Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reflection/Critique of P90X review: Part 1 of 3 - muscle confusion confuses the issue

Part 1: P90x Overview and "muscle confusion"

Does P90X "work"? That really depends on what a person means by "work." And that's why this series is going to take a look at what "work" might mean, how well P90X might "work" and whether there are alternatives. We'll look at what's on the label vs what's in the tin. This is a several-part follow up review of P90x two plus years after completing it and learning a whole lot more than i knew then about our bodies, nutrition, health and fitness.

This critique of P90X will review the following P90X concepts:
Does p90X work - by its own terms - and if so for whom under what conditions?
  • part 1: (this post) considers muscle confusion and the various X workouts - should they be X'd? do their names really mean what's under the label?
  • part 2: getting ripped and what that means in terms of 1) getting lean and 2) getting defined. We also consider who can "get ripped" when following the p90x and does one really need P90X's 7 hours a week+ to achieve that goal?
  • part 3: alternatives to p90x (a) diet & p90x (b) workouts.

If you're considering P90x as a workout program, super. If you do the program, you will feel different by the end of it. You may be a wee bit leaner, or a lot leaner depending on how much you're eating before you start with this program. So there'll be a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to accompany the exhaustion if you are one of the folks who starts it and finishes it. If you're already doing P90X and feeling great you may wonder how anyone could critique it and its wonderful variety. I know what you mean. That's why i'm doing this over several articles. But first an overview of where these are going.

P90X critique in brief:
No doubt feeling great is feeling great - especially if you feel stronger, fitter and are starting to drop weight and that's what you want. Fabulous. What we're going to unpack in this series is that P90X, despite all the variety of its workouts, is actually a cardio circuit program. That means it's privileging one energy system and one type of strength. Despite all the seeming variety with resistance and kenpo-x and plyo-x and abRipper-x etc etc, it's working on one energy system of 4 (oxidative) and one type of strength of four (endurance).

By the final part of this series we'll see why focusing just on this approach alone is, relative to our rich complexity, quite partial. So that's part of the critique too: P90X is dressed up to look like it's far more holistic than it is with all its many routines. Again, let me say that if you want to do nothing but endurance cardio, that's fine. But even endurance athletes work their different energy systems and strength types.

We'll also see in this series, there are many other ways to achieve the ripped abs of P90X that don't take as much time, and also work other energy systems, and fundamentally, are about diet. We'll also take a peek at the oft neglected nervous system, and something called the SAID principle, and see what happens if we look at bringing that into our practice deliberately.

In other words, by the end of P90X, yes folks will feel better - even feel like they're really working out, grr, while doing P90X's 7 hours a week - but not for the reasons P90X claims. You may be doing work you think is doing certain things that it isn't, and for reasons that are well, spurious.

For instance, as we'll see in this post (1) P90X's main tenant of muscle confusion as the way to keep progress happening turns out to be baseless; (2) none of its workouts will deliver more fat loss than one could get with diet alone, without better attention to diet than p90x gives it (with a sort of exception of one case considered in part 2, called EA level 3); (3) very few people who say they start the program ever come back to say they finish it; this may be why there's been little structured "after p90x" advice available until more recently. Yes, there's P90X Plus or Insanity, but suffice it to say P90X+ is 5 more variants of P90X workouts -to mix in with P90X, and Insanity is even more cardio - and in part 3b we'll look at why more of the P90X same mayn't be in your best interests.

Series Overview
In this series, in the first two parts we'll like to look at (part 1, this article) the claims of p90x like muscle confusion, (part 2) we'll look at whether the package can deliver on "getting ripped in 90 days" and for whom, from it's nutrition/diet approach to its workouts. In the last part, we'll look alternatives to P90X's nutrition (part 3a) and workouts (part 3b) that will last beyond 90 days.

The goal of this series is that if you decide you still want to "bring it," you can do so with a clearer sense of what's really in the program, how it works, what will help it work better, how to get closer to the results you want, and what alternatives you might want to pursue and why.

You may also decide there are other ways to get better results in less time. (that's part 3, to follow).

In part one of this review, we kick off with a brief overview of P90X and then consider "muscle confusion" and the special case of "Yoga-X." In the second part we'll look at the role of diet in the hunt for 6pack abs, and in the final part we'll look at completion bail outs, what happens when the track runs out at the end of P90X and alternatives.

Quick overview of p90x.
P90X contains 12 follow along DVD's of various workouts for cardio and largely bodyweight or resistance work. The package also contains program guides for what vids to use when. And it has a small pamphlet on diet along with recipe suggestions. The review i wrote about completing p90x was until recently a top ten results for "review p90x." What happened? P90X's marketing has changed so that people who sell P90X effectively have to put up clone p90x web sites that feature "review" as their title, but aren't really. They've paid 40 dollars for the privilege of getting a commission from sales of P90X that go through their sites. Nothing wrong with affiliate sales, but the effect of this approach has mean that folks who just review p90x have their *real* reviews buried into about page 4 of google results. A couple of months ago the top P90x review was from a blog called "shaping my way." Where is it now??

The concept of P90x is appealing - it certainly was to me: for people who once knew what being in shape was, but they now have fallen out of shape and are keen for a "real" workout they can just DO that doesn't require going to the gym to get back in shape. That's what P90X says is on the tin. Sounds really sensible. P90X is sold largely by infomercial. And so here comes Tony Horton who developed the program. Fit guy of 47 at the time - right in the target audience zone - way better shape than most guys ten years younger. And he's saying, right, back to basics. Three days a week resistance training and plyo; three days a week various cardio/stretching/yoga type stuff. You see shots from the really basic type workouts: pull ups, push ups, jumping, lunges, curls, kicking, punching, intense yoga. Real people sweating real sweat. Looks real; looks good, looks like work. You see all sorts of real people following along at home while watching the DVD's. More reality.

Before we begin, let's tease apart a couple of the claims around P90X - do this program with intensity, and you will get stronger, build muscle and of course, based on the before and after pictures, get ripped.

Note: there is nothing wrong with following these workouts. And if having such a totally programmed plan works to get a person back onto the road to well being then fabulous. I'd just like to take a closer look at what's on the label of this tin. First up: muscle confusion.

Muscle Confusion is Confusing the Facts.

On the web site and in the infomercial Horton makes a big deal about this concept he's introducing called muscle confusion. That is after the first four weeks of the program he switches up the resistance program a bit. For the first three weeks he does chest & back/shoulders & arms; for weeks 5,6,7 he does chest, shoulders triceps/ back & biceps. and then more or less back to the first three weeks (each fourth week is a back off week of mainly cardio/yoga)

The rationale for this change up after three weeks of effort is to surprise the muscles - hit them from a different angle - so that they don't get used to the effort and stop growing, plateauing.

This concept sounded so sensible to me at the time. It turns out, though, it's kinda crap -not total crap in terms of the concept - but total crap at this level of application.

Let me explain. P90X is a 12 week program. It is specifically aimed at (marketed at) de-conditioned people. In that respect, this population is pretty much like folks who haven't trained before. Pretty much. As such what the research shows repeatedly - and this has been studied a lot - is that a deconditioned/untrained person can do ANY program for 8-16 weeks, and they will get stronger. If they're really untrained, as opposed to not having been working out for awhile hypertrophy - that body builder effect - isn't particularly likely to happen either.

