In which Doug explains, ‘Cardio’ Does Not Exist

…and High Intensity Training overview.

Weight training is the hardest thing in the world for me. I hate it. I’m not motivated. It takes me away form my creative hobbies and even at my personal peak fitness and long-held routine, I was never energized and eager to work out. I know that once puberty is over, if you’re not gaining muscle mass, you’re losing it. And muscle mass sets your resting metabolism rate. Muscle mass determines how well you handle sickness. If someone is 70 years old and faces multiple months of chronic wasting cachexia from a sickness, or has to face chemo, which body type do you think will fare better going in- one that is thin and frail or one with more muscle than he/she had at age 20?

You have to build muscle mass one way or another or you essentially spend your life slowly wasting away and gathering pains. Many pains from getting older could be allayed by increased musculature to hold everything in place. I would like to add 10 or more pounds of muscle mass. But then I buy a package of meat that weighs 2 lbs and think of what kind of effort it must take to synthesize that, molecule by molecule, workout after workout and become completely demoralized.

Doug McGuff is an emergency room doctor (and Philosopher King, as far as I’m concerned) in South Carolina and runs a gym called “Dr. Doug McGuff“, where he teaches a modern version of a weight training method called High Intensity Training (HIT) that is very different from the explosive push / controlled return methods that are so popular.

Funnily enough, this “modern method” was actually invented 100 years ago by a Swedish physician named Gustav Zander. Though he won a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition for his exercise machines, exercise wasn’t quite mainstream yet and he faded into history with  his machines. Arthur Jones (I know, I said he was a dead dinosaur) resurrected it in the 70s, ignorant of Zander and it enjoys a growing following today. Doug’s book is called ‘Body By Science‘.

The core concept is that you are working out to get your body to build muscle, right? To take the evolutionary view; you want your DNA to signal to build muscle, as an adaptive response. To take the Paleo/Primal view: You want to trick your body into thinking a Sabre Tooth Tiger almost killed you and when he comes back you had better be bigger and stronger. The common weight training method tears down muscle by working to the point of failure in an effort to get it to rebuild bigger in response to the tear-down.

If you don’t work to failure, you can’t be sure how well you are triggering an adaptive response.

This works just fine, eventually, but it has great risk for injury. If you do a work-out too soon, when your body needs rest because it is still re-building muscle, you can do counter-productive tear-down of muscle or even create chronic systemic inflammation.  And you will stall. And most people who stall in the gym respond to that stall with increased effort. They hit it harder. This only makes things worse.

And it takes SO MUCH TIME. Who wants to be a gym rat, really? Endorphin-addicted weirdos, that’s who. What if you could trigger that adaptive response and build muscle with minutes of training instead of hours? And once or twice a week instead of living at the gym. Go home. Be with your family.

In high intensity training, you don’t wear workout clothes, you wear loose, comfortable street clothes and flat shoes- NO Running shoes!

There is no sweating. They say that by the time you sweat, you are already counter-productive (not sure on the science of that yet).

There is no stretching or warm up. Each workout puts the muscles through a full range of motions and you actually avoid aerobic exercise, doing a slow, intense, mostly anaerobic workout. Though anaerobic metabolism creates far less energy than aerobic metabolism, it is a faster cycle and you can quickly overwhelm the system with Pyruvate that would normally enter your aerobic metabolism cycle. The excess Pyruvate is then converted to lactic acid (which may make you cramp).

After muscle fatigue (not failure) the excess lactic acid created (don’t worry about it now) gets turned back into Pyruvate while you rest then goes through your aerobic metabolism cycle, theoretically giving you the equivalent of a massive aerobic workout while you are laying on the floor crying after a HIT workout. As you continue working out, your ability to buffer lactic acid increases by 12-50% and cramping is not such a problem.

Doug dismisses Yoga and Pilates as a waste of time. Also I recommend investigating (1980 Olympic-qualifying runner) Mark Sisson’s view on “Chronic Cardio”. He asks what the quality of family life is when dad’s gone half of Saturday on a bike ride then has to spend the rest of the day on the couch. Though if you want to train for a race, go for it. But it may not be wise as a lifestyle.

And I thank Doug for introducing me to the term “cardio bunnies”.

You don’t want your fitness to undermine your health. I think most of us work out in order to be healthy and not be sickly and stay out of the hospital, which is right where an injury can put you. The HIT method is through muscular fatigue in a controlled, injury-free environment. When you fatigue, you are moving in slow motion, too weak to hurt yourself and not sitting there with a barbell over your throat while your spotter is looking at chick on the treadmill. You’re not going to have a kettle ball flying through the air when you suddenly lose all of your strength. You are not given the opportunity to be sloppy in form from exhaustion, eliminating that counter-productiveness.

Doug is also very cautious about Crossfit (Doug LOVES Crossfit) and things like P90X or Insanity. You really need to be an athlete, preferably young with strong bones before attempting this, not to mention unfailingly coordinated. Skill-based exercise can certainly undermine your health if you don’t have the skills. When you have moderate athletic ability and you dive in and try to do a back flip off of a truck tire that’s rolling along the top of a climbing wall and land incorrectly, you end up in the E.R., where unhealthy people go. HIT is effort-based, not technique. “Insanity” has that name for a reason. Perhaps a more reliable, sustainable method is in order. But while you feel young and invincible go for it.

Lastly, HIT is perfect for morbidly obese, very out of shape or geriatric people. The fatigue level is the fatigue level, and you’re already moving slowly with little chance of injury. The explosive, rip-tearing muscle carnage of common weight training is usually what causes people to freak out and give up in agony or exhaustion very shortly after beginning a new routine.

If you are local to NE Ohio, our Doug McGuff-approved gym is called Overload Fitness in Beachwood. I checked them out. It is a wonderful operation. I loved my introduction but ultimately it was prohibitively expensive. Like, 40% of my take-home pay expensive. Other gyms can be found at his website, Body by science.

Here’s Doug’s workout:

I’m going to share A LOT from Doug, but I think this is enough for an introduction. Here is a short video in which he explains that none of us understand what “cardio” or “aerobics” means. Respiratory control happens in your cells, mostly muscle, not in your cardiovascular system. HIT builds your aerobic capacity just fine without blowing out your joints or heart and forcing you on a mouse-wheel of carb consumption.

This does not to say that you should not run or bike or train to be an endurance athlete. You may have your own goals with them. This does, however show that strength training will also help endurance sports.  But if you hate cardio but do it because you believe it is improving cardiovascular health, this is your free pass out.
Tsis is in no way an effort by me to dissuade you from Yoga, Pilates, P90X, Insanity or Crossfit and does not reflect my opinion of them. This is an exchange of ideas that I have found enlightening and very helpful. I am much better in any situation when I know the nuts & bolts behind the…uh, curtain…of the…man in the mirror.

Or something.


6Jan15 Edit:

Just got to reading this. Doug has published a paper on this with James Steele II (and a few others):

Resistance Training to Momentary Muscular Failure Improves Cardiovascular Fitness in Humans: A Review of Acute Physiological Responses and Chronic Physiological Adaptations” (PDF)

Here’s James giving it a little more depth

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