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Long Steady Distance / Low Calorie Diets, Cortisol and Brain Aging

Last summer Tony agreed with me that I was probably killing myself with all the cycling I was doing. Soon there after I wrote Shortening your life by too much exercise to capture what I call the finite beat hypothesis - the heart has the potential for a certain number of beats and once these beat occur the heart stops working. It is a theory that seemed to make sense to me at the time.

In September when I started working at SST it became evident that the volume of cycling that I was doing was slowing my muscle growth because of the high level of cortisol associated with exercising longer than 45 minutes. Once I dropped down to one cardio session per week my lean body mass started to increase. If cortisol can have that dramatic an impact on lean mass creation what impact does it have on other body tissues?

A devastating impact.

Stress hormone may speed up brain aging outlines the findings of a recent study on an elderly population. The goal of the study was to determine if there was a relationship between cortisol levels and hippocampus size and neural density. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is implicated in memory and spatial awareness functioning. It has long been known that in most individuals, there is a decrease in hippocampus size as they grow older and, as a consequence, ones performance on memory and spatial awareness tasks decreases with age. However, this new study indicates that the degree of deterioration is related to cortisol levels such that those individuals who have higher levels of cortisol show greater impairment and the size of their hippocampus is reduced when compared to those individuals who have lower cortisol levels.

What are the practical implications of this finding?

If you want to keep your brain functioning at a high level for the duration of your life you need to decrease the amount of stress you experience. This doesn’t just mean psychological or mental stress, it also means physiological stress.

Steady state cardio sessions that last more than 45 minutes have been shown to increase cortisol levels as have intense resistance and strength training sessions of the same length. Limit the length of these to less than 45 minutes and if you can’t, make sure you consume some simple sugars during the sessions to mitigate the bodies natural cortisol release in response to a drop in blood sugar level.

Very low calorie diets or eating behaviours that include not eating for more than 4 hours in a row should be avoided as they will cause a release of cortisol.

You should eat within 20 minutes of waking to help lower the level of cortisol in your body - cortisol is very high in the morning because you have not been eating. The sooner it is reduced, the sooner the negative aspects of cortisol will be eliminated.

Remember that cortisol is a wasting hormone that causes your body to consume itself to maintain functioning. When cortisol levels are high very little of your body will grow and we now know that this includes your brain. If you want to maintain a high quality of life into your senior years you need to avoid activities that promote cortisol release when you are younger.

What I Learned In 2007 - Eric Cressey vs. Patrick McKinney

Inspired by T-nation author Eric Cressey’s What I Learned In 2007, I decided to put together my own list of things that I learned in 2007 (note - Eric’s 2006 article was my first ever post so be sure to read this years version).

1) Gifted athletes do not necessarily look remarkable but there is something weird about the way they look when they train. A few weeks ago we did the athlete testing for SST’s 12 week football academy. There were a variety of assessment tests but the one that stood out to me was the penta jump. This is basically a standing long jump with 5 jumps instead of just one, all linked together in a fluid unstopping order. It is a skill, but talent does impact ones performance.

Many of the athletes performed unremarkable, which is what we expect to see at the start of the camp because many of them are untrained and are coming off of a month or two layoff from exercising. But one of the athletes, a 14 year old, look weird doing it. He seemed to float away from me when he jumped - each jump took him so much further down the turf than any of the other athletes. His distance way 6-8 feet longer than any one else in his age group. I wasn’t very surprised to see his sub 5 second result in the 40. He’s 14 years old and pretty small. I’m looking forward to seeing how he’ll continue to improve as he grows pounds of muscle and gains more complete neural control over his muscle firing patterns.

2) Fish oil supplements eliminate most of the shoulder pain I experience when I’m lifting heavy. I’m both shocked and happy to have found this to be the case. There is practically no fire in my shoulders in the days following my chest / back workouts. There used to be pain that prevented me from sleeping and stopped me from training heavy in the summer. This is all but gone now, thanks to 6-10 grams of fish oil per day.

3) Great athletes embrace coaching, lifters tend to ignore it. How someone responds to feedback plays the biggest role in the quality of feedback that they get. The gifted 14 year old listens to all the advice and coaching that he is given and he continues to improve, and people continue to coach him. This isn’t surprising because people do not like to waste their time. IF someone isn’t going to follow the advice that is given to them, people learn very quickly to stop giving it to them. Personally I begin to disengage from a person after the first time they role their eyes and DON’T change their movement pattern - they can role their eyes, call me a prick but so long as they change their movement pattern I’ll keep coaching them.

