Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cardio Workouts with Kettlebells vs VO2max KB workouts

There's been some discussion on the DD forum of late of what constitutes Cardio workouts, and what are optimal KB routines for cardio. It may be that we need to get our terms agreed. There's a difference between high intensity interval work (like Kenneth Jay's VO2max Protocols, such as the original, below
and now included in KJ's book, Viking Warrior Conditioning, reviewed here) that has great benefit for the cardio vascular system, and workouts that are considered "cardio" because they themselves work *in* an energy zone that is aerobic (like the Running the Bells routine that can work through a few energy systems)

The goal of this post is to go over
  • what it means to be working IN the aerobic or anaerobic zones
  • How VO2Max fits into this scheme
  • Where aerobic efforts fit in
  • where all out anaerobic efforts way beyond VO2max may fit in
  • why variety rather than just swings or just snatches (eccentrics) may be important for routines
  • some inspiration for rich cardio KB routines
Aerobic/Anaerobic. First, quick difference between cardio/aerobic and anaerobic effort. The cardiovasular (CV) system - our heart and lungs - make use, not surprisingly, of Oxygen. Moving O2 through the blood is a big deal. Workouts that keep our bodies privileging the use of O2 generally mean that our hearts are not going above around 70-75% of our max heart rates. That's Aeroibic - with oxygen.

Going beyond that heart rate means that we go anaerobic (without oxygen - which is kinda a misnomer because we're always using oxygen while we're breathing, or we'd be dead in short order). Going anaerobic means that we're taxing other energy systems than the oxidative. Depending on the effort, this is either privileging the glycolytic (the value of carbohydrates) or phosphagen (think creatine as important in this mix).

Aerobic Test. Here's a test to see if you're in that kinda effort if you don't feel like wearing a monitor. Can you keep up a conversation without sucking for air? Why is this a test? If you can talk WHILE doing you're activity, you're in a zone using air predominantly for effort. And that's a state most athletes desire: more work from the oxidative system.

Glycogen Sparing. What all these energy systems have in common is producing energy to enable muscles to contract. Different intensities of effort call upon different systems, but all of them are working to create the compound ATP which enables muscle contractions. As said, the primary fuel for the oxidative system is fat; the primary/preferred fuel for the glycolytic is carbs (sugars). We have more stored fat in our bodies than carbs/sugars. Pinch an inch and you'll see this is so. Sugars get stored mainly in our muscles, blood and liver. Fat is well, everywhere: it surrounds us. So wouldn't it be great if we could push the threshold at which we had to use those precious carbs further off, if we could do more work in fat world than sugar world?

There's several ways that folks work to achieve this. Two are (a) doing cardio work (often also called endurance training) in the aerobic zone in order to build up mitochondria, and (b) doing anaerobic intervals at the VO2Max threshold to keep nudging that threshold further off - to enable the amount of work that can be done in Fat Burning world to be greater before flipping over to tapping into Sugar use. Note the distinction between these two approaches: cardio effort means staying in a heart rate that is aerobic; Vo2Max intervals is anaerobic, meaning we're working the anaerobic systems. *BOTH* have benefit for the cardio system, but only ONE is working out in the aerobic system.

VO2Max. Given the above distinction between anerobic and aerobic efforts, Kenneth Jay's VO2max protocol is NOT a cardio workout per se because its intervals are designed of necessity to be anaerobic (on a heart rate monitor this would look like 85% of maximum). It has great benefit to the CV system because it is working VO2max levels to improve how much work can happen aerobically. It is also focused (and used to be strongly tied with) Lactic Acid threshold work: the higher the VO2max capacity, the greater the ability to process lactic acid. If lactic acid builds up beyond the point it can be used, it gets in the way of ATP production, causing fatigue, cramps and any number of issues that affect performance.

But CV workouts - or workouts that ARE CV oriented usually mean workouts that keep a person in a cv region, 70-80% of MaxHR. That's work.

Aerobic Workouts - Workouts that stay using the Aerobic/Oxidative system. These kinds of workouts are particularly useful if you're goal is to lose weight since they're spending time and energy in the fat burning heart rate range (privileging fat for fuel rather than glucose/lactic acid/phosphates). It's also been argued by folks like Casandra Forsythe and Alwyn Cosgrove that they're also great to do *after* a HIIT session for both recovery and to burn off some of the fat that's been mobilized but not used by the HIIT session itself.

If weight loss is not your goal, some folks suggest you may not need to spend as much time doing CV, as there's a lot of value in HIIT work for endurance/cardio. Even if you are doing weight loss work, according to John Berardi, blending lower rates of cardio into high intensity work is good for balancing calls on our nervous system:
high intensity work stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) while low intensity work stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Also, as said above, another benefit of cardio work is to enhance mitochondria. These are the little elements of cells that DO that aerobic energy work with the O2. Going beyond 80% MaxHR - going outside the aerobic zone - has not been seen as optimal for mitochondria focus. My understanding is that there's an hypoxic effect on mitochondria when going anaerobic, and that impacts mitochonrdria hyperplasia (the reproduction of these cells).

