How to Reach Freak Level Fitness
If you ever feel like you’re not progressing as fast as you’d like, then there’s a fair chance the fastest way there is to do more. Eat more good meals per week. Train more times. Do more reps within sessions.
Volume vs. Intensity
Up to a point doing more will work fairly well for everyone. On the continuum of training, the fastest way to get a beginner to respond is to gradually add volume. Next you start to add intensity.
There’s no hard-and-fast line of when this switch from adding volume stops and adding intensity begins, but it’s probably around the time sessions start to edge beyond ninety minutes or two hours. Because at some point “just adding more” isn’t actually going to make you anything other than too exhausted to recover before the next session.
Intensity Requires Time and Patience
So we start to add intensity. Intensity can come in a variety of forms, but is most likely to mean lifting more weight, as intensity in lifting is a measure against what you are capable of lifting once and once only. Intensity can also come in the form of doing something faster, though, such as running at higher speeds (because running intensity is either a measure of pace or heart rate).
While increased intensity is ultimately what people add as they become more advanced, the problem is that everyone thinks they’re advanced. So we end up with relative beginners coming in the gym trying to lift more, lift more, lift more, and wondering why they can’t handle it. The reason is that just like it takes a long time to get faster at running, it takes a long time for the body to get used to lifting heavy more often. Most people’s nervous systems are not ready for that.
More Easy Is More Better
But what if you are advanced and already train both hard and long? How do you advance then? If you’re already training six or seven days per week for about two hours at a time, what’s the next step?
Believe it or not the next step is not to add more hard work, but to add more easy work. The reason is simple - if you’re already maxed out for hard work, the only way to add more work in your week is to add easy work that has either no recovery cost or is actually a recovery benefit. That means the training needs to have no associated muscle soreness and no metabolic cost in terms of recovery (such as muscle soreness) that needs repairing.
The Value of Easy Aerobic Work
The answer to your training woes is easy aerobic work. The aerobic system is what’s responsible for recovery in your body. It is responsible for your recovery between sets and body repair between sessions. Most people, however, have a severely impaired aerobic system so their recovery is never optimal, even at one session most days.
The modern fitness industry tries to tell us that shorter and harder is better, but those results aren’t matched by the training done by elite sports people. From elite rugby to Navy SEALs to Games winning athletes you will always find large amounts of steady cardiovascular work being done to keep fitness high without breaking the body, as well as enhance recovery.
The standard prescription is a sixty-minute easy run. The problem with that is most people aren’t physically ready to run an hour a day and that alone will break them, which will hardly help their recovery. So how do we begin adding aerobic work into our training?
Establish Your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate
Step one is a MAF test. MAF stands for maximum aerobic function. The basic idea is that you determine your maximum aerobic heart rate using the 180-formula, warm up, then do three miles staying at that heart rate. For many this will be heart breaking as they realize they can’t even walk and stay within their aerobic abilities.
This is a problem because sessions that are “easy” and solely aerobic in nature will be quick to recover from. Anything that starts to become anaerobic, even by just a few beats per minute, is like adding in extra strength training and will need extra recovery to deal with.
So the start for most people, after discovering how inefficient they are, is to add daily walking and build that up to an hour every day. Yes, I said an hour every day as a separate session to your normal hard session. If, at this point, you tell me that you’re not able to find the time to walk for an hour each day but you want to go to the CrossFit Games, then I suggest that you’re not really being honest with yourself about your own commitment. If you’re seriously already training every day and want to go to the next level you’ll find the time.
Incidentally, this concept of adding in walks to get used to extra work done in the week is also useful for anyone wanting to do more work. The same concept can be applied to adding walks in on any day you don’t currently train and gradually making them harder or longer until you’ve got seven full training sessions each week, at which point you start the process again as outlined here.
Transition to Running
The second step, once you’re habitually doing an hour of easy extra walking each day, is to start turning this into a running session. Do not rush this step. It may well take six months to get through the transition period from walking to running if you intend to do it injury free.
If you feel like getting torn calves, a sore Achilles, plantar fasciitis, or any of the other common running ailments, then by all means feel free to ignore me. Given we’re doing this to add work and boost recovery, that seems like a silly path to follow, though.
Begin with a total of twenty minutes of running from a sixty-minute walk. That means your first walk/run will have forty minutes of walking and twenty of running. I’d break it up like this:
- Walk 10 minutes
- Run 2 minutes/walk 3 minutes x 10
If you have any pain the next day, then only do walking until all muscle soreness in the feet and lower legs has subsided. Keep following this plan until you can follow this step seven days per week pain free.
Slowly Increase Your Running Time
Gradually add time to the running component until you get to four minutes running followed by one minute of walking. Make sure to only add one step each week, i.e. don’t jump from run 2/walk 3 to run 4/walk 1 in a single week. That progress should be based on at least two full weeks of pain-free work.
Once you get to run 4/walk 1, then I suggest going to run 7/walk 3 x 5. The previous step of run 4/walk 1 gives you a total of forty minutes of running time in an hour. This next step gives you 35 minutes, but it is harder on the body as you’re running non-stop for nearly double that time.
Follow the same step-by-step process until you get to run 9/walk 1 x 5, which gives you 45 minutes of running in an hour. At this stage, provided you’ve been pain free on all seven days, you’re ready to run sixty minutes.
While this process may seem unnecessarily slow, it will be a pain-free way to achieve your goal of training advancement. And if you’re already doing seven other hard sessions in a week, you’ll be amazed at how much difference this approach can make once you get through all the steps. You’ll be strong, fit, and recover from most hard sessions almost instantly.
There is no secret shortcut or hack to get to that point, though - just lots of hard work and discipline. However, if you truly want a freaky level of strength and fitness, this is how you get there.