Originally posted at www.t-nation.com
In Part I, we discussed the many pros and cons associated with traditional “cardio” practices. In today’s training world, most experts would agree that high intensity interval training (HIIT) performed after resistance training is the best way to get lean. While neither of us disregards the benefits of those practices, we want to shed some light on why low-intensity cardio performed before your workout can help you lean out and get stronger in the process.
The goal of this article series is to show you an alternative. We’re not saying this is the one and only way to perform cardio; instead, it’s merely an option in your cardio arsenal. Cardio is like any other form of training; when it becomes stagnant or monotonous, its days in your training program are numbered.
Power Zone Parameter
We know that cardio performed too intensely can cause hormonal and structural changes in the body; however, we don’t necessarily want some of these changes when seeking hypertrophy and strength. To safeguard us from training too intensely, we need to set a parameter that’ll keep us in the correct range of efforts.
Like the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, we must not fly too high (or too low, in this case), or we’ll be in trouble. If we perform our cardio at too low an intensity, we won’t promote the fat loss or cardiovascular adaptations we’re seeking to gain. If we perform our cardio at too high an intensity, we’ll fatigue ourselves before our strength training, thus reducing our levels of strength and endogenous Testosterone output.
So what is this magical zone when doing energy system training? Currently, T-Nation contributor Eric Cressey recommends being in the 60% heart rate range and 30-40% 1RM range for the low-intensity weight circuits. We wholeheartedly agree. Most strength trainees will find percentages of 1RM to be very straightforward, but how do we know that the entire session is truly challenging the heart and lungs, especially when most of us aren’t used to training outside the cardio room?
Furthermore, how do we continue to improve our cardiovascular systems over time, without resorting to running marathons? What does this zone feel like? How do we monitor and gauge ourselves to stay within this energy system zone?
When doing any aerobic activity, no matter how light, lactate levels are elevated in the blood due to aerobic metabolism. This rise may feel like nothing at low levels of activity, up to the feeling of hot magma burning your legs when doing Christian Thibaudeau’s Running Man workout. The amount of lactate in your blood (units called mmols for physiologists), will be dependent on intensity. We’ve taken the burden of collecting the elements that provide the optimal zone of effort, so don’t fret about VO2 Max, ventilatory threshold, blood lactate levels, and percent heart rate. Focus instead on making sure your training schedule includes the items in our circuit checklist and you’ll be good to go.
Before is Better: Here’s Why
We’ve created some very user-friendly methods of ensuring that you get the most out of your workouts. Over the last six months we experimented with what menus of exercises will fit in the power zone parameter easily and without error. Before we get into what you must do, let us address some benefits of doing low intensity training first for athletes and trainees.
Both of us agree, if you don’t see a strong set of reasons to do something, an article becomes worthless no matter how great the training may sound. Here are a few reasons why you should jump on our “before is better” bandwagon.
Reason #1: Neuromuscular System Recovery
After intense training the body is “politely injured” to the point of being forced to repair itself and to adapt to function in the future. If the muscle has structural damage, low intensity training will help remove cellular debris while simultaneously helping deliver fresh oxygen into the newly repaired fibers.
While nobody is claiming that 30 to 45 minutes of cardio will add slabs of muscle from enhanced recovery, it may add just enough to make an impact. Simply put, by implementing light circuits into your program, you’ll be able to recover better from the previous workout.
Similar to a bottle of Drano, the blood flushes away necrotic cellular debris from the “dumbbell damage” that occurred from the previous session. This metabolic pumping action will help with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. Low intensity aerobic training releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neuron fertilizer which may help repair both gray and white matter in the brain (1). No current research clearly establishes the link between light aerobic work and CNS regeneration, but the history of success with elite athletes seems to indicate that light workouts help speed recovery.
Reason #2: Precision Fat Burning
In many sports, doing training sessions at 60% of your VO2 max (the range we suggest) will create a hormonal environment that maximizes the aerobic benefits without causing CNS fatigue. Current research indicates that the hormone insulin and its relationship with fat cells is no longer a mystery.
By performing cardio at lower levels, you burn a higher percentage of fat and increase insulin sensitivity. In fact, at the range suggested, insulin drops to its lowest point during exercise, creating a fat burning haven for those wishing to get lean (2). Being more insulin sensitive will make post-workout formulas like Surge more effective due to the insulin drive mechanisms.
Also, when burning mostly fat, you decrease the risks of lowering your liver and intramuscular glycogen levels to the point of dangerous cortisol influx. While cortisol does play an important role in repair and metabolism, unnecessary spikes in the level of blood cortisol can cause losses in muscle mass and strength.
Reason #3: Capillary Super Highway
In Cardio Confusion, the author illustrated that increased branching of capillaries from aerobic training will spread to your Type I fibers. Can increasing the capillary density to your slow twitch muscle help your fast twitch Type II fibers? Yes!
A general improvement in blood flow will help increase the cellular metabolism in the general area. Capillaries act as roads to transport blood and nutrients to your muscle cells, and any increase is bound to help with recovery and growth. Greater capillary branching will also keep your body warmer, increasing caloric expenditure and decreasing your susceptibility to injury. If your muscles are more plastic from higher temperatures, the likelihood of injury will decrease.
