Up the Ante: Focus on Intensity for Quicker, More Efficient Workouts
This week, I’d like to begin a new series that’s probably what you came here for in the first place…some nerd talk about conditioning + nutrition + body change, with a few workouts thrown in there.
If you don’t know me, then you need a brief primer on my fitness background, as it pertains to this series: I’ve never been the effortlessly thin girl. In fact, I’ve always been solid (no joke, was called that at age 4.), sort of like a muscle-y, human pit bull. I struggled for years not coming to terms with my body, wondering why I took up so much more space than other girls, and not appreciating the power that is held in capped shoulders, a strong back, and powerful thighs. I was one of those women chasing a number on the scale without regard to what it *meant* for my body.
And then, one day, I changed my mind.
I decided the goals I was chasing weren’t good motivators, because being fulfilled by aesthetics alone doesn’t last. Don’t get me wrong- weight loss is an admirable goal- but it should never be our sole reason for working out. I looked to activities in fitness that made me feel empowered and gave me better goals to chase than what my mother weighed, and I found that in powerlifting.
That’s not to say you need to powerlift. But getting to know my body, understanding how it moves and functions optimally, and nourishing that goal has been FAR more satisfying and motivating than a weight loss goal, because that’s not how I’m built. In the same vein, I’d really urge you to find an activity you genuinely enjoy and then get better at that. There’s more joy there than in a number.
That being said, body change (which is a term I prefer to “fat loss”, mostly because I prefer to think in abundance, rather than lack) is usually at the forefront of people’s minds, mine included. I really love being strong, but I also love looking strong, and that typically means leaning out in addition to adding muscle.
To that point, one of the most frequently-asked questions here at Strong by Steph headquarters is if cardio or weightlifting is better for burning fat. In my opinion, neither is “better” or “worse”…they’re just different and offer different benefits. Your exercise shouldn’t make you miserable. You should be moving in a way that supports your goals, always. If you’re looking for things like mood enhancement and heart health, hit the pavement or sprint up some hills. If you’re looking to increase and/or improve your confidence, self-efficacy, muscle mass, strength, balance, stability, posture, and experience some anti-aging benefits, get in the weight room.
All of the above sound great to me, so I tend to do both. Although, again, if you know me, my cardio tends to be of the #liftweightsfaster variety (hey, Jen Sinkler! <3) rather than a treadmill, because that makes me feel like a hamster in a cage. So I’ll sprinkle in a few examples of that here in a minute, but, let it be known, you can do both and not lose muscle mass/look “bulky” (cue Steph eyes-rolling-all-the-way-to-back-of-skull)/be exhausted, if you program it right.
The kicker here is that the name of the game for body change is intensity. If you spend an hour on the treadmill and your makeup is perfect and your shirt isn’t sticking to you and your heart rate is only slightly elevated above normal, then you essentially just wasted an hour of your life.
To explain that, I need to give you a super-brief primer on hormones. I could talk about that all day, so feel free to email in under the "Products & Services --> 'Get Involved'" tab for a more detailed analysis.
Circulating throughout your body, you have both anabolic (building) and catabolic (burning) hormones that rise and fall in response to activity, food, and your natural circadian rhythm. Hormones that are key to the body-change process include cortisol, adrenaline, insulin, testosterone, and growth hormone (HGH. Yes, that HGH.).
Cortisol can act in both an anabolic and a catabolic fashion: it breaks down both fat AND muscle in the presence of adrenaline, high HGH, and high testosterone, but STORES fat in the presence of high insulin, low testosterone, and low HGH. It also tends to block progesterone, which means when cortisol is present in excessive amounts, we tend to store fat around our midsection. Cortisol rises in response to stress, and exercise is a stressor just as much as work or that uncle-in-law who gets on your last nerve. Basically, it’s the Goldilocks of hormones: to experience the body you want, it needs to rise and fall just right.
Adrenaline typically rises in conjunction with cortisol, and this makes sense, right? We’re under stress and experiencing a fight-or-flight response. Heightened awareness, increased blood flow to muscles, not being eaten by bears and stuff. Adrenaline is a catecholamine hormone, which means it mobilizes fat stores and causes a chain of other catabolic fat-burning hormones to release: cortisol, testosterone, and HGH, to name a few.
Insulin is anabolic: it builds fat AND muscle. I’m sure you’ve heard talk about insulin sensitivity, and, to summarize quickly, being insulin resistant is bad: your body is producing insulin, but it is not being used as intended and is instead floating in your bloodstream. High levels of insulin in the bloodstream inhibits your body’s ability to mobilize fat stores, meaning you’re less likely to burn fat when eating less. Being more insulin sensitive makes it easier to build muscle (and, therefore, burn fat), and you can increase your insulin sensitivity by increasing the intensity of your exercise.
Testosterone and HGH, among other things, build muscle. HGH can also act in either an anabolic or catabolic fashion, depending on the other hormones present in high amounts when it is working. In the presence of cortisol AND adrenaline, HGH works with those hormones to burn fat rather than store it.
SO. All of that to say, there’s a lot going on in there- way more than just “eat less, move more.” And it’s all dependent upon which hormones are released in which amounts and at what times. Can you conclude the main determinant of how much of each hormone is released in response to exercise? You guessed it: intensity.
Moderate intensity, like powerwalking or a casual jog, keeps cortisol elevated and doesn’t raise your levels of testosterone or HGH. So, basically, when you’re going through moderate-intensity exercise, you’re increasing your ability to store fat pretty efficiently. High-intensity exercise raises cortisol, testosterone, and HGH to a relatively rapid spike, while also allowing them to recover to lower, baseline levels pretty quickly afterwards. Very low-intensity exercise, like leisure walking through nature, tends to lower cortisol and insulin, giving you a calming, relaxing, fat-burning effect.
To this end, to experience that “fit” look, I am a huge proponent of short, high-intensity circuits on conditioning days (or 3-4x/week, if you don’t lift heavy). Typically, cardio-based activities that are 40 minutes or less don’t spike your stress hormones high enough or for a long enough time to burn through your muscle. HGH and testosterone also peak at about 40 minutes.
Summary: 20-40 minutes is the optimum length of intense exercise to experience body change!
If you’re a weightlifter, you also need to keep in mind the SRA curve (stimulus recovery adaptation…basically, you need to lift hard enough to achieve both energetic and mechanical adaptations, but allow enough time in between training the same muscle groups to adapt. Chad Wesley Smith, the smartest man I know in powerlifting who added 20lbs to my deadlift with one sentence at a seminar, has a really great video explaining this here, if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iV1N4gjGoA . Also, he squats close to 1000lbs, so I feel like he’s worth a listen [that video is ~15m of straight fire knowledge.].).
If you aren’t a super-crazy weightlifter, the SRA curve is still important. Tying all of this together, the not-so-brief primer on hormones and the SRA curve both explain why the magic happens at both ends of the intensity spectrum. You can see why high-intensity activities are important from a hormonal perspective- priming the body as an environment of pure fat-burning furnace- but the leisure activities are equally important. That’s both from a hormonal perspective, but also from a recovery standpoint. You’re creating muscular damage anytime you lift- that’s how you get stronger and bigger muscles- but this also creates inflammation, which raises your cortisol locally as the inflammation creates mechanical stress. Leisure activities both lower cortisol and promote blood flow, which produces healing and recovery. Bigger, faster, stronger.
Now, I know what you’re waiting for...what does one of these high-intensity combined cardio/weight workouts you referenced above that don’t make you lose your mind, Steph, actually look like? Luckily for you, I have an example or two. :)
One of my favorites, for those of you with access to a barbell, is the Cosgrove complex. This is a barbell-based chain that typically takes me about 12-15m (that’s it!) from start to finish. I load 10lb plates on the bar, and with that 65lbs, I chain from 6 to 1 (meaning, do 6 reps of each exercise, then 5, then 4, then so on) of the following, without putting the barbell down: deadlift, Romanian deadlift, bent over row, power clean, front squat, push press, back squat, good morning. The weight should be light enough that you don’t need to put the bar down (I make this a little game for myself, because I have a competitive illness: if I put it down, I have to do 10 burpees. That’s enough motivation for me to keep it in my hands), but heavy enough that you should be questioning what the freak you were thinking in the first place (and that you reach that peak intensity in such a short time).
If you don’t have access to a barbell, or aren’t comfortable using one yet, is to combine some dumbbell- or kettlebell-based movements with some sprinting. I typically set a timer for 20-30m and do as many rounds as I can, or do 3 rounds, depending on circuit.
One of my favorites is the 20m AMRAP featured in the photo above.
That’s it! Quick, intense, hits most major movement patterns, kinda think you might die, hormones working for you rather than against you, done.