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Don’t Forget about the Adductors

If there is one thing that I’ve seen since coming into the fitness industry over 12 years ago, it’s the growth in the knowledge of the need for more specific glute work with a large number of people out there living today.       Poor glute function often leads to an overworked low back and/or aggravated knees along with less than optimal movement quality.  The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of this is great; however, there are other players around the hip and leg that are also very important to take care of, and in my opinion, a specific group of these often gets sad because they are not addressed and not included often enough in the conversation.  While strengthening the glute muscles is great to help keep the outer hip solid, people often forget that there is a VERY LARGE section of muscle on the INSIDE of the hip and thigh.  Bring on the adductors! 

Have you ever felt that thick tendon that shoots down a bit from your pelvis?  That’s your adductor tendon and it just so turns out that there are adductor muscles above that tendon called your adductor longus, adductor brevis and pectineus.  The floor of your adductors, your adductor magnus, lays below this tendon and is really like a fourth hamstring if you look at it close enough.  The gracilis runs along the path of all of these and is sometimes referred to as part of this group of friends.  They all attach at various points on your pelvis and run down varying distances along your femur (your thigh bone), with the exception of the gracilis, which runs all the way down past the knee to your lower leg.   All of these muscles work together to bring the hip and leg towards the midline of your body, while those higher up adductors help to flex the hip (move it towards your head) and the floor of the adductors (magnus) helps to extend the hip (move it away from your head).  In some cases, the magnus can even extend the hip better than the glute.  Many of them work together to help rotate the hip.  As you can see, these guys cover a lot of ground.  That being said, wouldn’t it make sense to do some direct training to strengthen them?  In many circles, direct adductor work is often written off since the exercises aren’t “functional.”  While the TRUE function of these muscles is to help stabilize the pelvis and control the knee with compound movement, how do we expect them to be able to fully contribute if they are too weak to do so.  Furthermore, if the adductors are too weak, how can we expect the glutes to do their job optimally, since these guys work together for so many movements and activities?  I think a lot of people are missing a pretty important part of the equation! 

Image result for trail guide to the body adductors
Taken from Trail Guide to the Body, P. 319. All thanks to Books of Discovery for my favorite anatomy book.

If we take it one step farther, many of the adductor exercises that you do see out there don’t always directly target them and involve a host of other muscles contributing to the overall movement, or require some kind of complexity to get the coordination down to actually be able to perform the movement.  So, with this article, I’d like to show you A. Exercises that do their best at DIRECTLY targeting the adductors in either an extended hip position or a flexed hip position,  B. Exercises that allow you to target them in a straight forward and easy manner and C. Exercises that specifically target the adductors moving the femur (thigh bone) in the acetabulum (hip joint) and an exercise that specifically targets the adductors moving the acetabulum over the femur, which are both necessary functions that should be trained. 

While compound, multi joint movements should absolutely be the priority in a good training program, some direct exercises for specific muscles can go a long way in making those compound movements that much more effective.  Here are a few of my favorites for bring up those lagging adductors that you might have:

  1. Supine Bent Knee Band Adduction
    1. With this exercise, we are training WHILE IN HIP FLEXION.  Lay on your back and get your hips and back squared up on the floor.  Put the band over one knee and while keeping your pelvis and back solid,  move your thigh in towards your midline (adduct) against the band tension, starting from a stretched position with band tension from the beginning.  Pause for a second at the midline and then control the movement back out to the beginning.  2 to 3 sets of anywhere from 8 to 20 reps works great here. 
  • Elevated Adductor Raise
    • With this exercise, we are training WHILE IN HIP EXTENSION.  Lay on your side with your hips on a bench; place your top foot on another bench lined up straight across from you.  With your trunk and hips lined up straight, raise the bottom foot up to the bench under the top foot and pause for a second before lowering back to the floor.   These also work great for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 20 reps.  For all of these, it works well to go from 15-20 reps for a couple of weeks down to 8 to 10 for a couple of weeks. 
  • Sidelying Pullback
    • While the first two exercises are great to work the adductors from a neutral position, these are great to train the adductor while in a specific pelvic position (left or right stance).  Additionally, the first two examples are training the femur (thigh bone) moving in the acetabulum (hip joint), while this exercise is training the acetabulum to move over the femur prior to moving the femur in the acetabulum.  This is how the hips actually work when we do full body movement on our feet.  For the purpose of this example, we will be laying on our right side and training the left adductor.  Lay on your side with your pelvis and ribs lined up. Be sure that your low back is not extended.  Place a pad between your thighs.  Inhale as your pull your top knee behind your bottom knee, then exhale as you push the top knee down into the pad.  Pull back farther and squeeze down again for the next 2 breaths.  Once you can no longer pull back any farther, reset and start over.  Note:  When you pull back, your back and hips should remain square; it is a “scissoring” motion, not a “rolling back” of the hips.  Eventually, you can progress to variations performed in different postural positions, such as on your feet.  Thank you to Postural Restoration Institute for this gem.
  • Check out this bonus video of an effective way that we like to use the old school “Thigh Master” to target specific adductor fibers.

