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How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?

Gloomy stair runs, anyone?
Photo by thr3 eyes on Unsplash

This is Part II of a series of three. Not unlike The Godfather. I mean, The Godfather Part II is where it’s at.

If you haven’t read Part I yet, I recommend you do so before diving into this. It’ll make Part II make more sense. If that makes sense.
Part I: Overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Are Your Strength and Conditioning Up To Standard?
Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

Let’s continue the adventures into the standards. By compering yourself to the standards you can gain clarity on what to work on, narrowing down the goals to set for yourself. Today, strength and conditioning standards.

Strength Standards

Search the internet or ask ten trainers for their standards on strength and you’ll get eleven different answers. Surprisingly to none, trainers tend to be biased on pushing the importance of strength. Getting people strong is our livelihood after all. 

But, how much strength is enough? It depends, as always, on your goals. Winning the heavyweight class in powerlifting requires an insane amount of raw strength. But as great as raw strength in powerlifting might be, it is too narrow approach for sports that require more than just moving heavy weights up and down. There is a point of diminishing returns for, let’s say, snowboarding, running, swimming or team sports.

I can’t give you a specific strength standards for every sport, but I can give you my standards

There are certain strength skills that have more carryover than others. The ones that provide the base for the other qualities, such as health, freedom and specific sports skills to thrive on. Beyond specific athletic endeavors where money, status and immortality are at stake, there is absolutely no point gaining strength at the expense of your health and freedom of movement. 

Bodyweight exercises hit the sweet spot for measuring general health and wellbeing

I am far from a calisthenic purists who thinks all the world’s problems can be solved with a quality set of pull ups. No matter how much I want a diplomatic solution to all of the world’s problems, I doubt that it’ll happen by getting Trump to rep out on pull ups. Unless he gets a heart attack while doing it, survives, and comes back as a more decent person. But, I digress.

Having the control of your body ticks multiple boxes all at once while acting as a measuring stick for your overall health. Controlling your body weight in space forces you to keep your body fat and weight in check. It’s easier to bang out 10 pull ups weighing in at 85kg compared to 125kg. That’s just physics 101.

Keeping the body weight in check also means that you are required to focus on things beyond pushing external weight for mindless hypertrophy chasing excessive muscle gains. As we established in Part, I there is a line where more muscle doesn’t serve a purpose beyond a bloated ego. 

And so, we finally arrive at the strength standards for health

Push ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 10 repetitions
Men 20 repetitions

Push ups are a simple test for upper body pushing strength, core strength and for creating and maintaining full body tension. Really, push up is just a moving plank. All the things challenged in a push up transfer to other activities in life, whether it’s maintaining tension on a bike or a surfboard, or creating stiffness in the trunk while throwing a punch in a street fight. 

Note, I discourage street fights. Unless it’s Tekken*.

Pull ups – full range, one second pause in the top and bottom positions

Women 2 repetitions
Men 8 repetitions

Pull ups demonstrate upper body pulling strength while being able to maintain a full body stiffness and control. Again, pull up is a plank with an added vertical pulling challenge. 

To even get into the starting position of a pull up requires 180 degrees of shoulder mobility. Something that a lot of people lose throughout the course of life due to poor posture and lifestyle habits. Another box ticked.

The get up

Both women and men 1 repetition per side with a cup of water.

Here’s an old write up devoted to the get up.

Then the guidelines as to what I believe a strong recreational athlete** should be able to do in the gym (on top of push ups, pull ups and get ups)

Kettlebell swing
Women 24kg x 10
Men 32kg x 10

Strength and power rolled up into a one heavy iron ball. Trains the rear side of the body like nothing else. If I could only do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the kettlebell swing. Yes, it’s that efficient.

Single leg deadlift
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Beyond the obvious strength benefits without heavy load on the low back, SLDL is a great stability exercise for the hips.

Rear foot elevated split squat
Women 28kg x 10 per leg
Men 32kg x 10 per leg

Why single leg and not a two-legged barbell squat? Less load on the low back while getting the bonus of working single leg stability. Sure, the rear leg does a bit of work, but whatever.

