Developing fitness is vital no matter what your goal is. If you want to live a younger, healthier life, fitness is the greatest effector of all cause mortality and heart disease. It is also one of the largest influences on your daily energy level. If you want to put on muscle, or be a bodybuilder, you need to be fit enough to do the volume of work that will encourage muscle growth. If you want to run marathons, you need to be fit enough to run 24 miles (preferably faster than every else in the race, which means that you also have to develop speed fitness). What is really interesting is that you can develop fitness at two different intensities and get an “in the middle” response that is greater than if you were to train them together. And if you want to loose weight, you need to be fit enough to do the work required to loose weight. I know that some of this seems simple but the main point is that if you would like to get past where you are now, you have to do more of something than you are doing now.
So what is fitness? Simply defined, it is work capacity, or your ability to do a volume of work. The more work that you can do, the more fit you are. There are 2 different kinds of fitness: general fitness and specific fitness. General fitness is characterized by being able to do large volumes of work at a variety of intensities. For example, the guy that shovel dirt for hours and then go to the gym and do an hour of squats at his 10 rep max. Shoveling dirt is a low intensity while squatting at a 10 rep max is a higher intensity. Specific fitness is the ability to do a large volume of work at a specific intensity. For example, the girl in your yoga class that can kick your butt for 2 hours and barely break a sweat, but can’t do 2 sets of 6 squats at a 6 rep max and can’t sprint for 100 meters. She is great at yoga, but not at anything intense.
So the question is, “which is more important?”. Honestly, that depends on your goal. For instance, if your goal is to be generally fit and loose some weight, while decreasing your disease risk, then general fitness is best. This means that you will do a variety of activities (though many may be performed in a way that develops specific fitness) to increase overall fitness. Circuit training alternated with days of running would be a good example of this. This will have carry over to specific fitness in the modalities that you use for your training but will result in a high degree of overall fitness. If your goal however, is to be a power lifter, then you need to be specifically fit at very heavy weight for the squat, deadlift, and bench press. This means that you will do a lot of heavy repeats for each lift (20 sets of 3 at a 3 rep max for example) and that all axillary lifts will be performed in a similar manner though speed may be adjusted to promote neural adaptations and recovery. The bodybuilder must be moderately fit over a variety of intensities (weights and corresponding rep ranges) to maximize gains. This will allow for workouts that are very high volumes at multiple weights to maximize muscle growth, capitalizing on all types of muscle growth. I will explain more about the possible types of muscle growth in a later post.
The wonderful thing about specific fitness is that as long as the activity utilizes a full body motion, there will be some carry over to general fitness and disease prevention. For example, the “moderate” category corresponds to a VO2 max of 30-40 ml/kg/min. This fitness category has a very good disease risk profile (meaning they are low risk). VO2 max is a measure of aerobic power typically performed on a bike or treadmill. Division-I college basketball players average a VO2 max of 37 ml/kg/min. Power lifters average a VO2 max of about 33 ml/kg/min, and Olympic Weightlifters have an average VO2max of 42 ml/kg/min. This means that the power lifter is nearly as “fit” (by the typical definition which is aerobic power) as the college basketball player despite never running or training aerobically, and the Olympic weightlifter is more “fit” than the college basketball player. How is that possible?! Well as a former Olympic weightlifter, it is not that hard to figure out. A typical training day for me would involve lifting a 200-270 pound bar from the floor to over my head 3-6 times, resting 2 minutes and repeating 10-20 times. Then we might do 5-10 sets of squats. My average heart rate for the workout was about 185 bpm with a max of 205 bpm after each set…for 60-90 minutes. That is essentially the exact same thing as high intensity interval training (HIIT) but with a 100 kilos instead of a treadmill. So the good news is that if you like a particular activity, I can probably tell you how to use it to help you achieve your general fitness goals. Its just a matter of applying it correctly.