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Optimal Exercise

39 Post author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 03:37AM

Followup to: Lifestyle interventions to increase longevity.

What does it mean for exercise to be optimal?

  • Optimal for looks
  • Optimal for time
  • Optimal for effort
  • Optimal for performance
  • Optimal for longevity

There may be even more criteria.

We're all likely going for a mix of outcomes, and optimal exercise is going to change depending on your weighting of different factors. So I'm going to discuss something close to a minimum viable routine based on meta-analyses of exercise studies.

Not knowing which sort of exercise yields the best results gives our brains an excuse to stop thinking about it. The intent of this post is to go over the dose responses to various types of exercise. We’re going to break through vague notions like “exercise is good” and “I should probably exercise more” with a concrete plan where you understand the relevant parameters that will cause dramatic improvements.

How much exercise?

Optimality aside, I recommend starting with a very minimal routine for 6-ish weeks to build the habit of exercise in to your life. You'll want a program that causes you little mental stress that you can actually stick with. You've got a few options for achieving this. The gains from weightlifting can be surprisingly quick—you'll see dramatic changes in your appearance in 4 months—and seeing yourself lift more weight every session can be a great motivator. Couch to 5k is a basic running progression designed for sedentary people. A daily bodyweight routine is a good way to achieve habit formation through consistency. I recommend making a firm choice and sticking with it until it becomes easy.

Once you've made exercise a habit, you'll want to gradually nudge yourself towards the level that's optimal. So what is that level? Most of the rest of the claims in this post are supported by this review by Swiss researchers. As far as I know, this is the largest systematic review of exercise studies ever undertaken, reviewing 7000 studies with 80 meeting inclusion criteria covering over 1.3 million subjects. Sheer size, however, is not the only reason to take this study very seriously. As someone who has read hundreds of exercise studies, I can say that the methodology of the meta-analysis done to determine dose-response to exercise is excellent. What is most encouraging is that the study authors repeatedly point out shortcomings, and ways their findings should not be interpreted because the underlying data does not warrant it. They also check for publication bias. One potential caveat is that this a review of cohort studies, not RCTs. But the authors note that RCTs of exercise almost always show greater effect sizes, not smaller. This is likely because people over-report how much exercise they do in observational studies.

In order to compare the intensity of different activities, exercise researchers use a unit called a MET, or metabolic equivalent. The MET is defined so that your weight (in kg) * METs = Calories you're burning per hour. An example MET table can be found here. For the purposes of exercise studies, activities are typically classified as low-intensity, moderate-intensity, and vigorous-intensity. These roughly correspond to 1-3, 4-6, and 7+ METs per hour. For typical individuals, this will translate to approximately 200, 400, and 600+ Calories burned per hour.

On the low end, some studies have found dramatic benefits from just the first 15 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. These studies indicate that you gain about as much going from no exercise to some exercise as you do going from some exercise to optimal exercise.

The Swiss review finds that the first hour per week of vigorous-intensity activity gets you 2/3rds the benefit of 10 hours per week, but the study authors make sure to point out that this is an implausible effect size and that there are almost certainly some confounding and reverse causality issues going on. Which is to say that people who have better health are simply going to be capable of more exercise.

How about on the high end? Studies differ on where the point of diminishing returns is. Some put it at 1000-1500 Calories; others as high as 3500 Calories. (Remember, a typical individual burns ~400 Calories per hour of moderate-intensity exercise.) I'll shoot for 1500 Calories in my recommendations; 3500 Calories is pretty hard to reach without exercising like a pro athlete.

Estimates indicate that each minute of exercise gets you 3-7 minutes of extra life on average, with higher returns for more intense exercise. So every week, you have the opportunity to get a 3-7x ROI on time spent exercising up to the point of diminishing returns. I recommend high-intensity exercise—not only does it save time, it's also been shown to improve health more on a per-Calorie basis.

 

Which exercises?

Weight training programs

You may have shied away from weight training in the past because you thought you would turn into some huge gross bodybuilder. But bodybuilders and fitness models take drugs and spend years training intensively to look the way they do. You are not going to gain 20lbs of muscle overnight magically. This goes double if you’re a woman. You do not have testosterone; you are not going to be building huge muscles no matter what you do.

Of the forms of exercise I cover, weight training has the most rigorous evidence separating what works and what doesn’t. This study (pdf warning) examines what sort of resistance training results in the most rapid improvements.

In weight training lingo, AxB means A sets of B repetitions. So 4x10 would mean 40 reps with rest periods every 10 reps. Our study recommends starting with 4x10 3 times a week, and transitioning to 4x4 2 times a week as you become stronger. Aim for a weight you can barely complete all the reps with.

For an efficient full-body workout, select one exercise from each movement pattern:

Upper push: bench press, incline press, overhead press, dips.

Upper pull: cable rows, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, chin-ups, face pulls.

Lower push: squats, lunges, leg press.

Lower pull: deadlifts, power cleans, hyperextensions, romanian deadlifts, reverse hyperextensions, glute-ham raises.

So a good starting routine would be

A: 4x10 each of squat, bench press, lat pulldown, hyperextension

B: 4x10 each of squat, overhead press, cable row, hyperextension

alternating A and B workouts on different days of the week e.g. AxBxAxx, BxAxBxx.

You'll try to increase the weight by 5lbs each session. As you improve, you want to decrease the reps and increase the intensity so you can keep advancing. For example, if you stall a couple times doing 4x10 at 125lbs on your squat, switch to 4x8 and keep increasing the weight, then 4x6, etc. until you get to the optimal trained routine:

A: 4x4 each of squats, bench, weighted chins, deadlifts

B: 4x4 each of squats, overhead press, barbell row, power cleans

At this point, you're going to the gym only twice per week to give yourself more recovery time.

For learning exercises, there are many tutorials available online and I recommend checking some out if you are confused about form. You can always search for "<name of exercise> tutorial" and get articles and Youtube videos. Many people feel silly practicing their form with extremely light weights (often just the empty bar). But many world record holders start EVERY session this way to warm up and cement muscle memory. Others are silly NOT to do this. Also keep an eye on your ego. It's easy when setting goals for yourself to try to lift a weight that you can't really lift with proper form, because you want to set that personal best. But you'll feel pretty stupid when you are forced to miss the gym for a month because you hurt yourself.

On exercise selection: I'm not a big fan of deadlifts for absolute newbies, unlike say Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength. Maybe add deadlifts in after you've gained some muscle and you have better awareness of form. I also differ from Rippetoe in recommending that newbies high bar squat (the distinction being that low bar squats place the bar across the shoulders and high bar squats place the bar on the trapezius). I have taught newbies both forms and most find high bar squatting easier to figure out how to do properly. I spent months learning to low bar squat and still injured myself; high bar squatting can be taught in a couple sessions in my experience. Pay attention to whether a tutorial video is trying to teach you low bar squatting; the cues for each exercise are different.

Free weights are generally better than machine exercises, but I recommend cable rows and lat pulldowns to newbies. The goal is to move from cable rows to barbell rows, and from lat pulldowns to actual chin-ups. The issue here is that a beginner won't be able to do the requisite sets and reps of chin-ups and rows with good form.

A note about equipment: Weightlifting shoes have an incredibly high return on investment. They make back injuries less likely, and drastically improve subjective experience of squatting. You can get Rogue weightlifting shoes (use your size in men's dress shoes to size them regardless of gender) for around $120; there are cheaper options available but good shoes will last years so the amortized cost is low. Here's a full list of options; note that even the cheapest weightlifting shoes are miles better than lifting in tennis shoes. I don't have any personal experience with the Reebok CrossFit lifter, but they seem like a good option under $100 for a shoe with the desired .75-inch rigid heel. I recommend a cheap belt (expensive ones aren't any better) in order to improve your execution of the valsalva maneuver during squats and deadlifts which further protects the spine from flexion under load.

 

Bodyweight routines

For a beginner, something like this is reasonable. Of course such a program will max out in fitness gains fairly quickly, even if you start doing several cycles of it. But this isn’t our worry as a beginner. For someone serious about progressing with body weight exercises past this stage, I recommend a program like Overcoming Gravity or Building the Gymnastic Body. There is not really formal support for the efficacy of these programs, but they are endorsed by coaches who train many people successfully, and are consistent with the general principles of weight lifting (progressive overload, training frequency, etc.).

 

Cardio routines

For cardio, I recommend against high-intensity intervals when starting out. High-intensity intervals carry a greater risk of injury, especially if you're not used to them. They're also unpleasant and not conducive to building habits. For starting out, I recommend something that is based more on psychological results rather than performance optimality, like Couch to 5k. As you progress, start adding in short bursts of more intense effort. The idea is to tire yourself out quickly. If your cardio routine lasts more than 30 minutes you’re probably going too easy.

