When my wife, Nikki, and I began kettlebell training back in 2008, we were introduced to high intensity interval training. We walked out of each class covered in sweat but loving every minute of it. And we could not believe the effectiveness of the workouts—both of us lost around twenty pounds in twelve weeks.
When Nikki and I then proceeded to become kettlebell instructor certified and to open our own kettlebell gym, we continued with the high intensity interval training (HIIT) program because it was the only way we knew to produce results for our clients who wanted to get stronger while losing unnecessary body fat. Our philosophy was that if it worked for us, then why not everyone?
We never questioned our methods because they were working. But what if I told you we discovered a better, safer way to train to get stronger and lose body fat? What if I told you that you can get just as good of results, if not better than HIIT with less effort?
A Little Nerdy Science
HIIT was based on the idea of high intensity work and/or incomplete rest breaks that significantly activate the anaerobic energy system known as glycolysis. A quick review of our energy systems:
Working in this energy system of anaerobic glycolysis results in a high hydrogen content in our body systems, which makes our bodies more acidic. We experience this acidity in “the burn” we feel when we work out at a high enough intensity for a long enough time. You may have experienced this feeling during a snatch test, somewhere around the two- or three-minute mark or at an accumulation of fifty to sixty snatches.
We can only train at this high intensity until we reach the point where we either need to reduce the intensity or rest. This is known as hitting our anaerobic threshold, also known as our lactate threshold (AnT or LT). This is the point where our body cannot produce enough energy based on the demands placed upon it. We can actually measure this by our heart rate at the time of AnT/LT. If we work our heart rate toward or past our AnT/LT, then over time our bodies adjust by increasing our AnT/LT via the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands).
The Maffetone Method
Dr. Phil Maffetone has forty years of research and clinical experience in maximizing aerobic function. He has trained the likes of Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a variety of Olympians, six-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon Champion Mark Allen, and many others in his system of achieving optimal performance by tapping into the body’s natural fat burning system.
Dr. Maffetone believes there is a more productive and less challenging way to improve AnT/LT and support fat as fuel than the HIIT strategy, as HIIT can be counterproductive toward results since the excessive buildup of hydrogen has a negative effect in our body. As Maffetone wrote:
“Anaerobic function creates higher levels of physical and biochemical stress, decreases immune function and muscle repair, increases inflammation, increases the risk of muscle injury and impairs fat-burning. These conditions are also associated with poor (or a lack of) recovery, and are common components of and contributors to the overtraining syndrome.”
Maffetone’s approach is based on having individuals work within their aerobic threshold (AeT). He defines the AeT as the intensity just before the beginning of the accumulation of hydrogen in the body. At this intensity, our body can handle the stress put upon it and use oxygen to create more energy.
This approach does require individuals to work up to this intensity to make any change to the aerobic system—but not go into glycolysis. The easiest way to determine your AeT heart rate is to use the equation of 180 minus your age. This is otherwise known as the maximum aerobic function heart rate (MAF HR).
Note: You can go to Maffetone’s website for a more detailed way to determine your MAT HR based on your age, health, and activity level.
After learning about this approach, I was intrigued by the idea of MAF HR and its potential benefits, but one problem kept circling in my brain. This strategy predominantly trained endurance athletes to a high level of performance, but would it work for my kettlebell class members and those other individuals who perform within other energy systems other than aerobic? The bulk of the articles I read used the MAF method during aerobic training (running and cycling). Could I use it in my kettlebell class?
Maffetone and StrongFirst
I began playing around with this concept using myself as the guinea pig. At this same time, StrongFirst published an article mentioning the use of the MAF method and StrongFirst’s evil genius, Craig Marker, PhD, did a groundbreaking study on using anti-glycolytic training along with StrongFirst principles where they helped to improve CrossFit athlete scores over traditional HIIT. The idea behind Dr. Marker’s study was to enhance the phosphagen and aerobic systems and that this would allow improvement of the AnT/LT by making the other systems more productive. Therefore, these athletes would only go into glycolysis when they absolutely needed to.
With all this positivity toward the MAF method, I began to program it with my kettlebell class members. The first week of MAF training, I briefly explained the three energy systems, gave examples of each system, and explained what glycolysis was and what the associated burn felt like. I asked my students to wear a heart rate monitor or take their pulse between exercises when performing circuits or swings. The intent was to stay in the MAF HR as much as possible.
What was astonishing was the self-limiting nature of the MAF method. The MAF HR told you if you were pushing yourself hard enough or too hard. Some individuals had to work harder than they were accustomed to, while others had to tone the intensity down. Over time, my kettlebell class members experienced an array of positive changes from this approach—increased strength, better energy, and increased fat loss. The funny thing was they felt like they were doing less in class than they were doing before. I was amazed myself by some of the changes in our students and how easy it was for them to achieve.
General Rules for Maffetone Method Training
To keep it simple, imagine you are performing only one exercise at a time (in fact, one of my MAF HR favorites is 10-15 minutes of get-ups followed by 10-15 minutes of swings).
