Elective 5 / Lesson 3

The Physiology of Smarter Exercise with Dr. Mike Young


Jonathan: Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Really wonderful show planned for today. We have the Director of Sports Performance from Athletic Lab, and he is an internationally renowned coach and expert in athletic development. He has worked at U.S. Olympic training centers, is a sports scientist, a coach. He’s got all sorts of degrees. He can tell you much more about what he does, because it’s just quite, quite impressive. It really shows just how amazingly complicated and amazing an optimum athletic performance is; no one better to talk about that than our guest today, Dr. Mike Young. Doctor Mike, how are you doing?

Mike: I’m doing great. Thank you very much for the invite, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Mike, just to get started, can you tell us a little bit about your story; because you really are on the front lines of elite athletic performance training.

Mike: I come from a track-and-field background and have been a long-time lover of sports science. From as early as about 12 years old, I’ve been devouring training manuals just as a hobby, and that led me to becoming a coach and sports scientist after my athletic career was done.

For a while, I worked primarily with track-and-field athletes at the collegiate level, then decided to open my own training center called Athletic Lab in Cary, North Carolina, where we train everyone from high school athletes to the general population looking to get extremely fit, to the elite professional or Olympic athlete looking to bring home a medal.

Right now, I am also with an MLS club in Vancouver, Canada, as their director of high-performance and strengthening conditioning. Really, I have a couple of different passions. Obviously, one of them is sports performance, but as I’ve worked with more and more athletes, I see the bigger picture and see that sports and sports performance in general is really just a medium to allow people to achieve their goals, and that’s something that I’m very, very passionate about, is committing to committed people who are willing to achieve their goals.

Jonathan: Mike, in your introduction there, you mentioned a couple of things. You said people who want to get extremely fit: Elite athletes; professionals. What have you noticed in your practice are some of the biggest differences between the way you would train and approach someone whose goals are to be extremely fit, to bring home literally a gold medal, or because they’re getting paid to be athletic; what is the difference in approach for those people versus, say, someone who just wants to not get diabetes?
Mike: I’d say the biggest difference is balance. I think of things operating in terms of a wellness-health-performance continuum. For 90-plus percent of the population, what they really need is to be in the wellness and health portion of that continuum. A lot of that goes to balance. If you’re trying to really push the limits of the human body and see what you can get away with, balance flies out the window. You have to be on the cutting edge; you have to put in more hours than you think you need to; you have to put a little more weight on the bar than you need to; you have to be living the lifestyle that maybe isn’t as conducive to being the best husband or being the best friend or going out and having a great time. You have to eliminate a lot of balance if you’re trying to be so focused on developing one aspect of your life.

In some ways, it’s a little bit selfish, many Olympians will tell you this. But in terms of just a general population who were looking for wellness and health and maybe pushing a little bit towards performance, you don’t need to do all that. Because part of that unbalanced approach that it takes to get to the elite level also comes with risk. These are the guys that may get hurt; they may get hurt from doing that little extra training; they may deal with various overuse injuries; they may deal with overtraining syndromes; they may have difficulty with sleeping; they have to adjust their diet; they have to adjust their entire lifestyle.

This isn’t the case with people on the health and wellness side of the continuum. If you’re not getting paid to do it, I would strongly suggest not acting like you are, because with the reward that it takes to get to the elite level, there is a lot of risk. For your person that has to show up at work the next day, they can’t afford to do that with a hamstring injury that doesn’t allow them to walk, or being so sore that they can’t go up and down the stairs or sit down on the toilet.

We need to really look at what is best for the individual. I’m finding that we can improve the general population to high levels of performance and do it safely, but it just comes down to doing it in a balanced manner where they can still live a healthy lifestyle without having the risks that a professional or Olympic athlete might incur.

Jonathan: It sounds like there’s a calculation of marginal cost versus marginal benefit that you’re describing here. If that’s correct, what would you say we can learn and get the most marginal benefit from? When I say we, I mean non-professionals, just the lay population, individuals to whom balance is very important. How can we get the most marginal benefit, and what can we learn from the elite athletic community?

Mike: I think you hit it right on the head when you said that you can learn a lot from what elite athletes are doing, and you don’t have to do everything they’re doing to achieve a lot of the benefits. I really think or believe a lot in the 80/20 rule, meaning that you can get a lot of the results, a large majority of the results, from just a little bit of the factors that are allowing people to achieve success.

If we’re looking at elite athletes, they’re chasing after that last one- and two-percent improvement that puts them on the medal stand, or puts them in the NBA or the NFL or whatever the case may be. If you’re not looking for that, if you don’t need that, if that might actually be a bad life choice for you, then you want to go for that 20%.