Again, mitochondria are key tools for fat burning/fat loss, so developing them is a Good Idea. They're also great for endurance work: more mitochondria, it seems, less lactate production. More mitochondria doesn't mean much enhancement to V02Max. But better V02max doesn't mean necessarily better performance. Isn't that interesting. As George Brooks and Co. put it in Exercise Physiology, if better Vo2max meant better performance, competitions could just be held in labs.

To be as cutting edge as possible, there's some very recent work on SIT or Sprint Interval Training that's shown some interesting mitochondrial effects. I'm still parsing through the study, but the initial claim is that all out sprints against resistance for 30secs (Wingate Test), repeated 3 times (around 500watt power output) three times a week, was equivalent to 40-60 mins at around 120watts 5 days a week.

While this sounds very intriguing, it's important to remember that Wingates are *not* VO2max intervals. VO2max - especially as Kenneth Jay sets them up, are very cadence specific to keep you within the VO2max zone. 85% of MaxHR rather than 80%, for instance of that upper aerobic zone. Wingate/sprints are *all out* efforts that push to the real heart thumping, way past lactate threshold level. They are focused on testing anaerobic rather than aerobic capacity. That means they're hard. Brutal is a word often used to describe them, because they are at the edge of capacity. Folks doing three REPEATS of these three times a week would already need to be in Very Good shape. Incredible shape. I know athletes who after one of these tests are fried for the next day or two - understandably so.

Also, the authors acknowledge that they're not clear on what's going on at this extreme effort space that's causing this particular oxidative adaptation that's only been seen before in ET

While the present study demonstrates the potency of SIT to elicit changes in muscle oxidative capacity and selected metabolic adjustments during exercise that resemble ET, the underlying mechanisms are unclear. From a cell signalling perspective, exercise is typically classified as either 'strength' or 'endurance', with short-duration, high-intensity work usually associated with increased skeletal muscle mass, and prolonged, low- to moderate-intensity work associated with increased mitochondrial mass and oxidative enzyme activity (Baar, 2006). Given the oxidative phenotype that is rapidly up-regulated by SIT, it is possible that metabolic adaptations to this type of exercise could be mediated in part through signalling pathways normally associated with traditional ET.
In other words the 02 deficit may be SO HIGH after this effort your body may up-regulate O2 consumption afterwards, which impacts the aerobic system. So it might be the rest intervals during and post the effort where the aerobic ET-like adaptation is occurring. Dunno. Speculation.

So if you're thinking about oxidative benefit, and don't care about personally wanting/needing to burn more fuel to lose weight (the volume of work in this protocol was a tenth the KJoules (calories) burned in the trad ET protocol), and have the capacity to go extreme repeatedly and not collapse (spending the time you would on the bike on a faceplant in the carpet, for instance), this may be an approach for you, but that does seem to mean getting onto a stationary bike rather than swinging a kettlebell since thinking about form while thinking about intensity to get that level of heart pounding may be a bit of a challenge.

Who would want to do this extreme protocol?
you may ask. Well, one scenario would be if you're an endurance athlete, putting miles on your body already, reducing time/volume on training may be a plus. Or another scenario: you want to begin competition as an endurance athlete and want to build up that oxidative capacity without putting in the usual training time to get that endurance effect. Right now, transfer of this experiment to practical training is likely largely speculation. The above is very much bleeding edge research. Other labs are looking at other protocols like shorter intervals (thank god), so this is a space to watch.

And just an aside about intervals - there's a real passion in some KB circles for Vo2Max intervals. I mention, just in passing, that some researchers working with elite athletes have shown that 1V02max Session/week is just as beneficial to performance as 3 (nice overview here). So far, to my knowledge, Vo2max KB intervals have not been equally evaluated. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, or any lack of anecdotal praise, just that they haven't been peer reviewed, so we don't know how they compare with other V02Max methods, or with 1 vs three sessions per week, or or or. Likewise there's a very well sustained critique of intervals as the be-all-end-all of cardio at Lyle McDonald's blog (see this summary of these potsts), in particular how they will fit in with other training. There's also some interesting finds in cycling that show that for sport performance, intervals are great training for well, intervals. So maybe high level steady state has a role, too? Now i'm a passionate interval-er for fat loss and general perfomance, but i'm also open to less or other may be more, too. Just a thought.

