I’ve been working with bodies professionally for the better part of two decades. And before (and during) that time, I spent a lot of time working with my own - trying to improve it, testing its limits, searching out information on how best to take care of it. The longer I work with bodies, the more I continue to learn about how best to care for them so that they will function as optimally as possible for as long as possible.
One of the big pieces to this puzzle is fitness. Of course, we all know that a healthy body is a body that gets exercised regularly. There’s no dispute there.
But where I see people missing the boat a bit here, is in how they are applying fitness. There are an infinite number of techniques for moving and shaking the human body. Some, however, are more likely to lead to favorable results than others.
I realize that this is one of those volatile topics. People tend to be very emotionally attached to their fitness routines, just as they are their dietary choices and their religious practices. My intention here is not to stir the pot of fiery emotions. I’m simply offering some education and insight into why so many people end up injured, overweight, or in pain as a result of their fitness regimens instead of lithe, lean, energetic, and free in their bodies. If what I share here doesn’t resonate, you can dismiss it. Just note that this is coming from many years of experience working directly with countless people who thought they were doing right by their bodies, only to find they weren’t doing as well as they thought.
There are three basic pillars to fitness. They are, strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility/ROM (range of motion). A well-rounded and efficient fitness strategy includes all three.
Strength is the darling of our current fitness paradigm. Everybody’s on the strength train these days. There are weight lifters, bodybuilders, Cross-fitters, HIIT-ers. We’ve even developed yoga classes that put a primary focus on short-burst strength.
And, yes, strength is important. But strength on its own is lacking. Strength needs to be backed up by cardiovascular endurance in order to put it to any practical use. Strength needs to be accompanied by flexibility and ROM or we risk damaging our joints, and/or making ourselves susceptible to injury.
While we’re discussing strength training, I want to mention that there are two very particular ways to go about it: Short-burst bulk strength training (the most commonly practiced and preached) and endurance-oriented strength training. Short-burst bulk training is what most of us know. This style of training involves short bursts (low reps) of high energy output (heavy weight) to bulk up musculature giving that “swole” look that is so coveted by bodybuilders and Instagram posers the world over. Endurance strength training is at the other end of the spectrum using little to no resistance with high repetition. This kind of training creates more elongated musculature and generally employs a greater range of motions. They are both beneficial in their own way. And, it’s my experience that employing both in a well-designed regimen yields the most effective results. Endurance style training will increase functional strength, and work in conjunction with connective tissue (increasing the flexibility and stability of the joints), while short-burst training will encourage the musculature to be efficient when responding to real life situations that require that kind of immediate surge of power, such as lifting a car off your kid’s leg, or fighting off a grizzly bear attack (and living to tell about it) during an otherwise relaxing hiking trip. But to only train in the short-burst style means that you are perpetually training your musculature to hyper engage and shorten. This then puts undue stress on the connective tissue at the joints. This kind of training is also repetitive with very limited ranges of movement, which further impedes your connective tissue, training it into a shape that can no longer move in a full range of motion, but only in those directions that it’s been taught to move through during the regimen.
Quick note about connective tissue: Connective tissue is different from muscle tissue in that it is not elastic. It has what is called a gel/sol property. This basically means that it can be viscous and malleable on one end of the spectrum (the gel state), or hardened, webbed, and bound on the other end (the sol state). It’s also kind of like a spider’s web. Affect any part of it and the entire web responds. Connective tissue is everywhere in the body. It makes up tendons and ligaments and fascia. Every single muscle is encased in a thin envelope of connective tissue, kind of like a latex bodysuit. So when it begins to harden (from a lack of regular use in its full range of motion) the muscles are then constricted in that bodysuit, and cannot achieve full extension. This is one of the reasons you see super muscly people who cannot put their arms straight down by their sides. So, yeah, connective tissue health is important.
The second pillar of fitness is cardiovascular endurance, which we collectively call cardio, for short. Running, walking, cycling, trampolining, dancing, and the like are all examples of cardiovascular endurance training activities. The whole point with this kind of exercise is to train the heart muscle to pump oxygenated blood through the body at the most efficient rate possible. From a Darwinian perspective, this kind of cardiovascular endurance would serve us by allowing us to run from predators faster and for longer, thus, hopefully, ensuring the survival of our species. On a more mundane level, having an efficient cardiovascular system allows us to walk up the three flights of stairs to our cousin’s brownstone apartment without collapsing, or to chase after the punk who just snatched our handbags and took off down the street. (There were tacos in that bag!) There are also less obvious benefits to increased cardiovascular endurance. The more efficient our hearts are at regulating our blood flow, the more likely we are to be able to slow it down as well as speed it up, ergo, the more likely we are to be able to relax more easily. And the less likely we are to have a gnarly heart attack or stroke.
The third pillar is often the most underrated. Flexibility, along with it’s kid sister, Range of Motion (ROM), is the pillar that most people ‘just don’t have time for’. Which is kind of ridiculous since it’s the piece that pulls everything together and makes the other two pillars really shine. Both strength training and cardio work shorten muscle tissue via repetitive motions. In order to counteract the negative effects of that work, while retaining the positive health benefits, we need to actively practice stretching our bodies back out into their naturally intended ranges of motion. This not only ensures optimal performance in our other fitness activities, but sets us up to live a life without pain and stiffness and with much less chance of injury. There has to be a balance of tightening/shortening and stretching/elongating to maintain optimal function. This is how elasticity works. If you never stretch a rubber band, it will eventually harden and break. Our muscles are the same. They need regular stretching to be able to maintain their best shape and function.
The key, in my opinion, to creating the most optimal state of fitness in the human body is to employ each of these pillars equally. Whatever your training schedule looks like, whatever activities you choose for each function, set them up so that you are devoting around 33% of your energy to strength training (a balanced combination of short-burst and endurance work), around 33% to cardiovascular endurance, and around 33% to flexibility/ROM. You can spend that last 1% celebrating how clever you are to be treating your body so well.
If you follow this approach to fitness, incorporating the three pillars in a balanced and consistent way, you will not only feel better in your body, but you will also look better, and every action you perform will be improved as a result. You’ll have total ninja skills! Just, please, try to use them for good.