When it comes to lifters most of them do not want to lift correctly. They lift the weight and not the movement. I look away a lot when I’m at the commercial gym because I don’t want to see someone hurt themselves and feel responsible from helping them. I’ll offer advice to a young lifter on the off-hand chance that they want to become better, but more often than not they don’t want to hear it. This is too bad for them and good news for Rachel because she’s going to be an athletic therapist and will have a lot of people to work on.

4) Energetic coaching is more important than knowledgeable coaching when it comes to working with young or inexperienced athletes. Young people don’t not have the movement inventory or body awareness that older people have because they have spend less time in their bodies interacting with the earth. Most athletic movements are going to be new to them and they are not likely to have the motor control to move their bodies in the way that is required in order to be performed the movement correctly. For this reason, advanced coaches are not going to be able to use their knowledge to facilitate improvements within this population. More importantly, given that it is frustrating to be bad at something, particularly when a coach or another athlete does it with ease, inexperienced athletes may find quitting an easier choice if they do not find any enjoyment in an activity. An energetic coach can help bridge the gap between a lack of experience and learning a new skill and will often help the young person find joy in an otherwise unrewarding experience.

5) Rotator cuff muscles are primarily fast twitch fibers and should be trained in the 7-10 rep range with fast effort and slower negative tempos. This one could have read - people should train their rotator cuff muscles. I started doing internal and external rotation exercises just after I started working at SST after the cause of my horrific posture was pointed out. While I am still imbalanced in this area, I’m catching up and standing taller than I ever have.

6) Steady state cardio promotes fat storage while high intensity interval training creates more EPOC that will result in greater fat loss over the long haul. I credit RPM with starting my brain thinking about this one. The choreography is interval based with exertion levels growing from comfortable to breathless. One of the things I found once I stopped trying to keep my heart rate at 150 was that I was more tired at the end of the workouts and couldn’t do so much riding. I also noticed that there is only have a finite length of time that I can get my heart rate above 160 and once this time is up I get too fatigued trying to bring it up there again.

As this relates to fat loss: you need to workout very intensely to promote fat loss, but you need to workout at various levels of intensity to get the most fat loss because it requires the most amount of energy to adapt to many different level of effort. Also, if you workout at just one intensity, your body will quickly adapt to make it more and more efficient to work at that level the next time. This means if you are working out at a level that requires fat as fuel, the body will adapt to store more fat to fuel the effort next time. If you keep it at a steady state, your body will become so efficient at working at this level that it will stop losing fat. Given that your activity level will not change, it is unlikely that you will alter your diet to account for this improved efficiency and will begin to eat a calorie surplus thus promoting fat storage.

7) Spell check and proof read your resume a number of times before you submit it. We initially passed on a trainer candidate because of the typos on his resume. I looked over his resume a week later and thought that maybe there was a good reason why the mistakes were there. When we chatted it was obvious that there wasn’t a good reason but that he was a good candidate. He did fantastic in his interviews and we hired him. He is a gifted trainer with a wonderful demeanor that allows him to connect with almost everyone he engages. I’m glad I called him because he is a real asset to the team and a good human being. But I almost didn’t take the chance because of something that is very easy to avoid.

1 Year And Counting - Happy Anniversery Newstasis.com!

One year ago - one year and 4 days to be exact - I started newstasis.com. It has been a fantastic year for personal growth, life improvements and physical fitness. In some ways I’m sad to see the year end. Here are the main reasons why the last year was so important to me:

I discovered my purpose in life. This happened the Monday morning after I took the RPM training.

I’ve posted about 160 items on newstasis.com. While many of them were re-blog items - my opinion or just a link to another authors work - a few of them were original and would not exist in the world had I not sequenced out the key strokes.

I’ve fallen completely in love and moved in with Rachel. Rachel remains empathetic as she calls me on my crap and it is the first time in my life when I have looked upon a girlfriend as a mentor. She is funny as well and that helps us move through the tough times very quickly.

I started teaching RPM. A big one, partly because it’s where I met Rachel, partly because I had been thinking about doing it for so long and partly because it forced me to learn how to ride a bike the correct way. My riding posture has never been better and I feel so much stronger on the bike now than I did a year ago.

I started working for SST as their operations manager. It’s nice to be working with a more motivated population and in an environment that is rich in opportunities to learn, and lift. I had never flipped a tire before September and I have to say that it is a much fun as it sounds! If you don’t think flipping a tire is fun, you’ve never done it.

I kept blogging EVEN after I moved in with Rachel and started my new job. I’m pretty happy about this one because it marks the first time in my life that getting a new girlfriend didn’t mean the death of the identify that I had forged out for myself.

So now I start year 2, grateful to be able to continue with newstasis.com!

