“The man who insists upon seeing with perfect clearness before he decides, never decides. Accept life, and you must accept regret.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

It’s often said that diet is second only to religion insofar as each topic’s ability to generate heated debate among “believers” who will defend to the grave their sacred beliefs.  The same phenomena is true, though, in the health/fitness/performance world.  And defenders of the faith here may be even more rabid.

As evidence, every so often the old HIT vs (name your favorite non-HIT methodology) rears its ugly head.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked some version of this same “HIT vs” question.  And I always begin my answer by saying something along the lines of, “the only way to properly address this question is in terms of spectrum and shades”.  Painting yourself into an ideological box will only serve to limit your growth.  This is universally true, in a metaphorical sense, but in the case of the iron game, this “growth limitation” becomes literal.  Quite simply, if performance and/or growth is the end game you’re gonna hafta allow yourself to step outside of ideological boundaries, and choose methodologies that will address your current weakness.  In short, you’re going to have to become a Bruce Lee of the iron game.

I seriously believe that if I could attribute whatever success I’ve enjoyed in the S&C game to a single attribute, it’d be due to the fact that I’ve never subscribed to any one ideological box.  But then again, I’ve never ascribed wholeheartedly to any ideological box, whether it be religious, political or otherwise.  I’m too libertarian to be Libertarian, if you know what I mean.  In essence, I’ve never let ideology get in the way of the goal.

I think we can all agree that various performance outputs require various and, sport-specific, “inputs” (or training methodologies).  In other words, you can’t expect to train like a bodybuilder and have much success as an 800 meter sprinter.  Training specifics matter, and every Physical Culturalist ought to keep a running inventory of his training goal vs the “Five Ts” in his alive in his head.  Now the goal may change over time, and that’s cool — so long as the training stimulus follows suit.  That this makes perfect logical sense will have you scratching your head as to why this is so seldom seen in practice. 

We get lazy and married, over time, to not only our opinions, but to our training ideas.  One’s current goal, of course, ought to dictate all.  And as we continue to drill down, layer-by-layer, getting at the specifics of the goal, some methodologies will fall out of usefulness, and others will come to the forefront.  No value judgments here (unless you’re biased by having something to sell), just careful benefit-vs-cost analysis.

And, as always, we have to ask ourselves if health even figures into the overall equation.  And if so, to what extent.  Again, I’m speaking in spectrum and shades here, but as we move more toward performance being the goal, we have to, by necessity, allow health to take a backseat.  I don’t like it any more than you do, but alas it is painfully true.

I had an interesting “health vs performance” philosophical discussion not long ago with a friend over coffee…

*an aside: this is a so very “Austin” thing to to: health and fitness related philosophical debate.  Over coffee, of course, in a very hipster, ATX coffee shop.  And more specifically, we drank espressos.  Double espressos. As turn-of-the-century Paris was to art, literature and philosophy, so is the twenty-ought-teens ATX to physical culture* 😉

…at any rate, we chose to debate the benefits and limitations of the diametrically opposed HIT and CrossFit.  For the sake of argument, I chose to remain hemmed within ideological, either/or boxes — none of this Keith Norris style mixin’ and matchin’ of methodologies.  Pick one, and defend it to the end; all very old-school LISTSERV/early-forum-days-like.  And here’s where these discussions can go a little “woo” — because under these rules of debate, you are inevitably asked to predict the future.  Very simply, we are ultimately asked to put a premium on either health or performance.  And this in and of itself drives me nuts because I exist on that hairy edge where health begins to give way to performance.  But hey, I’m a good sport — even more so when I’m being fed double espressos… in a very hipster, ATX establishment…and with my expensive fixie locked just outside 🙂

Although rather ill-equiped for the task, I took the HIT-defense side.   Now, my Efficient Exercise colleague Skyler Tanner and good friend Dr. Doug McGuff are walking (and their respective blogs, written) repositories of the idea that the amount of intense exercise required for health is exceptionally minimal.  And by “health”, I mean the efficient inter(and intra)-workings of the organs, blood glucose clearance ability, triglyceride levels, hormonal profiles, adequate strength and the like.  Can some level of enhanced muscularity be achieved via the minimalist approach?  You bet.  Optimizing one’s genetic muscular potential?  Probably not*. 

*though this is still up for debate.  Just as one can become healthy (as defined above) with a bare minimum amount of exercise, but with no appreciable improvement in (for example) VO2 max, we might extrapolate that there are those who, not matter how much (even intelligently programmed) effort is expended, will never put on much additional muscle mass.  I’ve seen this played out empirically as well.  But in the absence of any pin-prick test, one just has to throw his hat in the ring (if he is so inclined) to see what his genetic hand holds.  For most, though, muscle gain is simply a game of diminished returns over time.  Can methodology swaps help kick-start things?  Possibly.  But that may be more so due to renewed enthusiasm and intensity of effort rather than anything else.

But of course, optimizing one’s genetic potential, in a muscular sense, is just another measure of performance; the pursuit of which is, again, not necessarily the most healthy thing to do.

