The Science Behind Getting Fit

These days, everybody seems to be selling new ways to get fit. Celebrities pitch diets, entrepreneurs hawk exercise machines, bloggers write up and share their routines. With all these options, it can be hard to pick an effective fitness strategy.

Perhaps a better understanding of how exercise actually works can clear things up. Drawing on scientific studies and medical scholarship, they present a fitness philosophy that’s all about attaining real results.

In this article, you’ll learn the science behind how and why the body builds muscle – knowledge that will allow you to fine-tune your approach to exercise.

Do All Physical Activities Result in a Healthier Body?

Greece, 480 BC. The united forces of Athens and Sparta defeat the invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Generals give a young courier named Pheidippides an important task: to deliver the good news back to the capital.

The Science Behind Getting Fit

Elated, he sprints the 25 miles to Athens. It only takes him a few hours, and his run becomes legendary. We still remember it as the first marathon. Surely, someone as fit as Pheidippides must have lived a long, healthy life?

Unfortunately, no. As soon as he arrived, the young courier collapsed and died.

His fate tells us something really important about how the human body works. This lesson is that exercise, fitness, and health aren’t always connected. 

So, what does it mean to be healthy? Surely science would have an answer to such a basic question, wouldn’t it? Well, as it turns out, you can pore through hundreds of medical texts, and you’ll probably find hundreds of theories. Still, in general terms, being healthy means being free of disease and having a body that naturally balances its internal chemical processes.

Two of these processes are really critical. They are called catabolic and anabolic. Catabolic processes are all about breaking things down. Turning proteins into energy would be an example. Anabolic processes are the opposite. They’re all about building things up. This includes growing muscle or producing hormones.

A healthy body will balance its catabolic and anabolic activities.

There’s a common misconception that all forms of physical activity will keep a body healthy. Sadly, this isn’t true. Some activities will make you fitter, which is to say better at withstanding the pressure of physical challenges. But these activities won’t necessarily improve your overall health.

Let’s look at long-distance running, for example. It will certainly make you faster, but there are trade-offs. Runners can develop serious health issues. 

Their knees can get damaged, their spines can degenerate, their hearts can develop unhealthy rhythms. This is because long-distance running supercharges the build-up of some parts of the body. But, in return, it also speeds up the degradation of other organs. So, over time, you end up with an imbalance.

But there are things you can do to improve your body’s overall fitness; to maintain the balance of catabolic and anabolic processes. 

Is A Short, High-intensity Workout As Good As a Long, Steady One?

Imagine you hire a personal trainer. At your first meeting, she offers you two paths toward reaching your fitness goals.

Option one: you’ll meet four days a week. Each day, you’ll spend an hour stretching, an hour jogging, and an hour doing light repetitive activities like pushups, pullups, and crunches. Option two: you’ll only meet once a week and perform three short sets of very intense exercises.

Surely, the second scenario is less attractive – there’s no way it can offer the same benefits! Well, the latest science would disagree.

Conventional wisdom tells us that effective exercise is all about getting the heart pumping. If you can sustain it for a long period, you’re halfway there. This is the basis for aerobics, a specific form of exercise which became popular in the 1960s.

There is a medical theory behind aerobics. It says that the best way to improve overall health is to stimulate the cardiovascular system. How do you do this? With long-lasting, low-intensity activities like jogging.

However, recent studies have challenged this belief. For instance, in 2005, researchers at McMaster University looked at two groups of equally fit students. The first group performed regular aerobic exercise several times a week. The second group only did short, intense workouts, such as riding a stationary bike at full speed for 30 seconds.

After two weeks, the endurance of the first group didn’t change. But in the second group, which did intense exercise, this measure went up by almost 100 percent.

Such findings seem controversial. But other scientists have repeated the McMaster experiment and achieved similar results. So how can short, focused exercise be so effective? Well, it’s all about how the body reacts to the different types of stimuli.

Low-intensity workouts, such as jogging, stimulate the heart. But they don’t engage the muscles particularly well. In contrast, incredibly intense workouts, like weight training, put huge pressure on the muscle tissue. This forces the body to rapidly convert glucose into energy and kickstarts metabolic processes. As a result, such exercise is incredibly energy-intensive and can yield dramatic results after only a few minutes of activity.

Why Should You Work Out Harder But Less Often To Train Your Muscles?

Imagine this: your forehead throbs. A tightness grips your temples. It feels like a jackhammer is pounding away inside your skull. Yes, you’ve got a migraine. Painkillers should help, but how many should you take? Too few may not work, and too many may cause an overdose. No, it’s important to get the dosage exactly right.

