Monday, July 6, 2009

Clarence Bass expounds the power law....

That may not be the way in which he would present it, but I have just read a really interesting piece by the great Clarence Bass, which I think illustrates on of Art Devany's principles about physical training: the power law.

Art Devany explains it thus: The power law shown here (frequency is on the y axis and intensity on the x you have a high frequency of low intensity stuff, while you have a low frequency of high intensity stuff) is the signature of nature's strategy of organization and one humans followed for millenia. It is one I follow today. Note the frequency versus intensity scaling and the lack of a central tendancy. The mean is not a good indicator of the typical activity, in fact the mode is over at the far left where languid ease is the rule. The variance is infinite, which is the same thing as saying it does not exist. Constant variation but within a pattern of constrained novelty is the human condition until very recently.

Mix brief, intermittent episodes of highly intense physical action with languid periods and play.

Art Explains more in the essay

Clarence is commenting on the apparent contradiction between the high intensity crowd - e.g. Doug McGuff - and those that favour long easy aerobics, like Phil Maffetone. (both athletes and writers that I really respect and incidentally, both trainers who favour a low carb diet).

It is really worth reading Clarence's article - McGuff’s Brief Muscular Effort and Maffetone’s Slow Aerobics, Never the Twain Shall Meet? - you can combine the two he concludes.

"If you took McGuff’s ideas and combine them with Maffetone’s ideas, you would perform one extremely hard anaerobic workout every seven to ten days, and the rest of the time would be very low intensity aerobic workouts,” Dr. Johnston suggested in an email message. Far fetched as it sounded at the time, I believe he’s on to something. Maffetone is off base on high-intensity training, and McGuff is out of the strike zone on aerobic exercise. The combination of the two, however, may very well be a home run.

One commonality that comes to mind is that McGuff and Maffetone are both risk averse. Both claim that their system prevents injury. Low intensity aerobic exercise and slow lifting are both about preventing wear and tear on muscles and joints. That’s one for a combined system.

My earlier suggestion (two months back) that McGuff’s Big-5 workout might work well with a walking program now makes even more sense. Consider doing the Big-5 workout on day 1, walk on days 3, 4, and 5, rest on days 2 and 6, and then repeat. That would be an upgrade on either system alone. Recovery from the 12-minutes of strength training would be enhanced by walking, and walking during the week would build aerobic fitness and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and early mortality. Sounds like a win-win to me.

It is the power law again.....lots of low intensity easy stuff, coupled with a few brief, infrequent really hard sessions. It is natural.....

It is also Mark Sisson's approach summed up in 3 of his primal laws:

  • Primal Blueprint Law #3: Move Frequently at a Slow Pace
  • Primal Blueprint Law #4: Lift Heavy Things
  • Primal Blueprint Law #5: Sprint Once in a While


Bryce said...

I'm a big fan of C-Bass's writings, but I think him calling McGuff's opinions on aerobic exercise as "out of the strike zone" is a bit much. McGuff and Little go into great depth about how their program thoroughly trains the entire metabolic system, including the aerobic pathways.

Still, adding very low intensity stuff like walking to McGuff's program is a great idea.

skylertanner said...

Also McGuff frequently discusses how, as one achieves an "active" phenotype, they will end up being substantially more active, including a lot of low intensity activity by default. Why this gets glazed over I have no idea.

Bryce said...

I'm with you Skyler. Also, I just saw your comment on free the animal about how you're not convinced about the benefits of growth hormone.

Could you elaborate? Or link me to your post or some good reference material? I'm curious to see your reasoning here.

Thanks man, and thanks Chris for a good find here.

skylertanner said...


I don't want to be misunderstood: GH is fine stuff, it's just not a panacea like it's made out to be. I wrote an article on my blog attempting to dispel some of the myths:

Here are a bunch of other studies that you might like to look at:
1: Phys Ther. 1999 Jan;79(1):76-82.

Does growth hormone therapy in conjunction with resistance exercise increase
muscle force production and muscle mass in men and women aged 60 years or older?

2: Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1994;22:285-312.

Growth hormone effects on metabolism, body composition, muscle mass, and

3: J Appl Physiol. 1993 Jun;74(6):3073-6.

Short-term growth hormone treatment does not increase muscle protein synthesis in
experienced weight lifters.

4: Am J Physiol. 1992 Mar;262(3 Pt 1):E261-7.

Effect of growth hormone and resistance exercise on muscle growth in young men.

5: J Endocrinol Invest. 1999;22(5 Suppl):106-9.

Growth hormone and body composition in athletes.
Frisch H.

A lot to chew on, but it's basically this: if injected GH doesn't do a damn thing, why would a 15' spike after a workout be critical?


Chris said...

Skyler - great point that McGuff is clear that he expects you to get more active as you get fitter. It is glossed over as you say, but people focus on the 12 minutes a week thing rather than the bigger picture.

Doug McGuff, MD said...

To All,

I don't think I can state my case any better than Bryce or Skyler. As strength and global metabolic condition improve, spontaneous activity levels have been documented to rise. The low-intensity end of the spectrum takes care of itself quite nicely with no need for regiment or planning.

Doug McGuff

Chris said...

Hi Doug - thanks for the comment.

Walking to me is something I do lots of and do not even really think of it as exercise. I do lots of hillwalking in the Scottish Mountains....but that I think is a consequence of being fit rather than something I do to get fit if you know what I mean.

mc said...

Never underestimate the power of the NEPA

no matter what fitness level :)


L. Wu said...

The thing about power law-type claims, particularly in scientific research, is that it becomes difficult to (1) distinguish what is and isn't following a powerlaw beyond just "eying it" and (2) establish how long or tall the tail actually is.

When you think about it, power law doesn't imply you don't do LSD (long slow distance), for example, as that makes an assumption about the length and height of the "tail" of the power law distribution.

jon w said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jon w said...

if we want to mathematically describe intensity level of work vs time spent at that level, a power law function does not work. I understand its usefulness as analogy, but saying the variance is "infinite" is taking it too far. yes, a power law function has infinite variance under certain conditions, but for modelling physiology, this doesnt apply. no living body is capable of zero exertion, and there is a definite maximum as well. for the power law to apply, we would have to be capable of exerting ANY amount of power for a small interval of time, and this just isnt the case.

I do agree with the comments on long slow aerobic activity. As Greg Glassman stated, just sitting or sleeping is aerobic activity, different in intensity from walking down the street, but not really different in metabolic quality. The fact that an exercise program doesnt prescribe aerobic activity doesnt mean you arent getting it. Is it important to fitness? when someone is getting the appropriate high intensity exercise, I'm not sure it matters to metabolic fitness what they do in their low intensity time (except that if it's too repetitive it can lead to injury). that said, those low intensity aerobic periods are where most of the enjoyable activities of life take place, and mental health is just as important as (or more important) than the other stuff. as healthy person moves more than someone who is unfit, and it is probably impossible to separate cause and effect.

skylertanner said...


I've always interpreted the power law as applied to physiology as finite but conditional. So the effort you could maintain for 2 weeks, cumulative, is far more than one could maintain for 6 weeks. It's impossible to apply one person's curve to another, much in the same way that 2 men of equal size might vary drastically in strength. It's YOUR curve, YOUR least that's how I describe it to my clients.