Why We Do It

In the broadest terms, the GeekFit approach to health stems from the moment when we realized that no one has exclusive rights to any particular field, and that the geek skills and talents which had served us so well in other areas could be used to sift through the evidence and data in any particular field.  We could geek out about health, exercise and nutrition just as easily as we could geek out about programming, games, or any other area.  We had become frustrated with conflicting advice, confusing studies, and inexplicable observations.  How is it so difficult for people to lose weight if it’s a simple physics problem?  Why, exactly, do we believe the things we do about health?

Once we realized we could ask the questions ourselves, they just kept coming.  To goal wasn’t just to figure out what works, but to understand how we got where we are today and what the evidence for and against each competing theory is.  What is the history of the science behind the lipid hypothesis?  Behind the calorie deficit approach to weight management?  How long have these been the prevailing hypotheses, and what/when/where did people think other things?  Only by understanding why can we compare competing approaches and determine which is more well supported and likely to be effective.

What started as a quest to understand weight loss and obesity grew quickly into overall health and nutrition, and the “diseases of civilization” (obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many others– they tend to arrive the same time in a culture, and aren’t found in isolation).  Eventually, we expanded our focus more to include exercise and fitness; both of us have more extensive backgrounds in athletics than nutrition, but by taking the research and analysis skills we had honed in our study of nutrition and health and applying them to exercise we have been able to take our approach to fitness to new heights.

Our approach to exercise and health is below.  Check out the Articles section for more detailed info on various other topics.

EXERCISE AND HEALTH

What benefits are we looking to achieve here?  Different types of exercise will achieve some but not all of these, optimal exercise will achieve all of them:

  • Fitness and strength –  it can save your life in life-threatening situations, and improves quality of life greatly
    • Including both “aerobic” or endurance gains
    • And strength and speed gains
  • Resting metabolism – reduce the daily stress of living on your body
  • Improved insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved bone mineral density
  • Reduction of Arthritis symptoms
  • Reduced lower-back pain
  • Improved flexibility and mobility
  • Increased “organ reserve”… improved headroom and capacity for bodily function (avoid slow decrease in lean mass and physical capacity as people age)
  • Etc, etc
A few definitions, for clarity:
Volume: the sum quantity of a physical activity.
Intensity: the exertion level of a physical activity.
Frequency: how often a physical activity is performed.
Duration: the length of time a physical activity is performed.
Repetition: A single performance of an exercise or physical motion.
Set: typically used in weightlifting or other interval-based activities, a group of repetitions of an exercise performed in consecutive sequence.  Multiple sets are typically separated by a rest period.  So, to perform 3 sets of 10 reps of push-ups would be to do 10 push-ups, take a break of some period of time, and then repeat 3 times for a total of 30 push-ups.
Rest: time spent not performing exercise and physical activity, particularly time when the body can recover and rebuild after exercise

Some assertions:

  • Exercise is damaging and inflammatory to the body, but produces healthy and beneficial adaptations that compensate and can overcompensate for the damage done during exercise
  • The beneficial aspects of exercise all occur during the rest period that follows the exercise
  • More isn’t always better– beneficial exercise is a spectrum, from zero benefit at zero exercise, to some maximum benefit per the damaging exercise done as exercise volume is increased, and then onward to decreasing benefit and eventually degradation of health as the damage associated with the exercise volume exceeds the ability of the body to adapt and heal during the rest period.
  • The beneficial adaptations that result from exercise are largely due to the extent to which muscle fiber bunches are exhausted (across each of the 4 types of muscle fibers: slow twitch, fast twitch oxidative, fast twitch glycolytic, and fast twitch oxidative/glycolitic)– or, more specifically, with the localized biochemical conditions that occur when muscle fibers are fully exhausted.
    • Other aspects of exercise– heart rate, volume/total amount, calories burned, etc… are irrelevant in terms of beneficial adaptation and health
    • The single most important aspect of exercise is intensity, as the higher the intensity the more efficiently the muscle fiber bundles are exhausted with fewer negative side effects
  • “Cardio” theory is largely flawed, with research showing that “global cardiovascular conditioning” to be largely a myth, and endurance/cardio changes are entirely or nearly entirely muscle-specific… as far as the body is concerned, all it knows is the byproducts and side effects of exercise, not the type or duration of exercise

