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A Perfect Extended Graded Exercise Protocol

I've described on this site and in the hard copy Master Trainer how I perform an Extended Graded Exercise Protocol (GXP).

I take eight minutes to reach about 75% of my aerobic capacity, then perform a five-minute work piece at about 80% of my aerobic capacity, and then I take 17 minutes and do a long cooldown. The cooldown varies depending upon how I feel on a given day. It can, for example, be a gradual cooldown or sometimes I simply continue at a reduced workload and about 75% of my aerobic capacity for 12 minutes and then perform a five-minute true cooldown.

Given the 30 minutes for the workout, the extended GXP fulfills both fitness and physical activity guidelines. For people who are sedentary except for their training, daily planned physical activity is important.

I perform the extended GXP twice per week and also walk for about an hour at a more comfortable pace four times per week. The extended GXP is performed on the Air Dyne or Concept 2 Rower.

In the Fall, I felt that I needed a break from training on both those pieces. I wanted to replace one of these workouts once per week with something else, preferably done outside.

If you're reasonably fit that something else can't be just walking because unless you learn to race walk, the workload won't be sufficient for a fitness workout. Running or jogging is out for me. There's too much impact and taking up running again at 60 didn't seem to make sense.

What I've enjoyed doing and believed was great exercise is walking up hills. The problem is that even though I live in a hilly area the hills weren't long enough or steep enough. They weren't that challenging even while walking very quickly.

Recently, an extension road was completed that is about a quarter of a mile from my house and subdivision. It is about .40 miles long and it is very steep. I estimated that it started at about a 7% grade and ended up at about 12%.

I walked up it few times and it was challenging.

I looked up charts that had formulas for converting speed and grade of walking to METs and saw that with my walking pace this could come close to what I was doing on the Air Dyne and Rower.

I called the town's construction office. I asked about the grading of the extension road. My estimates were close. It started at an 8% grade, quickly got to 10%, with the second half of the extension road at 11.5%. When I used these numbers in the formula for estimating METs, I saw that if I just walked a little quicker I would be just below the workload on the Air Dyne and Rower.

I've developed a great "extended GXP" to fit this new extension road.

I walk quickly from my house in a wide 3-mile loop that takes me to the start of the extension road. I then walk very quickly up the road and then finally use the quarter mile back to my house as a cooldown.

It's perfect.

I'm sure readers can find other interesting and equally challenging activities outside that combine physical activity and physical fitness.

Do though keep one thing in mind when you develop your "interesting and challenging" "extended GXP". We are not talking about "killer workouts". We are talking about workouts that are health enhancing and not health compromising or anxiety provoking.

Here's an example of what I mean.

When the extension road was finally completed and I saw its grade and length I realized that the road was perfect for fitness for virtually anyone.

An extremely fit person could get a good workout by running or jogging up the hill.

A person with only very modest fitness and only wishing to slightly improve fitness could walk up the extension road at about a 20-22 minute per mile pace.

A person with good fitness and wishing to maintain it or slightly improve fitness could walk up the extension road at about a 15-16 minute per mile pace.

Across a continuum of fitness levels, no one needs to do "killer workouts".

This perspective on aerobic training explains why despite a number of inquiries I did not review a recent study showing the effects of four to seven 30-second all-out sprints (Wingate tests) performed on a cycle ergometer1 three times per week and the subsequent editorial commentary2 that have received much attention. The very hard sprint training produced some effects that are usually found with traditional aerobic training including an increase in endurance performance.

Despite the hoopla, there are a number of key points that have not received many comments. First, at this point we only know that very hard sprinting produces some of the outcomes associated with aerobic training. The operative words are "hard" and "some".

If you do not perform the protocols at very high intensity very hard work there are no data to indicate what your outcomes will be. Sprinting at maximal intensity is hard work and coupling sprinting with high intensity resistance training as discussed in recent issues can make overall recovery difficult.