Time To Fail, Again - Problem with Commercial Gyms

It is January and the busiest month of the year for all commercial gyms. This month alone counts for 15-20% of the years new memberships. The problem is that 5% of the people who sign up will NEVER set foot back in the place except to cancel. In 6 weeks another 25-35% of them will have stopped coming. In three months another 25-30% will have stopped. By this time next year, only about 15-25% will remain.

I appreciate this time of year for a few reasons. There are a lot of new people in my class, so I have a new opportunity to change peoples lives by helping them find that “oh my God” moment when they have pushed harder than they thought they could and realize that they are still in the fight. My classes are full and there are people waiting at the door to get in; this means that those who do make it in are going to work harder and not leave midway through.

But on a more cynical / realistic level, this time of year marks the start of one of the worst periods for 75-85% of the people who join the gym. It represents the moment in time when they made a mistake and actually believed that they had the ability to change their life and become the healthy person they thought they were.

I’ve seen 1000’s of people join and quit the gym. I’ve sold 100’s of people on the dream that they could look like me, the trainers, the regulars and the sexy people on TV, only to have their dream fall apart a few weeks later when they realize that they are not ready to achieve their goals. I used to feel bad about it so I stopped selling at a commercial gym.

When I’m teaching RPM at GoodLife, I try to be encouraging, upbeat, high energy and honest about what the participant are about to go through. I tell them that it is going to hurt, I let them know that it is going to take a few weeks of sustained effort before the class starts to get easier, I mention that I was once brand new at it and that I found it to be one of the toughest gym experiences I had gone through in spite of the fact that I raced mountain bikes and had been active for most of my life. I try not to sell anyone on the “you can do it” dream and instead try to sell them on the “it’s going to suck until the end of class” reality.

I’ve learned that there are 10-15% of the population that are going to burn 80% of the calories. These are the people who are already working out and will remain working out regardless of everything. These people need coaching on form and that is it. They supply the motivation and will find their way to the gym when the roads are closed due to snow, on Christmas day when everyone else is at home, and when they are in their time of need. Working out for these people is similar to prayer for the faithful - it’s what they do when they need to find peace.

How do you become one of the 10-15% if you are not one of them?

The easiest way is to get a personal trainer (PT). Over the years I’ve gone from considering PTs as jocks who count reps to considering most of them to be jocks who hold the unmotivated to their promises. I’m not certain but I have the feeling that most people show up to their appointments because they have public integrity and don’t want to go back on their word to another person; but it could have something to do with the $0 refund for no-show appointments - the notion of losing $60 for not showing up to an hour appointment may serve as more of a motivator than the fear of dying from an obesity related illness.

There is a lot of talk in the business about personal training and how much commercial gyms profit from it - very often the gym pays the trainer only 25-35% of the hourly cost of the session. This means they get 65-75% PLUS the monthly membership cost. But, when you get down to it, most PTs are getting a fair wage based on what they actually know and they also get to be “Personal Trainers”, which carries some prestige in many gyms.

But it is an undeniable observation that those who train with PTs WILL stick with their workouts for a longer period of time. If you are not one of the 10-15% who treat working out like worship, getting a PT will allow you to behave like one of them and it will help you stay diligent with your workouts.

I have nothing to gain directly from encouraging people to train with a PT because I do not work for a commercial gym - SST uses floor coaches to offer guidance to all of the members who are working out. My suggestion that working out with a PT will increase your likelihood of success is based on years of observing the sales cycle in a commercial gym. If you are not already working out there is a 85% chance that you will fail to become one of the ones who work out UNLESS you get professional help. Get an expert and change your life. Otherwise you may just be helping to buy all the new and shinny equipment I love to workout on.

Changes In My Training Since I Started at SST

I have gained 8 lbs since I started working at SST. My body fat has remained more or less the same. I credit this to a number of variables but the most significant one is the dramatic decrease in the amount of cardio exercise I am doing. I’ve gone from riding 2 to 3 hours a day to doing 1 or 2 cycling classes a week. Doing 15-20 hours of cardio training a week is stressful on the body and causes a dramatic increase in the amount of cortisol that the body releases and, since cortisol helps the body liberate energy from protein, I wasn’t growing very much when I was riding in the summer.

I have been aware of the theoretical implications of excessive cortisol secretion for a while, this is just the first time that I set out to eliminate it. When I was bulking last year, I cut out most of the cardio and dramatically increased the amount of resistance and strength training that I was doing but did so much of it that I don’t think there was as big a decrease in cortisol secretion as there has been recently (heavy lifting is very stressful on the body and it causes a release of cortisol). I’m doing about 4 hours of lifting with one hour of cycling per week vs about 10 -12 hours of lifting last year.

