What is safe, sustainable strength training? What is the underlying philosophy/science it is based on? Who is this is for? Who might this not be for?
Safe Sustainable Strength Training, is based on concepts that have been around since at least the early 70’s, popularized at that time by Arthur Jones, founder and inventor of Nautilus machines. His Nautilus Bulletin #1 and Bulletin #2 summarized his thoughts on the topic. Many of the general guidelines had been around long before Nautilus, and in many respects some have opined that this is a return to basics. Many have contributed over the years to either further popularizing or helping to evolve what is often referred to as High Intensity Training (HIT) (not to be confused with HIIT which is high intensity interval training). In doing so, various branding has come to include Prescribed Exercise, Superslow, Slow Burn, and Renaissance to name but a few. Some of the originators of these modalities may readily acknowledge being under the umbrella of High Intensity Training, while others may feel the differences are sufficient to distinguish them as a separate and superior modality. Some years ago, Ken Hutchins defined proper exercise (see immediately below), and this does in fact still fit what we do.
“Exercise is a process whereby the body performs work of a demanding nature, in accordance with muscle and joint function, in a clinically-controlled environment, within the constraints of safety, meaningfully loading the muscular structures to inroad their strength levels to stimulate a growth mechanism within minimum time.”
In any case, common threads among each which are part and parcel of safe sustainable strength training include:
SAFETY: While the benefits of exercise have long been established, what gets less attention is the fact that the rate of injury, either chronic or acute, that results from so called fitness activities is extremely high. Unfortunately, in many cases, this is not only often accepted but sometimes even seen as some sort of macho badge of honour. Our facility seeks to administer exercise in a clinical setting, emphasizing low force, perfect form and posture, in order to first and foremost adhere to the medical imperative of “first, do no harm”.
DOSE-RESPONSE: Another common error that is made in exercise as well as many other life aspects, is the assumption that if a little is good, then more is better. In fact, proper exercise is a form of stress, that is beneficial only as a result of the adaptations we are able to make to protect ourselves from such stress. If the level of any stress is more than we can adapt to, it actually is a threat to our survival. Our bodies’ ability to make adaptations is often referred to as our “recovery ability” and is closely linked to our immune system. While the human body is amazingly adaptable, there are limits. Therefore, the goal with our facility is to provide adequate stimulus to have our bodies initiate these adaptations, but to regulate the stimulus, volume and frequency in such a way as to enable our bodies to actually recover and adapt, avoiding overtraining, which can result in long term detriment to our health. In fact, optimum health has been described as keeping proper balance between anabolism (building up) and catabolism (breaking down). Thus, Doug McGuff refers to the “therapeutic window” where, using the analogy of administering exercise as you would a drug; too little is ineffective, too much is toxic, but as with Goldilocks, the right balance will yield the best results. Recovery ability will vary greatly from individual to individual as well as within the same individual depending on nutrition, sleep, and other stresses that affect them.
EFFICIENCY and INTENSITY: Safety is of course, a critical advantage of this modality, as your physical conditioning will not improve if you are forced to stop exercising due to injury, or if, as you age, you are plagued with aches and pains as a result of wear and tear on your connective tissues. Another critical advantage is efficiency. Virtually all exercise modalities require you to be in the gym or out running for multiple weekly sessions ranging from 30 minutes to hours. This is one of the main reasons why people either don’t start or do not continue long term with their program. While you may actually feel guilty that you are not prepared to make and stick to the necessary time commitment, the good news is that proper exercise only requires a few minutes a week.
However, if this sounds too good to be true, there is, in fact a “catch”: The intensity of effort needs to be very high, which means a level of discomfort that most people will not enjoy, however, it doesn’t last long. Also, with some modalities that encourage higher intensity, they achieve this intensity by moving more quickly which can subject your body to forces that can create injury. In our facility, each exercise is carried to momentary muscular fatigue. This is done utilizing low force slow movements, so that we achieve intensity (even higher because slower movement creates continuous tension whereas quick movement, uses momentum), while still maintaining maximum safety.
EXERCISE VS RECREATION: Most of our clients will spontaneously become more active as a result of the increased energy and functional ability which will be the result of the exercise they do with us. We encourage clients to be active between workouts with a few caveats.
While this may seem like splitting hairs, we encourage being active between sessions not because of the benefits of such activity per se, but rather to avoid the harm that can come from spending too much time sitting or not moving, whether in front of a computer screen or television. It is simply a matter of moving around regularly to avoid excessive time in any one position.
If clients happen to enjoy running, biking or playing a sport (I enjoy hockey and my wife and I ballroom dance) than, again, some distinctions. We categorize these activities as “recreation” vs exercise, and this is not to downplay the value of recreation which has significant psychological and quality of life benefits. It is simply not to confuse exercise vs recreation, with the former being simply a matter of optimal conditioning in the safest, most efficient manner, and the latter being what we may enjoy doing, and which, depending on the activity may carry a degree of injury risk. More good news in that your new found muscular strength will help you to minimize injury risk during whatever recreational activities you choose to undertake. One way of looking at it, is that you don’t play sports to get in shape, you get in shape to improve your performance when playing sports and to help minimize the risk of injuries. It should be noted that if what you enjoy doing is reading or photography or some other sedentary activity, you have no need for additional exercise beyond your weekly or twice weekly exercise at our facility, along with just regularly moving around during the day, as previously stated.
In the event that you are an athlete, whether amateur or professional and part of your goal in coming to us is to improve your performance, then you will find our programs to be ideal. Because of the safety factor, you will avoid “hurting yourself in the weight room” plus the low time commitment will allow you spend more time practicing the specific skills of your chosen sport.
EXERCISE, FAT LOSS, NUTRITION: The role of exercise in fat loss, while important, has been dramatically overestimated. The simple truth is that you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. Proper strength training can help to ensure that the weight lost is more from fat stores than from skeletal muscle, which is, in itself, important as this will help with the appearance of the person losing weight. It will also help to keep metabolism high (perhaps not as much as once thought but every little bit helps) which is helpful in long term maintenance of weight loss. Another benefit is that it helps a person to burn calories long after the actual exercise. However, the calories burnt during and after any type of exercise plays a small role compared to proper diet. Being active,(as long as not excessive) seems to signal the body that it is okay to give up some of the fat stores that it might otherwise hoard for survival purposes in anticipation of a coming famine. In the end, though, if your diet is bad, none of the above will be enough to offset this.
Nutrition itself is widely debated, to say the least, and can create a great deal of confusion. While the calories in calories out model has been challenged and or defended, it is widely agreed that overall calories do play a part to be sure. Macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates and fat) ratios have also been a huge source of confusion. In the end, where we come at it is summarized this way:
If you are eating a reasonably balanced diet with at least adequate or a small surplus of complete protein from quality sources, with the balance coming from some of each of fat and carbohydrates, (again from quality sources) and that your overall food intake is not excessive, it is very unlikely that the amount of fat and/or carbs you consume will be detrimental. In other words, for most people it is not so much that they consume too much fat and/or too many carbs, it is just that they are consuming too much food overall. The human body has shown that it can be very adaptable in utilizing either fat or carbs as energy. While science may eventually come up with some sort of optimal diet, and some people may do better with more of one or the other depending on how much and what type of activity they engage in, we believe that the above guidelines will result in a massive improvement for the vast majority of clients over the typical Canadian diet. In discussing nutrition with clients, we delve deeper into what we mean by quality sources.
Note that foods that combine both fat and carbs in the absence of protein tend to be almost impossible not to overeat. Some have suggested this is because this combination affects the pleasure centres of the brain the way drugs do. I’ve also read that we need a certain amount of protein, and we will keep eating until we get enough, so with foods that contain little or no protein, we are more likely to consume larger quantities. Still others simply state that foods with fat and carbs and low protein tend to taste really, really good (hyper palatability). Either way, you should think of these foods as occasional treats. For some, moderation is more difficult than abstaining, so as with drugs and alcohol, abstaining may be the best option for these individuals.
The statistics with weight loss can be very daunting in that it has been estimated that the vast majority of people who lose weight, eventually gain all of it back and add even more. There are also some indications that losing and gaining throughout life repeatedly may actually be as harmful if not more harmful than simply staying over fat. For this reason, anyone taking on the challenge of improving their body composition, must, as with many aspects of life, take on a long term SUSTAINABLE strategy to do so, and they must make daily commitments in order to form habits for life. For this reason, we highly recommend support systems, whether it be smartphone apps, support groups, or the use of quality meal replacements. Over the years, I’ve worked with many of these methods. Each client should choose whatever system they are comfortable with that includes accountability parameters, and some sort of support system.
I use a martial art analogy, in stating that if your goal is PERMANENT weight loss/maintenance, you are getting in the ring with a formidable adversary, and underestimating this opponent by going in with less than a well structured game plan taking into account lasting through an almost infinite (lifetime) number of rounds will in fact make you one more statistic among the yo yo dieters.
