Metabolic conditioning is all the rage right now, from Crossfit to more ancient, traditional methods of fat loss. This is nothing new, as many athletes have used different methods ranging from bodyweight exercises to exercises using kettlebells, dumbbells, barbells and other tools to improve their conditioning and body composition. The good news about this is that more people are realizing they can lose fat, look great and achieve specific strength & fitness goals all at the same time.
When I say nothing new, I mean it. There are stories about very strong and fit athletes from the distant past who used exercises instead of various types of running to improve aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. From Gama the great, a legendary Indian wrestler, up to Bob Gajda, who designed a system to lose weight using barbells and dumbbells in order to get in shape and win the AAU Mr. America in 1966, beating his training partner Sergio Oliva to the title.
The renewed attention those methods enjoyed are due in good part to Crossfit. However, they are not limited to the way Crossfit uses them. Many traditional bodybuilding methodologies provide great body composition improvements as well. If you have ever tried the 20-rep breathing squat, you know what I mean. Those methods harken back to our manual laborer past, when a farmer had to bring in the hay, lifting bale after bale from sun up to sun down, or to more industrial-era type of heavy lifting.
Heck, even Arnold and Franco, who recently passed away, have built tremendous work capacity by being brick layers in their youth. Sergio Oliva, another bodybuilder with incredible work capacity, used to work double-shifts in a meat-packing plant before his workouts. Work capacity is one of the defining trait of all those legendary physiques.
It’s no surprise that many law enforcement agencies throughout the world are also looking into that type of training as a change of pace from endless hours of jogging. Unfortunately, they remain hampered by tradition in this regard, as do many sports, such as martial arts. However, improvements have been made, notably by the Montreal firefighters and police forces, the Canadian Armed forces and the U.S. Secret Services.
And you too can harness the power of conditioning to bring your physique and your work capacity to the next level.
An Historical Perspective on Modern Methods of Conditioning
Peripheral Heart Action, or PHA (1) for short, was used by Bob Gajda to find a way to increase his conditioning to win the Mr. America title. Originally invented by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus in the 1940s, Gajda found it was a great way to pack on muscle while improving his definition and conditioning. He started using weight in a circuit fashion, alternating upper and lower body exercise in rapid fashion. He would use little rest between each. This, according to the principle, would increase the demand on the heart. The idea was to shift the demand for blood supply between the upper and lower part of the body. Although modern science would find out that it was more related to lactic acid production, the method still proved effective. And thus Bob Gajda made bodybuilding history.
PHA’s principle worked has such:
– Use 4 to 6 sets of 5 to 8 exercises
– Do sets of 10-12 reps with no rest other than the time to move from station to station or adjust the load.
– Don’t seek localised pump, but rather to be short of breath.
– Ramp up the load from set to set. However, that is not a prerequisite.
And voilà, the modern circuit training was born. Although there are many variations, those basics still hold true to this day. Of course, circuits can be scaled up of down depending on level of fitness. A sample PHA workout can look like this:
Classic Peripheral Heart Action Workout
– Front Squat
– Military Press
– Wide-Grip Pull-Ups
– Good Mornings
– Barbell Curl
– Hanging Leg Raise
Of course, bodybuilding being what it is, other circuit training methods where developed, where localised pump could be introduced and heavier loads were the norm. Many circuit-type methodologies have stemmed from this system, but they all operate on the same principles
– Short rests
– Moving from one exercise to the other in circuit fashion
– working different muscle groups in the same workout.
However, they are all offshoot of Peripheral Heart Action, who can be viewed as the grand-daddy of regular circuit training.
Olympia-worthy body composition
Another bodybuilding guru who was a fan of short rest for body composition and hypertrophy is Vince Gironda. His infamous 8 x 8 routine remains a staple to this day. It has kicked many a trainee’s rear-end since its inception and still continues to do so this day. Gironda’s method was more focused on a regular training split, training 2-3 muscle group per day. However, it still emphasized short rest and tremendous work load. Gironda touted “workout density” as the secret behing the effectiveness of the 8 x 8. Density refers here to the amount of work done by unit of time. Thus, doing more work in less time would increase the density of your workouts.
Gironda used his 8 x 8 method to condition some of his best students, such as Mohamed Makkawy. Makkawy was twice runner-up in the Olympia. caming behind Samir Bannout in 1983 and Lee Haney in 1984. Vince called the 8 x 8 this high-intensity method the “honest-workout.” It quickly became one of his favorite rep scheme. He would select 3 to 4 exercises for a given muscle group. He would then have his trainee do 8 sets of 8 reps with only 15 to 30 seconds of rest in-between sets. They would initially use 30-40% less weight, but would quickly build it back up to using up to 75-90% of the same load they used in regular sets.
This principle has been applied, albeit differently, with the German Volume Training, which calls for 10 sets of 10 reps using a 15 to 20RM load. Although it was aimed at inducing hypertrophy, it also proved time and again a fantastic method of improving body composition and leaning out the physique of his trainees.
Fear the giant
It’s no wonder that increased training density has been used to in the preparation of bodybuilders. From local contests to the Olympia, circuit training has made its mark. One of the most popular methods for this is giant sets. It consists of training the same muscle group in 3-5 sets of many exercises done in supersets with little to no rest in-between.