Reason #4: The Venom Transport Method
When bitten by a snake, you’re told not to move because the venom will spread through the body via the bloodstream. This is due to increased function of the cardiovascular system and higher rates of blood flow. But, what if we had something good in our bloodstream? Something that’ll improve our performance? Something like Spike? Performing a light circuit that’s aerobic in nature allows proper distribution of your pre-workout supplements into the bloodstream.
So, you take Spike and then begin your extended warm-up. With the added capillary density from previous sessions, your warm-up and Spike transport will be more effective. The blood and improved cardiovascular system do their jobs and shuttle the supplement so that your muscles will be primed and ready to go.
The P.H.I.R.E Circuit Checklist
P.H.I.R.E. is the acronym we came up with to summarize the many goals of our cardio circuit. It stands for Prehabilitative High Intensity Recovery Exercise. The number of needs that can be covered in a short period of time is enormous. Just make sure that whatever you choose to do includes some of the basic needs given below.
Now, we know some of you are going to be screaming “But you’re talking about low intensity; why are you calling this high intensity?” Because most of the recovery work being done out there consists of feeding your face in front of the tube! This exercise is definitely higher intensity recovery work than what you were doing before. Plus, you try making up a catchy acronym for what we’re doing! We like it, so there!
A circuit will give you a cardiovascular challenge to provide all the health benefits of aerobic training. We like most power athletes’ heart rates to be between 120-150 bpm. Optimal aerobic output in our circuit feels like a light jog where you can keep a very simple conversation going, but not so easy that you leave without a real sweat. Your goal is to have your shirt sweat stained, but not soaked to the point that you look like you went swimming!
Other benefits of chronic cardiovascular training to strength and power athletes are (3):
1) Increased connective tissue development
2) Increased muscle fuel storage
3) Increased oxidative/glycolytic enzymes
4) Increased capillarization
Weight Specific Warm-up
Unlike a stationary cycle, elliptical trainer or treadmill, our cardiovascular option provides specific preparatory methods to ensure safety when going heavy. It’ll also help with maximizing performance during the workout itself. As sad as it is to say, we know a ton of people who perform absolutely no warm-up prior to lifting! This stuff is a lot more exciting than pounding away on the stepper, and it’s more effective to boot.
In case you needed some specifics, here are just a few reasons why warming-up will help you move more iron:
• Increased rate and strength of muscle contraction
• Increased muscle coordination through related movements
• Increased metabolic rate
• Increased efficiency of the neuromuscular system
• Increased work capacity
• Reduced possibility of injury through increased muscle elasticity and improving joint ROM
• Psychological benefits
(From USA Weightlifting Handbook)
Now, let’s dig a little deeper. We know we want to do an extended warm-up, but what specific exercises can we include? And how will these movements impact training? Here’s a broad list of the types of exercises that fit well into our program:
1. Spinal Flossing
The term “neural flossing” has been around for several years. The term “spinal flossing” is an expansion on this topic and includes several yoga-like movements. The goal of spinal flossing is to allow impinged nerves to regain appropriate spacing, thereby increasing neural function.
If you’re going to load yourself up for some heavy squats or pulls, you want your nervous system functioning optimally, right? Some examples of what we do to maintain a healthy spine are included in the next article.
2. Dynamic Flexibility
Just like HIIT is the cool kid on the block when it comes to cardio, dynamic flexibility is all the rage when it comes to pre-workout flexibility training. With all of the buzzwords being dropped at clinics and conferences, if we hear dynamic flexibility one more time we’ll puke! In all seriousness, we love and use dynamic flex frequently, but quite a few trainers either have no clue what they’re doing or are just using it to move product.
Most dynamic flexibility exercises are combinations of light strength training movements and variations of yoga poses. We believe that dynamic flexibility is a great tool to bridge the gap between passive range of motion and dynamic movements such as sprinting or lifting. We see improvements in performance on the field and in the weight room by doing a few dynamic flexibility exercises before training.
3. Prehabilitation Work
How many of you actually take the time to do prehab work? And what’s the definition of prehab work anyway? Basically, it’s any exercise you can perform that’s going to do one of two things: Help keep you healthy and/or correct a muscle imbalance.
These are the exercises that are the first to go when something comes up and you have to leave the gym early. Some of the big muscle groups that come to mind when talking prehab work are the gluteals, VMO’s, shoulder external rotators, scapular retractors/depressors, and the deep neck flexors. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that typically need the most work and fit best into the program.
4. Core Work
Another great line we hear all the time is, “I’ve gotta run. I’ll just do my ab work at home.” Sadly enough, this line is also delivered with a straight face! If you don’t do it in the gym, we’ll bet that 99.9% of the time that ab work never gets done. The options and methods of getting a great core workout have been discussed in Mike’s 21st Century Core Training article, so just get it in first and quit lying to yourself!