Indeed, this research informing these ideas on training adaptation is so standard now it's become part of any core text-book on the physiology of strength and conditioning. IT's a core part of training in programs like the NSCA's CSCS certification, and in physiology courses. Here's just two texts with references in google books to these concepts to see for yourself: 2002 Hoffman Physiologic Aspects of Sport Training and Performance and 2006 Donatelli, Sport Specific Rehabilitation. The research goes back to 1988, so this isn't earth shakingly new stuff.

How does muscle building work: adaptation to load.
A summary of part of the above work is that, for the first 8 weeks of any resistance program, the main adaptation is neurological: that is, the nervous system is getting used to bringing muscle fibers into play and figuring out what fibers to use. Very little if any of this period is actual hypertrophy, that is the growth of new muscle fibers.

After the first 8 weeks, what triggers growth is still adaptation to load, but between now and 12 weeks, muscular adaptation may also begin. So main point: the effort needs to keep challenging a person or adaptation ceases. That lack of challenge is the ONLY reason why adaptation ceases (until hitting optimum genetic potential- and that sure doesn't occur in a few weeks). And this is the only reason why people hit plateaus in their program: using the same number of reps at the same weight with the same number of sets gets to a point of no longer being a challenge. The body has simply adapted to that movement with that load for that period of effort. Only one of those variables needs to change to force adaptation. Note: the exercise itself does not have to change.

Alternative One: A great method to induce challenge/adaptation is used by Pavel Tsatsouline in Power to the People (two moves: a deadlift and a side press). The approach is to wave the load, over a week: up bit each day for a few days, then back a bit, then starting up the next wave with a bit more. Each week, each day's last load gets a little heavier so weight load is progressive even as it falls back. The moves don't change; volume is varied. Remarkable progress; no burn out. No confusion.

So, looking at P90X, in three weeks of a new program for a de-conditioned person, since muscle adaptation hasn't really even started to take place, why change the program?

One answer is to reduce boredom. The biggest problem a program like this faces is quitting and wanting one's money back before the 90 days are up. Here's there's a promise of change throughout the whole period. So how do you know what those four week sets are going to be like until you've tried them? Variety is the spice of continuation for a lot of us. Even so, folks who comment about the dvds on the forum find that watching the same ones over and over get a little tedious.

How much confusion, really, in P90X? If you look at the actual workouts that change, there's not *that much* that's different about them. The main thing is the arms routine of the first few weeks is broken into biceps and triceps days rather than just "arms" day on shoulders day. In other words, two workouts a week now have three specific body parts in the same length of time as did for two previously. They're just slightly different exercises that lets a person pop in a new dvd and feel like they're getting a new workout while also getting that special adaptation buster, muscle confusion.

The point of this critique is to show that muscle confusion is not really what's going on here: the muscles are not being "tricked" by new challenges to keep adapting to a routine that would otherwise cease to induce change. As we can see from standard work, the exercises themselves haven't been in play long enough to induce complete neural adaptation, never mind any kind of muscular adaptation.

At best, changing specific arm exercises is certainly one way to reduce boredom of a routine; changing the outfits and participants on the DVD set is another. Both are used here. This is not to say any of this is a *bad* thing. Boredom can be real, and if it stops a person from working out, then there's a problem.

Yes is there such a concept as muscle confusion? Google searches return numerous non-expert sites that cite the term (often pointing back to P90X). As best i can tell, Tony Horton did not invent the idea; it comes from the body building world where trainees want to squeeze every millimeter of hypertrophic growth from their muscles.

By changing up exercises to hit an already well-developed muscle from a variety of angles, the idea is that this will help to bring out every possible fiber to optimal effect. This exercise variety for muscular development is not quite the same as a belief that one has to change exercises to fight plateau/adaptation. Some attribute the body building concept of muscle confusion to Vince Gironda; intriguingly it's not a concept you'll find in the research literature for muscle physiology. Try checking "muscle confusion" in pubmed, or in the Jounral of Strength and Conditioning Research. Nada.

So what is "muscle confusion" in P90X?

Really. As said, there's nothing wrong with changing up exercises a bit every few weeks if it keeps you going at them, and really all beachbody wants to do is keep you invested in the program for 12 weeks to avoid giving you a refund. And because if you do anything for 12 weeks in a workout sense you will see these kinds of improvements, it really doesn't matter what they ask you to do; it just has to be something you WANT to keep doing. We'll come back to this lack of post P90X support in part three.

But in the mean time, here's a question: if anything will work to induce change in 12 weeks, and unlike, you actually care about the remaining X weeks after p90x (like the rest of your life), you may want to ask

Are these the best exercises anyway? for that 12 week period?
Yes and no. Pull ups and push ups, a core part of the P90X program are solid. They're refereed to as compound movements because they involve more than one muscle or muscle group. The bodyweight legs program, also pretty good for being likewise mainly compound - though wall squats can seriously be thrown out: these are simply isometric holds and have very little transferability - in other words doing a lot of wall squats will not help build capacity to lift the coach up the stairs. In p90x, wall squats get better over time because of the other leg work; not the other way around.

See, again from the literature, for someone who has not been training, the best resistance start is with compound work, not isolation exercises. That means no biceps/triceps stuff; lots of pushes and pulls that involve the whole body. Even if big arms are a goal, especially when starting a program, compound work is the best way to go. So maybe those arm curls are in there for packaging rather than real benefit?

Another exercise to chuck: plyometrics.
The pylo workout is referred to as the "mother" of all P90X workouts. And that's what it is: a survival routine. Can you get through over an hour of jumping on one leg?

Real plyometrics are stressful to the body. An hour of them is close to insane for neophytes, and they were never designed as cardio. They were designed by eastern sports science as a finisher program for well-conditioned, well-trained athletes and NOT for people just getting back into fitness (see work by Verhoshansky from 1960's on). They are designed specifically to improve vertical jump height and speed, again, for ahtletes with a strong, pre-existing base of fitness.

Is what's on P90X really plyometrics?
MMM, maybe not. More like skipping, or what's also sometimes seen as 'submax plyos'- take a look at this section on google books about submax plyos, and you'll see pretty much the same moves this book talks about as warm ups for plyos. So calling what's on p90x plyo is a bit of a stretch - but not the right stretch to be plyometric. Let me explain.

How does plyometrics work? 
Mainly be taking advantage of the elastic properties of the muscle, loading the muscle using the stretch shortening cycle.  For instance, doing a big jump off a box to the ground to stretch and load the hamstrings muscle (back of the legs) and then *as fast as possible* jumping back up again so that that stored energy in the hamstrings turns into kinetic energy in the concentric contraction of the muscle tightening as one gets up again.

