessing, and generally lots of bitching and moaning.
"But it passes. I was as stunned as anyone, but if you just keep going, you shake it off and enter this wonderful land where you feel indestructible. That's not quite right, because you still feel horrible in a way – and your markers of stress will almost certainly reflect it – but it's like you learn to ignore it.
"You go into a different headspace where it doesn't matter, and the motivation to keep going overrides anything else; a very strange place that is, but also wonderful from a training standpoint.
"Body comp changes happen. It's unavoidable. Likewise for neuro-endo-immune markers – unavoidable, but at the same time, so decoupled from the performance variables that you can power through.
"The powering through is what becomes the Useful Thing. It's a skill that can be practiced like anything else."
The Ten Days
Everyone started out with a basic plan of multiple sets of between 20 and 50 reps done in one or two daily workouts. The women used 16-kilo kettlebells, and the men used 24-kilo bells, except for James, who toyed with much heavier weights. Everyone kept a log and took daily notes.
Most of the participants stuck fairly close to this protocol and by about Day #6 were doing a lot of hand-to-hand and single-handed swings for variety.
HRV (heart rate variability) in those who measured it fell for the first few days, briefly recovered, and then dropped continuously from about Day #6 onward. Waking heart rate was elevated in a similar pattern.
Soreness was highest between Days #2 through #4 and tapered down from there. It was limited mainly to the glutes and hamstrings (which proved remarkably resilient overall) and the upper back from "packing" the shoulder.
Nobody reported any low back pain, although a few felt some tightness during the first few days. The worst soreness was usually in the upper back/traps.
Everyone did at least one extra workout on top of the swings during the ten days, and although nobody felt slow during the actual workout, most felt noticeably more fatigued the following day. A common theme through most training logs was drastically increased hunger, starting as soon as Day #2.
It also quickly became apparent that the mental side of the experiment was at least as difficult as the physical side. Most people hit a wall at Day #7 and this was the only time anyone had serious thoughts of quitting.
There was something inherently daunting at the 70% mark in the short term as well, as several who did all 1,000 reps in one workout noted that they felt the worst around number 700.
James fairly quickly deviated from the standard protocol, and on Day #2 tried multiple sets of 100-150 reps, thinking – incorrectly – that this would make the workout more efficient.
It was on Day #3 that James hit on a very useful idea for managing the workload of high-rep swings.
This method, popularized by Mark Twight, is known as a breathing ladder and is a way of regulating breathing in proportion to the amount of work done.
The most basic version of this is to pick a big exercise (like a KB swing), do 1 rep, set the weight down, take one breath, do 2 reps, set the weight down and take two breaths, and so on up as far as you care to go.
You can work up and back down again, too. Count the total reps as a way of approximately comparing different ladders – for instance, from 1 rep up to 20 (don't repeat 20) and back down to 1 rep equals exactly 400 reps.
James cribbed together a notation to write this down quickly – the above example would be written as BL(1-20-1)1
BL = Breathing Ladder(1-20-1) = the reps go from 1-20 and back down to 1, in increments of 1 per set, i.e. 1,2,3...19,20,19,...3,2,1. Total reps = 400
During these workouts, don't open your mouth. At all. Breathe normally while working but exclusively through the nose during both rest and work intervals.
You'll have the urge to panic, open your mouth, and gasp for air. Don't. You'll find your throat catches and your intake of breath becomes "ragged." Don't let it bother you.
According to James, there are numerous possible benefits to breathing ladders:
- BLs decouple "panting" shallow breathing cycles from symptoms of SNS like fatigue and sweating by forcing "calm" breathing cycles instead.
- The respiratory musculature preferentially uses (and clears) lactate, leading to increased performance.
- There are possible autonomic changes from slow breathing at 10-12 second cycles.
- Distraction. Performance can increase from paying attention to something aside from how you feel. It has this in common with every meditative tradition – focus on the breath makes the mind "still."
- You may enter a state that's best described as autonomic dissociation, in which the link between your physical symptoms and mental state becomes deregulated. In other words, you won't care that you're uncomfortable.
Breathing ladders produce a mental challenge along with a physical one. Improvement in them, given that the weights and set/rep structure is fixed, is marked by an increase in time to completion.
As Mark Twight said, "Record the time for each effort because then when an effort is repeated, one might learn – all other parameters being equal – whether oxygen efficiency has improved or not.
"The longer it takes, the more time was spent breathing, which results from better breath-control, and that discipline bought longer rest periods. Apart from training the aerobic system in a gym setting, Breathing Ladders teach breath and mind control.
"The perfect combination of movement/load/reps will keep the athlete in the zone where total panic is a single mistake away and Zen-like calm is the prize for those who can reach it."
James used mainly breathing ladders for the duration of the ten days, using ladders as long as 975 total reps and going as heavy as 48-kilo kettlebells or 2-24 kilo kettlebells.
"Trapped in Vegas"
On Day #7, James hit the wall. His wrists had exploded from using the 48-kilo bell the day before, and he had been up until 1 A.M. editing articles and was 800 reps behind schedule.
This gave him a severe case of "the fuckits" and he didn't want to move. So he tricked himself.
