A Farewell to Fatigue: How to “Fragment the Load”

Did Hemingway invigorate himself to run with the bulls in Pamplona by blowtorching his lungs doing Crossfit? Hell no. Papa knew how to pace himself.

Part 5 in our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass.” Find the first four installments here, here, here, and here.

You already know the First Law of the Lazy Badass: “Do a lot of volume while minimizing fatigue.” Today we teach you how to minimize fatigue.

When you accumulate volume (i.e. total reps), you’re depositing money in the bank. The deposits seem small and insignificant, but you make them often and with no sense of sacrifice. That’s important: we want you refreshed by your workouts and recovered quickly. That way you’ll crave your next bout of exercise—you dirty endorphin junky!—and you’ll be fresh and ready to hit the iron or the trail again ASAP. That is why the lazy badass minimizes fatigue.

Sounds great in theory. But how do you maximize volume without also building up fatigue? Get ready, because here comes the second big secret …

Fragment the load

“That’s pretty gnomic,” you might be saying. “WTF does that mean?” It means that you should space out the work. Chop it into bite-sized pieces.

Let me start with an example of the WRONG way to do a lot of volume.

Gironda was not a tactful man.When the Iron Guru first met a young unknown named Schwarzenegger, who announced his intention to become Mr. Universe one day, Gironda sneered and retorted, “You look like a fat fuck to me.”

In popular muscle media, there’s a renaissance in people writing about “German Volume Training,” the (in)famous bodybuilding protocol that, despite its name, probably originated in Hollywood with Vince Gironda, preceptor to the young Arnold Schwartznegger and “Iron Guru” of bodybuilding in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Vince taught trainees to rack up a lot of volume—so far so good!—but he made them hurry through that at a breakneck pace with very little rest. He prescribed a whopping 100 total reps per exercise, done in 10 sets of 10 with just 30-60 seconds of rest in between. That’s massively fatiguing. And you have to settle for using wimpy weights, because you can’t complete that protocol with even moderate poundages. And you will need days to recover from it. And it’s the opposite of fun and refreshing. It takes great willpower to do it even one time, and you will NOT look forward to doing it again. 

Fatigue sucks, and that’s why it is contrary to the Tao of the lazy badass to rush through volume with little rest, a thundering pulse, and buckets of sweat. To delay fatigue and accomplish more total work, the lazy badass fragments the load by breaking it up into many short sets. Instead of completing your sets and reps quickly, space them out. For example, instead of blowtorching the muscles with high-fatigue sets of 10 reps, an aspiring lazy badass could do the following:

Set up a clock near your kettlebell / barbell / whatever. At the top of every minute, do an easy 4 reps. That might only take you 10-20 seconds, and that’s fine. Rest for the remainder of the minute. At the top of the next minute, do your next four reps. Keep repeating, making haste slowly. While your friend attempts the German Volume protocol with his trachea on fire, you’ll be happy as a clam. As the minutes tick by, not only won’t you tire out, you might actually feel stronger and zestier than when you started.

Training “on the minute” is associated with Scott Sonnon, the martial artist who brought back exercise clubs in this country.

Your friend will be very lucky to complete his 100 reps at all; but you’ll cruise along contentedly, til after 25 minutes you’ve cranked out your 100 reps and gotten high on endorphins too. And if you start to tire before then and your heart rate starts to climb, no problem! Just drop down to 3 reps per minute. Or even 2 reps. There is no time limit here! Your only job is to accumulate volume, and there’s no penalty for doing it slowly. 

This “on the minute” protocol is only one of the many proven ways for a lazy badass to fragment the load. In our next installment or two, we’ll talk about some of the other techniques. You can pick the one that suits your schedule and your pace the best. It makes little difference. They all follow the Tao of the Lazy Badass (which, once again, is to maximize volume and minimize fatigue) by breaking up the work into small, enjoyable packets with lots of rest smeared all over, like butter on pancakes. 

Leaning Out

Here at Lean Solid Dog HQ, we heard from an infantry reservist and Afghan veteran with a job, a grad program, and a young child to raise by himself, and he asked me to post my thoughts about getting lean again. I have definite thoughts on the subject, but my only qualifications for holding them are that (a) I’m naturally chubby but I’ve learned how to control that reasonably well, and (b) I’ve read and experimented with diet more than most people. With that caveat, here’s my $.02.