Give these exercises a shot and build some fresh muscle,  potentially decrease your risk of groin pulls and improve the strength and performance of your entire lower body.

The Importance of Variety in Your Training – Part I

A question I receive fairly often from people starting a new program is, “Why am I doing ‘x’ exercise?” Or, sometimes I’ll hear comments like, “Wow, this program looks a lot different!” Now, if it’s not a program I wrote, but was written by the one and only Nick Rosencutter, I’ll usually just give my default explanation of: he is crazy and wants you to suffer. If, on the other hand, I wrote the program, I will give them my rationale behind why I have them doing…oh I don’t know…hanging single-leg lateral calf raises with a chain for time.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t get that crazy. However, statements and questions like the two mentioned are valid, and the exercises and sets and reps you are performing do deserve justification and should have meaning behind them. That is an article for a different time.

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Set S.M.A.R.T. Process Goals

It’s the start of a new year and that means one thing is for sure – everyone is making New Year’s resolutions or goals they’d like to achieve this coming year. Oh sure, you may not write them down or tell them to anyone, but you know you still have them. That thought about how you’d like to eat a little less sugar, or how you should really not watch as much T.V. and maybe read a little more. Or how you should be more productive at your job or spend more time with your family, and the list goes on. Maybe you’re the type of person who wrote them down or shared them with someone. In either case, awesome! I am all for having goals and things you would like to achieve, and what a better time than a fresh calendar year. I even wrote a few down myself.

Now, if you’re reading this and you can honestly say you don’t have any goals (yet) or areas of your life you would like to improve, I highly suggest you take a few minutes and think of just a few ways you would like to improve yourself in the coming weeks, months, and year. And not just fitness or health goals. Think of ways you would like to improve your relationships, how to be more productive with your time, or maybe some career goals.

Whatever area of your life you select to focus on improving, here are a couple tips that will make it a little easier and break things down into more manageable steps.

Don’t just set outcome goals, set process goals.

I’ll give you an example:

Outcome goal: I want to lose 60lbs. this year

Process goal: I will eat vegetables with two meals per day and exercise for one hour, three times per week. 

Now, this is a simple example, and it is nothing earth-shattering that no one has ever said before; however, it is something that many of us forget about when it comes to goal-setting or making resolutions. Don’t only think about the big number/goal/achievement! Consider the small steps it takes to get there!

If your goal is to lose body fat and you say you want to lose sixty pounds this year, that may be overwhelming. Instead, if you say, I am going to eat more vegetables and exercise a few times per week (things that will encourage fat loss), the goal seems more attainable.

Or you may break down that goal another way:

Sixty pounds in one year is five pounds per month, which is just a little over one pound per week. That doesn’t sound so bad! Now, if you are consistent with your previous two process goals and focus on one pound per week, all of a sudden your lofty goal of sixty doesn’t seem so far out there.

Set S.M.A.R.T goals.

Setting SMART goals is an awesome way to organize your goal setting and give it a little more structure and definition. I’ll break it down by letter and give an example of each.

Specific

One of the most important keys in setting a goal or resolution is to make sure that your goal is not left open-ended, but has an exact definition, so that you and anyone else you may tell knows exactly what you are wanting to achieve

Non-specific: I want to exercise more

Specific: I will go to the gym and strength train three times per week

Measurable

Having a goal that is measurable is a great way for you to not only track the progress you are making, but also gives you the chance to look back when you’ve achieved it and see how far you have come. Things like calorie amounts, workouts per week, and specific weight loss numbers are measurable. Broad statements about things you would like to do are not.

Bad example: I want to lose weight

Good example: I will lose five pounds per month

Attainable/Achievable

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be wrong. How many times have you known someone who has set a resolution or been determined to accomplish a new goal and a few weeks or months into it they stop and realize it’s too far out there? The purpose of an attainable goal is to make sure that it is actually something you have the potential to achieve! Yes, you want to challenge yourself. But don’t be unrealistic and set such a lofty goal you have no chance of completing it. Set a goal you can ACTUALLY ACHIEVE, not just impress others with.

Unattainable: If you work fifty hours per week and have three children and run a business on the side, it’s probably not realistic for your goal to be to weight train five days per week for two hours each and run three marathons this year.

Attainable: Take the same situation from above (and let’s say that you’re a go-getter):  Weight train two-three days per week, and go for one run per week. If you’re being honest with yourself, that’s probably a little more realistic.

