My Thoughts On High Repetition Exercises
“When is enough, enough?”
High Intensity and or CrossFit programming has many aspects of their training philosophy that either flies in the face of conventional wisdom or is held up against old standards that may not apply today as the scientific rationale has changed over the years and much of the world has failed to keep up, much like nutritional science. It always seems to take too long for industries to recognize their mistakes or lack of knowledge in an area as new science emerges and acceptance is often too slow erring on the side of caution when it comes to new practices.
Much of that controversy often centers around the use of high rep ranges for exercises, especially Olympic lifts which were traditionally intended to develop speed and power over short rep ranges. I have my own scientifically supported views on high repetition training.
As you may be aware, everyone is suddenly beginning to promote some sort of high intensity programming but all too often its is being done by the least scientifically educated trainers with the most physical fitness capabilities which often causes them to totally miss the boat on how this type of programming should be implemented to benefit the masses.
Many individuals, health practitioners alike fail to realize that lifestyle habits including nutrition, sleep, stress and toxins play a greater role in disease prevention and optimal mortality than does exercise. That being said exercise promotes achievement of optimal mortality, reduces further the risk of diseases and promotes highly functional movement which increases the quality of the lifestyle we live more than the quantity. In addition, research continues to show that maintenance of a healthy lifestyle is promoted and made more successful when coupled with a regular exercise program.
Science is continuing to point to High Intensity Short Duration (HISD) programming as the way to optimize physical exercise benefits. In fact the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has changed their position statement on optimal health to include 3 days a week of at least 20 minutes of high intensity training.
One of the critics of the misuse of High Intensity programming is the world-class strength training coach Charles Poliquin. I am a fan and a certified student of Charles Poliquin and his methods, but I do believe he may overemphasize the value of muscle size or body-building a bit. None the less he is a great strength and conditioning coach and one of the most knowledgeable men I have met in this industry.
I recently read one of Charles Poliquin’s infamous articles on the 6 Things about CrossFit that he does not like. I agree in theory with several of his points but I believe they are not entirely accurate or understood properly within their training context by Charles. He trains mostly for sport and athletic endeavors and not for optimal health or General Preparedness which CrossFit specializes in. And in fact high intensity programming can be overused and promoted as a sport which then reduces the optimization for health and increases the chances for injury and diminishes returns on optimal mortality. Witness the popularity of the CrossFit Games which is now entering the realm of extreme sport and that comes with injury, mortality risk and reduction in quality of life issues due to extreme forces put on the body to excel at your sport.
Although some of his points may be factual, none of his issues have anything to do with high repetition non-weighted movements which is often reported by his critics. His only high rep (21 rep ranges) issue is with Olympic movements, which he believes would be more effective with simpler exercises. I think he may very well be correct on this issue. He does not necessarily disagree with the use of the rep range as much as he does the choice of exercise.
I see futility in certain high rep exercises done in a row. For example, once you are pushing out 40 or 50 pull-ups in a row, is there really a good bang for your buck in getting to 60 or 70 reps? I think at this point you are doing exactly what we tell people not to do in our fitness centers, which is in essentially lowering the intensity level.
If 10-20 pull-ups is all I can do before I fall apart then this is an intense exercise for me. If I can string together 50 before I begin to fall apart, the intensity level of the exercise is greatly diminished and exhaustion of aerobic systems come in to play long before anaerobic systems.
Thus “intensity” is relative to each individual’s conditioning and abilities. Intense for the 65 year old women who has been sedentary for the last 10 years is different than the physiological definition of intensity for the very active 22 year old male. It is going to take different movements, weights and rep ranges to get both individuals to the same level of physiological or chemical change that happens in the body that promotes good health with HISD exercise.
I have been thrown the example of sprinting and running as an apples and apples comparison. Sprinting is very different. A true sprint never lasts very long because the better shape you are in the faster you go keeping the entire length of the exercise static. In other words if I can run 400 meters in 70 seconds then I don’t necessarily start running 450 meters at the same pace to increase my conditioning, I try and run 400 meters in 65 seconds and then 60 seconds… This preserves the adaptation through increased intensity of the neuromuscular and Central Nervous System thus providing optimal endocrine secretions. Conversely I may try running further in the same amount of time going 450 meters in 70 seconds, this also would be increasing intensity levels of the movement. Just going longer distances at the same pace like most people who “run” or “jog” has not been shown in research to have as beneficial physiological effect on the body and in fact often has shown to have many detrimental aspects to this type of programming.
On the other hand if I am extremely overweight and deconditioned, high rep movements of air squats at 15-20 reps may be a highly intense exercise for me and provide adaptation. But as you become highly conditioned like someone who performs HISD exercise regularly, air squats become too easy and often require you to move into a high rep range of literally hundreds of reps that provide no adaptational benefit other than to try and increase VO2 max transfer points to optimize oxygen delivery. The result of this type of training will begin breaking down muscle fibers (loss of lean muscle tissue), elongating and separating cell structures to adapt to have higher surface areas for oxygen consumption, accumulating subcutaneous and intramuscular adipose tissue (skin and muscular under-layer of fat) and a host of potential chronic use injuries. The endocrine boost from this type of movement is significantly diminished and Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) begins to disappear. Catabolic hormones kick in sooner and fast twitch muscle fibers are de-emphasized which are precisely the fibers you would use in a sprint or high intensity activity.
As such I recognize that many of these longer high intensity routines such as CrossFit Hero WODs such as Murph provide great bragging rights and internal challenges of mental discipline and competition but they are not good training regimens and were never intended to be performed regularly. In addition there are some practical boundaries and parameters on what would be considered optimal functionality for a 40 year old male executive and potentially what an MMA fighter or 23 year old marine stationed in Iraq may need. We force athletes or emergency responders to do things that may save a life but is not necessarily healthy for them to perform these movements regularly. The difference is the fact that if they did not train for these situations they themselves or the individuals around them may become a casualty. So their training is for survival, which at that point in time is “optimal” but probably not optimal for long-term health, which is of no consequence if you can’t survive the immediate risk in front of you.
So I challenge you… what is optimal for your lifestyle and habits? Just how much exercise and intensity do you need to live as long a life as possible with as good a quality as possible? That all being said, if you are eating poorly don’t worry about your mortality risk optimization from exercise, your inflammation, blocked arteries and a host of other risk of diseases will likely catch up with you first.