What does the optimal high-intensity cardio routine look like? It has been remarkably hard to find data on this, other than the experience of coaches and trainers for whom high intensity routines seem to result in the greatest improvements in cardiovascular performance. The studies on high intensity routines all use different protocols, and there exists no review comparing high-intensity cardio regimes. Most sources recommend something like the following twice a week:

  • Warm-up for 5-10 minutes.
  • 3-10 bursts of maximum-effort exertion, 30 seconds to 1 minute each, interspersed with lower-effort recovery periods of about 1 minute.
  • Cool-down for 5-10 minutes.

I saw one study claiming that you hit diminishing returns after the 4th burst of intense effort, but now I can’t find it (I'll keep looking).

What type of cardio should you do? Cardio that is amenable to high intensity is probably one of: running (especially up hills), swimming, rowing, biking, burpees, or jump rope. But you might be able to adapt others. I'm a huge fan of rowing for a few reasons. One, it works more than just the legs. Two, you can have a rowing machine in your house, which drastically lowers activation cost. Three, I just find it less aversive subjectively. You can keep stationary bicycle mounts in your house as well, and they have the advantages of being compact and very cheap if you already own a bike. Burpees require no equipment, but they bothered my knees. They work great for some people though. Jumping rope is also very space/time efficient but the skill required acts as something of a barrier. If you find learning the skill enjoyable, it's a great option.

 

Summary of my recommended routine

This is what I recommend gradually working towards once you've made exercise a habit:

  • ~1-2 hour weightlifting sessions 2x a week. (An additional weekly weightlifting session is recommended for the first 4-8 months, for both gaining strength and building habits.)
  • ~15-30 minutes of vigorous cardio 2x a week. (Additional low-impact cardio on off days is also beneficial.)

Don't do vigorous cardio on the same day as lifting weights! It's a good way to injure yourself, especially your lower back. Exercise doesn't make you stronger; it makes you weaker. It's the recovery from exercise that makes you stronger; give your body time to recover.

In total, this routine should see you burning 1500-3000 calories with 2.5-5 hours of exercise each week.

 

Nutrition

Don't try to implement a new diet and a new exercise plan at the same time. If you're trying to choose, do an exercise plan first—effects on health are much larger.

If you are underweight or normal weight, you'll need to eat more when you start exercising. Celebrate after your workouts by eating to reinforce the exercise habit. You may think eating pizza is bad for you, but not exercising is worse, so reward yourself however you want. Or drink my nutrient dense shake, designed to be consumed after workouts. (John_Maxwell_IV and I are planning to commercialize it after we roll out our first nutritionally complete food.)

If you're overweight: I agree with Gary Taubes that exercise is NOT a good way to lose weight. But exercise has bigger effects on health than weight loss, so I actually recommend prioritizing exercise over changing your diet. (Like I said, don't try to do both at once.)

Note that you don't need to stuff yourself with massive amounts of protein to build muscle. Studies have never shown a measured benefit to consumption above .64g/lb of bodyweight, which translates to around 100g for a 150-160lb person. A single serving (3oz) of chicken, for example, contains about 21g of protein.

 


 

If you've made it this far, congratulations; you are now as knowledgeable as any personal trainer I've spoken with.

Comments (127)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 10 March 2014 02:16:43PM *  7 points [-]

Suggestions:

Please put the actionable parts into wiki, and then add a link to this article for those who want to see the full explanation. Please add the links to the youtube videos and tutorials (for convenience, but also because an unlucky reader might google some wrong advice).

you'll see dramatic changes in your appearance in 4 months

Are there volunteers to test this program for 4 months and report the results?

Comment author: kbaxter 12 March 2014 01:31:27AM *  7 points [-]

I can report back about the first ~4 months of my experience lifting weights, doing the Starting Strength program. I'm female though, so my experience was probably very different from a male's.

Basically, I saw huge strength gains but little to no change in appearance. I did have an awesome time doing it, and have kept it up long-term. After 2.5 years of training and slowly gaining 10lbs (on purpose), I now see small changes in my appearance but nothing major: If I'm in a tank top my arms and shoulders look more muscular that most women, and my hamstrings bulge out a little. In normal clothes I really don't look very different.

In short - ladies: if you're worried about accidentally getting too big by lifting weights, stop worrying. It won't happen unless you're trying to get big, and even then it'll be slow and difficult. If you think you might like lifting, go try it. I wish I'd started earlier.

Comment author: cata 11 March 2014 08:52:15AM *  7 points [-]

I'm a skinny young programmer who has been following these weight training recommendations for two and a half months and I now have Actually Visible Muscles in my upper arm that never existed before, which I find entertaining.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 11 March 2014 12:25:34AM 3 points [-]

Are there volunteers to test this program for 4 months and report the results?

I'm willing to test out the cardio (running) parts but not the weight exercises (they'd require a gym and I can't spare money for that) and I assume the weight exercises would have the biggest impact on appearance.

I'll buy some running shoes tomorrow or the day after that and put a note to report back in my google calendar.

Comment author: MTGandP 06 July 2014 10:55:23PM 1 point [-]

Are there volunteers to test this program for 4 months and report the results?

I've been doing Starting Strength for about 3 months. My legs are noticeably larger--jeans that used to fit loosely are now tight around my thighs, and I no longer need to wear a belt. My posture has improved as well. I haven't noticed a visible change in my arms, probably because (a) arms are smaller; (b) Starting Strength emphasizes legs and back more; (c) I haven't been as consistent about increasing the weight I'm lifting with the arms exercises.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 10 March 2014 09:32:39PM 5 points [-]

One thing entirely missing here - training your nervous system. Coordination, balance, muscle tone - this is what separates a young and healthy body from an old one.

Here's one magical thought that transforms your workouts - "strength is a skill". It's largely about muscle recruitment and synchronous firing. You don't need to be big to be strong.

One thing to try, for anyone that does leg presses. Try doing them one legged. I think you'll see that you can do more than half of what you do two legged - more tension on each individual leg, plus more recruitment of stabilizers from the unbalanced pressure. The argument I recall for being able to do well more than half with one leg was a nervous system limitation - the nervous system just won't fire as much in each leg when both legs are used. There's some mutual inhibition.

You see the same kind of issue with doing splits - the flexibility of each leg individually surpasses their flexibility when used simultaneously. There is mutual inhibition to stretch from both your legs too.

Also, one rep max's train your body to feel more weight, and know that it is safe. When you go back to multiple reps, the weight will feel lighter. In training for recruitment, you want very good form and not lifting to failure.

Whether lifting or stretching, there is all sorts of fun with visualizing movement that affects the lift. Visualize pulling the bar toward you on the downstroke of a bench. Or, focus on squeezing the bar hard as you lift. I've read it increases recruitment in the other muscles of the lift, and recall that it seems to work for me. When stretching, don't just mechanically stretch the muscle, but gently press back with the muscle being stretched. Hold the push back, then imagine your leg moving further into the stretch, but try not to voluntarily move it.

There's varieties of contract- relax-stretch for stretching, and plyometric windups for strength training.

Feldenkrais, Hanna, Pilates, Alexander. All sorts of fun with the nervous system. You could also look into dance movement theorists like Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigart. It's best, IMO, to go to the source literature for these things, as the supposedly "trained" practitioners can chant the incantations, but don't quite have the magic, as they often don't understand the concepts.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 March 2014 10:06:02PM 4 points [-]

It's best, IMO, to go to the source literature for these things, as the supposedly "trained" practitioners can chant the incantations, but don't quite have the magic, as they often don't understand the concepts.

Which of the source literature could you specially recommend?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 15 March 2014 07:08:36AM 1 point [-]

Feldenkrais is the best and most general, IMO.

His broadest books theoretically are "The Potent Self" and "Body and Mature Behaviour". Those go beyond physical theories to volition and personality. Those are the books not in storage. Most of the others are, though maybe not Hanna.

I think Feldenkrais's main book for exercises was Awareness Through Movement.

Thomas Hanna had "Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health" which was a good mix of basic theory and exercises.

Never got around to his more recent book "The Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid Movement".

Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigart are more dance oriented. Of the two, I'd recommend Mabel Todd in "The Thinking Body". She was the originator of Ideokinesis, which was developed by others, with different relative effectiveness.

On Alexander, I have a book somewhere where a couple of guys did a lot of video analysis of gait and movement. Good book, but I can't remember what it was, and can't locate it through search.

Joseph Pilates and "Return to Life Through Contrology" was not as theoretically interesting, IMO, but if you want to know what the fuss is about for Pilates, go to him.