Relevant

This one is fairly straightforward. Make it YOUR GOAL and relevant to you! Not your wife’s, not your boss, no one else’s. It is your goal, specific to you, and something you want to achieve. Sure, others may encourage you or help steer you. But if you yourself are not truly in it and don’t really feel like it, you have already mentally checked yourself out.

Not relevant: Your husband encourages you to start running a few days per week, even though you don’t like running and it makes your knees hurt. But, because he said it and he likes it, it is now your goal for the new year.

Relevant: You enjoy lifting weights and working with a coach. You make it your goal to go and lift two-three days each week.

Time

Last, but certainly not least, is time. You need to put a time-frame on your goal. If you simply say, I want to lose weight, or, I want to eat better, you are leaving your goal extremely open-ended. You give yourself no date by which it must be completed, and therefore you having nothing pushing you and motivating you. On the other hand, if you are wanting to lose weight so you can fit into your wedding dress, there is a specific date that lets you know exactly when you must complete it by.

Putting it all together.

Now that we have broken down each step into pieces, let’s put it all back together with an example.

Outcome goal: I want to lose sixty pounds by January 1st, 2020.

Process goals to help get me there:

  1. I will exercise three-four days per week for a minimum of one hour
  2. I will eat vegetables with at least two meals per day
  3. I will lose, on average, five pounds per month/one-two pounds per week
  4. I will cut out “x” food that I constantly overeat on calories (chips, ice cream, pizza, etc.)
  5. I will write down these goals and put it somewhere I can see it every day and be reminded of it
  6. I will tell one or two close friends that will help keep me accountable and encourage me

Outcome goal: I want to exercise three days per week for the next three months

Process goals to help get me there:

  1. Set specific workout times that you know you can make happen
    1. On Monday’s during my one hour lunch break, I will go down to the fitness center and lift instead of sit on my phone and scroll social media.
    2. When I get home from work on Wednesday’s I will use those twenty pound dumbbells I have sitting in my basement that haven’t been touched in years to do a full body workout.
    3. On Saturday afternoon’s my friend and I will go to the YMCA and work out together and do some swimming for conditioning work.
  2. I will block these time periods off in my schedule so that nothing may take the place of them.
  3. I will write down my workouts so that I can see my progress and improvement, which will help encourage me to continue.
  4. I will write down these goals and put it somewhere I can see it every day and be reminded of it
  5. I will tell one or two close friends that will help keep me accountable and encourage me

So, whether you have made New Year’s resolutions or you simply have goals you would like to accomplish, put these principles into practice and see what they can do for you!

Your Hamstrings are not the Enemy- So Stop Stretching Them!

 

Feelings can be deceiving, and so can the word “tight.” Every day, many people all over the world get on the floor or on their feet and stretch their “tight” hamstrings. Interestingly, those same hamstrings are still “tight” after days, months and years of stretching them. Hmm? If stretching them were actually doing something, shouldn’t they be “untightened” by now? You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

With some fairly uncommon exceptions, on most people, the hamstrings are not “tight” in the sense that they are actually stiff or in a shortened position, needing to be stretched. They are actually being pulled TAUT because they are stuck in a lengthened position, due to the pelvis being tilted forward (anterior tilt). They are in a constant state of being OVERSTRETCHED. In this oh so common situation, what do you think the continued stretching of these already overstretched hamstrings leads to? You guessed it! An even worse position of the pelvis and even “tighter” hamstrings.

Are there some people out there who have hamstrings that are actually stiffened and/or shortened up and are actually “tight.” Sure, some people have a pelvis that is tilted the opposite way, with hamstrings that are being shortened; however, in my experience, about 9 out of 10 people come in with a forward tilted pelvis and hamstrings that are weak and long. The muscles on the front of the pelvis, the hip flexors, are usually the suspects that actually should be stretched, or at least inhibited (shut off), since they are often shortened and amped up from sitting all day. These hip flexors pull the pelvis forward, effectively putting the hamstrings in a tough to deal with position on the back side. To add fuel to the fire, the ever so important glute muscles cannot effectively do their job in this faulty position, which leads to even more problems for the hamstrings. Not only are they locked in an overlengthened position, but now they also have to do extra work since the glutes are out of the picture. The brain engages them even more (or at least attempts to; we actually need to get better at engaging them in a correct manner)  to make up for the glutes’ lack of contribution to the group project. No wonder they’re so “tight” and angry. If you can think of a time that you did most of the work in a group project, I bet you can relate with how pissed off you probably were.