Example Cardio Circuit
While we’re not going to give you all the goods just yet, we aren’t going to leave you hanging either. Below is a sample circuit that Carl has used with great effectiveness. In Part III we’ll give you some more sample circuits, along with an exercise menu so you can create your own individualized circuits.
To organize training effectively, circuits have been utilized for many years. Circuit programs use certain exercises, reps and intensities, time variables, and rest periods. To make it complete, they’re then melded together so they operate in a flowing, cohesive fashion.
Here’s an example of how to lay out a circuit. If you have under 30 minutes for your P.H.I.R.E. training, you can do five exercises for 45 seconds and rest 15 seconds, and then repeat it three or four more times for a total of 20 to 25 minutes work. Whatever you choose to do in terms of time and exercise selection, you must obey the rules above to ensure you’re in the right zone and covering the necessary bases.
Below is an outline of what an abdominal emphasis P.H.I.R.E. program could look like.
Sample P.H.I.R.E routine
Circuit Duration: 24 minutes total (4 rounds of 5 exercises)
Equipment: Tubing, Medicine Ball, Airex Pad, Stability Ball
Station 1: Seated Medicine Ball Twists, 1 x 20 per side
Station 2: Stability Ball Pike and Tuck Combo, 1 x 10 reps
Station 3: Bent-Over Butterfly Pulls, 1 x 45 seconds
Station 4: Side Pillar Bridge Routine, 1 x 15 reps per side
Station 5: Prone Iron Cross, 1 x 30 Reps total
Station 1: Seated Medicine Ball Twist
While not a new exercise, one added variation to our version is to add the cycling action to the legs, which increases neuromuscular demands. When twisting, allow the knee to drop to a full stroke so the medicine ball can pass to the other side. You should do this very slowly to remove the elastic energy from doing the work, or double the reps and rotate very fast.
The weight of the ball must be high enough to challenge you, yet not be so high that the arms get most of the workout. The Airex pad creates instability for metabolic purposes via increased motor unit recruitment (more muscle activity) and comfort, not to increase balance abilities.
Station 2: Stability Ball Pike and Tuck Combo
One great way to develop a strong and aesthetically pleasing core is to alternate tuck and pike movements in a push-up position. Not only will you develop stability in your shoulder girdle, you’ll aggressively challenge your torso’s musculature with movements designed to enhance the internal load of the body and the force of gravity.
This series is basically stolen from the dry-land programs of elite divers. The needs of their sport require them to explosively flex and extend their spines with full range.
Station 3: Bent-Over Butterfly Pulls
Another stolen exercise is fly pulls with tubing, which are favored by swimmers of all levels from youth to elite. While many coaches in swimming feel that this is a specific strength exercise to bridge the gap between the general nature of benching and the pool, we use it as an energy system development tool because of its simplicity and effectiveness.
To prevent this from becoming an isolated triceps exercise, make sure you keep your chin up and facing straight ahead while pulling with relatively straight arms. Due to the tubing’s resistance being greatest at the end ranges, it’s important to not let the arms snap back. You can do this by controlling the eccentric portion of the movement. After a few sessions you’ll be able to develop a nice rhythm and pace to challenge your heart and lungs. Each rep should take a little more than a second, with an explosive concentric to initiate the movement.
Station 4: Side Pillar Bridge Routine
Here we’ve enhanced side pillar bridges with dance movements Carl learned from Lisa Tobias at Pilates Bodies. Don’t be fooled with the origin of the exercise; very strict form will challenge any T-man.
With the top leg kicking forward at fast or slow speeds, the core is challenged from the movement changing the balance points of the posture. The common error is to increase duration of the exercise instead of increasing the difficulty of the posture. We find with our clients a need to constantly change the variables while simultaneously increasing the intensity of the core movements to keep up with the pace of improvement.
Station 5: Prone Iron Cross
While not the same movement as the intense iron cross in gymnastics, the prone iron cross is a very demanding core exercise due to the mechanical disadvantage of having the legs straight out. The torque from the length and weight of the legs is very high, requiring the oblique system to work very hard under strict tension.
One added bonus is that this exercise serves as a diagnostic tool for the hamstrings, as it indirectly gauges your flexibility at the knee and hip. Proper technique requires about 180 degrees at the knee joint and a little less than 90 degrees at the hip when rotating from right and left. The feet should just miss making contact on the ground when rotating to each side. Placing pressure on the palms of your hands will ensure the tension on the oblique system is maximal.
Hopefully by now we’ve opened your mind up to brave new cardio options. In Part III, we’ll discuss ways to maximize your training with modular blocks so you can expand your current program!
1) Powers, S. K., E. T. Howley. 1998. Exercise Physiology. New York, NY. WBC/ McGraw-Hill.
2) Griesbach, G.S., Hovda, D. A., Molteni, R., Wu, A., & Gomez-Pinilla, F.20 (2004). Voluntary exercise following traumatic brain injury: Brain-derived 20 neurotrophic factor upregulation and recovery of function. Neuroscience, 125 (1), 129 E28093
3) Martin, D. E., Coe, P. N., 1997. Better Training for Distance Runners. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.