Understanding Why “Less Is More” with Anti-Glycolytic Training

In the current culture of the fitness world, it seems that taking extended rest periods or working at an intensity level that is less than maximum is considered a waste of time. However, there are many in the fitness industry who are making a case for a more measured approach to strength and conditioning training. None more so than Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel’s latest set of principle based training protocols, called Strong Endurance™, paints a picture of a world in which we can train at a level that may seem blasphemous to some and too good to be true to others. But, by following the principles laid out by Strong Endurance™, improvements in endurance or conditioning can be see more quickly and much more safely than with many of today’s popular methods. Let’s explore why.

slc swing

The Problems with Glycolytic Training

Many of today’s popular training approaches use metabolic conditioning (metcons), the most well known example being high intensity interval training (HIIT), which uses primarily the glycolytic energy system (more on this system below). These are intervals that have a high energy output for short to medium work sets followed by a short rest before repeating the set. These are the sessions that make you want to throw up, make your muscles feel like they are going to burst into flames, and make it difficult to climb the stairs to change out of your training clothes.

The issue with primarily using the glycolytic system for extended periods of time—both over the duration of a training session, and especially day in and day out—is all the metabolic waste this system produces. This waste can present itself as that burning in the muscles that has become so coveted, but in fact can be quite detrimental to our progress and health, as we will see in a minute.

That isn’t to say that this style of training doesn’t have its place, but it lies mostly in the realm of your peaking cycle. The take-home message here is that physical training that exploits this high waste energy system doesn’t create a favorable internal environment to see the best results.

So, what is the alternative? Enter “anti-glycolytic training.”

Anti-glycolytic training (AGT) protocols are just like they sound—training approaches that avoid relying on the glycolytic system. It can be extremely helpful to understand the science behind why these protocols are so effective. And you don’t have to have a degree in cellular biology to understand it—a basic understanding is sufficient.

Note: That said, if you want an in-depth and comprehensive explanation of the science behind this approach I strongly recommend you attend a Strong Endurance™ course. It is by far some of the best time and money I have ever spent in my fitness career, and that includes the time and money spent on post-secondary education.  

Understanding Where Your Energy Comes From

Essentially all human movement is powered by a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Your body is supplied with ATP by three energy systems: the ATP/CP system, glycolysis, and the oxidative system. It is common to refer to ATP as “energy currency.” So, let’s think of ATP as money, and your energy systems as where you get the cash to buy your movement.

Pocket Cash (ATP/CP)

Your first energy system is the ATP/CP system. It is the most powerful, first and quickest to respond but it only lasts about thirty seconds. This is your walking around money, the money in your pocket. It is stored in your muscles and liver for everyday activities like brushing your teeth or climbing the stairs to go to the bathroom, to run for the bus, or away from a tiger—whatever you need “instant energy” for.

The drawback with this energy system is that our “pockets”—the storage tanks in our muscles—are small and we run out of money very quickly. This means if the bus driver doesn’t see you and you have to run an extra block or two, your “pockets” will run out of “cash” quickly and will need to be topped up in order for you to keep running.

This brings us to the next energy system, glycolysis.

Credit (Glycolysis)

The second system is called glycolysis. This system isn’t as powerful as the ATP/CP system, but it lasts a little longer, around two minutes. It can refill our energy pockets quickly, but the speed with which it gets the energy-producing job done comes at a cost. Glycolysis makes a huge metabolic mess by leaving behind a lot of waste by-products that will have to be cleared (paid off) from the muscles and blood stream. Let’s call this waste “debt.” This debt is the burning you feel in your muscles during certain training intervals and it must be paid off in order for work to continue.

The burning sensation in your muscles is just that—burning. This burn is caused by the build-up of hydrogen ions (H+) or metabolic waste. This has come to be referred to as “acidity” in the muscles. It’s not that your muscles fill up with acid during this time, but the abundance of H+ ions lowers the pH of the muscle.

