Reality versus Research

One of the things I most love about research is that it is passionless. If it’s correctly done the result isn’t something that is skewed in any way by commercial interests.

So when a piece of research comes out that talks about the effects of conducting both strength and endurance training at once I’m all ears. For years the fitness and performance industry has relied on hucksterism and clever ad copy to fool people into thinking that it’s one or the other, black or white, yin or yang. I will be the first to admit I am not a person who operates well in the grey area of life and am very much a black or white person. However, one of the tenets of the RKC system, one if it’s core values is the hardstyle principle of the duality of training. Of tension and relaxation. Of flexibility and strength. If we can have these notions contained as opposites then how come no one has been looking at strength and endurance? And that’s really where my current training has gone – seek out the truths about what I think of as ultrafitness. What are the possibilities when it comes to strength endurance? There are plenty of great examples of strength, sadly many of them look like a quick walk around the block would do them in and that doesn’t seem like it’s a great definition of health to me. Because underlying all of this is my goal to spend this second half of my life healthy as well as fit.

This piece here is a good read on the summary of findings from some new research as well as this piece here. The second piece provides some deeper summary and there’s some things I find very interesting.

“Power is most susceptible to decrements than strength or hypertrophy. Power athletes should therefore, be the most conservative with cardio / endurance training.”

This is written backwards for endurance people. What it says is that strength and muscle size don’t seem to detrain much during endurance training but power does. So your endurance athlete is going to have better success by filling in the gap, so to speak, and performing power exercises than they will by performing strength exercises. Looking at the nature of running for example – a squat won’t help you run but some bounding or jumping will. Looking at the training of even elite level endurance athletes you will see a variety of low level plyometric/ power based activities in there such as jumping, bounding, medicine ball throws and the like.

In my own training I’ve been finding that the kettlebell clean and jerk is my best friend when it comes to my training. There’s something about the move that I feel helps my body stay loose and supple versus the rigid performance of a lift like the deadlift or a press. This suppleness is needed, I feel, to help stave off injury while running. I think of running as a series of rebounds one after another. The goal is to lose no energy from one bound to the next, perpetually just reversing the force caused by each step. The better your body can act like a spring the easier that will be. To an extent I want my body to be a stiff spring so it efficiently does this, however, too stiff and I become like a piece of wood unable to reverse force. There’s that black and white hardstyle thing again – both stiff and supple at the same time.

This next bit I found very interesting –

Running produced greater decrements in BOTH hypertrophy and strength than cycling, when done concurrently with resistance training. This may be due to greater skeletal muscle damage caused by the high eccentric component of running. For example, distance running has been found to produce large increases in muscle damage whereas ultradistance cycling did not.

This has been my experience completely. I had some issues with running for about two months and was just swimming and riding. The moment I started reintroducing running my lifts started to struggle a bit. In my jerks I seemed to lose my leg drive overnight. Where my squat had been approaching 100kg (nothing spectacular but please keep in mind that I was told about eighteen months ago I’d never be able to squat again so a 125% body weight squat makes me pretty happy) I’ve had to drop it back to body weight on the bar. This drop of about 20kg from my squat doesn’t seem to affect anything. My legs are just too tired to be able to cope with it. When I dropped my squat neither my riding nor running were affected. It may have even made my running better as my legs were less fatigued. However, other than my jerks and pressing this doesn’t affect any other lifts.

One of the things that really gets me is that many big names in strength coaching all seem to be scared of any kind of aerobic work stating that it will make you weak, cause you to suffer from muscle atrophy or otherwise turn you into “an eleven year old stamp collector”. While this excerpt above indicates that you will likely lose some mass from lots of running, you could either run shorter distances or ride as that doesn’t seem to affect muscle wastage.