The workout he devised to get back on track wasn't a breathing ladder, took nearly two hours, and when it was over, he'd done 1,860 swings. But he didn't know that until it was over and he counted them.
This protocol is based on three concepts:
- Emotional perspective and pacing strategy. James had already done 975 reps in a breathing ladder, and that was a pretty big day. That makes 1800 reps a potentially miserable experience. Who wants to spend 1800 reps thinking about 1800 reps?
- Open versus closed ended exercise. As James said, "Modern theories of exercise effort put your rate of perceived effort as actually causal, not just a consequence of the fact that you're getting tired. However, the perceived effort is badly affected by knowing how much you've done so far. This protocol had to be open-ended, like a bushwalk which just has to go until it stops."
- Endspurt. Endspurt is the German word for "finishing strong." Think of any time you've had to run a fixed distance or do a set of heavy breathing squats. As soon as you get close to the finish and the magic words "almost done" float through your mind, you're suddenly able to dig deep and finish with a strong burst of effort compared to the output you had at the beginning.
Here's how the protocol works: Go find your jar of loose change. Almost everyone has one. Dump it out and grab a huge handful of the small coins. Don't look too closely or count them. To make it even harder to know how many you've got, split them between both front pockets of your track pants.
Each coin represents one set of twenty swings. Do one set, toss one coin from your collection into a container, and do another. The sets will go by quickly enough that eventually, you'll lose count of how many you've done, and despite furious speculation, you'll never be sure how many you've got left. The answer is always, "Just one more."
Like being in a casino, you'll lose track of time and the amount of money in your pockets – Trapped in Vegas.
Once you get towards the end and you can feel only a few coins left, switch strategies to take advantage of the endspurt effect. Line the remaining coins up in rows of five (100 reps per row) and count them.
You now know exactly how many reps you've got left and the final burst is on. Compared to the first phase, this will fly by.
When you're done, count them all up. When James did this he ended up with 93 coins, for a total of 1860 reps. Would he do it again? "No. At least, not for a while."
Body composition results (BodPod or DEXA):
Like his body composition, none of James' biomarkers changed significantly (the loss of muscle is most likely glycogen depletion; DEXA is notoriously sensitive to this). From the perspective of his blood work, almost nothing happened in ten days – hardly overtraining hell.
The major change that he saw was in performance. Using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale of 6-20, he went from 30 sets of 20 being RPE 15 to an extended set of 650 reps (200+150+100+100+100) being Borg 13.
The best way to convey this is with a picture. By the end of the experiment, a 24-kilo bell had become so light that he fabricated his own T handle weighing just over 60 kilos (about 140 pounds) because that much weight was needed to really feel a set of twenty reps.
The aerobic nature of the breathing ladders seemed to make James both much better at swinging a kettlebell and remarkably capable of buffering lactate in general.
On Day #9 he decided to test this with a quick conditioning circuit. He performed this workout:
- 5 Hang cleans (60kg/135)
- 20 Strikes with 20lb sledgehammer (10 per side)
- 5 Pull-ups
- 10 Overhead press (24kg)
- 50 Swings (24kg)
Twice, as fast as possible, no rest.
As soon as he finished the last rep he ran to the lactate analyzer, took a pinprick and analyzed it.
The result: 2.2mmol/L
In science-y terms, that's almost nothing. A max effort running power test will typically drive blood lactate up to 12-20 mmol/L.
This project can be a mentally difficult, tedious way to produce some incredible changes in body composition or work capacity. Several subjects lost as much fat in ten days as most people expect to lose in a month on a dedicated fat loss plan, and they did it while gaining lean mass. To do this, they stuck with anaerobic sets and did all 1,000 daily reps in one or two workouts.
James didn't see noticeable changes in body composition, although his performance level on swings and ability to buffer lactate improved remarkably.
A tentative conclusion would be that significant short-term body composition changes depend heavily on producing blood lactate (i.e. doing anaerobic work). This sits well with everything you've ever read about interval training, barbell complexes, EPOC, etc.
James agrees: "As far as I can tell, breathing ladders are simply too efficient for major body comp changes. Dan John wrote it down first – fat loss is inefficiency."
Finally, the lack of changes in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein indicate that this sort of protocol can be done without doing much undue harm to the body, although HRV and waking heart rate fluctuations do show an impact and a de-load period would be warranted once it was over.
If you're going to try this experiment, you must be very proficient with kettlebells. If someone certified by a respectable organization like the RKC hasn't coached you, this probably isn't for you. If you walk into a gym with no experience, pick up a kettlebell and make a swing-ey motion like the picture in the magazine for ten thousand reps you'll destroy your back. Don't do it.
- The role of emotions on pacing strategies and performance in middle and long duration sport events. Baron, et al. Br J Sports Med 2011; 45:511-517 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2009.059964.
- Effect of deception of distance on prolonged cycling performance. Paterson and Marino. Percept Mot Skills, 2004 Jun; 98(3 Pt 1):1017-26.
- Regulation of Pacing Strategy during Athletic Competition. Koning, et al. PLoS One. 2011; 6(1): e15863.