Which should you do first when you work out — cardio or weights? How long does it take to get in shape? How long does it take to get out of shape? How important is your form when you run? Does exercise really contribute to fat loss? Does music help or hurt your athletic performance?
These are the kinds of questions folks have about exercise, and have trouble finding good answers to. The advice out there on blogs and magazines is often confusing and contradictory. My guest today set out to cut through the noise by finding the best research-backed answers to these questions and more in his book Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. His name is Alex Hutchinson, and he started out as a Cambridge-trained physicist and a long-distance runner on the Canadian national team, and is now a journalist and author. Today on the show, Alex walks us through what the scientific literature says about some of the most common fitness and health questions out there. This is a fun and interesting conversation packed with lots of useful insights. Will your own theories and practices be confirmed or challenged? Listen in to find out!
- Cardio or weights? Which should you do first in your workouts?
- Why convenience and enjoyment is so important to your fitness routine
- What does it really mean to get “in shape”?
- How long does it take to see improvements in your weight, fitness, aesthetics, etc.?
- How long does it take to get out of shape?
- Why your fitness habits are more important than your fitness specifics
- What does the research say on the relationship between exercise and weight loss?
- Why weight training and HIIT does more for weight loss than steady cardio
- Is there a “correct” way to run?
- What is runner’s high? Does it really exist?
- How exercise improves your mood and cognition
- What exactly is your “core”?
- Are the dangers of sitting all they’re cracked up to be?
- Does music help your workouts? What about podcasts?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Alex about the science of endurance
- Cardio or Weights First?
- Cardio for the Man Who Hates Cardio
- Which Fitness Program Is Right for You?
- How to Stay Fit on Vacation (While Still Enjoying Yourself)
- How to Hack the Habit Loop
- A Proven System for Building and Breaking Habits
- Everything You Need to Know About Diet and Fat Loss
- How to Lose Weight, and Keep It Off Forever
- Why Every Man Should Be Strong
- The Myths and Truths of Distance Running
- 4 Bulletproof Ways to Prevent Runnings Injuries
- How an Olympic Marathoner Trains, Eats, Recovers, and Stays Mentally Strong
- AoM content on bodyweight exercises
- Undoing the Damage of Chronic Sitting
- 52 Workout Songs
Connect With Alex
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Which should you do first when you work out, cardio or weights? How long does it take to get in shape? How long does it take to get out of shape? How important is your form when you run? Does exercise really contribute to fat loss? Does music help or hurt your athletic performance? These are the kinds of questions folks have about exercise but often have trouble finding good answers to. The advice out there on blogs and magazines is often confusing and contradictory.
My guest today set out to cut through the noise by finding the best research-backed answers to these questions and more in his book, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. His name is Alex Hutchinson, and he started out as a Cambridge-trained physicist and a long distance runner on the Canadian National Team and is now a journalist and author.
Today on the show, Alex walks us through what the scientific literature says about some of the most common fitness and health questions out there. This is a fun, interesting conversation packed with lots of useful insights. Will your own theories and practice be confirmed or challenged? Listen in and find out. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/fitnessfaq. Alex Hutchinson, welcome back to the show.
Alex Hutchinson: Thanks a lot, Brett. It’s good to be back.
Brett McKay: We had you on the podcast last year to talk about your book, Endure, which is about the science of athletic performance. I recently picked up … And that’s episode number 382 for those who want to check it out. I recently picked up a book you published back in 2011. That’s like eight years ago-
Alex Hutchinson: Take it into the archives. Awesome.
Brett McKay: Right. Your book’s called, Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. In it, you take these questions people often wonder about in regards to fitness and you see these varied answers in blogs and in magazines, and then you dig into the research, to try to offer well-vetted answers. I wanted to bring you back on to discuss some of this stuff because I know a lot of people have these questions and it’s hard to find good answers to them. Let’s talk about the question that you used for the title of your book. What do you do first, cardio or weights, and which one and why?
Alex Hutchinson: The answer, of course, is it depends, and the answer is both. You should do cardio or weights. But in terms of which one you should do first, when I wrote the book, there was an emerging area of research which was looking at the molecular signals that are triggered by exercise. So, why is it that when I lift a weight, my muscles know to get bigger and when I go for a run, my muscles know to produce more mitochondria so that they improve their endurance?
Well, there’s a set of molecular signals, one of which … And there’s basically two pathways. One pathway help triggers strength gains and the other pathway triggers endurance gains. There’s some really neat evidence that shows that these pathways are conflicting with each other, that once you … if you start out and set your body for build strength, it takes some time to switch it to the build endurance setting of molecular pathways. That argument backs up the conventional wisdom, which is that whichever is most important to you is what you should do first.
People have said that for a long time because it’s like, “Well, if you want to build strength, you shouldn’t do it after your cardio because then you’re going to be tired and you’re not going to be able to lift as much.” But this was adding some molecular heft to that, which was that actually you’re setting your cells to adapt to whichever one you do first. Now, the updated view on that … This book came out in 2011.
Most of what is in the book I think is still absolutely current. But there’s a few areas which we may get to where I would update my thinking. My updated thinking on that is that these molecular effects are real, but they’re far less important than what’s convenient for an individual person. We’re talking about for 99.9% of people, maybe not for an Olympic athlete. But for most of us, I think the differences are so small now as the studies have progressed that it’s like if you’re forcing yourself to do something in an order that is less fun or less convenient for you to get that 0.1 or 0.5% benefit, you may be of shooting yourself in the foot.