Look for that 20% that is common among all performers at the elite level and see what they’re doing. Chasing after that or training for that, whether it be in diet or sleep habits or training, that’s what you need to take care of. What I’m finding is that there are certain things that everyone needs to do. Your general-population person, as we all know, has balance. We can’t train for 20-plus hours in a week. We need to trim things down to the essentials to figure out what can we do to get the maximum return on our investment.

A lot of that comes to what your fitness goals are. Are you looking to lose weight? Are you looking to gain strength? Are you looking to put on a little bit of muscle size? In general, I find that the most bang for your buck in terms of fitness training, and perhaps one of the most neglected aspects of fitness training among people who are not getting the results they need, is intensity. People are simply not training hard enough.

One of the things that I try to do at my training center with our general-population members is that we bring intensity into their training. We make it competitive. We put more weight on the bar. We ask them to do a couple more reps. This is something that the person who has never competed on sports or never done any athletics at a high level may not have ever experienced in their whole life.

It may be unfamiliar to them, but this is the type of intensity and drive that it takes to get results out of a program, especially when you’re putting in minimal time and you’re not going after that last one percent. You have to work, you have to put in the work. The idea that something is easy and can be effective at the same time is really somewhat of a myth. If you’re not training at least a little bit hard, or occasionally with high intensity, then you’re not going to see the results that you want.

Jonathan: Mike, am I understanding correctly that — you said this idea that it can just be easy is certainly a myth if you want to get results; but with increased intensity, I would imagine there is an inverse relationship between the more intense you train, the less frequently and often you can train. Like you can’t sprint as long as you could walk. So you’re doing a trade of you can have more time and you can get more results if you just spend that little or smaller amount of time, you’re not going for a two-hour jog, doing something that is more intense; is that fair?

Mike: That’s 100% correct. That’s the beauty of it, it really is. If you train hard and do it intelligently, you’ll be able to get a lot of bang for your buck, your time investment will be relatively minimal, and you’ll get great fitness results out of that training program. There have been times in my life when I’ve been starting up a business or traveling a lot that I’ve been only able to train for a total of 20 minutes to an hour in a whole week divvied up in, say, 10-minute segments over the course of a week.

I’ve been able to maintain my fitness for a month or a month in a half at a time on just that minimalistic training. The key there is that I’m working pretty hard for those 10 or 15 minutes that I am training. You can get a lot of results out of minimal time investment; you just have to be willing to work for it.

Jonathan: Mike, let’s get science-y here. Why is it that two minutes of like a burst-based training can give you such amazing results, and potentially even results that you couldn’t get through two hours of walking? What’s going on differently in the body?

Mike: I’ll start off with a simple analogy. If we were to take something like sprinting or a one-rep max in squatting, or use your burst-training example, and confine it to two to five minutes, let’s say, or say a Tabata squat routine, that’s like hitting the body with the sledgehammer. You don’t have to do very much for that single strike to have a lot of effect.

The two hours of running, which there’s no problem with — certainly if you’re going to be a marathoner, you need to put in that level of work. The two hours of running is like hitting your body with a Ball-Peen hammer. It takes a lot of work to get similar results. With intensity comes more changes in practically every physiological aspect of performance. We’re seeing that in just four minutes of hard, intense training, you can increase your VO2 max; you can increase your lactate threshold.

If you set things up correctly, especially in non-highly-trained individuals, you can even see extreme increases in strength and power. You can get a lot of work done in the two- to four-minute block. The key, though, is that it’s tricky to do it safely without also adding a lower-intensity warm-up.

Usually I don’t recommend chasing these two- or four-minute workout routines that have become relatively common on the web now; you’ll see them being publicized fairly sensationally as a get-fit-fast routine. I think you do need to put in a little bit of time, at least 20 minutes or so. But if you trained hard and used five to 10 minutes of that 20 minutes to warm your body up, to incorporate some mobility work, et cetera, you’ll be able to attack all aspects of fitness and get extremely fit in a minimal amount of time.

Jonathan: Mike, I love that you brought up safety, because the immediate place most people’s minds go when they think of increasing intensity is, Oh, I’m just going to go do sprints. If I understand correctly – this is an oversimplification – there’s two ways to increase intensity for the layperson. One is to do something faster, and the other is to do it with more resistance; and in some ways those are actually the same things, but let’s not split hairs.

It seems like if I had to choose between sprinting as fast as I could, like on a flat plane, and doing something with less impact and higher resistance, that the ladder is going to be like still I can go super-intense; however, it’s much lower likelihood of injury. Is that fair?

