Aerobics: Myths, Lies, Misconceptions

Mike Mentzer

This was one of the last features Mike Mentzer wrote for IRON MAN before his death in 2001. It’s an interesting and eye-opening look at aerobics and conditioning.

F or three decades, ever since Kenneth Cooper, M.D., published his first book on the subject, the public has been force-fed the idea that aerobic fitness is the be-all and end-all of fitness and that highly repetitive, steady-state activities, such as jogging and bicycling, are the best means of achieving it. None of that is true. Aerobic conditioning is only one element of a broader concept—total fitness—which is made up of several components, including skeletal-muscle strength, skeletal density, flexibility, endurance, maintenance of lean body mass and, finally, a positive self-image. Only a properly conducted high-intensity weight-training program can achieve total fitness—and in a minimum of time.

If you’ve been engaged in a fitness program that includes some type of aerobic activity involving the mind-numbing, repetitive use of the legs or a few skeletal muscles, you’ve been wasting your time. Aerobic activity does nothing, absolutely zero, to provide for increased skeletal-muscle strength; in fact, by overworking a few muscles to the exclusion of others, aerobic activity creates certain dangerous imbalances in the musculoskeletal system, which increases the likelihood of injury. Furthermore, as Greg Anderson of Ideal Exercise in Seattle explains in a brochure he gives to all of his members, “Running is an extremely high-force activity that’s damaging to the knees, hips and back. Aerobic dancing is probably worse. And so-called low-impact activities, such as stationary bicycling, aren’t necessarily low force.”

Aerobic activity doesn’t improve flexibility, anaerobic endurance or lean body mass. In addition, owing to the gross overtraining that many aerobic obsessives engage in, it can actually cause them to sacrifice lean mass—known as overuse atrophy—and thus lose muscle tone. That’s what causes a deterioration of their physical appearance, which is responsible for the flabby look many of them have.

Aerobic exercise activates so few muscle fibers that it burns very few calories and is, therefore, a poor way to get rid of fat. Despite what you’ve heard over and over, steady-state activities such as jogging, cycling and dancing burn very few calories. In fact, one pound of fat will fuel at least 10 hours of continuous activity. Some alleged experts have suggested that aerobic activity is important, as it increases the resting metabolic rate. Since aerobic exercise burns so few calories while you’re doing it, how much can it increase the rate of calories burned when you’re not doing it?

It was never cast in stone that you must limit your exercise activity to repetitive movement of the legs to improve cardiorespiratory health and fitness. The cardinal principle for improving cardiorespiratory fitness is that you sustain an age-related elevated heart rate for 12 minutes or more. As a number of studies have demonstrated, that’s best accomplished with a program that works not merely the legs but all the major skeletal muscles with high-intensity weight training that limits the rest between sets so you can maintain an elevated pulse.

Many well-known aerobics advocates are finally admitting that the concept of aerobic training is erroneous. Former cardiovascular surgeon Irving Dardik, M.D., for instance, exclaimed a few years ago, “The basic concept behind aerobic conditioning is wrong.” Dr. Dardik also made the point that the best way to train is by using short bursts of elevated intensity followed by a brief rest, followed by another burst of demanding activity. Then there’s Covert Bailey, author of Fit or Fat and once the guru of so-called gentle aerobic activity, who now recommends high-intensity wind sprints to those seeking maximum fitness. Wind sprints, while high-intensity, are a dangerous high-force activity that will inevitably result in torn hamstrings, strained Achilles tendons and damaged knees. A properly conducted high-intensity weight-training regimen, on the other hand, in which the muscles are worked relatively slowly through a full range of motion for 10 to 15 reps to failure and the forces are low to moderate, is the ideal way to exercise, with practically zero risk of injury.