Update: The McDonald work is largely a critique of the obsession with HIIT intervals as the main way to lose fat, not a critique of the benefit/effectiveness of intervals per se.
Also important to note that when we talk about "intervals" we aren't ALWAYS talking about VO2Max efforts. Indeed, it seems one doesn't have to work at 100% VO2max, like Kenneth's protocols do, to have an effect on VO2Max, nor are intervals the only way to impact VO2max. Over a 6 week period, people who worked out at 50% of their V02 reserve (a measure of VO2 capacity equivalent to Heart Rate Reserve) had a 10% increase in their VO2Max. This was with steady state and intervals at these intensities. Now, that said, the OPTIMAL impact on VO2Max was the interval group with "near maximal" (at 95% VO2R) effort. Here's the poop:
It should be noted that although interval training groups spend some of their training time at a very high intensity, a similar amount of time is spent at a lower intensity, and therefore the mean intensity of training may not be any higher than that of a continuous training program. In the current study, the interval training group used 5 min each for the work and the recovery phases of the intervals and had an average intensity of 72% HRR, which is slightly less than the 75% HRR of the vigorous [the steady state -mc] group. The work-recovery periods of Helgerud et al.[16] were 4 min at ∼93% HRmax and 3 min at 70% HRmax, for a mean intensity of 83% HRmax in the interval group, whereas one of the continuous groups used 85% HRmax. Warburton et al.[37] used 2 min at 90% HRR and 2 min at 40% HRR for the work and the recovery phases, yielding a mean intensity of 65% HRR in the interval group, and had the continuous training group use 65% HRR. Wisloff et al.[38] used 4-min work phases at ∼93% HRmax and 3-min recovery phases at 60% HRmax, for a mean intensity of 79% HRmax in the interval group, and used ∼73% HRmax in the continuous training group. Despite the similarity of mean intensity between the interval and the continuous training groups, the interval groups in all of these studies experienced greater improvements in aerobic fitness after training. Therefore, although intensity is a key variable in cardiorespiratory training (as shown by comparing the two continuous training groups in this study), the mean intensity may not be as important as the highest intensity that is used for a significant portion of the training. A topic for future research is to determine what portion of training should be done at high intensities and using what work-recovery periods to obtain the greatest results [emphasis -mc].
And another interesting find in support of high intensity intervals - though again not necessarily VO2max (no info in the study on that point), is a recent study on rowing (an activity that KJ argues is similar to KB'ing). It shows that doing endurance work is actually pretty important if doing resistance work for the heart - to keep it elastic (endurance benefit) rather than thickening it (effect of heavy resistance work). Their rowers, they said, did 65% of their work at "high-intensity" - though that's not further defined. The conclusion is, "Our results suggest that simultaneously performed endurance training may negate the stiffening effects of strength training."

So HIIT, in any case, has a at least a few roles in heart health, though the benefit is not restricted to having to do super high intensity efforts. Which brings us to the roles of aerobic efforts.

KB's and Cardio
All the above has been pretty much by way of preamble to address the question: what's a great way to do CARDIO work with kettlebells?

By now, it's clear the answer to this question breaks down into two parts, stemming from "what do you mean by cardio?"
  1. If your goal is to improve the max amount of oxygen you can use before going anaerobic, you're likely doing ANAEROBIC intervals for VO2Max training to have the side effect of increasing AEROBIC work capacity by pushing out out the VO2Max threshold
  2. If your goal is to enhance mitochondrial density to improve oxidative capacity for energy/endurance and/or for fat burning, you'll likely want to be doing work in the CARDIO/AEROBIC zone throughout the workout
Kettlebells can be used for both types of workouts. On the VO2max side, Kenneth Jay has the best known approaches. On the cardio/staying aerobic side, there's a plethora of alternatives. I'm focusing on that latter approach here cuz it's less often discussed in the Hard Style scene.

Snatches, Swings, Possible Overuse Considerations. On the DD forums, for Cardio (of the steady state/aerobic type) lots of folks have said either do lots of snatches or lots of swings.

Yes that will certainly break a sweat, but that's also very eccentric contraction focused. And if you're powering the down stroke on the swing/snatch, it's lots of overspeed eccentric focused work. That's where the money is, as KJ will tell you.

Now, too much of any one action has historically been shown eventually to lead to problems like RSI, arthritis, joint injury etc. The KB community in the US hasn't been going long enough to correlate such problems - but overuse is overuse - and we only get one body, and we see such overuse problems in other sports, and it might be folly to see KB'ing as any different. What's the equivalent of Tennis Elbow in the KB world?

With respect to eccentric-oriented exercise, a meta study of the research literature around eccentrics shows that they can actually increase insulin resistance. Whether this is the case in KB's overspeed eccentrics, well that hasn't been tested. BUT there are some interesting patterns out there. And just by way of background, again, to stay lean and mean and hormonally sound, insulin resistance is NOT a good thing.

