10 Nuggets, Tips and Tricks on Energy System Training

ESTEnergy system training (EST) is always a hot topic in the fitness and athletic development industries.

And unfortunately, I think there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to EST.

With everyone looking to get leaner, more “toned,” or just look and feel like a sexy beast, it’s natural to assume that glycolytic and/or anaerobic training is all you really need.

Couple that with the fact that black and white statements make for the best sound bites, and you have a recipe for a lot of poor information.

Below are 10 random nuggets, tips and tricks to get more out of your EST. Enjoy!

1. Think of your body as the most efficient, effective machine known to man.

You tell it to get bigger, it gets bigger. You tell it to get stronger, it gets stronger.

The same goes with energy system training.

If you train for aerobic development, the body does everything in its power to become more efficient within the aerobic energy system.

More aerobic enzymes.

A bigger left ventricle of the heart.

Improved utilization of oxygen at the muscular level, etc.

And the converse is true as well. If you train the anaerobic system religiously, your body is going to become more efficient anaerobically as well.

This may seem like a very bland statement, but it’s also powerful. We have to remember that every form of exercise we do sends a signal to our body, which will then create an adaptation.

2. Aerobic energy system training and anaerobic energy system training are in direct competition with each other.

If we can agree that the body is super smart and is constantly trying to adapt to the training we impose upon it, then we start to realize that maybe we can’t do everything at once.

CompetingDemandsLet’s say you’re doing some lower intensity exercise, or working in a more aerobic zone. This will set off a cascade of adaptations, as your body will want to become more efficient and effective at aerobic exercise.

But if you train anaerobically, the body moves in an entirely different direction. As you can see from the chart on the right (which was pulled from my Program Design lecture at the Elite Athletic Development seminar) you can see why training for all physical qualities simultaneously isn’t a great idea.

Quite simply, the adaptations we’re trying to achieve are in direct competition with each other.

Aerobic training develops aerobic enzymes. Anaerobic training develops anaerobic enzymes.

Aerobic training builds mitochondria. Anaerobic training destroys mitochondria.

Aerobic training stimulates the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. Anaerobic training stimulates the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system.

Instead of building both simultaneously (which only works for beginners), focus instead on building your pyramid from the ground up.

3.  Don’t focus on glycolytics/anaerobic development without an aerobic base.

One of the biggest issues I see is when athletes constantly bombard their system with glycolytic and high-intensity exercise.

AerobicVAnaerobicThink of your energy system development as a pyramid. At the bottom you have your low-intensity (aerobic) exercise, in the middle your moderate intensity exercise, and at the top is your high intensity (glycolytic/anaerobic) exercise.

If all you do is focus on the top, you’ll never expand your base. This will ultimately limit your ability to do high-intensity work for prolonged periods of time.

On the other hand if you take the time to build a “base,” you’ll have the foundation to do more high-intensity work, when you start training it.

This is just one reason why performing glycolytic and high-intensity work year-round isn’t the best idea. Even wrestlers and MMA fighters who fight in inverted work:rest ratios will benefit from developing a base first, and then moving into high-intensity bouts and efforts as they get closer to a competition.

4.  “You get 8 seconds of free energy.” – Charlie Francis

This is in reference to the creatine phosophate system, but quite simply, you have 8 seconds of free energy until these ATP-CP stores are topped out. From there, your aerobic and/or glycolytic energy systems will take over.

On a side note, Charlie Francis was really, really smart.

5. All of your energy systems turn on simultaneously.

I don’t know about you, but when I learned physiology you probably walked away with the impression that your energy systems turn on in order.

First your alactic or ATP/CP system turns on for 6 to 8 seconds.

Then, when it runs out of fuel, your anaerobic/glycolytic system turns on for up to ~2 minutes.

After that, your aerobic system revs up and turns on.

And unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.

Instead, all of your energy systems turn on simultaneously, and then up or down regulate based upon how intense the exercise is.