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That’s how my associates and I train our fitness-oriented clients. To help them achieve a more productive, healthy and happy life, optimize the time they spend in the gym and achieve total fitness, we carefully supervise them through a series of high-intensity, low-force weight-training exercises. We accomplish that in two workouts a week averaging 20 to 30 minutes.
The major problem in the field of bodybuilding and fitness is the near-universal—but erroneous—belief that more is better. As children many people acquire the notion that more candy is better than less, then blindly misapply that notion to other areas. Past a very definite, limited point, candy makes you sick and fat and causes dental problems.

It’s a similar situation with exercise. Imposing just the right amount of exercise stress will cause a positive result, and anything beyond that will cause a negative result. As it turns out, the proper amount of exercise required to achieve optimal results isn’t nearly as much as you’ve been led to believe—hence your lack of satisfactory progress in the past.

If more is better, why train only two or three hours a day? Why not take a vacation from work and train 18 hours a day? Then you’re sure to succeed, right? By the way, those stories about movie stars training five hours a day to get in shape for films are bunk. No one except a slave under a whip can sustain the motivation to train that much day in and day out. Females, especially, with their naturally lower testosterone levels, simply can’t tolerate as much high-intensity-exercise stress as some are reported to be engaging in.

I’ve visited gyms in every corner of the world. Most people train at least three days a week for one hour per session. Why? It just so happens that in our culture the number three has a certain traditional magic. We have the Three Bears, the Three Stooges, the Holy Trinity, three square meals a day and the mystic concept that catastrophes happen in threes. Therefore, it’s only logical and scientific that we should train three times a week.

The lunatic fringe in the field of bodybuilding has turned exercise into a religion of sorts, spending hours every day of the week mindlessly pumping iron, stretching, jogging and so on. Those people don’t exercise as a means of achieving a single, albeit important, value with a hierarchy of numerous other life-affirming goals. For them going to the gym is a social ritual that helps them manage the anxiety that inevitably results from the refusal to learn how to think and judge as mature, independent adults.

While it may be laudable on one level to make it to the gym four to six times a week for two hours of training per session, on another it isn’t. The idea shouldn’t be to go to the gym to prove that you’re a good Puritan but to go conscientiously prepared to do what nature requires in the way of imposing the requisite training stress—and in the right amount.

Whether your goal is a more modest one—to build greater strength and lean mass, lose fat and improve overall conditioning—or a grand one—to build strength and muscle for high-level sports or bodybuilding competition—keep in mind that overtraining isn’t merely wasted effort, it’s counterproductive.

There’s no question that being in good physical condition is an absolute requirement for living a rewarding, happy and healthy life; however, it’s neither necessary nor desirable to spend an hour or two every day to achieve it. It’s not necessary, as optimal results—total fitness—can be achieved by doing well under two hours of resistance training a week. Any more than that and you’re spending more time pursuing a particular value than a normal life demands.

Even Kenneth Cooper—the man responsible for single-handedly launching the aerobics movement—recanted, stating that he was wrong all those years, that more exercise is not better than less. A while back Dr. Cooper and his associates at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas became alarmed at the rising incidence of serious medical problems—heart disease and cancer—among clients who jogged six days a week, some of whom threw in three days a week of weight training for good measure. They were purists, people who exercised, didn’t smoke, drink alcohol or eat much in the way of fats. Cooper was stymied at first, but by the end of the investigation he determined that overtraining was the cause.

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If you seriously doubt that overtraining may have long-term medical implications, bear in mind that exercise is a form of stress. While most think of a suntan or muscles as merely cosmetic, that’s not why they exist. Suntans and larger muscles are defensive barriers the body erects to protect itself from future assaults from the same stressors, but they can be overwhelmed. Someone who repeatedly overexposed himself to the intense August sunlight would soon die, as the sun’s rays would literally cook his skin and underlying tissues. By the same token, chronic overtraining could inordinately tax the overall physical system and possibly result in a breakdown somewhere, such as the glandular system. Cooper has gone so far as to attribute the Hodgkin’s disease of hockey great Mario Lemieux and distance runner Marty Liquori to chronic overtraining.

