“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” – Epictetus
So this is my good buddy, Taz. As you can see, a dog’s life is goddamn exhausting. Which begs the question, “what does he do on his day off?” Can’t lay around, eat and sleep, that’s his friggin’ job. He’s got a few years and hard “city miles” on him now, and blind and deaf as well. And when he’s sprawled out like this I think “oh shit, this time he’s worm food for sure”. But when I reach for him, it’s as if my touch evokes a kundalini response and he’s up and snortin’ and about again. A bit shell-shocked, but seemingly no worse for the wear.
I’m just waiting for that day, though, when… well, you know…
But now on to you: are you blowing yourself up each and every workout so you wind up looking like my good buddy, Taz, following those bouts? Go big, or go home? If you didn’t puke, it didn’t count?
We all know (or we should!) by now that that’s a recipe for disaster. Your gains will suffer and you’ll tank your athleticism. The term “adrenal fatigue” get’s thrown around a lot, but it’s so much more than that. Carry that go-big-or-go-home mentality forward for very long and all the body’s systems will slide into continual fight-or-flight mode and at that point, well, you’re seriously fucked.
Truth be told, you’re actually fucked well before the point you even feel fucked, which makes trying talk people off the adrenaline cliff so insidiously difficult. I feel ya — it feels so damn good flyin’ high up there. You’re king of the world!
And you are, my friend!
Until you’re not.
And that drug-like addiction is another reason why modulating workout volume, duration, frequency and intensity (the base variables for controlling stress dosing) is so damn hard. I hate to break it to you, man, but not all people are created equal. There are some cut from the bulletproof / wolverine cloth so to speak, and others who have to be *extremely* careful in monitoring these variables combined with a rock-solid recovery program. Don’t get pissed at me — I didn’t create the terrain; I’m just navigating this bitch. That I can shaman everyone to the other side doesn’t mean they all take the same path or vehicle, if you get my drift.
You gotta be smart. You gotta be balanced. And above all, you gotta know yourself. Especially your limitations.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
~ Ecclesiastes 3
Imagine if that verse were taken from and old Soviet training manual. It’d just the more spiritual, poetic way of saying, “the smart thing to do, son, is wave and weave”.
But let’s not get lost in the weeds, here. This is not intended to be a deep-dive into the biological mechanisms behind why keeping the pedal to the metal — while I’ll agree it’s fucking big fun! — will ultimately wreck not only your gains, but your overall health. There’s plenty of other credible sources on the web for that. My wheelhouse is the philosophical and the day-to-day, rubber meets the road, and to that I’ll stay true.
That said, for the purposes of this piece, let’s simply agree on the importance of ensuring you are fully bought-in to balancing the pro- and anti-inflammatory forces that are part and parcel to training in addition to living the 21st century hussle. Stress is stress, no matter the source or the reasons why it accumulates. Our goal here is to prevent eustress and acute inflammation (the good stuff) from sliding headlong into chronic, systemic, low-grade inflammation (the gains / health wrecking stuff).
‘Nuff said on that. We don’t need to overthink this stuff, for Chrissakes…
But what I’m going to say next might raise a few eyebrows; it’s (yet another) topic where I’ll diverge from the traditional HIT / Super Slow crowd. And this, too, plays into my wave and weave methodology. One thing that’s abundantly clear to me after having spent a lifetime in the S&C game is that maintaining a solid level of aerobic fitness is a significant factor for increasing the body’s ability to deal with chronic, systemic, low-grade inflammation.
To put that in plain English, a solid aerobic base plays a significant role in maximizing hypertrophy potential as well as athleticism. Even for those athletes in “non-aerobic” sports (sprinters, power athletes). And an all-HIT all the time approach is just as wrong minded as the chronic cardio, endurance bunny approach. They’re just two sides of the same lousey approach coin.
If you’re looking for some nighty-night reading on the subject, check out this review study: Does Physical Activity Increase Life Expectancy? A Review of the Literature.
Now, again — don’t get me wrong here. This is *not* a call for everyone to drop resistance training and gear up for the next 50k endurance race. People always want to take things to the fuckin’ extreme, and extreme anything *always* leads to a crash and burn scenario. Goddamn, you’d think people would learn by now, but just take a look at some of the stupid shit you see on the web, and worse yet, the stupid shit you see people buying into and engaging in.
The combination of common sense, intuition, science and the observation of nature and evolution would seem to nudge us in the direction of having a good aerobic base under our belts. It just makes sense, both from the overall health perspective, and the performance / gains side. Remember, you are a whole and complete animal. To live otherwise is an abomination that you’ll pay for in your long-term health. As Robert Heinlein famously quipped, “specialization is for insects”, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’ve written quite extensively on health vs performance; niche specialization being a de facto requirement of performance at the highest levels.
A quick aside on that note; from the what I believe but cannot prove files: who would be the healthiest, longest-lived athletes in the world were it not for the severe trauma absorbed in the sport itself? Football/rugby players and fighting athletes (BJJ, MMA, wrestlers). I’d now add today’s basketball players to the list, vis-a-vis their adoption (finally) of serious weight traing. And for the precise reasons that these athletes *must* train for and maintain, concurrently, high degrees of strength, speed and endurance. I’d also add Crossfit athletes to the mix were it not for their propensity to adopt unnecessarily risky modalities. But “Crossfit done smartly” and in a wave and weave fashion (AKA, wave and weave HIIRT)? That’s the winning answer.
Aside from the abundance of literature pointing to higher aerobic fitness levels being associated with lower rates of diseases of modernity, just observe “the field”. The healthiest human animals have a good balance of hypertrophy, strength, balance, and aerobic fitness that comes from the wave and weave method. I don’t wanna pat myself on the back, but I’ve always made a point of maintaining a solid aerobic base, and I’m doing pretty damn good for being (as of this writing) 52. It just fuckin’ works. The results speak for themselves. And like most things that work in this realm, it’s simple.
