Friday, November 18, 2016

Intensity is the Key to Conditioning

I've been experimenting a lot lately with lower intensity training, as I've written about here and here, among other places.

Now intensity can mean many different things in different contexts - like percentage of one rep max when lifting weights, for example. From a conditioning perspective I mean something more like heart rate. I think of low intensity as any activity that keeps my heart rate lower than 140 or so beats per minute, or averages around that but never goes much higher. Jogging, not sprinting. If you do intervals in that zone, they have to be short with decent amounts of rest in between - maybe bursts of activity lasting no more than 5-10 seconds.

There was a time when I thought such work was useless - that was a big trend in fitness towards the early part of this century. There was a sort of general overreaction to the old paradigm, which placed a lot of importance on doing lots of low intensity training. Just as the proponents of doing lots of low intensity work were wrong, I was wrong to say it was useless.

The thing is that low intensity training (again, keeping heart rate at or below 140 beats per minute, more or less) does result in some adaptations that are useful. You'll increase your cardiac stroke volume, which will increase the rate of recovery from training, and make you more fit for daily life (activities like light hiking, climbing stairs, etc.). That will probably help you recover faster in between workouts, which will ultimately lead to an increase in how much training volume you can withstand. all of these are good results, and important to martial artists.

The problem/concern/thing to keep in mind is that low intensity training really doesn't do much to improve your ability to do high intensity exercise.

To put it a little more technically, work done that doesn't involve the lactic energy system won't result in improvements in the lactic energy system. And low intensity work isn't very lactic.

This all came to a head for me the other week. I've been doing, as I said, mostly alactic and aerobic work - work that kept my heart rate in the lower range. When I did strength training, which was more intense, I was doing very short sets (although a lot of them), which again doesn't really tap the lactic energy systems, even though it's been doing interesting things for hypertrophy.

That's been my training modality for probably six or eight months.

Then I joined a gym.

First, a personal trainer put me through a short but fairly intense workout - short circuits with weights, sled pushing, that kind of stuff.

Now I'm fairly strong - I've been doing strength training - but my body's ability to handle those longer sets is completely gone. I'm strong enough to push the sled hard, but I'm not able to handle the lactic acid buildup from doing so.

Then I started doing kata for the first time in a year.

Now kata, unlike the microsets I've been experimenting with, are definitely long enough to put some serious demands on that lactic energy system. Kata in my style take roughly 45 s to a couple of minutes, rarely less than that, certainly not 5-10 seconds.

And. They. Kicked. My. Ass.

What's the take home?

Aerobic endurance training, by itself, will NOT get you in shape for more intense activities. I've said this before (but sometimes it seems I need a reminder).

If you want to get in shape for sparring or kata practice some (or most, but not all) of your endurance training has to be at an intensity at least as high (preferably higher) than your sparring or kata practice.

And by intensity I mean the heart rate that results from the training.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is probably the best way to do this. I've written up HIIT protocols before on this blog, I'll add some more soon.

Low intensity training like the SVT I described before is good for you, will make you healthier, help you recover between workouts better, and improve your quality of life, but it will NOT get you in shape for serious work. My aerobic fitness is higher than it's been in a long time, but my ability to handle lactic work is shot.

The good news is that lactic conditioning comes fairly quickly. If you're in decent aerobic shape, a few weeks/months of HIIT will make you significantly better at high intensity training. It's hard work, and very unpleasant, but the results come quickly (unlike strength training, where it takes years to make real progress).

So wish me luck as I pull out the old dumbells and start up my Tabata -style One Arm Dumbell Power Snatch workouts again.

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