Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Response to Ralf LeBigod

Over on the Armour Archive a link was posted to a presentation done by Ralf LeBigod (his SCA name) on  physical conditioning for the SCA.

Ralf presents some good material in this. But ultimately there is a lot of untrue material that I wish to address.

1. First, he trots out the tired old myth of strength training causing shortened muscles/tendons. This is only true with poorly designed programs. Of the kind that bodybuilding has a reputation for doing. A well-designed program will not shorten muscles/tendons. I'll explain the two common errors and how to design a program that prevents them.

Incomplete Range of Motion
Exercising with an incomplete range of motion (ROM), at high volume, without stretching or activities that use the complete ROM will shorten the tendon. The example of this I've seen in person was a friend who couldn't completely straighten his arm at the elbow. He'd done a huge amount of bicep curls without going all the way down on the exercise. I see this error at the gym today in bodybuilder types.

The solution is simple: use complete range of motion. It's not necessary for every single action/exercise to use the complete ROM. But using the full ROM should be the norm i.e. what you do with almost all exercises. The thing is that if you fully straighten your arm 12 times per set, 3 sets per workout, 3 days per week you can't help but have full ROM at the elbow. Doing that meets the ACSM stretching standards.

Imbalanced Muscles
Front to back, left to right or interal/external rotation imbalances can also lead to shorten tendons. The classic example of this is the bodybuilder who focuses too much on the "mirror muscles", that is the chest muscles. If the chest muscles are too much stronger than the back muscles then the joints will be pulled forwards toward the chest under normal resting conditions. This leads to a slouched or forward rolled shoulder look. The tendons of the chest muscles will then shorten because the resting length is shortened. Correspondingly, the back muscles will lengthen and weaken.

The solution here is equally simple: match each exercise with it's opposite. For every push, a pull. For every flexion, an extension etc. If a muscle and it's opposite (antagonist) are kept near each other in strength then this problem won't occur.

Tendon shortening is not the inevitable result of strength training and is easily prevented.

2. The topic on which he spends the most time is cardiovascular conditioning and here, again, he presents a view based on an old myth. This myth is the idea of needing to use a large amount of long slow jogs/runs for building an "aerobic base". The aerobic base is a prerequisite for interval training in his version and will also mean that a  fighter burns fat instead of carbs while recovering. The idea of building an aerobic base was the result of team sports coaches asking track coaches how to train running. But research in the last 20 years has shown this to be a non-optimal method.

Aerobic capacity is usually measured by VO2max. While long, slow, distance running (LSD) will increase VO2max, it's not the only way. Importantly, interval training methods will also increase VO2max, and are just as effective. So there is simply no need to require three (!) months of 90 minutes a day, or 10+ hours a week, of running just to increase VO2max.

In fact, LSD for increasing aerobic capacity runs into a specificity problem. Our body will not simultaneously develop both high aerobic capacity and high anaerobic power. So three months of training, 10 hours a week for aerobic capacity pulls resources away from power development and anaerobic capacity (1). The interval training that follows development of this "aerobic base" mostly regains the body's ability to work anaerobically after detraining that capacity for three months. And fighters really want to detrain power?

You are much better off starting with interval training. Start with intervals that are relatively easy, like 10-minute jogs, if you are deconditioned, and gradually move up to runs and sprints. Interval training is well-demonstrated as being effective for increasing VO2max. And a wide variety of interval training protocols including fartlek high-intensity and mixed effort protocols will work.

Increased VO2max will produce the recovery benefit that is Ralf's objective. A high VO2max is strongly correlated to good scores of performance decrement (Pdec) on repeated sprint and repeated effort tests. Da Silve (2) et al is a good example of this. Performance decrement is how much an athletes sprint time goes up when they do sprints with short rest periods in-between. Pdec is the best lab measure of "recovery" - that is the ability to go at max intensity over and over again with little rest. Which is, of course, what's required in a fight.

Furthermore, Ralf describes how LSD will increase the percentage of calories that are obtained from fat while engaging in exercise, and describes this as an objective of LSD program. The idea being that if the fat burning system is well trained then a fighter will burn fat in a fight and therefore use "better" recovery energy sources.

First of all, I have no idea why he believes that fat is a better source of energy during a fight. I think his reason is that we store many more calories of energy as fat, so it's a better source than glycogen. However, we are built to use glycogen as a short term energy source for our muscles. And we store thousands of calories as glycogen. Marathoners usually run out of glycogen around the 20 mile point. Far more energy burned than even a war event in the SCA.

Secondly, we can't use fat for energy during fighting. High intensity exercise inhibits the ability to use fat for energy (3). Which makes sense fundamentally. Converting fat to energy is a slow process that can't be done at a high volume, so it can't possibly be used to provide the high-intensity bursts of energy needed for fighting.

Just do interval training for combat sports like the SCA. It works. It works well. And it doesn't waste your time.

1. Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W. (Eds.). (2008).  Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.) . Human Kinetics
2. da Silva, Juliano F; Guglielmo, Luiz G A; Bishop, David (2010). Relationship Between Different Measures of Aerobic Fitness and Repeated-Sprint Ability in Elite Soccer Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Vol. 24, issue 8, pp. 2115-2121
3. Van Loon, L.J., Greenhaff, P.L., Constantin-Teododiu, D., Saris, W.H., Wagenmakers, A.J., The Effects of Increasing Exercise Intensity of Muscle Fuel Utilisation in Humans (2001). Journal of Physiology 588: 4289-4302


  1. I'm glad I read your post, after looking at Count Ralf's video.

    I've been doing interval training for a few months and I like it. The thought of going back and doing 'aerobic base' was very distressing. :)

    1. Yeah, it's an old holdover from the days when cardio first evolved out of long distance running training.

      There is a benefit to a small amount of aerobic base building. Specifically, about 15-30 minutes in one go, once a week. That's it. The rest should be intervals.

    2. Also, have you looked at the other articles under the conditioning tag: