Originally posted at www.t-nation.com
We have some good news for you. The New Year’s resolution crowd, famous for clogging up the gym for the first two months of every year, is starting to dwindle. As they devolve back into their sedentary lifestyles, you have the opportunity to evolve your training program to reach even greater heights. In this series, we’ll show you how!
X-Men and T-Men
From childhood, boys are shown through the pages of comic books what a superhero should look like: muscular, strong and powerful. One of our favorite titles is the X-Men series, where a superior class of being has evolved a step or two ahead of other humans. But you don’t have to be a mutant to embrace what you can become, which is much bigger and stronger than the average person in your gym!
I told you not to curl in the squat rack!
T-Men can evolve their training to improve the form and function of the human body. In this three part series, we’ll investigate training options that can greatly enhance most programs with simple yet effective tweaks to currently established methods. The purpose of our first article is to challenge the currently accepted dogma; specifically, examining the interaction between aerobic training and resistance training from a different angle.
What we propose isn’t necessarily a revolution in the industry, but an enhancement of your current training. We’ve read countless theories as to why aerobic or cardiovascular training should be done after weight training, and many of the rationales are reasonable. As well, high intensity interval training, or HIIT, is also “en vogue” as the preferred way to melt fat off your body like a George Foreman grill.
But, what if we were to propose something so bold, so blasphemous that it actually worked? Not only are we going to go against the grain once, but twice for good measure. We propose you perform low-intensity cardio before training!
Have we both finally gone off the deep end? Decide for yourself. Below are most of the arguments as to why cardio should be placed after strength training. We’ve placed our counterpoints immediately following the popular arguments. While most of the reasons for placing cardio after resistance training are valid at first glance, you’ll begin to see such theories aren’t as strongly supported by research or empirical evidence as once believed.
Rocks vs. Boomerangs
Theory One: Performing aerobic training before resistance training will fatigue the body, impairing strength qualities during the resistance training workout later in the session. Doing strength training first ensures that the body is fresh and fully rested for the demands of heavy squatting, benching and other intense movements.
Counterpoint: The first theory of aerobic work interfering with maximal strength can be true if you’re doing very demanding metabolic training such as sprint intervals. If you use a lower intensity bracket, however, you won’t be fatigued before your weight training, so this theory is null and void.
If you’re fatigued to the point that performance is compromised during resistance training, your method of cardiovascular stress beforehand was far too intense and shouldn’t be used before strength training. You can do 30 to 45 minutes of low intensity aerobic work before maximal lifting and actually increase your numbers in the gym if you free your mind from the conventional means of cardio such as jogging, rowing or cycling. This is the most important change suggested in this article; a huge array of enhancements can be included if you decide to do our circuit model instead of imitating gerbils trapped on running wheels!
Bodybuilder or Gerbil?
We’ve come up with a way to get the most bang for your training buck, to satisfy all the needs of getting in your cardio, core training, flexibility, prehabilitation work and even improve your body alignment for optimal muscle function. You don’t have to use repetitive movements or cyclical activities to challenge your cardiovascular system!
The heart and lungs don’t care what you do to challenge it, providing that it uses oxygen as fuel. Aerobic work is any type of energy system training that’s continuous over an extended period of time. Given this broad parameter, a trainee should think about placing his abdominal training, postural work, prehabilitation and dynamic flexibility work into a circuit to kill many birds with one boomerang.
Remember, we T-Men are the homo-superiors of training, and no longer throw stones since a boomerang is a far better hunting tool. Not only does a boomerang come back to you to be used over and over, on the way back it may hit another bird due to its circular flight path. Let the apes of the gym throw rocks while we feast on game bird with superior physiques!
Suggesting that some ab work, postural improvement exercises, and light medicine ball training before lifting will decrease a squat is insane if you think about how you actually lift to warm-up for lifting. If you have any work capacity whatsoever, you should be fine with doing your core training and body maintenance work first, before heavy lifting.
Ford Escorts vs. Ferraris
Theory Two: Weight training is the most valuable component of a fitness program and should be a priority based on all of the benefits it offers to health and cosmetic appearance. Studies show that resistance training has an enormous impact on metabolism and overall function of the body. Therefore, doing strength training first will ensure that the best mode is performed while being mentally fresh.