I’ll give you an example. Running is my sport and I do running. Running’s most important to me, but when I do strength training, which I do as sort of body weight circuits in a local park, I do that before my run because I know that if I go for my run and if I have 45 minutes to workout, I will run for 44 and a half minutes and then be like, “Okay, now I have 30 seconds, I’m going to do three pushups.” That’s not very useful. I force myself to do the thing that’s less fun for me to make sure that I don’t cut it short.
Anyway, that’s the molecular answer, and then that’s my practical answer, which is the differences are too small to worry about. For most of them, you should do whatever’s convenient, whatever is fun, whatever works for you.
Brett McKay: The takeaway is that if you’re really focused on optimizing your fitness modality, then do that type of exercise first?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: If you’re really into weight lifting, then you do your lifting first and then cardio, and if you’re focused on running, then it’s the reverse. But really it’s probably the most important thing to do is whatever order works best for you, and your schedule, and your desires. Of course, this all assumes you’re trying to do both on the same day.
Alex Hutchinson: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you can do them at separate times and you can … It is common sense, right? All of us tend to eat dessert first in the sense of do whatever’s most important to us. That’s the natural assumption. I think the science, the sort of microbiology, backs that view up but ultimately you should let your order be dictated by, yeah, whatever works best for you.
Brett McKay: Right. All right. A lot of people start working out because they want to get in shape. Now, let’s talk about that word, that phrase, get in shape because that can mean different things to different people. What exactly … Are we talking about like appearance? Are we talking about conditioning or is it both? How do you use … What are you talking about when you say get in shape?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, I mean, the phrase has that sort of meaning baked into it if we’re talking about the shape of the body, right? Really what … Getting fit or getting in shape means things to different people. I don’t think there’s a one right answer, but I think it’s important to be honest with yourself and to think carefully about what it is you’re looking for. For me, I’ve gone through different stages in my life when I was a seriously competitive runner. Getting fit meant how fast can I run a mile? That’s all getting fit meant. I didn’t care if I looked like Jabba the Hutt, if I could run a fast mile.
As time has gone on, my focus is more on health and longevity and being functional and competent through the day. If I go on a canoe trip or whatever, being able to lift the canoe over my head. It’s a mix of some things that are visible, like can I lift that? Can I get out of a chair, without falling over and some things that are invisible, like what is my blood pressure or whatever? Then there’s the third factor, which is aesthetics, which it’s easy to talk down. I would encourage people not to make that their primary goal, but it’s also like … Let’s be honest, it is a factor that’s important to people and has to be considered.
There’s all these things and there’s not one right answer for what being fit means, but you have to be clear on what you mean. If you’re going to say, “Does this workout program work?” Well, it depends on what the outcome is. I think the biggest thing is that a lot of people are judging their fitness purely off what they see on the scale or in the mirror, and they’re making the erroneous conclusion that, “Man, this workout program is pointless. Didn’t do anything for me.” Actually, your life expectancy just increased by 10 years over the last six months. You may not see that in the mirror on the scale, but if you understand that there’s these other markers that are super important in the longterm, I think that’s helpful to remember and helps to encourage people to stick with their fitness programs.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s dig into this a little bit more. As you said, as soon as you start exercising, you are experiencing benefits on a molecular level. You might not even see yet, but you might not see those results, you might not improve your running time after a workout or you might not increase your bench press max after a workout. Let’s say if your goal is to improve your endurance, how long does it take for people to see improvements on that and after they start exercising?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a great question and I would say that just to go back to what you said during the question is there’s this spectrum of like if you do one workout and then you do a glucose challenge test, see how much your insulin is going to rise in response to it, a set level of drinking that little sugar, you have already gotten healthier. One workout is already changing your body’s ability to manage its blood sugar. On the flip side, there’ve been studies where people do things like, “Okay, let’s take a bunch of popular exercise programs that are advertising your body for life kind of things and let’s put a bunch of people through the six week program that is going to transform you from the 97 pound weakling and yada, yada, yada.”
Then they have put people in front of a jury. People have to judge the pictures of before and after and try and figure which one’s before which one’s after. See if there’s any difference. The bottom line is in the vast majority of cases, people can’t tell a difference after six weeks. They’ve worked hard for six weeks and the promise gains for all that are very lucky few are invisible.
Now, building muscle is one thing. If you’re talking about endurance, which is of course my sort of specialty, you can absolutely see changes in your fitness within two or three weeks and the same is true for muscles. If you’re measuring carefully enough, it’s actually an ongoing area of debate. When you start lifting weights, you very quickly start to see some strength gains. That’s mostly from within a week or whatever, that’s mostly neuromuscular. Your brain is getting better at sending signals to your muscles.
Within about two or three weeks, you can see if you’re measuring with an accurate enough device that your muscles are getting bigger. Now, there’s arguments right now, but is that really a bigger muscles or is that just like muscle damage causing a little bit of inflammation? That’s an area of ongoing debate. But certainly within, let’s say, four weeks or something, your muscles are getting bigger. It’s just not this kind of change that is visible when you’re walking down the street in your tank top.
How quickly it takes depends a little bit on how hard you’re willing to work. In some of the studies that see the really early muscle gain, we’re talking like four workouts a week supervised by a personal trainer who was yelling at you and beating you with a baseball bat if you don’t lift hard enough. It’s not a … I mean, I’m exaggerating you in case that’s not clear, but it’s definitely four workouts a week very hard, and it’s not something that’s sustainable for most people, especially if they’re not being supervised and yelled at.
