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Train Both Strength and Endurance Fibers for Longevity

Go Heavy—Go Long—Go Hard

Our fitness-minded doctor friend Wade Smith called our attention to a recent Men’s Health article by Lou Schuler, CSCS, on muscle biopsy data as a predictor of mortality. “It pretty much coincides with your approach and experience,” he observed.

The article adds substantially to our ongoing dialogue on the benefits of strength and/or endurance training.

Muscle fibers say a lot about our fitness—and health span. The Men’s Health article looks to Andy Galpin, PhD, a researcher at the Cal State Fullerton Muscle Laboratory, for the latest findings on muscle fibers. Until recently, we thought there were three types of muscle fibers: slow twitch, fast twitch, and super-fast twitch. We also thought the distribution was fixed. That marathon champions had a preponderance of slow fibers, while sprinters and strength athletes were blessed with a majority of fast fibers.

With faster separation techniques and more powerful microscopes, we’ve learned that we actually have six fiber types, ranging from slow to fast. Slower-twitch fibers contain more mitochondria, the cell parts that generate energy; they’re also capable of using more fat for energy. Faster-twitch fibers burn glycogen, and can fatigue within minutes of exertion.

That’s interesting, but the most consequential news is the control we have over our fiber type distribution.

The average, untrained man is likely to have about 40% slow fibers, 30% fast fibers, and 30% hybrid fibers. (Women are generally more fatigue resistant.) The hybrid fibers, Galpin says, “are sitting in the middle saying, ‘You’re not really doing anything, so I’m just going to float…until you give me something I need to be.”

When you commit to a strength—or endurance—program your hybrid fibers will transition within weeks, and in the first year of training, as many as 20% of your hybrid fibers will go fast or slow. Conversely, if you work out for a while and then stop, your trained fibers will quickly revert to hybrids, going to the sidelines again. “Research on astronauts reveals that these kinds of changes can happen in just 11 days in space.”

Twin Muscle Plasticity

Galpin and his colleague, Jimmy Bagley, PhD, are taking a step further by looking at the structure and function of muscle fibers in people ranging from elite athletes to end-stage kidney failure patients. In short, muscle fibers and status of health and longevity

In between those extremes, they studied Paul and Pete McLeland, 54-year-old identical twins with completely different fitness habits. Paul excelled in cross-country at college and has been a dedicated runner most of his life, at times going years without missing a day of training. “I’m a plugger, grinding for each mile and minute,” he related.

Pete, on the other hand, preferred cycling and had biked across the country multiple times. But no longer has a regular fitness routine.

The difference in their fitness regimens is reflected in their health stats and their muscle fiber biopsies. Paul weighs less and has a lower heart rate, along with lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Peter, however, has just as much muscle mass as his brother and greater leg and grip strength.

“Paul’s muscles adapted to match his singular pursuit (running), while Pete’s inactivity resulted in still having 25 percent of hybrids unassigned.”

The takeaway, Galpin says, is the amazing plasticity of human muscle: “With enough time and enough exposure, you have no boundaries.”

Applying the Research to Workouts

While big shifts in fiber type (around 25%) are possible, minor shifts of 10% or so are more common, Kevin Murach, PhD, an exercise scientist at the University of Kentucky, told Men’s Health. “We have a pretty good handle on what type of stimulus elicits a certain kind of switch, but the precise details are elusive. It’s likely not just one thing but a combination of things that cause fiber-type transitioning.”

Most of us have no way to track changes in our fiber type, but there are ways to gauge the effectiveness of our workouts. Are you gaining strength or speed, or stamina? Are you hitting new maxes in your lifts or time trials? If you’re not getting the results you hope for, you can change the emphasis of your workout.

If your goal is lifetime fitness and health, you’ll probably want a balanced approach.

To Dr. Galpin, health and fitness are simple: “If you look at what predicts mortality—and I love these studies because the endpoint is death—the ones who are stronger tend to live longer.” But strength isn’t the only fitness consideration linked to longevity. Cardiovascular fitness and total physical activity are also associated with longevity.

“The research is unambiguous enough, but the message can get garbled by experts who, despite their general good intentions, are stuck in fitness silos,” Lou Schuler observes. “They’re so invested in strength or endurance training that they’re blinded to the value of everything else.”

“Strength is a major part of health,” Galpin says. “The more strength you gain, the more you’ll move around during the day.” Stronger muscles allow your heart to do its job with less effort, making it easier to do everything from walking and climbing stairs to lifting and carrying sacks of dog food. “I mean, what dissuades you from doing those random acts of physical activity? It’s not all cardiovascular function. It’s also being weak!”

