2012-01-11

Fitness Trade-Offs

The new trend in exercise is the embrace of "total body fitness." You can see examples of this in CrossFit, Hyperfitness, "Primal" fitness, P90X, and so on.

These fitness philosophies - along with many other similar theories - share some important common attributes that put them all in the same basic "category" of fitness philosophies. They all differ from traditional fitness plans in more or less the same ways.

Today, I'd like to discuss how these modern training philosophies differ from the classic approaches, and in particular the relative merits of each. You will soon see that neither the newer philosophies nor the classic theories represent the be-all, end-all panacea of training, and that the best approach of all involves your own personal goals and some realistic expectations about exercise.

Traditional Exercise
In the old days, choosing an exercise plan was relatively straight-forward. If you wanted to be a runner, you chose a running plan. If you wanted to bulk up, you chose a weight-lifting plan. For a long time, these two approaches developed more or less independently of one another.

During the 1960s and 1970s, however, exercise scientists and competitive athletes began to discover just how beneficial resistance training was for endurance athletes. Great runners adopted training philosophies that involved traditional weight lifting - modified, in that lower weight/more repetitions was viewed as optimal. Meanwhile, the muscle-building world of fitness continued to explore strategies to pack on more and more mass, favoring a higher load/fewer repetitions model.

To a certain extent, these two worlds were somewhat critical of each other, with the endurance world questioning the cardiovascular health of the muscle-building world, and the muscle-building world questioning the overall health of dedicated endurance athletes. Even the nutritional plans endorsed by these two groups differed widely from each other, one favoring low fat/high carbohydrate diets and the other favoring high protein diets.

Modern Developments
Nevertheless, the endurance training world continued to incorporate more and more information from the muscle-building world. The benefits of resistance training on joint strength, bone mass, and anaerobic output were just too good to ignore. Moreover, a massive amount of scientific research and experimentation went into developing muscle-building regimens (probably because the development of such regimens became and extremely lucrative commercial industry).

This went on for years, until we finally reached a point where many former endurance athletes began reducing their endurance training significantly and adopting a "total body" approach to fitness.

At the same time, many former body builders went the other way. After suffering a lot of muscle fatigue and injury pertaining to sudden blasts of weight lifting and an oscillating arm day/leg day plan, many people began to explore calisthenics, plyometrics, and "high intensity interval training" (HIIT) in order to get cosmetically appealing bodies without diving into complicated body building regimens.

These two groups were bound to meet in the middle somewhere. I couldn't tell you whose plan came first, but many were developed and today that "middle ground" of "total body fitness" can be observed in plans like P90X and CrossFit, where neither muscle-specific resistance training nor extended cardiovascular training is seen as positive.

Instead, these new methods emphasize combined strength training movements and plyometrics to build up complimentary muscle groups, creating a powerful new approach to training.

Some Criticism of the Modern Approach
Without a doubt, the fitness world has benefited from these new developments in exercise philosophy. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to view the classic approach as senseless and antiquated (as many people do). To understand why, we first have to understand some shortcomings to the modern theories.

Greatly Reduced Cardiovascular Activity
First, none of the new theories (except perhaps Hyperfitness) place any importance on cardiovascular activity. In some extreme cases, adherents to modern theories have suggested that they are getting a good cardiovascular workout because their heart rates become elevated during exercise. Of course, heart rates also become elevated during cardiac arrest, but that is hardly evidence of heart health!

The arguments against cardio typically revolve around either the belief that "cardio doesn't help you lose weight," or that cardiovascular training doesn't promote "total body" health. Mark Sisson takes things even further and even suggests that large amounts of endurance training promote "addiction" to carbohydrates and increase the risk of diabetes.

Of course, both of these claims are patently false and unsupported by scientific evidence. Modern science favors diet over exercise (of any kind) for the purposes of weight loss. No medical scientist in their right minid, however, would suggest that cardiovascular exercise is bad for you, or even that it is inferior to other forms of exercise with respect to overall health benefits.

Over-Consumption of Animal Proteins and Fats
Invariably, these modern fitness philosophies pair up with "primal," "paleo," or other "low-carb" dietary regimens. All of these diets place an emphasis on animal proteins - either by way of meat or dairy products - and monounsaturated fats. I have nothing against meat, dairy, or monounsaturated fat, however the philosophy is flawed.

Research suggests that the body can only absorb so much protein, in the neighborhood of 20% of your total caloric intake. If you eat more protein than that, your body will simply pass it through the other end. This is important because it demonstrates that low-carb diets often only achieve weight loss by replacing calories that your body can absorb (i.e. carbohydrates) with calories it cannot absorb (i.e. too much protein). The resulting weight loss comes not from a "superior diet," but rather from the fact that the body is unable to use many of the calories consumed. In the meantime, the excessive animal fat and protein intake puts a strain on the liver and kidneys, which causes other problems down the road.

Moreover, the animal fats being consumed are often saturated and actually bad for the body if consumed in excess.