Comment author: ChristianKl 17 March 2014 04:36:27PM 0 points [-]

His broadest books theoretically are "The Potent Self" and "Body and Mature Behaviour". Those go beyond physical theories to volition and personality. Those are the books not in storage. Most of the others are, though maybe not Hanna.

I think Feldenkrais's main book for exercises was Awareness Through Movement.

Do you think those books of Feldenkrais are useful to read without having Feldenkrais lessons? If so which book would you recommend most?

(I do have a strongly developed sense of my own body)

Comment author: buybuydandavis 20 March 2014 02:59:05AM 1 point [-]

"The Potent Self" is probably the most valuable theoretically, and ATM gives you a start on exercises. Youtube seems to have a ton of them.

Yes, and I don't think you need lessons. Part of his method is having you learn how to learn.

Comment author: ChristianKl 20 March 2014 10:08:04AM 0 points [-]

Youtube seems to have a ton of them.

Can you make recommendation on that front? Both positive as in watch channel X as well as negative about staying away from certain channels.

Comment author: Suryc11 12 March 2014 02:31:16PM 4 points [-]

Anecdotal support for exercising:

Exercise (specifically weightlifting) has been the single most valuable lifestyle change I've implemented. It's drastically improved my confidence and self-esteem, instilled in my self-identity usually beneficial characteristics like "able to persevere through hardship for some goal," and greatly increased my social status.

Highly, highly recommend it.

(Cred: meet conditions 375/245/425 @ 140 lbs.)

Comment author: kbaxter 13 March 2014 01:02:58AM *  2 points [-]

More anecdotal support: I've experienced the same things. For me, it's helped establish and reinforce a growth mindset. Fitness is an area where with consistent effort, you can really see drastic and measurable improvements in a relatively short time.

In 3 months I went from thinking I was a person who "couldn't run" to being able to run 5k nonstop. In 6 months I went from thinking I was a person who "couldn't squat" to competing in a powerlifting meet. This feels awesome and makes me feel like I can achieve anything if I set my mind to it.

(210/115/255 @ 132, female) :)

Comment author: Suryc11 13 March 2014 11:33:42PM *  1 point [-]

Re the growth mindset, exactly! It's really quite gratifying to be able to literally quantify how much you've become a "better" version of yourself through your direct efforts.

I just think it's unfortunate that the rational component and the weightlifter component of self-identity are often not found together, when both can learn so much from each other. (Plus, of course, it's kinda contrarian-ly cool being both a nerd and a gym rat.)

Nice to see a fellow powerlifter here! My first meet was just last month and it was an amazing experience. By the way, those are impressive stats, especially for 6 months.

Comment author: kbaxter 15 March 2014 02:17:14AM 1 point [-]

Thanks!

Those are my stats after my most recent meet though, about 2 years in. My first meet 6 months in was 180/95/230 @ 123. It's sad how much progress slows down :(

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 March 2014 08:48:39AM 4 points [-]

How do you see the decision between electrical muscle stimulation and lifting weights?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:32:51PM 5 points [-]

Might be useful for rehab: http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/7/3/169.short I don't think it is useful for healthy people. You certainly won't gain any appreciable amount of muscle using it.

Comment author: fezziwig 10 March 2014 10:29:26PM 4 points [-]

Why is that, anyway? I observed the same thing in my own rehab: the machine stopped doing anything useful long before I was able to e.g. stand on just my injured leg, but the exercises I was doing didn't feel any more intense than the machine in terms of muscle flexion. Do we know what the story is there?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 March 2014 07:02:17AM 2 points [-]

Not sure, but I assume it's just that sending a shock through the muscle is just fundamentally different from contracting it through its full range of motion with your CNS.

Comment author: James_Miller 10 March 2014 03:45:25PM *  1 point [-]

Same question. I injured my ankle and although it's getting better I wanted to speed up progress so I bought this $33 electrical muscle stimulator.. I haven't had it long enough to know if its working, but I have grown to like the electrical shock/pulse it delivers.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 March 2014 04:14:00AM 9 points [-]

Additional possibilities: optimal for not getting injured, for fun, for daily life capacity.

Comment author: iarwain1 10 March 2014 04:17:55PM 4 points [-]

Or for energy (might be what you meant by daily life capacity), or for mood since exercise reportedly boosts mood.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 March 2014 10:29:42PM 1 point [-]

That didn't occur to me, but it should be included. The "not getting injured" and "daily life capacity" were influenced by Scott Sonnon, and the example I remembered for daily life is that recovering from starting to fall takes explosive strength.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 12 March 2014 07:11:36PM 0 points [-]

Optimal for fun, given the PERMA model within Martin Seligman's happiness studies:

Should be a group activity Frequent goals, scores, or other sparks of dopamine. Or a feeling of constant flow. For males it can be positive to have women doing it, both motivationally and to diminish hierarchical male-only stress and bullying. You should probably not absolutely suck at it, after training, to avoid frustration.

I've found the most fun exercises to be, in this order:

Sex

Ecstatic Dance (oxytocin bonus points for touching)

Contact Improvisation (also a touch dance)

Ultimate Frisbee

Tennis

Dance Walking

Fighting waves in the ocean or bodyboarding them

Rollerblading.

Honorary status for Volley, Handball and Basket ball due to frequency of scoring, compared to others.

Not recommended for happiness alone would be: Lifting Running Speedbiking Competitive distance running Soccer Baseball (bad ratio of time doing stuff versus not, few hole in ones) Swimming (if you don't feel flow) Abs, push ups, all that stuff that you only do for instrumental reasons and for the endorphin, which all other exercise also provides. Yoga (if you don't flow or connect with the universe when doing it)

Comment author: sediment 16 April 2014 07:07:38PM *  0 points [-]

Honorary status for Volley, Handball and Basket ball due to frequency of scoring, compared to others.

Although of the other items you list, I tend to find that sex also effects frequent scoring.

Comment author: ephion 04 April 2014 05:32:26PM 0 points [-]

This list is highly subjective. I can't stand tennis, frisbee, or dance, and I really love lifting and yoga.

Comment author: TsviBT 10 March 2014 05:24:55AM 3 points [-]

Upvoted!

Optimal for [...] [...] [...]

How about optimal for mid- to long-term sustained cognitive output?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:57:34AM *  3 points [-]

Oh yeah, thanks for the reminder. This study shows direct effects. There are also effects on mental performance due to better sleep and energy levels accompanying regular exercise.

Comment author: yli 12 March 2014 12:02:55PM *  2 points [-]

Do you have thoughts on whether it's safe for a beginner to lift weights without in-person instruction? From what I hear, even small mistakes in form can cause injury, especially when adding weight quickly like a beginner will do. Is it worth the risk to try and learn good form from only books and videos? My friend attempted Starting Strenght for a month, got a pain in their knee and had to quit, and hasn't been able to get back into it because finding personal instruction is a huge hassle especially if one isn't willing to pay a lot. Should they try again by themselves and just study those books and videos extra closely?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 07:16:52PM *  2 points [-]

Yes, you don't need a certified person to spot check your form. You can even ask strangers to check a specific cue (are my knees caving in on ascent?), and then look for instructions about specific problems online.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 March 2014 08:45:34AM 2 points [-]

A note about shoes: Weightlifting shoes have an incredibly high return on investment. They make back injuries less likely

How big is the effect size? Are you relying on studies, anecdotal evidence or simple the claims of the manufacturer?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:45:03PM 3 points [-]

Claims of professional trainers of olympic level athletes and my own personal experience confirming what they say: ankle dorsiflexion impacts rounding of the lumbar spine in the bottom position of the squat. Rounding the lumbar spine under load is generally bad.

Comment author: deskglass 12 March 2014 06:37:04PM *  1 point [-]

I low bar squat barefoot. Would I still benefit from getting weightlifting shoes?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 07:12:19PM 0 points [-]

Not really. A few competitive low bar squatters use oly shoes, but it isn't common.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 March 2014 10:05:41PM 1 point [-]

Claims of professional trainers of olympic level athletes

Olympic level athletes use every trick they can find. I would surprised if Olympic level athletes wouldn't use special shoes, even if the shoes have little effect.

Rounding the lumbar spine under load is generally bad.

That doesn't tell us much about the utility of the shoes. Would you still buy them if they would cost $1000, $2500 or $5000?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 March 2014 07:04:38AM *  2 points [-]

Olympic level athletes use every trick they can find.

It's not so much a trick as that it's impossible to hit the bottom position of the snatch without shoes.

Absolute money value are a function of income, savings, etc. But sure, having felt the difference in my lower back I'd say they're worth at least a grand, probably more. One can just put their heels on 2.5lb weights at the gym for free, but this is somewhat precarious with very heavy weights.