Lesson #1: Leanness mostly depends on how you eat

With modern food, it is possible to eat calories much faster than we can burn them. Yesterday, for example, I hiked 25 miles and used about 5500 or 6000 calories for the day. That’s enormous. But I joined friends for a good, long dinner, including a lot of bread and a pint of ice cream, and I was right back in calorie balance.

The other reason that leanness depends overwhelmingly on your diet is that when you exercise a ton, you goose your appetite upward too. Unless you’re paying attention to your eating, you’ll just inhale more calories to compensate, like I did yesterday. So unless you’re already a naturally lean freak of nature, no amount of exercise is going to let you mindlessly eat strudel and elephant ears ad libitum and get leaner. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a donut.”

There are tons of approaches to eating for leanness and health that are effective, enjoyable, and easy to embrace for the long term. And we now know a lot about which ones have the best track records.

Though it can help periodically to measure servings, calculate macronutrient ratios, and log your food intake, most people who stay lean for a lifetime settle into individual routines whereby they simply follow a few well-chosen principles. If you choose the right principles, you don’t have to do mental arithmetic all day long.

Lesson #2: Volumetrics

If you read only one thing about leaning out, read this.

If you only read one thing about eating for leanness, make it one of dietician Barbara J. Rolls’ books about the approach she calls volumetrics. In her research, Rolls found that people tend to eat the same poundage of food every day, no matter whether it is high in calories or low. So if you want to shave calories off your menu without your body noticing, you can sneak in more stuff that weighs a lot in relation to its calorie content. Think of the old trick of loading up on salad before the main course. But that’s just the kindergarten level. Rolls and her team have worked on this for years and come up with very clever hacks. I can testify from personal experience that you can fool your body very convincingly; you will be full of very satisfying food and your body will not know that it’s being played.

Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look and a kindly, good man. There are lots of human beings who are lean, healthy, vigorous, happy, and aging terrifically because Clarence teaches them how, for free.

If you want to geek out a little by surveying the leading approaches and the medical research about them, your go-to resource is Clarence and Carol Bass’s site. A former Mr. America, Clarence helped invent the “ripped” look in competitive bodybuilding, and for decades he has acted as both a one-man longitudinal experiment in lean living and a clearing house for scientific research on diet and exercise. In their own kitchen, Clarence and Carol eat much more carbohydrate than I can tolerate, but they also write approvingly about lower-carb approaches that work well for people like me over the long haul.

Whether you lean more toward fibrous carbs or protein or fat, Clarence guides you toward developing your own small repertoire of “go-to” meals that adhere to the volumetric principle of favoring heavy foods that taste good to you with a lot of liquid and/or fibrous bulk. Once you figure out three to five of these standard meals that fill you up with tummy happiness, you can pretty much go on auto-pilot.

Consider Clarence’s favorite breakfast: six kinds of whole grains, frozen fruit, milk, nuts, and even some shredded vegetables (!), mixed up in a huge, steaming bowl. I don’t do well on so much fruit and grain, but Clarence’s breakfast inspired my favorite go-to dinner, my Huge Dinner Salad: a pound or more of greens, a lot of shredded carrots, some kind of meat, a little tofu, a lot of cheese, a lot of nuts, avocado if I have some, and generous oil and vinegar, eaten directly out of a huge 10L serving bowl. If I’m going crazy, I put a little fruit on it. If I’m leaning out, I’ll measure how much cheese and oil I put in. Either way, it tastes awesome to me, takes forever to eat, weighs several pounds, and can be made very “lean” if I want with negligible difference in palatability and satiety.