Counterpoint: The second theory we agree with philosophically, but physiologically we have a different view of what a responsible trainee should do in order to prepare for lifting. If weight training is so vital, why, as performance coaches, do we prepare so little for it or invest so little to prevent injuries?
In Training for Speed, Charlie Francis shares his wisdom of how to train elite sprinters. In his own words, he uses a sports car analogy to convey important rules of how to prepare for training. For example, when you buy a Ferrari, you don’t start tearing around the block in January first thing in the morning, do you? Instead, you turn it on to run for a bit to make sure the motor is warmed up properly before you start driving. High performance cars are constantly in need of service because they’re prone to breakdown.
This is your body. Drive carefully.
Now, think of your body as a high performance automobile: why not service yourself by warming up properly with longer sessions of core and maintenance work? If you normally warm-up for lifting for 10 minutes anyway, why not extend it 20 or more with the exercises nobody wants to do when tired?
Exercises for the abs, rotator cuff, gluteals, scapular stabilizers, etc., are the first to be “skipped” when in a rush. This is, in fact, an ideal time to get these done while simultaneously preparing you for a great workout.
Ronnie Coleman vs. Lance Armstrong
Theory Three: After resistance training, the body is in a fat burning shift because it’s somewhat depleted of intramuscular and liver glycogen stores. Heavy resistance training will create a hormonal environment that’s conducive to fat loss, making the cardio session more effective by enabling a greater amount of fat to be burned.
Another similar theory popularized by experts is that pre-exhausted muscle fiber will tap into the fat stores more quickly and efficiently; the body is depleted of its primary substrate (glycogen), and therefore needs to burn fat as its primary fuel.
Counterpoint: In his article, Cardio Confusion, Eric Cressey explains how to integrate cardio circuits with specific percentages and heart rates. This info is great to help ensure you don’t train too high on the energy system spectrum (near the anaerobic zone).
One point to consider is that performing cardiovascular training is inherently a catabolic reaction, and will break down substrates to fuel your body. Weight lifting is generally an anabolic reaction, meaning the training stimulates growth of the neuromuscular system. If you’re in a growth phase of your training, why start becoming catabolic after training when you should be focusing on optimal recovery?
Quite often, you’ll see trainees riding a stationary bike like they’re about to win the Tour de France when they’re supposed to be in a building or mass phase! By performing cardio first, you can drink your Surge after weight training and then go home to recover. This helps maintain your hormonal state of anabolism and growth.
This is training for strength and mass?!
While it has yet to be validated from research, amino acids are in the bloodstream after intense weight training and may be burned during the cardio session. Some experts may scoff at the notion of burning your damaged muscle away, but performing cardio first has always kept our athletes lean and strong.
Watching Reality TV vs. Actually Having a Brain
Theory Four: High intensity cardio not only burns a greater amount of fat per minute than traditional low intensity cardio, it creates a deficit so enormous that your metabolism is elevated for hours after the training session ends. This phenomenon, called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), is vital to being lean because it continues to burn fat even when you’re finished training. Traditional cardio that uses a lower intensity bracket doesn’t have the same long-lasting impact on the metabolic system.
Counterpoint: Although the above argument isn’t about performing cardio before or after weight training, it seems to be tossed into the mix as a desperate attempt to sabotage the “cardio before” defense. We’ve heard this isolation argument many times when debating what form of cardio is best, but we’re talking about the entire training program, not individual modes of exercise.
What we’re focusing on is doing cardio first followed by weight training, not debating what form of aerobic training can burn more fat calories. We’re going to explain how weight training and cardio interact together in a program, and how the physiological responses can be harnessed to get even greater results in the weight room and in your body composition.
Sure, you may burn more fat grams per minute sprinting on a treadmill, but we also assume that your diet is geared towards achieving the same goals as well.
Finally, we realize that EPOC is very effective in using fat to help the body recover from intense training. Instead, take advantage of this by lifting at high intensities after the cardio circuit.
High intensity treadmill running has swept the nation like a new reality TV show, and has some hidden issues of its own. In Part II, we’ll discuss the theory and methodology behind performing a low-intensity cardio circuit prior to training, as well as how it can increase the weights you’re using in those workouts to boot!