Comment author: kbaxter 12 March 2014 12:54:28AM *  0 points [-]

Most people aren't snatching though. I haven't seen many beginners who can't hit depth on a high-bar or low-bar squat because of ankle mobility issues. If there are mobility problems, they're usually in the hips. I don't think weightlifting shoes are worth it for most beginners, unless they're actually doing olympic-style weightlifting (snatch, clean, and jerk). Or unless they have a high income and don't value the ~$100 very much.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 08:09:07AM 0 points [-]

I haven't seen many beginners who can't hit depth on a high-bar or low-bar squat because of ankle mobility issues. If there are mobility problems, they're usually in the hips.

This is exactly the issue I am addressing. Lumbar rounding is not caused by hip inflexibility.

Comment author: kbaxter 12 March 2014 01:05:55PM *  0 points [-]

That's exactly the point I'm disagreeing with - It doesn't match my experiences teaching and watching beginner lifters. Can you elaborate on your evidence?

I admittedly don't have as much experience with beginners learning to high bar squat, and high bar definitely takes more ankle flexibility than low bar. But based on what I've seen, it's hard to believe it's that common a problem even for high bar.

What makes me skeptical is that I have seen many beginners (including myself at one point) believe that they needed more ankle flexibility to squat properly, but actually the problem was that they weren't sitting back enough, like on the left here:

http://www.nerdfitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Screen-Shot-2014-02-24-at-4.27.47-AM-713x402.png

That applies more to low bar squats than high bar squats, but it's a common problem for both.

Speaking of which! I don't have strong feeling either way, but you are very convinced that high bar squatting will cause fewer injuries than low bar squatting. I'd love to hear more about your evidence for that, as well. It seems plausible to me based on the mechanics of the movement but I don't know if it's actually true, and how big the difference in injury rate is if there is one.

If you're going to assert that beginners should high bar squat, and that you need $100 shoes to high bar squat properly, you'd better be pretty sure that high bar squats are actually significantly safer than low bar squats. If the difference is small, most beginners are better off saving their $100 and low bar squatting instead.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 07:11:11PM *  1 point [-]

You don't sit back in high bar squats.

Based on the mechanics of the movement, and the experience of watching many many people do low bar squats with dangerous form, the burden of proof should be on low bar squats. You are focusing on the $100 shoes and ignoring that lower back injuries are pervasive, debilitating, and hugely expensive in terms of quality of life and money. If $100 lowers your chance of a back injury by 1%, it is likely worth it, given that people with injured lower backs would gladly pay 10k to get rid of it. The amortized cost is also extremely low. If you only wear your WL shoes at the gym the will last 5 years.

Also, I can honestly say that WL shoes are worth it for the subjective improvement in how squatting feels alone. And you don't need to buy the shoes to try out the difference. Just get something around .75 high, put your heels on it, and squat with your body weight. The difference is immediately apparent.

Comment author: kbaxter 13 March 2014 12:33:31AM *  1 point [-]

You sit back less in a high bar squat, but you do sit back. Personally when I was first learning to squat I was learning high bar and I wasn't sitting back enough. I've seen this in other beginners, too. It sounds like our anecdotal experiences don't match up and neither one of us has much more to go on, so we probably just won't agree. That's fine.

Personally, I'm all for WL shoes. I have some and I love them. But I also think it's important not to scare people away from trying the sport. If they think they need $100 specialty shoes to get started, they probably won't bother. Putting your heels on a plate or board is great to try it out but I'll admit it makes me cringe a little thinking about how unstable that must be. It's probably fine for someone just starting out with low weight though.

PS - In case it wasn't clear, I really like your post. I am nitpicking over minor quibbles here, but your main points are great. Thanks for writing it.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 11 March 2014 11:59:06AM 0 points [-]

I'm surprised there isn't an intermediate solution-- something designed to be a foot support which isn't a shoe.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 March 2014 07:33:44PM 0 points [-]

Some old fashioned gyms will still have a plank of wood near the squat rack.

Comment author: Brillyant 10 March 2014 03:56:58AM 2 points [-]

If you've made it this far, congratulations; you are now as knowledgeable as any personal trainer I've spoken with.

Do you mean this literally?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 04:55:36AM 4 points [-]

Yes.

Comment author: Brillyant 10 March 2014 03:01:31PM *  4 points [-]

Hm. Some thoughts, since I don't know if it is that simple...

I shared your sentiment (about personal trainers possessing about 1500 words of total knowledge) until I injured myself several months ago (cervical discs). I lifted weights fairly consistently for more than a decade with high intensity, using principles related to the ones you describe. I'm confident there are other factors—genetics, poor posture, non-optimal sleep position—that helped cause my injury (which led to an immediate 65-75% loss of pushing strength and dramatic atrophy on my right side), but I suspect my consistent vigorous weight training was a key culprit.

Generally, you're failing (in my view) to point out a physical trainer's role and value in teaching correct technique, which can alleviate risk of injury. You mention form a few times, but I think it is fair to say there is a significant difference between watching a Youtube video and having someone (who is trained) demonstrate the proper form in person, providing feedback and adjustment based on their observation.

Free weights are generally better than machine exercises

What does this mean? Newer machines are designed to limit risk of injury—promoting proper form and safe range of motion through their design—and I see very little basis to say free weights are "better". (It's a common adage in strength training circles, and I'm aware of the advantages of free weights vs. machines, but machine exercises are just fine—if not "better"—for basic strength training.)

•Optimal for looks •Optimal for time •Optimal for effort •Optimal for performance •Optimal for longevity

I like the distinctions you've made here, though I think the advice that follows comes nowhere close to encompassing the knowledge of good personal trainers.

Using your advice, you could optimize for the first four, but longevity would be a huge question mark (if by 'longevity', you mean consistent health and wellness as a result of your exercise routine).

I used to scoff at the idea of personal trainers. From what I could see, they were overpaid, personal cheerleaders who rattled off common sens-isms. Now, I've got an appointment for a cortisone injection in my spine scheduled for this week and a referral to physical therapy, both measures to try and help my strength return.

I'm starting to wonder if there isn't a bit more to personal trainers' knowledge of "Optimal Exercise" than this. (Or maybe you are just talking to lousy personal trainers?)

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:40:06PM *  4 points [-]

Personal trainers, on average, teach poor form IME. Their customer base doesn't know the difference. I am somewhat dubious of your conclusion about weightlifting causing you to have spine health problems. People who exercise vigorously on average have far fewer back problems than sedentary people, not more.

Machine exercises isolate a particular muscle group and do not strengthen the supplementary muscles that go into using that muscle for any dynamic action (real life). You do not want your arms able to bench 200lbs but your rotator cuff muscles being the same as a sedentary person. Machine weights being "safer" is something endlessly repeated but for which I have never seen evidence. Base rate of injuries in weightlifting are obscenely low, even with the poor form that is common. And that's all on top of the issue that free weights get you stronger faster.

Comment author: Brillyant 10 March 2014 07:20:44PM *  1 point [-]

I am somewhat dubious of your conclusion about weightlifting causing you to have spine health problems. People who exercise vigorously on average have far fewer back problems than sedentary people, not more.

I've consistently trained with relatively heavy weight. From my reading, while disc degeneration is common with aging, and genetics, posture, sleep position, nutrition, etc. can play a role, disc injuries (bulging/herniated discs) that cause symptomatic neuropathies like mine can be caused by the stress of repetitive movements under the strain of heavy weights.

Machine exercises isolate a particular muscle group and do not strengthen the supplementary muscles that go into using that muscle for any dynamic action (real life). You do not want your arms able to bench 200lbs but your rotator cuff muscles being the same as a sedentary person.

Sure. Makes sense. I think this is valid...

Machine weights being "safer" is something endlessly repeated but for which I have never seen evidence.

Someone who is smarter than I could suggest some more specifics, I'll say only I think there are lots of variables at play in such comparisions.

Base rate of injuries in weightlifting are obscenely low, even with the poor form that is common.

Again, I'd not necessarily argue there is a significant risk of traumatic injury while weightlifting. Rather, as I said in my last response, optimizing for longevity is something I now believe (vs. before I was injured) is a bit more complicated for those who have very ambitious performance optimization goals.

In my case, I was training to break a powerlifting bench press record. In order to optimize my performance and reach that goal (360 lbs at 181lb body weight), I now believe I sacrificed my medium term, and likely, long term health.

I don't think it's that much of a stretch to consider the human body may not be evolved to support the heavy stresses that many powerlifters subject themselves to (even if they have perfect form) over time.

And that's all on top of the issue that free weights get you stronger faster.

Agreed.

Anyway, I think it's interesting. I used to feel almost the exact same way you did. I've spoken the last line of your orginal post many times to friends of mine who asked for training advice.

I've (very reluctantly) upgraded my beliefs lately due to this injury. Though I would agree there is a large chunk of personal trainers—as is the case with any profession—who provide very little value.