Exercise works the same way. Just like medicines, workouts stimulate the body to achieve certain results. And, just like with medicines, it’s crucial to get the dosage right. Not enough, and you won’t see the results. Too much, and you risk an injury.

When it comes to building up your muscles, a lot depends on getting the stimulation just right. Muscle fiber comes in three different varieties. There are slow-twitch fibers, which are plentiful, weak, and use little energy. Then there are fast-twitch fibers, which are less common, more powerful, and use lots of energy. Finally there are intermediate fibers, which, as the name suggests, lie somewhere in between.

Since the human body is designed to be efficient, it will always try to use as little energy as it can. This means that for simple activities, like lifting small weights or doing aerobics, the body will only call upon low-energy, slow-twitch muscle fibers. What does it mean for you? Well, one result is that if you only do low-intensity workouts, your body will never use enough energy to really kick off the metabolic processes. Results will be underwhelming.

Now let’s look at the other approach: a rigorous, intense workout routine. From the get-go, it will require the body to tap into the power of those fast-twitch fibers. Activities like bench-pressing or leg-pressing very heavy loads are excellent for this purpose. As you strain with the hefty weights, your fast-twitch fibers will burn through all your energy in just a few difficult repetitions.

Now you know all this, you can, perhaps, start to build up your ideal dose of exercise. And it could be as little as one or two very energy-demanding sets of weightlifting at a time. You won’t even need to exercise every day: fast-twitch fibers take a very long time to recover, so plan for plenty of time between workouts. What does plenty of time mean? Well, anything from a few days to a week.

This all sounds great, but how do you put this science into practice? 

Why Should You Keep Your Workout Simple?

Let’s say you’ve got a few hundred bucks lying around. Now, like any savvy saver, you want that money to grow. So, you decide to put it in the stock market. What’s the best investment strategy?

Well, you could aim high and bet it all on the latest start-up, or you could just pour cash into whichever industry catches your eye. These are risky strategies, sure, but you could see big payoffs.

On the other hand, if you want a guarantee of steady returns, it’s best to stick with just a few of the market’s most stable, predictable stocks.

When it comes to your workouts, the same principle applies. All you need for reliable results is just a few classic moves. This routine is sometimes called the Big Five.

So what is this routine? It consists of five resistance training moves that can be performed on common weight machines, such as the Nautilus or the MedX.

These moves are: pulldowns, leg presses, seated rows, chest presses, and overhead presses. Each uses basic movements that draw upon multiple muscle groups. If you cycle through these activities, you’ll target all major parts of the body, from your upper back, to the front torso, to the lower legs.

Executing the Big Five is simple, but not easy. During the workout, perform each exercise at a slow, steady rate. You don’t want to aim for a specific number of repetitions. Instead, try to work your muscles until they can no longer lift the weights. This is called positive failure. Reaching this state is what stimulates your metabolism to work at its hardest. 

Now, each individual will require a different amount of work to reach positive failure. A good rule of thumb is that your muscles should give out after about 90 seconds. When this occurs, take a 60-second break. Then, move on to the next activity.

After you cycle through each of the Big Five moves, you should feel completely spent. Great work! Now you can relax and recover until next week’s session.

A Proper Exercise Routine Never Stops

Congratulations! After weeks of consistent training, you’ve managed to reach a real fitness milestone. You can perfectly execute a 200-pound leg press routine for the exact 90 seconds which the Big Five plan calls for. Now you just need to maintain that level of fitness. Easy, right?

Not exactly. After a few weeks, that same 200-pound press for 90 seconds becomes increasingly difficult. 

After a month, even 80 seconds make you fatigued. Two weeks on, and you’re tapping out at 70 seconds. What’s going on?

Unfortunately, you’re facing the harsh reality of high-intensity exercise. The trick about it is that you can’t just stop. If you’re not making gains and improving all the time, your fitness will go downhill.

There’s a common misconception that fitness is like a race with a defined finish line. 

Inexperienced bodybuilders think that once they have reached a certain level of strength, or a desired aesthetic goal, they can kick back and enjoy their success. Sadly, this isn’t true. Even if you complete the same routine every week, without new challenges your gains will slowly diminish.

Luckily, there are ways in which you can update the basic Big Five plan to make it more difficult. Let’s say you’re stuck with the same weights; your results have plateaued. In this case, try adjusting your technique. This will put your muscles under a different type of stress.

One variation you may want to consider is the time-static hold. This involves hitting positive failure, and then amping up the pain. You do this by holding the weight in place for an additional 10 to 15 seconds.

