Why do you need electrolytes? How do you do plyometrics? And what the heck is lactic acid? We've decoded the most confusing fitness terms out there
You may have heard certain terms a thousand times, probably even done some of the workouts and training methods. But do you really know why plyometrics are so good for you? What EPOC stands for, and why it puts your calorie burn into overdrive? Do you know the proper term for that hit-the-wall feeling on your long runs and rides?
In the slides ahead, fitness experts decode 14 fitness buzzwords that will help you better understand your workout, your body, and exercise in general.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise as close to your max effort as possible, followed by a lower intensity recovery period, explains Greg Moore, a certified strength and conditioning coach at St. Vincent Sports Performance Center in Indianapolis, IN. There's no specific formula, but most workouts involve a 2:1 ratio of work to recovery (i.e., 40 seconds of sprinting followed by 20 seconds of jogging or walking, repeated) and can be applied to any combination of exercises, including cardio and strength training. Pushing your body so hard and fast means you can save time with a shorter workout and still score the increased metabolism and fat burn. (Find out more: 8 Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).)
Whereas HIIT can be any combination of high and low intensity intervals, Tabata is always eight rounds of 20 seconds of very high intensity efforts followed by 10 seconds of recovery, explains Malcolm Majesky, athletic conditioning specialist for Ohio State University Sports Medicine. The method was created by professor Izumi Tabata in Japan in the ‘90s when he found that athletes who performed this four-minute HIIT routine five days per week had better VO2 max and fat burning abilities than those who exercised at a lower level consistently, for longer. (Try one of these 10 New Fat-Blasting Tabata Workouts.)
The fitter you are, the better your cardiovascular system (blood circulation) and respiratory system (oxygen circulation) can supply oxygen to your working muscles, and the better your muscles are at absorbing it. The efficiency of this process directly impacts your body’s ability to sustain prolonged exercise, determining your fitness level.
Your maximal volume of oxygen (VO2 Max) is a measure of your heart, lungs, and blood’s capacity to deliver oxygen to your working muscles, as well as the capacity of your muscles to take up and use oxygen during a workout, de Milly explains. Your VO2 Max is a great measure of your fitness abilities, but it’s mostly determined by genetics. The type of muscle fibers you have, as well as the structure and function of your cardiorespiratory system are all determined by your genes, which is why some people are naturally better at certain sports, de Mille says. Training can influence your VO2 Max by up to 15 percent, though, Moore adds, adding that your best chance is to incorporate short, high intensity workouts.
Reaching EPOC during your workout is the key to burning fat and torching calories even after you've left the gym. If you work out hard enough, your body has a hard time replenishing the energy stores used during the exercise. This causes your metabolism to stay in overdrive even after you’re back in your daily routine, a state known as Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), or “the afterburn.” EPOC has nothing to do with how long you’re sweating for, Moore explains, but instead how hard you’re working—reaching at least 70 percent of your max heart rate will put you in the afterburn state at the gym and allow you to reap the all-day EPOC benefits.
You may have guessed from the name, but this target heart rate is the ideal range for your heart rate to fall into during exercise. This number changes depending on your goal of working out: You might have a target zone for improving your fat-burning capacity, another zone for raising your lactate threshold, and yet another for raising your VO2 Max, says Polly de Mille, clinical supervisor at Tisch Sports Performance Center. And everyone’s target heart rate is different depending on your age, weight, and fitness level. First, find your max heart rate with the formula (208 – (0.7 x age). For simply improving your cardiovascular fitness, you want to stay within 50 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, Moore adds. That means if you're 30 years old, your max is 187 and your target heart rate is between 93 and 160 beats per minute.
This is the lower end of your target heart rate—around 60 percent of your max. And while the fat burning zone sounds like where you’d want to be, this actually isn’t ideal for weight loss. Calorie burning happens at a higher intensity, Moore explains. The fat burning zone is ideal for performance though, de Mille points out. Running a marathon will require burning about 3,000 calories to burn, and since we only store about 1,500 in carbohydrates, athletes need to tap into their fat storage. If you train to become a better fat burner (i.e. keep your heart rate around 60 percent of your max), you can spare your precious carbohydrate stores, use fat as fuel, and avoid hitting a wall, de Mille explains.
Every woman wants to get long and lean but, anatomically, it’s actually impossible to change your body shape, Moore says. Because of how muscles are inserted at the joint, and the length of the tendons attaching the muscle to the bone, your muscles can’t be lengthened, he adds. Lifting weight and burning fat can, however, lead to more sculpted curves and reveal the natural shape of your bones and muscles. Toning, in essence, is about shedding fat and sculpting, not necessarily bulking up, de Mille says.
Functional fitness is meant to help strengthen your muscles to support and improve movements you do every day, Majesky explains. That’s why all the moves of functional training mimic the foundational motions of every day life—squatting, pushing, pulling, reaching, lifting. Plus, these kind of workouts burn a lot of calories since so many muscles are engaged with a single move. (Especially these 7 Functional Fitness Exercises.)
Cross training is all about balancing your main sport with another—runners should take up yoga, swimmers should hit the weights. And while this does help train your supporting muscles, the real purpose behind varying your workout is to avoid injury. Cross training gives the body a break from the same repetitive stresses of a single sport which can otherwise lead to injury, says de Mille. Plus, incorporating a different workout will actually make you better at your main sport since it trains your body to move more efficiently as a whole system, Moore adds. (Try The Ultimate Strength Workout for Runners or Cross-Training: Strength Moves Every Cyclist Needs.)
High-impact exercises are running, hopping, jumping rope, and plyometrics. Low-impact exercises include walking, biking, and swimming. Moves that require both feet to leave the ground are high-impact, and moves that keep one foot on the ground at all times are low impact, Majesky says. High-impact exercises are almost always harder, but will burn more calories because they engage more muscle groups. While we all typically opt for higher calorie burn, Moore suggests balancing this with some lower-impact exercises to avoid injury.
This category includes moves like box jumps, hops, skipping, throwing—all exercises intended to have your muscles rapidly stretch (jumping up) then rapidly contract (landing) over and over, Moore explains. The goal? Greater explosive power and better neuromuscular coordination. (Try our Step-It-Up Plyometric Workout.)
You need a proper balance of electrolytes for your muscles to contract and relax properly, but this mineral leaves your body along with sweat, de Mille says. That means that after a hard workout, you need to replenish your electrolyte stores so your body can recover properly. And while coaches love Gatorade, there are other options to get the mineral back in your system. (Ask the Diet Doctor: Restoring Electrolytes.)
Lactate, also called lactic acid, is a substance that builds up in the muscles during strenuous exercise. Technically a byproduct of incomplete breakdown of carbohydrate, lactic acid is metabolized fairly easily during a low-intensity workout. As your workouts get harder, though, your body starts to produce more lactic acid in the active muscles, eventually reaching a speed where you’re producing it too quickly for your body to metabolize, de Mille explains. The lactic acid begins to build up, causing your muscles to fatigue and inhibiting them from working properly, which is when that “hit a wall” feeling every endurance athlete experiences kicks in. (That's also why you need to recover and foam roll after an intense workout, because this helps flush out the lactic acid build up.) This muscle exhaustion is your lactate threshold, and is an important component of your fitness level because, while most people reach their lactate threshold at 45 to 65 percent of their VO2 Max, it improves with your workout dedication and training, she adds.