The key about plyos is that they're not supposed to be high rep or frequent (or for beginners):
A distinction should be made between maximal plyometrics and sub-maximal plyometrics.  Maximal plyometrics are low-repetition activities where the intensity of the depth jump or rebound exercise is such that maximal or near-maximal rebound tension is produced in the relevant muscles.  Just like maximal strength training with weights, these powerful impulses are not meant to be imposed on the musculature every workout, nor are multiple repetitions even possible or advisable.
So plyo: low rep, low frequency - does that sound like p90x's hour of hopping? 

So what's p90x "plyo" doing?
Well it's more like skipping without a rope - because p90x couldn't count on one having room for a skipping rope. It's also another higher intensity cardio workout. And it may also help with prepping the muscles and joints to take greater load. So it's not like it doesn't do anything - but mainly it's one more way to do a fatiguing, high cardio workout and call it something bigger than it is to lend it excitement.

By the way: want to improve your vertical jump? develop your squat, or swing a kettlebell - not kidding. Way better results than box jumping. We'll come back to this in part three. Now this is not to say there isn't a role for jumping about: kids once upon a time did this regularly with skipping games. Boxers and other athletes jump rope. But it's kinda sexing it up to call plyo-x plyometrics. It's endurance training via hops that are not gated to speed (no. of reps per those 20 secs for example).

And ya can skip 80 mins of Yoga-X, alas
Yoga X is a form of yoga you won't see anywhere else -a sort of faux Ashtanga first series - sort of. It clocks in at about an hour 20, one of the longest and most challenging workouts because of the massive balance/stretching work going on.

Folks on the p90x forum will comment at how much better their "yoga" work becomes as they do the program, and attribute the program to improving the stretch in the postures they achieve and the better balance. I did too.

Turns out that a lot about stretch has to do with perceived safety (reduced threat - all the nervous system can process is "is there threat? yes or no"). As these moves become more familiar, (and as the body becomes in fact stronger from doing these and the other workouts) the body perceives the move as safer to do. Consequently the muscles relax and stretch more. Look at it this way: we can all apparently do the splits when we're unconscious without any reefing of tendons or muscles. What's different when we're awake?

Do we need to do 12 weeks of 1hr:20mins of Yoga-X to achieve these results? Well, what are we doing this workout for? Horton says if he could only do one thing, it would be the Yoga-X workout. But why? What is the benefit of being able to hold a static balance posture for 30 secs?

A huge part of yoga practice is also the breath. In the book Structural Yoga Therapy, the author talks about the focus of Yoga is about the Breath, not about the stretch. Where is that focus in Yoga-X, when Horton walks around the participants commenting on how much they're sweating and working to hold a posture?

What does this sweating and working show? Neuro-muscular adaptation to a specific position. Does this balance work in this particular translation of yoga-inspired postures transfer to other activities? Horton talks about improvements in balance. Ok, where is that shown again beyond these posutres? If balance is the goal, is it the best or most efficient way to improve balance? Maybe not (see this discussion on renegade rows and options for balance practice)

Doing a few seconds (literally) to a few minutes of Z-health work (overview) can have the same stretch deepening/balance sharpening effect or more of what yoga-x delivers. It does this with way reduced threat and way improved proprioceptive, vestibular and visual coordination. It takes maybe 8 minutes rather than 80. So again, what's the point of this workout? It's not calories; max caloric burn from yoga-x is 200. In 80 mins. The other factor in Yoga-X (and other X workouts) that let's one say wow felt ick starting, but after felt great is pretty much endorphins. Lots of ways to get those triggered too.

Please note (please): i am in no way saying "yoga bad" - please see previous note on the inspiration i find in David Swenson's ashtanga performance. What i am asking is why is someone doing this particular thing, Yoga-X? do they understand why it is part of a program? or that they can get the same *effects* from other means (in less time).

If there is a particular effect that doing this particular X session gives a person great! enjoy! but (a) is it delivering what it says it is? and (b) if this is what a person wants, there are alternatives here, too, that might be even better.

And any other X?
Look you can do P90X and be happy. The only thing that comes close to being harmful maybe is plyometrics and it will likely fatigue anyone from continuing before they get hurt. And as i come to in Part 3b, the workouts may be reinforcing bad form since form isn't much of a criteria in any of these routines. And because we adapt immediately to exactly what we're doing, there's potential costs of repeatedly repeating poor form.

Just to re-iterate, the point here is that this is a great program to entertain somone sufficiently to encourage that person to workout for 12 weeks. That doesn't mean these are great routines.

Does a person need to do the above routines for as long as they are (an hour 20 a day) to get the same or how about much better results? No. We'll come back to this point in part 3b. For now, to sum up muscle confution.

Take Away on Muscle Confusion:
A big promise in P90X is getting ripped.

Most folks might take that to mean building muscle bulk rather than simply exposing muscle that's there. As we've seen, there's at most maybe four weeks (for some people) in which to begin to build muscle fiber. And at that we're not talking 10's of pounds.

Bottom line: Horton's premise though that "muscle confusion" is a big part of what makes P90X so effective doesn't stand up to what we know about how muscles begin to adapt to new demands being put upon them.

Horton's program based around tons of variety also doesn't stand up to what we know about building a foundation for what comes after 12 weeks. But that's not what P90X is about. It's about selling programs. And here the promise is that visible six pack.

Transition to Part 2: What's a six pack, really?
The thing is, we know that the only way to get a six pack is, for guys, being sub 10% body fat, and for women, sub 16% bf. If you have been working away at your abs so that there is some hypertrophy there, and you lose a lot of body fat, you can get a ripped look. Since we know that not a lot of muscle growth takes place in an initial 12 week program, the only way in 12 weeks to get to that place is to burn off the fat. And the only way to get to those bf% numbers in 12 weeks is (a) not needing to lose a lot of weight in the first place combined with (b) significant caloric restriction.
In Part 2, we're going to look how muscle building works, as well as at the understated role of diet in P90x and a bit more at how those before and after pictures happen. And we'll ask the question again, is P90x the best way to get this result? and what happens after the 12 weeks?

Related Posts/Resources

Thursday, August 20, 2009

b2d down time - what healthy blogs do you enjoy?

Dear b2d readers,

thank you for stopping by.

Over the coming week i'm going to be off the grid (and if i'm not, there'll be hell to pay), so will likely not be posting for that time. I anticipate withdrawl effects.

In the interim, i'd be keen to hear about any health-related blogs you like to follow that haven't already be linked here. You can see there are three places where Other Folks stuff is linked: great resources by other folks; funky folks' blogs, and digging.

I'm asking also because one of the favorite things i've seen on is Chris's google reader insert - which i've since emulated here. Awesome!

I use chris's reader feed a lot - often i don't agree with the sentiment in some of the articles posted :) - but so what? how else are we gonna learn new stuff?

So if you care to share, what are some blogs that inspire you? that you come back to regularly - in the health, fitness, wellbeing space?

Please leave your rec's in a comment.

With thanks,


ps may i also note here that the first uk z-health/kettlebell workshop is going to be held in London(ish) all day, Sunday Oct 18. Hope to meet some of you there.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Arthrokinetic Reflex: Joint action affects Muscle Performance

This post is about the arthrokinetic reflex. The term goes back to 1956 and suggests that something done to a joint can reflexively cause muscle activation or inhibition. Eric Cobb in Z-Health (overview) makes use of this concept to show how something as simple as head position can have a negative impact on muscle activation, and that conversely, joint mobilization (and better head position) can have an immediate benefit for freeing up muscle activation for improved strength performance.