Here’s an easy way to tell if you actually have stiff/short hamstrings: Lay on your back and make sure you low back is flush with the floor, table, ground or whatever it is that you decide to lay on.  Keeping your leg straight, raise your leg up as high as you can.   Ideally, you’d do this actively (you raising it) and also passively (someone else raising it) to get the full rundown but assuming you are on your own, we can just look at the active version for now.  If you can get your leg to between 80 and 90 degrees of motion (your foot is basically facing the ceiling or sky), you have normal hamstring length and probably suffer from one of the situations we talked about earlier, if you tend to feel like your hamstrings are tight.  If you had to put significant effort in to get your low back to touch the floor during set up, this is probably the case.  If you can go beyond 90, you definitely have excessively lengthened hamstrings from a structural standpoint, and stretching should be the last thing you do.    If you are struggling to get near 80 to 90 degrees, you may actually have some legit tissue stiffness (could still be a neurological issue).  The rest of this article will address what we need to do if you fall under one of the first two categories, yet still feel like your hamstrings are constantly “tight.”

So what do we need to do to address the situation?

We need to get hip flexors to chill out a little bit and get the hamstrings to actually shorten up and engage more effectively, tilting the pelvis back to neutral. There are other muscles and factors at play here as well and if you throw in the possibilities of rotation, shifts and any other side to side differences, we have plenty more to talk about, but to keep the concept simple and straight forward, we will focus on the hip flexors and hamstrings for now.

Here are three great exercises you can use to get the process started:

90/90 Breathing–  Set up in a 90/90 position as shown and be sure your low back is solid against the floor.  To do this, think about pulling down through your heels on the wall as you engage your hamstrings, effectively tilting your pelvis back under you.   This action and this position lines our pelvis and ribs up over one another so that our hamstrings as well as our diaphragm are in an better position to work ideally.  Inhaling through our nose while getting three dimensional expansion around our abdomen and chest, followed with a full exhale through our mouth, driving our ribs down, back and in,  will help to solidify a better rib and pelvic position, as well as reset our nervous systems, in order to allow us to create new positions and muscle firing patterns.

The Hip Flexor Stretch-  Many times, taking care of the rib and pelvic positions with the breathing drill above will eliminate the need for this drill; however, it can still be very useful if you do have a true stiffness or shortness in your hip flexor muscles, especially if you sit a lot all day.   Set up in a 90/90 position as shown in the picture.  Simply place your back foot on a box, chair, etc. to increase the pull.   Be sure to keep your thigh and trunk in a straight line to avoid putting unwanted stress on your low back and front of your hip.  Squeeze the glute of your down leg and brace your abs (harden up like you’re going to get punched in the stomach) to create the opening of the front of your hip that you are looking for.  This will help to pull the pelvis back in position, get the hip flexors to open up and let go, while allowing the glute to be in a better scenario to do its job with the follow up glute bridge exercise shown next.

           Be sure thigh and trunk are lined up straight as shown and elevate the back foot to increase the pull

The Glute Bridge–   Lay on the floor as shown below:  Think about “pinching pennies between your cheeks” as you squeeze and engage your glute muscles before you leave the floor.  We need to activate them and wake them up before we intiate the movement, or the hamstrings and/or low back will take over the bridge.  Once we have them engaged, we are going to lift our hips up until we have a straight line between the hips and trunk, as shown in the bottom picture.  We are at hip lockout and are glutes should be contracting nicely.  Lower back to the floor under control and repeat the process.  Shoot for 8 to 10 reps without your hamstrings or back doing too much.  It this is not possible for you right now, you may need to start with your feet elevated on a box to make the exercise easier.  Other regressions are possible if necessary.  Stay tuned for a follow up article about glute bridge progressions and modifications.

 

Glue bridge -bottom position

                                                                                 Glute bridge- top position

Ditch the stretching, give these exercises a try and watch your hamstring tension melt away!

Making a Case for Single Limb Training

Walk into most gyms today and the likelihood of seeing someone performing a unilateral (means single limb, for you non fitness folks) exercise, minus the ever-popular alternating bicep curl and possibly the occasional lunge, is slim to none. And that’s too bad, considering the numerous benefits there are to be reaped from adding these types of exercises into your training. Muscular strength and balance, athletic performance, increased joint and whole body stability, body awareness and more can all be improved through unilateral training.

But Tyler, what makes you so sure? How do you know?

Because for the first five years of my training career, I hardly performed any of them, and the ones that I did do were certainly not done exceptionally well. Now, thankfully this did not result in any severe injuries or problems, as I am convinced would have been the case had I continued on this path. However, I do believe that consistent and frequent smaller injuries and setbacks may have been avoided better had I trained smarter. The same ligament strain in my left lower back three years in a row, frequent patellar tendon/knee pain coupled with inflammation and poor hip mobility are just a few of the issues that might have been avoided with better balance in my program. Couple these minor issues with horrific lateral/frontal plane (side to side) strength and stability , which stemmed from a direct lack of unilateral training, and I was wonderfully set up for continued setbacks and a potential (major) injury.

