Purpose

Over the years I’ve declined taking on new clients because their goals don’t align with the purpose of my work as a professional fitness trainer. These people were typically young folks in their 20s or early 30s seeking to participate in extreme sports or physique competitions. This requires extreme training and even more extreme dieting.

Although I’ve competed in powerlifting, bodybuilding and olympic-style weightlifting throughout my life and often won my weight classes (and an overall title in bodybuilding), the type of exercises I did during those times were incompatible with two things that now motivate my career path: long-term health and physical function.

Olympic-Style Weightlifting, the Snatch

Olympic-Style Weightlifting, the Clean & Jerk

Bodybuilding, photoshoot before competition

There are plenty of trainers who focus on big biceps and ripped abs. Of course, that requires from their clients nearly full-time commitment to voluminous training and extreme nutrition, achievement possible during a time of life when responsibility is less and youth is bountiful.

If you want to extend your health and physical independence—as well as preserve your cognitive function—well into old age, then exercise takes a different, less-extreme form. It can be practiced by nearly everyone. It does not require the commitment of elite and professional athletes.

Yet, for exercise to deliver a meaningful outcome, a certain level of effort is required–there’s no easy way around this. A logical training program, proper exercise technique, and a decent amount of motivation are critical. A trainer must have these (and many other) tools to feed the purpose.

As a professional trainer, the primary purpose of my work is to help clients achieve long-term health, physical function and, with reasonable nutrition, a healthy body composition. There are complexities that we manage along the way, of course, but the outcome is the same: enjoy a longer health-span and physical independence, and do things without being limited by age.

Not live longer, but live life longer. This purpose outshines and outlasts bulging biceps and ripped abs by decades.

Strength Training and Tendon Strength

Read time: 30 seconds

As we age, our tendons get weaker, and weaker tendons increase the risk of injuries, disabilities and functional limitations. A recent study, however, shows that strength training can slow or revert age-related tendon problems.

This study compared the tendons of older rats that did strength training to those of older rats that did not. Older rats who didn’t exercise had weakened tendons, while older rats that strength-trained had stronger tendons.

The key differences were that older rats that strength-trained produced more connective tissue growth factors. Rats that strength-trained also produce more protein structures (proteoglycan) and blood vessels in their connective tissues, preventing hardening and calcification in their tendons.

The finding of this very well-done study on rats may be plausibly applied to human connective tissues under the same conditions: strength-training as a primary means to preventing age-related loss of connective tissues and slowing or reversing the detrimental effects of aging tendons, such as ruptures and tendonitis (tendinopathies).

Cardio-respiratory Fitness as a Quantitative Predictor of All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events

Read time: 1 minute

A large meta-analysis published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that better cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and death from all-cause.

Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured as maximal aerobic capacity expressed in metabolic equivalent, or MET. This is simply a measure of how intense a person can exercise while her muscles can still use oxygen… thus “aerobic capacity.”

Pooling from 33 eligible studies and hundreds of thousands of subjects, the participants and their cardiorespiratory fitness were separated into categories:

  • Male and female
  • Low, moderate and high cardiorespiratory fitness (measured in MET)
  • Age groups of 40 years old, 50 years old and 60 years old

Although MET levels are a population-wide approximation of exercise intensity, it serves as an objective measure of our fitness level, and whether or not we have the minimum required for a meaningful protection.

At the gym we can measure maximal aerobic capacity in one of two ways: through the treadmill or the indoor rower. I believe the rower is a more thorough measure of an individual’s aerobic capacity because rowing demands the vascular trees of the lower and the upper body and involves more muscles.

In my next post I will translate the data in this meta-analysis to performance on the rower, broken down into gender and age categories. Although it will be an approximation, this will give us one more objective measure by which we can develop your health and fitness.

Along with strength and muscle mass, cardiorespiratory fitness is a critically important measure since it correlates to meaningful protection against coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and death from any cause.