My rule of thumb is if you want to see benefits, you should just not even worry about where you are until six months. After six months, that’s the time to say, “Okay, is this working the way I think it is or do I need to adjust?” If you’re taking the pot off the stove after two months, you just don’t know whether it’s working yet.
Brett McKay: Are you saying six months is for improvement in fitness or improvement in aesthetics or appearance?
Alex Hutchinson: For aesthetics, I would say six months is the bare minimum unless you’re first of all a super responder and second of all, like going from an untrained state. You’ve been locked in a cell for five years, not moving and now you’re really starting to train six days a week or something and you’re going to see changes much more quickly. But I would say for seeing changes, six months. Yeah. For changing fitness, and strength, and endurance, and health, we’re talking weeks, although it’s a dose response. It’s small changes in weeks, bigger changes in months, huge changes in years.
Brett McKay: That’s good to know because that manages expectations for people. Let’s talk about … let’s say you stop exercising for whatever reason. Maybe you get injured or you get really busy and you can’t get to the gym or you take a longer vacation, how long does it take for you to get unfit?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. It depends on your definition of unfit. One thing is that the longer you’ve training, the longer you can kind of skate by with minimal training. Part of that is that … Again, speaking of endurance, it’s like there are some things that are sort of ephemeral, like the mitochondrial content of yourselves is a big factor in endurance and that can rise and fall. But there are other things that are structural like your heart is bigger and stronger and you’ve grown more capillaries to deliver blood to your muscles. Those things aren’t going to disappear in two weeks. Those structural changes are going to last for quite a while and the same with muscle too.
If you put on a bunch of muscle, it doesn’t just melt away. If you don’t work out for two or three weeks, you may lose a little strength and that your neuro muscular signal isn’t as good, but that muscle is still going to be there for you. To me, again it depends on the person in the context, but you can go two weeks without exercising and aside from being a bit rusty, you’re not going to lose a ton. If you will four weeks without exercising, then you’ve lost a lot. That’s the sort of range where four weeks is a lot, two weeks is not a lot. If you’re time pressed, one of the things that the research shows is that a couple of hard workouts maybe twice a week, it doesn’t have to be a long period of time. But if you push yourself just twice a week, that can maintain fitness for much, much longer. That’s true in the insurance context. You get people who are training six days a week and then you say, “Okay. Now, you can only train half an hour at a time, twice a week.”
If you push it for that half an hour, twice a week, you can maintain your fitness for a surprisingly long like a month or whatever. I imagine the same thing as there’s some similar with strength training, which is that even if you’re used to maintaining a high load, as long as you’re able to shock those muscles once or twice a week, you’re going to do a lot better than if you go … I guess the message I’m trying to get across here is that it’s not all or nothing. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m pretty busy. I can’t do all my workouts. Therefore, I’m going to lie on the sofa and eat Cheetos.”
If you can find 15 minutes to get out there and hammer, even if it’s just a couple times a week, that will do a lot to make sure that you can pick up your routine again, four weeks later or whatever it is, or three weeks later when you have more time.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s what I do whenever … I just exercise even I don’t have time just so I can maintain that habit, right? When I went on vacation this summer, I didn’t have access to a gym, so I’d have barbells. What I did instead was did like a 15-minute body circuit workouts. It was like pull ups, body squats, pushups, and just went really, really hard on that. Did it three times a week, helped my work capacity go up, and I maintain that habit. When I got back home, it wasn’t like, “Oh man, I’ve got to start this all over again.” I just kept going.
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a super important point. I’ve come to the … One of the sort of areas where my thinking has drifted a little bit or evolved a little bit is I’ve just come to believe that the habit forming elements and the psychology of exercise is so much more important than we sometimes think. We get focused on like, “How many reps should I do at what percentage of my max?” Those things make a difference, but so much more important is understanding what it is that will enable you to maintain a consistent program, whatever that program is.
Similar to you, one of the things that I find is I get super busy and stressed out and think, “I don’t have time to run today.” Well, one of the ways I fight against that is that I say … sometimes I’m like, “I’m going to go out for a five-minute run.” Now, that’s ludicrous because I used to run an hour a day and even these days I like to get out for this half an hour. Five minutes, it seems stupid even just when you think of the time it takes to change and shower, but I just want to maintain the habit. If I go out for five minutes and I come back and that’s it, then it’s like, “Okay, that hasn’t done a ton for me, but it’s maintained my habit.”
Of course often once I get out for five minutes, I’m like, “How am I really so busy that I can’t extend this to 20 minutes? Of course not. I can find 15 minutes in the day.” I’ll just end up getting my 20 minute running. But even if I don’t, I’ve kept that routine going and haven’t just gotten into the habit of like, “I’m going to skip my run today.” I always try and get out the door. If I’m so stressed and busy that five minutes is all I feel I can handle, then that’s fine, but I don’t just make it all or nothing.
Brett McKay: All right. Something’s better than nothing is the take. Yeah.
Alex Hutchinson: Absolutely. That’s probably like, if there’s one message that people take away from all of this and this is an answer to so many questions, it’s like, “Yeah, we can optimize up the wazoo, but ultimately something is always better than nothing.” For a large fraction of people, they’re doing nothing or they’re trying to do all or nothing. They’re not realizing that, “Hey, sometimes you can’t do what’s perfect, but if you do something, you’re going to be way, way, way ahead of doing nothing.”