A widespread myth among fitness enthusiasts has it that one must train one way for increasing muscular size and strength and another way for improving cardiovascular condition: lift weights to build strength and jog to enhance aerobic condition. As Arthur Jones stated, “Half of that belief is true, since jogging will do nothing to build strength and size and will, in fact, if overdone, as it usually is, do quite a bit in the way of reducing both muscular strength and size. But it’s not true that proper strength-building exercises will do nothing for improving cardiovascular condition.” How did Jones arrive at that conclusion?

In 1975 Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries funded one of the most important studies in the history of exercise science. Project Total Conditioning was conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point and was overseen by Colonel James Anderson. The purpose of the study was to pin down how to use Nautilus exercise equipment properly and identify the physiological consequences of a short-duration, high-intensity-training program. It asked such questions as, How much skeletal-muscle strength can be achieved from brief, intense workouts? and, How does strength training affect cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and overall body composition?

The subjects included 18 varsity football players who trained all of their major muscle groups with 10 different strength exercises three times a week for eight weeks. The workouts were brief but very intense, with each exercise performed for only one set to failure. An extensive battery of tests and measurements was administered to the subjects after two weeks of training and at the conclusion of the study. According to the study report, “The prestudy testing was not scheduled until after two weeks of workouts to minimize the influence of what is commonly referred to as the learning effect on individual performance.”

Results? After only six weeks of training, the 18 subjects had increased the amount of resistance they used in the 10 exercises by an average of 58.54 percent. What’s more, despite such a tremendous increase in their strength—and the associated increase in overall physiological stress they were exposed to—the duration of their training dropped by nine minutes.

As a measure of the functional application of intense, brief strength training, the exercising subjects and a control group—which didn’t train at all or did so on their own—were tested in three areas: a two-mile run, a 40-yard dash and a vertical jump. On the two-mile run the exercising subjects’ improvement was four to 32 times greater than the control group’s. On the 40-yard dash it was 4.57 times greater, and on the vertical jump it was close to two times greater.

What about cardiovascular improvement? While conventional strength-training practices preclude cardiovascular improvement, especially when trainees take long, arbitrary rest periods between sets—which keeps them from maintaining an elevated heart rate—at the end of the study the training subjects tested better than the control group in all 60 indices of training effects on cardiovascular function.

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Those supervising Project Total Conditioning used four measures of flexibility in human performance: trunk flexion, trunk extension, shoulder flexion and shoulder extension. The training subjects achieved much greater improvement than the control group—an average of 11 percent vs .85 percent for the controls.

The public’s fear that weight-training exercise causes people to become muscle-bound—a condition of abnormally tight muscles that results in a profound loss of flexibility—is without foundation. With proper weight-training methods that emphasize working the muscles through a full range of motion, giving equal work to the agonist and antagonist muscles, trainees will maintain and in many cases improve flexibility.

Finally, with regard to body composition, the subjects performing 10 weight-resistance exercises three times a week for less than 30 minutes per session lost more bodyfat than the control group.

With Nautilus/Sports Medical Industries funding the entire project—with costs in excess of $1,000,000—doctors from the Cooper Aerobics Center were flown in to conduct the cardiovascular tests while doctors from West Point did the strength testing.

In the past I’ve alleged that the field of exercise science is a sham, with some of the most celebrated studies never having taken place. Since Project Total Conditioning in 1975—after millions more dollars were spent to develop the most precise testing devices possible—more than 60 other research projects have been conducted, all of which proved essentially the same thing: the overwhelming superiority of brief, high-intensity resistance training for enhancing total fitness. In addition, while most of the studies have been published in scientific journals, the results continue to be ignored, for the most part, by aerobics advocates because they contradict what they’ve been espousing for decades.

Editor’s note: For a complete presentation of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system, con­sult his books Heavy Duty II, High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way and the newest book, The Wis­dom of Mike Mentzer, all of which are available from Mentzer’s official Web site,