Right now there’s a small revolution going on. It’s being played out in small gyms, PT studios and garages. You may not even know it exists. For years the fitness industry has tried to force people into little boxes and onto machines that are so expensive that only large gyms can afford them. You do know you’ll never be able to run and get fit without a special $20,000 treadmill, right?
While I’m not a fan of Crossfit for many reasons one of the things they have done well is to show people wat can be achieved with minimal equipment. A decent bar, a few kettlebells and some space to move is about all that’s really needed. Everything else is fluff. Gain some strength, perform some all encompassing movements such as crawling, rocking and rolling and then do some type of fitness work whether it be implement based such as sled pushing or actual endurance work such as running.
But, and this is a big but, how do you fit it all together? And what makes sense to use?
For instance, if your goal is a body weight full snatch, then running a lot doesn’t make sense. Likewise if your goal is a 35 minute 10km, then snatching with the bar may not be a good idea either. So what goes where, and how often and how hard?
Enter Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline. One of the things this book does is open people’s eyes to the “secret” world of strength and conditioning and elite performance. I say “secret” because for most people it’s a complete and total mystery what elite athletes are doing to get the kind of performance they are. Before I get into nuts and bolts training it bears mentioning that the first thing that elites do that you don’t is they have great parents. Somehow society isn’t good at copping up to people just flat out being better than them at something anymore. Maybe it’s youth sports that have no scoring. Or maybe it’s participation medals. Whatever the case – sometimes you’re just not good enough. And in the case of elite performance you probably aren’t. That’s no disaster as the majority of the rest of the world isn’t either. But be ok with understanding that a double body weight snatch or a sub-4 minute mile may be out of your reach.
Easy Strength talks a lot about the development of skill. Using loads of roughly 70% frequently has been shown to make massive changes in your abilities to lift more weight. In fact, 70% could be the magic number for training, just as 90% compliance is for eating clean. The “easy” training intensity allows you to focus on form, train often as you won’t be fatigued or sore and therefore over time you end up with more reps in the bank for when you need it on game day.
I think most people tend to watch elite athletes and see them moving a lot of weight or doing all kinds of fast speed drills and mistakenly assume that the athletes are going flat out doing these. Just because it looks fast you doesn’t mean it’s fast for that athlete. And you can just as easily substitute heavy or any other training word might fit. Because the reality is that athletes will often be training twice per day. If their strength and conditioning work destroys them, then how much are they really going to have left for training the other skill component that is vital to their success which is the sport skill side? This “easy” 70% work allows constant improvement for the athlete for reasons explained already and allows a lot of training volume to be performed. Tying this back to Gladwell’s theories on expert level performance taking 10,000 hours to develop, the more hours you put in the faster you achieve elite or expert status.
In my world of the RKC this is starting to become better realized and people are once more heading back to higher frequency, lower volume training in an effort to continually practice their skills. But then it seems like there is a great disconnect between strength and fitness work. The two are far more closely tied together than many realize. So if 70% intensity benefits strength trainees why aren’t people spending more time at 70% of their maximum when it comes to their fitness work?
The answer lies sadly with the internet. For decades top sports people relied on low rep strength training and easy running to build their base fitness for nearly every sport. While the science of exercise has improved greatly over the last fifty years in a lot of ways it is starting to finally return to sensible tried and true methods, rather than a get rich quick eBook designed by another novice trainer with slick SEO skills. Then along came Arnold, Gold’s Gym, and groups like Fitness Australia who all showed that there was ample money to be around the fringes of the fitness industry rather than actually working in it. So trainers with not much real world experience were all of a sudden more versed in SEO, list building and product launching than they were in actually training people. They’d then put out a book that was different to other things on the market, perhaps based loosely on a sentence of research taken out of context of the rest of the paper and voila a new fitness boom was created.
People love hearing that they don’t need to work hard. That they can look good in a few minutes per day. And that they too can perform like elite athletes with only minutes of practice and second rate genetics. Sorry, but you can’t. It may seem like I’m in a continual Tim Ferriss bashing frame of mind, but he represents a lot of what is wrong with society. You can’t “hack” performance. Maybe you can learn a few things by training with top guys, but when it comes to performance the only to enure that you’ve got loads to spare on game day is to have spent the time during training. And the first thing that inexperienced trainers recognize is that to get results with people they have to smash them. And there in starts the problem.
It becomes all “no pain, no gain” ad “go hard or go home”. Well, perhaps on the field of battle, in the heat of competition, yes. But if you spend every single training session going all out what happens one day when you try to rev the engine and find out that you’ve let it run dry? There’s a very good reason why the top athletes in the world peak (maybe) once every year. The absolute best will peak only for world championships and Olympics. Everything else is just training.
Looking at an endurance version of training, the Kenyan 10,000m runners are said to spend 85% of their year on 90 minute 70% maxHR easy runs. The rest is hills and speed work. You see how that magic 70% crept into the picture again? Now, there’s nothing “easy” about a 90 minute run. But the way the fitness creeps up on you, slowly, slowly, slowly – until one day you decide to stretch your legs and see if you can set a new PR around your favorite loop and all of a sudden you knock off 1+minute per kilometre! But that’s not sexy, hill sprints and intervals are sexier. So that’s what people think they need to do. But when it comes to running advice, I’m going to listen to the Kenyans before I listen to T. Ferriss who is yet to actually even finish a race (or, in fact, even get to the start line as he keeps injuring himself in training).
Looking at the next part of the equation – what is the true goal? Is it to be somewhat fit and very strong, or very fast and somewhat strong, or that weird go all day, spartan warrior strength, fitness and battle hardened stamina you’re after? I know where I fit in and I want to be ready for the zombie apocalypse. Rule #1 of Zombieland is cardio.
So then the question becomes how do you turn your body into a lean, mean, zombie outrunning machine?
For starters, what many won’t tell you is that while muscle is a necessity of athleticism, it can also be detrimental. In cycling terms it is generally acknowledged that it is 1.25% harder to move each extra kilogram you carry. So you start asking yourself, if you’re 8kg heavier than your competitors, are you also at least 10% fitter, faster and stronger? Because that is what it will take just to match them. If you want to go faster or further you’ll need to be even better than that. In training terms, is that 10% more training time you need? Or even more? If you’re stacking up the 70%/ easy sessions and getting in some serious volume you may well be getting in 10% more training time than your competition. But if you’re blowing yourself to pieces each session…well…it’s going to be hard to overcome a 10% deficit with less training time.
Hopefully you’ll excuse me for thinking out loud and not really finishing this post. You see, I’m in the middle of training for a 1000km ride (details are here, and if you felt like donating please go right ahead as it’s a great cause) and I need all the training time I can get. With the March start date just around the corner I’m also off this weekend to ride mountains for 4 days. Hardly going to be fun, but I’ve been doing plenty of easy rides, and need to spend some time on strength/ hills. I’ve been working on ways to stay strong and minimize my body weight for performance which I’ll share soon. If long ranging, go all day, knock down, drag out, son of a bitch physical toughness is your goal, then stick around.