And if the Big Five is no longer working for you, it’s fine to even move away from it entirely. Most advanced lifters may benefit from the Split Routine. This system divides your base workout into three groups of exercises. You do one group a day: for example, Mondays are for chest presses, lateral raises, and tricep pressdowns; on Wednesdays, you focus on the leg press, standing calf raise, and exercises on the abdominal machine; and finally on Fridays you do pulldowns, seated rows, lower back lifts, and bicep curls.

But remember: you don’t need these variations until you’re nearly at peak fitness. Think of them as a way to push your body from 98 percent to 100 percent.

Exercise to Hit Your Own Personal Best

Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger. A former Mr. Universe winner, a star of action films, and an all-around fitness icon. For many aspiring bodybuilders, the goal is to look like Schwarzenegger did in his prime.

But how many of these weightlifters will build bodies like Arnold’s? Not many. In reality, for many of us, it is simply not possible to bulk up to Hollywood standards. And it’s not our fault.

A lot of the body’s shape and structure is not determined by what you do. Instead, it’s controlled by the genes. In fact, recent research has found that there may be strict genetic limits on muscle growth.

Everyone’s body is different. And this means that the size and appearance of our musculatures vary widely. One of these variables is the rate of neuromuscular efficiency. This is the ability to activate muscle on command. Most of us contract only about 30 percent of our muscle fibers. But some bodies are much more efficient. There are people who can control closer to 50 percent of their fibers. Obviously, they can stimulate their muscles harder and faster, and this results in more dramatic gains.

But even these lucky people are limited by genetics.

Most mammals have a gene called GDF-8. It controls the production of a protein called myostatin. Its sole purpose is to constrain muscle growth. In the past, this was a useful adaptation because it prevented our bodies from growing excessive, energy-demanding bulk.

Today, science shows that the production of myostatin has a strong effect on a body’s musculature. If the levels of this protein are low, you get impressive muscle growth. Just look at Belgian Blues, a breed of cattle. Their bodies naturally produce no myostatin, and it shows. Their muscles are 30% larger than what you’d see in ordinary cows.

Humans also have varying levels of myostatin – but it doesn’t mean that our appearances are completely predetermined. With persistence and effort, anyone can accrue additional muscle. Unfortunately, though, there are limits to how much muscle you can build. And that should serve as a reminder: work out to reach your own best, not somebody else’s stereotype.

The Most Efficient Way to Lose Weight

Bad news: you’ve worked so hard to lose weight, but now you’ve slipped up. In a moment of weakness, you hit the local all-you-can-eat buffet and overindulged on snacks and sweets. In one mealtime binge, you probably packed in an extra 3000 calories.

But, you’re telling yourself, it’s probably OK. After all, you can always burn off those excess calories on the treadmill, right? Well, yes and no. As an average 120-pound woman, you can reach that goal with a brisk jog. But here’s the thing: you’ll have to keep pounding the pavement for 44 straight miles.

Yikes. When put in these terms, losing weight through aerobic exercise seems nearly impossible.

Luckily, there is an alternative: high-intensity workouts.

For many people, losing weight is a constant battle. In the modern world, access to carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods is easy. So we consume a lot more calories than our ancestors did. Much of this energy becomes fat. People will try to get rid of it by taking regular aerobic exercise like jogging, walking, or calisthenics. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work.

The problem is that the human body is incredibly efficient at both using and storing energy. Consider this: a pound of fat can contain up to 3,500 calories. But, for most people, a steady one-hour jog will only burn around 200 calories. Jogging will get you results, but they won’t come quickly. The numbers just don’t add up.

So, is there a different way to burn calories? By this point, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is high-energy workouts. If you have a lot of muscle, you’ll be using up a lot of energy. And that’s true even if you’re not actively exercising. To keep just one pound of muscle alive and healthy, your body must burn up to 100 calories a day. So if you build a mere five pounds of additional muscles, your body will be burning an extra 250 calories per day. And you won’t even have to do anything to encourage it!

Obviously, subjecting your muscles to high-intensity workouts will accelerate this process even more. In this way, building and maintaining muscle turns your body into a fat-burning machine. And that’s just science!

Final Summary

Not all exercise will put you on the path to overall health and fitness. Low-intensity aerobic exercises, such as jogging, will primarily work the cardiovascular system. But they won’t engage your body’s wider metabolic processes. You’ll get better results from high-intensity exercises. 

By strenuously working your muscles to the point of fatigue, you can force your body to rapidly convert calories to energy. And this will kick off additional muscle growth and accelerate weight loss.

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