Friday, March 27, 2009

Say "Yes!" To Cardio!

I'm being contrarian here because, well, orthodoxy annoys me. Fitness orthodoxy in particular annoys me, because the fact is, there's no one right way to exercise. It totally depends on the individual.

When I'm designing a program for a client, there are certain questions I always ask myself. I begin the process by giving some thought to the client's goals. Does she want to lose fat? build muscle? improve her athletic performance? build bone mass? be able to get down on the floor to play with her grandkids? have a healthy pregnancy? If she has multiple goals, can they be achieved simultaneously, and if not, which does she wish to prioritize? This is the stage of the process where fitness orthodoxy can be useful, because it gives me insight into what generally works best to achieve a particular goal

Thing is, it’s not enough just to know what works best. Say the the client's goal is fat loss. Current wisdom is that she needs to "get off the treadmill and get metabolic" (TM), or at the very least do HIIT on the treadmill. But what if she's very deconditioned? Obviously I can't have her doing a minute of jump squats followed by a minute of 1-leg burpees followed by RPE 9 hill sprints: it wouldn't be safe! Eventually we might be able to work up to that, but first things first: maybe 15 seconds of bodyweight squats (maybe using a stick or the wall to support a portion of her bodyweight) followed by a 15 second elevated plank followed by moderate-intensity intervals consisting of 30 seconds at RPE 5 (75% MHR approx.) followed by 90 seconds at RPE 3 (60-65% MHR). This might look suspiciously like "cardio" to all the self-proclaimed "renegade trainers" out there who've adopted "Just say 'No!' to cardio" as their mantra, but the fact is, if you've got a deconditioned client you're doing her a major disservice if you don't include some heart rate training at lower intensities in the early stages of her program before moving on to the tough stuff.

(NB: in fairness to Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury, Craig Ballantyne and all the other brilliant anti-cardio trainers out there, I don’t think any of them would dispute what I’m saying. What these folks—rightly, IMO—object to is the tendency of many gymgoers to hop on cardio equipment with no goal in mind other than to burn x calories (with x usually equating to the number of calories in the donut they shouldn’t have eaten at 10:00 am after skipping breakfast). This sort of activity is harmless enough if you’ve got time for it, but it also isn’t what I consider to be cardio. Cardio, quite simply, is heart rate training, and its purpose is not to burn calories but to strengthen the heart muscle by systematically overloading it. Any activity that achieves the desired training effect counts, which is what Rachel Cosgrove really means when she says “get off the treadmill and get metabolic.” You can also “get metabolic” on the treadmill or elliptical if you like, but most people don’t, which is why people like Craig Ballantyne are always dissing machine cardio.)

Okay, back to program design considerations. I also need to give some thought to what's realistic given the client's time constraints. Maybe her goal is to build enough mass to do a figure show somewhere down the road. Conventional wisdom tells me she needs to be doing a high volume split routine where she's working no more than 1-2 body parts per day. Assuming she's physically ready to do this kind of program, does she have the time for it? Maybe she's got three kids, a demanding job, and an unsupportive spouse, and can only get to the gym for an hour three times a week. If those are her constraints, those are her constraints ... and I have to work with them. I have to give this lady not the most effective program, perhaps, but the most effective one she has a shot of being able to do.

Budgetary constraints are a consideration as well. Say the client's goal is to develop explosive power and speed for improved athletic performance. In a perfect world we'd be doing lots of power lifts and kettlebell work ... but maybe he can only afford to buy a session here and a session there because he's still in school and struggling to make ends meet, and he doesn't really know how to use kettlebells or perform any of the Olympic lifts. I could teach him, but probably not in just three sessions. So I would have to build a program around plyometric exercises and maybe a few of the less technically demanding power lifts ... whatever I thought he could master in only a session or two.

Finally, there's the fun factor to consider. The squat may be the king of exercises, but if a client tells me he hates them I'm not going to put a ton of them in his program because then the risk is that he'll stop training altogether. Likewise if a client tells me she loves cardio and hates to lift, I'm not going to give her a lot of traditional resistance training exercises. Instead I'll try to build a program around bodyweight exercises, maybe using the TRX, with the idea being to create a fast-paced program that will give her the same kind of endorphin rush she gets from cardio. If a client likes variety we'll change the program up every session, and if she's more motivated by repeating workouts so she can measure her progress from week to week we'll do that.

The bottom line here is that, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to exercise, but right and wrong vary with the individual. If a program is effective for the client's goals, if it's safe for her, if it fits her schedule and is something she won't mind doing, it's "right." If it doesn't meet every single one of those criteria ... just say no, no matter how genius the program is :)