The Case for Athleticism

Read a solid article on the perspective of athleticism by Clifton Harski yesterday and it got me thinking.  Why do we preach athleticism and training for it in the first place?

If you were to Google search images for ‘power’ you’d likely get returned a bunch of 350 pound meatheads squatting and dead lifting their way towards a thousand pounds.  But the reality is that power is not simply about picking up a heavy single just one time and training for maximum exertion at 100% output, it’s more about kinetic awareness, symmetry and controlling powerful, dynamic output near maximal.  Sounds contradictory to what power is, but let me explain because at this level, training power can be far more complex and beneficial for body composition and performance than it gets credit.

We have three energy systems we use for activity, listed in order and broken down as simply as possible.

  • System #1: ATP-PCr– we use this the first few seconds of activity.  It’s responsible for burst, raw strength and power.  Think sprinting, jumping, throwing and heavy max.  Critical for all power-based sports such as sprinting, football and baseball among others.
  • System #2: Anaerobic Glycolysis – this kicks in after about 15-30 seconds and runs off of glycogen which are the energy stores we tend to get from carbohydrates, reserved in our muscle and liver.
  • System #3: Aerobic Glycolysis– anywhere from 2-5 minutes of sustained activity activates this system.  We’re using a combination of oxygen, fatty acids and glycogen as energy to fuel muscle contraction.  Think “cardio”.

Most people will use all three of these on some level throughout the snapshot of both a daily training session, weekly microcycle or task-specific mesocycle, but the order you prioritize them is crucial to the type of output your training will produce.  (And by the way, the duration for each fuel system completely depends on the individual and is simply approximated.  Michael Phelps’s lactic threshold is just a tad better than yours and mine.) 

While I believe all three to have a place in creating a well-rounded trainee, I am heavily biased towards the leadoff hitter: ATP-PCr.

Adenosine triphosphate – phosphocreatine is the technical name for this fuel system.  ATP exists within our muscles and is the most immediate source of maximal energy, but it’s use both appears and burns out extremely fast.  Think about lighting a bottle rocket.  You light it and it takes off in a huge burst but then fizzles just as quickly as it’s lit.  Once we deplete the limited ATP stores we then breakdown stored creatine phosphate to produce more ATP.  Yes, this is the same stuff you buy from GNC.  More on that in a minute.

So, in a sense our muscles crank out cocaine-like energy for a few seconds but then poof.  Gone out this bitch.  It’s the reason you can deadlift your three-rep max for just that, three reps before you hit an immediate wall.

Now, why is it important to train this energy system and what does it to do benefit us?  I’m not trying to be a power lifter and further, you just said the third fuel system is where we are technically burning fat (fatty acids) for energy, so shouldn’t I just do long and steady cardio so that I only target fat stores?

I’m afraid it’s not that simple.

Exercise science is no longer as absolute and both empirical research and modern day fitness has shown the most efficient way to burn fat is to ignite it in the flame of the power energy system.

By prioritizing ATP-PCr in any cycle and focusing on fast-twitch power at 80 to 100% of maximal, you will accomplish the following.

  • A power influenced circuit significantly increase your Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), or “afterburn”.  During a power/strength included circuit your body uses a lot of oxygen both during and following the workout.  EPOC is your body’s attempt to return to its normal state by increasing the rate of oxygen intake and along with other metabolic factors, our rate of burning fat increases anywhere from 24 – 48 hours.
  • Slow and steady cardio produces no EPOC.  What little fat burning you are engaging during a long run ceases immediately upon cooling down. Take a look at amateur distance runners.  Most tend to store body fat around their midsection because of the catabolic nature of engaging just the third energy system: Aerobic Glycolysis.  There just aren’t that many strong, ripped, athletic distance runners.  Sorry.
  • Maximal and near maximal output rely on Type-II muscle fibers which are the athletic, fast-twitch fibers that make me want to have babies with Lolo Jones.  They are the horsepower fibers that drive athleticism as opposed to the Type-I counterparts which are endurance bunnies and are more “show” since they fill with glycogen, acid buffers and other inflated stuff to make duckface girls want Ronnie from Jersey Shore.
“Damn, girl. Your Type-II muscle fibers in which you use for power and speed make me want to engage in some aerobic glycolysis activities with you…actually, most likely anaerobic…possibly ATP-PCr.”
  • Training power increases testosterone levels.  This is hugely important because without training that stimulates testosterone levels you are left with a fast-paced, catabolic circuit.  In this state, cortisol will ultimately trump testosterone priming you to store fat.  Heavy lifting and power-based burst movements counter that and tip the scales way higher in the favor of both male and female friendly testosterone ensuring you stay lean and not skinny fat.
  • You become more athletic.  When you become more athletic, you become more capable.  When you become more capable, you can do more cool and challenging shit.  When you do more cool and challenging shit, you get better results.  THAT’s what training like an athlete is all about and why everyone should do it.  Not because you are training to be an athlete, but because training like one works.
  • You stimulate growth hormone (GH) which is very anabolic, assisting in both muscular growth and fat loss.
  • Empirically speaking, every single Performance360 member who chooses the route of low rep power during ‘reps for goal’ days are among the gym’s leanest and without question the strongest and most athletic.  Frankly, what I see with my own two eyes trumps any science bullshit all day, errryday.
  • There is nothing inherently athletic about being able to tap into aerobic glycolysis for hours on end, which is precisely long cardio  doesn’t change our bodies or improve our performance in the least.   Changing body composition is all EPOC, hormonal manipulation and what happens during recovery, not the real time state of your training.  It’s why ten minutes of heavy kettlebell swings will be a googleplex more beneficial for changing body composition than jogging three times the duration.  Changing the body is all based around that first fuel system of power and strength.

In my humble opinion, the best way to have your cake (strength) and to eat it too (fat loss) is to combine a heavy compound lift at a slow pace with body weight and complimentary exercises on top of it performed at a fast pace.

I can already hear the internet heroes, “you don’t know what you are talking about, fast-paced stuff will interfere with strength gains.”  (If you want to read an exchange like that one just see the comments section, here.) I don’t know how to respond to that with anything other than, “no it won’t.”  At least not if you are doing it properly with strict rest to load manipulation.

This energy system is also our natural fight or flight fuel system responsible for the beneficial release of cortisol to produce energy.  Building houses, hunting food, running from something trying to eat us.  That kind of stressor elicits a huge kick in the nuts wake up call to our bodies to which it reacts aggressively.  We’re just hard wired to benefit from this stuff.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking ATP-PCr training is all heavy lifting.  It’s multi-directional jumping, cone drills, broad, box and band jumps.  Off one leg, two legs.  Plyo pushups.  Lateral plyo pushups.  Challenge in multiple planes with multiple stimuli.

Also, don’t take this as absolute.  I am not saying don’t do sets of fifty pushups, lift for muscle growth or go for a casual jog every now and then.  I’m saying unless you want to be guilty of becoming simply good at exercise you need to have priorities and they should start with strength, power and athleticism once you’ve achieved a base level of fitness.

Always train for task.  If your goal is one of more Lolo Jones and less skinny fat guy or girl then get your power fuel system training on a few times per week.

A post script to clear the air about creatine’s benefit as a supplement since it’s often misrepresented.  As previously mentioned our bodies use naturally occurring creatine phosphate to produce ATP. Supplementing creatine is not for fat loss and it is not for muscle growth.  It is for pure, raw, caveman and lady power.  Essentially, it will extend your ability to lift heavy, jump higher or first few seconds of sprints.  It’s a strength supplement.  Creatine has no direct effect on the composition of muscle fibers thus has no direct effect on muscular rebuild.

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