Brett McKay: Well yeah, that idea of something better than nothing, that can go to which sort of fitness practice you choose because a lot of people feel like, “Well, I should do this,” but they don’t enjoy it so they don’t really do it. Find something you actually like doing and you’re going to be more likely to do it. Now, it might not be Instagram worthy where you can show yourself running a sub two hour marathon or dead lifting 700 pounds. But if you’re taking a hike or you’re playing ultimate Frisbee a couple of times a week, that’s better than nothing.
Alex Hutchinson: Absolutely. Actually in many ways, it’s better than even very good options because if it’s something you’re going to keep doing for the next 20 years, then that’s a huge win. Again, that’s when I … Again, this is an area I’ve been writing about for 10 or 15 years. In my evolution of thought, I now tend to put a lot more emphasis on factors on things like that, on finding something sustainable rather than optimizing the details. I love optimizing the details, it’s what interests me and there’s a lot of people who love that too. That’s my bread and butter in terms of what I write about. But I’m really conscious now of trying to make sure that people don’t take the message that just because I spent a thousand words writing about whether you should run at this pace or 10 seconds faster, per mile or whatever. That doesn’t mean that’s what’s most important. That’s the 1% the 99% is, find something you like doing and do it.
Brett McKay: All right. Let’s talk about weight loss and exercise. A lot of people start exercising, they want to lose weight, but I think everyone’s seeing those reports or research that shows that exercise doesn’t contribute much to fat loss. What’s the research sound like? I imagine it’s more nuanced than that.
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. I’ll confess that I am maybe a minority opinion on this. I don’t buy that stuff or at least I would add the caveat. When people say exercise doesn’t contribute much to weight loss, what they’re really saying is exercise at the levels that they’re willing to do in the studies doesn’t contribute much to weight loss. This is not true of all studies, but most studies are relatively. There’s like, “Oh, we had these people walking for half an hour, five days a week and they only lost a couple pounds.” There’s two responses. One is that, “Okay, maybe they only last a couple of pounds, but I bet their metabolic health is way better.”
There’s huge value to walking half an hour, five times a week. But the other thing is if you want to say exercise doesn’t contribute to weight loss, come and run with my training group for a couple of years. This is a huge debate. Are runners skinny because they’re naturally destined to be skinny and that’s why they’re runners? Or, are they skinny because there’s something about running emails a week that makes you skinny? I think there’s probably a bit of both.
I mean, I remember like 10 years ago I had a conversation with Gary Taubes about this and his argument was, “Yeah. Running doesn’t make you skinny. It’s just that people who are skinny end up running.” That may be true in a lot of cases. But everyone who’s been in a running group has also seen people who are overweight join the group, stick with it over the long period of time. It’s hard but … and ended up dropping large amounts of weight. My belief is that absolutely weight loss is far more complicated than just, “Oh, if you do more exercise, you’ll burn more calories and then you’ll lose weight,” because there are all sorts of compensating factors.
There’s behavioral compensators like the fact that if you exercise more, you’ll be hungrier. There’s also sort of invisible compensating factors, changes in your metabolism that fight to keep whatever weight you’ve been at. It’s absolutely complicated, but if you’re burning enough calories through exercise, I absolutely believe it’s a contributing factor to … it can be a contributing factor to weight loss, although that doesn’t mean you should be out eating Twinkies nonetheless.
The one other thing that I think is maybe underappreciated is there’s a pretty significant body of literature that suggests that in people who exercise at least a moderate amount, they’re better at matching their appetite cues to their caloric needs. Obviously like a thousand years ago, people just ate when they were hungry or they ate when they could get food or whatever. But even when they had access to relatively copious food, they didn’t necessarily eat more than they needed.
There’s some interesting evidence that suggests when you look at appetite cues and freely chosen food intake, people who exercise tend to be more able to automatically eat the amount that they need. When you get to people who are completely sedentary, that system kind of breaks and their appetite cues are no longer in tune. Somehow something about exercise keeps that intake and outflow balance better.
In that sense, exercises main benefit may be not that it burns extra calories, but that it helps calibrate your sense of appetite to the amount of calories you actually need.
Brett McKay: Well, and you also talk about the type of exercise might increase or might increase the chances of you burning fat. Because a lot of people think, “Well, I’m going to lose some weight. I’m just getting on the treadmill and get in that fat burning zone for an hour and I’ll lose weight.” When you say people forget … Strength training often contributes more to fat loss than cardio.
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. Well, and the fat burning zone boy you just push the red button there. I mean, there’s different things. For one thing, if you build muscle, muscle is very metabolically active and helps burn calories and control blood sugar levels. Having more muscle is a huge advantage for controlling weight. There’s also … Obviously, high intensity interval training has been a big trend over the last 10 years and doing high intensity work can contribute to extra calorie burn that persists for a while after a workout.
In terms of the fat burning zone, I mean, there is some truth to the fact that if you go relatively easily on a treadmill, then you will … or in whatever, not even on a treadmill. If your intensity of exercise is low, you’ll burn mostly fat. As you push and go harder and harder, you’ll start to burn a higher and higher percentage of carbohydrate. But it’s a total misinterpretation to think, “Therefore, I should exercise as easily as possible so that I’m burning 90% fat instead of 10% fat.”
Because if you’re going really easily, the total number of calories you’re burning is low. Then you’re like, “Well, I’m burning 90% of 10 calories an hour.” It’s better to be burning 50% fat at 100 calories an hour. The other reason … I mean, in theory, if you want to burn the most fat, you should be just sprinting all out. Now, the problem is you can’t sustain sprinting all out for more than a few minutes. You can’t say, “I’m going to just going to sprint for an hour.”