I think it is peculiar you'd advocate weightlifting shoes to new weightlifters as a low cost, high return investment, while telling them to look on Youtube for tips on their form. I'd argue even middling to lowly personal trainer would provide much more value to a beginner than specilized shoes.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 11 March 2014 05:48:08AM 0 points [-]

So you feel like if you'd been working with a personal trainer you might not have gotten injured? Or you feel like your personal trainer has helped you rehabilitate your injury faster than you would have otherwise? Or both?

Comment author: Brillyant 11 March 2014 03:26:35PM 1 point [-]

I think sound form, principles, etc. could have helped me avoid injury. A good personal trainer might have suggested that while I was doing a good job optimizing for performance in the short term, my vigorous workouts were likely to hurt my desire to optimize my longevity.

I've been refered to a physical therapist now.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 March 2014 10:26:34PM 0 points [-]

I don't think it's that much of a stretch to consider the human body may not be evolved to support the heavy stresses that many powerlifters subject themselves to (even if they have perfect form) over time.

I believe human beings (mind and body both) have not evolved to handle a culture which values bodies for appearance and highly specific performance, and which values minds for toughness-- which translates as the willingness to ignore "don't do that!" signals.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 07:56:19PM *  0 points [-]

IME people take to high bar squatting pretty well with minimal instruction. Really the only issue people run into is the ankle/lower back problem. Get them in shoes and their form is good enough that I am confident they won't hurt themselves. About the youtube vids, yeah, I am not really satisfied with the guides on squatting (other exercise videos are fine). I might write a guide to highbar squatting.

Comment author: rthomas6 10 March 2014 08:39:59PM 4 points [-]

In my quite limited experience, the form for high bar squatting is easy to figure out, but people often fail to maintain proper form when lifting heavy weight, and they often don't realize it. I personally have done this several times, where I thought I had good form and then my workout partner would point out that I rounded my lower back at the bottom, or my knees buckled inward, or I used my lower back to lift the weight part of the way up. Unless you are exceptionally mindful of your own body, I think there's a lot of value in lifting weights with a partner who can critique your form.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 March 2014 07:35:25PM 1 point [-]

I agree, and this is most important at the very beginning, since that is when you have not developed your proprioception yet.

Comment author: rthomas6 10 March 2014 08:23:45PM 1 point [-]

Why do you think you would not have injured yourself if you had a personal trainer? I agree that form is very important, and that the ideal way to learn it is to have a knowledgeable person there with you to critique your form. I also agree that the OP did not stress enough the importance of good form. However, if a workout partner knows what good form is, what value does a personal trainer add that a knowledgeable workout partner does not?

Comment author: Brillyant 10 March 2014 08:57:29PM *  1 point [-]

Why do you think you would not have injured yourself if you had a personal trainer?

I mentioned personal trainers because the OP literally and specifically talked about their knowledge here:

"If you've made it this far, congratulations; you are now as knowledgeable as any personal trainer I've spoken with."

Further, as I said, I now wonder if optimizing for performance can often be inherently bad to the pursuit of optimizing for longevity.

The human body is not necessarily evolved for modern weight training. Monster powerlifters (optimizing for performance) and bodybuilders (optimizing for looks) are basically using body hacking techniques. It isn't the slightest bit surprising to me that over time, that can lead to accumulated stress injuries in more vulnerable parts of the body.

You can—and I have—pretty well optimize for performance for certain lifts. I am now curious as to whether that was a leading cause of sub-optimal results in my long term health. (Lots of things in nature are like this... give and take, trade-offs)

A knowledgeable person(al trainer) might be able to provide feedback and warnings to balance your optimization. If someone (for example) would have said "Benching heavy twice a week will help you add 10% to your max in the next 4 months... but it will also wear out your shoulders quickly," Then I could've made a more infomed choice.

As it is, "common sensers" like the OP (I was one of them) typically make weight lifting very simple. They recommend a simple formula and de-value personal trainers.

I've seen this advice "work" for many people who have gotten strong and fit. Maybe they'll deal with injuries later? Don't know. Lots of variables.

As of now, I'm re-thinking my view of "Optimal Exercise".

However, if a workout partner knows what good form is, what value does a personal trainer add that a knowledgeable workout partner does not?

Very little. More personal focus than a training buddy, likely. The key is in the word "knowledgeable". I've had training buddies who were very strong and fit who may end up with long term problems like me. They helped me reach my shorter goals, though...

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 10 March 2014 04:00:41PM 1 point [-]

Thoughts about finding a good personal trainer?

Comment author: Brillyant 10 March 2014 05:28:22PM 0 points [-]

Not really, no.

Comment author: Larks 24 March 2014 02:05:28AM 1 point [-]

People often accuse LW of being good at talking about rationality but not very good at acting. So thank you for writing this post; it provided me with the impetus to buy a pullup bar.

Comment author: jswan 11 March 2014 12:41:09AM 1 point [-]

In the event that exercise becomes a persistent habit, what is optimal changes a lot over time as you age and as you improve.

Speaking from the perspective of having exercised 5-7 days a week for over 20 years now, doing both strength and endurance work, I can say that my interests, capabilities, and my response to exercise has changed in fascinating ways over that time. Most people don't stick with an exercise program long enough to even really understand it, let alone wear it out, but if you do, what you do will probably change a lot.

I realize that's a pretty vague statement, but while I think your advice is pretty good overall, the idea of optimal is not something that stays fixed over long periods of time.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 March 2014 07:01:30AM 0 points [-]

I expect people to get around 2-4 years of progress out of this program.

Comment author: TylerJay 10 March 2014 06:56:39PM 1 point [-]

I agree with a lot of this article. I've used Squats, Bench, Weighted Chins, and Deadlifts as the core components of my workouts for years. They are definitely among the most effective exercises for all of your stated goals.

I'm not so sure about your recommendation of 4 repetitions per set as the optimal end point. Conventional wisdom in the weightlifting community is that anything in the 3 rep and below range is not as effective as 5 reps for building strength. (3 primarily works neuromuscular connections, whereas 5 recruits more fast-twitch muscle fibers) Recommending shooting for 4 reps seems like cutting it close and if someone is unable to complete the 4th rep, they will not be working in an optimal rep range to build strength. What do you think about this?

Additionally, people don't actually work all the way to failure on many exercises and some exercises seem to respond better to slightly higher rep ranges. For example, actually failing on a squat is dangerous unless you know what you're doing and have your safety bars set up properly. Also, when people get close to failure on squats, they often start lifting with their back in almost a "good morning" motion. When it gets really hard, people will often stop even if they have one or two more in the tank. ( I usually do 5 rep squats for my top set, depending on where I am in my progression) It might be best to recommend a 5 - 8 rep range for squats so that more of the reps are "effective" (full muscle fiber recruitment) to compensate for the fact that most people are not working all the way to failure.

Also, I can't quite agree with the claim that after this, people will be as informed as most personal trainers. You didn't really talk about progression strategies, the difference between working up to the point of failure and actually failing on a rep, having a spotter, etc. It seems a bit dangerous to give people that kind of overconfidence.

If buying weightlifting shoes is a blocker for anybody, they're really only necessary for exercises during which you're standing. On these lifts, you can simply take your shoes off. I used to wear flat, rigid-sole pumas for lifting which were great, and then five-fingers, but now I squat, dead-lift, and overhead press barefoot (wearing socks of course). If your gym doesn't yell at you for this and there's no danger of other people dropping their weights on you, it's great.

I agree that trying to implement a nutrition plan at the same time is not a good idea from a habit formation standpoint, but you really should point out that people should eat some protein after working out (or at least that day). You need protein to rebuild your muscles after working out. A whey protein shake, a piece of chicken or steak, some eggs, whatever.

The core principles of the article are sound and you make good exercise selection recommendations, but I would like some additional information on some of the recommendations (specifically the 4x4 instead of 3x5 rep recommendation). Also, I'd like to see a simple "eat some protein" recommendation and a simple progression plan. For example, Ripptoe gives "as soon as you can hit 5x5 with a weight, increase it the next session by 5lbs" for the core lifts in Starting Strength.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 08:17:40PM *  1 point [-]

not as effective as 5 reps for building strength

The review on weight training studies says that as people become trained they need higher intensity to stimulate a response. This is consistent with the experience/recommendations of professional coaches. So newbies are working at 60%, experienced people are working 80-85%, and elite level lifters have more complicated programs, but generally do do lots of 90%+ work. I'm recommending trying to follow this curve optimally, stepping down from 4x10, to 4x8, 4x6, then 4x4 which is going to be solidly in the 80-85% range. Going higher than that is going to require a more complex program than I am prepared to discuss here, as this is about health, not maximum performance after years of training.

