Ah-Ha! Moments:
The Education of a Dumb and Misguided Trainer.

Jun 22, 2022

On Monday we'll publish Mike's 5 Ah-Ha Moments. Mike was motivated by Alwyn's so we wanted to publish Alwyn's first if you hadn't already read it. Mike's new article will be the first strengthcoach.com exclusive, an article written for and first seen on strengthcoach.com.

There have been several "ah-ha!" moments in my career -- moments of clarity as it were -- when I learned something new, or something I believed was verified, brought into question or flat out disproved.

Basically these were times when my thought processes as regards training took a significant step forward from where it was and I felt I had reached a new level.

While talking to the "Barbara Walters of the fitness industry" -- Mike Boyle at a recent seminar we were together at, I shared this idea of the "Ah-ha!" moment with him and he suggested that it would make a good article to share. I guess that was another "ah-ha!" for me.

Anyway -- here are a few things that I became aware of at some point over the past couple of decades that made a significant change in how I do things.

Is lack of range of motion actually a mobility or stability issue?

This was from a Gray Cook presentation. Look at the two guys pictured above performing an overhead squat. The guy on the bottom can't get the depth. He's well above parallel with angles of above 90 degrees at the hip and knee.

So it's obvious that he has a mobility issue right?
Is it tight lats, tight hip flexors, or maybe a restriction at the ankle?

Maybe none of these.

Because when we put these guys on their backs (and essentially take out the load) --

The mobility issue seems to resolve itself -- not completely -- but very considerably. The person who couldn't get below 90 degrees has achieved a range well beyond 90 degrees.

So the difference in squat form and depth was not a mobility issue -- it was a stability issue. Essentially the body is shutting down the range of motion -- not because of tightness or a restriction -- but because it perceives a threat due to the lack of stability.

Up until this point -- I'd used a Vladimir Janda approach to movement dysfunction i.e. -- if hip flexors are tight, we stretch them and strengthen the antagonist. Gray opened my eyes with this.

Conclusion -- a range of motion deficit or asymmetry may not be related to tissue length or tension at all. It could be related to core stability.

For fat loss - The post workout period is where "something" -- probably the most important "thing" happens.

Here's a study that I came across about ten years ago (about 4 or 5 years after it was published I'm embarrassed to admit):

Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C.
Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism.
Metabolism. 1994 Jul; 43(7):814-8.

The premise of the study was to compare twenty (20) weeks of steady state endurance training and fifteen (15) weeks of interval training.

When comparing total calories burned from exercise, the researchers found that the endurance training burned 28,661 calories, while the interval training group burned 13,614 calories. In other words the interval training group burned less than half the calories of the endurance training group.

However when the researchers adjusted the results and corrected for the difference in energy cost, the interval training group showed a nine times greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group. In other words -- calorie for calorie -- interval training was nine times more effective than steady state exercise.

Additionally the researchers noted that the metabolic adaptations taking place in the skeletal muscle in response to the interval training program appear to favor the process of fat oxidation.

This peaked my interest because until this point we had been told that it's all about "Calories in versus calories out". So we assumed, or at least I did, that burning more calories in training would result in greater fat loss.

This study (and several others since) have shown that to be completely incorrect.

So the "ah-ha!" moment showed me that we can't ignore the post workout period. That's where the adaptations happen. That's where the results are.

Why did this occur? I've hypothesized that it is related to EPOC -- a post exercise elevation of metabolism but some studies have shown that EPOC is not as big of a contributor to caloric burn as we originally thought-- that the calories burned during the exercise period is the biggest factor.

But that still doesn't explain the very significant difference in real world fat loss.

Simply put -- the subjects doing interval training lost more fat by burning less calories than the steady state group.

So maybe - as the study showed -- total body fat oxidation seems to increase as a result of the adaptations to interval training.

But that still doesn't explain it. An increase in fat oxidation doesn't necessarily mean an increase in total caloric burn or fat lost (as other studies have shown that fuel source during exercise appears to be irrelevant -- so fuel source at rest shouldn't matter either unless there is a total caloric deficit).

The bottom line is that perhaps we don't know why. But we do know that it's more effective because of something that happens post workout. And that something is beneficial.

Looking at aerobics for fat loss and ignoring the post workout period is short-sighted. If we studied weight training the same way -- looked at what happened during the workout and ignored the post workout adaptations -- we'd have to conclude that weight training would destroy muscle tissue and make you smaller and weaker. We know that doesn't happen!

Conclusion- the workout is the stimulus. The adaptation is the goal.

Cardiovascular programming is an ass backward concept.

I don't know when I first thought this -- but it was confirmed to me when viewing Lance Armstrong's performance in the New York Marathon.

I'd been taught through my college education and countless training certifications and seminars that cardio vascular exercise was necessary to improve the cardio vascular system and subsequently aerobic performance.

But there seemed an inherent flaw in that argument….

Let's say I tested your aerobic fitness through a treadmill test.

Then -- for sixteen weeks -- we developed a five-day per week aerobic training program that involved you running at various heart rates and for various lengths of times -- progressively increasing in difficulty and duration -- and this resulted in a very significant improvement in your aerobic fitness.

At the end of this sixteen week period, how much do you expect your swimming times to have improved? Marginally, if at all.

Seems dumb to ask right? However -- if we have one cardiovascular system -- why doesn't your cardiovascular system improve across the board regardless of the activity?