(Note): I may have also learned just a thing or two from my boss, Nick Rosencutter. He knows a couple of things about training.Now, do I think that a lack of unilateral training is the exact reason I had those problems and imbalances and issues? No, not completely; but I do think it played a substantial role and that some of those problems could have been corrected and fixed sooner had I placed an emphasis on balancing out my bilateral to unilateral training (double limb to single limb).

So, let’s get to it.

One of the most significant reasons that unilateral training is important for almost everyone is because many daily life and sport activities simply do not occur with two hands/feet, fixed to a specific object, moving said object with both limbs simultaneously. You are constantly moving your arms, legs, hands, and feet independently of one another, and you may not even notice it.

That jog you went on this morning, carrying the groceries in one hand, and walking up and down stairs are all unilateral movements. How about performing a layup, throwing a punch, kicking a soccer ball, a tennis serve, or throwing a baseball, football, etc.? Many sport movements are just unilateral movements performed repetitively.

I can already hear the disagreement. But Tyler, don’t you know that the main barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses have way more advantages? Don’t you know not everyone has two hours per day to lift and just need to get in a quick workout with the most bang-for-your-buck exercises? Athletes need power and strength more than anything, so why are you worried about their muscular balance and joint stability?

What great questions and concerns! Allow me to explain. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree, as does the research, that compound barbell lifts such as the back squat, bench press, deadlift, etc., have the most benefit when it comes to increased muscle size, strength, and power development. And yes, if you are truly limited on training time and need to get in a quick workout, chances are bilateral exercises are going to be your first go-to, but not always; nor should they be.

Let’s take for example, a basketball player. Their sport requires them to sprint (unilateral), jump (bilateral and unilateral), pass (bilateral and unilateral), and shoot (bilateral), among many other various movements put together in unpredictable combinations and at unpredictable times. This athlete must be able to stop, change direction, pivot, run, jump, lunge, do it quickly and at a moment’s notice, and do it all with a great deal of power and repetitively without fatiguing. Basketball seems hard! Take away the standard jump shot and rebound, and basketball is suddenly an activity that contains virtually all unilateral movements! Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that this athlete has some sort of foundational strength and stability in a unilateral stance? That this athlete should be able to, with proper execution and joint mechanics, move their upper limb in all different directions and planes of motion? That this athlete should be able to properly brace their entire abdomen and trunk, as one unit, while simultaneously jumping off of one foot, perform a layup with their opposite arm, land on both feet, and then run back down the court? If this athlete never trains unilateral exercises and only ever performs bilateral movements, their performance on the court will surely not be up the level it could be, had they structured their training a little better.

As stated earlier, many movements that you perform are not done with both arms and/or legs at the exact same time and working together, and your body isn’t designed that way either! Take for example, the Glenohumeral joint (that’s your shoulder joint for you non-anatomy folks). This joint is made up of multiple different structures, but what I’m concerned with here is your scapula (shoulder blade). Your scapula functions in many different ways. It moves forwards and backwards, known as protraction and retraction, rotates upwardly and downwardly, elevates and depresses, and even tilts. For good overall shoulder function, you need a healthy balance of all of these types of motion, working both arms together and independently of one another. One issue that arises when unilateral training isn’t present in your training is some of these scapular motions tend to get forgotten about and lag behind. If the only pressing you ever do is the standard bench press and its variations, you are not training any protraction. If your pulling movements consist of barbell rows, seated rows, and lat pulldowns, you probably aren’t getting enough upward rotation utilizing your lower traps. The point is your shoulder joint is complex and functions in many different ways, and if you aren’t training all of these different types of motions both unilaterally and bilaterally, you’re leaving your shoulder health to chance.

I know you want to learn more about your shoulder and how it works, so click here to get smart.

Finally, one of the most basic and maybe obvious reasons why you should include unilateral training in your program is for the likely fact that one arm, leg or side of your body is simply not as strong as the other side/arm/leg. Everybody has a strong arm,, “better shoulder,” that leg that feels stronger than the other, etc.

Really, try a set of split squats or alternating dumbbell presses. Chances are (if you’re lacking on your unilateral training) one side feels better or stronger or is easier. Now, what do you think happens when you jump under the bar for your back squats or bench press sets? Do you just automatically disperse the weight evenly between the right and left sides of your body? No! One arm or leg is probably doing a little more of the work to pick up for the slack of the other side. Now, what do you think would happen to your bench press if you brought up that lagging right shoulder? Or your back squat strength if your left quad was as strong as your right? It certainly isn’t about to go down! Unilateral training is a great way to bring up strength deficits and imbalances from one side of the body to the other, or maintain equal strength if you are already fairly balanced. Furthermore, unilateral exercises train different stabilizing muscles that simply aren’t fully engaged with bilateral exercises, leading to better overall muscular development, balance and stability.

