There’s something eerily upside down about the fitness industry – the multi-billion dollar behemoth of magazines, supplements, apparel, etc. “You too” – supposedly – “with the right protocol and discipline can be an Olympian Athlete or Mr Olympia contestant or a Yellow Jersey Cyclist”. No doubt, some individuals do scale these physiological pinnacles and we celebrate and reward those rare best-of-breed individuals that come out on top; but the status quo peddled by the Fitness-Industry-Complex that these anomalous achievements are remotely and realistically scalable by the majority is not only setting false expectations but doing serious harm to individuals.
What is fitness? Is it the ability to bend your feet over your head, is to complete an ultra marathon, is it to deadlift a small car or is it a VO2 max test? And how is fitness even correlated to health? It’s undeniable that small bouts of activity will no doubt bring some positive skew on both health and fitness relative to sitting at home binge watching TV. However, is there an indefinite positive correlation between fitness and health? What if you have a top 1% percentile VO2 max but your knees are pre-arthritic from the many years pounding the road – you’re arguably fit – but for sure not healthy.
In the pursuit of my health, I’ve spent the last 36 months exploring and redefining words like “fitness”, “health” and “exercise”. Below is a distillation of my current position and what you need to do. In the interest of brevity the information will be concise and a deep dive into a full explanation has been intentionally avoided. However, if you’re keen on taking a deeper dive then there’s ample literature and research out there. Saying that, I’d feel somewhat amiss if I didn’t gently nudge you towards the book that started me on this journey: Body By Science by Doug McGuff MD and John Little. Body by Science challenged everything I thought I knew about Health, Fitness & Exercise and took me deep inside the body’s inner workings all the way down to the single cell to explain what science now knows about the role of exercise in human health. It effectively divorced the notions of health and fitness and provided the rationale why. It taught me about the importance of sufficient recovery (a huge problem in my early game), that I should avoid overtraining and that sleep is important. It litigates a case for the importance of lean muscle mass for overall general lifelong health and, most importantly, it taught me about making realistic expectations in terms of outcomes.
This book is a tour de force and it flipped my wife’s perspective (10 time marathon runner) and my perspective on what’s important to health.
Exercise. Health ≠ Fitness.
Health = “the physiological capacity of an organism to continue living”.
Fitness = “the physiological capacity of an organism to exert itself above a resting threshold”
Exercise = “the appropriate dose of stimulus that enhances health via a positive physiological response.”
Exercise therefore cannot be:
- a high skill activity where incorrect execution leads to injury
- an activity that underdoses the stimulus resulting in a negligible physiological response
- activity that overdoses the stimulus resulting in a negative physiological response
- an activity that (for the sake of maximising fitness or skill for example) actually decreases health
An example of (1) could be deadlifting or squatting under load – get it wrong and kiss your spinal discs goodbye. (2) Anything too easy that doesn’t challenge you. And an example of (3) and (4) is for example ultra long distance running. The research is clear cut: long distance runners increase their risk profile for: cardio vascular disease, debilitating osteoarthritis, arterial fibrillation, tendonitis, recurrent upper respiratory infections, loss of bone density, liver and gall bladder disorders, depletion of lean muscle tissue, muscle damage, kidney dysfunction (renal abnormalities), brain damage, and spinal degeneration.
EEEEK – and this is to just name a few!
The point being made is simple: initially, fitness and health have a weak positive correlation up a point. Then they negatively correlate such that higher echelons of fitness are achieved only with an impairment of health.
Muscle Stimulus Signal = Exercise
Muscle is incredibly important to health! When muscle is appropriately fatigued, a deep stimulus signal is sent. The stimulus signal is not only localised at the muscle level but spreads to multiple sites and systems across the physiology at multiple levels: adipose tissue, liver, pancreas, bones and brain. Deep dive into myokines if you’re really interested.
Muscle is agnostic for the purpose it’s recruited: it’s oblivious to the stimulus signal source whether it’s running, cycling, rowing, deadlifting, machine weight training, playing football, surviving a sabertooth tiger attack etc. When muscle is appropriately fatigued it creates a stimulus signal “you’re weak – adapt – get stronger” and this signal is delivered not only to the muscle but also to multiple other sites.