So this is all fine and well: very little “investment” required for optimum health.  I like that!  …until I don’t.

Because “internal markers of health” don’t matter much when your ass is trying to survive on a football field.  Or if you’re a firefighter caught in the belly of the flaming beast.  Or enduring the great zombie apocalypse.  Exaggerations, yes — but you get my point.  Because if you find yourself caught in a “shit hits the fan” moment, performance is the only thing that matters.  This is herd thinning time, my friend — and you’d better not be anything other than the alpha.

So the “debate” came down to this: if you expect the live a Jetsons-like existence, then the minimalist approach will serve you well.  Big health returns for the long-haul, and very little in accumulated wear-and-tear.

But personally, I like to prepare for the “unknown and the unknowable” (hat tip to Greg Glassman).  Though, I like to prepare for it in an n=1, more controlled method.  I put a premium on repeat, short bursts of power (sprints, and Oly power derivatives) because, hey, this is right in my wheelhouse.  I try to limit the negatives (hat tip HIT) of wear-and-tear, overall stress and fatigue while accentuating the positives.  I’m lucky that my muscle mass “just is” without having to necessarily “body build” it along.  And it may just be that the psychological elation that I get from throwing iron, sprinting, and high-speed, city street fixie-hucking might help offset some of the accumulated physical trauma from doing the same.  From my blood work, DEXA, and how I look, feel and perform, I’d say I’m managing the health vs performance tightrope nicely.  So far, anyway.

But this is, essentially, all just an educated hunch.  I won’t know that I’m on the right path until…well, until the end.  And hopefully I won’t have a firm answer for another 60, 70 years or so.

And that’s a style of job security that I can really get behind 😉

 

In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –

Keith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting, certainly insightful post.

    A CrossFit vs HIT debate! How laughable since neither is scientific, since both are commercial theories of exercise, and since stem from autodidactic leadership working best among those high in Authoritarian Dominance-Submissiveness psychological profiling. In a word, both – along with P90X – are marked by what in German is uberglauben (OVER-BELIEF), akin to members of the Flat Earth Society. Such a debate might prove something akin to Esther’s Follies as comedic for a group of exercise physiologists!

    By analogy, exercise theories have not emerged from the kind of foundational orientation the Paleo movement has. Most all of our ideas of exercise and fitness stem from the culture or mindset of modernity. Evolutionary medicine, on the other hand, is decidedly post-modern, benefiting immensely from uniquely 20th century emergence of social sciences. And evolutionary medicine is, along with consciousness studies, a version of post-modern methods free of the Marxist diatribe so otherwise entrenched among academics.

    The social sciences give us perspective on forces shaping our minds and beliefs, cultural and generational ideas, presuppositions, fads, and taken for granted assumptions and opinions ALL mistaken for abiding eternal truths.

    As a post-modern movement, evolutionary medicine grew by bringing what we assumed was a very fixed and determined physical science of medicine under scrutiny based on solid anthropological, archaelogical, historical, and cross cultural method. One result was recognition that upwards of 35 chronic degenerative diseases plaguing Western culture are unknown among extant hunter/gathers. Conclusion? Our limited western notion of disease mistook our dominant illnesses as universals of the human condition, It also strongly failed to do competent analysis of underlying causes, causal conditions, and healing. The Paleo movement, albeit it popular and not scientific, has become a post-modern pragmatic embodiments of a new scientific paradigm.

    Exercise physiology is moving post-modern, especially those researchers overlapping with evolutionary medicine, genomics and proteonomics. Any talk of a HIT vs CrossFit debate in such circles is asking post-modern to seriously consider the mistaken ways i abandoned or grew out of on its way to becoming a new science.

    Another area of vital importance to your discussion is that of normality. Medical biomarkers pertain to normality. As I’ve articulated elsewhere, standard medical notions of normality reflect a culture both malnourished by industrial food products and inactivity, hence evidencing abnormal expression of genomic potentials. Training persons to the ‘where normal means genomically abnormal’ model is a drastic mistake. That may account for Skyler & McGuff’s confusion resulting in being advocates of undertraining and under-expression of genomic potential by means of iatrogenic concepts of exercise.

    • Understood 🙂

      However, I think we can all agree that “normal” (in a medical sense) is in no way “optimum” (when compared to what our genetic endowment ought to be). But in the absence of any other measuring stick, what are we to compare ourselves to? I’m talking here more in a bloodwork sense — realizing, too, that bloodwork is just a snapshot of a dynamic, moving target. Surely it gives us some sense of direction, though?

      And I think we can agree, too, that Ken’s philosophical points are at least directionaly accurate as well?

  2. As a coach and trainer, I love to expose folks to this truth (the good health/good fitness/aesthetic possibilities continum) and see where they take it.
    Fortunately, even from a purely health perspective, teaching folks to pick up,carry, press and pull heavy things is extremely valuable and for most who are only familiar with machines/classes, they have a lot to learn.
    So even from a heathcentric approach, folks still need a lot of coaching to get to a decent intensity level before we can even think about moving towards a more performancecentric view.