Hopefully by this point I’ve convinced you that maybe tossing in a few unilateral exercises into your current program would be a good idea. If you have no idea where to start, check out a few suggestions below.

Squat Pattern

  • Reverse lunge
  • Step-up
  • Supported 1 Leg Squat

Hinge Pattern

  • Single-leg RDL
  • Single-leg glute bridge/hip thrust
  • Single-leg leg curl

Push Pattern

  • Alternating DB Bench Press
  • Single-arm cable push
  • Single-arm DB shoulder press

Pull Pattern

  • Single-arm face pull
  • Single-arm pulldown
  • Single-arm DB Row

Abdominal Exercises

* There are not necessarily any direct unilateral ab exercises, considering your entire trunk functions as one unit to stabilize your torso and spine. However, there are definitely some that may work one side more versus the other at different parts of the movement. Below are some of my favorites and what they focus on.

  • Barbell suitcase hold: Lateral stability and frontal plane strength
  • Rotating side bridges: Rotational strength and stability
  • Kneeling/Standing/Squat Cable Holds: Anti-rotation strength
  • Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: Lateral strength and stability

If this topic interests you and you want to learn more, check out some of these guys and dig through their stuff, because they’re way smarter than me. And older. Which means experience.

Aerobic is the Word

Do you know what kind of effects you are creating on your body when you do your cardio or conditioning work?  Read this article by Nick Rosencutter to find out more………………

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For many people, “cardio” is a term that is thrown around when it comes to one facet of training, and it is thrown around without much understanding behind what is being said. Cardio is short for cardiovascular, which would basically refer to any activity that you do that trains your heart in some capacity. Rather than use such a generic, undefinitive term, why don’t we use something more specific that actually describes what we are trying to do? I prefer to use the term conditioning or energy systems development when talking about developing physiological capabilities in order to elicit a specific performance. Call it whatever you want; when it comes down to it, each energy system and its subsets needs to be developed to certain levels at certain times and for certain reasons depending on what it is that you are training for. The main energy systems can be broken down like this.

Aerobic

  • Capacity
  • Power

 

Anaerobic

-Glycolytic

  •  Capacity
  • Power

-Alactic

  • Capacity
  •    Power

Whether you call it “cardio,” “conditioning,” or “energy systems development,” there have commonly been two schools of extreme thought when it comes down to the modalities used. On one end, you have the excessive endurance, long distance, slow, steady paced group, who swears by doing nothing but endurance work (actually aerobic capacity work), and on the other end, you have the “all you need is high intensity interval” group, who seems to think that if you aren’t laying flat on your back after puking by the end of your workout that you haven’t conditioned appropriately. (actually anaerobic glycolytic work)

While the “aerobic endurance” group dominated for quite some time, over the course of a large part of this past decade, “aerobic” training has taken a lot of heat from many (and in certain circles still given unbalanced attention). It has been deemed useless and pretty much dumped and replaced with all anaerobic high intensity work. I’ll be honest, I even started to go this route myself at one point in time. Well, if you pick up a physiology book and actually study these energy systems and how they work with one another in depth, you will realize real fast that you’d better not skip out on your aerobic work, and you will also realize that, depending on the person and task at hand, all of the energy systems and their subsets will probably need to be trained to some extent at some point in time.

In case you don’t know much about energy systems, lets do a brief summary. Your body uses whats called ATP as its fuel source to promote physical activity. These different energy systems are utilized to replenish this ATP in order to continue physical activity. The aerobic system uses oxygen during its chemical processes and can produce a whole bunch of ATP; however, it can’t do it very fast because of all of the steps that it must go through to get the job done. For this reason, longer duration and generally lower intensity activity are taken care of with this system. (i.e. 5 mile run) This is also the most active system at rest. If you have poor aerobic development, your resting heart rate will be higher than desirable and you will have a much better chance of running into health problems as all of the body’s systems will suffer. That alone should end the debate.

The anaerobic glycolytic system works without oxygen and produces ATP pretty fast; however, it can’t produce a ton of it and can’t do it for long. For this reason, shorter to moderate duration activity of higher intensities (20-45seconds, HR>170) is generally taken care of with this system (i.e. 1-400 yd sprints). This is why your body gases out after a certain amount of time if you are doing something such as an all out sprint. Substances such as hydrogen ions and blood lactate volumes build up and glycogen stores run out. Your body can only buffer so much of these things at a time before it gets too fatigued to continue. (With aerobic work, the ability to utilize oxygen makes things more efficient)

The anaerobic alactic system also works without oxygen and produces ATP pretty much immediately (1-10 seconds) but can’t do it long at all. Its used with fast paced high power activities such as a 40 yd dash, a vertical jump or a max deadlift.

