Bad Exercise Advice, Exhibit B

“Despite the apparent complexity of modern exercise programs, you really have only two options if you want to get fitter: you can train harder than you’re currently training, or you can train more. Those two variables, intensity and volume, are the basic levers that all training plans fiddle with in various ways. But let’s be honest: two variables is still too many. We all secretly want to know which one is really the master switch that controls our fitness.”

-Alex Hutchinson, “Is It More Important to Run Faster or Run Longer?Outside. August 14, 2019.

As covered in the discussion on adaptation response, there is no “master switch that controls our fitness.” If you want to be good at doing push-ups, do push-ups. If you want to swim the English Channel, then practice swimming miles at a time in cold water currents. If you want to be able to hold your breath for an extended time, then practice holding your breath. If you want to have six-pack abs, then you need to reduce your eating and increase your activity to the point that you can get your body fat below 10%. Everybody has six pack abs, it’s just that, for most of us, they are hidden behind a thick layer of fat.

Of course, goals tend to be more complex. If you want to run your first marathon, then you need to run more. You should work up to running 50 miles a week and be able to run for 20 miles straight a month before your race.

If you want to run faster than your last marathon, then you can increase your mileage up to 120 miles a week of elite runners and you can work in as much speed work as your body can handle at that volume, which will not be much unless you have been running that kind of volume for years and your body has adapted to it.

It is possible to run shorter distances fast and move up to the marathon. So, after years of adapting to a high volume of speed and middle distance running, you can start training for longer distances and increase mileage.

However, if your new to running, your goal is to run a marathon and you don’t have a decade time horizon to do it, then it’s probably easier to start with running more rather than a running program focused on running faster. Conversely, if your goal is to run a sub-20 minute 5k race, then running more than 50 miles a week will likely make you slower, not faster. Better to do intervals of 5k, a mile, a half-mile and a quarter mile with lower total mileage.

Your training has to reflect the activity you are training for. Sprinting is not the same as long distance running. Cycling isn’t the same leg exercise as doing squats and deadlifts. Our body (and mind) adapts to the training (or lack thereof) we give it.

Adaptation Response

“Stress + Rest = Growth. It’s as simple and as hard as that.”

-Brad Stulberg, “The Equation That Will Make You Better at Everything.” Outside Magazine. July 26, 2019.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet. From the vague, live your best life, to the strangely specific, drink more water, everyone has a suggestion about changes we can make that is going to make our lives better. Most of it is harmless, even if it is baloney.

But, this idea about stress is good, if poorly articulated. The problem is that ‘Stress’ should be ‘Training.’

Stress is not necessarily good. Hate your job and find yourself wolfing down a whole Meat Lover’s Pizza from Domino’s Pizza every Friday night? That’s a maladaptive response to stress.

Training, on the other hand, implies a purpose. It also implies progression.

I read an article in Men’s Journal several years ago, called “Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie.” It covers a lot of territory, such as bad gyms, but the main idea is that if we want to be fit, we need to train to be strong. If you want to get strong, you should probably listen to Mark Rippetoe:

It is May 15, and you decide that this year you are going to get a suntan – a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan. So you decide to go out in the back yard (to spare the neighbors and innocent passers-by) to lay out at lunchtime and catch a ray or two. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you get up, come in and eat lunch, and go back to work. That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you’re back outside for your 15-minutes-per-side sunbath. You are faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week, because that’s the kind of disciplined, determined person you are. At the end of the week, you have turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and, heartened by your results, resolve to maintain your 30-minutes-per-day schedule for the rest of the month. So, here is the critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?”

-Mark Rippetoe, “The Biggest Training Fallacy of All.” StartingStrength.com. May 6, 2013.

The vast majority of people get this question wrong because they think a month long change of behavior is stress. The reality is that we have adapted to the new stress within a week. As Mark puts it:

“[A]daptation occurs in response to the stress, and specifically to that stress, because the stress is what causes the adaptation. This is why calluses form on the part of your hand where the bar rubs, and not on the other parts of the hand, or on your face, or all over your body. It can obviously be no other way.

Furthermore, the stress must be capable of being recovered from. Like the 2 hours of sun the first day or the 55 bench reps once a month, the stress must be appropriate for the trainee receiving it. So, if the stress is so overwhelming that it cannot be recovered from in time to apply more of it in a time frame which permits accumulated adaptation, it is useless as a beneficial tool that drives progress. And if this excessive stress is applied so infrequently that any adaptation to it has dispersed before you get around to it again 3 months later, no adaptation can accumulate.

