Mitochondrial health and how to train for it

The link below is what triggered the following post. Excellent article that gives you a great overview about mitochondria. Definitely worth reading. My post is about how to use exercise for mitochondrial health.

The Mitochondria: Key to Health and Longevity

Mitochondria are structures inside the cell that “burn” fuel and release energy in the form that our cells can use. That form of energy currency is called ATP, adenosine triphosphate. This happens best in the presence of oxygen. What is called aerobic metabolism. But I’m guessing you’re not here for the biochemistry geek gyan. You’re here to improve mitochondrial health and you want me to get to the meat of the matter. Fine.

People tend to assume that since mitochondria are using fuel in aerobic conditions, the best way to train it is with “aerobic” exercise. This is only partly true. Read on.

Aerobic and anaerobic metabolism don’t occur in isolation. They both occur all the time. The proportion of aerobic to anaerobic metabolism will vary depending on oxygen availablity in the cell and the speed at which the ATP is required. The lower the oxygen availability and greater the speed of energy currency consumption, the greater the anaerobic respiration. Sorry, I can’t help myself. Gyan keeps bursting out.

Anaerobic respiration produces metabolites that are toxic to cells in large, sustained concentrations. The cells get around this problem by

  • Washing away those metabolites to the general system for temporary relief
  • Recycling those metabolites through aerobic respiration

As you can see, anaerobic respiration rests on the foundation of aerobic respiration.

Most of the recycling takes place in the liver and in other muscle groups that are not working as hard as the group targeted by whichever exercise you’re doing. For eg, if you’re cycling, and your quads and hamstrings are on fire, some of the lactate produced will get used up by the liver , muscles of respiration, heart muscle and upper limb musculature. If you continue to push harder, the lactate production overwhelms the recycling capacity of the body and starts to accumulate. pH levels start falling, lactate levels in the system as a whole climbs and forces you to stop pushing so hard. This is the point where you start feeling like you want to lie down and die.

Why “pure” cardio doesn’t cut it.

  • Takes too long
  • Higher risk of wear and tear with even minimal loss of alignment or form because of the huge number of reps involved. For eg a mace workout may have 500 reps, which looks like a huge number, but compared to a 4km walk (5000 steps), it is nothing. Now imagine a marathon run of 42kms
  • Time spent on road means not enough time to develop strength, which is what protects you from injury during day to day life
  • Pure cardio doesn’t combat the skinny fat physique effectively enough
  • Pure cardio usually worsens posture and needs constant corrective measures
  • Higher risk of repetitive strain injury compared to strength training

Why regular gym training doesn’t cut it

  • Rest periods are too long
  • Load is too high for the trainee
  • Emphasis on pursuing failure
  • Even if you’re using circuit training with no rest in between, the number of exercises used are too many. Not enough time under tension for the muscle groups being trained
  • The lack of functional strength if you’re primarily using machines and standard body building movements
  • Not learning how to use the whole body as a single unit to exert force or move weight.
  • Not learning movement patterns that will prevent injury in day to day life
  • Anaerobic training wins over aerobic because, you’re training both systems in one session. It is more time efficient.
  • Workouts are shorter
  • Aerobic system continues to get a workout even after the session is completed, because the oxygen debt has to be paid.
  • Because it needs strength, it trains strength, muscle growth occurs
  • Bone density improves because of the loading, unlike aerobic exercise, where bone density usually suffers

The meat of the matter. I promise, won’t cheat you this time. How to use the time you invest in exercise to get maximum bang for your buck.

  • Strength endurance training
  • Strength endurance more than outright strength or peak strength
  • Think of manual labour type strength where they can continually exert for hours together
  • Since we don’t have all day to train we have to compromise.
  • Using multiple sets of 3-5 reps at around 50-60 per cent of your peak strength in that movement. Think 8 to 10 sets
  • Using the rest period after each set to perform another exercise that works an unrelated muscle group. Eg-alternating between pushups and squats with no rest in between
  • Getting close to muscle failure but never actually pushing so hard that the oxygen debt can’t be cleared before the next set is due
  • Basically, create an oxygen debt, back off, and create it again before it is fully cleared
  • The last set will feel like hell. The first few will feel too easy.
  • Exercise selection matters. If you’re alternating between exercises that hit the same muscle group you’ll not be able to do enough work to produce a growth stimulus
  • This sort of training should be done in 10 to 20 minutes maximum. If you’re able to go longer, you’re not challenging yourself enough with intensity.
  • If you can’t last 10 minutes, you’re pushing too hard. You might not be able to sustain that kind of a load on a daily basis.

Cardio training

  • Long workouts that are super easy. Going for a 2-4 hour walk or cycle ride on Sunday. The pace should be easy enough for you to talk to someone next to you continually.
  • Interval training. Should happen only once a week. Hill sprints recommended. Don’t overdo these, because you’re already doing something very similar with your strength endurance training on a daily basis.

Examples of exercise pairing and some basic principles

  • Split between upper body and lower body
  • Loading should be just enough to push you into anaerobic territory towards the end of the set. You can get there by either adjusting the weight you use or the number of reps you use. If you need more than 30reps in a set you’re probably more aerobic than anaerobic, the set becomes too long, and the exercise sessions too time inefficient.
  • Try and stick to two exercises per session
  • Make sure not to burn out your grip too early.
  • Legs can handle more load than arms, so hitting them in both parts of the exercise pairing is not a bad idea
  • If you need a warm up to do these exercises, you’re probably loading too much weight.
  • First set will feel easy. Fifth set you’ll feel like Superman. 10th set you’ll want to stop.
  • Use minimum equipment
  • Pushups+kettlebell swings
  • Pushups+ easy deadlifts
  • Pushups+power cleans
  • Pull-ups+ squats
  • Pull-ups+ goblet squats
  • Pull-ups+ front squats
  • Overhead press+ squats
  • Overhead press+ kettlebell swings
  • Club swings+ squats
  • Mace swings+squats
  • Loaded carries alternating between left and right side
  • Sprints+ kettlebell swings
  • Sprints+ barbell cleans
  • Sprints+deadlifts
  • Remember that the idea is not to punish yourself.
  • Remember that you have to get close to failure but never actually reach failure because that’s where injuries occur and that is how you ruin the next day’s workout

As always, I’m looking for comments to help me figure out what I’ve done right, and what I’ve done wrong with this article. Please let me know if you need further clarification, or if I’ve missed anything that you think is important.

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