Each of these main systems then has subsets for different forms of activity, which is a fact that many people seem to forget about. While anaerobic power is great, you also need to think about anaerobic capacity, which will give your body the ability to perform high intensity activity over and over again (i.e. important for a fighter).  While aerobic capacity is great, you also need to think about aerobic power, which will give your heart the ability to work more efficiently when you do get to higher levels of intensity.  One main factor that comes into play that some people seem to forget about is that all of these systems are always active to some extent. They all work together.

This all being said, for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the importance of aerobic development. When it comes to fat loss, anaerobic work is still the most effective because of its post exercise fat burning effects. It can still be important when it comes to many sports; And on the aerobic side, in my opinion, sitting on an elliptical for 45 minutes 5 days a week is still not an effective use of time.

So, heres the deal.

Without an adequate aerobic base, that anaerobic work that you do is not going to be as effective. Without an adequate aerobic base, you’re going to gas out in the later rounds of your fight or game and you will not recover from your anaerobic bouts as efficiently, since your aerobic system is largely responsible for facilitating recovery after an all out exertion. On the contrary, to train aerobically, does not mean that you have to sit on an elliptical for 45 minutes to get the job done. Aerobic work can be fun and effective and be performed using modalities that have valuable carryover to other activities.

Building an aerobic base is very important. The more efficiently your heart can pump blood with each beat and the less hard it has to work when you do get to higher intensity activity, the better your performance will be. Having a more efficient aerobic system to rely on will help you recover faster from higher intensity activity, it will help you perform it for longer periods of time and it will help you dominate in the later portions of competition when your opponents are ready to fall over and quit. Try doing an all out prowler push workout without any aerobic base. You will realize real fast what a mistake this is. You will not complete the workout as you planned because your body simply will not be able to recover well enough. (and you’ll probably be yacking your most recent meal up on the curb before you get half way through the workout). If you want to see what true aerobic development really means, watch an MMA fight where a fighter comes out blazing in the first round only to be gassed and pretty much useless by the last round. Without an aerobic base to help recover from any high intensity bursts that may have occurred during the fight, his body went full anaerobic mode too fast and he couldn’t recover from it fast enough since his aerobic system wasn’t able to effectively get oxygen to his tissues efficiently enough.

Heres something else to think about

It takes an ample amount of time to develop aerobic qualities. It takes relatively little time to develop glycolytic and alactic qualities. You can maintain residual effects of aerobic qualities for a pretty long time. You don’t maintain the others as long. What this means is that if you have a decently long offseason to develop these things before competition gets under way, you can really prepare yourself anaerobically in 3-4 weeks before the season begins or by at least touching on it a couple of times during the offseason. Spending a couple of months developing yourself aerobically will have great carryover when you do get closer to the competition period.

Something else to think about is the effects that training different physical qualities simultaneously have on one another. I’ve studied and researched this stuff a ton over the past few years and if you look at quality texts like Block Periodization by Issurin or Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jameison (the best book I’ve come across for energy system development along with his great conditioning coach course that I’d highly recommend), there are certain physical qualities that can be developed effectively together. For example, training max strength at the same time as aerobic endurance tends to work well as aerobic endurance can help with recovery from heavy lifting and has little negative effect on strength development if it is not done excessively (too much can have negative effects). On the other hand, training max strength with glycolytic power does not generally work as well since they both take a lot out of the CNS and energy stores and can lead to negative effects and overtraining. (10 minutes after a workout is ok) Thats not to say that they can’t be combined in some way; in general it just doesn’t work too well together. So, what different qualities you are developing simultaneously needs to be taken into account.

Now, along these same lines, working with an athlete and working with a fat loss client are too different things. You don’t have to be quite as specific with a fat loss client since the main focus is fat loss, not developing optimal performance at a specific time. However, having ample aerobic development before killing a client is still pretty important stuff.

So Nick, what should we do to develop an aerobic base?