What I have found works best is a gradual increase up to my MAF HR, which is a heart rate of 138. I want to make sure I adjust the load and reps so my heart rate does not go over 148 (MAF HR +10). What I have found is that if I am 150 or over, my swings aren’t as crisp and powerful. I chalk that up to hydrogen accumulation and my body working in glycolysis.
I have also found it best to start the next set once my heart rate drops down to 128 (MAF HR-10) and no lower. This helps me to maintain as much time near MAF HR during and right after work sets. But if I start the exercise before letting my heart rate get to 128, then I tend to go over MAF HR and into glycolysis.
Everyone may be different, but these are general guidelines that work well:
- Gradual increase up to MAF HR
- Start each exercise around MAF HR-10
- Adjust exercise variables to ensure you do not go over MAF HR +10
Programming the Maffetone Method with Kettlebell Classes
Here are some of the parameters that we found work best in our kettlebell class. We have class three times per week so the programming shows this, but you could work up to five days a week if you wanted. The approach we took to first ask the question, “What is the minimum we can perform with maximized outcomes?”
We did two types of workouts. One workout was heavy strength emphasis (phosphagen system) followed by a short circuit (MAF HR), and the other we called “sweaty mess” workouts. Here’s how it all worked.
First, pick one or two strength exercises you want to improve (example pull-ups and deadlift):
- If you pick only one exercise, then two days a week you do a sweaty mess and the other day you do strength.
- If you pick two strength exercises, then you have Strength A (one exercise) and a Strength B (other exercise) workouts along with your one sweaty mess workout.
- Strength day lifts take up the majority of the workout, but stay under 5 reps. Since the loads are high, staying 5 reps and under predominantly uses the phosphagen system and stays out of glycolysis (AnT/LT). At no time do we allow our students to feel the burn.
- For strength day finishers, pick two or three exercises. I typically pick something to get the heart rate elevated (swings, burpees, battling rope) followed by more of a grind (goblet squats, push-ups). The exercised should be sequenced so they do not compete with each other.
- For sweaty mess days, pick up to six to eight exercises that are in a non-competing sequence. Follow the same rules for strength day finishers, i.e. swings followed by a grind. These are also great days to work in right/left exercises. For example, repeat the following until you are a sweaty mess:
- Get-up Right
- Single Arm Swing Right
- Rack Squat Right
- Get-up Left
- Single Arm Swing Left
- Rack Squat Left
On sweaty mess days, I provide the following in this order:
- 5 minutes of specific warm-up (a.k.a. FMS correctives)
- 10 minutes of practice and instruction via a group warm-up
- 20 minutes of workout (MAF)
- 5 minutes of cool down (a.k.a. FMS correctives)
Doesn’t look like much, but there is a reason we call it sweaty mess!
For both sweaty mess workouts and strength finishers, the MAF method applies. What this means is students perform an exercise with a goal of 5-10 repetitions. As I stated before, students are not allowed to feel the burn at any time when exercising. Students must check their heart rate or perform a talk test before moving on to the next exercise.
We have found that fewer than 5 reps and more than 10 does not do a good job of getting you into MAF HR. (Get-ups are different as the exercise is more about time under tension rather than reps.)
- If students are not getting up to MAF HR by 10 reps, then they are asked to go heavier or perform a more challenging version of the exercise.
- If students go way over the 180-minus-age HR, then they are asked to rest longer, adjust reps down to 5, or adjust the weight or version of the exercise.
Again, the positive effect of MAF HR is that it is very self-limiting and specific to the individual. I had students who started their workouts two-arm swinging a 16kg and ended with a 28kg! In this situation, their body already had a high aerobic threshold, but to challenge it to make positive adaptations, they needed more weight. On the other side, some students started out swinging the 24kg and had to move down to the 16kg due to their high heart rate. These type of individuals are classic glycolysis calorie burners. With this individual, we need to make a change from working in the anaerobic glycolysis system and burning sugar to aerobic work and burning fat. This will only occur if the athlete does less and stays within MAF HR.
Our Results From the Maffetone Method
Once we got going on this approach, the fat just started falling off our people! We were putting out less effort, yet getting better results because we were enhancing our body’s energy systems. In addition, staying out of glycolysis helps us stay out of situations where poor form could come into play. On top of all that, not long after we started this program, we did the Tactical Strength Challenge—and our people set personal records on their deadlift and snatch test. In short: strength went up, endurance improved, and body fat went down.
When we began the MAF HR training, she committed to the programming 100%. At this time, we had also begun a four-week paleo challenge, where members used a point system to determine compliance toward their nutrition.
The combination of the paleo challenge and the MAF HR training produced the following results for Sherri:
As of last week, we retested Sherri’s body fat and it was down to 43.9%. She is no longer on the paleo challenge but she is very consistent with her MAF training! What MAF training allows is more consistent sustainable results.
Try This Approach and See What Happens
Once again, you can get better results for yourself or your clients by staying with these simple rules. Understand the why behind what you are doing before you perform the what. Set a goal, stay the course, and track your progress.
If you get the feeling you are not doing enough, don’t worry. That is the whole idea! We do less but we achieve much, much more. Spend as much time in MAF HR as possible and get all the benefits with no negative side effects.