Mike: Yes, I think that’s definitely true. Just to put some context to that, with my elite sprinters, for safety and for a couple other reasons, but primarily to ensure that they are warm, we go through a warmup routine that takes about 45 minutes to an hour. The better you are at sprinting, the more potentially injurious it is, because the loads and forces that you place on the body are extreme. They are three-plus times body weight loads at impact. On a single leg, we’re seeing intramuscular forces of around 15 times body weight. So the likelihood of hurting yourself in full-blast sprinting is very high.

Sprinting is a fantastic activity for improving fitness. To do it safely, regularly, you need to put in a significant amount of warmup, especially as you become more competent at sprinting. Because when you become more competent at sprinting, things like your ability to sprint faster, your ability to fire more muscle fibers, your ability to move the limbs a little bit faster all increase, which increases the likelihood of your injury.
If we’re talking about working with the general population, yes, I do like the sprint. We will do it sparingly, just simply because of the reasons that I’ve mentioned. We’ll do it under the context of longer warmup. But I think for a general population looking for increasing their fitness to the highest level with a relatively minimal time input, I think we do need to look at other means.

That could be using your body weight, that could be using an external load like a weight. There are a lot of routines out there, from HIT to CrossFit, that use these methods in varying degrees of safety to achieve those results. I think the proof somewhat is in the pudding; we’ve seen it anecdotally for a while, and now we’re seeing it also in research studies on those methods as well.

Jonathan: Mike, so we have in some ways a spectrum, it would seem, for the typical person where on one end it’s no external load and, therefore, the only lever you have to increase intensity is speed; so it’s like sprinting, you have to sprint faster, that is how you increase load. On the other end of the spectrum, you would have resistance training, and potentially even super-slow resistance training, because you are using an external load, not speed, to increase resistance and, in fact, maybe minimizing speed in an effort to preserve safety and things like that.

Where on that spectrum would you think that — because in this country, the typical individual is significantly overweight. We’re not even talking about the individual who may be able to go sprint. Where should that individual start on that spectrum?

Mike: I think it’s a fairly complex question, probably beyond the scope of a 20-minute interview. I would say in the case of someone like that, safety should always come first, because as soon as a person gets hurt, compliance immediately drops. If we’re looking to move from unhealthy to healthy, or from healthy to fit on that continuum, we can’t have a person get hurt and miss three, four or five days of training, because it’s likely that they may not ever return to training. They could say in their mind, Hey, I gave it a shot and it didn’t work, or, I got hurt, I worked out really hard and it didn’t work out for me, I ended up getting hurt.

We need to set things up so that we can ease people into a training routine that allows them to improve fitness but not get greedy with it. You can get really fit, really fast, on these high-intensity routines; but if you’re greedy with it, you’ll get hurt pretty quickly. Part of that comes to why I said this is a fairly complex issue.

It’s complex because I don’t think you need to put yourself in a box and say, We just need to do super-slow, or we just need to do this or do that. You can have it all, but you want to be rotating a little bit. Keep safety first, but you want to have an alternation of training means so that your body isn’t seeing the exact same thing every single time. That comes from both an external load standpoint, comes from a speed standpoint, but also comes from an intensity standpoint.

One of the knocks against a lot of the high-intensity fitness routines, CrossFit especially, is that it’s high intensity all the time. When the durations are super short and the intensity is super high, and it’s done on a daily basis, the likelihood for injury goes up substantially. We want to make sure that athletes have an alternation of training means so that at least they have some down periods, they can rest and recover from their really high-intensity days, and then they’ll be able to perform and attack the high-intensity days harder when they do get back to them. You can really get as creative as you want to, again keeping safety as your first priority with the general population. There’s nothing I would say that is off limits, even high-level Plyometrics or sprinting, outside of perhaps extremely obese populations.

Jonathan: Mike, you have great work taking place on your site and your lab, your physical lab — and folks can learn more about that at AthleticLab.com. You’re also very active on Twitter @MikeYoung. What’s next for you, both professionally and personally?

Mike: I’m kind of open to a lot of things right now. I’m working with this MLS club in Vancouver, and I’m really enjoying myself. I think Vancouver is one of the best cities in the entire world; I’m enjoying working inside of professional soccer.

I’m also looking to develop the business side of things. I have one facility in North Carolina, Athletic Lab. We’re looking to expand into maybe two or three, keeping the quality of coaching extremely high, and expanding into more professionals and more general fitness.

As I grow older and move further and further away from my former competitive career, and I look around and see what’s happening in North America with the health crisis, I see that a lot of what someone like myself can be involved in and help and contribute to society is not with helping people win Olympic medals, which is my passion, I really do like high-performance athletic training; but the larger picture is providing sensible, science-based training, nutritional advice, lifestyle advice on ways that people can become more healthy.