Let’s just review a few things about the aerobic system. For starters it’s the main operating system for your whole body. You spend a vast majority of your day having to work aerobically so you better hope it works well. The muscles of your cardiovascular system can only work aerobically, further highlighting how important it is to have this system in good working order (unless you don’t like the idea of a set of heart and lungs that work well). Post exercise, whether it be in between sets or post workout, it is the aerobic system that is in charge of promoting recovery. Pavel even has an entire training concept called Fast and Loose from it. More recently some clever guys in Western Australia did some research showing that easy aerobic work between sets improved recovery thereby aiding maintenance of power production throughout a workout.

So knowing all this – the faster recovery, the obvious health benefits and that according to the new research that done right it won’t interfere with strength training – why is it still cool to hate cardio?

The simple fact about modern life is this – we are all couch potatoes. Even most trainers don’t get an opportunity to train more than an hour most days. I hope your maths is good enough to figure that means that they are only active for, at most, 1/24th of their life. How can such a seemingly physical job be so low on activity level? And if that’s what they do, these bastions of fitness and health, then how much are their clients realistically going to do? In these days of quickie thirty minute PT sessions (what’s that, a warm up and one working set?) how many people are honestly getting more than an hour and a half of activity a week? Let’s wind the clock back a little and see that the car has only been around for just over a century. Man has been around for a few hundred thousand years in his current shape and this new piece of evolution – the return to an immobile amoeba – is brand new. When I started venturing down this path of move more and doing some cardio I realized that man has become a square peg in a round hole. We’re designed to be aerobic. We’re designed not to eat food requiring processing, and by this I include breads and juices. So instead we come up with ideas like carbs are evil, or fruit has too much sugar because we move so little we can’t handle the amount of potential energy stored in these foods. We need to return to moving more, not less and the fitness industry isn’t helping. Call me old fashioned but I don’t think you can call yourself in shape if you would struggle to run around the block without falling into a wheezing heap.

The short term over reaction that I first heard Ian King speak of in relation to stability training has also reared it’s ugly head in regard to this backlash against the jogging craze of the 70s and 80s. Now we’re almost saying it’s ok to be out of shape and strong, just don’t be one of those crazy jogging nuts. I’ll admit that I’m not keen on the skeletal appearance of elite endurance racers. That isn’t my idea of fit and healthy. But I believe it is possible to be both. Guys like David Goggins exist – strong and fit – and they serve to remind us that this combination of both strength and endurance work is possible and it isn’t detrimental. For my part, I haven’t really noticed a huge drop in my strength beyond what I’ve mentioned. There’s a fair chance that due to the volume of swimming I’m doing that my shoulders are simply too fatigued to go any heavier, in the same way that running is fatiguing my legs. I’m not particularly strong, not by RKC standards or even seasoned lifter standards. My strength has been stagnant for years and maybe the addition of aerobic training won’t hurt it at all simply because my level of strength is so heavily ingrained in me now that my body always just believes that certain lifts are within me. Likewise I have plenty of people I’ve met who could just about walk a three hour marathon because their fitness is so high from years and years of hard training. Like how a kid who was once a championship level swimmer can always swim faster than you even after years out of the pool – they just have that inherent latent ability. I’m pretty sure it’s possible they could add strength to that ability and easily maintain most, if not all, of their endurance capability by slowly adding strength over time.

Don’t believe the hype – running won’t kill you. It may decrease power output in the short term (no studies available on what happens long term if runners stick to power based training) but it won’t affect strength or muscle mas too much (the latter being mostly a function of diet and adequate fueling I believe). Don’t forget that we were not designed to sit. We are the most powerful aerobic creature on the planet and trying to go against our make up isn’t going to serve you well ultimately. Add some endurance work, follow the guidelines of the Venuto article and see what happens. i think you’ll be surprised at how positive it is and I’ll bet your waistline will thank you for it too!

One Response to “Reality versus Research”

  1. Scott Says:

    Thanks. Great post. One thing: I don’t think “yin and yang” are opposites. I think they are complementary. But I’m no expert.

    Your take on endurance vs. strength is well taken. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to focus way more on endurance. Living the second half of my life fit, as you put it.


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