 

Strength Asymmetry and Exercise

Read time: 1.5 minutes

Strength asymmetry is when a limb on one side of the body is found to be stronger than that on the other. For many years coaches and trainers believe that strength asymmetry leads to injuries, but currently there is a lack of direct evidence to support this belief.

Let’s dig in… all the way down to the bone.

Anatomical asymmetry is universal in 90% of the population, which means limb asymmetry may be based on a natural variance of the skeleton (pdf), and which may lead naturally to asymmetrical strength.

From this data we can assume that the body must find ways around its anatomical variances to perform daily tasks or athletics, which means careful consideration should be given before adopting the belief that asymmetry needs to be “fixed,” as altering the body’s adaptive mechanisms could lead to problems.

Coaches and trainers, however, use various screening protocols to assess asymmetry in their athletes and clients, to see if there’s a need for corrective exercises.

A systematic review, however, found that an assessment known as Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a poor diagnostic for injury prediction. There are studies that show posture is not associated with injury or pain.

Other studies show that corrective exercise doesn’t appear to be effective at changing limb positions or length.

This questions the need to “correct” asymmetry in limbs and posture, as much as it questions the need to correct right- or left-handedness. Additionally we should consider the functional differences of right and left brain hemisphere in their control of the body.

However, if symmetry is something to which you want to pay attention, then a study by Bazyler and Stone (2012) found that general strength training program reduces asymmetry between limbs (pdf) using only the squat exercise–which means neither limb is emphasized over the other.

The same study also found that the “weaker” subject exhibited more asymmetry than the stronger subjects (as determined by strength tests). After 7 weeks of the squat program, the weaker group had the greatest reduction in asymmetry, while the stronger group, which already exhibited minimal asymmetry, experienced less changes.

With the evidence contradicting the conventional belief of many coaches and trainers, if you’re still concerned about strength asymmetry, then it seems a general strength-training and fitness program may improve asymmetry simply because the body eventually finds ways to adapt for successful performance and injury prevention.

And if you’re my client, then you know that we also use a lot of unilateral strength-training exercises–that is, strengthening one limb at a time so that there’s no influence from, or favoring of, the other. This may encourage more equal development of both limbs.

 

Comparing Moderate to Vigorous Activity

Read time: 45 seconds

large meta-analysis that included 80 studies with 1,388,143 participants shows that vigorous exercise was strongly associated with reduced death from any cause, and that less-vigorous physical activity had a lower effect on that reduction. The largest reduction in death was observed in domain-specific vigorous activities: exercise and sports.

Overall amount of exercise also counts, but especially for vigorous exercise.

“Reductions in mortality per increment of time of physical activity were larger for vigorous exercise and moderate to vigorous leisure activities than for moderate activities of daily living, physical activity for transportation and walking.”

In other words, minute-for-minute, vigorous exercise and moderate-to-vigorous leisure activities are more protective than moderate activities of daily living or, say, walking to work.

This meta-analysis supports findings from previous studies on the same topic (here, herehere, here, here, and here).

As my client, you know I emphasize vigorous exercise–at least partly–in your workout program, but you can always be sure that I use proper progression toward those means; this is to allow physical (and mental) adaption to the challenge.

To achieve a meaningful protective effect from exercise, you can’t just go through the motion. Your exercise needs to focus on improved outcome, and this requires programming and progression. Exercise programming, after all, is fundamental to good practice. And proper progression is the basic principle of exercise improvement.

Exercise and Lifespan

Read time: 45 secs

The Hayflick Limit hypothesizes that human cells can divide only a certain number of times (averaging 50 times in a culture dish)  before they enter senescence and then die. This may partly explain the mechanism behind cellular aging… or why we age. Cells cease to divide.

The science on longevity shows that DNA replication also has a limitation. This limitation is represented by telomeres, or end-caps on the chromosomes on the DNA. As DNA replicates, the telomeres shorten until they’re depleted, at which time DNA replication ceases. This is when DNA replication reaches the Hayflick Limit.