It seems a bit dangerous to give people that kind of overconfidence.

My experience is that people are under confident about exercise and this acts as a significant impediment. Considering that the base rate of injury in weightlifting is incredibly low, even though that average includes all the people doing stuff with terrible form, I do not think there is much danger. I should probably mention something about ego in the post though. You're right that I neglected to mention how to increase weights session to session, I'll fix that.

you can simply take your shoes off.

I hear this a lot and I strongly disagree. If you've never done squats/cleans in a shoe with a proper heel you should really try it and see the huge difference. This doesn't typically matter for powerlifters since they low bar their squats, but low bar squats use the back which is what I am avoiding by recommending highbar squats.

You need protein to rebuild your muscles after working out.

Americans get sufficient protein to build muscle. No benefit has been recorded above .64g/lb bodyweight, and that's a max, it's not like you get no benefits below that. Meal timing likewise doesn't seem to have much of an effect. The exception is that leucine before bed does seem to make a difference.

I appreciate the detailed feedback.

Comment author: TylerJay 10 March 2014 09:02:00PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for your response Romeo. I have a few responses and a couple questions I hope you'd answer.

I'm recommending trying to follow this curve optimally, stepping down from 4x10, to 4x8, 4x6, then 4x4 which is going to be solidly in the 80-85% range.

That makes sense. I think I must not be understanding the timescale on which your progression is supposed to take place. It sounded like you were recommending starting at 10 each time and then as soon as you couldn't do 10, changing it to 8, then when you fail on 8, go to 6, then when you fail on 6, go to 4. For completely untrained individuals, it seems like they would get some benefit from staying around 6 for a bit longer, but that might be my personal experience biasing me. Anecdotally, I've gotten much more mileage out of working in the 5 rep range than in 4 and I'm fairly well trained. I seem to plateau much more often when I train at 4 reps and have to drop weight and increase my reps for a few sessions to break it whereas it's more of a smooth curve when I train at 5.

You're right that I neglected to mention how to increase weights session to session, I'll fix that.

Great! That will be helpful and make it more actionable.

If you've never done squats/cleans in a shoe with a proper heel you should really try it and see the huge difference. This doesn't typically matter for powerlifters since they low bar their squats, but low bar squats use the back which is what I am avoiding by recommending highbar squats.

I never realized there was a difference in optimal shoe between high-bar and low-bar squat. I know shoes can be helpful for cleans and snatches. I've always squatted low-bar and I don't do much olympic lifting. I've never had official lifting shoes, though I lifted in puma speedcats for a long time. Would official lifting shoes be better? What benefit would you say you get? I feel completely stable barefoot and don't have any inward knee movement when I squat barefoot, but that could be because I've just built up stabilizers after doing it for a long time. I would expect someone who has always used lifting shoes would feel unstable if they switched without an adjustment period.

Americans get sufficient protein to build muscle. No benefit has been recorded above .64g/lb bodyweight, and that's a max, it's not like you get no benefits below that. Meal timing likewise doesn't seem to have much of an effect. The exception is that leucine before bed does seem to make a difference.

All very true. I wasn't advocating a large amount of protein, just thinking you should mention it for people who might not get enough like vegetarians or people who just don't eat much meat. A 165lb person should still have about 100g of protein each day using the .64g/lb bodyweight measure which is actually not trivial for some people.

I really don't mean to nitpick, I think it's a great article overall. Just wanted to address a few things that ran counter to what I've learned. Thanks for putting this together.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 09:19:55PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks, and don't worry, I interpret detailed responses as positive feedback.

whereas it's more of a smooth curve when I train at 5.

this is interesting and potentially important feedback. Quite a lot of routines based simply on what coaches saw as working seem to revolve around multiple sets of 5. People doing 4 rep routines is a lot less common so we have less data. The comparison is also not directly 5 reps vs 4 reps exactly since most newbie programs start at 5 and I am recommending starting at 10. I wouldn't hazard guesses for trained people, since they basically require periodization to advance optimally.

Would official lifting shoes be better?

Not for low bar. Shoes allow your shin to attain a greater angle without being limited by ankle dorsiflexion, which opens the hip more.

vegetarians or people who just don't eat much meat.

true, I use whey powder just to reach the 100g or so I want, so I should probably mention it.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 March 2014 09:17:48PM 0 points [-]

If you've never done squats/cleans in a shoe with a proper heel you should really try it and see the huge difference.

I think what's relevant here are your terminal goals. If they involve lifting heavy barbells in a gym then yes, specialized shoes could help. But if the terminal goals are all in the regular, out-of-gym life (e.g. be able to manhandle heavy things which need to be manhandled) then you don't want to depend on shoes which you never wear in normal life.

While I am not an unconditional supporter of Crossfit, they have a concept I like a lot -- that of nonspecific fitness, the ability to do whatever needs to be done. And outside of gym heavy things to be moved or lifted very rarely look like a barbell and it's not often that all you have to do is straighten up with them on your back.

Good form is really important, yes, but your ability to perform a movement properly shouldn't depend on what you are wearing.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 09:33:07PM *  0 points [-]

Do you think that people squatting big weights with shoes, belts, and kneewraps are unable to manhandle heavy things?

You are absolutely not dependent upon them, they just make you more effective at doing this weird thing we've figured out where you put a loaded bar on your spine and sit down. This simulates no natural situation, but we've figured out that it has carryover to absolutely everything and trains us in an incredibly time efficient way. Crossfitters wear shoes with heels to squat and do oly lifts btw.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 March 2014 10:03:01AM 1 point [-]

Optimal for performance

What does that mean? Are you speaking about increase the amount you can lift or are you talking about getting real work done?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:43:17PM 2 points [-]

Both.

Comment author: maia 10 March 2014 04:43:50AM 1 point [-]

So I'm currently doing Starting Strength: no upper pulls, and different set/rep counts than what you say is optimal. Do you think it's worth transitioning to what you recommend here, and if so, any suggestions on how to do that transition?

Comment author: kbaxter 12 March 2014 01:11:33AM 0 points [-]

Starting Strength includes power cleans, and they can count as an upper pull. Chin-ups are great to add too. If you're not comfortable doing power cleans, rows are a great alternative.

As for the rep scheme, I wouldn't worry about it. 4x4 isn't really much different from 3x5. It probably wouldn't hurt anything to do Starting Strength with 4x4 instead though, if you want to try it.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 04:58:34AM *  0 points [-]

My primary objections to SS are the injury potential of low bar squats and deadlifts. Rippetoe can repeat "just do them properly and you won't get injured" until he is blue in the face, it doesn't mean people will be able to actually do that. SS is a popular enough program that I get to see lots of newbies doing it at the gym, and most do not do low bar squats correctly. Lumbar spine injuries can be serious. For someone interested in health and not maximal performance it is not worth the risk.

no upper pulls

Doesn't the 3rd edition of SS make chin-ups non optional?

Comment author: Sean_o_h 11 August 2014 12:44:56PM *  0 points [-]

Thank you for this post, extremely helpful and I'm very grateful for the time you put into writing/researching it.

A question: what's your opinion of when "level of exercise" goes from "diminishing returns" to "negative returns" in health and longevity? Background: I used to train competitively for running, 2xday for 2hrs total time/day, 15hrs week total (a little extra at the weekend) which sounds outlandish but is pretty standard in competitive long-distance running/cycling/triathlon. I quit because a) it wasn't compatible with doing my best in work and b) I began to worry that pushing my body this hard was not actually good for long term health (for reasons like inflammation load, heart effects etc).

These days I train usually 1 hr/day, 6 days a week split about 50:50 between running and lifting/strength, and still pretty intensely (partly because I'm otherwise prone to weight gain unless I control my diet carefully, which I prefer not to have to worry about, partly because it's a good antidote to a tendency towards anxiety/depression). I expect, realistically, I'm a low-level exercise addict, and I certainly have some obsessive tendencies. Two questions I'm interested in are: a) Am I still in "potentially not doing myself long-term favours" territory - i.e. would cutting from 360min/week to 300 min.week be actually better for my health? b) Even if a) isn't true, are the benefits so diminished that I should cut to e.g. 5xweek at 45mins/day (225mins) for pure efficiency of time use reasons (am I throwing away 2+hrs a week of valuable time)? My schedule involves either running home from work and taking in a gym trip, or training when I need a break from work, so it's reasonably efficient, but these days every hour I can squeeze out of a week seems to count. I also walk 30 mins to work every morning, not included in the above. Other than this my lifestyle's quite sedentary (no active hobbies at present, spend most waking hours at a computer/in meetings).

