Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Old and Unexciting Exercise Solutions

Last weekend in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Daniel Duane provided a personal narrative about how he adopted an old school and trainerless approach to weight lifting and essentially “got in shape” in his early 40s.   This raises questions about what is old and unexciting in the field of exercise.


Consistency and progression matter.

The first thing you notice about all effective fitness programs is that consistency matters.   People who get in better shape exercise regularly.   After people start to get in shape the ones who get in better shape have a progressive program. In other words, as they get stronger they lift heavier weights, or as their endurance improves they run faster and farther.   The before and after testimonial pictures seen on websites and infomercials all feature people who have actually done the program.


A couple of years ago the author and radio personality Peter Sagal wanted to improve his marathon time and he describes the advice I gave him:


I laid out my vitals for Dr. Joyner–5′ 7″, 175 pounds, 20 to 25 miles of running a week–and he expressed his wisdom simply and brutally: If I wanted to bend the arc of my performance back upward, I’d have to (A) run more, (B) lose weight, and (C) run a lot more. Joyner’s research showed that slowing the ravages of time was possible, but only with intense effort.


It worked and he set a personal record of 3:09 in his later 40s.


High Intensity Training (HIT) is an old idea.

I am not sure how many waves of enthusiasm there have been for HIT over the last 100 years. However, one of the most notable was promulgated in the 1970s by a serial innovator and promoter named Arthur Jones who developed Nautilus Machines. Read what he wrote in the 1970s and ask yourself what is new? For those interested in HIT and endurance, the training of Glenn Cunningham who held world record holder in the mile (4:06.8) during the middle 1930s anticipates current programs by about 80 years.


Calisthenics work!

In the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force got concerned about the poor physical fitness of pilots stationed in isolated bases in the far north with limited fitness facilities. To solve this problem RCAF developed a simple program of five basic exercises (5BX) that worked and could be done in 11 minutes per day. The program also encouraged people to build as much physical activity into their days as possible. A CBC radio interview with Wing Commander J.K. Tett of the RCAF from sometime in the 1960s emphasizes guess what, the role of consistency and progression in making the plan work.


The pull-up program used by many members of the U.S. Marine Corps to score well on the Marine fitness test is another example of what is possible with a simple, consistent and progressive approach to training. When people ask me about strength training I tell them when in doubt do push-ups, pull-ups and burpees.


Complicating the simple?

So, why the drive complicate the simple? In an e-mail exchange on the Duane story, Amby Burfoot the winner of the 1968 marathon commented that he was:


…struck by the comment about trainers who have an investment in making their advice as complex and lingo-heavy as possible. I’ve thought this for a long time, and of course practiced it as editor of a magazine that had accountants looking over my shoulder….. we need a term for this. I was thinking educate vs complexicate but that doesn’t include the important financial angle. The definition would be ‘make a subject as complicated and lingo-driven as possible in an effort to enhance one’s seeming knowledge and financial value as an “expert’ teacher in the field’…….


I think Amby is onto something and in addition to fitness, efforts to complexicate things are also at work for conceptually simple things like weight loss and healthy aging. My guess is that similar efforts to complexicate also drive the culture of consultants who offer advice to clients in many fields, but I will leave that to economists, social scientists and management gurus to explain. Can they do it in plain language in less than 1,000 words?


Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Old and Unexciting Exercise Solutions”

  1. May 30th, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Sheila Ray says:

    The bottom line: Anyone can get into shape. It doesn’t take money. It doesn’t take a gym. It doesn’t take a trainer. It only takes desire.

  2. May 30th, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness | Sheila Kealey says:

    […] Old and Exciting Exercise Solutions. Michael J. Joyner, M.D. comments on this New York Times article (Fitness Crazed), emphasizing the importance of consistency, progression,  intensity, and how we complicate the simple. (Michael Joyner, Human Limits) […]

  3. May 31st, 2014 at 5:25 am

    John Turner says:

    What Arthur Jones promoted was full-range exercise, not HIT. Intensity of effort is only one important factor, there are several others. A pick and shovel can provide you with more work than you can stand, but these tools do not load the muscles over their full range of motion against variable resistance, matched to the muscle’s potential strength curve.

    Using Nautilus machines, the results achieved by the cadets in six weeks during Project Total Conditioning conducted at West Point in 1975 have never been equaled. Improvement in strength, flexibility and metabolic condition that has been impossible to replicate using any other tools or training principles.

Leave a Reply