Category: Exercise

Integrating What We Do With Other Activities

This past weekend at the PaleoFX conference, I had a number of conversations with people who were curious as to how we incorporate what

we do at Efficient Exercise with other activities. They were having a hard time rectifying how such a small amount of exercise could benefit their activity.


There first thing I explained was simply that we at EE don’t want them to be “good” at working out. Not that we don’t want them to get better but that we want them to do only well enough to benefit the activity that they’d rather be doing. For endurance athletes, this means that they really only need one workout per week with us. The trick is that they need to replace one of their training days with our workout: you can’t just add the strength training on top of a loaded endurance schedule. Studies showthat the combination of strength and endurance only works if some of the endurance activity is replaced with strength work. It’s also been shown from the same studies that this strength work reduces injury potential and improves oxygen consumption.

So how might that look in practice? My friend Patrick Diver has combined an approach similar to ours with his cycling. In this interview, he explained the schedule he used when competing at the highest levels (Florida Pro I/II criterium championship):

  • Monday:   Off
  • Tuesday:  Intervals on bike + short HIT session
  • Wednesday:  Training Race
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: Off
  • Saturday:  Race
  • Sunday:  2.5 hour fast group ride

Total weekly hours: 5-7

Welcome to the gun show.


So if you know any cyclists who compete, they’ll scoff at this amount of training but it was an intelligent application of leveraging the highest quality hours that produce the best result.

What about other activities? It’s pretty in vogue to focus on moving naturally, attempting to apply how humans may have moved and build a workout around it. This sort of activity is a lot of fun and that’s part of my point: you should be doing things you like doing more often with less injures. That’s what resistance training like what we do at EE can provide. Back to my point, how do we mesh the two? Again, Patrick’s answer is more succinct than I could provide:

My take on it goes like this:  do a (high quality strength) session once a week to cover your bases, and then go jump, roll, fight, climb, cycle or whatever else that seems like fun to you.

Remember, unless you have a specific performance goal that pertains to the gym, you don’t have to spend much time there to get the benefits to health and vitality. This is also true if you’re attempting to improve the performance of other activities. The gym only improves the baseline strength of the muscles involved; you’ve got to use them in the activity to maximally transfer that raw strength.

It’s really that simple.

Let our team create your custom workout today.

Get My Free Consultation!

Strength is a Skill

The subtitle of the post should be “…that doesn’t always lead to mass.”

The trainers at Efficient Exercise like to wax poetic about studies as they come out. I came across a study on exercise volume and hypertrophy & strength changes. The study is titled “Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males” and is found in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Click above for a preview.

The study used 32 resistance trained males in a 10 week study of the squat at 1, 4, and 8 sets per workout performed twice a week. The authors concluded ” The results of this study support resistance exercise prescription in excess of 4-sets (i.e. 8-sets) for faster and greater strength gains as compared to 1-set training.” Yup, that’s true. No beef there. But let’s look at the numbers.

Strength Stats

So the numbers are cut and dry: the 8 set group saw an average increase in 37kg in their 1 rep max squat over the course of the 10 week study, compared to a 17kg increase from the 1 set group. Here’s the thing: when you compare the lean tissue changes, the result is much, much smaller. The 1 set group gained 2.03kg lbm over the 10 weeks, while the 8 set group gained 2.69kg lbm. So for the 8x increase in time spent training, and a 1 rep max 20kg higher over the same period, the trainees gained…only 0.66kg more? Really?

Strength is a skill and all of that time spent under the bar is practice. It just also happens to contribute to hypertrophy but not in a linear fashion. The fact is that if you want to get strong as fast as possible, more practice will get you with the movement pattern will allow a larger exertion to be controlled when performing that movement pattern. This is wrapped up in some of the mechanisms I discussed in the “Aging: What’s The Metric?” post: our muscles and nervous system get more efficient within the very narrow movement parameter that you’re practicing, meaning you can exert harder without leaving the groove.

