1. Cadence doesn’t matter
After reading Body By Science and starting high intensity strength training for the first time, I made a conscious effort to maintain a specific cadence during all exercises. I started doing 10/10 and then experimented with 5/5 after reading Occam’s Protocol in The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss (seeking quick unachievable gainz … ). I found that monitoring cadence in this way and counting the seconds in my head subtracted from the productivity of the exercise. I was already trying to focus on my breathing, effort, and form and this was just another variable to add to the list.
Back then, I had much less knowledge of resistance training and specifically the role that cadence played with regard to exercise outcomes. I now believe that cadence doesn’t really matter at all with respect to improvements in strength and muscle hypertrophy. I don’t think that moving faster or slower during an exercise is going to improve these outcomes.
Therefore, instead of trying to stick to a set cadence, I now focus on quality of movement and let that determine the cadence. On every exercise I perform, I make sure my turnarounds at either end of the exercise are as smooth as possible. I try to move so smoothly that a spectator would think I’ve stopped moving (as per Drew Baye’s bodyweight squat demo here) I may move quite briskly during the middle of a given exercise but I will not move explosively. I won’t move explosively to avoid cheating with momentum and causing injury. As a result, my cadence will increase over time as I become more fatigued during the exercise. What might start as an organic 6/6 may become a 10/10 towards the end of a set. During the last few repetitions, I will move through the middle of the range of motion as fast as possible. There is no danger at this juncture since I’m so fatigued that my fastest movement is slow, and thus, I won’t move fast enough to cause an injury. Force = Mass X Acceleration.
I still measure time-under-load for every exercise, since I like to track performance between workouts and use this as a guide to know when to increase exercise difficulty/resistance. However, so long as my form is good and my turnarounds are smooth, I don’t concern myself with cadence and let it express itself organically. As per many people who have been doing HIT for a long period of time, I am always trying to improve the quality of my exercises. This pursuit of mastery has a real meditative quality to it.
Lastly, I’ve read comments from people new to HIT who ask for recommendations on cadence. I responded with something similar to the above regarding organic cadence but they still wanted some kind of benchmark. I think a 4/4 is a good starting point. However, one will soon come to realise just how arbitrary this really is.
Here’s some examples of my attempt to master form during a Big-3 Bodyweight High Intensity Training workout:
2. Experiment with frequency and volume
When I first started high intensity training, I was very rigid in my approach. Body By Science is an amazing book and completely changed my understanding of exercise and what it meant to exercise effectively and efficiently. However, like many newbies to HIT, I became dogmatic about certain high intensity training principles that seem to still be up for debate within the scientific community such as volume, frequency and intensity.
During the first couple of years of my training, I followed Body By Science quite closely. I never trained more than once per week and I quickly began increasing my recovery time and abbreviating my workouts. At one point, I was doing a 2-way-split every 7-10 days. My workouts lasted just 6-minutes. Even with such little volume, I got great results. I developed muscle and strength very effectively by training in this way and was able to maintain my gains. Here’s a picture of me on a camping trip during this time:
In the last few years, having read more around high intensity training and interviewed many experts/people with different experiences, I restored a healthy skepticism for what I had learnt at the beginning of my HIT journey. This inspired me to do more self-experimentation. Hence the foray into body weight high intensity training and Project Kratos, which I’ve journaled some of here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).
Since I believe I’ve probably tapped out most of my muscular potential, it’s quite likely that increasing my frequency to twice per week and thus total weekly volume will have no effect on more muscle gain but it doesn’t seem to have a negative effect either. Depending on shifting priorities, I’ll revert to once a week training in the future for more convenience. The point is that I’m trying to keep an open mind, ready to question my strongest beliefs in the face of new evidence and experience.
I encourage you not to get discouraged by conflicting evidence and online debate and consider experimenting with varying intensity, volume and frequency, as Dr Doug McGuff describes here.
3. Don’t be afraid to do more
During my early days in high intensity training, I became obsessed with trying to “optimise” recovery. I was religious about planning rest days after workouts with no activity. I’d try to orchestrate my workout day to perfection to ensure I didn’t “subtract” from my performance on that day, because it was “so important” that everything was perfect. I know you’ve probably been here too ;-).
