Webster’s dictionary defines fad as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal”. Therein lies the problem.
The phrase “fitness fad” is almost redundant. The phrase conjures up memories of “fitness expert” Suzanne Somers on an infomercial pushing the Thigh-master, Billy Blanks touting the magic of Tae Bo (or the follow-up exercise routine called bow tie), or the ab roller. The fitness industry is so driven by the latest-greatest gimmick and companies make millions of dollars taking advantage of the ignorance of the public. Certainly some of these companies know that their gimmick won’t do what they claim it will, but I think more often the company really believes the ridiculous things they are saying.
Most fads start from a perfectly valid philosophy with some real scientific basis which is then generally implemented too frequently, by the wrong people, incorrectly, and/or with unrealistic expectations.
You’ll get the best results if you learn to cognitively analyze the potential benefits of the latest-greatest fad without getting caught up in the hype and setting your fitness back. Many of them do have value if implemented properly. Take advantage of their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.
Functional and Core Training
Functional training became a fad in the early 2000s. Both are completely valid aspects of any fitness program, but when the hype kicked in public perceptions became distorted.
My coaching business started as a personal training studio for endurance athletes and I remember coming in one day and seeing one of my trainers jumping on the fad. He was working with a very serious 60-year old triathlete who was training for Ironman Florida. His off-season program included heavy strength training, which he’d been doing with us for a long time. His strength program included a heavy set conducted on a Nautilus machine called the Pullover. He was able to use 140 pounds for a controlled 50-60 second set to build strength in his lats. The trainer had decided to make his workout more “functional” and to hit his core at the same time. He had the athlete lying face-up with his upper back on a stability ball and doing pullovers with a 35-pound dumbbell instead of the pullover machine.
I certainly believe in core training and understand that triathletes need well-developed core muscles to perform to their potential and to minimize injury risk. I also believe in the benefits of functional training, when appropriate. In this case, however, the client was losing by having the trainer (who he was paying $60 an hour in 1990s dollars) being caught up in the fad. I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t fully trained my staff. Functional and core training are great, but in this case he was doing them instead of the heavy strength training that this athlete needed at this time of year. His lats, which were strong enough to sustain a 140-pound contraction, weren’t going to get stronger (or even prevent getting weaker) lifting a 35-pound dumbbell. Adding an additional core set to the end of the workout would have been great, but the athlete needed to have his lats stimulated by a heavy contraction. As often occurs in fitness when we try to do two things at once, the athlete got a tiny bit of two things and didn’t fully overload either. By trying to add the extra 1% side-benefit of core work, the trainer had removed the stimulus that should have increased strength.
“You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe, but nobody ever won a war by shooting a cap gun off the deck of a battleship either. If your prime movers aren’t strong, you won’t perform well”
– Ken Mierke
I was amused recently reading an “expert” on cycling technique saying that he knew he’d developed an effective pedal stroke when he got home from a long, hard ride and his legs were fresh, but his core was killing him. If you’re a 21 mph cyclist who’s limited by leg fatigue, do you really want to become a 20 mph cyclist who is core-limited? Again, a strong core is important, but not instead of strong glutes, quads, hip-flexors, and hamstrings.
Again, make sure you understand, I believe that functional training and core training have important places in training for all athletes and all fitness enthusiasts. I also know that asking “Which is better, functional training or isolation training?” sets up a false dichotomy. Which do you want on your car, brakes or a steering wheel?
Running and triathlon are straight-ahead sports. We need to develop lateral tissues and synergistic muscles to some degree for injury prevention, but we need far more strength and endurance in the prime movers that drive us forward. Putting emphasis on the synergistic muscles in ways that prevents maximal, safe stimulation of the prime movers – like the 35-pound dumbbell pullovers described above, takes away more than it adds.
NFL players or MMF fighters need to create and absorb massive forces from a variety of directions. The “synergistic” muscles will be the prime movers in instances during every competition. These athletes will put a higher priority on strength training and functional movements are more necessary.
I was speaking at a running clinic with another presenter last year, who told the audience that he’d never seen a marathoner sit in a chair and extend his knee during a race. Therefore, he implied, the leg extension strength training exercise has no place in the training of a marathoner. I cringed, embarrassed at the simplistic thinking of my fellow presenter. I’ve personally never witnessed a marathoner during a race alternate running very fast for 400 meters, alternated with slow running for 200 meters. So I need to take interval training out of my toolbox for training marathoners. I’ve never seen a good marathoner do the race at an easy, basic endurance fat-burning pace using just their slow twitch fibers, so I guess long-slow-distance training is out the window. I’ve never seen a marathoner do an easy 8 miles and then quit, so no more easy runs on Mondays. With that line of thinking, the only tool I have to help marathoners prepare is 26.2 miles at marathon race pace.
Specificity is the principle of training that states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.
Specificity and simulation are two different things. Stronger quadriceps improve muscle economy in runners. Improved economy increases marathon performance. Leg extensions strengthen quadriceps muscles. A runner doing bicep curls won’t help his marathon performance. Bicep curls aren’t relevant or appropriate. Leg extensions are.
Reading a training article last week, I was struck by the author’s claim that the principle of specificity means that all effective workouts “duplicate” the effort of racing. This is a common and ineffective paradigm of training. The principle of specificity asks coaches and athletes to analyze the demands of priority races and develop workouts that target and overload specific systems that will be required on race day and are likely to limit performance.
The world’s best 5K runners take about 13 minutes to finish the race, but run hundreds of miles at what for them is a very slow, easy pace. This training maximizes overload of the slow-twitch muscle fibers, which do a majority of the work even at such blazing speed.