Some other observations that seem to hold true for pretty much everyone:

  • Lack of sleep spikes your appetite. 
  • Go to bed ridiculously early, in a room that is pitch black, and get 8 hours. You’ll get leaner.
  • Eating sugar spikes your appetite. Don’t eat sugar.
  • Anything you make in your kitchen is better than anything from a restaurant.
  • Bodybuilding and powerlifting spike your appetite. In fact, that goes for hypertrophy training in general. If you are adding much muscle, then unless you are using steroids, you are adding fat too. Nothing wrong with that, just be advised.
  • Bodyweight exercises work for me when I’m leaning out. I think I just eat less. When I’m powerlifting I can’t stop eating and put on weight as fast as a teenager, but my appetite isn’t changed much by a regimen of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats and lunges.
  • Ketogenic diets aren’t for everybody, but they sure work great for a lot of people. My sister transmogrified herself on keto in the most stunning fashion, shedding over 100# permanently. The food she makes is second to none, and in my judgment that’s the cornerstone of her success: she figured out how to love eating within her chosen regimen.
  • Speaking for myself, I get lean almost to the point of “shrink-wrapped” if I’m close to ketosis and I also restrict all my eating to a 10- to 12-hour window. It’s not a ton of fun, but it’s not very hard either, and it puts this naturally pudgy body of mine at about 9% body fat just like flipping a switch.
  • Some bodybuilders purposely go into a huge caloric deficit (e.g. 1500 kcal) for a short period. I can’t gainsay them–bodybuilders are the masters of body composition and they can accomplish freakish feats, but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that they do. I’m lazy, so when I even bother to count calories or macronutrients at all, I take after Clarence Bass and just aim for small deficits. Clarence’s rule of thumb for leaning out is, decrease your food intake by just 250 calories a day, increase your energy consumption by 250 calories, and you’re on track to lose a pound a week. Trust me, that’s a lot and you’ll see the difference in your shaving mirror.
  • Finally, do as Clarence does: get a Tanita scale so you can track not just your weight but your body fat level. The navy “tape measure” method is decent, but it’s not precise enough. The Tanita scale measures pretty consistently in tenths of a percent. With that kind of precision, it’s easy to fine tune your routine. It’s $40, but it’s the most beneficial $40 you can spend. (Even more than a heart rate monitor.)
Together with heart rate monitors, Tanita scales are among the very few electronic gadgets that I think are worth having for purposes of lean, solid doggery.

‘Nuff said. I emphasize again that I don’t have a lot of credibility on this subject. This post just represents advice from actual, credible been-there-done-that people that has stood up well in my (admittedly narrow) experience.

GORUCK Heavy SitRep

I am 20 days out from the “GORUCK Heavy” event. Normally I reserve this blog for content that I think will have general interest, not “training log” entries. But this month will be a little different, as I leave a sort of memo for my future self, and this post is a snapshot of my training right now.

What is a “GORUCK Heavy Challenge?”

For 24 hours, you and a team carry backpacks full of bricks and various sandbags or logs, with assorted calisthenics mixed in and periodic plunges into cold water. If I’m not mistaken, the evening begins with a PT test (a timed run, pushups, situps, and maybe pullups), followed by a timed 12-mile march. After that, a vomitous PT beat-down sardonically called the “welcome party.” And then you march around together carrying stuff for the remainder of the 24 hours. Typically the team covers 40 miles and the completion rate is 50%.

Last year I did a shorter version of this, called the “GORUCK Tough,” that lasted only 12 hours. All of our people completed the event.

Diet

Last year I trained in full ketosis and only started eating M&Ms and the extremely awesome caffeinated German military chocolate during the event. This year I’m follow low-carb endurance champ Zach Bitter’s approach instead, allowing myself 15-30% carbs to support a high training volume in this last month. When I start my taper, on about D-7, I’ll go back into ketosis and stay there except for a wee little carb load on D-2 and D-1.

Resistance training

Last year I competed at 162 lbs. and 9% bodyfat. For me that’s tiny. This year, I was persuaded that muscle mass pays in ruck marching so I decided to carry an extra 10 lbs. of muscle. As of today, I’m 175 lbs. at 11% bodyfat and I’ll probably stay right here. 

I got both arms injured in a car accident, and they’re only now returning to something like normal, so I feel that I’m behind on resistance training. I’m relying on GTG and ladders for pushups and pullups, and a few days a week I do one high-rep set of 16kg kettlebell snatches if joint health permits. (If you’re not familiar with GTG and ladders, stay tuned. I’ll cover them soon for the “lazy strength” series.)

