|Do they train at the right intensity and what is the right intensity? What's right, anyway? Lot's of questions, tons of words, a couple of answers and some interesting revelations in today's 2nd article of the SuppVersity Exercise Science Week.|
Where does the idea that you better work out at low intensities come from?
I have made it a (enervating?) habit to include a small reminder of the "dark side" the same beneficial exercise stress that elicits muscle gains, fat loss, and improvements in conditioning and overall health can have, whenever you don't allow for adequate recovery and nutrient supply, in almost every of the articles pointing to the superiority of high intensity training vs. training in the comfort zone (click here to read up on a couple of these articles).
|Figure 1: A comprehensive study by Carey revealed that the increase in ratio of fat-calories to total energy ependiture, when you train in the "fat burning zone" is 3% for men, 5% for women. The total amount of fat is yet higher above the "zone" and, most importantly, the current research suggests that the glycolytic effect, which is inversely related to the relative fat oxidation, is what triggers most of the beneficial metabolic effects.|
Aside from that, Carey's results also support the observation Wilson et al. formulate in their recent review of concurrent training, namely that "most dramatic loss in fat mass occurr[s] from moderately high to very high intensities" (Wilson. 2012). In this context, the scientists' definition of "moderately high" is already way beyond the alleged zone of maximal fat loss. "Dramatic" is by the way also an excellent attribute for the 4.5x higher fat loss effect Wilson et al. computed for the highest vs. medium exercise intensities (91-100% vs. 61-80% HRMax) based on the data they collected for their review.
"Better fat loss, w/ high intensity, aha... but isn't that at the cost of increased oxidation?"
In view of the fact that will be coming back to the issue of "optimal fat loss" later this week, anyway, I guess it's best we get back to the topic at hand and take a look at the toll endurance workouts at different exercise intensities actually take on your antioxidant defense system. As mentioned before, it is still far from being certain which markers you would actually have to measure to get a clear picture of how much stress and damage a given exercise regimen is inflicting. Compared to the creatine kinase levels, the measurement of markers of the activity and status of the anti-oxidant defense system, which was the main outcome variable in a study by Takahasi et al. does yet appear to be more relevant - if not with respect to exercise performance than certainly with respect to overall and metabolic health.
The first thing the scientists registered was that the pre to post increase in oxidative stress at the low and medium intensities did not even reach statistical significance. The "pro-oxidative" effects of the high intensity trial, on the other hand, were statistically significant. Yet, if you look at the actual data in figure 2, I'd guess that you will - just like me - ask yourselves what all the hoopla was about: The absolute differences are mediocre, at best and their physical not statistical significance is highly questionable; and that's not just because the trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity (TEAC) actually increased from pre to post exercise (from allegedly lower pre levels in the 130% trial than before the other exercise tests.
Training at higher intensities is demanding, yeah... but not overtly demanding!
Now, all these statistical significances were calculated on a pre vs. post basis. Intensity-specific differences on the other hand were not observed. We do therefore have to be cautious not to misinterpret the scientists very own and actually non-judgmental conclusion ...
"We found that plasma concentrations of d-ROMs increased as a result of 20 min of exercise above AT. Exercise above AT also increased enzymatic and nonenzymatic antioxidant capacity. On the other hand, there was no effect after 20 min of exercise at 70–100% AT, suggesting that exercise under the AT level does not produce oxidative stress damage." (Takahashi. 2013)... as an advice to stick to "exercise under the AT [anaerobic threshold]". There are already way too many people wasting their time on the cross-trainers of this word - don't join them, but don't overexert yourself either.
|The "Iranian HIIT Solution" has already proven that a minimalist HIIT regimen in the form of 3x200m sprint sessions per week can make all the difference esp. for someone who has never participated in regular activity before (read more).|
|Figure 3: Oxidative stress and glycogen depletion are important triggers of the beneficial effects of exercise on glucose metabolism ( (based on Kawanaka. 2012).|
"So, what exactly is the effect size of these improvements? Are the worth the sweating?"