There's some interesting ideas around how these reflexes relate to threat and threat modulation, but we'll come back to those at another point. Right now, let's see the effect in action.

Just to walk through the following video because the audio seems to be a bit low, here's what's happening.

First: demonstration of a classic issue in the Kettlebell Swing: head is way back when going for the hip snap. Why might this be a problem? that head position, that far back on the neck, may actually be reducing available power and consequently compromising the work a person wants to do.

How can we demonstrate this claim?

Second: Rikki Prince kindly volunteers for a hamstring muscle test, head in neutral position.
All that's happening in the muscle test is that i am meeting the force that Rikki is producing so that there's equilibrium.

Third: Rikki cranks his head back for the second hamstring test
In this case, i'm using the same force on Rikki's leg as previously used to balance his leg pushing up, and his leg goes down - right down - to the ground.

Now, one could say ha you're cheating, you're using way more force. First, in the video - does it look like i'm pushing hard? face it, i'm not a big person, and Rikki's considerably taller and larger and more muscular than i. Second, this test could be done with a machine where forces are calibrated - so if you have the apparatus by all means do so. Third, you'll have to believe me, yes, that Rikki wasn't faking it - this you can also test with yourself and a colleague if you learn the technique to match people's strength. I've done this with a room full of people and there's always one person who says "didn't work for me" - I'll take that one stat of 1 out of 25. But it usually turns out when retested by someone else, it's there.

I also was asked to demo this at the May 09 RKC Denmark cert. Kenneth Jay volunteered (shown left using mark cheatham as "the wall") - for those who have met him, do you think KJ would fake this test?

Fourth: Head back in neutral, re- test. In this case we see the leg is a lot stronger than just a moment before, and that's just from getting out of the head cranked position.

Fifth: Going further to clean up the muscle test, and re-test. Without giving poor Rikki a break we do two Z-health neck mobility drills - just to open up those neck joints more deliberately. We retest. The bigger wobble is now out of the leg, and we're as stable as we were when we started.

If i was working with Rikki further, i'd keep going to do a movement assessment to get at that little bit of rumble that was there at the start and is still present at the end.

Sixth: applying this reflex notion to the swing
At the end, a quick demo of a few swings with the head in neutral, using the eyes to look up, rather than the head cranking back. You can't see it, but i'd encourage you to try it: this technique of keeping the head neutral combined WITH the eyes charting the movement actually provides a double shot benefit for the swing. It FEELS much smoother and stronger and more effortless.

This double shot is discussed further with liberal illustrations and Eric Cobb quotations and b2d synthesis/analysis in terms of "efficient movement" in yet another application: the kettlebell front squat.

If you'd like more detail on the eye position in the swing, see Cobb's article cited above, and look for "eye position kettlebell swing experiment."

Take Away: the Arthrokinetic Reflex - works both ways
What we do with a joint has a reflexive effect on muscular activation/inhibition. ANY joint; All Muscles - pretty much.
So what this demo shows us three things + a heuristic
  • squishing up a joint, like cranking back the head in a swing or lift, has immediate effect on muscular activation. In the case of squishing, we get inhibition.
  • We see that going to a more open joint position (head neutral) has an immediate effect on muscle activation.
  • We see also that that effect can be enhanced further with self-moblization around that joint.
  • heuristic: maintaining optimal range of motion in a joint enables best strength performance/efficiency.
I hope you'll try the swing demo, or try this with your deadlift or any activity - keep the joints free and open, and we're better able to activate our muscles. This free and open joint effect/relexive relation to muscles also shows why getting better range of motion around a joint can also have a direct effect on strength. This is the benefit of connecting up what we know of our neurology with our strength practice. Cool, eh?

Related Posts

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Advantage of an Office Door: A Work Up for a Carb Up

Ever stolen a work out during the day, or snuck one in? Do you have to go to the gym to do it? At work, i have the privilege of an office with a door on it such that when it's shut, no one can see in, except the workers in the building going up right across from me. We wave at each other from time to time. when they're way hi up on their lego like structures. But now since they're all off for lunch, it is fine and proper to change my shirt and shorts for sweatable attire and commence a pre-lunch ritual: the carb burn pre load work up.

Yes work up: i am working up to a happy feeding time, knowing i'm not just eating cuz i'm a bit peckish; i'm refurbishing my muscles glycogen stores when they'll be happiest to receive them.

To achieve this today, i decide to do a 15:15 vo2max workout as per Viking Warrior Conditioning (reviewed here).

But then, mid workout, what happens? i start to feel a callus go - for those of you who do this kind of thing you know what i mean. I don't want a tear - i'm about to go away on a break and while i suppose that would be the ideal time to have a tear (if one must) i think i'd rather not. Band aids etc, no fun. Phooey.

So i do the a-typical smart thing and stop my vo2max work with a 12kg and transition gracefully into an on-the-fly adapted 8on 12 off session of swings for the next 11 minutes with a 24kg. Perfect form, perfect form. Every rep a perfect rep. My word, 12 secs post kettlebell seems much shorter post a kettlebell set than it does on the bike.

This protocol is based on one developed by Trapp and co for eliciting optimal fat burn in women of both athletic and not so athletic backgrounds. 20mins of 8/12 intervals seemed to be a sweet spot for fat burning.

1: Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2007 Dec;293(6):R2370-5. Epub 2007 Sep 26.Click here to read Links

Metabolic response of trained and untrained women during high-intensity intermittent cycle exercise.

School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Univ. of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia.

The metabolic response to two different forms of high-intensity intermittent cycle exercise was investigated in young women. Subjects (8 trained and 8 untrained) performed two bouts of high-intensity intermittent exercise: short sprint (SS) (8-s sprint, 12-s recovery) and long sprint (LS) (24-s sprint, 36-s recovery) for 20 min on two separate occasions. Both workload and oxygen uptake were greater in the trained subjects but were not significantly different for SS and LS. Plasma glycerol concentrations significantly increased during exercise. Lactate concentrations rose over the 20 min and were higher for the trained women. Catecholamine concentration was also higher postexercise compared with preexercise for both groups. Both SS and LS produced similar metabolic response although both lactate and catecholamines were higher after the 24-s sprint. In conclusion, these results show that high-intensity intermittent exercise resulted in significant elevations in catecholamines that appear to be related to increased venous glycerol concentrations. The trained compared with the untrained women tended to show an earlier increase in plasma glycerol concentrations during high-intensity exercise.

As for the application of the above with a heavy kb, i can say after the 11th minute, it seems i may have found a way to test for a new max heart rate. Cuz that was higher than on a bike and not maximal. I was still standing. Hmm. On the fat loss, well i don't know. It's more effortful than on a bike. May try again with a 20kg, just to calibrate. Interesting enough to want to give it a go again.