The way a lot of exercise programs have evolved is to try and balance that to have a mix of intensity, high intensity, and low intensity so that you’re accumulating longer duration but also high intensity, you’re mixing up, you’re hitting different energy systems. That’s going to maximize the amount of calories you’re able to burn overall during an exercise program.
Now, the other thing I would say about fat burning zones, not to complicate it even more is ultimately, although this is again a controversial area of debate in research. I don’t think it really matters which calories you burn. If you burn carbohydrates, if you burn fat, it’s all essentially one big pot in terms of the fuel that is then coming in from your next meal. If you’ve burned your carbohydrate stores, then your next meal is going to go to replenishing those carbohydrate stores rather than filling up your fat stores.
Whether you burn carbs or fat is just … Again, one of those details where it’s like … If we can go back to it, doing something is better than nothing, I wouldn’t say, “Oh, I need to be at 65% of my heart rate, not 72%.” It’s like, “Dude, do whatever is fun and sustainable.” That’s going to be your best bet rather than trying to micro engineer the intensity.
Brett McKay: Yeah. As you’re talking, made me think. I think a lot of people when they think fat burning zone, there’s also a misconception of how metabolism works. They think, “I’m in the fat burning zone. I’m burning stored fat right now.” Probably not, you’re probably burning dietary fat that you consumed last night at dinner. You’re not even touching your fat stores yet.
Alex Hutchinson: This maybe goes to another question, but it’s like, “I’m doing core exercises so therefore I’m burning the fat off my belly or whatever.” No, no. That’s not how it works. You’re burning from the giant pot of energy you have. You can’t target or spot burn fat from specific areas. That’s just not how it works.
Brett McKay: All right. Those Instagram influencers don’t listen to them. It’s not true.
Alex Hutchinson: Who knew they weren’t fonts of knowledge?
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about endurance. Just sort of endurance athletics, endurance fitness because this is your wheelhouse. One question you explore is whether there’s a correct or incorrect way to run. I think people who do five Ks or marathons, they probably read books on how they should improve the form and decrease injuries. Is there anything to that or is just run however your body feels naturally wants to run?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. Again, you’ve successfully picked a third rail topic that gets people to really-
Brett McKay: I know. Yeah.
Alex Hutchinson: What I would say is there is no “correct” way to run. I will acknowledge that there are some incorrect ways to run. There’s not one way you should run, but there are some things to be avoided. The classic one would be over striding. You’ll often see less experienced runners taking these big long steps crashing down on their heels way in front of their bodies. It’s not very efficient. It’s harder on the joints. I would say in most cases, if you just spend some time running, the feedback you get from your body will help you iron out those problems that you will sort of naturally evolve into a fairly efficient and fairly comfortable running stride.
That’s certainly how I learned to run. Now, if you see me run you will say, “Dude, you should have learned to run properly. You look like an idiot.” People have been telling me that for a long time. I’m open to the … There are running coaches out there who have a lot of ideas about form. I’m open to the idea that they may have some useful tips for some people. Certainly, there’s lots of satisfied customers out there who are like, “I used to run like a hippopotamus with a broken leg. Now, I flow down the street just feels wonderful.” I’m happy for those people.
In the scientific realm, if we look at studies of running form of making changes to running form to see if you can become more efficient, the general consensus is whenever you make a change to someone’s running form, they become less efficient and it becomes harder to … It’s mentally harder and it’s also … Even when people feel it’s actually better, it’s measurably less efficient. I’m still a believer in mostly just run how you feel, but maybe if a knowledgeable observer tells you, you’re doing something crazily wrong, you’ve got your arms completely straight by your sides or behind your head or something like that, there may be some useful advice to you, I guess so not to ramble on this.
But I do remember watching the New York marathon one year. I’m a fan of the Elite Side of the Sport. I usually watch on TV and the camera’s focused 90% of the time on the lead pack and they’re all running with these smooth, beautiful strides. But a couple of times watching with friends on the sidelines and cheering on the people who are not just running two hour marathons but who are running three hours and four hours and five hours. It’s like, “Okay, I’ll admit it.” At the five hour range, you’re seeing some people with some pretty peculiar running forums, sometimes, not everybody. But occasionally you’ll see people like, “I bet I could give a tip to that person that might help them run a little more smoothly.”
It’s not that it’s impossible to improve, but I think in general, most of these pieces of advice, you have to have a running cadence of 180 steps per minute or you must ensure that your feet land in this particular way, like on the toes rather than on the heel or whatever. A lot of them have these sort of bio plausible narratives where it sounds reasonable, but the more research you do and the more you test it, the more you find it’s like, “Actually, that didn’t make anybody better. It didn’t make anybody more efficient. It didn’t make them less injured. It didn’t actually help after all.”
If there is a perfect running form, we haven’t really identified what it is or how to teach people how to do it.
Brett McKay: What’s the state of barefoot running these days? I remember really when this book came out, it was huge. I was on those guys who bought Vibram Five Fingers . . . They’ve been in the trash for a long time. What’s going on there? Is it as big? Are people kind of cooled on it?
Alex Hutchinson: It is definitely cooled. I think what a lot of people found is that they got hurt. It wasn’t as easy as they thought and for the people who succeeded, I think I would say … I’m generalizing here obviously, but I think the people who succeeded did a transition or learned to do it very gradually, so gradually that they probably could have learned to run in combat boots doing the same thing just by giving their body plenty of time to adapt to a new movement pattern.