Lack of Clear Specialization
Perhaps the most immediate problem with the modern approaches, however, is the fact that in pursuing a goal of "total body health," one never develops any particular fitness advantage. "Total body health" won't help you win a marathon faster, nor will it help you lift a sack of concrete and carry it up a spiral staircase. You need specialization to achieve those things.

CrossFit adherents would argue that lack of specialization is precisely the point. Rather than being particularly good at any one activity, they say, CrossFit athletes can run reasonably fast, lift reasonably heavy things, jump reasonably high, etc. No one aspect of health is diminished (except, as already noted, cardiovascular endureance).

But ask yourself: Would you rather be kind of okay at everything, or pretty good, actually at one or two things? Put another way, would you rather be a famous singer who can't dance, or someone who is okay at both singing and dancing, but not good enough at either to impress anyone?

Strengths of the Modern Approach
That being said, modern exercise philosophies have revived some long-forgotten training ideas that can make a huge difference in anyone's fitness plan.

Plyometrics
Perhaps the best thing about modern fitness approaches is the revival of plyometric exercise (mostly movements involving jumping). Plyometric exercise, if not over-done improves the body's ability to translate strength into speed. Therefore, engaging in regular plyometric exercise will help anyone jump higher and react faster. This improves agility and grace, and also strengthens the joints and tendons. Neither high-endurance nor muscle-building fitness approaches offer the same benefits that plyometric training does.

Core Strength and Stabilizers
Sport-specific training often ignores the peripheral "stabilizer" muscles that are involved in virtually every athletic movement. No amount of calf-raises or leg-presses, for example, will build the muscles required to simply stand on one foot. This is why runners and body-builders alike often lack so much balance and grace. By emphasizing combination movements that require a good amount of balance, modern training regimens typically offer greater development of the stabilizers than people would ordinarily get.

Classic strength training is also a relatively inefficient way to build core strength. Modern training might, for example, replace crunches with burpees. Crunches are muscle-specific, whereas burpees give multiple core muscle groups a simultaneous workout. As a result, the "core" muscle groups often fare better under modern exercise theories than they do under traditional ones.

Variety is the Spice of Life
No doubt about it, the wide variety of exercises employed in modern training regimens keep the athletes interested every single day. A months-long exercise regimen that doesn't offer a lot of variety can get drab, and that impacts motivation.

Punchline: The Trade-Off
The inescapable fact of working out is that we face limitations.

For one thing, there are only two kinds of muscle tissue: one is good for strength, and the other is good for endurance. Building one type of muscle tissue comes at the expense of the other. No matter how badly we would all love to be Arnold Schwartzeneggers who are also world-class marathoners, it is physiologically impossible to do this. We have to make a choice about how much of each kind of muscle tissue we want.

For another thing, there is only so much time in the day, and only so much exercise we can do without hurting our bodies. Once we have adequately stretched and worked-out, often two or three hours have gone by. We don't all have that much time to spare every day. As a result, we have to make another choice regarding how much time we can commit to exercise and what we can reasonably expect from that time. If you can only spare 30 minutes a day, you will almost certainly not have enough time for sport-specific training. If you have a great deal of time, and you fill it all up with non-specific CrossFit movements, you will peak in the middle somewhere, without ever having realized your full potential.

Finally, there is a high level of subjectivity involved in the word "fit." For some, "fit" means being able to lift anything and occasionally run around the block. For others, no matter how much they can lift, they will never consider themselves "fit" if their hearts race after climbing a couple of flights of stairs. For still others, winning a marathon is pointless if they don't like the visual appearance of their upper body muscles. What constitutes "fit" depends entirely on a person's own, individual goals, and the approach they take will therefore also differ.

The point is that we must learn to see fitness as a system of comparative strengths and weaknesses from which to choose. "Everything" simply isn't possible to attain.

Conclusion: My Approach
When I unveil my two-tiered fitness approach later this week, you will see that it offers a good framework from which to achieve moderate levels of muscle building and, if desired, a hefty amount of cardiovascular exercise.

I have adopted this approach first because the health benefits of cardiovascular exercise are many and indisputable. Hearth and lung health is perhaps the most important aspect of health for achieving longevity and a high quality of life well into old age. Without it, rich foods hurt the body more, energy levels deplete, brain chemicals change such that depression and stress start to mount, and so on.

At the same time, science has proven again and again that without regular strength training we all run the risk of injury. This can occur during exercise, or it can sneak up on you one day when you slip and fall at an old age and break a hip. These are serious problems that can only be addressed by improving muscle strength and preventing atrophy whenever possible.

If you choose to follow my approach, you will want to have a good idea about what your personal goals are. By offering a two-tiered approach, I am giving you the option of favoring muscle mass over cardio, or vice-versa. You should have all the information you need to achieve your own ideal blend of each.

But make no mistake, both are important aspects of physical fitness. No new-fangled fitness fad will ever replace the time-tested, scientifically validated benefits of cardiovascular health and low-fat nutrition plans.