½ kneel 1-arm landmine press
Women 20kg (aka just the bar) x 10 per arm
Men 30kg (including the bar) x 10 per arm

As much as I’d like the kettlebell overhead press to be my go-to upper body strength exercise for clients, landmine is a shoulder friendlier option.

Farmer Walk
Women 24kg per arm x 50 meters
Men 32kg per arm x 50 meters

If I could have a second exercise to do for the rest of my life, it would be the farmer walk. When you go heavy, it feels as if there’s not a single muscle in your body that doesn’t work to a some degree. 


Side note on grip strength as a measuring tool

Grip strength has been proven to be a reliable predictor of at least four super important things: a cardiovascular event in people with type 2 diabetes; the length of hospital stay in older patients admitted for rehab; a cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly. Further, a study in 2017 found that grip strength is closely correlated with all causes of mortality. [1] And that’s sort of a big deal.

Training grip strength in isolation isn’t the solution though. Rather, grip strength is a signifier of overall health, vitality and strength. And which people have a strong grip strength? People who are active and participate in strength training. These folks (us?) tend to favor healthier lifestyle choices as well. 

You can use the grip to test your daily readiness for training at the beginning of the session. Simply pick up a 6-12kg kettlebell in a bottom up position and notice whether it feels easier, harder or the same as usual. The easier it feels the better your readiness is for the session. As with most things, you need to establish a baseline of “normal” first.


When you look at the strength standards above, are you inching closer to them, or do they seem like a far out of reach? 

If reading this made you realise your strength levels needs some work, that’s your goal for now. And guess what, here’s a great program to start with. But if you’ve got enough strength and some to spare, you should look at where you stand with your conditioning.

Onwards!

Conditioning Standards

“If your goal is to maximize your lifespan and stay healthy, you shouldn’t use the same conditioning strategies as a fighter preparing to step in the cage.” -Joel Jamieson

Resting heart rate, heart rate recovery, and heart rate variability are all important tools for checking your level of conditioning.

Resting heart rate (RHH)

As is often the case with general health guidelines the range for “normal” is as wide as Elvis’ pants in the 70s. Wide.

60-100 beats per minute is considered healthy, but for most people mid-to-high 50s is desirable. If you’re participating in a sport with decent conditioning demands (not darts), you should be probably sitting somewhere in the low-to-mid 50s.

Heart rate variability (HRV)

Heart rate variability measures the time between each heart beat. It can get all annoyingly technical so let’s just say that a high HRV is a great measure of your overall performance and efficiency of cardiovascular fitness. It means that the body can quickly change between different activities and demands.

High HRV may also mark how well your body handles different stressors of life. Too much training, poor sleep, lack of rest, and chronic inflammation can all lower your results. HRV goes down as you age, but as is with resistance training and muscle, bone and strength loss, you can control how fast this decline happens.

There’s not a clear “healthy” or “unhealthy” numbers for HRV as it varies depending on the person.*** To establish what’s good for you, establish a baseline from repeatable conditions. Shift your thinking from “higher is better” to a “normal is better”.

Measuring heart rate variability

You can use a variety of gadgets to measure HRV. Apple Watch, Joel Jamieson’s Morpheus and Finland’s own Polar are just a few of the options out there. I’ve personally tried HRV4Training app in the past and found it ok to use with a Samsung phone. Although the flash/camera based reader was sometimes out of tune, causing me periodically lose my shit.

To establish a baseline, take your measurement first thing in the morning when external stressors are low and you’re still in a rested state. For accuracy, try to keep the conditions as repeatable as possible. You should have a solid baseline of readings after four to seven days.

Keep tracking HRV for six months to a year to see any trends. If your readings are consistently normal, it affirms the goodness your current training and rest schedule. And I guess lifestyle habits in general.