Now, there’s a lot fewer people out there running in Vibrams or running barefoot than there were 10 years ago. That being said, the whole running shoe market has changed as a result of that. For a long time, it was this over engineered, this idea you have to control the foot. If it wants to pronate, you have to prevent the foot from pronating. We need pronation control and all these big pieces of plastic stuck inside the shoe minimalism, absolute pure minimalism, running bare feet, which makes a lot of sense from a sort of logical and evolutionary perspective turned out to be something that’s very, very hard for most people to do if they’ve grown up in Western society.
But that whole movement forced shoe companies to sort of look inward and reflect and say, “Are these shoes we’re selling, do they actually do anything? Do we have good evidence?” I always say the general answer was, “A lot of what we’re doing is not really supported, is not useful. So maybe we should simplify shoes, make them a little lighter, make them a little more flexible and more sort of able to move naturally like the foot.” I certainly am one person who I didn’t go minimalist, but I run in much lighter shoes than I did 10 years ago.
The array of shoes that are available to people in stores is a lot different and a lot lighter. I think that’s good because even if not everyone runs in the same shoe, there’s a bigger menu of options available to people now to find a shoe that fits for them and that makes them feel good running.
Brett McKay: Another part of the … When you talked about running in the book, you talked about is there really a runners high and you likened it to a Yeti because you hear a lot of people talk about it but not a lot of people have experienced it. I remember like a few years ago, I got really into running and I never felt … I always felt just not great after a run. Does a runner’s high actually exist or is that overblown?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. I think it does exist. I think the people who reported are legit, but the reason I feel bad is precisely because of what you’re saying, people who get into running are like, “Man, I’ll get this amazing like euphoric tie and then … no, actually I just want to like lie down and pass out that I don’t feel like a high.” I’ve been running for a billion years, and I’ve never experienced that sort of euphoric high.
What did I get when I’m lucky? Is that a sort of feeling of satisfaction that life is good? It’s hard to separate that from maybe I’m just feeling like, “Hey, I just went out and did something hard. I achieved a goal that I’d set for myself and I’ve done something good today and so I’m feeling good about that. Is that just because I did that or is it because my brain chemistry has changed?” It took me a while to sort of conclude that, “Yeah, there’s probably some brain chemistry changes. I’m just a little calmer. If I get a rundown in the morning yeah, I just feel subtly better about things.”
The research on runner’s high … I mean, it’s hard because the sort of euphoric high is so rare, it’s hard to study it because there’s so few people who actually experience that. But there have been a lot of studies and the consensus now or at least the sort of feeling now is that it’s not just endorphins or one particular chemical. There’s actually a whole bunch of different things. There’s endocannabinoids, which are basically the body’s version of marijuana and endorphins, which are the body’s version of opioids like morphine and there’s various other chemicals like dopamine. All of these two different degrees in different people are stimulated by prolonged exercise that’s moderately hard.
If you’re sprinting, you don’t get the same change in brain chemistry. If you’re really just going out for a brisk walk, you don’t get that same change. I think that’s why it’s tends to be runner’s high is that running just happens to be an activity that favors you to go out and be able to be moderately hard for a prolonged period of time. It’s not like cycling where you can just take your feet off the pedals, so it tend to cost a little more. Intensity tends to be a little lower. It’s not like swimming where yet if you’re like me, at least you have to work relatively hard to avoid drowning. It hits that middle ground.
I think for most people it’s a much more subtle change in mood or change in brain chemistry that may not happen with every run for sure and that may be more of a cumulative thing too, that it’s something that over time it changes your mood. But yeah, the sort of, “I’m floating through the universe in touch with all the human race.” I personally have never met anyone who experienced that.
Brett McKay: Well, in those brain boosting or mood boosting benefits of cardio or one reason why strength athletes should also incorporate cardio into their workout programming.
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. I mean, I think I can give you a lot of reasons that I think a little bit of endurance training is a good idea. One of them is that, yeah, the most reliable … For any benefit of exercise, there’s usually a set of studies of different forms of exercise saying, “Oh yeah. Well, you can get this from structuring too, or you can get this from circuit training or CrossFit or whatever the case may be.” I think there’s some truth to that, but the most reliable way of getting the mood changing benefits of exercise is definitely the vast majority of the research is with aerobic exercise. That extends too for things like cognitive benefits because as a guy in my mid 40s staring down the tunnel of life, I’m starting to read more studies about like, “Hey, how do I keep my marbles as I get older, try and stave off cognitive decline?” There’s pretty good evidence, there’s very good evidence for aerobic exercise, stimulating brain growth factors that keep your brain healthy.
There’s also evidence for resistance training, but there are different pathways so you’re missing out on something if you’re not doing some aerobic exercise. Then moving outside the brain, there’s also some of the metabolic benefits of exercise. It’s clear that resistance training is really healthy for you in a lot of different ways, but it doesn’t max out your benefits in terms of keeping your blood pressure and your blood sugar levels and things like that at optimal levels.
Brett McKay: All right. Let’s move over to strength training. You talked about the core. Now, for the past decade, everyone’s probably seen your magazine articles, blog posts, infomercials about strengthening your core. What exactly is the core and do exercise help anything with that?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. I would say anything that’s gotten as much hype as the core has gotten in the last decade or so is almost by definition overhyped. It’s important, but it’s not more important than your feet muscles or whatever. You want to be stable, well, you have to have strong … There’s, I don’t know, 14 muscles in your feet. All those have to be strong, and balanced, and stable too if you’re going to have good balance. Core is … it’s important and it’s just one of those things that maybe caught on and got a little overhyped. But I think people tend to think of the core as like, it’s the six pack. If you have a six pack, you have a good core. That’s too narrow review because really what you want … When you’re talking about core from a functional point of view is you want something that’s giving you stability, giving you a good base from which to use your strength.