Top ironman-distance triathletes run fast quarter-mile intervals that increase their aerobic capacity and running economy. Repeating 70-second quarters will make them faster for a 9-hour race.
In the same way, a strength training program for a runner or triathlete needs to target the muscles – and the specific muscle fiber types – that will be used on race day – but does not need to mimic the exact movement.
Muscles can only do two things, shorten and lengthen. The results of the shortening and lengthening of many different muscles in different patterns around many joints will produce a multitude of movements, but each involved muscle is merely shortening or lengthening.
Specificity means determining which systems need to be improved and overloading them with workouts designed to stimulate a specific adaptation that will improve race performance.
I like to keep things as simple as possible and, usually, to overload one thing at a time. When my athletes are doing strength training, I want them to overload the strength of the muscles, including the slow-twitch fibers, that they will use on race day.
Generally, for strength training, I prefer to use isolation exercises and overload one major muscle group at a time. This approach has a number of benefits.
Maximal Intensity is Possible – I am a proponent of low volume, extremely high intensity strength training for endurance athletes. The style I prefer provides the greatest stimulation to the slow twitch muscle fibers and allows quick recovery to minimize the negative effect on the primary workouts. When my athletes complete a set of a leg exercise, they frequently can’t stand up for a couple of minutes. The muscles are so fatigued at the end of the set that they can’t even hold the athlete up. Nobody is going to lift this hard with a 300-pound barbell on his back.
Each Primary Muscle is Worked 100% – In any movement, one muscle will be the weak link. Rarely in multi-joint movements are all of the involved muscles equally involved. Only one can be worked to 100% failure before giving out. With isolation exercises, we can target one muscle at a time and make sure it gets worked 100%. This is extremely difficult to do with compound movements and requires great skill from the person lifting. Very, very few runners or triathletes will have the expert instructors to teach and supervise their weight training or are willing to invest that much in a workout routine that is supplementary to their primary sport.
The most important muscle to a runner or triathlete is the Gluteus Maximus. This is the largest muscle in the body and provides more propulsion in an efficient running stride or cycling pedal stroke than any other muscle. Compound exercises that target the glutes almost always put a heavy load on the quadriceps, a much smaller, weaker muscle. It is very difficult to perform any kind of functional exercise for the glutes without the quads being the weak link. When the bigger, stronger glutes have been worked 70%, the quads are already at 100% and cannot continue. The glutes got worked, but not nearly to 100% and not nearly enough to fully stimulate optimal growth in the slow twitch fibers that are so important to endurance athletes.
Lowest Injury Risk – Lifting very heavy weights is necessary to strengthen the large muscles of the hips and thighs. Doing so safely requires great skill. Again, few endurance athletes have the resources or are willing to commit what is necessary to develop the skill to lift heavy weights safely.
Proponents of exclusively functional strength training will make the following arguments. Each is a legitimate argument, but lower priority for me than the benefits listed above.
Learn Movement Patterns – For those few endurance athletes who have the resources, high-level expert instruction, and are willing to commit to becoming expert at lifting weights, they can learn new movement patterns that may carry over to the movements in the sports. I prefer to use what I call strength transfer training to teach the stronger muscles to perform effectively at the exact sports movement. Swimmers use hand paddles, drag suits, chutes, and Vasa trainers. Cyclists use hills or low-cadence riding. Runners use hills, weight vests, and running against hip harnesses or headwinds. I think swimmers learn efficient movement patterns best in the pool, cyclists on their bikes, and runners on the track, trails, or a treadmill. I have them go in the weight room to build strength. Again, usually when we try to do two things at once, both suffer.
Maximal Overload of Synergistic Muscles – Those few endurance athletes who do use functional weight training correctly do get an overload to muscles that act laterally and that has value. Again, I prefer to specifically overload one thing at a time. Strength transfer training provides a much more functional overload to these tissues than functional strength training in a weight room. Again swimmers in the pool, cyclists on their bikes, and runners on their feet running or doing specific exercises to provide these benefits do a better job of it without taking away from strength gains or risking injury. For me, developing strong muscles and learning to use those muscles swimming, cycling, or running are two different processes best approached separately. Get strong in the weight room and learn to swim, bike, and run in the pool, on your bike, and in your running shoes.
Greater Endocrine Response – Compound movements that engage more muscles at the same time, when done with high intensity, generally produce greater endocrine responses, including Human Growth Hormone release. This is an advantage that isolation exercises offer to a smaller degree. I think for endurance athletes, who aren’t trying to get big muscles, the advantages of isolation exercises outweigh this disadvantage.
My methods of strength training have been tremendously effective. My coaching business started as a personal training studio for endurance athletes. My athletes have won 9 World Championships and 29 National Championships in running, triathlon, road cycling, and mountain biking.
I understand that many top trainers and coaches prefer exclusively functional training and, no doubt, it can be effective. It is extremely difficult to achieve maximal benefits because it requires a lot of instruction and supervision from an extremely highly qualified coach or trainer, an extremely intelligent, attentive, and coordinated athlete, and a lot of effort. I believe that for the vast majority of endurance athletes, a quick, hard strength training workout done mostly with machines and combined with an effective strength-transfer training program (5-10 minutes 3-5 times per week) provides a more effective, safer, mokre efficient approach.
Whatever approach you use, it must be done with heavy weights with the goal of increasing strength. Don’t get carried away with the fad and miss the primary benefits of strength training by trying to do too many things at once. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. When in the weight room, increasing strength in the prime movers of your sport(s) is the absolute priority.