Aerobic training

Amazingly, right now this is my strong suit. For months I’ve been racking up lots of volume, roughly using Stu Mittleman’s approach. (I’ll cover this soon too.) Most of it has been actual ruck marching, including lots of 12-mile rucks and one 24-miler, but there’s been some variety too: a little biking and running and sometimes wearing ankle weights. (Since the upcoming event will start with a 2-mile run, during the next couple weeks I’ll have to practice a few of those, just so that my ankles and calves remember what to do.)

Recovery

My recovery stinks. Rectifying that has to be Priority #1. April is my busiest month and my sleep schedule was torn to shreds. For the remainder of this month, lights-out is 10pm.

The Tao of the Lazy Badass

“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”

from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
A difficult book, but the most important one I know.

In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.

To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”

As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:

“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”

Allyson Felix knows the Tao of the lazy badass. Her coach, Barry Ross, keeps his athletes fresh and unfatigued in training. See Easy Strength.

Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.

Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”

Your author. Not a badass, but I make up for it in laziness.

Big Jumps: Fewer Bells Are Better

As Julien says, I recommend Pavel Tsatouline’s original primer on kettlebells, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (2001), and the open-ended, unscripted training guidelines he gives there:

  • Train 2-7 times per week.You can vary this week to week. You benefit from a certain amount of randomness in loading.
  • Keep it to 45 minutes or less. Sometimes a lot less. Vary it at every workout.
  • Do your exercises in a “slow circuit.” For example, after a set of presses, catch your breath for a minute or two and do some swings. Then overhead squats. Then windmills. Then front squats or pistols or pullups. Whatever. Then repeat.
  • Vary your sets, reps, and exercises.Again, this is not a “program” from the pages of fitness magazine. Instead of a scripted routine, we are looking for controlled randomness.
  • Confine “grinding” exercises to just 1-5 reps. Avoid failure like the plague. For the reasons why, see Pavel’s Power to the People.

This is a pleasant and refreshing way to train, physically and mentally, and it’s very productive. 

But the way people screw up strength training is that they up the poundages too fast, before they accumulate a lot of training volume with easier weights. They race ahead, only to overtrain, and then they’re back on the couch recuperating instead of getting steadily stronger. Like a baseball season, strength training is a marathon, not a sprint.

See Pavel’s philosophy on big jumps here.

With kettlebells, you can’t do that on account of the big jumps in size. Kettlebells are the perfect thing for accumulating lots of reps with moderate poundages, without injury and in a recoverable way. Which is to say, they are the perfect thing for productive, healthy, sustainable training.

So it’s absolutely OK to stick with just a 16kg, a 24kg, and a 32kg. And if anything, it is better. Vary those other factors—frequency, duration, volume per session, exercise selection, workout pace, rep tempo—but don’t screw around with the big red button marked “intensity” (% of RM, i.e. your choice of weight). Let the kettlebells make that choice for you, with their big jumps. That really is a case of their Kalashnikov-like simplicity making them foolproof.

Let the volume do the work. Leave the intensity (i.e. the choice of weight) to the kettlebell. 

One last piece of advice on kettlebell selection: get “competition bells,” not the cast iron monstrosities with the ludicrously thick handles. Those were fine in the 19thcentury, or when kettlebells were first reintroduced to North America 20 years ago. But they’re objectively inferior and obsolete, and there are plenty of affordable competition bells nowadays. If you especially want oversized handles to challenge your grip occasionally, wrap the grip in a thin towel, or soap it, or get an inexpensive fat-grip attachment. ‘Nuff said.

In prehistoric times, we needed cast iron bells since we had nothing else. Today, we can do better. Cast iron bells are like vacuum tubes, cloth-covered biplanes, and the lungfish: they belong in museums.

Stretching for kettlebell lifters who hate to stretch

https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/side-stretch-satisfaction
Anti-rotation. Al Kavadlo doesn’t twist and fall here because his QL is keeping his waist rigid.

The poor quadratus lumborum (QL). It does much more than its share during one-arm movements like kettlebell swings and presses, where it keeps your torso rigid and facing forward. It needs to be stretched, but if you are a blocky, stiff muscle head, good luck getting into the standard “straddle stretch.” Before you know it, you blow off stretching it completely.