Feeling very pleased to have done this work up.
Clean up; re-dress and regroup. Lunch becomes a happy happy thing. A definite re-fuel. Ideally if i'd been thinking straight i would have grabbed a lighter bell just to do some more cool down swings to get a bit more fat flamed off before it re-esterfies from sitting down again.

So what's the take away here:
  • glad i've FINALLY gotten to a place where i can change an envisioned workout in order to keep working out, rather than obsessively have to stick with ONE routine because, who's keeping track again? oh? just me? right-o.
  • doing short intervals with a heavy kb is an intriguing workout from both a cardiac and potential fuel burning perspective.
  • remember to stash chalk at work, too: a few more minutes and that 24 would have been sailing out of the office towards the new building. Even though that's rather a pleasant thought - sort of like shooting a canon at an enemy battlement, the consequences would not be pretty.
  • the snatch grip to avoid calluses in fast repeats is a skill to be learned - still
But i guess the biggie here is to suggest, i hope, that if you have the luxury of an office where you can close a door, or even not, one where you can safely swing a kettlebell, it's a great way to have a pre-lunch work-up.

If you'd like more info on feeding up and why post workout, and what that has to do with muscles, here' a bit more in a review i did of precision nutrition's individualization/carb tolerance.

Now for the post happy lunch cup of tea...

Monday, August 17, 2009

b2d readers request: blog features update - your experience/thoughts?

Dear b2d readers,

Hello and thanks as always for reading.

I've recently added a few new features to Begin to Dig and would like to
  1. let you know about them
  2. get your thoughts about them (if you care to share).
Search by Google. First is that google (who own blogger, the software for this blog) now make search in the blog available. It's close to the top on the right. What's really cool (i think) about this new search feature is that if you put in keywords, you get the list of matching articles right at the top of the blog. Cool. And there are category tabs too for even more refined results.

Have you tried this yet? would you? or you don't tend to poke around a blog to look for previous posts?

Related Reading List. Inspired by Chris over at, i've added a reading list that features some of the articles i've found that are cool and relate to b2d.

Do you check out any of the articles in the list? Do you come to the site ever to see what's on it?

Twitter Feed. I suppose this is the one i'm most dubious about. but i'm pretty new to the experience so keen to take advice.

(Not so new) Promoted free stuff and cool stuff. This isn't a new thing, but i'd like to hear your experiences here.

Not sure if folks who drop by check out the stuff that i review and put in the review area or put in the "freebies" area . I try not to put anything up that doesn't have a review associated with it, and nothing goes up that's not stuff i use, too. But not sure if really readers have the time to whiz through any of these - if you find them helpful.

(Not so new) Articles Listing. Related to the above, i keep articles on the right from stuff in b2d that may be useful for reference. Is this useful? Do you ever go to the article listing to re-find something you've seen? or to find something new, of interest?

Thanks for your time.
That's about it, i think. Keen to hear your thoughts, and very much appreciate you taking time from your day to let me know. Again, really value your spending some of your time at b2d. Thanks for digging, grokking, subscribing or just dropping by.

one announcement: for folks in the UK area, i'm doing a first UK public workshop blending z-health practice and theory with kettlebells. It's Sunday Oct 18, 9:30-4. There's a pretty good description of the workshop at the host's, LKB. Perhaps meet some of you there?

Thanks again,


Lance Armstrong Training: almost with a kettlebell

Well, the image in men's fitness made famous of Lance Armstrong swinging a kettlebell may not have been repeated elsewhere, but one could believe he does swing, based on the following workout sample on youtube.

It starts with dynamic movement of weight - sorta like a swing.

Solid: weighted step ups, stable rows (i like rows:details here), and my faves in this example, weighted adductor lunges, starting everything off with these nice effortful hang cleans.

There's a kb hiding in a corner somewhere.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review of Kenneth Jay's Viking Warrior Conditioning for Proper VO2max training

This post is a review of Kenneth Jay's Viking Warrior Conditioning (VWC) for "proper VO2max training" . The review goes over the book and includes notes from an interview with Kenneth Jay on some of the finer details behind the VO2max and lactic acid pushing protocols of Viking Warrior conditioning.

o Cut to the Chase overview/recommendation:
If you are an athlete who needs stamina, strenght and endurance - whether on the field or in the gym; in team or in solo sports, this is an excellent protocol for maximally efficient cardiovascular conditioning.
A few quick reasons:
  • it's efficient, making good use of what we know about interval-based training
  • it works the whole body
  • it uses one relatively inexpensive piece of equipment that can be used pretty much anywhere one has room to swing a cat
  • the book itself has sufficient explanations for someone to understand why they need to do what's prescribed as prescribed, and it provides case studies and real people reports to show how this protocol works for real people.
  • It's a complete package.
Kenneth Jay, by the way, is a Master RKC and is both a coach of university teams, and world record holding athletes. It is also a pleasure to watch Kenneth Jay shop for his lunch.

o What's in this Review
The following review goes over who Viking warrior conditioning is for, how the book is presented, why the protocols presented are effective, how that's demonstrated, and why this book would be a great asset for strength and conditioning coaches, team coaches and athletes across the sports board, from cyclists to power lifters.

Who's this book for? Anyone who needs strength, stamina and power. Despite the fact that this book focuses on the use of the kettlebell snatch for its protocols, this book is not just for people devoted to the kettlebell. The kettlebell, and in this case, the single move the kettlebell snatch, just happens to be terrific for cardiovascular (CV) conditioning.

If you're an athlete who needs strength to move, stamina to keep moving and power to move something as effectively as possible, VO2max conditioning is a good idea.

Consider an athlete on a team where the team can go and go with skill and strength - right until about the last crucial ten minutes of the match. It's those last ten minutes that may just make the difference between having the concentration and energy to win against the other team.

Remember Andy Rodick at the end of this year's Wimbleton? Neck and neck with Federer till the last few minutes. Was it talent and skill or more energy reserves at that point that put Federer ahead of such a tight battle?

And what about just having the energy to get through a long day, whether that day is moving furniture or working out details of a troublesome project. Enhancing our capacity to move oxygen through our blood stream, improving its efficiency at doing so, and being able to work harder, longer for effectively less effort are all great things. These effects are great in an of themselves, plus they have super side benefits for health, longevity and well being.

o Caveat Before Starting
The only thing VWC assumes is that you already have some level of conditioning. That is, this is not a protocol for someone who is going from complete sedentary level to VO2 conditioning. Why?

Snatch Speed. The protocols in this book demand both skill with the kettlebell snatch in order to maintain perfect form with the KB when moving it quickly and repeatedly in both the down strokes (overspeed eccentrics) and the up strokes (explosive force).
Interval Effort. As Lyle McDonald summarized in an overview of the role of intervals in fitness, they're best suited to someone who has some base level fitness already. If just starting a fitness program, get used to moving first. And if you'd like to start moving with a kettlebell, excellent idea. I'd strongly encourage you to consider Enter the Kettlebell (reviewed here) for fitness, and Precision Nutrition (reviewed here) as a great habit building approach to nutrition.

o The Organization of VWC - a book in 4 main movements
Before getting into a discussion of Kenneth Jay's protocols, it's worth considering what else is in the book. The book is presented as 10 chapters. That may sound like a lot, but some of the chapters are quite succinct, and they fit into what might be described as three related movements:
  • First movement: the motivation for and explanation of how VO2max conditioning Works
  • Second movement: the protocols
  • Third movement: the case study: the protocols applied
  • fourth movement: testimonials of experiences with the VO2max protocol
o First Movement: Motivation and How VO2max Works

The initial sections build up why working on VO2max conditioning is an important and effective component in overall strength and conditioning work. An overview of the viking warrior conditioning concept is presented, and followed by an overview of cardiovascular physiology - no mean feat - followed by a discussion of force, finished up with a few thoughts on how the kettlebell - in particular the kettlebell snatch - ties all these attributes together.