Think about it as debt rising more quickly than you can pay it off. This high debt (or low pH) environment causes many undesirable effects, including:

  • Slowing the creation of more ATP (deceased enzyme function)
  • Causing damage to cells (creation of reactive oxygen species or free radicals)
  • Extending the time it takes to recover from your training sessions

Now, for sessions longer than two to three minutes, we cannot count on either the ATP/CP system or glycolysis, and must instead rely on the use of oxygen, which brings us to the oxidative system.

The Money Tree (Oxidative)

The third system is the oxidative system. It produces the lowest amount of power, but is extremely efficient, very “clean,” and can potentially go forever. In fact, as long as the body is properly fueled, other parts in your body will give out before this energy system does.

This energy system is that pool of money we all wish we had, the money tree. Under the right circumstances, it’s endless and will keep our energy pockets overflowing. This is the system that gets you through marathons, triathlons, or that three-hour walking tour. All that is required is a lower over-all energy output and oxygen.

While my analogy simplifies things, hopefully it also brings some clarity. It’s also important to understand that in reality all of these energy systems work together at the same time and there isn’t a hard line when one stops and the next one takes over, but depending on the level and duration of your energy output one system will be called on more than the others.

How AGT Works and an Example Workout

Once we have an understanding of where our energy comes from and how it’s produced, we can start to break down how this relates to anti-glycolytic training.

Essentially, AGT focuses on training bouts that push the ATP/CP system (pocket money) right to the edge of its capacity, but stopping the bout before glycolysis (debt) kicks in fully, basically avoiding the burn. You will then rest long enough to allow your ATP pockets to recover and then repeat the bout. This is done for a prescribed number of minutes, based on the goals of the training session or the protocol you’re following.

The game changer about this approach is that, after not too long, the recovery of the ATP/CP system becomes the job of oxidative system (the money tree). You spend all the money in your pocket by creating an oxygen deficit in your body causing the need to breathe heavier to allow work to continue, and then rest, to allow the money tree (oxidative system) to refill your pockets and then go on another short spending spree.

A quick and easy example of this style of training is “on the minute” training (OTM). Start your watch and do 10 swings, rest for the remainder of the minute, then at the top of the next minute preform 10 more swings. Repeat this process for the prescribed or desired amount of time. This will give you 10-15 seconds of hard work followed by 45-50 seconds of rest, and ensures there is a favorable environment in the body to allow for repeated bouts of work for extended periods of time.

FTL swings

This approach has been shown to be a superior way to train muscular and cardiovascular endurance, but citing the research is beyond the scope of this article. As I said, Mr. Tsatsouline has put together an amazing course with a comprehensive manual full of research, and I wouldn’t dare to attempt to replicate it. If you are interested in more info, you know what to do.

However, it should make good intrinsic sense that going into debt every set of every training session can’t be a good thing—and therefore using a training approach that prevents a buildup of debt is key.

How to Incorporate Anti-Glycolytic Training

It can be very simple to work AGT into your practice sessions. Here are three guidelines to follow:

  1. First and foremost, avoid the burn.
  2. Follow your strength training program (that also doesn’t have you going to failure, right? If you’re not sure how to set up this style of strength training, all the info you need is located on StrongFirst.com). Then, two to three days per week, follow your session with 10 kettlebell swings on the minute for 10 minutes. Don’t aim to get smoked or destroyed over these 10 minutes. Instead, focus on crisp, powerful swings followed by breathing and fast and loose drills. See how quickly you can recover. Try to make each set as easy as possible—not as hard as possible.
  3. On one or two other days per week, go for a run, ruck, cycle, or row. Choose a distance or time that is realistic for your current fitness level and work at a pace that allows you to breathe through your nose the whole time.

Try this approach for one month and I’m sure you will find improvements in your endurance and more enjoyment in your training, with a far less risk of injury.

