Thursday, June 28, 2012

Training Priorities

Getting strong is an important part of my training. It is part of being human and developing ourselves such that we can operate at a level very close to our genetic potential. Getting strong requires sacrifice. Sometimes we must temporarily sacrifice good things to allow another to flourish (conditioning and visible abs for strength in this case). This doesn't mean you have to become a blob in order to get strong you just have take things one step at a time. Nobody ever learns 7 languages at once. Similarly you can't train for a 400 lb squat and a marathon at the same time. Order is important here.
Order of Operations
The reason I bring this point up is during my strength training career (the last 8 months) I have had friends and family show concern and/or disapproval of how I am training. I have been asked "when are you gonna get rid of that belly?" or "aren't you going to do some running or cycling or something?" These "concerns" arise primarily from misconceptions about fitness. In general if somebody has a slender appearance the layperson considers them fit. If somebody jogs or rides their bike with regularity they must be very healthy and fit. If somebody lifts weights frequently they are simply working on their physique and probably would be winded running up a flight of stairs and therefore not fit. I argue that these misconceptions exist and are highly prevalent and therefore are in need of correction.

Getting Fit

Fitness is the possession of adequate levels of strength, endurance, and mobility to provide for successful participation in occupational effort, recreational pursuits, familial obligation, and that is consistent with a functional phenotypic expression of the human genotype. You'll notice this definition, taken from Fit, does not have any words that are described as a "feeling." Feelings are for first dates, break-ups, good movies, thanksgiving dinners, and catching a brown trout on a dry fly. Feelings are not used to determine the fitness of an individual or the efficacy of a training session. Fitness is based on performance. Therefore, an individuals appearance has little to do with being fit if the individual cannot perform well (like running up some stairs without being winded or carrying a heavy box upstairs). 

Conditioning is often thought of as fitness training. This is because you feel better when you are well conditioned. You don't get winded running up a few flights of stairs because you have caused a positive adaptation to occur in your metabolic system(s). The chemistry part of burning up energy substrates (carbohydrates, fats, proteins or whatever) has been optimized. This means you are utilizing oxygen more efficiently and therefore "feel" better. This type of training is the stuff every coach for every sport has his/her prospective players do about 1-2 months before the actual season starts. It really doesn't take too long to to become well conditioned. High school football teams become extremely well conditioned every year in 1-2 months.

Although being conditioned is certainly a positive thing and conditioning workouts are excellent ways to put you in a caloric deficit (which will cause fat loss) being conditioned does not equate to being fit. Conditioning helps increase muscular and metabolic endurance and possibly mobility but it does not increase strength for anyone but the most de-trained individuals. There must be balance in order for an individual to really become fit. As I alluded in the intro, simultaneous training of the three facets of fitness doesn't work.

Get Strong First

Strength training is the only way to get strong. Wiggling around to p90X or crossfit WODs will take you somewhere but they won't take you near your potential. In order to get near you genetic potential for maximum strength you need to start as a novice. Novice gains come fast and are fun. You learn the lifts, follow a simple template (like Starting Strength), eat plenty and grow. You will get very strong and gain weight. Yes gain weight. It seems like everyone thinks the only positive way to go with body weight is down. This would be true if everybody was an insulin resistant heart attack waiting to happen while on the couch during the evening news. The people I know reading this are not that way and certainly wouldn't curl up an die if they gained a few pounds even if those pounds weren't all muscle and bone.
The novice stage of lifting lasts three months to a year depending on how well the trainee feeds and trains themselves. The trainee then becomes an intermediate and is more free to add assistance work and possibly other conditioning activities. This is okay because they have become very committed to the project, and developed a solid base of strength. This is very important. Please read the following quote from Andy Baker, the owner and operator of Kingwood Strength and Conditioning. This was his response to a trainee that was concerned about his loss of conditioning while following the Starting Strength template (with some mild editing on my part). is what people fail to understand about this balance between strength and conditioning......building [exceptional] strength takes years of dedicated work and planning. Building [exceptional] conditioning takes about 8-12 weeks of dedicated work......usually less if you are at least somewhat in shape when you start to try and peak.

In our hypothetical [long term] quest to build [exceptional] strength, we have this window at the beginning of our training where we are capable of experiencing "The Novice Effect." In other words, at no other time in our training careers are we capable of building strength and mass at this ridiculously rapid rate.

So for us as strength coaches who have witnessed this effect, we don't want to do anything to derail these gains or impede the potential for growth and strength. So, at this time in a person's training career we will SACRIFICE cardiovascular conditioning for strength. We do this, not because cardio is unimportant, but because we know WE CAN GET OUR CARDIO BACK IN A MATTER OF WEEKS!!!!

Once someone has ran the course on a basic linear progression there is no reason they cannot begin a program that strikes more balance between the two attributes. As long as the conditioning is phased in intelligently, you will be able to hang on to those hard earned strength gains while getting yourself in better condition.

Jim Wendler has an excellent article on how he un-fat-[ed] himself several years ago while maintaining strength. Basically started out with some walking every day, then progressed to walking with a weighted vest, then started running small parts of his walks, and eventually progressed to hardcore Prowler sessions and hill sprints 3-4 times per week. Now the dude is a total [freaking] machine....but he got strong first, fat boy style.
Once strength is gained it can easily be maintained while losing fat, doing some running, or conditioning in addition to lifting. The reverse does not work well. If you try to run or cycle a lot while strength training you will fail twice as hard. First of all you will be over trained all the time and this leads to poor performance under the bar and very slow progression. Slow progression is not fun. It is boring and will likely lead you to making silly excuses and developing nonsensical reasons for not lifting heavy weights and you will quit.
So please don't kid yourself into doing it all at once. Dedicate yourself to get strong and stop worrying about you body weight going up or that little chub around the belly. If you do things right you'll develop a lot of muscle that will make your conditioning, that you do later, much more effective and keep you from looking like a sickly waif. Nobody should look like a sickly waif.


  1. "Normal conditioning" or "fitness" routines are much more focused on the number we see on the scale going down. It is good to have your plan in written form as a reminder.

    1. I think they are focused on this (number of the scale going down) because that is what people are socially conditioned to want. We often think down is the only appropriate way to go. There is much more to being healthy and fit than losing body fat. I think strength in general is highly under-appreciated.