The problem with these studies is that they cannot, due to funding, account for the long view of time. I’ve shown this crude sketch before but it’s relevant here.

Rate Of Gain vs. Injury Potential

While reaching one’s “absolute” potential is something very few are in danger of achieving, the fact is our progress slows down as we get closer to that absolute max. Understanding that each one of us has a limit, it must be asked that does doing more sets merely get us to that limit faster, only to coast longer? Given a time frame of say 5 years, would the 1 set group and the 8 set group be moving very nearly the same weight, all things being equal? I’d suggest that they’d be very close, with the reduced set group having spent less time in the gym and reduced occurrence of injury. There’s only so much recovery to go around and the tolerance for error becomes smaller under heavier loads.

Studies like this (there are many) should beg the question: what’s your goal? If you want to powerlift, more time under the bar is better (though 8x the sets only got a bit more than 2x the strength gain…4 sets is a nice compromise in that regard). If your goal is lean tissue gain, strength improvements are important, though a side effect of quality contractions under sustained load with sufficient metabolic distress and enough rest and calories…and picking the right parents! Finally, if your goal is robust health, improved function, and a better looking naked body, 1 set with a sound set of eating habits centered around real food is hard to beat. The time investment is paltry and the return is profound. That’s the reason why we at Efficient Exercise keep the number of sets of exercise  low: you have the greatest return on time invested for the goals our clients are after.

251505_10151024760092405_1633409149_nSkyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science.  He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.

Physical Strength Through Aging: What’s the Metric?

Early in training at Efficient Exercise, a client might come to the conclusion that they’re going to keep getting stronger at the rate they have been, soon being so strong that they’ll plan on giving Atlas a smoke break. Alas, this isn’t how this stuff works: the body has limits and, over time, we start to decay. With that in mind, is there a “best” way to judge our muscular strength through aging? The numbers on the machine or the bar? Something else?

This exchange was between two trainers, one in his 60’s (Ed) and the other in his 50’s. It gets to the heart of the matter:

“Another Point: Folks, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re “stronger” after 5 Years of aging – one might perform exercises better or score well on machines, but age Kicks Your A**”

Not sure I agree. I firmly believe that I’m as close to defying the aging process as could happen. Between 61 and 63 my measurable strength levels went up about 60-70% (despite “working out” with weights for 20 years prior…I had a good start). Going on 69 and they have not dropped one bit. So that said, in the last 5 years I’ve seen no decline in what I accomplished the first 2 years. Which says to me, I’m just as strong now as I was 5 years ago (not to mention I feel fantastic!)

The other trainer basically waves off Ed’s statement by saying he’s “keeping score on machines” and implies that a barbell bench press would be the “real” scorekeeper of his strength levels. Let’s talk about this.

What the heck is strength, actually?

Or specifically, what are the ways in which our body manifests strength? People with a little experience in this field understand that it’s not *just* muscle mass being added. There’s a whole host of compensatory mechanisms being used to make one “stronger” without a corresponding increase in size.

In Neuromechanics of Human Movement, Roger Enoka lists eight potential neurological areas for non-hypertrophy related strength gains:

  • Enhanced output from supraspinal centers (which they show from simply imagining muscle contractions)
  • Changes in descending drive that reduce the bilateral deficit (the inability to fully recruit all of the motor units during dual limb compound movements)
  • Increased motor unit synchronization
  • Greater muscle activation (EMG)
  • Heightened excitability and altered connections into motor neurons
  • Reduced coactivation of antagonist muscles
  • Greater activation of agonist and synergist muscles
  • Enhanced cross-education

I’d like to add a couple of psychological things that might not be so obvious not listed above including:

  • Motivation
  • Pain tolerance
  • Perception of difficulty
  • Confidence
  • Experience

Big list, but the important component is that basic coordination between the muscles is the single greatest contributor to non-hypertrophy related strength gains. Along with neurological adaptations, adaptations involving increased stiffness in the tissues that connect from bone to bone (tendons, extracellular matrix, etc.) can lead to increased force transmission from muscle to bone, which play a significant role in increased strength gains. The more “spring-like” the tissue can become, the more the force produced ends up moving through the barbell or apparatus attempting to be moved.