More traditional aerobic training positively affects a number of health-related mechanisms such as blood pressure, lipids, and insulin resistance. It also expends calories and that is important. We do not know how sprint training affects blood pressure, lipids, and insulin resistance nor does it meaningfully increase resting metabolic rate.

Increasing aerobic capacity, one of the other important health-related outcomes, may take as little as five minutes two to three times per week such as the work piece in the Graded Exercise Protocol. You can likely increase fitness over time to about the same level that you might increase fitness with very high intensity training. It may simply take a few more months.

The points are that increasing aerobic capacity either through severe, very high intensity interval training or the more moderate intensity GXP can take minimal time but other health-related mechanisms appear to require some greater degree of volume.

Here is another very important point to consider.

In scenario one you perform very high intensity interval training two to three times per week. Assuming you were at some mid-range fitness level for your gender and age and have been performing some aerobic exercise, this type of training may allow you to further increase your fitness level by about 10% if you consistently trained that way for six to eight weeks. You would also risk having some cardiac event and musculoskeletal problems and compromising resistance training.

In scenario two, you perform the "extended" GXP, or any other reasonable aerobic training protocol two to three times per week. Assuming you were at some mid-range fitness level for your gender and age and have been performing some aerobic exercise, this type of training may allow you to further increase your fitness level by about 10% if you consistently trained that way for eight to 12 weeks. You also would likely show some other favorable outcomes for other risk factors. You would have virtually no risk of having some cardiac event and musculoskeletal problems and compromising resistance training.

In other words, in about a month or two more of training, the more reasonable training protocol would produce about the same effects for fitness, other positive effects you may not receive from high intensity interval training, with minimal risk, and little or no effects on resistance training.

Keep this point in mind. Studies with very high intensity training have carefully monitored participants as they train on the protocol. Our exercise training is generally unsupervised and not closely monitored. Why risk having a cardiac event when there are safer alternatives that produce about the same level of fitness and also broader health benefits?

The final issue is "fit for what?"

Few of us have much interest in competing in endurance or sprint sports. We perform aerobic training for its health benefits and because when it is constructed correctly, it is enjoyable. Even if more moderate training did not increase aerobic capacity as much as high intensity interval training, a modest to good level of fitness goes a long way to enhance health and reduce risks. You quickly reach a point of diminishing returns if you go much beyond that point.

Think again about the example about walking up the .40-mile hill. The point is that if you can perform something similar to that walk, you have a good level of fitness and that is really all you need.

There also has been some confusion about what it takes should you want to be in the upper levels of fitness for your age group. The data3 are based on exercise testing with thousands of men and women. So, when someone says that they are in the 95th percentile for their age group or that their level of fitness is in the top 10% for people 20 years younger, it sounds quite incredible. It also then seems that if you desired that level of fitness then you too will need to perform "killer workouts".

It isn't true. Here's why.

The majority of people who have been tested and are in that data set were sedentary. At least 75% of Americans are. There also is a large genetic component to aerobic capacity and responsiveness to training. So, if you perform some reasonable fitness training and have "decent" (not great) genetics for aerobic capacity you likely will be in one of the top fitness categories for your age and likely even for people appreciably younger than you.

If you performed any reasonable kind of aerobic training and had "good" genetics, you would likely be in the top fitness group for your age or even for people 20-29. It doesn't take that much.

We always have to examine our goals and then our premises for our strategies to reach those goals. Part of that process is examining the actual data about what certain goals and strategies really entail. The extensive data that are available about aerobic fitness indicate that a good level of fitness is achievable with consistent, progressive though moderate intensity training.

  1. Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser, GJF, Bradwell SN, Gibala MJ. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2005; 98: 1985-1990.
  2. Coyle EF. Very intense exercise training is extremely potent and time efficient: a reminder. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2005; 98: 1983-1984.
  3. ACSM. (2005). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (7th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins.