Everyone has heard of the 'no pain, no gain' approach to fitness. If you want results, you have to be prepared to push yourself. Motivational tips such as 'pain is temporary, glory is forever' are given to young athletes to help them push through natural pain barriers. Shows like the Biggest Loser have contestants in tears as they try to keep up with the grueling exercise programs set. Even for everyday plodders, personal trainers take on drill sergeant roles to help them reach their full potential. But we are told that it will be all worth it in the end. Right?
Well, for the past few decades Dr. Phillip Maffetone has been suggesting that this is actually just a recipe for injury, over-training and finally failure from burn out. He has published a number of books on the topic, with his latest ones released in 2010 and 2011. In these he argues that the majority of exercise should be low-stress, aerobic, and most of all fun. These are the secrets to developing exceptional fitness and health.
It almost sounds too good to be true. However, as his method has been successfully used by such athletes as Mark Allen, six-time Ironman triathlon World Champion, it is definitely worth looking at.
Dr. Maffetone sets out two things at the beginning of his discussions: first, his aim is to develop health and fitness to increase standard of living, rather than just increasing speed or power output. He argues that it is completely possible to be 'fit' or 'strong' and still be unhealthy. Second, he makes it clear that what he is presenting is not a strict formula or program, but a set of guidelines that can be applied to any type of training program, and should be part of a holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle that also includes reducing stress and managing nutritional intake.
There are basically three central aspects of his method which should be applied to all fitness programs. The first is that all programs should include regular testing, analysis and then adjustment. For his training he recommends two monthly tests: a simple fat burning test by measuring waist to hip ratio to make sure that it is decreasing and a speed or distance test at a certain heart rate to indicate increased performance. Second, that all training needs to take into account all life stress and be adjusted accordingly. Finally, and most controversially, that the majority of workouts should be done at a low heart rate to build the aerobic system.
This has become known as his 180 Formula. He argues that the majority of exercise should be completed under the maximum aerobic heart rate threshold, which can be calculated by subtracting your age from 180 and then adding or subtracting between +5 to -10 beats per minute based on how fit and injury free you are. For most people this creates a workout band which is much lower than normally reached during workouts so is difficult for those who expect to be in pain by the end.
The biggest advantage to his approach is that every workout should be fun and leave you feeling good. And to be honest, if this is all you get from the method, it's still pretty good.
However, he also claims that the increased aerobic base will improve overall health and vitality, while not increasing the stress on your systems. It does appear to reduce incidences of injury which are common in exercisers.
It is also good to have a method that encourages those who have been scared off by the 'no pain, no gain' approach that has ruled gyms and training programs.
One of the biggest problems with the program is the nature of the 180 formula. Dr. Maffetone dismisses the maximum heart rate formula of 220 - your age as not being individualistic enough. However, his formula only includes a 15 beats per minute difference based on health, not on possible maximum heart rate. However, if used as a basis and adapted with testing, it can be more personalised.
Also, it is very difficult to correctly follow this method without buying a heart rate monitor. There are cheaper ones on the market for around $30, though these are not always so reliable. Good ones begin around $100 and increase in price quite rapidly.
Another downside of the program, for those trying to lose weight, is that working at a lower heart rate means that exercises needs to work out for longer in order to burn more calories. He argues that the lower heart rates focus on burning fat and train the body to burn fat more effectively. However, research is still conflicted over whether this is so. Further, regardless of whether it burns fat or glucose which will need to be replaced at some stage, in calorie burning terms, the harder you work the more you burn.
The final complaint that a lot of people have is that after following the program for three to four months they see no improvement in speed, though many agree that they have increased stamina and can go a longer distance. Forums also point out that the athletes that support the method are all in endurance sports such as ironmans and ultra-distance races. However, if you follow the method and after months do not see any improvement, you are not actually doing it properly, as you are not testing and adjusting as required.
The basic principles of the program - having a holistic view of health, building up a firm aerobic foundation, not increasing stress in your life if you are already over-stressed - are all very sound. Also, working out at a heart rate that means you feel better not worse at the end is a good recipe for consistency which appears to be the true secret to life-long health. Therefore, it is definitely worth looking into.
I do not know if I would recommend it as the only training program for those who are focused on short speed or strength sports such as sprinting or weight-lifting. However, for those looking for endurance, or an off-season training program, this comes with good references.
So, if you shudder when you looking at your running shoes, or cringe when you hear a voice asking for '110%!', buy, beg or steal yourself a heart rate monitor and give this program a try.