That’s what Jump Stretch bands are for. If you’ve knocked around the powerlifting world for more than 5 minutes, you probably think of JS bands as “accommodating resistance” for your weights.

In American powerlifting circles, most of us know Jump Stretch bands as tools for “speed day,” when they let you safely accelerate light barbells fast, so you don’t launch them.

But from their inception, JS bands have been at least as much for stretching and mobility as for resistance, and they are a godsend for stretching tissue that’s ornery or hard to get into position for. Pecs, shoulders, lats, biceps, triceps, hip flexors, and quads are all much easier and less arduous for me to stretch with bands than on a yoga mat.

But the quadratus lumborum is the poster child: normally I can scarcely get into position for QL stretches without being limited by flexibility (e.g. hamstrings in the straddle stretch) or muscular endurance (e.g. holding onto a door frame).

But if you have a band and somewhere to anchor it, you can stretch out your QL without annoyance. For comfort, use a deadlift strap for your grip so that you can hang for as long as you want without your hand tiring.

Like yoga in a dungeon. You get to wear the same skimpy shorts, but you’re tied up and hear clanging metal.

Bells in the Baltics

Speaking of Baltic hardmen like Hackenschmidt and Pavel, our Vilnius correspondent Sgt. Šileika has been trying kettlebells. He reports:

“Kettlebells are so cool because they have their own idea of where they have to go. It takes my whole body to control them. Just handling them is an exercise in itself.”

http://www.usgsf.com

So true! Many years ago I had a kettlebell delivered by UPS. The guy asked me to open it and show him what was inside. He’d been weirded out by the mysterious 70-lb. thing wobbling around inside a small delivery box, like an egg standing on end, and thought maybe I was receiving illicit shipments of mercury.

Power to you!

From Sgt. Sileika, a lean, solid dog in Vilnius who serves as our resident subject-matter expert in ruck marching and sentence diagramming.

Living in the Baltics, he is located at the intersection (to use a fashionable word) of three of our favorite things: kvass, kettlebells, and Varusteleka.

Power to you, sir!

How is Heavier Faster?

Yesterday we wrote about some Army researchers’ finding that, in a long, heavy ruck march, the guys who march fastest are the most muscular ones. Not necessarily the strongest, but the most muscular.

How can that be? If you beef up for a long ruck with an extra 20 lbs. of muscle, you’re schlepping an extra 20 lbs. What compensates for all that extra weight if not strength? And maybe bigger legs and glutes would make sense, or even bigger traps, but what will I gain from heavier arms, shoulders, chest, and lats? Those muscles don’t even do much work in rucking. 

In those respects Knapick’s finding are hard to understand, but I have a three guesses.

When you pick up a weight, you and the weight share a common center of gravity. The heavier the weight is in relation to your body, the more it’s in charge. You’ll have to lean over to keep it centered over your feet without toppling over. The lighter you are, the more you have to lean.

Center of gravity. Imagine two guys each carrying a huge, 100-lb. backpack of bricks. They’re equally tall, but one guy weighs 150# and the other weighs 300#. Since each guy is wearing a huge bag of bricks behind him, that shifts his center of center of gravity back. Light Guy must lean hard into his straps to try to balance the load over his feet, and he doesn’t have much bodyweight to lean with. His own center of gravity doesn’t count for very much against the backpack of bricks; basically the bricks are in charge. But Heavy Guy isn’t pulled off balance as much because he’s counterbalanced by an extra 150# of meat that Light Guy doesn’t have. In the battle against the backpack of bricks, his center gravity weighs twice as much as Light Guy’s and isn’t too impressed by all the bricks. He can stay on his feet just fine.

But this can only be part of the story, because it would apply just as much to a 300# fat guy as to the beefcake. But there’s one other attribute the muscular guy has working for him.

Squat for high reps and grow. Strength-endurance makes for big muscles.

Strength-endurance: The Army researchers were measuring absolute strength, i.e. “one-rep max” (1RM). And that’s the kind of strength they concluded didn’t help the men ruck faster. But there’s a distinct attribute called “strength-endurance,” which is your ability to exhibit strength for a long time. It’s the difference between, say, squatting 500# for one rep and squatting 250# for 20 reps.