I’m glad you asked. For starters, you’re going to want to monitor your heart rate during activity. To make improvements in aerobic endurance, you’re going to want to train with your heart rate between 120 and 150 beats per minute and you’re going to want to do this for an ample amount of time. Depending on the specific activity you are training for, the individual fitness level and goals at hand, generally from 20-60 minutes will be a good duration to shoot for. If you look at research, it is around the 75 second mark that reliance on anaerobic systems begins to shift towards aerobic systems, so the shift towards an aerobic focus happens fairly quickly. To IMPROVE aerobic capacity, you just need to get it going for a lot longer. Again, how long you go for and how often you do this is going to depend on the person and the goal. After working with a multitude of clients with this, I have found that many people need to work with much less intensity than they realize they need to in order to get the specific physiological improvements that we are looking for with aerobic capacity work. This might mean walking slower, using less weight on a sled, lowering the incline on a treadmill, pacing easier, etc.

Since aerobic training does have vastly different effects on tissues and systems compared to strength work, anaerobic work, etc., doing too much of it can have negative effects on performance in sports that have large requirements for strength and power output; however, it does need to be done to a certain extent as its benefits are too many to be ignored. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a powerlifter, so obviously strength output is very important to me. Running 10 miles every day of the week would surely hurt my strength performance. Performing aerobic workouts for 20-40 minutes a few days a week for certain cycles gives me all of the benefits I need without having many, if any, negative effects on my lifting performance and actually helps me handle larger workloads and volumes with my lifting along with facilitating more efficient recovery.

As I said before, you don’t need to train all qualities at all times of the year. In a certain stage, I might develop aerobically for 2 months, while doing less anaerobic work. If I’m going real hard with lifting, the aerobic work plays out nicely as it helps with recovery and doesn’t take too much of an extra toll on my energy stores and CNS state. I might follow those 2 months up with a month of anaerobic work with something such as prowler sprints. The residual effects from the previous aerobic work stick around long enough to prevent things from going backwards. Again, how much time you devote and when you devote it to specific development of these systems depends on what it is that you are training for. Ultimately, they all need to be developed to a certain extent since they help one another. The question is, where does your focus need to be? If you are just training for general health or to have a good body, cycling on and off of different qualities for different time intervals works fine.

Aerobic POWER is another subset of the aerobic system. This basically consists of your hearts ability to work efficiently as you reach levels of higher intensity. While training for aerobic endurance increases the heart’s stroke volume, or the amount of blood that the heart pumps with each beat and increases the chamber size of the left ventricle (eccentric hypertrophy), training for aerobic power trains the heart to pump blood stronger with each beat and betters the aerobic system’s ability to work effectively (i.e. deliver oxygen) towards higher intensity ranges and heart rates (an increase in mitochondria and improvement in contractile capabilities in the heart helps with this).   Increasing the heart’s performance here will make aerobic endurance work feel like cake.  This is done with fairly high intensity activities with the heart rate towards the upper end of the aerobic range and lower end of anaerobic range. The intensity and heart rate is not quite as high as anaerobic work (which can get up to 180+) but it is significantly higher than typical aerobic endurance work (150-160 vs. 120-140) and the work to rest ratio is generally either 1-1 to 1-0.5 or a longer 1-3 minute interval with a slightly longer rest can be used. There are many methods that can be used to train this quality.

There are many ways to perform an aerobic workout. For aerobic endurance: Circuits are great. Pick 4-8 exercises/movements and perform them nonstop for a set time. Sled dragging, jump rope, battle ropes, rowing and med ball tosses could make up a nice workout. The key is keeping the intensity at the right level by monitoring your heart rate. You can also do one continuous activity, as is the common aerobic practice (“cardio”). Find a treadmill, go for a run, hop on a rower, hit the heavy bag, jump rope, do kettlebell work or dodge cars in the street. Pick something that keeps you interested and keep yourself moving in the correct heart rate range. For aerobic power, you can use similar activities; however, you will go harder (HR more towards high 150’s/160’s) and you will have some rest time between bouts. A work to rest ratio of 1-1 to 1-0.5 usually works well. (Rest ratios for anaerobic workouts are much longer with anaerobic power being the longest.)

Whichever way you choose to do it, developing the aerobic system will improve stroke volume (how much blood the heart pumps with each beat), decrease resting heart rate, speed up recovery from high intensity work and provide a better oxygen supply to working tissues among other things. It is absolutely essential for anyone trying to improve sport performance or get in shape in any capacity. It doesn’t have to be boring and repetitive like so many people seem to believe. Pick some exercises that keep things fun and motivating and get that heart working.  An entire aerobic workout could be done with varying movements with a sled as shown in the video below:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvRR1gh9mCo

 

 

While its outside of what I want to cover with this article since I want to focus on what people usually think of as “cardio” activities, there are also specific lifting modalities that can be utilized to improve the utilization of these systems by developing specific muscle fiber types as well (and strength training is also obviously utilizing an energy system while you do it)

The bottom line is this. All of the human body’s energy systems are important and they all help one another to a certain extent with different ranges of activity. The aerobic system should not be shunned as it is key for optimal performance and also to keep you healthy.