Why didn't Lance Armstrong -- with perhaps the highest recorded VO2 max in history -- win the New York Marathon? Or beat people with lesser aerobic levels than himself?

The greatest endurance cyclist (and possibly endurance athlete) of all time -- the seven time Tour De France winner -- finished 868th and described the event as the "hardest physical thing" he had ever done.

The flaw in this thinking was looking solely at VO2 max - the "engine" as it were. And it's fair to say that Lance had a "Formula One" engine.

But he didn't have the structural development for running. Lance was a cyclist - his body had adapted to the demands of cycling. But NOT to the specific demands of running (in fact Lance had only ran 16 miles at once EVER prior to running the marathon). Lance had developed strength, postural endurance and flexibility in the correct "cycling muscles" - but it didn't transfer to running the way his VO2 max did.
The muscles don't move because of cardiovascular demand. It's the reverse. The cardio system is elevated because of muscular demand. We need to program the body based on the movements it's going to perform -- not based on the cardiovascular system.

Basically, if that muscular system cannot handle the stress of thousands of repetitions (which is what running, cycling etc is) then we have to condition that muscular system first. And by doing so, we automatically improve cardiovascular conditioning.

The only reason that there is any demand on the cardiovascular system is because the muscular system places that demand -- the muscles require oxygen in order to continue to work. In fact cardiovascular exercise is impossible without moving the muscle first.

I've seen this across various sports. The cardio conditioning required to run a 10K won't transfer to motocross or ju-jitsu.

Conclusion - If cardio training doesn't transfer well from one activity to another -- and it only 'kicks' in because of muscular demand -- why don't we program muscular activity first -- in order to create a cardiovascular response.

Strength is the single greatest equalizer in sport and therefore strength training is the most important physical preparation quality

While in college we were in the midst of the aerobic training and endurance activity focused period. Strength training studies were few and far between to be honest. And any strength training studies were rarely performed on the more advanced programs we have available today. It was as if strength development were ignored completely -- as all "training programs" for sport were based around various cardiovascular improvement programs.

While competing in various martial arts systems it struck me that all combat sports exist in a weight category system. The idea was not to prevent a fighter from facing a heavier fighter -- it was based on the idea that the heavier fighter was stronger and therefore more dangerous.

Also -- men and women (even of the same weight) didn't face each other in fighting sports.

(incidentally the female boxer and kickboxer -- Lucia Rijker - lost only one kickboxing match ever. By knockout. In the second round. In a match against the male world champion at the same weight).

So matching athletes up had nothing to do with weight or sex -- it had to do with the idea that males were stronger than females, and heavier athletes were stronger than lighter athletes.

And when I thought about it more -- even looking at activities such as marathon running, long distance cycling or figure skating -- activities where excess weight may be a disadvantage -- still - males tended to perform better than females.

Being stronger was the biggest single advantage in most sports. Not the only advantage obviously -- but definitely a serious difference maker. It was at this point (still in college) that I started to realize that improving strength had to be a primary objective in any sports training program, despite what my professors were saying.

Hypertrophy is a systemic response and effect -- not a localized one.

All the talk about bodypart training versus full body routines, isolation exercise versus compound exercise etc is based upon a fundamentally flawed concept -- that hypertrophy is somehow completely regionally specific.

Here's a study that examines this in a bit more detail:

Rogers et al
The Effect of Supplemental Isolated Weight-Training Exercises on Upper-Arm Size and Upper-Body Strength
Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, IN.
NSCA Conference Abstract (2000)

The researchers compared the effects of a weight training program on 5RM strength and arm circumference and divided the subjects into two groups.

Group One performed four compound upper body exercises

Group Two used the same program but included bicep curls and triceps extension

The results showed that both groups significantly increased strength and arm size. However -- the addition of direct arm training to group two produced no additional effect on strength or arm circumference after 10 weeks of training.

The additional localized training did not result in anything that the bigger compound exercises didn't provide.

Let me present a hypothetical example:

Twin brothers eating the same diet, working at the same job. Three times a week for the next 52 weeks -- both brothers undertake a progressive resistance training program -- each adding weight, sets or reps in a logical manner over the whole year.

One difference The first brother does deadlifts only. The second brother does arm curls only.

After a year -- who do you think will have bigger arms? Obviously it will be the first brother -- who put more overall stress and load through his system. Even though he didn't bend his elbow at all.

Charles Poliquin is fond of quoting that -- in order to gain an inch on your arm -- you'd have to gain 10lbs of muscle mass. If that's true -- it will happen a lot sooner with an exercise like the deadlift than it will with the dumbbell curl.

Bottom line is that muscle growth is a systemic issue - not a localized one. If I put a stress on the forearm only -- it would grow of course -- but there would be a limit to that as the systemic load is small. But if you did deadlifts - the systemic load would be so big - everything would grow.

And when we think about anabolics or anything that can enhance muscle growth -- they are injected or consumed into the system. You don't inject steroids in equal amounts into every muscle group. You don't rub Surge on your arms -- increased protein synthesis is a systemic phenomenon.

Therefore why not develop training strategies that target the entire system at once if hypertrophy is what we want?


Learning is rarely linear -- it tends to come in jumps. These were just a few events that significantly advanced my understanding of the training process and shaped how I design programs.