So even if you’re going hard for 30 seconds or one minute, your anaerobic/glycolytic system may be doing the lions share of the work, but your aerobic system is working as hard as it possibly can, too.

6. Respect the Power-Capacity Continuum.

Numerous smart coaches (i.e. Patrick Ward, Mladen Jovanovic, etc.) have discussed the power-capacity continuum recently. In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a very brief synopsis:

power-capacityAll sports and/or exercises can be placed somewhere along the power-capacity continuum. On the left hand side you have the very power dominant sports such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or the throws in track.

Essentially, you do something once with great speed/strength/power, and then chill out for an extended period of time.

On the opposite side of the spectrum you have sports/exercises that go on for extended periods of time, yet speed/strength/power output is relatively low. Here you can think triathletes or marathon runners. (Photo courtesy of Mladen Jovanovic.)

power-capacityObviously these are the far ends of the spectrum. Most team sports fit more in the middle.

The graphic to the right is one I created for the EADS course with Joe Kenn. Here we’ve taken the middle portion of the above graphic and placed it on it’s own continuum.

Baseball would be the most “power” dominant team sport, as it’s very explosive paired with long periods of rest or recovery in between bouts.

On the opposite end, you have soccer. While there is obviously a strong power/speed/strength component, these athletes also need a tremendous amount of capacity. After all, it doesn’t matter how good you look in the first 15 minutes – if you can’t make runs in the 80th, 85th, or 90th minute, you’re in big trouble!

Once you start to understand and respect the power-capacity continuum, it makes programming EST for any athletes much, much easier.

7. Aerobic training is fantastic for recovery.

One of the best things about aerobic training is how it expedites and improves recovery. Not only does this make you a more efficient beast in between sets and exercises, but it also expedites recovery in between workouts as well.

Taking this a step further, I love to put aerobic/low-intensity training on off-days to promote active recovery. Whether it’s cardiac output, a pool session, or even high-intensity continuous training, I firmly believe that active recovery is preferable to passive means.

Don’t think this applies to strength and power sports athletes?

Think again.

Louie Simmons noticed a dramatic shift in the performance of his powerlifters when they started incorporating sled dragging and general physical preparation (GPP) into their training programs.

Whether it was due to the active recovery component, improved cardiac output, improved parasympathetic/vagal tone, or some mix of these (and other) factors, the fact of the matter is it works.

8. Real glycolytic and anaerobic training is horrible.

It’s humorous hearing people talk about doing “Tabata” protocols, or high-intensity training, when most are doing nothing of the sort.

Prowler-FluFirst of all, true “Tabata” style workouts were done at 170% of VO2 max. This is a ridiculously high intensity, which most people have never (nor will they ever) encounter.

But taking this a step further, going with balls-out intensity for 30, 60 or 90 seconds, is absolutely, positively horrible.  When I have to write this type of workout for an athlete, I go through a brief moment of silence because I know how horrible it really is.

If you don’t believe me, go in the gym, warm-up, and ride an AirDyne for 30 seconds with legitimate, all-out intensity.

And let me know how you feel afterwards!

9. Did you know you can change your heart?

Did you know you can develop your heart, much like you can develop your muscles?

Just like lifting progressively heavier weights builds bigger muscles, smart EST can create specific adaptations in your heart.

heartFirst off, as I alluded to in my “You NEED Long Duration, Low Intensity Cardio,” low intensity exercise promotes an eccentric lengthening/stretching of the left ventricle of your heart.

When performed for extended periods of time, this creates an adaptation where you can effectively get more blood in and out of your left ventricle with each beat (i.e. increased stroke volume).

And since you’re moving more blood per beat, that means your heart can beat less often, lowering your heart rate.

Quite simply, you can make your heart more efficient.

But here’s another cool thing – we know that mitochondria are the powerhouse cell of our body. High intensity exercise (~60 seconds) performed at a max heart rate, followed up with an extended rest period of ~5 minutes, can stimulate the heart to lay mitochondria within itself!

