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"Useless Cardio"? Try Tempo Training

These days, cardiovascular training is getting a bad rap. Some of it comes from the usual cyclical swing of exercise preferences (most proponents of HIIT today don't know that endurance cardio training became popular 40 years ago as a reaction to the overuse of HIIT training during the 1960s), some of it is due to new research which has popularized the long-known benefits of high-intensity training, but it also comes from the fact that many people actually DO large volumes of low-level cardio without sufficient focus and without incorporating other elements into their training. 

However, there IS a form of cardio training that is anything but "mindless" and can kick your program into a higher gear. Between "endurance cardio" and "HIIT" is a form of cardiovascular training that can dramatically increase fitness performance--and can burn a bucketload of calories to boot. 

It's called "tempo training", and it should be part of your training routine. It is mostly associated with running, but can be adapted to most cardio routines. 

Tempo training has been the cornerstone of my workouts for almost 40 years. It was something I learned intuitively in my running days, years before I went back to school to study exercise physiology. I always enjoyed running, and I enjoyed running hard and fast, so I often pushed the pace during my training runs. I found that these hard runs seemed to result in a lot more improvement than even my interval training. 

What is tempo training? It means working at an intensity that is "hard, but sustainable". Not all out, but a pace that is right on the edge and that requires that you stay completely "in the moment"--monitoring pace, breathing, keeping stride relaxed, etc. Sometimes when I am doing one of these workouts indoors, I lose track of everything -- the game on TV, the music on the iPod -- but the workout. 

And it means sustaining this intensity for a longer period of time--a continuous 20 min for example, or a series of longer intervals with shorter recovery times. 

How does tempo training work? A quote from a 2007 Runners World describes the physiology: 

[quote]Tempo running improves a crucial physiological variable for running success: our metabolic fitness. "Most runners have trained their cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to the muscles," says exercise scientist Bill Pierce, chair of the health and exercise science department at Furman University in South Carolina, "but they haven't trained their bodies to use that oxygen once it arrives. Tempo runs do just that by teaching the body to use oxygen for metabolism more efficiently."

How? By increasing your lactate threshold (LT), or the point at which the body fatigues at a certain pace. During tempo runs, lactate and hydrogen ions--by-products of metabolism--are released into the muscles, says 2:46 marathoner Carwyn Sharp, Ph.D., an exercise scientist who works with NASA. The ions make the muscles acidic, eventually leading to fatigue. The better trained you become, the higher you push your "threshold," meaning your muscles become better at using these byproducts. The result is less-acidic muscles (that is, muscles that haven't reached their new "threshold"), so they keep on contracting, letting you run farther and faster.[/quote]

In an even older article in Runners World in the late 1970s, they describe tempo training as "aerobic, but delivering energy aerobically at a faster rate", While that might not be precisely correct, I always felt it was a good, simple description. 

For runners, a tempo pace would be approximately 30-40 sec/mile slower than recent 5K pace, or 15-20 sec/mile slowerthan 10K pace. For non-runners, heart rate will be around 85%-90% of HRmax, breathing should allow you to give a brief (2-3 word) answer to a simple question, but not carry on a conversation (or even pay attention to one). 

To build this into your routine, you can start with 5x3 min intervals with 60 seconds recovery (exercising, not rest) in between. Build this up until you can do 20 min continuously.

You can also do some "narrow intervals" where you keep a high average tempo, but change the workload up and down within a narrow range to give youself a little mental break. For example, today I alternated 2 min at 7.2-7.4 mph running with 60-90 sec of running at 6.8 mph--just enough to take the edge off and let me maintain the effort longer. 

What specific advantages does tempo training provide over some other types of cardio training? For one, you can burn 20% more calories than you would for a comparable endurance cardio workout. Because of the higher intensity/duration, there is a bit of an "afterburn" -- extra calories burned during recovery. And you will experience notable increases in fitness level--which will allow you to sustain a higher workload during your other workouts and burn more calories during those as well. 

I also think that many people are doing what they think is HIIT, but is not really. To get the most benefit from a HIIT workout, you have to go "all out" during the work intervals. Otherwise, you are just doing a very short interval workout. A lot of people THINK they are going "all out" but they are often only at a 80%-85% effort--which is great, but which is not necessary going to provide the level of benefit they are expecting. Not everyone--and especially not beginning exercisers-- is capable of working at 100% of max, despite their motivation and dedication. 
Like all good things, with tempo training, more is not better. High tempo workouts put more stress and strain on joints and can push you into a state of overtraining if performed too often. Twice a week is more than suffiicient for this type of workout.  

Tempo training results in a high calorie burn, great conditioning, and even a little EPOC, while being (IMO) more accessible and attainable for beginners to advanced beginners than all-out HIIT. Before you completely ditch cardio, give it a try and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. 

Heavy Lifting Always the Best?

In recent years, "lifting heavy" has become a ubiquitous exercise recommendation, often without regard to the background of the individual seeking advice. 

And, make no mistake, there are many benefits to lifting heavier weights. 

However, "lifting heavy" might not be the best choice for everyone all the time. Many people who come to MFP are carrying a lot of extra weight and are just starting an exercise program. In addition, others might have physical or medical issues that contraindicate "lifting heavy". 