So in that sense, the trainer talking about keeping “score” with machines (or any exercise) is correct: they can lie to you, especially if you lift like powerlifter on every rep. However, it’s important to note that these mechanisms cannot compensate forever. Imagine if they could: you’d be the 98lb weakling dead lifting 800lbs. Rather, these compensations occur in parallel with hypertrophy and within parameters. Eventually the compensatory ability reaches its ceiling for a given amount of muscle mass and you either add tissue or, if you’re near your genetic limit, don’t get any stronger or bigger. Such is life. But the take away is that if you’re getting stronger and your weight is stable, you’re probably not losing muscle. Strength, as measured by weight on the machine or on the bar, is directionally accurate.

So how else can you keep score?

Body composition

Let me remind you that Ed is nearly 69. He’s on the downward slope of muscle mass and strength gains, where his peers are withering. Ed is making progress due to their rapid loss of tissue due to inactivity and sudden fat increase, a term called “sarcopenic obesity.” A great review of this can be found here.

From a visual perspective, this curve can be displayed. Here’s how it looks based on the literature:

Muscle curve age

The original curve is from “Bending the Aging Curve” by Joseph Signorile. I added the “Paddon-Jones” curve, as one of Dr. Doug Paddon-Jones former students was a muscle physiologist at Texas State University.  She explained that the original curve doesn’t account for the fact that people get injured, lose a lot of mass, and never recover to a “normal” projected loss. So the “gap” between a good functioning person training and their sedentary peers is even larger.

It looks great on a graph, but something more substantial is required. How about images?


The 40 year old and 74 year old triathlete look nearly identical as far as muscle mass are concerned. Remember it is the total volume of tissue we’re looking at here; it’s difficult to sometimes see how a person actually is doing when they’re aging because of the breaking down of the collagen matrix in their skin making them look less “hard” than when they were younger. The muscle is there, but the skin lies a bit. The big takeaway is that the tissue volume is still similar assuming constant activity.

Ed notes substantial strength and tissue gains in his early 60′s. We see these improvements in sedentary 90+ year olds. It looks like this:

90 muscle

For those who have trouble reading the text, the 92 year old increased the cross sectional area of his thigh by 44% in 12 weeks of resistance training. Based on the above, it is reasonable to assume that one could “jump” a line of muscle decay if training is sufficient in intensity and progression. Perhaps this explains Ed’s jump in strength and maintenance thereof.

Another point: muscle is an endocrine organ. High quality work with muscle stimulates a more youthful expression in all of the organ systems in the body. It is literally the gatekeeper to youth.

So that’s the long version of saying: strength is an outcome of a complex system of events. If you’re maintaining your strength or even getting just a little stronger, you’re going to age physically as well as a human being can. Keep working hard!


  1. Strength is a directionally accurate indicator of lean tissue maintenance and/or gain during aging.
  2. Decay is inevitable but the rate of decay is largely within your control.
  3. The surest way to “keep score” of your physical function throughout aging is a yearly DXA scan to assess muscle and bone, a basic mobility screen, and strength as assessed by your training regimen. All of this with feeling really damn good covers both objective and subjective measures of physical function.

251505_10151024760092405_1633409149_nSkyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science.  He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.


Resistance Training Isn’t Magic

RT Fat Burning

Resistance training does a lot of things, but fat burning isn’t one of them.

By: Skyler Tanner

Look out, kids, there is science ahead!