I remember on one Saturday evening, I was carrying groceries home from the supermarket with my best friend. I had worked out on the previous day and carrying the groceries made me feel anxious. Anxious I was going to lose my “gains”. I thought I was going to dig into my recovery. To make matters worse, I missed the bus on the way home and had to walk an additional half-mile with all this baggage (Oh no!! LOL). I got so irritated by this that my best friend and house mate at the time had lost patience with me and quickly walked on alone (quite rightly so). I recently shared this story on the round table podcast with Skyler, Drew and Ryan here. I felt so embarrassed re-telling it. It’s so ridiculous.
As Dr Doug McGuff described here, HIT is far more intense than most activities, which means that, if inclined, you can get away with additional sports and recreational activity. However, you may want to avoid anything too strenuous (e.g. sports) for 24-hours after HIT. As a case in point, I recently tore my calf muscle during a basketball game when I decelerated quickly from a sprint. I had performed a Big-5 workout on the day before on machines including a Leg Press. I think the novelty (having trained only bodyweight for over a year prior) and resulting fatigue made me more vulnerable to injury. However, it’s possibly multifactorial and likely the cause of zero warm up as per Skyler Tanner’s thoughts:
4. Move a lot
I’ve been doing progressive resistance training fairly consistently for almost 10 years. I’m relatively strong, capable and flexible but despite this I had some mild back pain. Why is this? This is because I was too sedentary or static for a prolonged period of time. I was sitting too much.
Resistance training or high intensity training is not a cure-all. I do not think it is a healthy practice to workout once or twice a week and sit down until the next workout. Skyler said it best on a round table podcast: “infrequent exercise, frequent movement”.
Many of us spend too much time sitting at desks working, myself included. If I spend too much time sitting, I experience mild pain and discomfort.
Therefore, I’ve made it a habit to interrupt long periods of sitting with intermittent movement. I’ll sit down to work on my most important task for ~2-3 hours, but I will get up 3 or 4 times during that block of time to unload the dishwasher, make a cup of tea, do the laundry, walk outside and move the bins behind the house ;-).
5. Bodyweight vs machines vs free weights: it makes little difference
My first experiences in resistance training prior to HIT focused on free weight exercises: bench press, cable chest flies, and of course, bicep curls. I went to the gym 3 or 4 times a week and spent at least an hour per session. I also used to play basketball 3-times per week, swim, etc, etc. After reading The Spartan Health Regime, I learnt more about muscle function and began to embrace more multi-joint, abbreviated routines, such as:
- Monday: chin-ups and bicep curls
- Wednesday: Push-ups and overhead press
- Friday: Squats and deadlifts
- Note: 3 sets of 5 (heavy loads or weighted chins)
Once I read Body By Science, I switched to all multi-joint exercises and performed the Big-5 on MedX machines once a week for 6-12 months. A couple of years ago, and unfortunately, London’s Keiser Training closed forcing me to re-educate myself on bodyweight training. Starting with Chris Highcock’s Hillfit eBook, I learnt how to construct a productive bodyweight program with very little equipment. I took this to the next level with Project Kratos and I haven’t really looked back. Bodyweight high intensity training requires almost no equipment and can be done practically anywhere.
Until I live near a facility with high quality exercise machines or create my own, bodyweight training will serve me well. Based on my experience, research and conversations with guests on the podcast, it seems like the resistance training mode doesn’t really matter in terms of driving optimal muscle hypertrophy, strength and all of the other health benefits derived from strength training. However, I think that machines are ideal for training some muscles that are otherwise difficult to train effectively like the lower back and neck. Machines are also great for HIT newbies who struggle with the difficulty and complexity of bodyweight and free weight exercises. Machines allow for easier form and greater focus on effort.
I think a perfect workout protocol would probably combine some specialist machines for the neck and lower back with either a free weight, machine, or bodyweight training protocol.
6. Track your workouts but don’t get obsessed
When I was a resistance training novice, I didn’t really understand cause and effect and whilst I loosely tracked performance, I was more focused on volume, frequency and bulk dieting aka “more is better”. I was focused on the quantity over the quality. As my training routine evolved, my exercise quantity reduced and quality increased. Volume and frequency came down and quality of exercise form and intensity of effort went up.