Big muscles are particularly associated with strength-endurance. In fact, squatting for 20-rep sets will make you HUGE. And every gym rat since the Coolidge administration has known that you get biggest by lifting in sets of 8-15 reps with restricted rest periods. That is solidly in strength-endurance territory. It won’t improve your 1RM much and powerlifters will talk down to you, but you won’t care because you’ll be swole and get all the girls.

So carrying a rucksack shares more in common with bodybuilding than powerlifting, namely moving sub-maximal poundages repeatedly with little rest.

What about squats and deadlifts? I wonder what would happen if Knapick had measured soldiers’ strength differently, with some of the big exercises like squats and deadlifts instead of isolating one joint at a time. See, Knapick’s team tested how good the subjects were at extending just the knee, flexing just the knee, extending just the ankle, and so on. In other words, they tested what are called “isolation exercises” (working just one joint at a time), and isolation exercises are notoriously bad at building or testing real-world strength. 

Not a very meaningful test in the real world.

What Knapick didn’t do in this study was point to a huge barbell and order the soldiers, “Try to deadlift that.” That would have told us a lot more about the pure strength of the guys who marched faster or slower. (It is even conceivable that the faster, more muscular test subjects had grown that extra muscle by having big squat poundages. You don’t know much about someone’s musculature just by knowing that it’s big. You’ll find big thighs on weightlifters, bodybuilders, and cyclists, but they have completely different attributes.)

Researchers now are trying to study squat and deadlift maxes among military trainees, but the results are messy. The Canadian military studied the soldiers who tried out for Canadian special forces and tested each guy’s squat max. The guys who squatted less were much, much more likely to drop out of training. But when the SEALs estimated their applicants’ deadlift maxes, they decided that in order for a sailor to make it through Hell Week it would be enough if he could just deadlift 1.75x bodyweight, which is nothing. A middle-of-the-pack weightlifter or powerlifter could deadlift that in stiletto heels on laughing gas. 

“Can” does not imply “should.” Advanced lifter on closed course with Olympic-grade stilettos. Do not try this at home.

The methodology is messy too. It’s hard to take a guy off the street, casually test his one-rep max in something like a squat, and get a meaningful result. For one thing, a little experience makes a huge difference, and so does technique. Give me a 98-lb. weakling and a couple sessions to improve his technique, and I can help him test better against stronger people just by optimizing his form. Also, testing somebody’s true one-rep max in a squat or deadlift is physiologically a huge deal and, even for an experienced competitor, your max varies up and down by a big margin over the course of a year. If you’re overtrained or you just peaked, you’ll be wiped out and your squat might be in the toilet. And the Navy researchers had to estimate their subjects’ deadlifts—maximal deadlifts are hugely stressful to the body and take months to recover from fully—using a questionable rep-max formula, which they acknowledge is a crude measure and makes the results hard to interpret. 

Of Mice and Mastodons: How Much Muscle Mass Should You Carry?

Strength and endurance are rivals. “Strength loves rest,” as the saying goes, and it hates endurance. Strength and endurance compete against each other for your training time and recuperative powers. Yes, you can do both (and you should, at least a little). But unless you are a pure strength athlete or pure endurance athlete (e.g. a powerlifter or an ultra runner), you must strike some kind of compromise between the ancient enemies.

Which should you favor? Usually there’s a clear answer that’s dictated by (1) the rules of your sport and maybe (2) your individual game plan.

(1) Gaming the Rules: Most “mixed” sports—not purely strength or endurance—clearly favor one or the other. Middle-distance runners and soccer players are basically endurance athletes who need just some strength training, and vice versa for football linemen and sprinters. That’s determined by the rules of their respective games. Now, if soccer players were allowed to grapple each other, they would have to get stronger. If football had continuous play like soccer, the players would need more endurance. Similarly, if wrestling matches lasted two hours, wrestlers would need even bigger gas tanks. But if matches lasted only a few seconds, or if they had no weight classes, you would get sumo wrestlers.

In those mixed sports, athletes face a point of diminishing returns for certain kinds of endurance or strength. For example, a boxer needs to bench more than his own bodyweight, but he doesn’t need to bench twice his bodyweight, and if he invests the training time to do so, he’ll neglect his running, to say nothing of actually practicing boxing. Boxers win by boxing. They don’t win extra points for the biggest bench. And no one cares if a shotputter is great at jogging. 