To illustrate the quantity of these effects, Kawanaka uses data from a 2009 study by Koshinaka et al. who subjected rats to an acute bout of 3x20s "high-intensity sprint interal swimming" and measured muscle glycogen levels and glucose transport at different timepoints in the 16h window after the workout.
Glycogen supercompensation: This is how it's done
There is yet more to the Koshinika study than another confirmation of the usefulness of HI(I)T exercise for fat loss, fitness and fabulous health. The data Koshinaka et al. collected does also tell us something about post workout glycogen repletion. Most importantly (at least in my humble opinion) that the first, immediate post-exercise phase is characterized by a rapid non-insulin dependent increase in glucose uptake. The latter is actually just as high (>5µmol/g/20min; respective data is not shown in figure 4) as the maximally measured glucose uptake in phase II, in the course of which the presence of insulin has a dose-dependent beneficial effect on the total amount of glucose that's going to be shuttled into the muscle (see figure 4, left). With phase III being characterized by saturated (in fact more than saturated) glycogen stores, these observations would suggest that an "optimal" glycogen replenishment protocol would look somewhat like this:
- phase I: immediately post > fast absorbing carbohydrate source -- what's important during the immediate post-workout phase is exclusively the availability of glucose, insulin the presence of extra high insulin levels is more or less unnecessary
- phase II: post workout phase (<8h) > high GI carbohydrate source -- once the glycogen levels have reached a certain level the supercompensation process requires the presence of additional insulin, therefore your post-workout meal should not be carb-free or extremely low GI
- phase III: recovery phase (>8h) > low GI carbohydrate source -- the glycogen stores have already reached higher than baseline levels, the presence of high levels of insulin in this phase would be counterproductive as it would actually drive glucose uptake by the adipose, not the muscle tissue
|When you increase your calorie intake on a bulk, you better go really high carb + low fat, if lean gains are what you're looking for. This is at least what a 2011 study by Mendes-Netto suggests (read more)|
"But how important is muscle glycogen, anyway?"
For the average trainee it does yet remain questionable whether or not this protocol will actually yield noticeable benefits. While it is important to replete the glycogen stores, the advantages of doing this as fast as possible are actually not really relevant for someone who trains 3-4 times per week in order to promote health, well-being and a leaner, more muscular (but not freakish) physique. Especially with respect to the latter, the majority of the more recent studies clearly suggests that muscle protein synthesis is, in the short run, not impaired by low levels of muscle glycogen (click here to learn more).
What you should never forget, though, is that your body will interpret chronically low muscle and liver glycogen levels as a clear-cut indicator that you're starving. The results are a reduced metabolic rate and the shut down of "auxilliary" and costly bodily functions such as the reproductive machinery, etc. - and we don't want that to happen, right?
- Kawanaka K. Regulation of glucose transport in skeletal muscle during and after exercise. 2012. J Phys Fitness Sports Med, 1(4): 563-572.
- Koshinaka K, Kawasaki E, Hokari F, Kawanaka K. Effect of acute high intensity intermittent swimming on postexercise insulin responsiveness in epitrochlearis of fed rats. Metabolism. 2009; 58: 246-253.
- Takahashi M, Suzuki K, Matoba H, Sakamoto S, Obara S. Effects of different intensities of endurance exercise on oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity. J Phys Fitness Sports Med. 2013 1(1): 183-189.
- Sewright KA, Hubal MJ, Kearns A, Holbrook MT, Clarkson PM. Sex differences in response to maximal eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Feb;40(2):242-51.
- Whyte LJ, Ferguson C, Wilson J, Scott RA, Gill JM. Effects of single bout of very high-intensity exercise on metabolic health biomarkers in overweight/obese sedentary men. Metabolism. 2013 Feb;62(2):212-9.
- Wilson JM, Marin PJ, Rhea MR, Wilson SM, Loenneke JP, Anderson JC. Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2293-307.
- Zawadzki KM, Yaspelkis BB 3rd, Ivy JL. Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1992 May;72(5):1854-9.