You have to kind of broaden the definition just from the abs out to the hips and the pelvis. There’ve been a bunch of interesting studies that look at … In running for example, looks at things like knee injuries, runner’s knee, and find that there’s a really strong correlation between runner’s knee problems and we kept that if you don’t have strong hips, you’re more likely to have your knees turning inwards when you run and putting strain on that knee joint.
That’s one example of a case where, yeah, if you don’t have a strong core that can manifest in problems in other places in your body, and so it is good to have a good core. I think the thing to avoid is to interpret that as, you should do a ton of crunches every night.
Brett McKay: Right because those crunches are just exercising those superficial muscles on your abs that don’t really do anything.
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, absolutely. There’s better core exercises, and there’s also sort of a broader definition of what the core is and how broad it might be. But at a certain point, once you’re doing hip exercises, and pelvic exercises, and back exercises, then it’s like, “Well, I’m not really excising the core anymore. This is just exercise. This is part of a good balanced exercise program.”
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, you could work the “core” just by doing dead lifts and squats because that engages the hips, the lower back in that upper part.
Alex Hutchinson: I would say there’s probably no better way. That’s the ultimate. If you can do those well, that’s a pretty good sign that your core is in good shape.
Brett McKay: All right. So, no plank. No plank’s required if you don’t want to?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah, I mean, the planks are not the worst thing in the world, but if you’re dead lifting and squatting then, that’s going to be challenging your core in all the ways that are important.
Brett McKay: So what about body weight exercises? Are those just as beneficial as weight training? I imagine the answer this sort of conversation, the way it’s been going. It’s like, “Yeah because it’s something.”
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. Or since I answer every question. Well, it depends then you can see where it’s going. Yeah. I would say … I think this is an important point for strength training in general. It’s like what is your goal? Do you want to be Mr. Olympia or do you want to go to the Olympics or do you want to be healthy and strong and look good or whatever? For the 99% of us who aren’t concerned with the last sort of 0.01%, do you have a lot more flexibility in how you train?
What I’m thinking of right now is there’s some really interesting research from McMaster University that over the course of about half a dozen studies has compared light loads with heavy loads. The question is, if you look at the standard guidelines and think, “Oh I need to be lifting at whatever 70 or 89 or 90% of my one rep max.” Well, what happens if you lift at 30% of what your one rep max? The answer is if you lift a failure, so if you lift like 25 reps per set, you end up getting virtually the same gains, not 100% identical, not at that sort of. At the very edge of the curve are you getting the absolute most steady yourself? But you get pretty much the same gains in muscle and in strength. That’s with 30% one rep max.
With body weight exercises, obviously you’re much more limited in terms of how you can vary the load. But what this research tells us is, “Yeah, if you want to do pushups and pull ups, and dips, and things like that, you can get a pretty good workout as long as you work hard enough to go to just failure.” If you want to take it to the ultimate, absolute maximizing the benefits, then you’re probably going to want to be able to lift with the heavy loads.
Particularly, I would say for the lower body, it’s one thing most of us can get a pretty good workout. I’m saying this is a dramatic understatement. Most of us don’t need to do 25 pull ups to reach failure per set. It’s easy to fully challenge yourself with body weight for the upper body. For the legs, it’s a lot harder. You could try and isolate one legged Romanian squats, split squats or whatever. But really to get your legs exercised, I’d say there it’s a lot harder to get the full benefits from a body weight program.
Brett McKay: A lot of people exercise because they’re trying to counter that sedentary lifestyle they have because they’re sitting down at work all day. When they’re at home, they’re kind of not doing much and they say, “Well, I got my exercise and I moved my body. That’s going to counter all that.” Is that true?
Alex Hutchinson: In keeping with my pattern, I’ll say partly true, but not entirely true. I’ll just say I’m speaking to you here from my adjustable desk. I’m one of the people who ended up getting a desk that allows me to stand for part of the day, although certainly not all of it. Maybe an eighth of the day or something. I see fewer headlines about this these days than five or six or seven years ago, all about the dangers of sitting and how sitting is the new smoking and all that. I think what your question is getting at is, is there something that’s bad about sitting that’s more than just the fact that you’re not exercising?
As long as you get enough exercise, can you sit as much as you want? I would say the evidence suggest that those are two different things. You could say, “How much do I have to exercise to counterbalance the negative health effects of smoking?” Just to take an obvious example, it’s like, “Well, in terms of life expectancy, maybe there is a number. Maybe smoking one cigarette a day will reduce your life expectancy by one year and exercising half an hour a day will increase it by one year.” Therefore, you can balance the two by smoking one cigarette and exercising one half an hour a day or whatever the case may be. But that wouldn’t be correct to say that then exercising eliminates the effects of the cigarette. All you’re doing is balancing two completely different things.
The same is true I think with prolonged sitting and exercising. Part of the problem with working a desk job is yeah, that you’re sitting all day so you’re not getting exercise, you’re not burning calories, then you’re not using your muscles. Part of the problem with sitting is lack of exercise. But there’s another part that it seems to be just a direct response to being totally motionless for hours at a time. That levels of … Your muscles basically go into standby mode. They realize they’re not being used that levels of the enzymes that draw in blood sugar and things like that drop and so you’re no longer in a metabolically normal state and your blood sugar is rising. You have to then secrete insulin to keep it under control.