Essentially, fast snatching with perfect form enables one to develop two properties of the heart: eccentric hypertrophy - its elasticity to pump lots of blood - and concentric hypertrophy - some thickening of the walls of the heart to handle the pressure of heavy loads for powerful efforts.

Oxygen is critical to our survival. Blood carries oxygen to our muscles; the effort of muscles uses up that oxygen and needs to be replaced. The effectiveness with which fresh blood can be powered through our veins is related to how effectively our heart can pump: how strong the force it can genearte (and sustain) and how much of the blood it can take in, it can actually get out of the heart again. (For more detail, Related discussion on cardio, kb's and energy system integration here)

What these combined actions of pumping blood out of the heart and getting it into the hungry muscles, mean is that the heart can get more oxygen both into and out of the muscles faster and more efficiently, and it can get more blood especially out of the heart with each beat. Better blood flow, and more O2 reaching the muscles combines to mean less fatigue and more power, stamina and, effectively strength.

Two Strengths of the Heart. Usually, endurance athletics like running or swimming or cycling develop eccentric hypertrophy, while resistance training and sprinting develop more concentric hypertrophy. It's important to develop both. And Kenneth's snatch protocol attests to doing both.

There's only really one other activity beside the kb snatch it seems that has been shown to simulate this simultaneous double effect on the heart, and that's rowing. And if you're Stuart McGill, you're not crazy about rowing because your back is in flexion a great deal of the time. This is not the case with the snatch.

Jay goes into some detail on how the cardiovascular system of the heart and bloodflow works. Some folks may want to skip this part and get to the protocols, and that's fine: it's there for reference. But for those who do want to get at *why* the protocols that follow will enhance those two key components of cardiovascular strength, the explanations are very good. They make a few assumptions - for example the Krebs cycle is mentioned without explanation, and the roles of lactic acid and why we might want to push on that is also left more stated than explained. But there's sufficient information that is well-explained to get a handle on the process, and seek out other sources in an informed way if more info is sought.

+ Second Movement: The VWC protocols
Viking Warrior Conditioning presents 5 protocols for VO2max conditioning. Each are progressive and build upon the previous one.

36:36 The most discussed protocols in the RKC kettlebell scene is the protocol Kenneth Jay first introduced to the RKC II certification a couple years ago. The 36:36. Why 36 secs on/36 seconds off. Kenneth Jay explains this in the book as follows:

Thrity-Six seconds is 60% of 1 minute. Research has shown that doing intervals at 60% of the time spent at VO2max is far superior to 50% (the suggestion of 30-second sets) or 70% or even 40% and 80% when doing high volumne work (35 sets)
One may ask, how is 36:36 representative of 60%, when the interval is 1:1. Isn't that 50% of 1min 12 secs total for the set? Shouldn't it be 36:24?

And so i did ask Kenneth exactly this. To which he replies that the focus in not on the work to rest interval ratio, but on the max time for VO2max work in a minute:
First thing is to remember the 60% does NOT refer to W:R ratio or the protocol itself. the 60% is taken from the time spent at MVO2 during the cadence test. in order to elicit a MVO2 response several factors has to be present among others a gradual build up- henc the 5 min test. the 5th minute is all out which should be VO2max and in order to take the slow component of the VO2 kinetics into account a minimum of 1 minute has to be kept (this is necessary because the test estimates as opposed to direct meassurement) The 36:36 sec. protocol is therefore derived by saying that if we are working at VO2max levels for 1 min during the test and research show (like esfarjani & Laursen, 2007 ao) that interval duration should be 60% of the time you are able to keep your VO2max then I arrive at 36 sec. IF I had chosen to have the cadence test last 5 1/2 in. with the last 1 1/ min all out then the work interval duration would have to be 60% of 90 sec (54 sec.) this would have been just as accurate if it had not been for a serious drop in snatch performance after 1 min all out- this is based on no published observations during my study but if the protocol was meant for runnig it could have easily been done. prolonging the final all out time with snatches it a differnet animal and most people would get a worng result.

At this point the work duriation has been established (60% of 1 min of the cadence test) and since that equals 36 sec I decided the protocol should have a 1:1 W:R ratio. When the interval work duration is less that 1 min. this is advisable. also based on research (michalisk& Bangsbo) when the intervals gets longer- the rest also has to increase.

So in short. remember that the 60% is derived from the cadence test and nothing else!

For backup to the above, Kenneth references the following article in particular:

J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Feb;10(1):27-35. Epub 2006 Jul 28.Click here to read Links
Manipulating high-intensity interval training: effects on VO2max, the lactate threshold and 3000 m running performance in moderately trained males.
Esfarjani F, Laursen PB.

School of Science and Physical Education, Esfahan University, Esfahan, Iran.

The aim of this study was to compare the effects of two high-intensity interval training (HIT) programmes on maximal oxygen uptake (.VO(2max)), the lactate threshold (LT) and 3000 m running performance in moderately trained male runners. .VO(2max), the running speed associated with .VO(2max) (V.VO(2max)), the time for which V.VO(2max) can be maintained (T(max)), the running speed at LT (v(LT)) and 3000 m running time (3000 mTT) were determined before and following three different training programmes performed for 10 weeks. Following the pre-test, 17 moderately trained male runners (V O(2max)=51.6+/-2.7ml kg(-1)min(-1)) were divided into training groups based on their 3000 mTT (Group 1, G(1), N=6, 8 x 60% of T(max) at V.VO(2max), 1:1 work:recovery ratio [that should look familiar -mc]; Group 2, G(2), N=6, 12 x 30s at 130% V.VO(2max), 4.5 min recovery; control group, G(CON), N=5, 60 min at 75% V.VO(2max)). G(1) and G(2) performed two HIT sessions and two 60 min recovery run sessions (75% V.VO(2max)) each week. Control subjects performed four 60 min recovery run sessions (75% V.VO(2max)) each week. In G(1), significant improvements (p<0 .05=".05" p="0.07)." style="color: #663300;">HIT programmes in moderately trained runners, but that changes in performance and physiological variables may be more profound using prolonged HIT at intensities of V.VO(2max) with interval durations of 60% T(max).
It's also cool to note that the above study is based on "moderately" trained runners - so not super jocks. And since this is the level - moderately trained - of where most folks will begin with the VO2max protocol, then there's good reason to use the optimal protocol for this approach in the vo2max effort.