I’ll go as far as saying that if you are consistently getting a high reading (and low on planned recovery days) you can probably stop measuring HRV until some factor significantly changes. Either in your training, rest or life and where you need to reevaluate your recovery.

Improving heart rate variability

If you’re getting frequent low readings (based on your baseline) there’s plenty you can do. Since Aerobic fitness improves HRV, I recommend you favor low-to-moderate intensity (about 60-80% of your max heart rate, or simply a pace where you can hold up a conversation) over doing multiple high intensity sessions each week.

Other things that will help you to improve your HRV score: manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t drink too much alcohol, stay hydrated, don’t get into a heated conflict with your wife or husband… As you’re starting to see, focusing on improving just one aspect of health should have a carry over to a host of other aspects too.

60 second heart rate recovery (HRR)

Heart rate recovery tells you how quickly you recover (surprise!) from a bout of exercise. The quicker you return towards your resting heart rate, the fitter you are.

You can measure HRR two ways: check your heart rate immediately after a high intensity effort (e.g. 30 second sprint) and again 60 seconds later. Or, check the heart rate after single all-out effort (e.g. long-distance run, cycle etc) and again 60 seconds later.

If you want to measure HRR specific to your sport, time the efforts and rests according to the demands of your sport.

Your heart rate should fall at least 20 beats within the first 60 seconds after intense exercise[2]. A drop of at least 30 beats within the first minute signals a strong conditioning. Anything less than 12 beats is considered abnormal so it might be worth checking in with your doctor.

How to improve your heart rate recovery?

Similar to reducing resting heart rate, heart rate recovery can be improved by improving aerobic conditioning (seeing a trend here?). You can do intervals at a medium pace, say 20s seconds on and 40 seconds off. The reps really depend on how conditioned you are. As a beginner 3-4 reps are usually enough. For more advanced 10 reps is a good number to aim for.

As with heart rate variability I also recommend long steady state aerobic work at 60-80% of your max heart rate. As an absolute minimum, aim for at least 20 minutes per day on average. Fast pace walking or rucking, cycling or kayaking are killer options for the enthusiastic individual.

As mentioned earlier, for more sport specific conditioning look at the demands of your sport and try to mimic those conditions in your training.

Onwards to the grande finale, Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps

I’ve never seen a single Rambo, but isn’t the third one meant to be ok? And unlike most people, I think the third Godfather was decent. So yeah. Something to look forward to, perhaps.


* I wanted to say Street Fighter. But that would’ve been too obvious.
**Recreational athlete is anyone who participates in a sport, however seriously, but isn’t making a living out of it. Although often is the case, being a recreational athlete doesn’t have to involve competition. It can be about participating, taking in the nature and being confident in one’s abilities to fully enjoy the sport.
***Although certain HRV trackers can give you baseline based on other users. [3]

References:
[1] Low Normalized Grip Strength is a Biomarker for Cardiometabolic Disease and Physical Disabilities Among U.S. and Chinese Adults
[2] Heart Rate and Health
[3] Heart rate & heart rate variability population values

Other resources:
Brett Jones at FMS – Get a Grip! Why Your Hand Strength Matters
Kevin Carr at Movement As Medicine – Is Your Grip Strength More Important Than Your Blood Pressure
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool for diagnostic and monitoring performance in sport and physical activities
The 8 Biggest Mistakes Made When Measuring Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability: A new way to track well-being – Harvard Health Blog
The truth about conditioning (and the missing link): Why being strong, fast, and fit is ONLY a piece of the performance puzzle
Heart Rate Variability: a (deep) primer

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part I: Overall Health Markers, Movement, Body Composition

How To Decide Your Next Training Goal, Part I: Overall Health Markers, Movement, Body Composition

Feeling nostalgic? Ditch the Google Maps.
Photo by Cherise Evertz on Unsplash

This is Part I of a series of three. (Not unlike The Godfather).
Part I: Overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Are Your Strength And Conditioning Up To Standard?
Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps


To get clarity on what to focus on next in your training requires a thorough inspection of where you currently are. Let’s face it, most of us like to do things that we’re good at while ignoring the stuff that we suck doing. People who build muscle easily like to get bigger while ignoring movement. Those with flexibility for days often neglect strength. Some love cardio, but spit at lifting. And so on.  

