Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Ah-Ha" Moments From Mel Siff

Alwyn Cosgrove's recent article on T-Nation, Cosgrove's Five Ah-Ha! Moments:The Education of a Misguided Trainer was an interesting one. I've had a few of those myself throughout the years and was surprised that his #3 "Ah-Ha moment", "cardiovascular programming is an ass-backward concept", was one I had as well about 7 or 8 years ago while reading Mel Siff's classic book on strength and conditioning "Supertraining":

"...recent research indicates that an increase in endurance is associated more with enhancing the ability of the muscles to utilise a higher percentage of the oxygen already in the blood than with increasing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and improving the oxygen supply to the working muscle (Ekblom, 1969; Rowell, 1971; Saltin, 1974). Consequently, it is not simply the magnitude of VO2 max that determines endurance, but intramuscular factors which facilitate adaptation of the muscles to prolonged intense work.... Thus, the development of endurance is associated with functional specialisation of the skeletal muscles, particularly the enhancement of their strength and oxidative qualitites, rather than improvement of cardiorespiratory ability." (Siff, Mel. 2000. Supertraining. p. 248)

There were many a-ha moments from Mel Siff's Supertraining and his listserve - many more than I could recall in a short post, but here is another :

Algebraic Relations and Training

Two algebraic laws may be applied to the interaction of between different means, methods and techniques in strength (and all sports) training, which are important because they are not generally obeyed in training:

* The Commutative Law       A*B=B*A

* The Associative Law     A*(B*C)=(A*B)*C

...The non-commutative and non-associative nature of sports training is central to its overall prescription, organisation and management, and should be recalled whenever there is any temptation to design training programmes or periodisation schemes solely on the basis of individual exercises, techniques, volumes, intensities and phases. Every exercise is followed by after-effects, the nature, duration and magnitude of these depending on factors such as intensity, duration and pattern of loading, and these after-effects deem that exercises in different parts of a workout, on different training days and even separated by several days or weeks can interact positively or negatively.

Therefore , it is vital that the context of any training situation in space and time be considered when drawing up a training programme. Remarks such as "plyometric training is dangerous", "power cleans are useless", "periodisation doesn't work", "weight training is contraindicted for endurance athletes" and "circuit training is excellent for general preparation" may then be seen to be simplistic and misleading. Virtually any training method may be rendered impotent or harmful if it is administered in an inappropriate manner for a given individual at a given stage of his/her career. Conversely, methods which may appear to offer only modest improvements on their own, may in optimal combinations yield results which clearly show that "the whole is greather than the sum of its parts".
(pp. 204-205)

This short passage alone made purchasing the book more than worth its cover price. It served me in two ways, to make me even more critical of hyperbole surrounding "magic routines" and "Holy Grail exercises", and also to keep me open-minded about the possibities that new exercises and programs may present if utilized effectively.


Andy Bennett said...

I enjoyed this column as well at Alwyn Cosgrove's article that you linked, particularly the discussions of "cardio" training. I don't do any activity simply for its cardiovascular training value, but only because I don't like running, cycling, treadmills, elipticals, etc., etc., and not because of any belief or training philosophy. In fact, I feel guilty about not doing it. Most of my friends spend a significant part of their work-out time on the eliptical or stationary cycle--I don't.

Most of what I read in "weight training" and "body-building" websites, blogs and forums seems to ignore the reason that many people who are not "weight lifters", "body builders", or athletes per se, do cardiovascular exercise, which is to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, and to lower blood pressure. As a physician I have often encouraged patients to walk, jog, cycle or to engage in sports with that end in mind. I have always tended to think that the more "aerobic" of these activities were better for this purpose, but is that true? Perhaps ANY form of exercise is equivalent for this purpose. I honestly know of no evidence one way or the other. I believe in the benefits of strength training. Maybe all these years it would have been better for me to tell my patients to deadlift, rather than walk or jog. I don't know.

Boris said...


It's interesting that you mention these things. I posted an Al Sears quote a while back - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

It is here:

Catherine Imes said...

Watched your Jerk video.

Couple of observations. One bump (first bump)with your hips. It's a very explosive "hip bump". That's why you get the elbows over your, you can transfer the power. You're squatting a bit to much on the first movement. What happens is your elbows (and arms) become disconnected from your body when you drop too low.

Two, drop under the bells a little faster. This will come with time. I can tell your arms and shoulders are still doing too much of the work. But, all in all, they look good.


Boris said...

Thank you Catherine! That makes perfect sense. The descent definately needs work. Thanks again.

Andy Bennett said...