And… perhaps what we consider to be the most important assertion:

  • The beneficial adaptations associated with exercise, and the negative wasting effects associated with underuse, are both very healthy and important functions.  It is evolutionarily wasteful to maintain capacity and ability that isn’t being used, and so slowly over time the body will recycle wasted resources.  On the other hand, if the body is stressed, it will direct resources to better withstand that stress in the future… and if it can build capacity faster than the stress causes damage, it will improve capacity over time.

All of which lead us to the characteristics of the optimal exercise:

  • Minimum volume necessary to achieve maximal muscle fiber exhaustion across all fiber types across all muscles
  • Maximal rest to achieve full recovery between workouts, otherwise benefits are cut short and fitness level is reduced by additional physical activity
  • Minimize risk of injury
  • Incredibly high intensity… and must be done to complete exhaustion in order to produce maximal stimulus and adaptation.  In order to cause the body to produce positive adaptation and increase your limits, you must work up to your limits.
  • Maximal rest– it’s worth repeating twice.  The short and long term benefits associated with exercise only occur if the body is given time to build the capacity to handle stresses better the next time.

There are lots of exercise plans and approaches that achieve different levels and types of benefits, and even different ways to implement the optimal exercise.  That being said, by far the most efficient (benefit per time input) are incredibly low volume, high intensity resistance training-based workouts.  This allows for careful control of the intensity and duration, as well as the lowest risk of injury (either due to accident or overtraining).The approach we’ve found to be most effective draws from several sources, in addition to our review of published studies and other sources, and is most similar to Dr. Doug McGuff’s Body By Science.  Other great sources are Fred Hahn’s Slow Burn, and the New Rules for Lifting.  Doug calls the main workout the Big 5, and with all credit to Dr. McGuff, we’ll use that terminology here as well.

What is the Big 5 workout?  The “what” is covered elsewhere here, but in short it is a 15-20 minute workout that consists of 5 exercises which, together, work every muscle fiber in as many muscles as possible across the full range of useful motion and fiber types to complete exhaustion… and does so in the shortest and safest way possible.  This achieves the maximum possible positive stimulus to produce increased health, with the least wear and tear, and in the least time.  Optimal rest varies from individual to individual depending on fitness levels and genetics, but ranges from 5 to 14 days of rest between workouts.  In between you do whatever you enjoy doing– just don’t force yourself to do things you don’t enjoy during your rest periods.  It’s while you are resting that you are responding to the stimulus and improving your health.  Additional forced exercise during this period can slow or even reverse progress! Why is the Big 5 Workout more effective than other exercises?  Well, due to the time and type of work performed, you’re lifting a weight you can lift for a reasonably long period of time (compared to many weight workouts)… so initially you only have to recruit some of your muscle fiber bundles.  As individual bundles are exhausted and stop responding, you’re forced to recruit other bundles, until you’ve eventually had to recruit all available bundles, and have driven many of those bundles to failure.  You sequentially recruit and exhaust nearly all muscle fiber bundles, across all fiber types.  Other exercises either don’t work many bundles to exhaustion, or only work certain types of bundles to exhaustion.

Most cardio/aerobic exercise doesn’t do much, mainly because it’s working your muscles and body within their limits, just longer.  And if limits are pushed, it’s usually only volume and duration, which only exhausts the slow twitch fibers at best, and only if you keep going until you nearly collapse.  It’s only when you push the limits and work fibers to exhaustion that you see significant gains.  And many resistance and weight workouts focus only on fast twitch fibers.  The traditional 3 sets of 10 reps, usually not entirely to failure, ends up only recruiting fast twitch fibers, exhausting them in the first set, waiting for them to rest up, then working them again in the second set, and the same for the third set.  You’re not pulling in all the other fiber types because each set is much more limited than the one continuous long set used here.