The Workout Enigma Revisted: A Guest Blog from Mark Young

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Note from TG: I want to thank the Canadian Hammer, Mark Young, for going out of his way to write up such a thorough response to this study. Admittedly, I like reading research about as much as I like going to a Maroon 5 concert. So while my rudimentary review of the original article was more along the lines of “lalalalalalala, I can’t hear you my ears are plugged, lalalalalala,” it was great to have Mark take an objective look at the actual research and give a much more qualified response. Thanks again Mark!

The Workout Enigma Revisted

A couple weeks back my good friend Tony wrote a post about an article that was published recently called the Workout Enigma. It talked about how some people actually became weaker and less fit after a 21 week exercise program. Needless to say, I had to check this out. Below is a research review on the topic for your enjoyment.

Individual Responses to Combined Endurance and Strength Training in Older Adults.

Karavirta L, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Sep 24. (Epub ahead of print)


To examine differences in individual trainability of aerobic capacity and maximal strength, when endurance and strength training are performed separately or together.


Assignment to Groups

175 subjects (89 men and 86 women) between the ages of 40 and 67 were divided into four groups. One group performed endurance training 2 times per week, another group performed strength training 2 times per week, the third group performed endurance training on 2 days and strength training on 2 days, and the last group served as controls and were not assigned to an exercise group. All exercise sessions were supervised.

Endurance Protocol

The endurance training group started out with sessions lasting only 30 minutes in length up to week 7 and gradually progressed up to some sessions as long as 90 minutes long by week 21 of the study with varying intensities aimed at improving cardiovascular capacity.

Strength Protocol

The strength training group performed 7-10 exercises per workout including:

– leg press

– leg extension

– leg curl

– seated hip abduction

– seated hip adduction

– calf raises

– bench press

– lat pulldown

– bicep curl

– tricep extension

– crunches

– seated back extension.

The strength training program started out with a familiarization phase (40-60% of 1RM / 3 sets of 12-20 reps) until week 7, followed by a seven week hypertrophy phase (60-80% of 1RM / 2-4 sets of 5-12 reps), and finally a seven week strength phase (70-85% of 1RM / 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps). They also made mention of some of the sets of leg press, leg extension, and bench press being performed explosively at 40-50% of 1RM to maximize explosive strength in this phase.

TG Intermission: just wanted to spice it up a bit with a pic of Jelana Abbou, who, coincidentally, has nothing to do with this study.

Combined Protocol

The subjects basically did both endurance workouts and both strength workouts on alternating days for a total of 4 workouts per week.

Control Group

These subjects did what control groups usually do…nothing.


Adherence to the exercise program was 99% which is pretty damn good.

Group Averages

– The endurance group and the combined group had greater improvements in VO2 max than the strength group and controls. (No surprise there)

– The strength group and the combined group had greater improvements in strength than the endurance group and controls. (No surprise there either)

– The only gender specific response was that woman improved their VO2 greater than men.

Individual Differences

In all groups there were large differences between the responses to exercise for individual subjects.

– With combined endurance and strength training changes in VO2 max were between -8 and +42%.

– With combined endurance and strength training changes in maximal strength were between -12 and +87%.

-There was no correlation between the improvements in VO2 and maximal strength with combined training. In other words, those who gained the most in one area tended not to do the same in the other area.

Interruption from TG: Quick question. if one train is heading north at 50 MPH, and one train his heading south at 30 MPH, then why does this rabbit have a pancake on its head?

My Thoughts

First of all, if you read the resistance training program you probably wanted to gouge your eyes out with a rusty spoon. The exercise selection was pretty poor and the program was quite obviously not designed by someone with a great deal of programming experience. And since strength was the primary measure, you might wonder why they wasted a whole lot of time on a hypertrophy phase (not to mention the 7 weeks wasted working below 60% of 1RM).

However, there are a few important points to make here. The main one being that this study is actually part of a larger study in which many things were measured and hypertrophy and body composition were two of them.

The other point is that it really isn’t that relevant because, if you look at the actual data, the vast majority of people DID get stronger. There were only a select few that didn’t make any improvements at all and that is pretty much how it usually works when it comes to statistics.

In general, the majority of people will be around average in terms of improvements, some will be more, some will be less, some will get outstanding results, and some will totally suck donkey balls. That is pretty much par for the course with almost any physiological response to a program or even a drug or supplement. In this study, the results were actually skewed more towards doing well than doing poorly in both strength improvements and aerobic capacity with combined training.

Individual responses will always vary. As a trainer or strength coach, the job would be to assess the person who wasn’t doing well and adjust their program. I don’t think this is shocking news. They didn’t adjust so the people who weren’t responding never improved.

And in terms of those not doing well at both gaining strength and aerobic capacity at the same time, I don’ t think that is really surprising either. Do you know a lot of powerlifters who run marathons? Pursuing both goals at once would be difficult for most people (as indicated by the study) and most would periodize the program to have an emphasis on one at a time while maintaining the other. If they REALLY wanted to excel at one or the other, I might suggest that they pick one as it is next to impossible for most people to be the best at both simultaneously.

With regards to genetics, there is actually some research that I’ve seen looking at the effects of diet on weight loss and it is possible to pick out “non-responders” based on genetics alone. These are the rare few who are adhering to the program perfectly and still cannot lose weight. They account for a VERY small number of people and I think the number of people that use genetics as an excuse in this regard is out of line with what the research actually shows.

I would suspect (although I have to admit that I haven’t read the research) that it is unlikely that the number of people that failed to respond in this study were all due to genetics since this would be a far greater number that would be expected based on genetics alone.


All in all, I don’t think this study necessarily suggests that exercising is useless. In fact, I think it only reinforces the need to assess and adjust as needed to ensure optimal results and not just exercise blindly following a program with the hopes of ending up stronger, leaner, or faster.

I think it also drives home the importance of selecting goals and not trying to go in too many directions at once. With my clients I like them to think about where they’d like to be in a year from now and program accordingly instead of pursuing everything at the same time.

In short, program, assess, adjust for optimal results.

Mark Young is an exercise and nutrition consultant, certified dogma destroyer, and Tony Gentilcore Groupie. You can check out his blog at Don’t forget to sign up for his newsletter to score yourself some incredible audio interviews on the core from Dr. Stuart McGill, Thomas Myers, Mike Robertson, Nick Tumminello, Jim Smith, and more.

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