The Ex Phys Chronicles - Putting Science into Todays Exercise Programs.

JUNE  2014.      ARTICLE #1 – Intermittent muscular work, HIIT Training, and a nod to our elders.

One of the virtues of being in my profession for so long is that I can compare the things happening today with their origins.

Today we are seeing a glut of exercise routines such as P90 X and HITT and Cross Fit Games and people think that they’re new and innovative.  Most instructors, and EVERY student who partakes in these programs really have no idea of how they came about.  

For those of us who can go back long enough – we may remember the origins.  Back in the 40s and 50s, most runners, boxers and football players did “road work” in addition to their specific training drills.  The running built the base of conditioning and was a universal method for improving fitness. It may not have been the most efficient, but it is what athletes did.

Students of exercise science owe huge debt to Professor Per-Olof Astrand, who (in post WWII) developed some of the leading research in physiology, particularly in exercise physiology.  In 1960 he published a paper entitled “Intermittent Muscular Work”, which many in the field can trace to the beginning of the interval training program. The program consisted of testing one college athlete with a good VO2 max (62 ml/kg/min) on a bike protocol – increasing resistance until exhaustion. His breathing, heart rate and lactate were all measured at specific time points on the test.  His next exercise “bout” was in broken segments (intervals), where his workload protocol was the same, but he was allowed to rest for the same time he exercised (1:1 work to rest ratio).  His measurements were again checked at regular time points.  The interesting thing about his interval training protocol (ITP) was that for every time (1 min, 2 min, 3 min, etc.), his physiologic measures were lower – heart rate, O2, pulmonary ventilation, and lactate.  For those who are interested in these types of measures via today’s technology (Garmin stats, lactate meters), it seems that this basic test was the birthplace of the interval training program – used today for many types of fitness, sports, and post rehab programs throughout the country.  Astrand states that “one can divide the total amount of work into suitable periods in such a way that one can induce training of large muscle groups without simultaneously loading the respiratory and circulatory organs.  By choosing longer periods, one can obtain a high training effect also on respiration and circulation.  This is of interest not only for training athletes, but also for rehabilitation of patients during a recovery period”.

One program in particular that comes to mind is the WAIT protocol for cancer patients developed by Dr. Meryl Winningham.  Her stop-and-go method for training patients on bicycle ergometers is now a standard of training for many cancer wellness programs.

So the next time you perform your strength training circuit program, your HITT or Cross Fit, remember that it all started with a case study report in the late 1950s that set the stage for increasing the amount of external work performed while modulating the breathing, heart rate, and metabolic response.  Now get out there and do your repeats.


Astrand, I, Astrand, P-O, Christensen, EH, Hedman, R.  Intermittent Muscular Work.  Acta Physiol. Scand. 1960, vol. 48, 448-53.

Winningham, ML.  Effects of bicycle ergometry on functional capacity and feelings of control in women with breast cancer.  1983.  Doctoral dissertation, the Ohio State University Dept. of Nursing, Columbus, OH