    Fun stuff, thanks.

  3. We’ve been round this before. I wouldn’t rely on blood work to make a distinction between normal and optimal.

    Normal ranges and precision/accuracy issues make this folly. Last night I ran two cardiac arrests with blood work, that, if the reviewer was blinded to, might interpret as “optimal”.

    I definitely agree with Ken’s overarching theme, but fail to see why he has to dress it up with “post modern pragmatic embodiments of a new scientific paradigm” type language. We know he’s a smart guy, no need to prove it with 6 paragraphs of fluffy pseudo-intellectual language.

    Also fail to see why he has to take a pot-shot at me and Skyler. We still have to deal with the reality of the population we work with. We may work towards Ken’s ideals, but we have to get there first.

    As for medicine. You would have to walk a mile in my shoes. You literally would not believe some of the things I saw last night. The only sure way to transition to Ken’s world would be to let em all die.

    • “Gotta meet ’em where they’re at” and “lead them where they’re willing to go” is a tough pill to swallow, no doubt. As a trainer I can certainly influence and nudge, but not dictate. Also, clients gravitate to me who are mostly already of my general mindset.

      • Keith: yes, exactly. Same here. Once I opened up my own facility, the type of client I find myself working with has changed quite drastically. When it was someone else’s vision/facility I really had no choice in the matter. Neither way is wrong, but I do find this interesting and honestly, really really nice.

  4. Don’t mean to hijack the discussion, but the post by Ken raises a couple of questions:

    (1) Based on our present understanding of evolutionary medicine & post-modern exercise physiology, how does one go about better expressing one’s genomic potential (while still paying the mortgage, holding down a job, and otherwise fitting in to the modern world that engulfs us)? What kind of lifestyle modifications has Ken O’Neil adopted for this purpose?

    (2). it seems quite clear that even if most people had a life style that was congruent with the genome that evolution gave us, the kind of selection pressures which once existed will still be absent. So what comes next? Will we need state controlled eugenics programs to protect the gene pool?

  5. HIT and CrossFit may be commercial theories of exercise, but I wouldn’t call them incomplete. In fact, they are part of that health-performance-fun-well-being continuum, and both accept their limitations, some practitioners are very narrow-minded, no doubt, but most actually realize that every adaptation comes with a price. They just happen to have different priorities, so the price they pay becomes irrelevant to them. It is possible to take the best from both worlds, but for some, the time commitment / injury risk / loss of fun aspect isn’t worth it and their “best” lies firmly in one camp and that’s completely understandable.

    • Personally, I have always considered CrossFit a “sport” rather than a true S&C venture. In other words, smart S&C programming can be used to make one better at a CrossFit event. In fact, I do train some clients for this purpose. I think where CrossFit has run into problems is by attempting to sell the CrossFit ideal to the masses as an overall “every guy’s/gal’s” fitness program. That, and the sometimes dodgy programming (which *seems* to be somewhat being addressed by the better trainers). And programmed and scaled accordingly, an “every guy’s” program may be able to be accomplished. I think of it this way: I never played football to “get in shape” — I think everyone would consider that a ludicrous notion. I used smart S&C programming to prepare myself for the rigors of the sport. CrossFit ought to be considered along the same lines.

      BTW, here’s a good recent article that addresses this point.

  6. Do You think HIIT sprints have any value for strength, conditioning and body recomposition when one does two low impact HIT workouts a week already with almost no rest between exercises? I they don’t offer much for the increased injury risk but I might be wrong. Do they offer something those two HIT sessions can’t give you?

    • Interesting question. And yes, I do think that there is something that can be gained from sprints as and addition to (or as opposed from) a classic, low-impact resistance bout. What that something is, though, I cannot prove via providing compelling, double-blind evidence — I only know it when I see/feel it. I don’t think anything in a weight room can work the legs the way sprints can, and especially in that ballistic fashion. I also think there is huge value (metabolic, muscular, and CNS-sense) in making the body act as one, unified organism in achieving a goal. Coordinated action is critical to health, and no better (or relatively safer) way to hone that than with sprints.

      • Ondrej and Keith, I’ve had the same question. My personal experience (with no ‘scientific’ evidence to support my observations) is that I benefit from a third day of HIIT in addition to two days of RT. The sense of benefit is in part purely subjective (i.e., I simply feel better), but also in body composition. For what it’s worth, I’m 55. My HIIT, during the winter months, consists of 8-10 sprints on a bike w/in a 20 minute time period. When it gets warmer, I go to the track for sprints.

        • I think this is key. We *all* have to find our perfect mix. Science can point the way, and it surely does. The results others report is also worth heeding. But ultimately, we are each unique and come into the game with differing abilities and liabilities that are further influenced by our environment. Analyze, test, and reanalyze. Keep your eye on the goal. That is the name of the game.

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