Every subculture has its own terminology for describing its way of life, the fitness subculture is no different. A few years ago complaining about the HIIT in your WOD at your local box would have only made sense to a select few extreme fitness enthusiasts. Thanks to the explosive popularity of CrossFit and other high intensity training programs we now know that HIIT refers to High Intensity Interval Training and WOD is an acronym for the Workout of the Day delivered in each CrossFit training facility (commonly called a ‘box’).
There are two ways of knowing what produces results from exercise; either through the anecdotal experience of trial and error by hardcore weightlifting enthusiasts or through extensive research conducted in exercise physiology labs by a bunch of geeky science-types. Exercise scientists have a habit of using overly complicated scientific terminology to explain how and why the human body adapts to exercise. Gym junkies have developed their own vernacular for describing exercise and the results it can deliver. Both are often describing the same physiological response but in a completely different way.
Whether you’re new to the fitness scene or you’ve been working out in health clubs for years you’ve probably heard certain terms thrown around, maybe you’ve even used a few yourself without really knowing exactly what they mean. In an effort to help you understand what many terms actually mean here are the explanations of 10 commonly used fitness terms along with a brief, minimally-geeky explanation of the science behind the term.
Taken in a literal sense burning refers to being on fire or possessing an extreme amount of heat. Many consumer-oriented exercise programs or club-based group fitness classes promote the fact that they help users exercise to the point of ‘muscle burning.’ Does this mean that individuals are expected to exercise to the point where they actually catch on fire? When it comes to exercise burning is often used to refer to the feeling of when muscles experience an accumulation of metabolic waste creating fatigue. Acidosis is a change in blood acidity, specifically elevated levels of lactic acid and hydrogen ions, that is often the result of moderate-to-high intensity exercise. A burning sensation in a muscle is an indication of acidosis and is a sign that it is time for a recovery period to allow the body to remove metabolic waste from the working muscles and replenish the nutrients required to continue performing muscle contractions.
Short for cardiorespiratory or cardiovascular exercise. Used to refer to exercise that elevates the heart rate to pump oxygen and nutrient-carrying blood to the working muscles. Most often used for exercise performed on equipment like treadmills, elliptical runners or stationary bikes it is important to know that ANY exercise which elevates the heart rate can provide cardiorespiratory benefits. Circuit training with free-weights or performing an AMRAP (as many rounds of a particular circuit as possible in a given amount of time) can be considered cardiorespiratory exercise.
The perception is that cardio is the best way to burn fat. Fat is converted to muscular energy at lower-intensity exercise (in fact you’re in your fat burning zone while reading this) but it can be slow process. During higher intensity exercise energy is provided in a shorter period of time through the glycolytic and phosphagen energy pathways. Rather than using the term ‘cardio’ it is more appropriate to use the term ‘energy system training.’ Low-intensity exercise like walking draws from the aerobic pathway, moderate-to-high intensity exercise uses energy primarily from the glycolytic pathway and extremely high-intensity or maximal effort exercise uses the phosphagen pathway.
- Core training
This has become one of the most popular and overused fitness terms over the past number of years. It seems as if almost any fitness class, workout program or equipment will provide ‘core training’ benefits. Core is most often used to refer to the muscles that make up the mid-section of the body including the ever-elusive six-pack. However it is much more effective to think of the body’s core as the center of gravity and not an actual group of muscles. When we look at how the body functions during upright movement patterns such as walking, lifting an object off of the ground or moving an object from one place to another we have to consider the fact that ANY muscle which attaches to the spine, rib cage or pelvis influences movement around the body’s center of gravity.
Consider the calf muscle of the gastrocnemius which attaches from the back of the heel (calcaneus) to the bottom of the thigh bone (femur) meaning that it can influence motion at the hip (ilio-femoral joint); therefore calf raises could be classified as a ‘core exercise.’ Likewise the upper arm muscle of the biceps (the biceps brachii) has two attachments to the shoulder blade (at the glenoid fossa) which sits on the thoracic spine – if the shoulder blade changes position during an upper arm exercise it can change the position of the spine which changes the body’s center of gravity. If we accept the body’s center of gravity as the foundation around which all upright movement is based then we should consider any exercise performed from a standing position and that affects movement at the spine, rib cage or pelvis as ‘core training.’
- High intensity interval training (HIIT)
We have written previous blogs about the benefits of HIIT here and here. This term makes the list because it is often used to refer to exercise performed at maximal intensity however we have to remember that intensity can be very subjective, what may be low intensity for some may be high intensity for others. For individuals with a history of being sedentary or who have been dealing with chronic medical conditions limiting their ability to exercise simply walking continuously for a few minutes at a time could be considered ‘high intensity.’ Yes HIIT can provide many benefits, but the terms ‘high intensity’ could scare some people away from participating in exercise so we should be careful with how we use it to describe workouts designed for the general public.