As said, Kenneth maps Rowing and KB (snatching?) as biomechanically similar. I've asked if the overspeed eccentrics of KB snatching as described above mayn't be a distinguishing marker, so am keen to hear back, since if this is a difference, we can't assume rowing = kb'ing.

Variety is the Spice of KB Cardio. So, just a thought - why not think about ways to add a variety of moves for KB cardio rather than focusing on sessions that are eccentric dominant?

If you look at the vids on Tracy's blog, you'll see that as the Queen of Weight Loss with KB's, she goes for that kind of variety: swings, snatches, squats, presses - all mixed up getting good range of motion on the joints rather than over repetition of any one approach. Likewise Mike Mahler's High Octane Cardio (HOC) mixes up kettlebell moves with running, skipping, pull ups. Awesome.

If you feel like paying money to have a collection of some great Cardio/Strength KB routines put together in one nice package that you can follow along, here's a review of an Art of Strength workout, also lots of variety that will keep your heart pumping and give you a solid workout, too.

Update: there's a followup to this integrated intense cardio/resistance blend in a new blog post "does cardio intefere with strength training? how 'bout no?"

Combined of course with some joint mobility like ZHealth drills (what are these?) to balance out joint work for full ROM, add in some NEPA's, and you're rocking. BONUS: Indeed, the new post in the update above has research that shows ROM work supports/enhances strength training.


dr. m.c. said...

Since this info used to be available at Dragon Door (link no longer working within new forum) and at Rif's blog (no longer publicly accessible), allow me to repost Kenneth Jay's original DD post on his first VO2max protocol, from the post "true cardiovascular kettlebell training: improving the SSST (long)

I will share with you one of my best advanced protocols for improving VO2max and lactate buffering capacity using the kettlebell.

To improve the 10 min. SSST you need to tax the oxidative energy pathways as well as the glycolytic pathways. Basically that means that you should train to stimulate your VO2max and your lactate producing and buffering capacities.

The program below is derived from the latest research on improving 10-15 min. work bouts. Most research is done on running and bicycling for good reason but based on findings from these studies it is possible to specifically design optimal SSST programs using this data and the knowledge of VO2 kinetics during submaximal and maximal work.

I will not go into the deep theory behind this kind of training but rather just provide you with a protocol you can start doing immediately. Should you be interested in knowing in detail why and how it works I hope to see you at the RKC II where there is a possibility of discussing it further.

The first thing you have to do is to establish at what snatch cadence you come the closest to eliciting your VO2max. This is done by doing an incremental test that lasts no less than 6 minutes. Basically you just start out very slow and for each minute you increase the cadence. When you have get to the 6th minute you go all out snatching as many times as you can without stopping for at least one minute. The test might look like this but is subject to individual differences:

1st minute: 10 reps left arm
2nd minute: 12 reps right arm
3rd minute 15 reps left arm
4th minute: 17 reps right arm
5th minute: 18 reps left arm
6th minute: 26 reps right arm (all out effort)

The 6th minute reflects your VO2max cadence, hence that will be your interval training tempo. It is very important for the protocol that you continued snatching for the entire 6th minute. (make sure afterwards you balance out the numbers of snatches performed on each side so each side get a total equal amount of work).

In this example the VO2max cadence = 26reps

The interval work/rest time is determined to 36 sec. which is 60% of one min.

In those 36 sec. you need to keep your VO2max cadence = 26reps x 60% = approx. 16 reps.

So the setup is as follows:

VO2max/lactate tolerance and buffering:

Work/rest ratio: 1:1 (36 sec of work separated by 36 sec of rest.)

Number of intervals: at least 10 and the goal is to work up to 17+ sets before you test the SSST.

Number of reps per set: 16 (it is very important NOT to go faster or slower. DO NOT speed up to get more rest- it will ruin what you are trying to do.)

If your hands can take it do this at least twice per week. Only substitute with swings if it is really necessary. The program is based on the specific VO2 kinetics of the snatch not the swing.

The program is very taxing and one should always build up volume slowly.

Now go be an animal and try it!

/Kenneth Jay

Ron Ipock said...


just checking in. We have been crossing paths on the various forums. I'm still going strong on the plant-based eating that you inspired in me. I just want to commend you on being such a wonderful resource for us. As a matter of fact, if you bottled your bathwater, I would make it my chief supplement. I'm certain even your offscourings would be beneficial.

dr. m.c. said...

Ron, nice to see you. Hope your term's been going well, and way to go staying green. coolio. you take care into the Dark and Cold winter.

Adelante4 said...

What a fantastic article. I'll be getting some kettleballs then!

Jason from Bleep Test

Tamson said...

I'm so impressed with how thorough and even handed this article is. A rare gem in the blogging community. I'm glad I found it.

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks for visiting b2d Tamson.


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