The other Protocols. Beyond 36:36 there is one preliminary/prepatory protocol before diving into 36:36, and then three other peaking and pushing protocols that focus on both pushing beyong VO2max and on lactic acid tolerance.

Indeed lactic acid is in the title of the three post 36:36 protocols, and its one concept that Viking Warrior Conditioning does not directly explicate. So i asked Kenneth if he could talk about that focus a bit more here. Here's what he said:
Basically production and tolerence of lactic acid is a great indicator of how well your anaerobic system is conditioned. A high production rate means that ATP is synthesized very quickly and a high tolerence rate means that just that- you can continue to work in a very acidic environment.
(For a quick overview of ATP, what it is, and why it's important, take a look at the middle-ish of this post on fat-as-fuel.)

Likewise, what about going over VO2max? How can we do something at MORE than 100%? If that more than 100% feels like Spinal Tap's amplifier ("it goes to 11"), then a couple things to remember. First we have more than one energy system we can draw on, each being categorized as aerobic (using oxygen) and anaerobic (not using oxygen). When the aerobic capacity gets tapped out - or we hold our breath for an intense effort - we're drawing on those anaerobic energy levels. I asked KJ if he could describe this beyond 100% V02max capacity, and he came back with the following analogies:
[Going over 100% is possible becuase] the body basically has two ways to make energy: those are aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic means "with oxygen" and anaerobic means "without oxygen" VO2 is the most acurate way to express how much the AEROBIC system is taxed.

When we reach 100% MVO2 we cant get more out of the aerobic system BUT we still have the ANAEROBIC system to push harder. Going above 100%MVO2 just means that you are doing something faster than what your aerobic system can handle alone.

Think about it is way: Ever seen the movie "the Fast and the Furious"? The guys in the film fine tune their cars to the limit. putting in all the right parts- the lightest, most durable stuff, the best turbos etc. that is the equivalent of the VO2max. The cars probably max out at a top speed of 160-170 mph (which we will call 100%) or something like that. BUT then they have the NOS. that injection will make the cars go close to 200 mph or +100%. The NOS = the anaerobic system. Of course that is a very simplified way of looking at it but it gets the idea through. (hopefully)
Going over 100% VO2max also pushed lactic acid production at a faster rate than a lower rate. So the two effects are strongly related.

How Long to Do Them All? Kenneth Jay's protocols, informed by recent research on best-tapping of energy production and tolerances for optimal work. If a person has the stamina to move through each protocol in succession, it will take approximately 30 -36weeks - in other words the better part of a year.

Of course, these protocols are the crown jewels of the book, but as a good coach, Kenneth doesn't simply say here's a bunch of nifty protocols; he provides a few contexts in how they can be applied. Thus the next sections of Viking Warrior Conditioning present how to put these strategies to work.

o Third Movement: Thorolf and Friends
The Protocol section closes with three strategies of how VWC might be adapted to co-exist within anyone's current training practice. This also includes KJ's own prefered approach. But the part of the book that is a particular asset is the case study that follows.

Here we see charted out exactly how one "moderately trained" 35 year old male, Throlof, did following the first four of the five Viking Warrior Conditioning protocols. Each protocol is mapped out on a per session /per week basis to see progression of volume.

We see the calculations for percentage over VO2max worked out to go with particular protocols. The only thing we do not see is Thorlof hooked up to a cart to validate that the calculated VO2max percentatges are validated in practice. Given that these calculations however are based on a lot of research that has been tested, and since we can see Thorlof's progress we can be pretty confident there is a strong progressive effect.

Kenneth Jay also stated in our exchanges that yes Thorolf really exists and yes these are his numbers.

Active Rest. Something also keen to note in the case study are the back off weeks in the program. Either Thorolf has great instincts or a great coach, but he kept himself sane by backing off for a bit and coming back stronger than before for a persistent, consistent linear progression of results over time.

Intervals vs other CV conditioning. Kenneth rounds off the Thorolf section with a nice discussion of the benefit of interval training vs. steady state. This chapter has the unfortunate title of "why the fat burning zone is a joke" but aside from that he makes the now well established case that in 2/3's the time of a steady state 75% Max heart Rate workout one is burning significantly more calories, and hence getting at more fat - so getting lean is good. The section also touches on why intervals like these have other benefits than steady state - and that may be the key thing, more than how many calories are burned or not.

What we know from increasing amounts of data is that, at a certain intensity of effort, things start happening at the DNA level of our responses to demands for fuel that have effects not just on our hearts but on our muscels, too. We touched on this a couple of weeks ago in this research review of the 6mins in 2weeks Efforts and its potential applications.

To complete the discussion on the benefits of Viking Warrior Condition, Kenneth concludes with a discussion on Conditioning and on Power, how they relate and how, not surprisingly, VWC helps develop each of the areas discussed. The discussion on general conditioning is particularly strong, discussing fatigue management, its relation to work capacity and the role of oxygen uptake - the latter being a big chunk of what VO2max work is about.

o Fourth Movement: Real People - well, RKC's and a Fighter- using VWC
What comes as a surprise in the book is the chapter that simply presents 3 RKC's of varrying levels writing about their experience with the VWC protocols. 2 of the 3 writers is a woman. That's cool. It's difficult in reading through these experiences not to see how they might be applicable to a range of athletes. To drive the point home, the section concludes with an interview of Mark O Madsen (also an RKC) who is a "world ranked Greco-Roman wrestler." The core take away from this interview is that the kettlebell is one of many tools the athlete uses regularly, with the 15:15 protocol being his main VWC protocol - from which he's getting a lot of mileage. The take home is this is a serious athlete "ranked 2nd in the world" - so if this approach wasn't working for him in a serious way, it would not be in his training.

o Coda
The book finishes with a review of the RKC hardstyle snatch. In an interview with Geoff Neupert, Kenneth Jay reiterated that he takes as a base level for this protocol someone who has gone through Pavel Tsatsouline's Enter the Kettlebell Program Minimum and Rite of Passage protocols for basic level comfort and control in kettlebell work.

Since this is such a snatch heavy program, seeing an RKC trainer to check snatch form is a Good Idea, too.

Kenneth in his Call to Action promises that Viking Warrior Condition will offer a transformative experience of conditioning like no other. After reading the book, you'll know not only how to make that happen but why these protocols will deliver that. And based on the the testimony of the people in the book, there's excellent support to show that the claims are not unwarranted.

A word for Rif. One other voice prefaces the book, Master RKC Mark Reifkind. He has not only written about his experience in the book's forward, but he's chronicled it as well on Rif's blog. His and Tracy Reifkind's progress with these protocols is perhaps kenneth's best testament to their efficacy. Every claim Rif makes in the forward is documented - frequently with video - for all to see.

o Other Athletes: Runners And Rugby Forwards.
Something i've started to investigate with some athletes is how VWC might be interleaved with their running practice to reduce hard miles on their bodies and up their performance. It's early days, but this has promise.

Another place some of us will be looking at in the fall is how VWC can improve the end-of-game stamina of a team's rugby forwards - complementing, not interupting, their pre and in-season training.

o Summary
VIking Warrior Condition is an intense program that promises to deliver persistent, consistent results.

