Note from Andrew: We are privileged again to have this guest post from the man, the myth, the legend Pat Davidson today. For those of you who don’t know, Pat has a PhD in exercise physiology from Springfield College and is one of hell of a strongman competitor as well. A badass combination if I may say so myself.
For many strength athletes, the terms cardio or aerobic development is completely cringe worthy. Images of skinny runners dance through our heads, and the fear of losing any of our hard earned muscle mass and force production gains is a major assumption and fear. In addition to this, maybe you have unpleasant memories of having to run endless laps for sports practices in high school or college. In the strength and conditioning community, the old mantra was, “train slow, be slow”. I realize that these are common thought processes, in large part because I’ve thought all of these things in my head at one point or another along the way. My thought process on adding in oxidative work for ultimate strength and power development has changed as I’ve continued studying anatomy and physiology along with the coaching methodologies of some of the true greats in the history of our field.
Charlie Francis is one of the greatest track and field coaches ever. He was a tremendously bright man who had a firm grasp on the human body along with training paradigms. If you read his works, you will quickly see that Coach Francis makes some really strong cases for why sprinters should utilize training methods that improve oxidative fitness. Coach Francis was ahead of his time, and it seems that many of us are still playing catch up with his theory and practice for developing athletes to the highest points they could reach for performance. In the world of strength and conditioning, it seems that we are finally catching on to the benefits of utilizing oxidative fitness methodologies for the acquisition of much of our training volume.
Changes in fitness are largely driven by the amount of training volume you can accumulate on an annual basis. In international weightlifting, you often times see charts showing the total annual tonnage accumulated by lifters from different eras and different countries. Track and field people are always interested in the total yardage accumulated during training cycles, and what intensity level these yardages were gained through. Ultimately, it seems as though you need to perform large amounts of mechanical work if you’re going to change your body and realize your performance gains. So the question becomes, what is the best way to accumulate volume, and why is this the case?
Former Bulgarian Weightlifters
If you are a competitive strength athlete, you realize that the intensity that you display in an actual contest is almost super human. You go places that you could never possibly reach during training; however, if you don’t ever simulate these conditions to some degree in training, you’ll never be prepared for how to handle the experience and some of the adverse factors that can pop up during these times. So it is very clear that a good chunk of your training needs to be of the highest possible intensity, and that it has to be specific to exactly what you’re going to do in contest. Actually competing in strength athletics is a different experience than what anyone ever thinks before doing it. Contests are nothing like training days. Often times you have to sit around for a long time between events, and then with little or no warm-up time you have to perform at the highest level of your physiological output. You can quickly tell who the veterans are and who the new guys are based on what they’re doing in between events. Veterans relax and conserve energy. New guys are constantly doing dynamic warm-up moves or hopping around or something else that saps you of your overall competitive energy. In the coming paragraphs I’ll explain some of the underlying scientific concepts related to why incorporation of exercise within the oxidative intensity level is beneficial for strength athletes, and why the physical adaptations that come along with possessing decent levels of oxidative fitness are surprisingly useful for competition days in particular.
Medvedyev, the great Russian weightlifting coach and sports scientist explained that the biggest difference between outstanding lifters and average lifters from an electrical perspective of muscle actions is the rate at which a muscle can be inhibited after it fires. Lesser lifters are no different from the most elite lifters in terms of how quickly they can turn muscles on; however, the great ones are able to oscillate between excitation and relaxation of the muscle tissue while performing their contest lifts compared to everyone else. Stu McGill always seems to reference what he calls, “The Pulse” when describing the physiological difference maker between great athletes and lesser athletes. The pulse is the alternation between excitation and relaxation of muscle. So what is inhibition, and how do we improve this quality? Inhibition refers to being able to make a muscle return to a mid-range length where it can relax and turn off tone. The road to inhibition is one that can be achieved via position of major bones and by the downstream effects of changing the chemistry of the blood. In addition to this, the number of mitochondria found within a muscle is highly related to the ability of that specific muscle to be able to move into an inhibitory state.