Pretty cool, eh?

Just remember – everything we do in exercise promotes an adaptation of some kind. If you want to learn more of this stuff and become an absolute ninja with EST, be sure to check out Joel Jamieson’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning book. It’s in my Top 5 books of all time for performance coaches and personal trainers.

10. Keeping it fun is critical.

Last but not least, EST training can be downright brutal.

Or, it can also be painfully boring.

One of the best tips I can give you is to work on keeping it fresh.

Sure there’s a time for sport-specific or movement-specific work, but there are also times where you can make it more general in an effort to get a quality adaptation, while also keeping it fun and engaging.

For instance if you’re doing cardiac output, don’t feel like you have to do cyclical exericse on a treadmill, bike or elliptical.

Create circuits where you’re throwing med balls, pushing the Prowler, or doing correctives and mobility drills.

Quite simply, the more fun and engaging it is, the more likely you are to stick with it and reap the benefits.


So there you have it, 10 quick nuggets, tips and tricks on energy system training.

Physiology wasn’t my primary focus in school, but I’ve worked my arse off to learn more about it. I figure my athletes deserve it.

I hope if EST isn’t your forte, that you’ll come back frequently this month. I’ve got some great materials on tap that I know you’re going to enjoy.

All the best


(Lead photo courtesy of Tulane Public Relations)

Get 3 days of my best coaching materials — for free.


Notebook with pencil icon Write better programs
Trophy icon Learn how to motivate clients outside the gym
Meditation icon My most popular resets for instantly improving movement quality


Leave Comment

  1. #10 is the biggest take home point.. it’s where you have to actually program the athletes’s needs matched to the EST method you’re using. We have had huge success creating principles for each method, and then coming up with 2-3 variations for each. The key for our athletes has been keeping away from more technical skills and sticking to the ridiculous basics. Doing EST calls for a lot of HR, distance, reps, recovery time, etc. recordings. We keep the movements simple so the athletes don’t get lost as the methods rolls on.

    • Absolutely right. Athletes get enough pounding from sports coaches – I want them to enjoy training with me. They end up working harder in the end as well!

  2. Not that I’m against this style of training, I use it myself, but I always find the real improvements come through high intensity stuff. When I was a LT in the Army I had my platoon do intervals almost every day with the occasional low intensity stuff and we had the top PT scores both individually and as a platoon in our brigade. Since Jamieson wrote his book I keep seeing people bring this up, but I don’t see the improvements promised from the low intensity stuff alone.

    • Jay – Would you mind if I take this and spin it into a full post? I think you bring up a great point, and I think I could explain why we need to see both sides of the equation.

      Let me know boss!

      • Sure, I’d like it! I do low intensity/long durations stuff as a break from higher intensity, but I always end up in worse shape performance wise until I peak it out again.

        • Jay,

          No one ever said to do “low intensity alone” and most often it requires a combination of both. Rarely does only high intensity provide long-term results just as doing nothing but low-intensity will ultimately fail to provide enough stimulus at some point. The key is effective programing, it’s not an either or equation and nowhere have I ever said to do nothing but low intensity training only for weeks or months on end.

          Joel Jamieson

          • I understand that it isn’t an either or thing, I get that. What I’m trying to say is that If I work on lowering my RHR for any amount of time, my ability becomes worse until I phase through higher intensity training (I guess it could be called peaking). I definitely believe you can’t just kill intensity forever. Unless I’m misunderstanding something from your book this is generally how it is done periods at lower, aerobic intensities, followed by peaking using higher intensities. So by that, I think I should be able to build a greater rate of work at lower intensities during those aerobic periods. For example running in the 120-150 HR zone I should be able to cover more distance throughout that time. I don’t see progress until I peak again using higher intensity training. I hope this makes sense.