CONDITIONING VS SKILL PRACTICE: A current trend in fitness is so called functional training, the idea that exercise modalities should mimic either daily or sports activities. The theory is that this type of exercise will created a more “functional” fitness by transferring into so called “real world” movements. We do not agree with this for a number of reasons.
First of all, muscles only contract and fatigue, and the best way to do that is within normal joint functions. As an example, the function of the biceps is to bend the arm and supinate the wrist, therefore the best and safest way to strengthen the biceps is through an exercise that does that.
Secondly, skill acquisition research shows that when you practice a specific skill, depending on how you practice, you will achieve either positive, neutral or negative transfer. If you practice under conditions that are virtually identical to the skill you seek to improve, the transfer will be positive, meaning that your skill in that activity will improve. If you do an activity that is completely different than the skill you seek to improve, it will have a neutral transfer, meaning it will not help or hinder in any way. If you practice in a way that is similar but different (using a weighted bat in baseball for example), it will create a negative transfer and actually hinder your skill.
There is no such thing as overall “balance” whereas someone does an exercise on a bosu ball for example and expects this to improve their balance in other activities. We advocate getting as strong as possible by working your muscles safely, efficiently and in alignment with joint function, and then, as a separate activity, practicing whatever specific skill you want to improve.
Closely aligned with this is the idea that one should train explosively in order to develop either “speed or power” (terms that are never well defined). Moving explosively creates high forces and exponentially increases the probability of injury. People who get “faster” at a certain activity, typically do so, because of skill conditioning where they learn to do that activity more efficiently, eliminating any inessential movement rather than actually moving faster per se. The idea that moving faster will better target fast twitch fibres, while not being totally false, again does so with high forces. When carrying a set to momentarily muscular fatigue, these fast twitch fibres are engaged in a far safer way. Note that at the end of a set, you are in fact moving “as fast as you can”, albeit that is still very slow because of being thoroughly fatigued and research shows that it is the “attempt” to move quickly that targets fast twitch fibres, and not necessarily “actually” moving quickly.
If you can get really strong and do so in minimum time without hurting yourself, you will become far more “functional” in your day to day activities, particularly as you age and what becomes more important are what long term care facilities refer to as “activities of daily living” which include transferring (getting up and going somewhere), toileting, bathing, dressing and feeding. Getting groceries out of the car and playing with grandchildren is great as well. 🙂
CARDIOVASCULAR BENEFITS: In 1968, Kenneth Cooper published a book called Aerobics and this started the running craze. Dr. Cooper became known at one point as the doctor “who saved America’s hearts”, but later some opined that he might be the doctor “who ruined America’s knees.”. Below are three videos that address this and show why proper strength training addresses all aspects of fitness including cardiovascular fitness, not only in a safer manner but far more effectively that steady state activities, such as running, swimming or cycling. If you compete in these activities you need to practice them in order to become more efficient at them. If you enjoy these activities, ensure you don’t do to excess and understand that they have far greater injury potential. If you actually don’t enjoy these, but believe you need to do them for your heart and lungs, then the videos below will bring you the good news that they are not necessary for overall fitness.
There’s No Such Thing as Cardio / James Steele. (60 minutes)
Cardio Does Not Exist / Doug McGuff M.D. (5 minutes)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Is this for everyone? While my obvious bias would automatically answer yes, and I could make a case (as I’ve tried to do above) for the many benefits and advantages, there are definitely people who may not gravitate towards this methodology. They may include:
-People who genuinely enjoy spending a lot of the time in a gym, either because of the social aspect or just enjoy spending longer periods actually lifting weights.
-People who feel that their exercise needs to be “fun” for them to stick to it long term. (The intensity of effort will cause discomfort, however, it is brief and you will have more time and energy to devote to other “fun” activities.)
-People who simply would prefer not to work as hard as this modality requires i.e. going to momentary muscular fatigue/failure. (while the intensity can be reduced and compensated for by adding a degree of additional volume and/or frequency, results will not come without outright hard work; again the good news is that it is brief and relatively infrequent.)
-People who are looking to achieve fitness by practicing a sport and are motivated by a spirit of competition against others. While this is not necessarily exclusive to this type of conditioning, the two should not be confused. It is our view, as previously stated, that you get in shape to practice a sport, and not the other way around.
I look forward to comments or questions during your complimentary introductory session.