- Metabolic conditioning
Similar to HIIT, ‘Metabolic Conditioning’ is often used to refer to high-intensity exercise performed to the point of being out of breath or experiencing muscle soreness. Here is why this overused term ought to be retired from our lexicon: metabolism is the chemical process by which a biological organism produces energy for muscular contraction, meaning that ANY exercise requiring a muscle contraction (which in itself requires energy) is a form of metabolic conditioning. Standing from your chair after reading this post requires your metabolism to fuel your muscles. If you want to continue using the term then it would be more appropriate to classify metabolic conditioning as low-intensity, moderate-intensity, high-intensity or maximal intensity to appropriately describe the level of effort required to perform the planned activity.
This term is commonly used to describe a general mode of exercise such as yoga or Pilates because they are traditionally performed with bodyweight (with the exception of Pilates programs involving equipment such as a reformer or barrel) and require concentration to execute challenging movement sequences. Think about a basic machine-based exercise like a leg extension, doesn’t that require cognitive effort to actively engage and contract the thigh muscles to move the weight? How is that not a mind-body exercise? Purposeful movement requires conscious effort, therefore almost any physical activity that involves learning and executing movement patterns, no matter how basic, requires cognitive focus and should technically be classified as ‘mind-body.’
- Muscle confusion
There is a popular consumer-oriented fitness program which claims to be based on the science of ‘muscle confusion.’ This is simply a marketing term created to describe the physiological effect of periodization which is a method of organizing exercise programs based on alternating periods of intensity. Exercise is the process of applying physical stress to the body but the body actually adapts to the applied stimulus during the post-exercise recovery period.
The concept of periodization was developed by Soviet Union sport scientists who recognized that periods of high-intensity exercise (high stress) should be followed by a period of low-intensity exercise (low stress) to let the body to fully recover from the workouts and allow the time for the physiological adaptations to occur. Two different models of periodization exist: linear – which gradually increases the intensity over a period of time before allowing for active rest or off-loading for the body to fully recovery (exercising at 70% of max intensity for two weeks followed by two weeks of 80% max intensity and two weeks of 90% max intensity before taking one week of rest, commonly called ‘off-loading’) and non-linear – which organizes workouts of varying intensity from one day to the next (high intensity weight-lifting on Monday followed by a low-intensity bodyweight workout on Tuesday followed by a moderate-intensity energy system training day on Wednesday). If you want to sound like you know your exercise science then replace ‘muscle confusion’ with the term periodization.
Many programs or fitness classes refer to using plyo’s which is short for plyometric. Looking at the etiology of the word, ‘plyo’ (from pleio) is a pre-fix for ‘more’ and metric refers to length; therefore plyometric means ‘more length.’ Which describes the physiological affect of the involved muscles during jump training (the most common application for the lower body) or explosive movements such as medicine ball throws (often used for upper body plyometric training).
In general there are two phases of muscle action – lengthening and shortening. As a muscle lengthens it is storing elastic, mechanical energy that is released as the muscle shortens. It’s interesting to note that during plyometric actions the contractile component of muscle, the actin-myosin proteins, actually hold an isometric contraction which allows the elastic element of a muscle, the fascia and connective tissue binding series of muscle fibers to one another, to rapidly lengthen which creates the mechanical energy which is then released when the elastic tissue returns to its original length. Following Newton’s third law: “for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction;” where the practical application is that the faster a muscle can lengthen the faster it can shorten which generates a higher magnitude of force.
Plyometric training was developed by Soviet sport scientists who originally referred to it as ‘shock training’ (urdaniye metod in Russian) because of the high forces experienced by the involved tissue. Proper application of plyometric or ‘shock method’ training is performing for only a few repetitions at a time in an effort to achieve the highest level of force output possible. Any program requiring participants to perform more than five or six rapid movements (i.e. jumps or explosive lifts) in a row can significantly increase the risk of injury by placing too much force on the involved tissue and is not a true ‘plyometric’ exercise.
There are a number of exercise programs and classes using the name Tabata which is an actual person, Dr. Izumi Tabata an exercise scientist from Japan. In 1995 Dr. Tabata and colleagues conducted research on ways to improve aerobic capacity using short intervals of extremely high intensity exercise. Their research study involved only 9 athletes who were challenged to perform two exercise protocols at extremely high intensity. The first protocol involved exercise at 170% of aerobic capacity on cycle ergometers for a work interval of 20 seconds followed by a brief recovery interval of only 10 seconds, repeated to exhaustion. The second protocol was exercise at 200% of aerobic capacity for 30 seconds followed by two minutes of recovery, repeating until exhaustion. Dr. Tabata and colleagues found that the first protocol was extremely effective at boosting aerobic capacity. Since publishing his work in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 1997 Dr. Tabata’s name has been used to refer to a protocol of high intensity interval training featuring 20 second work intervals followed by 10 second recovery intervals for 8 cycles (a total of 4 minutes).
If you ask most people what their general fitness goals are you will hear the response: “tone up and get in shape.” We have come to accept the term ‘tone’ to mean muscular definition, or the appearance of a well-defined muscle. The term ‘tone’ is actually short for Tonus which is the technical term used to describe a state of contraction in a normally functioning muscle. Using a muscle repeatedly during a strength training exercise will leave that muscle in a state of semi-contraction creating the defined appearance we have come to expect as the result of exercise.
Now you know what you’re describing when you use these ten commonly used fitness and what they really mean when it comes to exercise.