An awareness of this central organizing principle of physiology as it applies to physical activity is essential to program design. Exercise and training are two different thingsExercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It is just exercise…

-ibid.

You could replace stress for exercise in the preceding paragraph, and it would still be right. The adaptive response is a fact of life, whether we are talking about our careers, skills or relationships. But, how many of us are deliberately training ourselves toward goals by seeking out new challenges? The problem with advice like: “Stress + Rest = Growth” is that it’s like sitting out in the sun for 15 minutes a day and thinking it’s going to result in a tan. Having a goal is useless if the road you are walking on won’t take you there. In order to grow, we need to plan and progress toward it. Stress, by itself, isn’t going to do it.

Inflammation Might Be the Root of Preventable Disease | Harvard Magazine

“Evidence has been mounting that these common chronic conditions—including Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, asthma, gout, psoriasis, anemia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and depression among them—are indeed triggered by low-grade, long-term inflammation. But it took that large-scale human clinical trial to dispel any lingering doubt: the immune system’s inflammatory response is killing people by degrees…

…The metabolic stress that is a hallmark of modern life, the stress that the body has not evolved to handle, is constant eating, he continues. When people eat, energy and nutrients enter the body rapidly, are processed, produce in turn a lot of by-products, and then need to be reduced to ‘functional substances that are distributed throughout the body, and then disappear very quickly. Many cells and tissues actually undergo a huge amount of stress during this process,’ he explains, ‘as they store appropriate nutrients and dispose of harmful intermediates.’ Part of this process also involves mounting an immune response. ‘The pancreas, for example, must secrete four to five hundred milliliters of enzymes every day’ to be able to manage the incoming energy load with every meal. ‘If you place these organs under constant stress, they start malfunctioning.’ The consequence is that ‘right now, one out of every 10 individuals has diabetes. One out of every four individuals has fatty liver disease. And if you reach a certain age, one out of every three individuals will develop neurodegenerative disease.”

—Jonathan Shaw, “Raw and Red-Hot.” Harvard Magazine. May/June 2019.

Bad Gyms

When some one enters a gym for the first time, what are they looking for? If they are young, the driving force is often performance. Athletes want to be better at their chosen sport, and the gym provides a training ground in which to improve.

For the non-athlete entering the gym later in life, the focus may be on a particular goal – such as losing weight, cardiovascular fitness, or strength, but these too are performance goals. A desire for improvement is the motivation.

But, there is an interesting disconnect between the user of the gym and the gym owner. The concern of the gym owner, particularly if the gym owner is a corporation, is to reduce their risk of liability and reduce costs.

Enter any “fitness center” offered as an amenity by a corporation and you will find a wide variety machines that are designed, primarily, to prevent people from injuring themselves. These machines encourage repetitive, defined movements that limit the range of motion and the potential for injury. Free weights, if they are available at all, are confined to low weight dumbbells.

The simple fact is exercise machines are less effective forms of exercise than exercising with free weights. Yet, machines are the only options on offer because they are safer, and machines are cheaper than paying for staff to help people learn to exercise with free weights safely.

As a result of this typical safe gym environment, we almost never hear the simple truth. The overall best exercise for improving fitness is lifting heavy weights over a complete range of motion. If you wish to improve your health and fitness, deadlifts and squats are the single best way to do it. People using the gym need to learn how to do these exercises safely. A good gym trains people to do effective exercises safely. A bad gym provides machines to do less effective exercises that are safe and cost effective. Almost all the gyms we have are bad.

2018 Experiment: HIIT Burpee and Running Program

Background: Maintaining a minimum fitness standard is a challenge, particularly as we age. American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations focused on HIIT strength training and running suggests two sessions of HIIT strength training and three sessions of running for twenty-five minutes each.

physical-activity-in-adults

HIIT program criteria:

  1. It can be done anywhere.
  2. It requires no equipment.
  3. It takes less than 20 minutes.

This program is an experiment to see what kind of results can be obtained from HIIT training using one program with one exercise in combination with an easy program of running. It is as simple a plan to meet AHA recommendations for physical activity as I could come up with that incorporates strength training and meets a minimum running goal of 10 miles a week, which is a very low weekly mileage for runners.

Methods: Use the Bats! HIIT Interval Timer. Set up eleven phases. Work, break and rest are in seconds. Blk is for block or number of sets. #/Blk is number of timed intervals per set. Min. is total number of minutes required to complete.