As I mentioned in our last post, this time of year tends to come with some…unrealistic expectations of both what you as a free living human being can do with your docket of responsibilities, and of what your body is capable of doing given the time frame that you have (often arbitrarily) given yourself. Whether your goal is gaining muscle, losing fat, or being more active, there is only so much that resistance training can accomplish. It is a LOT, but it’s not magic. Here is study example that I think illustrates this point nicely.

It is common in coaching and training circles to see a young athlete (note: if you’re not a young athlete, an athlete, or are simply “old,” bear with me) take to weight training with gusto and make significant body composition changes in short order, specifically while making a big increase in muscle mass. What is often lost or not discussed as much in these situations is that there is often a concurrent recommendation to “eat more” and if the athlete isn’t gaining they need to “eat more…more.”

So in this study researchers wanted to examine the effects of a low-volume, high-intensity strength training program (that must sound familiar) on a previously sedentary population without prescribing dietary changes. The 6 month study consisted of 19 sedentary, overweight college-aged men, who were first assessed of their body composition via DXA scan (the gold standard that we recommend), and of their strength through 1 repetition maximum testing (1RM) on 9 machine-based exercises. The men were then split into a resistance training group (RT) and a control group (CON). The resistance training group trained 3 non-consecutive days per week performing 1 set of 3-6 repetitions to momentary muscular fatigue (aka “failure”) on 9 machine-based exercises. Body composition was tracked at the 3 and 6 month mark. Dietary intake was assessed monthly via a 24-hour dietary recall, which used neutral probing questions in an interview process with the men about their dietary intake.

At the conclusion of the study, the trained group experienced an increase in total weight lifted per workout from baseline of 2812kg to 6411kg, on average. This measure is simply the number of repetitions performed multiplied by the weight lifted. When comparing the 1RMs, the RT group saw a strength increase of 49.2% on average for the upper body and 49.8% on average for the lower body. The control group saw no strength improvements. When body composition was assessed, there was a negligible 1kg increase in fat free mass (muscle, water, or bone) over the 6 month study. Also note that the RT group gained body fat over the course of the 6 month trial, but only gained 1/3rd of the amount of fat gained by the sedentary CON group. The authors concluded that strength increases can occur in the absence of hypertrophy and that such strength increases might influence previously sedentary individuals to spontaneously increases daily activity, which may help weight management over the long term.

So college-aged men perform low volume strength training, get stronger but not more muscular, and gain fat at the same time, but not as much as if they had done nothing at all. Why does this matter to you, fair EE client?


  1. Due to the hormonal milieu that college-aged men have, they are in a position to gain muscle more easily than average but make no mistake: muscle gain is long, hard work. Those of you concerned with “bulking up” training with us, especially you ladies out there, should be aware that you’re not in a position to “accidentally” put on muscle mass.
  2. Having said that, you can get a LOT stronger with a little bit of hard work, which makes everything you do a lot easier, which means you feel better about doing it, which means you do more of it, which means you keep training. This spontaneous increase in activity is often referred to as the “active phenotype.” The name is not important but what IS important is that you’ll start moving more without having to force yourself to perform more exercise in the name of your fitness goals.
  3. That said, this also shows that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Far too often we get a client who comes in with the bizarre notion that they can exercise their way out of a crappy diet. If hyper-responsive 20-something men still gained fat (albeit less) over 6 months of training without regard for their diet, what makes you think you’ll lose fat just because you’re working hard twice per week? Exercise helps reinforce good habits that reduce the likelihood of fat gain in the future (see 2 above) or help to maintain fat loss after the fact, but the only way fat is loss is through changing one’s nutrition habits over the long term (This is something we at EE are currently working on…stay tuned!)


So if you’re new to EE, keep training with the confidence that you’ll not turn into a giant muscle monster, all while being able to do what you love better. If you’ve been with us a while, you already know this…keep being awesome!

251505_10151024760092405_1633409149_nSkyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science.  He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.

Stay Connected

Enter your email to keep up with the latest from EE

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Stay Up to Date

Sign up for the latest from EE

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.