A case can be made that for these individuals, lifting a higher volume of lighter weights is a more effective way to start, and that the choice of modality (e.g. free weights vs machines) is not that important. 

Before I proceed, here is my usual disclaimer: I am NOT saying this is the "best" approach for "everyone" and I am not dismissing anyone's successful personal anecdote. As a fitness professional, my job in writing for a general audience is to present evidence and recommendations that can be a "best fit" for certain groups. 

Also keep in mind that lifting "lighter" weights does not mean during arm curls with 5lb dumbbells. It still means working to "failure" -- just in 12-20 reps rather than, say 4-6. 

There is a lot of research to support this idea, but for this article, I am relying on three sources: 

CB Scott et al, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2011 Vol: 25(4) 903-908. 

Sebastian Buitrago et al, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2013 Apr 27(4) 1091-1100


Let's look at some specific reasons why lifting lighter weights can be a good choice for overweight beginners: 

1. They don't need to increase muscle mass. The idea that "lifting heavy increases muscles that burn more fat at rest" is one of the most common mantras repeated on MFP. 

However, someone who is significantly overweight (i.e. BMI >34, 35%+ BF for men, 40%+ for women), often has a lot of muscle mass already. They don't need more. They might gain more as a result of training, or they might lose some muscle mass as their bodies "resize" themselves over time. In either case, pushing overweight beginners to "increase muscle mass" is usually not a productive goal--at first. 

2. Lifting heavy doesn't result in any more afterburn. At least not in the types of workouts that beginners are likely to follow. Both studies cited above compared lifting as various intensities, ranging from 37% of 1 RM max to 90% 1 RM max. Surprisingly, there was no difference in Elevated Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) between any of the different intensities. This is different than the model that occurs during aerobic exercise, where EPOC is directly relation to duration and exponentially related to intensity of exercise. 

3. Total energy expenditure is significantly higher during lighter-weight training. This effect was seen in both studies. This makes sense when you realize that, at lighter weights, exercise time is significantly increased and rest times are greatly minimized. 

Dr Scott summarizes: 

[quote]Our data indicate that a single set of muscular endurance-type lifting to fatigue expends more total energy than a single set of strengthtype lifting to fatigue; this apparently is related to the amount of work performed within the set.[/quote]

4. Higher volumes of lighter-intensity lifting can enhance whole-body glycogen depletion. People who are significantly overweight usually have an impaired ability to oxidize fat. It is not fully known whether this impaired ability is a CAUSE of gaining weight, or an EFFECT of gaining weight, but the condition exists. They have plenty of available circulating fats, but are inefficient at using them (as opposed to those who are at lower levels of body fat--in that case, the problem is usually more with fat *mobilization* vs fat oxidation). 

Two effective ways to enhance fat oxidation are: reducing body fat by maintaining a sustained caloric deficit and depleting muscle glycogen. Performing a high(er) volume of lifting can enhance that effort. 

5. Psychological reinforcement and increased confidence. Which workout do you think is going to encourage someone to come back: a heavy workout that leaves someone feeling discouraged and sore, or one that leaves them feeling energized and with a feeling of success? 

I believe that it is important for beginners to finish each workout with a feeling of success and accomplishment; to see incremental gains each day. 

Lyle McDonald mentions that overweight beginners often don't have the endurance or the fitness level to burn large amounts of calories during an aerobic workout. With the other changes that take place at the beginning of a weight-loss program, progress can seem excruciatingly slow. 

I think that the effects of resistance training have a much faster and more substantial "real life" impact. Even without weight loss, people feel more confident, more positive about themselves, and have greater compliance when they feel stronger. 

So what are the specfics: 

1. First of all, whether you lift light or heavy or in-between, it is important to work to momentary "exhaustion", regardless of # of reps or time of set. 

2. By "lighter", I am referring to an intensity of 50%-55% of 1 RM. This means about 15-20 reps per set. Work up to 3 sets per exercise. 

3. The movements should be controlled--not "super slow", but not super fast, either. The set should last at least 45 seconds. 

4. As usual, work large muscle groups. Leg press, squat, chest, lats, shoulders. Don't bother with small-muscle isolation exercises right now. 

5. To start, any modality can be effective--machines, cables, or free weights. Yes, free weights are better in the long run, but you don't need to be a "purist" right now. 

6. At these weights, you don't need any more than 60 seconds recovery between sets. Better yet, alternate upper/lower, push/pull exercises rather than sitting there waiting 60 seconds. 

7. You really only need to lift 2 times per week. 

Again, I am not trying to say this is the "best" way to lift. But heavy lifting is not for everyone, and may not be the best choice for anyone just starting out. Given today's fitness climate, it could be easy for someone starting out to get the impression that doing anything other than heavy lifting is pointless. That is not true. 

Ultimately, after several weeks or months on this routine, you will probably get better results by moving up to a heavier weights and a more aggressive program. Some beginners will want to just dive right in and start pushing iron. That's OK, too. 

But if you are not ready for that yet, or if you have some physical issues that preclude you from lifting heavier weights, take heart that there are alternatives that can be very effective at helping you reach your weight-loss goals. 
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