          • 1 more things Joel, just to give you thorough information about me, my RHR averages at around 65. I’ve trained it as low as about 55bpm. However, regardless of my RHR, I’ll recover to 125-130 BPM from 175-180 in a minute or less, which is indicative of a strong aerobic system. I bring this up because maybe I’m an outlier in some way. But just wanted to give you good info.

  3. “High intensity exercise (~60 seconds) performed at a max heart rate,
    followed up with an extended rest period of ~5 minutes, can stimulate
    the heart to lay mitochondria within itself! ” Is this info from Joel’s book? Great post, I look forward to the next one!

    • Dan – Yes, it absolutely is from Joel’s book. It’s a fantastic resource.

      Glad you enjoyed the post – thanks!!

  4. I could not have loved, and gotten excited by, this post more. Super informative, and it definitely supports what my experience has been with finding balance within training for the greatest outcomes. I appreciate your clear explanation of the science of it all, too.

  5. Great post as always Mike. I’m a fan of the shift towards the aerobic-anaerobic alactic paradigm although i have to say i get a bit skeptical when i see energy systems training and subsequent adaptations presented as an aerobic/anaerobic dichotomy. Am i right in saying anaerobic conditioning per se doesn’t necessarily reduce mitochondrial density or capillarisation rather the concomitant hypertrophy associated with such training reduces the relative density versus any change in absolute volume? Let’s be careful of that swinging pendulum and not demonize a particular mode like we did aerobic conditioning for so long, time and a place and all that haha!

  6. Mike,

    This is an awesome article. One of the biggest problems I have with clients is getting them to realize that each session (and exercise withing that session) sends a signal to the body which creates the stage for an adaptation for the future. And your training effect (long term) is the cumulative effect of those signals and adaptions.

    So many people think:
    Treadmill: I burned fat
    Weights: I built muscle

    So many people never take into account how these interact and affect each other…..well done.

    I also agree Charlie Francis was really really smart….

    remember – everything we do in exercise promotes an adaptation of some
    kind. – See more at:
    remember – everything we do in exercise promotes an adaptation of some
    kind. – See more at:
    remember – everything we do in exercise promotes an adaptation of some
    kind. – See more at:

  7. Mike ,
    Let’s assume one is a baseball pitcher or powetlifter. Meaning you go hard once and rest, like you mentioned in the article. I would assume you would want to train in the atp/cp energy system, right? How long duration would you set these exercises for, 5-8 second bursts, then rest?

  8. Very informative. In particular, I like the way you apply the neural/metabolic continuum to aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. It makes me think that in designing an off season program for hockey players that over the five month period, just as we move from the metabolic towards the neural with regard to resistance training (high reps v. low reps), we could also move similarly with regard to the EST training, build a strong aerobic base during the beginning and middle of the program (sled pushing and dragging is great for hockey), and then end the last six weeks of the program with higher intensity interval training as a final preparation for the selection camp.

  9. Great article Mike! What’s the minimum aerobic-type training you’d prescribe to a strength/power athlete, like a powerlifter?

  10. These are some truly insightful, very well presented tips! Had to go through some of them twice in order to grasp the information. I am especially glad to see aerobic training being explored as a means of recovery from anaerobic workouts – it’s a good way to look at lower intensity exercise from a psychological point of view, too – giving yourself this type of mindset gives your whole system time to recover from constantly ‘competing’ and ‘pursuing goals’.

  11. One main aspect I learned over the years of training is the importance of specify, training of specific muscles ( bodybuilding exercises have their place :)) ) and doing more high and low intensity cardio. John Parrillo said it years back to get bodybuilders, ( most other athletes ) to do more low intensity cardio for better recovery. Sometimes complete rest is overrated and we should do something instead of nothing on our off days.


  12. Hi Mike,

    I’m just wondering if you have any supporting literature for the part your talking about in #9?

    “High intensity exercise (~60 seconds) performed at a max heart rate, followed up with an extended rest period of ~5 minutes, can stimulate the heart to lay mitochondria within itself!”

    Very curious where you came up with this.

Leave a Reply

Back to All Posts