Less Really Can Be More with Anti-Glycolytic Training

In our culture of “if some is good, more is better,” we have become so dependent on “feeling” like we had a good training session, that we’ve forgotten what it actually feels like to have had a good training session.

Pain, discomfort, and failure while training are as undesirable as spending more money than you have in your pockets every time you go out. It feels good to buy or do all those cool things in the moment—but then the bill comes and you have to pay.

On the other hand, understanding that it doesn’t take long for our ATP pockets to fill back up from set to set and from session to session—especially when we don’t have a bunch of debt to pay off first—that we can keep the output of our intervals at a reasonable level and really start to see some serious progress.

For more information on these types of programs, come to All-Terrain Conditioning™—a two-day course in applied Strong Endurance™ techniques that also focuses on the movements needed to complete these protocols.

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Matt Kingstone
SFG I
Matt has been teaching fitness in Victoria BC Canada since 2010, is the owner of King Cobra Fit and Co-Founder of the Victoria Hardstyle Kettlebell Club. Always striving to add to his base of knowledge, Matt started working with Kettlebells in 2011, since then has completed the SFG I Certification, attended the Strong Endurance Weekend in Portland and is a Certified Indian Club Instructor through Flexible Steel International.
When Matt is not working with members of the Canadian Armed Forces or teaching men and Women of all ages to get stronger, he is working on honing his craft. You can find him swinging Bells, Clubs and Maces anywhere it is appropriate and some places it isn’t.

Contact Matt at King Cobra Fit or on the StrongFirst forum.

41 thoughts on “Understanding Why “Less Is More” with Anti-Glycolytic Training

  • Thanks for the great article!

    Is there a book in the works on StrongEndurance(TM)? Pretty please? There is simply no way I can participate in a StrongEndurance(TM) course within the foreseeable future.

  • Your article is appreciated. I think Strongfirst is having some difficult getting the basic concept across, even on this forum. So AGT is compatible with the findings of this study and similar ones https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/well/move/the-best-exercise-for-aging-muscles.html? that state the benefits of hard effort. It would be useful for Strongfirst to more clearly address the difference with HIIT (without giving away the commercial details from the proprietary system). We can summarize it as just two key components. 1. work that is no longer than 10-15 seconds. 2. Followed by sufficient recovery to come back to similar ability to repeat the output with only a minor decrease in performance. Repeat. If form or performance start to drop noticeably then stop. HIIT studies seem to indicate that intense effort benefits mitochondria, but the PlanStrong view is that it might damage mitochondria if used on an ongoing basis as the workout protocol. Is this accurate? I am thinking of attending PlanStrong, and I am interested in the science of aging.

  • Great Article Matt.

    Couple of questions.

    1) The article says “The game changer about this approach is that, after not too long, the recovery of the ATP/CP system becomes the job of oxidative system (the money tree)”. You said ‘after not too long’. Does this mean that, the recovery of the ATP/CP system takes a few session to get to this state? And not day 1?

    2) Could OTM training be glycolytic ? I think it was for me when I was swinging kettelbells. I had to wait longer to recover. Question is does i have to be every 60 seconds. Instead it should be every interval (60 or 90 or 120 seconds for example)? Or keep the interval same and choose a lower weight?

    Thank you.

    • Thank you very much Abdul,

      The answer to your first question is would be more like a few minutes rather than a few sessions. Your Oxidative system ramps up after a few minutes of exercise.

      and yes OTM training could become a glycolytic session. Longer working sets or high output like with a heavy bell could lead to the session becoming glycolytic. The key is in the rest time.

      Your intervals don’t have to be 60 seconds, they can be whatever timing that allows for sufficient recovery time to ensure each working set is crisp, powerful. They don’t even really have to be timed, you can go off of “feeling”, start the next set when you feel recovered and ready to go.

  • I’m sorry but isn’t this just interval training the way it’s supposed to be done? If memory serves, every protocol I have seen for interval training recommends a 1:2-4 work to rest ratio. How is that not what we are seeing described above in this methodology?

