Train hard but smart to lose fat, gain muscle, and produce an anabolic response. Don’t compromise your goals by doing “extreme” training that causes you to lose muscle or get injured!
The goal of an effective training program is to overload the body so that it has to adapt in some way—for example, to increase protein synthesis and build muscle, or to use fat for fuel so that you lose body fat. But, it’s possible to overload the body to an extreme degree so that you cause injury or overly stimulate the catabolic hormone response to produce an unfavorable environment in the body for desired adaptations.
Research suggests that some “extreme” fitness programs may not help you reach your goals because they use heavy loads with rest periods that are too short to allow for optimal adaptation. It is not that training hard and heavy is the problem, but that in order to get results from high levels of intensity, recovery is required.
Two recent studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provide some insight into how to train intelligently hard. The first study measured cortisol and lactate response to an “extreme” fitness program in order to see if it overly stressed the adrenal glands. Trained male and female college students performed the bench press, deadlift, and squat with a pyramid scheme (10 sets starting with 10 reps and decreasing 1 rep each set) and no rest between sets. The starting load was 75 percent of the 1RM load, which was decreased if a participant was unable to complete the desired repetitions.
Results showed very high cortisol and lactate responses to the protocol. Cortisol was much higher than values reported on all previous research that used the same intensities (75 percent 1RM), primarily because those studies all used rest periods of 1 to 3 minutes. Cortisol was also higher than what has been recorded from high-intensity interval training and aerobic exercise.
Cortisol remained elevated for an hour post-workout, but dropped to below baseline the following day. This indicates that the protocol was extremely strenuous but didn’t pose an immediate recovery problem. However, if this sort of protocol was repeated a few times week, and certainly if it was done daily, hormonal imbalances and a catabolic environment would occur.
Researchers were surprised that the women in the study had a similar cortisol response as the men because women typically have a lower cortisol response to training just as they have much lower testosterone response. It is possible cortisol was elevated due to the extreme nature of the protocol compared with previously tested protocols.
Take away the understanding that you need to be smart about how you program your workouts so that you don’t compromise your goals. The researchers write that the high cortisol response “has potentially serious implications on muscle tissue growth, recovery, and immune processes due to the catabolic effects of cortisol.” You’ll lose muscle, cause persistent inflammation, and get sick more often if you train this way too often.
The solution is to train intensely, but always allow for adequate recovery so that you can maintain the prescribed intensity without compromising technique. You could also try modified strongman training because this was recently shown to elevate testosterone in trained men.
Unfortunately, we can’t make direct comparisons between the “extreme” protocol described above and the modified strongman protocol because the two studies measured different hormones—the “extreme” study only measured cortisol and not testosterone, and the strongman study measured testosterone but not cortisol.
However, modified strongman exercises, such as sled training, tire flips, or a heavy farmer’s walk mixed with traditional lifts can be used to provide variety and a high-intensity workout. Modified strongman workouts are one of the best strategies for producing strength and body composition adaptations without overstressing the adrenals.
Szivak, T., Hooper, D., et al. Adrenal Cortical Responses to High Intensity, Short Rest, Resistance Exercise in Men and Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.
Ghigiarelli, J., Sell, K., et al. Effects of Strongman Training on Salivary Testosterone Levels in a Sample of Trained Males. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.