As my workouts became more infrequent and more abbreviated, I was very eager to optimise. I was only working out once a week. The workout HAD to be better than last time. I HAD to improve every workout. Otherwise, all of that environmental optimisation stuff: sleep, diet, stress management, etc, was for not …
I became obsessed with tracking. During my first 1-2 years of high intensity training, I tracked total workout time, time-under-load (for every exercise), machine settings and load. If I didn’t improve at least one variable (TUL or load) from workout-to-workout I would become quite unhappy and demotivated. I had assumed that my progress would continue to improve in a linear fashion week-to-week beyond my 6-month introduction to HIT.
I had a major epiphany during my first meeting with Simon Shawcross (Founder of HITuni.com). As we sat across from each other in a cosy London Starbucks, Simon asked me a question: “how do you know if you are keeping all variables the same from workout-to-workout? How do you know if you’re moving with the exact same cadence and form, breathing in the same way, recruiting muscle in the same way, sleeping the same, etc, etc.” he went on “at your stage of training, it makes a lot more sense to look at your training progress over a longer time period, consider reviewing progress every 6-12 weeks and making adjustments if necessary to volume or frequency.” Tim Ryan also believed there are at least 12 factors that affect workout performance. Falling short DOES NOT necessarily mean you’re not recovered.
This was a big turning point for me. It helped me appreciate the importance of training with a high degree of effort during every workout to aim for momentary muscular failure. I became comfortable with understanding that my performance may not improve from workout-to-workout but the stimulus would be sufficient to produce the best results over the long term.
At this juncture of my training career, I still want to improve my physique and try my hardest to improve my performance during every workout. I’m just not obsessed with my results from workout-to-workout. I’m more concerned with my long term performance and just getting it done at least once a week. So long as I’ve been true to myself and trained to failure or as close to failure on every single exercise, I’m happy with that workout performance, regardless of the numbers. In fact, Dr Doug McGuff reminded me that sometimes a shorter TUL on the same load can actually suggest that one is becoming more proficient at fatiguing target musculature more effectively. So, go figure.
7. If you miss a session, it’s not the end of the world
Exercise quality and the application of high effort seem to be the most important variables in exercise. If you can optimise for these within an exercise protocol you are going to get the best results you can probably get. And if you have been doing this for a long enough period of time with some consistency for several years, it probably doesn’t matter if you miss a workout. Even if you don’t workout for 2-3 weeks it’s unlikely you will start to lose muscle mass or physical capability (unless you’re bed ridden). You may be even stronger when you come to workout on week 3 or 4.
I don’t say this to discourage you from training weekly, twice weekly or more, I’m just reinforcing the notion that you should arrange your workouts around your life rather than your life around your workouts, as Dr Doug McGuff drummed into me here. Sometimes life can get a bit crazy and you’ll go through some real stressful shit that makes you feel like you’re stuck in a disorganised mess for a few weeks. Don’t worry, it’s probably going to do little, if almost nothing, to your gainz ;-).
8. Strong beliefs loosely held
Legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, Marc Andreessen, has a unique mindset: “strong beliefs loosely held”. In other words, it’s important to develop strong views as opposed to following the general consensus, but some people can take this too far. In reality, we’re wrong about a lot of things and chances are a lot of your theories and beliefs are wrong so once the evidence presents itself one should be open to changing their mind on a dime.
Throughout my training career, I’ve been guilty of being dogmatic about new ideas. It started with the Spartan Health Regimen and it persisted with Body By Science and more recently, high-fat low-carb diets and the carbohydrate-insulin model. Body By Science is a wonderful book and my favourite health and fitness book of all time, but I took some of the concepts and theories too far and developed a strong belief around minimising training volume and frequency to facilitate continuous improvement. This concept maybe true but the point is that I closed my mind to alternative view points and this stalled my learning.
I’ve since become far more receptive to alternative approaches to high intensity training, resistance training and exercise in general in order to continue to develop my knowledge of health and fitness. For example, I’ve experimented with increased workout frequency even though I don’t think that it will make me any more muscular, but I was willing to put that belief to the test in the face of the most recent scientific evidence.
9. Multiple sets are okay
High intensity training is typically performed with a single-set-to-failure (SSTF) for each exercise in a given routine. Despite claims to the contrary, I believe that, if performed to momentary-muscular-failure (MMF), one set is as effective as any number of sets. This is a common view in the HIT community.