    I’m not trying to bash anyone/anything here but Crossfit and “tabatas” which aren’t real tabatas by the way, have really screwed with our idea of what “metcon” should be and look like.

    • You’re not wrong, in that it’s a series of intervals of max/near max exertion followed by a distinct rest. The key difference between AGT and many other training methods that fall under the “interval” umbrella is the length of the work sets and the level of recovery. The sets are usually between 10-20 seconds long, and rests are long enough to (mostly) restore CP. These two things allow the work to largely be fueled by CP. Repeated sets of 1 minute max effort and 4 minutes rest would still be interval training, but it would not be AGT due to the amount of glycolysis occuring.

    • Read about training zones in the work of Mike Prevost (an active member of our forum, btw) or in the book Running Formula (and I’m sure there are other good sources as well). It can be subtle business , e.g., you may be able to do a certain kind of interval on 1:1 but take 5 seconds off the quarter mile time and you’ll need to switch to 1:4-5. There is no such thing as simply interval training – your HR/pace/RPE matter, and the details matter, and precision in doing the math matters.

    • Thanks for saying this, the real “Tabata” workouts were VERY specific (cycling at 170 Vo2 max, 20 sec on, 10 sec off for 4 minutes, so hard that most not competing at a high level endurance sport would never repeat again. Done on a bike, 2-3 times per week , in addition to several LSD sessions per week. A very controlled training block, not this random crap that is so prevalent today.

  • Hey Matt, thanks for the great article.

    I did a combination of A+A/S&S style AGT training for a full year from Dec 1st 2016 through to Nov 30th 2017, averaging 500 swings/snatches a week before taking a ten week break over the winter. The break really illustrated how much energy I had through the year – it dropped of quite quickly after 6 or 7 weeks and everything else got a bit harder.

    The two big things I learnt were:

    (i) Recover to a target heart rate. I use HR-120, the important thing to remember is that you’re training the replenishment process not trying to squeeze out lots of reps on the minute, so you need to give your “pocket change” whatever time it needs to replenish, and..

    (ii) Be happy to use a “lighter” bell a lot of the time. I made the most consistent progress with lots of light swing days and one heavier snatch session a week. This might apply more to slightly older athletes.

    My year covered everything from recovering from back surgery, training for a marathon to periods with extreme work stress. I believe the two observations above hold true whatever the context.

    I’ve been back to A+A in the last two weeks and already have a spring in my step.. 🙂

    • Thanks very much for sharing that Danny,
      I agree with both of your observations.
      I hope your recovery from back surgery is going well.

  • I’m not a Strong First Coach, but I’m a Primal Health Coach, CrossFit Coach, Coach of our Hells Bells & Beasts KettleBell Club. I have Athletes from a teenage, he has his appointment to the USAF Academy for this summer, thru athletes in their late 60s. I use this method of as I too call it “less is more.” So how do we as KettleBell Athletes compare to CrossFit Athletes? It’s the 2018 CrossFit Open season and we do barbell work but not like the CrossFitters; barbells where it helps us but all my athletes know the proper technique for all the Olympic lifts. We performed in the upper half for 18.1 (see the CrossFit website for workout details.) This morning we did 18.2 which is a ladder 1-10 of double dumbbell squats and burpee jump over barbell and if you finish before 12 minutes then you set a 1 RM Clean. Many of the CrossFitters did not finish the ladder BUT over half of our KettleBells finished the ladder in 10 minutes or less and set 1 RM Cleans before the 12 minute time cap. Bragging, yes a little but more so to say the “less is more” technique works no matter if you are 17 to 69 years old. Now let it be said; we do lots and lots of double kettlebell squats, it foundational. Reference the EMOM (Every Minute On the Minute) and other variations like Danish Intervals at our TW (our Tactical Weight is double kettlebell strict presses where failure happens at the 8th rep) is our training weight. We test and record our TW monthly on Wodify along with other training benchmarks.. Our recovery rest, is to schedule more than 8 hours a night of sleep). Hardest training day is Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are “less is more”. We take Thursday, Saturday and Sunday off except we recommend stretching the Pavel way and easy hikes at our local parks. For nutrition, we push PRIMAL. We use dietdoctor.com , clean nature food at the LCHF (Low Carbohydrate High Fat) approach. By definition we are oxidative fat burner and not sugar burners, That puts beer off the menu but we do wine (a little) on the weekend. Thanks for great article and StrongFirst ON!!!!