Comment author: RomeoStevens 11 August 2014 10:03:21PM *  1 point [-]

So around 4200 Met-min/week is my guess for your total activity level. The data is too noisy for me to make a solid recommendation for someone like you up at the tail end of the measured results. For what it's worth, I doubt you're negatively impacting your health at that level. Marathons and other extreme endurance events seem harmful to me based on limited data, but stuff well below that is probably beneficial.

Now if we include optimal for stress as an additional criteria beyond just optimal total activity I think we could make some more solid predictions. It sounds like your current routine is dovetailing pretty well with the rest of your work/life balance, so I'd be loathe to change it much if I was in your shoes. OTOH if it does seem like there is a pain point I also doubt you'd be harming yourself significantly by reducing your exercise load slightly. Just be sure to set up some sort of Schelling fence for yourself so you don't fall too far. I'm guessing maybe setting up such a fence is what motivated your question. I'll just keep pointing at the 3500 Met-min/week as something we actually have evidence for, even if slight. This pretty much exactly corresponds in your case from switching from 6d/wk to 5d/wk. If you anted to drop it any further you'd probably be wanting to up the intensity to compensate.

Keep up the awesome work.

Comment author: G0W51 03 August 2014 03:18:48PM *  0 points [-]

One review found the relationship between physical activity and mortality to be linear. Does anyone have any ideas as to why this review found such a relationship while others didn't?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 04 August 2014 05:04:48AM 1 point [-]

They found it to be linear up to at least 1000kcal/wk AFAICT. This is a pretty low bar. I expect it to be approximately linear up to 3500kcal/wk, but this is admittedly based on those handful of studies that actually test higher caloric expenditure. Unsurprisingly, most longevity studies are based on the elderly where relatively low activity levels are being measured.

Comment author: G0W51 04 August 2014 03:57:09PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the response, I think you may be right. Can you give me the links to the studies that test higher caloric expenditure? Do you know if one can exercise too much?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 04 August 2014 09:00:55PM 0 points [-]

Actually I take back what I said, it looks like a levelling off is occurring even before 3500 is reached.

In our study, 1000 kcal/week were associated with a 7% (95% CI 4–9) reduction in men and 15% (95% CI 11–19) reduction in women.

Finally, our study was the first to combine data of studies that assessed total activity (daily living, active commuting, occupation, leisure time). The Eurobarometer study110 proposed 3000 MET-min/week accumulated over 7 days (~7 MET-h/day) as the cut-point for ‘sufficient total activity’. In our study, this level was associated with a reduction in mortality risk of 17% in men and 21% in women.

so 3.5x as much expenditure results in 2.4x the risk reduction. This review indicates that the studies on athletes (which is the only readily available population performing exercise at higher average expenditures than 3500kcal/wk) are terrible, with few or no controls for other factors.

Comment author: G0W51 05 August 2014 03:43:47PM 0 points [-]

"Sufficient total activity" doesn't necessarily mean optimal total activity or when diminishing return begins. The Eurobarometer study isn't free, so I can't tell exactly what it means by "sufficient total activity." What are your thoughts on this?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 05 August 2014 05:40:10PM 0 points [-]

Distinguishing optimal total activity isn't possible given the limitations of current studies. Sufficient total activity is pointing to the activity level where correlations between higher levels of activity and longevity become too noisy. The tendency in studies like this is for the error bars to grow at the top and bottom of the range due to multiple factors.

Comment author: G0W51 06 August 2014 03:14:22PM 0 points [-]

Do you know of any reviews about the "dose-response relationship" of exercise and mortality other than the 4 we've mentioned?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 06 August 2014 06:20:37PM 0 points [-]

I don't think so, or at least if I did find any they were poor enough to disregard.

Comment author: G0W51 07 August 2014 06:39:24PM 0 points [-]

Ok. Do you know of any evidence that mortality rates increase after any amount of exercise? I suppose reverse causality would make it very hard to tell, but intuitively an 80-year old trying to exercise 10 hours per day seems unhealthy.

Another question: Do you know if aerobic and anaerobic exercise have different effects on mortality? I recall hearing (from a potentially unreliable source) that aerobic exercise was healthier, but I haven't managed to find any scientific literature comparing them. Also, could one hit diminishing returns in anaerobic exercise without hitting hitting diminishing returns in aerobic? Again, I haven't found an literature on this.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 August 2014 03:23:44PM 1 point [-]

Do you know of any evidence that mortality rates increase after any amount of exercise?

I have vague memories that Olympic athletes aren't the most healthy people and don't live too long, but I don't have a link, sorry.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 07 August 2014 10:14:47PM *  1 point [-]
  1. Yes, long distance running has some evidence of harm (CVD Rates). I don't have the cite off hand.

  2. They certainly have different short term adaptations. I know of no study that seriously attempts to separate them other than by "class of athlete" e.g. soccer players vs olympic weightlifters. The issue is that it's hard to separate them. Soccer players (especially professionals) still do resistance training etc. But yeah, soccer players do live longer than pure power lifters. I do expect aerobic activity to have a larger effect ceteris paribus.

Comment author: gwern 03 August 2014 07:30:03PM 0 points [-]

Which others didn't?

Comment author: G0W51 04 August 2014 03:52:31PM *  0 points [-]

The review mentioned in the post didn't, although I've only looked at 2 studies on the dose-response relationship.

Edit: Actually, the review mentioned in the post didn't seem to really test the shape of the dose-response relationship, I think they just assumed mortality risk had an inverse linear relationship with the natural log with the amount of exercise.

Comment author: gwern 05 August 2014 07:50:33PM 0 points [-]

I think they just assumed mortality risk had an inverse linear relationship with the natural log with the amount of exercise.

Yeah, the table just gives linear estimates, but all of them do say more exercise is better, I think.

Comment author: 2ZctE 15 May 2014 12:00:21AM *  0 points [-]

Why did you cut out the trap bar deadlifts that you had included in Minimum Viable Workout? Was it just because the darned trap bars are at so few gyms?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 15 May 2014 01:22:20AM 0 points [-]

The routines I mentioned are just examples. If you're interested in getting results out of the least effort for weightlifting I still advocate the minimum viable workout.

Comment author: MTGandP 14 May 2014 10:57:27PM 0 points [-]

Where is a good place to buy weightlifting shoes? What stores carry them?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 15 May 2014 01:23:15AM 1 point [-]

It's rare in the US. Larger shoe speciality stores might have some. Everyone I know ordered theirs online. The major brand ones are true to size.

Comment author: rthomas2 25 April 2014 07:38:18PM 0 points [-]

Surely we should first know how to breathe, sit, stand, lie down, and move around optimally for ending bodily decay as quickly as possible?

Comment author: MTGandP 01 April 2014 04:17:50AM 0 points [-]

Questions about nutrition:

Question 1.

Don't try to implement a new diet and a new exercise plan at the same time.

If you are underweight or normal weight, you'll need to eat more when you start exercising.

Don't these two statements contradict each other? If I'm on the light side (which I am) and start exercising without changing my diet first, won't I have a calorie deficit?

Question 2.

I'm vegan and in college. These make it harder to get adequate nutrition because the dining halls don't usually have calorie-dense plant-based foods. It's my understanding that I need to eat about 4000 calories a day while gaining muscle mass, but if I eat at the dining hall, that basically means eating tons of rice, beans, and pasta. What other options do I have? Right now my plan is to drink a lot of Vega Sport, which I can order from Amazon and store easily.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 April 2014 08:11:57PM 0 points [-]

Leaving aside the vegan issue, why is it necessary to plan to eat more if you exercise more? Won't the exercise make you hungrier and lead to eating whatever you need anyway?

Comment author: MTGandP 04 April 2014 12:03:55AM 0 points [-]

This might just be a personal quirk, but I don't really get hungry—I have no instinct telling me "you need to eat right now." If I don't plan my meals, I end up way undereating.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 01 April 2014 05:35:30AM *  0 points [-]
  1. I wasn't counting eating 500 calories extra a day as a diet change. Most people can do that with an extra glass of milk and some cookies easily.

  2. I don't know a lot about vegan nutrition. I would imagine getting caloric density basically means fatty plants. Avocados, coconut oil, peanuts (peanut butter and oats with some almond milk is probably a staple bulking food), tree nuts, etc.

Comment author: MTGandP 02 April 2014 06:16:18PM 0 points [-]

I currently eat about 2000-2500 calories a day. If I started lifting weights, wouldn't I need more like 4000 calories? That's a pretty big jump.

Comment author: Lumifer 02 April 2014 07:10:21PM 0 points [-]

Depending on your current body constitution you might prefer to shift some of your fat to muscle which would not necessarily involve upping your calories.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 02 April 2014 06:54:29PM *  0 points [-]

every 500 calorie increment is 3500 calories a week, or about a pound of tissue a week. Studies and the experiences of coaches agree strongly here: You can't gain lean body mass much faster than this. Small and temporary exceptions occur for people who are very underweight or recovering previous strength levels.