But allowing our weaknesses to stay weak stops us from thriving. Be it in a sport or life in general. I say, enough. Let’s have a geez and systematically cover each aspect of health, strength and fitness to see where you currently stand and what you should work on. 

Overall health markers

Bloodwork

Blood count, cholesterol, inflammation, mineral and vitamin levels, and whatever else your doctor is in the mood for, matters. Training, performing and trying to be an all around healthy, well-functioning person with bad bloodwork is like driving the highway with a handbrake on. Difficult, slow and annoying.

Book an appointment with your doctor. He or she will be the best person to tell you what to look out for and what, if anything, needs fixing. 

If your bloodwork is not quite what they should be this brings us to your first goal: improve your blood work. Whether it’s exercise, meds, diet or perhaps drinking less Jagermeister on your next Caribbean holiday, sort it out.

Onwards!

Blood pressure

120/80 is ideal. As you know, you can get this checked everywhere these days. At the doctors, gym, or the convenience of your own home. 

If you’re constantly getting a high reading, talk to your doctor. Maybe it’s any of the things we went through with bloodwork. Or maybe it’s more on the mental side. Meditation, mindfulness and general stress management strategies could help too. Or maybe it’s your genetics. Regardless, worth figuring out.

Onwards!

Moving like a human should

Not getting joints in the optimal positions to adapt to stress means that you are not getting the best out of your training. You’re leaving results on the table, not building strength as efficiently as possible, maybe even risking an injury by forcing a joint to handle a load in a position it cannot get into without compromising something along the way. 

You know, the folks who overhead press without proper shoulder range of motion and end up doing the good old low back arch so deep it’s more like a standing bench press. Makes my eyes bleed drops of sorrow.

What sort of ranges of motion you need in each joint depends on what you are training for and what you need in your sport. Being able to lift your arms overhead is not really that big of a deal for a runner. But it becomes an issue for a swimmer. Still, it’s nice to be able to scratch your forehead, regardless of your sport of choice.

There are two fundamental movements that everyone should be able to do, regardless of the training goals. This tells us that the body has at least the absolute basics covered. 

The absolute minimum movement standards everyone should be able to do

There can be a host of reasons (individual joint restrictions etc) beyond the scope of this article, as to why you can’t touch your toes or do a squat. And if you have a big gut that stops you from performing these movements, your time is probably better spent on losing weight instead of movement skills. That might be all you need. If which case, feel free to skip the Body Composition section below. 

But these following drills work for the majority who lack the stability for toe touch or squat. Yes, it can be a stability problem even if “my hamstrings are too tight”.

Toe touch progression. Do five reps toes elevated, followed by five heels elevated. Run hands down your thighs and shins and exhale forcefully as if blowing out the candles on your cake when you turned 11, on the way down. Bend knees however much you need to to reach the toes. Aim to reduce the knee bend with each rep.
Supported squat. Hold on to support to lower yourself to a squat. Keep reducing the grip on the support with each rep, eventually letting go at the bottom altogether. Each rep should feel challenging but manageable.

Every healthy human should be able to squat and touch their toes. Once you have the toe touch keep retesting it every once in a while to make sure you still have it. Checking squat is not that big of a deal if you do squatting (bodyweight, goblet, barbell…) with a good form in your program.

Onwards!

Body composition

Before running head first into the prickly forest of body composition: I don’t care how you look. What you’re about to read is based on what science tells us about health. Not on what the People Magazine tells us about looks. Bodies come in all shapes and forms and different body compositions are more suitable for different sports and activities. 

Health on the other hand is relatively universal. The good old Body Mass Index (BMI) works well for the sedentary, or obese, but I am not fond of it for the rest. It can skew the results for healthy, active population since it doesn’t differentiate between lean muscle and fat.