That quote contains several concepts that are hard for me to accept, and that I have never encountered in the medical literature. I don't know that they are wrong, but they are at least new ideas to me. In particular, I question the opening statement: "Forced, continuous, endurance exercise induces your heart and lungs to 'downsize'...." I wish he would have cited research evidence for this. He also makes the assumption that size correlates to functional capacity, and I don't believe that it does. He doesn't explain how "increasing durational capacity...robs [the heart] of vital reserve capacity" or cite research evidence that it does.

My biggest problem is with the last paragraph that you quote. "Heart attacks don't occur because of a lack of endurance." True. "They occur when there is a sudden increase in cardiac demand that exceeds your heart's capacity." Not true.

Heart attacks occur when an atherosclerotic plaque in a coronary artery ruptures, triggering the formation of a blood clot within the artery, which decreases blood flow through that artery to the extent that part of the heart muscle no longer has adequate blood supply to keep it alive. The chances of the sequence of events that comprise a heart attack will occur, are decreased by exercise. It is pretty well-established that moderate aerobic activity decreases the incidence of heart attack. Here is a link to the position paper of the American Heart Association on the subject:

The natural assumption is that if a little “moderate” aerobic exercise is good, more must be better. That is what I have assumed, and still do. The AHA thinks more is better—look at the last sentence of the “Primary Recommendations” section of the intro in the article I linked. It says “Because of the dose-response relation between physical activity and health, persons who wish to further improve their personal fitness, reduce their risk for chronic diseases and disabilities or prevent unhealthy weight gain may benefit by exceeding the minimum recommended amounts of physical activity. [I (A)] (Circulation. 2007;116:1081-1093.).” Note the “[I(a)]” at the end of that sentence. That means that the statement is based on type I(A) evidence, the highest-quality medical research, a prospective, randomized trial, very strong evidence, indeed.

But Al Sears seems to be saying that more is harmful, but he doesn't cite any evidence at all.

On a personal level, my question is slightly different. My question, as a non-aerobic exerciser, is “how much can weight-lifting benefit my cardiovascular health?” The AHA recommendations do address resistance exercise, stating “Evidence supporting the health benefits of activities that increase muscular strength and endurance in non-elderly populations has accumulated rapidly in recent years.” However they discuss benefits other than the prevention of heart attacks and strokes.

I need to stop rambling and finish for the benefit of the few who have had the patience to read through this. Back to the point, which is your and Alwyn Cosgrove's Ah-Ha moments and the realization that "cardiovascular programming is an ass-backward concept." It sounds like you and Alwyn are saying that cardiovascular exercise in unimportant or irrelevant. I wish that were true, but I fear that it's not. Al Sears claims that it's outright dangerous. I don't believe that it is. We all need it for our general health, as well as for the ability to sustain whatever activities we've chosen for ourselves. I'm thinking that maybe I'd better climb on the stationary once in a while. Yuck.

Boris said...


You should probably read more of Al Sears' work to make a complete judgement. Of course it's a gross exaggeration to say that all heart attacks are caused by X, but, from what I've heard, he has had a lot of success in reversing heart issues with his patients. I know I am picking straw-man arguments also here, but Al is not saying that more is not better, he is saying that "more of A" is not necessarily the same or even close to "more of B". Is he right? I don't know, but I, personally, will never be the marathoner or triathlete type and any chance of cardio-fitness will have to be as a result of interval work in the weight room with weights. It goes without saying that different people will have different needs.

In any case, I definately did NOT mean to downplay the importance of cardiovascular fitness (and I don't think that Alwyn was either) - certainly NOT "unimportant or irrelevant" and I don't know how you read that into my posts. Simply pointing out that muscular endurance/adaptations was/are underemphasized in many training circles.

Andy Bennett said...

You're right. I re-read everything, and I did misread it before. And yes, I'll read more of Al Sears' work.

Boris said...

Thanks Andy. Let me know what you think of his work - good or bad, I'd be curious to know. Hyperbole certainly seems to be part and parcel of most S&C writing these days and Al Sears is probably guilty of that, but interesting points are made.

Andy Bennett said...

Well, just from what he has on line is a little difficult to understand all his ideas, but you can certainly get the drift. I think you summarize it well with what you say about a certain amount of hyperbole with some interesting points. There's a bit too much suggestion of conspiracy theory for my tastes, as in the comments about the FDA. I take it that his PACE is a HIIT sort of program. I'm interested in the concept; it seems to have quite a bit of support.

Boris said...

Yes, his PACE idea is more or less HIIT.

I agree with you - some of his stuff is, IMHO, a little out there, but interesting nonetheless.