Phase Work Break Rest #/Blk Blk Min.
P0 10 60 30 12 1 15
P1 15 60 30 12 1 16
P2 20 60 30 12 1 17
P3 25 60 30 12 1 18
P4 30 60 30 12 1 19
P5 30 55 30 12 1 18
P6 30 50 30 12 1 17
P7 30 45 30 12 1 16
P8 30 40 30 12 1 15
P9 30 35 30 12 1 14
P10 30 30 30 12 1 13

Do each phase for a month, twice a week. For the work interval, do burpees (standard or an easier variation). During break time, I plan to rest completely. Then, rinse and repeat until complete.

Initial plan is to do this program Tuesday and Friday. After HIIT training, do an easy run/walk of 25 minutes. On Monday and Thursday, do a minimum run/walk of four miles or approximately 40/80 minutes, respectively. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays are rest days.

Experiment will be considered a success if Phase 10 is done four weeks in a row. If I go for four weeks without doing the strength training or reach December 31, 2018 without completing Phase 10 for four weeks, I will consider the experiment over. On completion, I’ll write up a post mortem with results and conclusion and if I want to try it again, how it should be modified.

Results: For four months, I followed this program. I got to phase 3. At the end, I completed 6 burpees for 12 sets for a total of 72 burpees in 18 minutes for 6 weeks. There were dramatic improvements in cardiovascular fitness. Strength was improved. I also gained 15 pounds, which was the reason I stopped doing it.

Discussion: If I were to do this again, I’d focus on the number of burpees per work set and bring down the number per set and add sets over time. For example, I’d start with doing 1 burpee per minute for 10 minutes. As able, I’d add 2 minutes a session until I was at 20 minutes, then I’d drop down to 2 burpees per minute for 10 minutes and repeat the process.

I found that I could do 1 burpee every 3 seconds. So, you could work up to 10 burpees every minute and still have a 30 second recovery period per set. If you did that for 20 minutes, it would be 200 burpees. This is enough fitness for the vast majority of people.

The program above, in contrast, required doubling the amount when you go to the next level. It was very difficult. There needs to be a more gradual adaptation. Using the program outlined in the discussion section, I suspect it would probably take two years to start at 10 burpees in 10 minutes and work up to 200 burpees in 20 minutes.

Two sessions per week is reasonable. As long as you were doing the more gradual program, you might be safe doing as many as three.

The major issue is that doing this kind of exercise is going to fundamentally change your body composition and your weight is going to go up. I think it is worth doing. But, if your goal is to lose weight, then you’ll need to do that first and then do this program when you are ready to build your strength and fitness.

Conclusions: Properly modified per the discussion session, this technique is worth exploration as a way to maintain fitness and strength. But, it should not be confused with a weight loss program. This program will put weight on you, a lot of it.

Biohacking: Smart People With Money Being Science-Based and Stupid 

“Over the last 4–5 years, my main hobby has been to get that by hacking my body and mind using a logical, science-based approach…

…People like me will be able to pay for this out of pocket and use off-label prescriptions from private doctors who focus on upgrading and prevention rather than merely healing. Downstream the extra mood, energy, focus, health, willpower and social skills — enhanced over decades — will accrue further and further advantages to people who upgrade themselves, which will lead to a cycle of further concentration of wealth.”

—Serge Faguet, “I’m 32 and spent $200k on biohacking. Became calmer, thinner, extroverted, healthier & happier.hackernoon.com. September 25, 2017.

N of 1 experimentation is valuable. The problem in this case is he is arguing hockey stick, compounding returns when the more likely scenario is that he’s going to give himself some form of chronic illness over the long-term. You’re only 32. Do you believe 40 years of thyroid supplementation isn’t going to lead to a health problem?

There is useful advice in write-ups such as this one. Thinking about sleep hygiene, eliminating sugar from your diet, intermittent fasting, weight-training built around deadlifts and squats, HITT training for cardio, meditation/cognitive therapy are probably all good ideas.

The place it goes off the rails is with medications and supplements. A low dose of 5mg of lithium is probably alright. If you take ~100-150mg as he is, you better have normal kidney function. Magnesium supplementation is also probably a good idea, since most of us aren’t eating big leafy vegetables at the same rate our ancestors did.

I could even get behind the very occasional therapeutic use of psychoactive compounds such as MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, etc. If they were used to to augment a program of meditation and periodic hours in an isolation tank.

But hormone therapy? Playing sorcerer’s apprentice with your hormones strikes me as a singularly bad idea.