If your body is stuck in an extension pattern, it will be very difficult to achieve inhibition. How do you know if you are extended? If you are a lifter and your pelvis is positioned in anterior tilt, your rib cage pops up away from your abdomen, you have a clearly defined six pack with a vertical line cutting between the left and right sides of your abs, and your legs are turned out in external rotation, you are deep in extension. You probably complain about a tight lower back, trigger points in your traps, tight hip flexors, and maybe you get hamstring and calf pulls a lot…especially on the left side. Why is it hard to achieve inhibition if your body is positioned this way? Because this position is also referred to as the inhalation position of the body, and the inhalation phase of breathing is a sympathetic nervous system based phenomenon. The sympathetic nervous system is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that releases the chemical epinephrine and norepinephrine into your body. These chemicals accelerate the heart rate, tend to vasoconstrict blood vessels, and lead to activation/facilitation of skeletal muscle.
If you are stuck in an inhalation posture, and your sympathetic nervous system dominates over the parasympathetic nervous system, you create a situation where some muscles in your body are always on, they can’t relax, and ultimately the ability to deliver blood and oxygen to these muscles gets compromised. The most common muscles in a strength athlete’s body to be constantly on are the spinal erectors, lats, traps, and superficial neck muscles. These muscles are always on because the extension position elevates and externally rotates the ribs. When the ribs are in this position the diaphragm is not positioned in a manner where it can work effectively. The diaphragm is supposed to be the muscle that causes inhalation by its concentric firing pattern. When the diaphragm contracts concentrically it flattens. By flattening it creates more volume inside the chest cavity. More volume inside the chest cavity reduces the air pressure inside the lungs. If the air pressure inside the lungs is reduced to a level below the air pressure of the external environment air moves down its concentration gradient and moves from outside the body to inside the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, it domes back up. When it domes up, it takes up more space inside the chest cavity, therefore reducing the amount of chest cavity volume. Less volume increases the pressure inside the chest cavity. If the chest cavity pressure is greater than that of the external environment, air moves from inside the lungs to the outside world, this is the exhalation. If you are stuck in an extended/inhalation position, the diaphragm gets stuck in the flattened position. The diaphragm can’t relax and dome, and if it can’t dome, it can’t really be a player in subsequent inhalations. As an organism, you have to bring air into your body or you’ll die. If your diaphragm isn’t positioned properly to inhale for you, your brain recruits anything and everything it possibly can to get you to be able to inhale. Necks and backs are the most likely locations that are recruited on the strength athlete’s body to achieve the inhale when the diaphragm is not available to do this duty. So the very first thing you can do to achieve an inhibition state is to spend more time exhaling during the course of your day. Get rid of your air, let your abdomen relax, let your rib cage move down towards your hips, let your thoracic spine go into flexion, slouch, keep your weight on your heels, and if possible, pause for at least five seconds before inhaling with the tongue on the roof of your mouth. Simply by doing this you will be doing oxidative work for your body. You’ll be opening up blood vessels, allowing nutrients to reach overworked, overburdened muscles, and you’ll probably feel like a million bucks.