The science of telomeres is a very young area of research, and much more knowledge is needed before we can make definitive conclusions. Moremore and more research, however, is looking into the positive association between exercise and telomere length.

Although the science here is still juvenile, the relationship between exercise and telomeres is nevertheless an interesting area to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, there are overwhelming mounds of evidence on the positive effects of exercise on lifespan and healthspan.

Stay strong and fit.

 

High-Load and Low-Load Training

Read time: 1.5 minutes

Although significant physical benefits (mostly increased muscle mass) can be achieved through lifting to momentary muscular failure using lighter resistance (30% of your one-repetition maximum), this is only true for untrained subjects, or someone new to resistance training.

For trained subjects, however, superior effects trended toward training with heavier-resistance  (75% to 80% of 1 repetition maximum, respectively).

The studies in the above links are small, but thousands of experienced coaches and trainers possess years of empirical data through working with thousands. And yours truly, with a quarter of a century of observation and data collection on numerous clients of all ages, have seen the same positive outcome in those who include higher-resistance training in an overall fitness program.

Yet articles still circulate on the internet, citing research and claiming that people don’t need to train with heavier resistance to achieve results (again, mostly increased muscle mass).

These articles don’t consider the ability and benefits of engaging more from the available motor-unit pool (the area of muscle available for action). This is especially important when we may need to lift something heavy.

There is, indeed, research demonstrating superior motor-unit recruitment with the use of heavier resistance.

And it’s our ability to engage more motor-units at once and synchronously that allows us to lift objects competently and without injury. It is doing so, as part of living, that we understand the benefits gained from a smart, progressive, and cyclical inclusion of heavier-resistance training in the yearly fitness endeavor.

Current Literature on Foam Rolling

Read time: 3 minutes

The use of foam rollers is popular in gyms, offering a form of self-massage commonly referred to as self-myofascial release (SMR). In particular, people use them to increase range of motion before exercise.

Should You Use a Foam Roller?

The research literature on foam rolling is still emerging and currently suggests benefits on very limited parameters that may or may not be applicable to you. Let’s look at the current literature on foam rolling so that we can put it into context.

Foam Rolling and Range of Motion

More recently studies have shown that the use of foam rolling is effective for increasing joint range of motion, compared to controlled subjects who didn’t foam roll.

When comparing foam rolling to other conventional methods, like simple aerobics and stretches, the results are similar.

In one small study, foam rolling did improve range of motion slightly better than static stretching and dynamic warmup, though both foam rolling and dynamic warmup increased peak muscle force equally, and both were superior to static stretching.

The well-established dynamic warmup (actively moving the body into and out of end ranges) has been proven to be highly effective at increasing range of motion as well as preparing the muscles for force production, in many instances more so than the use of foam rolling.

Foam Rolling Pre-Exercise?

Whether or not you use a foam roller before you exercise depends on context.

Since dynamic warmup also increases range of motion and facilitates greater force production, it’s an equally useful choice for exercise preparation.

Dynamic warmup offers benefits that foam rolling does not. It increases whole-body blood flow, elevates core temperature, promotes greater neural-drive, adds variable joint motion, stimulates sensory-motor processing, and engages more muscle groups.

Even though a small study found that foam rolling increased range of motion in subjects slightly better than dynamic stretching, I don’t think I’d give up the numerous benefits gained from the use of active warmup, especially if time-efficiency is important.

When is A Good Time to Use a Foam Roller?

Again that depends on context. A very small study showed that subjects who foam rolled for 20 minutes after a grueling strength workout perceived less soreness and experienced less performance decrements in maximum efforts the next day.

Let’s put this info into context by examining the study’s key objectives, beginning with grueling workout on one day and maximum performance on the next day.

In the real world, no client would participate in a grueling strength workout a day before their maximum physical performance is tested.

But this is exactly the components featured in this study: 10 sets of 10 repetitions of heavy back squats, followed a day later by a test of maximum physical effort in sprinting, cutting speed, maximum power output, and strength endurance.