To measure my progress accurately, I will default to a SSTF but if I don’t feel like I gave a great enough effort or really hit failure, I don’t mind throwing in another set to failure, and I don’t get concerned about it. I’ll just note it down and move on to the next exercise. Again, in the past, I was militant about doing a SSTF and no more. If I failed to reach MMF and inroad for 5-10 seconds, I thought I had wasted my opportunity and had a sub-optimal workout. This is simply not true based on the current evidence. Whilst you should strive to achieve MMF, if once in a while you fall short and feel like throwing in a second set, go for it.
10. Less volume works too
As I’ve increased my strength, I have found that the first couple of big moves in any routine will practically destroy me. This assumes I’m training to momentary-muscular-failure with smooth form. A set of chins performed to failure with excellent form followed by a set of push-ups using the same protocol leaves me heavily fatigued.
I tried experimenting with a longer routine with Drew Baye’s Zelus workout, but as soon as I had completed it once, I found I had to abbreviate it immediately in order to “bring it” on every exercise within the routine, otherwise I’d just give up before failure. I find this particularly difficult with bodyweight workouts, where some exercises such as bodyweight squats require more “grit” and suffering before one reaches failure. A leg press on the other hand, can deliver a more potent and focused stimulus that shortens the exercise window and makes failure easier to achieve, at least for me.
11. I need structure
During the month of November, I participated in an N=1 push-up challenge. I was meant to perform 100 push-ups and take freezing cold showers every day for 30 days. I deviated from the protocol a little (spent a few days in Edinburgh where I did not adhere to protocol), but overall I complied 90% of the time.
I did not expect to see any “gainz’ from the push-ups or anything like that. It was more of a fun experiment to see how many push-ups I would be able to do by the end. At the start of the challenge I could perform 25-35 push-ups in my first set to failure. I can now exceed 50 easily and my best is 57. These are not HIT push-ups but faster more military style push-ups.
During this challenge, I reduced my full-body HIT workout to once per week for convenience and recovery. On one particular day, I went to the gym to train full-body. I’d been deliberately lax on tracking and structuring my full-body workout performance during the push-up challenge. This wasn’t for any real reason other than the cognitive load was getting to be too much for me. On this day, and in line with this habit, I did not track or structure my workout beforehand. Instead, I just decided I’d do a pull-push-pull-push-random stuff-random stuff (maybe abs):
- Inverted row (2 sets)
- Overhead press (2 sets – drop set)
- Wall sits
- Bodyweight squat
- Pec Deck
- Hip Thrust (Not-to-failure)
- Leg raises (Not-to-failure)
I romanticised about going into the gym and executing maximum intensity on every set. I fell short of this expectation after only my second set. I had no set end point to my workout and the niggling feeling in my head that said “when is this workout going to end?” during the hardest part of every set caused me to give up too soon. I find that I train most effectively, when I know my goals, my exact training program, and most importantly, the end point. If I know I only have 1 or 2 exercises remaining in a workout, I’m far more likely to give the current exercise everything I have, and thus perform a more productive and disciplined workout.
- Cadence doesn’t matter. Great form and smooth turnarounds do.
- Don’t be rigid. Experiment with volume and frequency. Find what works for you.
- Don’t be afraid to do more if you want. Play sport, be active. Intensity is on a spectrum. Just don’t be stupid.
- Move a lot. HIT will take care of most things, but frequent movement is important for overall health and physical capability.
- Bodyweight, free-weights and machines pretty much deliver the same results. Choose the method that is most convenient and enjoyable for you.
- Track your workouts but don’t get obsessed. Take a long term view. There are too many factors which affect performance from workout-to-workout.
- It’s not the end of the world if you miss a session. You won’t lose muscle. They won’t just fall off.
- Stay open minded. Be prepared to question your strongly held beliefs when new evidence presents itself.
- Multiple sets are okay. High effort is the main goal and whether this is done in one or two sets, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just easier to track with one set.
- If like me, a long routine (5+ exercises) is too much for you, abbreviate it and consider increasing the frequency. I currently train twice per week.
- If you’re like me and occasionally dread the intensity of HIT, you may want to ensure you’ve pre-planned an end point to your workout ahead of time to ensure you deliver your best performance.