Recovery = Adaptation
After the signal is sent, the body subsequently requires adequate time to develop the adaptations. Interrupting this period with further stimulus signals is the equivalent of overdosing the stimulus signal and is negative for overall health. So what would constitute an adequate adaptation period. It depends: on your genetics, your age, intensity of the stimulus signal, your diet, your sleep quantity, your stress levels etc. There is no formula but the pragmatic rule is: if you’re unable to perform better in the subsequent workout then you’ve insufficiently recovered; whereas if you’re able to perform better in the subsequent workout then you’ve sufficiently recovered.
Muscle Types + Order of Recruitment
For the purpose of this intro, there’s 3 types of muscle:
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- Slow Fatiguing
- Low Power
- 60s – 90s Recovery
- Small Motor Unit
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- Intemediate Fatiguing
- Intemediate Power
- 1d – 3d Recovery
- Large Motor Unit
Type IIBMost Beneficial
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- Fast Fatiguing
- High Power
- 4d – 10d Recovery
- Very Large Motor Unit
Type I is the type of muscle used in activities like steady state cardio – Type IIA and IIB muscle are used for higher power and faster reaction activities.
Your brain doesn’t randomly recruit muscle types but has an orderly recruitment hierarchy of muscle types (I -> IIA -> IIB) based on the force requirement. If very high power is required then it will simultaneously recruit Type I, IIA and IIB. If lower force is required then it will sequentially recruit lower order muscle types and when they fatigue it will proceed to recruiting higher order muscle types. If sufficiently low force is required then a subset of Type I muscle is primarily recruited and when they start to fatigue it will recruit more Type I fibres whilst the original subset recovers (60s – 90s). Low force activities can continue recycling between subsets of Type I muscle fibres for a long time (which is why most people can walk/run for hours but cannot lift a heavy weight for more than a few minutes).
High Intensity Resistance Training: Theory.
Stimulus Signal = Complete Muscle Failure (CMF)
To maximise health, you must maximise the stimulus signal across the majority of muscle. This means muscle failure should not only be achieved in the smaller Type I muscle but also in the much larger Type IIA and IIB muscle. We are after Complete Muscle Failure (CMF).
For this reason we don’t advocate low resistance activity (such as steady state cardio) where only Type I muscle will be recruited, i.e. CMF is not achieved.
Nor do we advocate very high resistance activity where Type I, IIA and IIB muscle have to be simultaneously recruited. Simultaneous recruitment will result in Type IIB muscle fatiguing first. Once Type IIB muscle fatigues, you’re left with Type I and Type IIA which cannot match the force requirement for the very high resistance. Thus the exercise comes to a halt without fatiguing Type I and Type IIA, i.e. CMF is not achieved.
Goldilocks Resistance = Moderately Heavy → CMF
A goldilocks resistance (not too heavy, not too light) has to be used to sequentially achieve CMF:
- fatigue Type I muscle
- then fatigue Type IIA muscle
- and then fatigue Type IIB muscle before Type I has recovered (and be recycled back into recruitment)
This goldilocks resistance is easily determined by understanding that Type I Muscle recovery speed is usually 60s to 90s. Therefore, achieving muscle failure between 60s – 90s means you have the goldilocks resistance. If muscle failure occurs before 60s then you should decrement the resistance next time and if muscle failure occurs after 90s then you should increment the resistance next time.
I want to make explicitly clear, the goal is CMF. And that is achieved when your muscles fatigue within 60s – 90s. Your job is to pick a resistance that allows you to fatigue on an exercise within that time bracket.
We don’t count repetitions or movements but we count seconds the muscle is under tension producing force to move the weight accordingly. Eventually the force output of your muscle will be unable to match the resistance, thus you’ll be unable to continue the normal movement of the exercise and you’ll have achieved CMF. Log the time at which CMF occurred – not when you put the weight down and the muscle comes out of tension.