    • This is great, thank you for sharing! I too found that when I coached and competed at elite levels in Crossfit , using ‘less is more’ in my training always produced superior results, easy victories and no injuries or overtraining, to the huge surprise from other athletes and coaches. These principles are so sensible, I was very happy to read that a fellow Crossfit coach is using them. Good luck to you and your athletes in the rest of the Open!

  • Great article!! I’ve been trying to wrap my head around AGT, and this helps a lot!!! Of course, I’m looking at day 3 (heavy) of Geoff Neupert’s KB Muscle…which is definitely a glycolytic routine!!! But good to understand the differences/benefits of each.

  • Great article! How would the AGT concpet fit into the Rite of Passage swings/snatches, (after press ladders)? Specifically, the heavy day calls for swings at 100% effort, which could either mean as many reps as possible, rest, repeat for time (dice roll), or could it mean 100% explosiveness and only as many reps as can be maintained with 100% explosiveness, then resting 4x as long as it took before repeating? I believe the medium and light RoP swing/snatch days would already be characterized as AGT (?)

    • Thanks a lot Sean,
      A good guide to use is as soon as you notice your power drop off, its time to rest. I think “as many as you can do in the allotted time” also means “as many as you can do in the allotted time while observing correct and safe exercise protocol”. Your rest periods can be as long as needed to ensure max power output. Maintain a log or tracking to see improvements in power output duration and perceived exertion.
      Having said that, I would defer to the protocols laid out in the program itself as RoP was designed with particular goals in mind.

  • I’d be interested to see an athlete train under AGT and compete in the CrossFit Games. Compare the two methodologies. Alot is said against those training methods and get it, it seems to destroy your body, but their performances speak for themselves.

  • Great article Matt! Very good explanation of Strong Endurance and anti-glycotic training.

  • I will give this a try. At 73 my last SFG Level2 left me really worn down. I’ve constantly trained with either S&S or the Basic ETG protocol of 12 minutes of swings with a minute rest between sets. I would do sets of 60/30/30/30/ with a 24k at a body weight of 130lbs.
    It’s getting harder and harder to keep that up. I am going to try this gentler approach.
    Thanks
    Drj

  • Awesome Explanation is right, Sean. Beautiful simple example with the swings, especially for older men (60) like myself which seems to take longer to recover.
    Thank You

  • Awesome explanation of the Strong Endurance and AGT! Been using it since the course this summer and loving it.

    Thanks for articulating the system in a way for others to better understand. Genius using money as the example!

    Take care

    Sean

    • Thank you very much Sean,

      It was a great course, I’m happy to share my view on the protocols!

    • Thank you Al,
      Yes if you are following S&S as a training protocol (ie swings are OTM and, depending on the challenge of the bell used, OT90Sec or so, for the getups) then it falls into AGT. Ensuring all reps are crisp, powerful and solid allowing the appropriate rest to accomplish this. Remembering that the Simple standard and the Sinister Standard are only “tested” occasionally (ie yearly).

  • Fantastic article!!!

    I used this method to prepare for my last re-certification.

    It was the “easiest” I’d ever trained for conditioning, and also the “easiest” Snatch Test of the 6 I have done since 2009.

    • Thank you very much Steve,
      I’m looking forward to seeing how the TSC in April goes after following a SE protocol. It is great to hear of so many people experiencing the difference AGT can make.

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