Okay, now let’s talk about tissues and then we’ll talk about training. Tissues get hypertonic (really tight) and painful when they exist in a low chronic oxygen level. Tissues are always doing some level of work at the cellular level. They’re making new proteins, balancing ionic levels, and rephosphorylating ATP. To perform these actions, cells need to spend energy. The energy currency of the body is ATP. You have to split the third phosphagen off of ATP to release energy which can be used for all cellular actions. After you’ve broken ATP apart, you need to put it back together again (rephosphorylation). To put ATP back together again, you rely on the energy systems of the body (oxidative, glycolytic, and phosphagen). Cells are happy and working with high efficiency when they are able to rely on oxidative functions to rephosphorylate ATP. Cells require a constant delivery of oxygen to be able to function oxidatively. This means that the status of blood vessels is intimately linked to the type of energy system utilization that is happening at any given cell. If blood flow to a cell diminishes, oxidative dominance is not possible, and if the cell is to continue to perform work, it must shift to glycolytic or phosphagen system reliance. Glycolytic and phosphagen system ATP resynthesis is very rapid and powerful; however, these energy systems ultimately do not have great staying power. If you try to rely on the non-oxidative energy systems for extended periods of time, ultimately they will be unable to meet the cellular demand for ATP. When you cannot provide a muscle cell with enough ATP, a typical chemical cascade ensues. The end result is that calcium will remain in the cytosol of the muscle cell bound to the actin molecule, and myosin will be locked to actin. This is identical to rigor mortis in cadavers. So you must appreciate that your trigger points, super tight muscles, and chronic pain spots are really local rigor sites. Sure the foam roller or lacrosse ball gets some sensory information into that area and some blood flow, but this isn’t getting to the root of the problem, and is a temporary fix at best. What you need is to figure out why these tissues are not working oxidatively. This can be a can of worms, but I’ll tell you this much, it ain’t flexibility or mobility in most cases. You’ve got yourself a stability and motor control problem almost every single time, and you’ve probably created a reciprocal inhibition strategy that is rooted in the nervous system. Pretty much the only weapons you have at your disposal to truly fix this situation is proximal bony positioning, hitting monster exhales, maintaining stability reference centers, and finding some systemic flexion in your life.
Now let’s talk about training and volume. The great coaches within the world of strength and power sports have come to the realization that you should probably avoid playing in the middle. Make your intensity real low, or real high. Real high in the world of resistance training means playing with loads greater than 80%. Real low means playing with loads below 65% and stopping well short of failure. The main goal is to play with very high levels of intensity as much as possible. That’s where you make your big gains, and increasing high intensity volume on a yearly basis is the main focus of any good training plan. The problem most people have with trying to pull this off is that they actually don’t have the fitness to be able to realize this goal without ending up getting hurt in the pursuit of it. Avoiding injury and building the underlying fitness to be able to handle tremendous high intensity volume is where developing a great oxidative system comes into play.
Oxidative fitness development generally allows you to accumulate tremendous amounts of volume without stressing your system too hard. It provides you with tissue adaptations that lead to increased capillarization and mitochondrial levels. These factors will allow you to inhibit muscles. If you can inhibit, you can display good biomechanics and not move deep into muscle imbalance syndromes. Fitness development also speeds up your ability to recover from high intensity training sessions. The only way you can recover effectively is via living in a parasympathetic state. The lower your resting heart rate, the greater the overall parasympathetic environment for your system. If you get the majority of your volume from glycolytic type work, the intensity is too high to be able to really recover from on the next day, and it’s too low to be able to really get much benefit from in terms of displaying freaky levels of strength and power. As Charlie Francis was fond of saying, you should train your white fibers to be extremely white, and your red fibers to be very red. Do not try to cross the streams (lesson learned from Ghostbusters as well).
The final noteworthy point regarding the benefits of oxidative training for this article is in regards to how it may benefit the strength athlete during a contest day. Contests involve a lot of sitting around doing nothing, and then suddenly having to get ready to do supramaximal efforts. This is a tough thing to do, and very different from a typical training day. You need to be able to heat up very quickly if you’re going to perform at your best. The carrier of heat in the body is blood. If you want to get heat deep into performing muscles there must be blood vessels present in those locations. This is one of the reasons you need oxidative work. You’ve got to develop a high level of capillaries in the working muscles. If you have capillaries present, you can deliver blood to that region. Blood will heat up the muscle. The more heat you have in your working muscles, the faster the electrical impulses will be that travel to those muscles. Electricity is the ultimate driver of contractile actions. You don’t see too many lightning storms in the winter.
In closing, I want to ask the reader to question what they do. How much of your training is probably middle of the road type stuff? Is that stuff really doing much positivity for you? Is that middle road work sapping your recovery energy from being able to do more very high intensity work? Do you think that by scrapping your moderate intensity work for lower intensity work, that this might help you ultimately do more of the good stuff? When it’s all said and done, the more big movements you do with big weights with great technique, the greater your overall development will be as a true strength athlete. Are you doing everything in your power to give yourself the chance to do more of this kind of work in your programming?