The most recognized proponent of this method is bodybuilding expert Milos Sarcev, who regularly put athletes in the top 10 of major bodybuilding competition such the Mr. Olympia. He achieves unreal level of conditioning by having his clients go through his grueling giant sets. They often consist of 3 sets of a giant set made up of 10 to 15 exercises for the same muscle group. The workload is tremendous and you can easily see why it can make one very conditioned. Of course, dramatic improvement in one’s physique is just one of the side effects of Sarcev’s methodology. Due to this workload, his clients also have superb aerobic and anaerobic capacity… all without a single minute of cardio.
The barbell and dumbbell method from the East
Another modern method of weightroom conditioning is barbell and dumbbell complexes. They started becoming popular in the 2000s. This method was developed in the 70s-80s by Istvan Javorek, a strength and conditioning specialist from the Eastern Block who emigrated to America
It consists of different exercises done with a barbell as a circuit. All the exercises would use the same load. No changing the weight on the bar. This makes it a convenient method to use in a commercial gym because it takes only 1 piece of equipment and little space. Javorek would have his students do either the same number of reps on all exercises, or use different rep ranges depending of the exercises or the muscle group being worked.
The principle was the same as a traditional circuit though: go from one exercise to another in a smooth fashion, with no rest between the transitions. This concept was heavily copied by internet gurus and online coaches. Unfortunately, most of them never credited Javorek for the idea, but it is an interesting method when properly done . When designing an effective complex, particular attention should be paid to the exercise sequence. The basic is that they should all flow in a sequence that is both natural and efficient.
Javorek’s method can also be used to warm up for more traditional workouts, such as Olympic weightlifting. His classic Javorek’s Barbell Complex # 1 exercises are:
- Upright Row x 6
- High Pull Snatch x 6
- Behind the Head Squat Push Press x 6
- Behind the Head Good Morning x 6
- Bent Over Row x 6
His website contains many more, some of which are perfect body composition purposes. For more ideas on how Javorek designed his complexes, visit his page http://www.istvanjavorek.com/page2.html
A bit of science
Interestingly, recent evidence has found that circuit training where both upper and lower body exercise are used in the same workout are more effective at putting on muscle then either lower body or upper body alone. This lends credence to another method of training, the German Body Composition. It would use lower and upper body exercises in the same workout to produce changes in body composition. You can use either a full body routine or a push-pull type of split.
Although these gains in muscle mass have traditionally been credited to lactic acid production, a recent study found another pathway (2).
It would seem that using both upper and lower body exercises increase the level of follistatin. You’ve probably heard of myostatin. This molecule is a growth-regulating protein that regulates muscle mass in animals and humans. In other words, the more active myostatin is, the less muscle mass you gain. This has led many scientists and bro-science alike to find ways to reduce the effect of myostatin. This conjures up the image of those myostatin-deficient über-oxen
But there are ways to reduce the activity of myostatin. Resistance training is one. And increasing a little-known molecule is another
In a study by Bagheri et al. 2019, they had three groups of trainees perform different types of workout. 40 middle-aged men were randomly assigned to one of 4 groups:
– Upper-body resistance training
– Lower-body resistance training
– Combined resistance training (lower body and upper body)
The study lasted 8 weeks and comprised 3 sessions per week. Blood samples were collected before training and 48h after the last workout.
Here is what the researchers found out:
– All three training groups made gains in muscle mass
– The upper-body training group gained 0.76 kilograms, +/- .46 kilograms.
– The lower-body training group gained 0.90 kilograms, +/- .29 kilograms.
– The combined upper-body/lower-body training group gained 1.38 kilograms, +/- 0.70 kilograms.
For you metric system-impaired, that is a little over 3 lb. of muscle in 8 weeks. Although some can be chalked up to the average training age of the subjects, the differences remain that the upper-body resistance training group gained the least and the combined upper/lower-body gained the most. Almost double the same gains, in fact.
What they found in the blood samples helps explain this drastic difference. While it’s been known for a long time that resistance training inhibits myostatin, another inhibitory signal is a protein called follistatin. The more follistatin you have, the less myostatin is active. Based on this study, it would seem from the results of this study that lower-body training produces more follistastin then upper-body training. But combined upper and lower body training produces the most out of all the training modalities observed in this paper.
This emphasizes the body composition advantages of methods such as PHA and German Body Composition. Of course, this remains only one study, and might not reflect the general gym population. It is however a good science-based first clue as to why these methods are effective.
There you have it. From Olympia-worthy physique to middle-aged trainees looking to build muscle and lose fat, circuit-style training is an asset. Although traditionally various types of running and other cyclical activities have been used to increase cardiovascular health and aerobic and anaerobic capacity, they are not the only way. Using higher load acyclical activities such as resistance training with a variety of implement will boost conditioning, increase fat loss and muscle gains.
The Strength Community
– Total Body Training – by Richard H. Dominguez & Robert Gajda, 1983
– Bagheri R, Rashidlamir A, Motevalli MS, Elliott BT, Mehrabani J, Wong A. “Effects of upper-body, lower-body, or combined resistance training on the ratio of follistatin and myostatin in middle-aged men.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep; 119(9):1921-1931.