Comment author: deskglass 12 March 2014 06:50:46PM *  0 points [-]

What do you think is a good exercise routine for maximizing health and not getting injured? Ideally, there's some sort of weight-lifting in which you can't easily injure yourself with poor form that won't result in muscular imbalance and that still allow for incremental improvement.

As for cardio, maybe rowing and ellipticaling are ideal?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 March 2014 12:31:24AM 1 point [-]

You should check out Scott Sonnon's Intu-Flow. I'm going to admit I only have moderate amounts of evidence, but here they are.

Sonnon has a congenital connective tissue problem and athletic ambition. Intu-Flow is a set of joint mobility exercises which he does to make injury less likely.

I've been doing IntuFlow, but not weight lifting. It makes me feel better in the short run (for a day or so after I do it, and I was amazed at how much better I felt when I did Intu-Flow after skipping it for some weeks), and seems to have a good effect on some knee damage. (More days when going down stairs isn't a problem. Unfortunately, I haven't been keeping records.)

Intu-Flow definitely increases body awareness, and I believe it's easier to not hurt yourself if you can tell what you're doing.

Some poking around doesn't turn up any bad reviews, though some people think it's over-hyped.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 07:15:30PM 0 points [-]

Elliptical is very hard to do sprints on. Rowing is ideal IMO.

As for not getting injured, you shouldn't let the discussion of back injuries here make you think it is a common problem. Weightlifting has a lower injury rate than badminton or swimming. The most common injury in weightlifting is bench press injuries from not having a spotter or safety bars. The reason most other things rarely cause injury is that you almost always will simply strain a muscle and drop the weight before you injure anything permanent. Benchpress is an exception because you can drop it on yourself.

Comment author: deskglass 12 March 2014 07:24:12PM 0 points [-]

Still, I've had my own injury issues. Do you think body weight exercises are less likely to led to injury?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 12 March 2014 09:29:32PM 0 points [-]

Strength wise you can get plenty strong on a regime of dips, chins, one legged squats, handstand pushups etc. Using a backpack or something to progressively load them.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 March 2014 07:39:30PM *  0 points [-]

Do you have an opinion about the Body by Science book? The authors are really big fans of the low-reps-to-failure approach.

Comment author: MattG 10 March 2014 08:04:33PM 4 points [-]

I've been doing the Body by Science big 5 protocol with my girlfriend for over a year. Here are my thoughts:

First of all, the book is called Body by Science, but I think it should really be called Body by Philosophy. It takes more a first principles approach, taking what we know about biochemistry and biology from science, and then extrapolating a proper workout routine from that.

If it were truly Body by Science, it would take the next step, and correlate the hypotheses it makes to actual studies of the workouts it recommends, but it rarely does so.

This leads to a lot of wrong hypotheses. For instance, it says that one set to failure gets 100% of the strength benefit of the exercise - In testing, it only gets about 60% of the benefit.

However, even if the first principle approach leads to a lot of errors like the one above, it still manages to be "kinda" right... it allows for consistent strength gains.

In this sense, the protocol is about as optimal you can get for time (15 minutes a week), while still making consistent gains. This is what really keeps me going with it. It's something I know I can commit to for the rest of my life if necessary, and it's something that I could easily convince my girlfriend to start (and stick with for over a year now).

If you're looking to minimize time while still becoming stronger, this is the protocol for you.

Comment author: Cernael 21 April 2014 11:03:39AM 1 point [-]

My two cents - their first principles sound seasonably sound, but the conclusions they draw from them are sometimes questionable. There were several times reading it that I almost sputtered in disbelief, thinking "dammit, that's not how it works!" Now, some of these I can accept as simplifying things for the sake of argument, others I cannot. (Sadly, I didn't keep notes of them. In retrospect I guess I should have.)

At times I felt the authors were somewhat condescending, too, especially when it concerned stretching. I got the impression that strength was the only measure of success they accepted, and any exercise form that contributes to other goals - like stretching to promote limberness - are therefore worthless.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 08:00:05PM *  1 point [-]

I have continued to look for ANY logs of people who actually got strong on a BBS approach. I have found zero to date. BBS will make you stronger, anything will make you stronger with consistent effort. But few programs give you years of improvement at close to the most rapid pace possible.

Now strength might not be the be-all end-all proxy for health when it comes to resistance training, but I'd need to see some evidence for better outcomes along some other parameter to entertain it.

Comment author: MattG 10 March 2014 08:24:15PM 1 point [-]

I'll try to put my log in excel at some point and post it up.

One problem is that most programs measure progress in reps and sets, Body by Science measures in Time Under Load. This could make direct comparison hard.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 08:29:19PM *  0 points [-]

Right, but a variety of tests such as vertical jump, overhead press, TuT like a farmers walk or something, should be able to give you an idea. For instance, squatting increased my sprint speed tremendously, do BBS people see similar gains in functionality? I haven't seen any evidence that they do yet.

One thing BBS is probably very useful for is maintenance of strength/lean body mass under extreme time pressure. If I really only had time for a 30 minute session once a week I think I would do BBS. I don't think I would get much stronger, but I also probably wouldn't get much weaker.

Comment author: MattG 03 July 2014 03:48:21AM 1 point [-]

I've started this, using the Navy seal entrance exam, and just did my first three month follow up test, which was better but not by much. Will evaluate after a yearif I keep seeing improvements and should continue BBS, and post the data either way

Comment author: MattG 10 March 2014 08:46:37PM *  1 point [-]

I didn't actually do an outside strength test when I started, so I unfortunately won't have that data.

I can however do some basic strength tests now, and report back in a year. Any suggestions?

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 09:10:41PM 0 points [-]

A couple measures each of various exercises, weightlifting, cardio, bodyweight movements. Like I'd probably test overhead press, squats, running, rowing, fireman carry, climbing. Or something like that. This and the log itself should at least be some evidence for or against.

Comment author: philh 10 March 2014 02:24:56PM 0 points [-]

Great post!

It looks to me like the weight training basically requires you to go to a gym. Is there an alternative for people who can't easily do that, and how does it compare?

(I've been using resistance bands almost every day for a few months, in a "do X many stretches, gradually increasing X" capacity. Presumably there's something better I can do with them, but total time is only about two minutes, which I like.)

Comment author: TheTerribleTrivium 10 March 2014 08:06:37PM 0 points [-]

Bodyweight routines are certainly an option, however be aware that iirc all of the serious bodyweight routines are not "no equipment" routines. The recommendations in the OP are gymnastic routines that require pullup/chinup bars and gymnastic rings as minimum basic equipment. You still need a "space" to workout in that is more than a field.

Comment author: zedzed 10 March 2014 03:12:50PM -1 points [-]

Bodyweight routines

For a beginner, something like this is reasonable. Of course such a program will max out in fitness gains fairly quickly, even if you start doing several cycles of it. But this isn’t our worry as a beginner. For someone serious about progressing with body weight exercises past this stage, I recommend a program like Overcoming Gravity or Building the Gymnastic Body. There is not really formal support for the efficacy of these programs, but they are endorsed by coaches who train many people successfully, and are consistent with the general principles of weight lifting (progressive overload, training frequency, etc.).

Comment author: Jinoc 10 March 2014 06:12:48PM 0 points [-]

I'm doing Overcoming Gravity now, and I must say I've been pretty impressed by the results so far even though it hasn't been long. Probably the first time since I started working out that I can really feel results so quickly.

Comment author: Metus 10 March 2014 01:12:39PM 0 points [-]

What type of cardio should you do? Cardio that is amenable to high intensity is probably one of: running (especially up hills), swimming, rowing, biking, burpees, or jump rope.

I enjoyed swimming when I was younger and logistics this summer will allow me to do that easily. So a cardio swimming routine would have me swimming lightly for a couple of minutes, swimming intensively in intervals and then swimming lightly for a couple of minutes to cooldown.

What swimming style or is it irrelevant? Keep the same swimming style or switch for the different phases?

Comment author: TheTerribleTrivium 10 March 2014 11:32:04PM 3 points [-]

Swimming has exponential gains from learning proper technique. I assumed I was a good swimmer because I took lessons as a child and had lots of badges, but as an adult I was humiliated. Even if you think you know what you are doing that is different from an effective workout stroke afaikt.

Comment author: Metus 11 March 2014 12:52:15AM 1 point [-]

I'll take this as motivation to take a couple of lessons as an adult.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 10 March 2014 05:42:57PM 0 points [-]

You won't really be able to do intense bursts well with breaststroke for example. Freestyle is your best bet. You could do butterfly but who wants to learn that miserable stroke? :)