Galpin’s prescription is a combination of activities. Do a few things involving heavy lifting. A few things to get your heart rate up. And a few things that require sustained effort. “It’s not sexy, but all the research shows that those three things are the most important,” he says.

There are many ways to meet those challenges.

Here’s a sample program recommended by Galpin:

Monday: Go heavy. Do at least one exercise in each of the five major movement patterns: squat, deadlift, push (chest press, shoulder press, dip), pull (pulldown, row), and carry (pick up something heavy with one or both hands and walk). On at least one or two exercises in each workout, go as heavy as you can while maintaining good technique. “On a scale of one to 10, it should rate about seven to nine,” he says. “If you don’t push it, you won’t get stronger.”

Wednesday: Go long. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you keep up a continuous, sustained effort for at least 30 minutes. You can run, ride, or do calisthenics. Your intensity should be high enough to feel like exercise, but not so high that you have to stop and rest.

Friday: Go hard. This time your goal is to get your heart rate up near its max through brief bursts of all-out effort. Again, the specific mode of exercise doesn’t matter—you can use a rower or stationary bike, swing a kettlebell, run up a hill. A good target is three to six 30-second intervals, with two to three minutes in between for recovery.

My Take

Everyone knows that I Go Heavy and Go Hard, but may wonder about Going Long. I’ll go inside all three.

Going heavy becomes more difficult as you get older. We develop problems as the years pile up. With a little imagination, you can almost always find a way to work around the problems.

I have two main problems. The first is a weak shoulder that comes from a congenital curvature in my back and years of doing the Olympic lifts. My left shoulder is missing some muscles that never came back. I work around that several ways.

When I was training for physique competition, I did the dumbbell upright row in place of the overhead press. It worked fine; my shoulder development suffered little if at all.

Photo by Denie Walter

Since then, I’ve adopted several more ways to work around my weak shoulder.

With dumbbells, I attach magnet weights on the strong side to even out movements such as the incline press.

Secondly, I use machines for chest and shoulder presses to even out the resistance.

Finally, I use a single kettlebell or resistance bands to even out resistance.

All of these "adjustments" allow me to train both shoulders with maximum effort. My doctor at the Cooper Clinic marvels at the effectiveness of my rehab.

*  *  *

The other problem is stenosis in my lower back. Compressing the vertebra of my lumbar spine causes problems by pinching the nerves. Again, heavy lifting and the curvature of my back are the culprits. The key to managing this problem is to avoid rounding or twisting my lower back. And to keep moving in ways that don't cause problems; the dividing line can be tricky. It's difficult to train effectively without stepping over the line from time to time.

I no longer squat or do deadlifts. I substitute the back raise and the glut-ham raise with resistance, which challenge my core without compressing my spine.

Photo by Laszlo Bencze

 

I also do leg curls, leg extensions, and leg presses. The key is to lift and lower the weight in a slow and controlled manner to avoid problems.

Again, I don't think my lower back, hips and upper legs have suffered significantly. I'm not as big as I once was, but I'm still doing pretty well.

*  *  *

I stopped running a long time ago; my back does not like it. No need to run to Go hard and Go Long.

In my experience, using machines such as the Schwinn Airdyne and the Concept 2 Rower and Ski Erg is better than running for Going hard on intervals. The advantage these machines offer is excellent monitors to measure progress. Progress drives motivation.

These machines also challenge the entire body, arms and legs, in ways that running doesn't. That's important because muscle fibers have to be worked to benefit.

The foothills allow Carol and I to GO long. She is a better walker than me, but can't keep up on the hills. I'm stronger, but she is more fatigue resistant. Works out fine because she catches me going down hill and on flat.

We make it a point to include long inclines in our weekend hikes, usually climbing several steep hills in the process.

Foothills offer endless options. We almost never go the same route two weeks in a row. Makes our hikes more challenging—and interesting.
 

 

I monitor time, steps, heart rate variation, and sleep pattern using my Fitbit. Like the monitors mentioned above, it makes training more interesting and challenging. Fitbit is especially helpful to keep me moving on rest days; my goal is 7000 steps to keep blood flowing and speed recovery

The only thing I don’t do that Dr. Galpin recommends is “pick up something heavy and walk.” My back would not like it; violates my rule: “If It Hurts Don’t Do It.

*  *  *

This is how I meet Dr. Galpin’s recommendations. Now, it’s up to you to find the way that suits you. What you enjoy and do best is usually the best medicine for success.

October 1, 2019

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