The data from this study isn’t practical for most people,  but they do apply to athletes going through heavy competitive periods, such as back-to-back days of competitions. Foam rolling may improve recovery or attenuate decrements in performance.

Concluding Remark

We have to consider the logic behind what we do in the gym to maximize returns on our time and effort, or at the very least not waste time and effort on methods that bring little benefit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cardiorespiratory Fitness–Not Mere Exercise–Protects Against Sedentary Time

Read time: 1 min

For several years it’s been claimed that the benefits of exercise are erased if you sit for the rest of the day. So the headlines preach: We are screwed even if we exercise, and that sitting is the new smoking.

The problem with the research in this area was that exercise has been measured mostly by their duration rather than their effects.

A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (pdf) gave us a different message, however. It is fitness level–not exercise duration–that protects us from sedentary time, even up to 14hrs. In order to protect us from sitting, exercise must make us meaningfully fitter.

Fitness, in this case, is measured in VO2peak, or our body’s ability to use oxygen. The higher our VO2peak, the higher our cardiorespiratory fitness.

So, it’s not just “exercise” but exercise designed to increase our fitness level. In practical application: systematically build up some muscle and strength as a solid base, on which the use of specific exercise combinations can steadily improve our oxygen use, our cardiorespiratory fitness.

This is why, as my fitness clients, we focus on strength training and then learn to progressively power through exercise combinations that challenge and improve fitness.

And, of course, many clients become great students of the indoor rower. With patience and proper technique, the inclusion of indoor rowing is a very effective way to improve VO2 fitness.

It’s difficult to determine if there’s a minimal threshold beyond which fitness merely protects from sedentary time, where fitness can make otherwise sedentary people thrive.

But this is irrelevant because when you work with me, the intention is to build a meaningful cushion of fitness and health for the preservation of independence and successful aging.

Misleading NYT Article: “Exercise not Path to strong Bones”

Read time: 90 seconds

Recently an article in the NYT claims that exercise has little to no effect on bones (you can read it here). The premise of the article is based on a 2012 study (pdf) — but, as too often the case in mainstream reporting, it omitted important details:

  • The subjects of the study were healthy females around 20 years old (±1.6), who are naturally at the prime of their bone development.
  • The study was designed to be short-term: only 13 weeks. We know exercise can change only so much in a short period.
  • The main objective was to determine if subtle changes in mineralization and geometry of the tibia can be measured following a short-term exercise intervention, and they were.
  • The exercise included stretches, warm-up, aerobics, and moderate strength training. Key word is “moderate.”

Perhaps the most egregious omission was the statement from the authors of the study:

“These results suggest that beneficial adaptation of trabecular bone may be an early manifestation of improved bone strength resulting from a well-designed training intervention.”

The NYT article isn’t wrong in its reporting, per se, but was evasive for its omission of crucial details. It’s misleading and especially dangerous, given its high number of readership.

Long-Term Exercise Interventions Build Bone Mass

Many past studies have shown significant bone increase in older people from longer-term exercise interventions.

A 6-month study (pdf) found that heavy resistance exercise significantly increased bone mineral density in older people between ages of 60 and 83. The resistance used was 80% of one-repitition maximum — certainly not moderate.

Another study showed that 25 weeks of resistance training produced significant bone density in women ages 75 to 85.

The NYT Article Failed to Put the Topic into Proper Context

Around age 30 people lose about 2% of bone mass per year, accelerating to 4% in later years. Close to 34M people by age 50 will have dangerously low bone density. Osteopenia and osteoporosis are characterized by low bone density, and those with this condition have lower survival rates (here and here).

Exercise effectively builds bone in this population. Here’s a case study with numerous patients who did strength training for one year — the results are staggering.

So, unlike the claim made by the NYT article that nothing can be done for bone, the right kind of exercise, like heavy resistance training, can prevent or reverse osteoporosis.