It really depresses me to see people who are 20 years old and morbidly obese, or to see the three- and four-year-old child who looks like they’re pre-diabetic and has already potentially ruined much of their life because they have been allowed to live a lifestyle that is sedentary and lacking in appropriate nutrition.

I’d like to continue to provide nutrition and wellness advice, and pathways in training for that type of population. I think I have a broader audience in that and can make a larger difference in the community and society in general. So continue supporting elite athletes, continue allowing them to pursue their dreams, while also helping the larger picture of North America improving their health and wellness.

Jonathan: Certainly a profound and wonderful goal, Mike. Listeners, let’s all support Mike in his efforts to help us live a better life on a more macro and general scale. We can do so by checking him out at AthleticLab.com as well as chat with him on Twitter @MikeYoung. Mike, thank you so much for joining us today, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Mike: Thank you very much, Jonathan. I appreciate it.

Jonathan: Listeners, again, we’ve been talking with Dr. Mike Young. You can learn more about him at AthleticLab.com. Also check him out on Twitter @MikeYoung. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did. And please remember, this week, and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter and live better. Chat with you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Mike Young. In his own words:

“Mike is founder and owner of ELITETRACK and also the co-owner of Human Performance Consultingand Athletic Lab In his role as the Director of Sports Performance for HPC, Mike serves as the primary biomechanist and strength and speed coach. He currently trains athletes ranging from high school to professional in a wide variety of sports at his training center, Athletic Lab.Mike is also the coach of the HPC Elite Track Team whose members have or continue to include Dallas Robinson, Alonzo Moore, Allie Israel, Lamont Dagen, Tiina Magi, Babatunde Ridley, Tomika Ferguson, Eric Broadbent, John Strang, Joe Kindred, Brandon Roulhac and Nick Newman among others. In the clubs 4 years in existence, it has qualified 10 athletes for the USATF indoor national championships and had 5 athletes compete at their national Olympic trials (including 3 in the US). The team has placed at least one athlete in the finals of every U.S. track and field national championships since 2008 and has won 12 medals during this time.

Mike has an undergraduate degree in Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science degree in Athletic Administration and a PhD in Biomechanics. He has studied extensively in anatomy, physiology, sport psychology, motor learning, training theory and biomechanics. Mike has served as a graduate assistant jumps and multi-events coach at LSU and Ohio University before serving as the sprints and decathlon coach at Army and later at NCSU.

In his relatively short collegiate coaching career Mike has been on 6 NCAA National Championship staffs and coached athletes to eleven school records, 54 All-Time Top Ten performances, and 24 Conference Championships. He has been a guest at all three U.S. Olympic Training Centers as an athlete (Lake Placid), sport scientist (Colorado Springs and Chula Vista), and coach (Colorado Springs). Mike has worked with several Olympians, National Champions, and Collegiate National Champions in the sport of Track and Field. In addition to working with track athletes, Mike has also trained athletes from a variety of other sports. Mike has helped prepare numerous players for the NFL combine, most notably Bradie James (Dallas Cowboys) and Super Bowl Champion Marquise Hill (New England Patriots). He has worked as the speed and strength coordinator for the Carolina Railhawks and has recently taken over the role of first team conditioning coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS.

He has served as an instructor or adjunct professor at Ohio University, LSU, and the University of North Carolina and has lectured for the Chinese Track and Field Association, USA Speed Skating and the North Carolina Justice Academy. He has developed strength and conditioning programs for collegiate sports ranging from basketball to swimming. A Level 1, 2, and 3 Instructor for USA Track and Field, he also served as the Director of Technology, Biomechanics Chairperson, and Vertical Jumps Chairperson for USATF’s Coaches’ Education division from 2002-2010. Mike is certified as a USATF Level 1, 2, and 3 coach and is only one of two people to be a Level 3 instructor in three different event disciplines (sprints, throws, and jumps). In his role as a USATF Coaches Education instructor, Mike became the youngest Level 2 (at the age of 26) and Level 3 (at 28) instructor ever in the 25 year history of the program. On top of these duties, Mike is also the biomechanist for the United State’s men and women shot putters who are consistently ranked among the very best in the world.

His research on sprinting, balance, and throwing activities has been published and presented in Regional, National and International journals and conferences. In the field of strength and conditioning, Mike is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist as well as a certified USA Weightlifting Club Coach. He is well-versed in coaching the Olympic Lifts and creating specialized strength, speed and conditioning programs to help maximize the performance of any athlete.”