Traditionally, this aerobic fitness/health relationship was assumed to be due purely to changes in the cardiovascular system itself. However, new research is beginning to draw a clear relationship between aerobic fitness (as measured via V02 max) and potent indicators of inflammation, such as C-Reactive Protein and fibrinogen.
Okay, cool. So what to do about all this? What’s the magic combination?
Well, one size never fits all. But here are a few broad based recommendations:
First, you’ll need to figure out if health, or competition, is your priority. I’m totally cool with people wanting to compete (the first 25 years of my life was all about competition), but just realize that if you want to be healthy in addition to competing, it’s gonna be a tough juggle. Not that you can’t recover following your competitive days (I did), but it is something you’ll have to diligently manage. More on that in the health vs performance writings, and in the Five Ts posts and ebook.
Next, we’ll need to dial-in the correct (for you) weekly combination of workout volume, intensity and duration. Again, everyone is different here, and everyone will want and/or need to skew the equation in a particular way. And this needn’t be any more complicated than a semi-systematic, weekly manipulation of the representation below:
What’s represented here (by the red dot) would be where a classic low volume, high-intensity workout would fall. A type of workout that I might hit (see what I did there?) a couple of times per week. The idea is to move that red dot around every workout. Now this could be a representation of a day (as I’ve used it here), or an aggregate of a week, a block, a year… a lifetime, whatever. This is simply a visual tool, representative of how you can (1) avoid chronic stress, (2) avoid injury (via exercise / modality rotation) — variation enhances resiliency, kids — and, (3) stay in the game for a lifetime. If manipulated properly then, you could “workout” every day. That is to say, you should at least move every day. What does “moving” look like for me? Fixie riding, skateboarding, hiking, playing on bars, slacklining…you get the idea. Even doing very light weight training (i.e., auxiliary work) would fall into this category.
And by the way, you can see my workout log at the Theory to Practice Facebook group page. I document every “serious” weight training and/or field workout there. I don’t bother with tracking the “movement” sessions. But you can get a good feel for what a wave and weave flow looks like for me by checking that page out. The benefit being you can ask questions there if you like.
But if you’re looking for a starting rule-of-thumb for the high intensity (i.e., look like my bud Taz at the end) workouts, let’s call it 2 in 10. Personally, about 2 in 5 or 6 of my workouts would fall in this category, but (1) I’m naturally “wired” for resiliency, and (2) my aerobic conditioning is such that I can support a greater frequency of ass-kickers. That is, my C-Reactive protein and other markers of inflammation are still very low, even at this frequency.
Thirdly (and on the note of tracking markers of inflammation), routine bloodwork is a good idea, and C-Reactive protein is a good marker of your body’s overall stress level. Cortisol and it’s daily fluctuations are another. Heart Rate Variability is a good day-to-day marker of your central nervous system’s readiness. My good friend Jason Moore of Elite HRV has a great system for that, here.
Once you find your groove though, you’ll know what it feels like to be in the zone, and your reliance upon these mechanisms will wane. For me now, periodic bloodwork (every 6 months or so) and the occasional HRV reading is enough to keep me out of the ditches. Otherwise, I trust my well-honed gut and intuition.
And finally, learn how to take you foot off the gas and tap the brakes, my friend. Or in other words, learn to dial-down the sympathetic nervous system. Willful upregulation of the parasympathetic system and squelch of the sympathetic is at least equally as important as aerobic fitness, diet and recuperative / restorative means (sauna, cold therapy, massage, etc) to the body’s ability to mitigate chronic inflammation.
Remember, think in whole systems, here — not individual silos. The cumulative is greater than the sum of the parts.
The ability to manipulate / modulate the nervous system is a highly undervalued skill. It’s not particularly difficult, but it is a skill. As such, it requires effort and practice to master. The return on investment, though, is huge.
One place to start is to begin to use diaphragmatic breathing techniques to control your heart rate between sets and following your workouts, as well as during the day when you recognize and feel the bite of stress digging in. For instance, using a heart rate monitor (or simply a stopwatch), make it a goal to drop your heart rate back towards your normal resting level as quickly as possible. Now, there are a thousand-and-one techniques for performing controlled, diaphragmatic breathing. But again, no need to get too complicated.
None of these techniques are really any better than the other; just as in religion, chose your favorite pony, saddle-up and ride. Some options you might begin with are coherent, resistance, or breath moving techniques. The 90/90 breathing drill is another example. No matter where you start though, the end goal is to, with no more than mind and feel, control your breathing so as to immediately reduce your perceived stress response and actual heart rate. No matter how high your post set/round/workout heart rate climbs, shoot for a reduction to within 5-10 bpm of your resting heart rate in as little as 3-5 minutes.
Note: in a follow-on post, I’ll discuss timing your set intervals in accordance with heart rate reduction.
The bottom line is this: the faster the sympathetic system dials down, the sooner the parasympathetic can turn on to quell inflammation and promote recovery and regeneration.
Once you’ve learned how to pull the reins on the sympathetic system during and post workout, then use those special ninja skills before you crash. Want to double-down on inflammation and facilitating recovery? You gotta start with sleep, son. Beginning your shut-eye sesh with some sympathetic system control work will go a long way toward improving the quality of your sleep.
And I’ll wrap this up by saying that the ability to “flip the switch” between purposely engaging the parasympathetic (fight or flight) system prior to a set/round, then quickly “cooling the jets” to recover before the next round (think what must happen between football plays, for example, or between MMA rounds) is a Spidey skill that will elevate your performance (and overall health) to spectacular levels.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –