Today I went for a four mile run. Recently I’ve been getting coaching through Complete Human Performance, focusing on improving my cardio while simultaneously working on my strength. In general, this is something many gym bros will say is probably impossible, ignoring the fact that many athletes since the beginning of time have successfully done so, like every football player ever, Bruce Lee, anyone in a fighting sport, and so on and so forth. What’s the secret?
Ultimately there is no secret. While combining multiple modalities of performance sloppily will generally result in an interference effect in which all trained modalities suffer, intelligent combinations can and do exist. It’s totally possible to train strength alongside endurance, muscle alongside performance, and so many other infinite possibilities. Old school Russian periodization involved alternating blocks of training in which one athlete might train in completely different programs throughout the course of a year, working on different performance modalities at different times until finally focusing on the ones required by the athlete’s actual sport.
Conventional bro-wisdom tells us that we use it or lose it: if we don’t keep up training a certain modality, we lose it sooner or later. Poof. Kaplooey. Things just vanish like that. The truth of the matter is, it’s a lot more complicated.
Today I hit the third mile of my four mile run in about 28 minutes. Funny thing is, that’s far better than the 35 minutes I ran my first ever 5k in, way back in high school, after months of training. Yup, I used to be a distance runner (cue laughter) (but no really, my running form is awful). I was a distance runner for about 3-4 years from grade school to high school, and then quit halfway through high school to focus on bodybuilding style training. I did that for about four years before moving to France in college, where I had no access to a gym and so all I did for exercise for about five months was run in the nearby park. Upon returning home I immediately started bulking up, hit around 210, and did bodybuilding stuff for another couple years before taking up powerlifting from then until present.
What most people don’t know is, the detraining state is highly influenced by how long it took for us to build the competence in the first place. If you trained as a runner for twenty years, it would take a lot longer to lose than if you had trained for two months. It’s the same for any athletic competence or quality: the longer it takes you to build, the longer it takes you to lose.
Then it comes to retraining: another thing the whole use it or lose it argument overlooks is that qualities which we’ve lost through detraining are much easily retrained a second, third, or fourth time than a first. Many positive adaptations take a long time to make, and when made some of them are permanent. As a result, it’s much easier to rebuild qualities which use these adaptations, because much of the work is already done. This is why, for example, I put 70 pounds back on my deadlift in just one month of training after changes in my training caused me to lose 100. This is why I can now run faster, more easily, in less training time, than I did as a thirteen year old kid.
We know that the greatest predictor of success in any exercise regimen is the success of past exercise. This is why it’s always infinitely tougher for an overweight, sedentary individual who’s never exercised to get in shape, while someone who used to exercise seriously but hasn’t exercised in a while can get back on the boat much more quickly. Generally, we assume this is because of psychological factors: someone who’s done the work before knows what they’re getting into, and are much better prepared for it mentally. This overlooks, however, the fact that it’s also physically easier for these assholes (myself included) to get in shape. Sorry!
It also partially invalidates a lot of these “late life transformation” stories that we often see. Stuff like dudes/ladies who decide to start taking up bodybuilding or marathon running in their sixties. Generally, the tone of such stories is “wow, look at what this old guy did, so why can’t you do it too, you idiot” or, “What’s your excuse?” The problem is, such simplistic success stories often ignore the fact that it’s probably physically easier for some of these people, because they either used to train more heavily but got out of shape, or used to train a different quality which had some degree of carryover. In short, these people are sometimes lifers who just took some time off, taking a lot of the edge off of their transformations.
This is also one reason why steroids can be such a powerful tool for change: since many of the changes made by training are enhanced by the addition of performance enhancers, many of the permanent changes are increased too. While you’ll never be as good off of steroids as you were on them, someone could take steroids early in their training and then quit them, and they’d forever after maintain some of the benefits from steroids even if they never took them again. This could conceivably mean a huge amount of additional adaptations which would never have occurred in their absence.
Another problem with this is the general opinion that X quality is easy to build relative to Y quality. You hear stuff like that all the time: strength guys saying endurance is easy to build, but strength takes a lifetime. Endurance guys saying that strength is easy to build, but good endurance takes a lifetime. Unfortunately, all they're doing is attributing the reverse to their listeners. A strength athlete has spent his entire life training for strength, so of course he's going to find it hard to build. Then he sees endurance guys who struggle to build strength but can very easily rebuild their endurance (from their previous training) and falsely assumes that this is because endurance is easy to build, when the reality is just that it's easy(er) to retrain.
Does this mean that a hybrid program in which I were to rotate between multiple modalities would be effective? (Since, the reasoning is, it would be better to focus on building up individual qualities and then easily retraining them later in much less time.) Generally, I would say no. Properly done hybrid training allows one to train multiple modalities roughly simultaneously, resulting in no need for the amount of time lost in a detraining/retraining phase. I would stake my claim on the belief that the amount of time wasted from interference in simultaneous training is likely less than the amount of time wasted cycling modalities and training individually.
In general, this means less time spent sitting on your ass is always good for you. Use it or lose it may not be entirely true, but at the very least it’s sort of right. Next time you see someone bragging about how easy it was for them to get back into shape after a short break, be sure to set them straight.