Some people will recover in 4 days, some people will take upto 14 days and some even longer. By recovery what is not meant is how you feel, whether your muscles are a little less sore, or any other arbitrary metric. What is meant is that the next time you come back to the exercise, your time for CMF should be a little greater than last time you did that exercise. Obviously, if you’ve had to increment the resistance for a particular exercise from last time (because you were plus 90s CMF) then your new time at the new resistance should drop back down to 60s – 75s.
Recovery is super important and not trivial: your physiology requires time to make the “flesh and blood” adaptations so that you’re a stronger better you! Assuming the correct diet and absence of disease, if CMF time is chronically less than the previous time on the majority of exercises, it’s most likely that you’ve insufficiently recovered. Let me drive home the point, having a surplus recovery – i.e. having a extra days recovery – doesn’t really do any harm whereas having a insufficient recovery will be counter productive.
Eventually, over weeks, months and years, if you cycle through CMF and Recovery, the goldilocks resistance required to achieve CMF will increase. This is confirmation that your application of the High Intensity Resistance Training is working.
High Intensity Resistance Training: Tactics.
To achieve this type of workout, we use resistance training on machines and not free weights (except Barbell Bridge): machine based – because
- a lot of free weights movement require skill/technique compliance which tends to fail as fatigue sets in
- a lot of free weight movements are dangerous in full fatigue scenarios
- [good] machines will modulate the resistance throughout the movement to better match the mechanical force/leverage features of the human body.
So let us set down a framework for you to internalise before we hash through the workouts and exercises:
- Raising the weight should be 10s and lowering the weight should be 10s – if some machines are impossible at 10s cadence then make it 5s cadence – whatever cadence you pick has to be consistent week on week per exercise
- Movement should be slow, uniform and without momentum (momentum is momentary rest/cheat which defeats the purpose)
- Some machines require holding when the weight is at it’s highest point – hold for 5 seconds
- Technique Technique Technique. Incorrect technique will recruit extra muscles and therefore defeat the purpose of the exercise by making it easier.
- Have courage to be honest with yourself and if you discover that the movement can only be completed with incorrect technique then decrement the weight and do the movement with the right technique next time. I myself do this once in a while.
- Always complete exercises in a workout in the same order week to week
High Intensity Resistance Training – Basic
Anybody beginning this protocol should start on the Basic Workout. It contains 5 movements that you complete at each workout. It may take two to three sessions to find your goldilocks weight.
High Intensity Resistance Training – Advanced
After 3 months to 6 months we recommend moving to an Advanced Protocol. It has 10 movements that are split into 2. You do “Advanced – Split 1” -> recovery period (4 – 14 days) -> “Advanced – Split 2” -> recovery period (4 – 14 days) -> repeat…
BasicFirst 3 - 6 months
The Longevity Index | High Intensity Resistance Training: The App
MEDW was originally created for my wife and I to log weight vs time under tension week on week. After some persistence from “converted” friends we decided to polish it up (voice coaching, graphs, aesthetics etc) and launch the app. We have set a download fee for MEDW with the intention of using funds generated to (1) promote MEDW and (2) researching and disseminating scientifically backed health and longevity contrarian tactics.
I want to say upfront, we don’t have access to your data. We’ve specifically built MEDW this way so that you’re in charge of your data – this means no advertising and no spammy emails. We recommend backing up your data periodically – to do this you there is an “export your data” feature that will send it to yourself as an email – simple – old school – fundamentally, you’re in charge.
Finally I should mention that MEDW has worked for us. We both have quarterly Dexa scans and have seen lean mass up and fat mass (including visceral fat) down from quarter to quarter. Obviously, diet is the major factor in this body recomposition especially fat loss. Additionally, we love all the free time we now have (not in the gym) and being in a state of existence that’s injury free. MEDW has added huge huge huge value to our lives on multiple levels and we recommend it to you all. Use MEDW to systematically increases lean muscle mass and promote health and longevity.
Get MEDW from the Apple App Store today.