The book may feel thin in the hands at 109 pages, but as such it's also a highly practical, efficient manual that anyone can wrap their heads around in a single sitting, and come back to as necessary when moving up the protocols.

If you're interested in tested practical applications of interval training for cardiovascular fitness, strength and stamina, for excellent conditioning, and would like to use a simple implement to achieve these ends, this is a book worth having, and approach worth practicing.

Let me know how go your results.

Kenneth Jay's Viking Warrior Conditioning, published by Dragon Door, 2008.

Related recommended resources
Enter the Kettlebell
Precision Nutrition
In the US: dragondoor kettlebells
In the UK: kettelbell Fever

Related Posts

Friday, August 14, 2009

Brown Fat: New Improved Single Factor Thinking

Let me predict it here first, folks: Brown Fat will be the Next Big Thing in the Drive for a Single Factor Big Pill Solution to Obesity.

Put "brown fat" into google today and you'll see all sorts of clever people and magazines referencing this new study on how "brown fat" (used a lot for generating body heat in mamals and neonatals) can be used to help burn the evil "white fat" - our abundant adipose tissue.

Yes evil, says the article, in contrast to the "good fat" story from early last week i was telling. The article commences powerfully:
IN THE war on our waistlines, fat is the enemy. It is fat, or adipose tissue, that gives us our beer bellies and our love handles, our man boobs and our muffin tops. And when plastic surgeons sculpt people into slenderness, it is fat tissue they suck up and throw out with the clinical waste.

Electron micrographs of brown fat cells reveal one of their hallmarks: an extraordinary number of mitochondria, which, as described below, are involved in heat generation.
The mitochonria are typically round, with cristae across their entire width.

My favorite quote by one of the researchers from this story exemplifies single factor thinking:

"I exercise on an elliptical trainer and it's pretty hard for me to burn up 500 calories," says Ronald Kahn, head of obesity research at Harvard Medical School's Joslin Diabetes Center. "If I could do it without working and do it every day, it would be pretty great."
Wow, where to begin here? Nigh on 20 years back there was a furor that was kicked off with Matel's "Math is hard" Barbie. What that was saying to kids - young girls especially?

Here, we have a head of a medical group, reminiscent of Barbie, saying gee, working out every day is hard; wouldn't it be great if i had a pill to lose weight for me?"

THis is the height of medical research? Wouldn't it be great to have a pill? Maybe that is the height of medical research: it's not about health, well being, quality of life, but about how far can we push this single thing for that effect.

If medicine were about well being perhaps the kinds of questions it would ask would be What are the issues around such weight gain? how does behaviour (neurology) interact with physical being (physiology)? what's the forensic differences between the Lean minority and the increasingly Fat majority? whether lean or fat what are the complex beneficial interactions of eating and movement and rest/sleep on a whole range of homeostatic factors that impact well being? do they have even greater impact on any level for those who are obese? doing things like improving insulin sensitivity, bone mineral density, cardio vascular fitness, ant-aging, balance, vision, awareness, focus? Knowing these complex interplays of systems to create a myriad of positive effects, is another drug or surgical intervention a good idea?

No? so what's on offer? A pill? and if not a pill how about an invasive procedure?
Researchers are experimenting with various ways to increase the amount or activity of our brown fat, either pharmaceutically or even surgically, by extracting ordinary white fat through liposuction, transforming it into brown fat and re-implanting it. A mere 50 grams of brown fat - well within the range of what some of us already have - could dissipate around 500 calories a day
and why is this single factor thinking?

It's single factor thinking because it gets excited about saying "gee, if we could just tweak this one thing, wouldn't that be great if life were that simple...ok there may be side effects but look at that fat go...ok maybe nothing's happening with bone mineral density or strength, but look at that fat go." And some side effects like anti-anti-aging, are acknowledged:

Manipulating brown fat, whether by drugs or surgery, may not be risk-free, however. By increasing energy expenditure you generate a high-flux metabolic state, points out Celi. This could increase our exposure to potentially harmful free radicals generated by the metabolism, which could conceivably cause cancer or even hasten ageing.
But what if there's a reason that we have fewer brown fat cells as we age; maybe it helps us age better?

Enthusiasm for the potential is unquenched. Here's another quote from the same article:

Nedergaard believes the focus should be on preventing the decline in brown fat as people get older. "Most obesity appears in middle age and onwards, and this is when it seems brown fat activity starts to disappear," he says. It might be possible to identify the cause of this decline and then reverse it, perhaps by replacing a lost hormone. What this hormone might be, though, remains a mystery.

Right, well is that statement true? Increasingly, most obesity appears now in kids. The rate is growing almost exponentially, right? (remember the piece a few weeks about about resistance workouts and obese kids - and how they lost no adipose tissue?) and kids apparently have way more brown fat cells than middle age folks apparently. So, maybe obesity isn't age related, or about just brown fat cell ratios.

You know this may be exciting science and the source of many future publications and god knows how many dead rats in the process of Losing Weight, but it feels (a) arrogant and (b) taking the easy way out.

By analogy in Europe, there's laws against the sale of foods produced from GMO - genetically modified crops. Many farmers and People generally don't trust scientific manipulations in the food supply at such a vast level messing with what is perceived as Nature. There's concern that Something could go Horribly Wrong. To allude to another ancient trope for margarine commercials "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature"

Likewise the arrogance here is that we can find a Single Solution that will work in a Complex System (like us) and not think there'll be significant consequences. The taking the easy way out feels just ignorant. And in no small part disrespectful. We are complex organisms. Worse, we have psychologically reinforced habits wired up to physiological, homeostatically defined responses: we have behaviours wired into us for a non-fuel-abundant environment. And now we have abundant access to personal fuel. No wonder we're getting fatter.

Saying that, i'll say it again, it takes work and skills and practice and support to know how to change habits, to keep them changed and, initially, work against what are bodies are telling us to do: eat! The formula might be easy: eat less/move more, but the implementation is not simple, and sure as heck isn't saying gee let's just change this biological function. I bet that will be great! i won't have to work out. And we'll make lots of money to help other people not have to learn how to cook and move and learn habits of lean eating.

That sound cynical? Afterall these scientists are keen; they want to help solve an epidemic. And at least one of them is motivated to get off the eliptical. And i say Good For You - get off the elliptical and get something healthy like a kettlebell or a water rower.

But that's not what this anti exercise head of a diabetes research group is thinking - at least not as portrayed in this article. He thinks swap activity for pill. One Single Thing (workout: hard) for some Other Single Thing (pill: easy).

But we know that exercise is not a Single Thing - depending on how hard, how long, how frequently etc etc there are all sorts of effects going on inside that are good for us, hitting an abundance of systems: visual, vestibular, proprioceptive, mechanical, chemical, biological.

By comparison what does taking a pill do? We go from rich multi-factor interactions when we move to a far narrower set of internal interactions in ingesting a pill. And this from someone who should Know Better, don't you think?

Thanks to Xafier for pointing out this article to me,
and let me cite Eric Cobb again for framing the notion of single factor thinking, covered in the 9S:sustenance cert.


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