Using a simple waist measurement is more accurate. Carrying excess fat around your waist is a bigger health risk compared to the fat sitting on your hips and thighs. 

Here are the waist circumference thresholds, taken roughly at the belly button, that indicate an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease [1]:
– For women the risk is increased at 80 cm or more, and greatly increased at 88 cm or more.
– For men the risk is increased at 94 cm or more and greatly increased at 102 cm or more.

Can you be too lean?

Sure can, ese. Being super lean and having a six pack is not necessarily the healthiest way to exist in this cruel world. I know it wasn’t the case for me back in the day. The social isolation aspects aside, being too lean might lead to amenorrhea, low libido, brittle bones and disordered eating. Being super lean has more or less nothing to do with being healthy.

The healthy body fat [2]
– For women anywhere between 22%-33% is healthy for most.
– For men anywhere between 11%-22% is healthy for most.

Let’s talk about muscle

Having enough lean muscle mass, and consequently strength, means that you’ll probably perform better in your sport, and in the day-to-day activities in general

We lose muscle mass as we age so to keep functioning well in our old age it’s wise to build and a bit of a buffer of lean muscle. Muscle is metabolically active and improves how the body deals with the nutrients you throw at it. People with higher muscle mass tend to have better insulin sensitivity for one.

Resistance training will not only help you to maintain your muscle mass, but it also fights off age-related bone degeneration. Peak bone mass is reached in ones late teens and early twenties and after that it’s all downhill. The steepness of the downhill can be greatly reduced by lifting weights. 

So what is the optimal amount of lean muscle mass?

Unlike body fat, muscle mass doesn’t have an ideal, set in stone chart for optimal and ideal amounts. Instead, focus on keeping your body fat in the healthy range and averaging two to three moderate to heavy resistance training sessions per week. 

Check Part II next week for the specifics to aim for. Or, if you work on a farm you can probably ignore the weights and just lift bales of hay.

What about too much muscle mass?

Yes, there is a point of too much. Having an excess of muscle mass might not be too good for your when looking through the lense of longevity. The heart has to keep pumping blood through a massive frame which can cause it to strain. Never a great thing for being alive. Then we can also make a case that excess muscle mass elsewhere in the body also means excess muscle in the heart itself. Again, probably not great for living.

I go on a limb saying that most people don’t have enough muscle on them. Too much muscle is only an issue for bodybuilders on gear who look nothing like humans. You know, the ones who make you think of Godzilla having sex with an earthmoving truck.

Onwards!

Let’s recap

To decide what you should train for next requires a non-judgemental look at where you currently are. If any of the ones we just went through are off, well, you have your next training and health goal set.

Bloodwork: blood count, cholesterol, mineral and vitamin levels, and whatever else your doctor is in the mood for. Something not quite right? Sort it out.

Blood pressure: 120/80 is ideal. Maybe it’s what was wrong with the bloodwork. Or maybe it’s more mental. Mindfulness practice and improving your relationship with stress and life might help.

Movement: really depends on your sport of choice as well what you’d like to be able to do in day-to-day life. As a bare minimum for any healthy adult, you should be able to touch your toes and squat down comfortably.

Body composition: waist circumference can indicate an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. For women the risk is increased at 80 cm or more and greatly increased at 88 cm or more. For men the risk is increased at 94 cm or more and greatly increased at 102 cm or more.

You can also be too lean. The healthy body fat for women anywhere 22%-33% is healthy for most. For men anywhere between 11%-22% is all gee. 

Muscle is metabolically active and improves how the body deals with the nutrients you throw at it. People with higher muscle mass tend to have better insulin sensitivity too. But too much muscle can put a strain on the heart. Although this is usually only an issue for those who are on gear and look like Godzilla had sex with an earthmoving truck.

Onwards to Part II: Are Your Strength And Conditioning Up To Standard?


References:

[1] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/body-mass-index-bmi-and-waist-circumference
[2] Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index