Given the time of year and the dramatic drop in temperature recently, I don’t miss riding so much because I’m used to having to stop. I also don’t miss doing hours of indoor riding. In fact, I enjoy the one class I teach a week MORE than ever because I have enough energy to give it 100%. The intensity is much higher when you have had enough time to recover completely and I am more authentic on the bike - when the choreography calls for breathless I am able to get to breathless which makes the participants work that much harder - a big change from the summer when I was teaching 7 or 8 classes a week, most of them in the evening after riding the trails for a couple of hours.

The approach I am taking this year is smarter because I have a lot more support from the coaching team at SST. They have filled in many of the gaps I had in my understanding of how the body functions and what I need to do to get more growth out of it. Their insistence that I eliminate most of the steady state cardio to decrease cortisol secretion and keep testosterone levels high has made my body more anabolic, and their suggestion to change my diet to replace most of the grain carbohydrates with fish oil and protein has helped me avoid gaining fat.

I know the summer will return and I’ll race again next season, so I’ll be back on the bike again next spring. But for now I’m enjoying the changes in my body composition that the decrease in cortisol and the off season bring.

Bulking Phase - Decreased Cardio, BCAAs and GVT

My job at SST has exposed me to a lot of different mass and strength training methods that I have never tried before. On November 1st I picked three things to try so I can see what happens to my body.

Decreased cardio. After about 45 minutes of intense exercise the body begins to release cortisol. Cortisol has a wasting effect on muscle because it breaks down protein. When I was riding 12-15 hours a week in the summer, my body spent a lot of time in a catabolic state. I’m hoping to change that by doing one hour of cardio a week in the form of my Wednesday evening RPM class.

Taking branch chain amino acids BCAA’s. Most strength coaches recommend taking BCAA’s because of their ability to stimulate protein synthesis. Poliquin recommends taking 20-40 grams of them during a workout so I’ve bought a big bottle and started taking them before and during my workouts.

Trying German Volume Training GVT. Another Poliquin theory being tested. 10 sets of 10 reps done super-setted with two antagonistic movements. E.g. 10 reps of narrow grip pull-ups then 10 reps of decline press then 90 seconds rest. Repeat 9 times. It takes about 30 -35 minutes and it is brutal. Really hard mentally because it is hard and boring.

Last November I did my first bulking phase and of the three things I’m doing now, the only one that I am repeating is to cut back on the amount of cardio because of the amount of evidence there is that it dramatically impairs muscles development.

New Job? Nope, My Next Career

Part of what I like most about Rachel is the way she seems to energize and drive many people to achieve a little more of their potential. I am no exception in this and when we moved in together in August she immediately started sending me help wanted ads for jobs that she thought that I may like to do.

One in particular caught my eye and I applied for the position. It was for the operations manager role at a company call SST in Burlington. I hadn’t heard of them before but Rachel was very familiar with them through one of her professors at Sheridan college. SST, or Sport Specific Training, is a straight and conditioning center. They have been successfully training young athletes for the last ten years and their approach is rather different from the method used at the fitness clubs that I am more accustomed to.

I submitted my resume and got an interview a few days later.

The facility is small, about 5000 square feet, and doesn’t have any cardio machines. They have a lot of equipment that I have never seen anywhere else other than in the demonstration photos that appear with some of the t-nation articles (sleds, fire hoses, tires, etc…). It is not a bells and whistles place, it’s more of a blood and guts training center. This is part of why I love it - people come there to work hard and they leave quickly because there is no reason to stay. They have a lot of signed pictures on the walls of different level athletes who have trained there and achieved more success. People go to SST to get better results on the playing field, track, court, wherever.

The interview process was grueling because I had to meet with all of the key leadership figures to ensure that we would be able to work together. It took about 2 weeks and each step drew me in deep because it was evident that each member of the team was picked for their specific talent and unique personality. They were looking for a career minded person and not someone who as seeking a short term job. Given that I knew nothing about the company before I submitted my resume, I was able to synthesize and add to my understanding with each interview. In the end when I was offered the position I was ecstatic because I knew the fit was right for me and I knew that I was the right person for the job.

The only downside is that my blog is suffering significantly because I love working at SST. I am up early and really eager to get to work. I leave work late, workout and come home to eat. Rachel gets home about an hour later around 10 PM, when we’ll chat for a few minutes until she opens the books to study before calling it a night near midnight.

I wouldn’t change anything about my life right now but I do look forward to becoming good enough at my job so I can devote a little more time to newstasis.com again. In time I know my site will begin to see the impact of all the new experiences that SST is facilitating in the form of original content.