Even if you exercised for an hour that morning, if you’re then sitting motionless for eight hours continuously or for 14 hours, when you add in your Netflix time that evening, then there’s some negative health effects that aren’t being balanced just by exercising enough. It’s still not entirely clear what you do to counteract that nobody knows once you have to get up once every hour, once every half hour or once every two hours, can you get up for 10 seconds or for a minute or five minutes? Is standing up enough or do you have to do jumping jacks or go up a flight of stairs? Nobody knows. Nobody knows.
But I would say, a reasonable rule of thumb is try to get out of your chair at least once an hour. If you have the option to stand up occasionally, stand up once every couple of hours and if you’re able to work for half an hour standing up. If you have the … For me, I actually leave my landline phone downstairs and so when it rings, it’s a pain in the neck, but I have to run downstairs to get it. It just forces me to make sure that I don’t actually sit at my desk nonstop for all day except for lunch. It just makes me go up and down the stairs a couple of times. It’s not a workout, but it’s just reminding my muscles that, “Hey, you can’t be in dormant mode. You have to be able to move around.”
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about a question that I thought it was really fun you explored was music. Does music help anything when you’re working out or does it distract?
Alex Hutchinson: Yes to both. Yeah. I think everyone who’s ever done a workout with the right music pounding either in their ears or over the loud speaker knows that it can be really, really inspirational, it can really get you in the groove. All this research that tried to identify is like, what is the optimum beat of the music? Is there a right key that you have to have it in or a genre? What makes good music? The results always were all over the map.
One thing people realize is that music isn’t just sound. People have associations with music. The songs that to me might make me remember some great moment or a triumph or a girl who dumped me or whatever, they’re different for every person. The personal associations you bring to music are really crucial. There is never going to be a sort of universal playlist of music that makes people run fast or lift more weight. But if you find the right music … And generally it’s uptempo music and if it has lyrics, it’s music that have lyrics that are … and if not inspirational then at least encouraging.
It’s not sort of a depressing ballot or anything. That’s unlikely to max out your performance. It can definitely help you. That’s been shown over and over again. Now, the caveat that’s important to keep in mind is that music can make exercise feel easier. Sometimes, it makes it feel easier because you’ve decided to go easier. You’re like, “Oh yeah I was on the bike, I put on the tunes and it just felt so easy.” Then if you actually look at like the power Europe and it’s like, “Oh it’s because I was barely moving my legs because I was focused on the music and listening to the music.”
What they find is the more engaged you are in the music or with the comparisons between music and watching a video, watching a video is more engaging. When you let people self select their exercise intensity, they go easier and easier, the more engaged they are. If it’s like a podcast or music or a video that you’re really, really into, you’re likely to slow down unconsciously. The additional thing I would say is first of all, bear in mind like keep an eye on your pace or on your effort level or do a form of exercise. If you’re on the treadmill and you’ve set it for eight minute miles, then it doesn’t matter if you’re distracted and if you get into it then that’s great. It’s taking your mind off the effort of maintaining eight minute miles and you’re not slowing down.
If you’re lifting weights, you’re choosing what weight to lift. It’s not like you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even notice I was lifting 10 pounds instead of 100 pounds.” You choose what weight you lift, so it’s not a concern. But in those modalities where you’re freely choosing your exercise intensity, it’s easy to drift off and be like, “This feels so great,” and then realize that’s because you’re barely working.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I used to listen to music a lot like all the time. For the past few months, I’ve just sort of naturally haven’t like not turned on the speaker when I trained and I actually enjoyed a lot more, which is weird.
Alex Hutchinson: I will definitely avoid judging either way because people have strong feelings. I’ll say for me, running it’s a time for me to be alone with my thoughts. I love music a lot. For me, if I have music, that’s where my mind is, I’m following the music. I value getting outside and running and just letting my mind wander. It’s amazing where my mind ends up and I don’t remember most of the time, but it’s like, “Wow, how did I end up thinking about that?” I have this sort of totally irrational and unfounded belief that that’s kind of good for me in this busy over-scheduled world to have some time to let my mind wander free.
Brett McKay: I tried listening to podcasts while working on that. I just was too distracted. I was distracted from the podcast because I was so focused on training that I couldn’t listen. Then also the podcast distracted my training. I was like-
Alex Hutchinson: If that’s exactly … I think your experience is the classic sort of pitfall of something that’s too good and too interesting. You’re not giving 100% of attention to either of the things and those are both things that you would like to be giving 100% of your attention to.
Brett McKay: Right. The sound of silence. Well, Alex, this has been a lot of fun. There’s so many more questions people can read about in the book. Where can people find out more information about what you’re doing now and what your working on?
Alex Hutchinson: Yeah. Probably the easiest place to find me is on Twitter. My handle is sweatscience and that’s where I post anything I find interesting or new articles that I’ve written. I do have a website, alexhutchinson.net where there’s sort of obscured details about my long buried past, like the fact that I wrote a book called, Which Comes First, Cardio Or Weights? Those are probably the two best places to go.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Alex, thanks so much for time. It’s been a pleasure.
Alex Hutchinson: Thanks, Brett. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Alex Hutchinson, he’s the author of the book, Which Comes First, Cardio Or Weights? and his latest book, Endure. Check them out, they’re both available on Amazon. You can find out more information on his work at his website, alexhutchinson.com or follow him on twitter at @sweatscience and check out our show notes at aom.is/fitnessfaq where you find links to resources. We can delve deeper into this topic.
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