Speaking of diminishing returns, in a study of SEAL trainees, sailors who scored the highest in pushups and pullups and certain other measures fared worse overall! The Navy concluded that, in each of their many physical tests—running, swimming, sprinting, pull-ups, deadlifts—they could clearly identify a point of diminishing returns. A max of 70 pushups is not enough, for instance, but 100 is plenty. They tell the hopefuls, “don’t spend valuable time and energy trying to do more. Make your push-up training economical, so you leave time to train the many other qualities important for success in [the first phase of SEAL training].”

The Navy researchers found that running and swimming scores best predict success specifically in the first phase of SEAL training, where I’m told there’s no rucking but tons of … you guessed it … running and swimming. Specificity usually wins.

(2) Your Personal Game Plan: In the mixed strength-and-endurance sports, the right balance might also depend specifically on your game plan. If you plan to box like Floyd Mayweather, you’d better have a bottomless gas tank, so put endurance first. But if you’re going to be Mike Tyson and assassinate guys in the first round, then for you power comes first.

So what about ruck marching? Should you favor endurance or strength? It’s complicated because so many variables are left up in the air—light or heavy loads? short distances or long? what’s the terrain?—but according to the data, the short answer is …

Neither strength nor endurance! Instead, invest in muscle mass.

Jack Rabbits in Flak Jackets

We’re specifically talking about men here. There is a separate body of research on ruck training for women, because it turns out they are a different kettle of fish.

When Army physiologists studied ruck marching in the early 80s, the height of America’s obsession with aerobics, they concluded that, sure enough, soldiers marched fastest who had the best aerobic capacity. Sure, strength was important too, but the guys who could ruck the fastest were the skinny “jack rabbits” who excelled at running.

Or so the physiologists said. Old soldiers told a different story, though. They claimed that in the field, the jack rabbits lagged behind bigger guys when they were loaded down with a rucksack, a flak jacket, and other gear. Whom to believe?

It seemed significant that the early Army studies tested people carrying light packs for short distances. Under those conditions, it was little surprise that your best runners would shine. But what if you saddled soldiers with 100 lbs. (45kg) (a real-world infantry load) and made them schlep it 12 miles (20km)? That’s what Joseph Knapick and his team did in 1990. And at the moment, those are the conditions that interest me because they come closest to the rules of the game that I’m training for right now, the GORUCK Heavy Challenge.

In that “heavy and long” event, the soldiers who rucked fastest were the most muscular. Not the strongest, heaviest, tallest, leanest, or the fastest runners, or the most aerobically capable, but specifically the ones with the most lean body mass.

Let me repeat that: not muscle strength but muscle mass.

With just one exception, even “skinny strength” did not help. That is, guys who were wiry and strong out of proportion to their bodyweight. The winners were the Dwayne Johnsons of the world, not the Brad Pitts. 

I am surprised at this, and dismayed. It’s not the answer I wanted. Regular readers know that I enjoy “skinny strength” training and push it as an alternative to bodybuilding. Normally I only spend a few weeks a year bodybuilding and then go back to my kettlebells and low reps gladly. So this is not the conclusion I wanted, but apparently “facts don’t care about my feelings.” 

The researchers measured many kinds of strength (as distinct from muscle mass), and only one made a significant difference: the abs. They tested strength in the soldiers’ grip, low back, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and none of the others was significant. [But there’s a caveat to this in our next post. -Dog in Chief] Only ab strength made a difference.

Strange as that seems superficially, it isn’t surprising. As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong hands = strong person. More and more, kinesiologists are pointing out the importance of what is sometimes called “core strength,” our ability to make our torsos rigid at pivotal moments and resist bending or twisting.

Your natural inclination is to bend forward at the hips, but you want to resist that somewhat. That’s where your abs come in.

In the case of walking under load, your abs pull your hips under you and keep them there. That way you stay upright, and your legs step quickly and freely. Without that ab strength, you angle forward at the waist and walk bent over. You walk slower that way, and over time you pound the hip joints. So if you can stay more upright, you go faster and stay healthier. That’s what you need abs for.