Universal Exercise Theory

The field of fitness is full of theories that help us put together programs to improve our strength, endurance, and health. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one theory that was a universal truth that tied all the other theories together? I think I have come to the realization of such a universal theory. Let me explain, then let’s get some feedback.

My theory revolves around the point of conversion between aerobic and anaerobic energy. There is a point of intensity where anaerobic pathways begin to dominate and aerobic energy output decreases. I will call this the “anaerobic threshold.” This threshold can be viewed in two different ways. One is to look at the threshold for a particular muscle or group of muscles - at the micro-level. The macro-level looks at the body as the whole. At the macro-level this is similar to the lactate threshold or ventilation threshold (I will not argue the difference between the two, since it could be a lengthy discussion.)

My theory is simply this:

The higher one works above the anaerobic threshold (without becoming injured) the greater the adaptive responsive.

At the micro-level, this means pushing a muscle as hard as possible. At the macro-level this means pushing the entire body to the extreme.

While it seems like a simple theory, it has great explanative power. Bodybuilders and powerlifters become big because they lift heavy weights - far above the anaerobic threshold. Compound lifts provide more bang-for-the-buck because they push more muscle above the anaerobic threshold. Lifts like squats, deadlifts, and the olympic lifts caused the body as a whole to work above it’s anaerobic threshold. Even the pumping programs bodybuilders sometimes used can be explained - these push far above the anaerobic threshold not just through total tension, but time under tension. The whole goal of “pumping” being to accumulate lactic acid - a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism.

This theory explains why runners, cyclists, and swimmers find great gains when they incorporate sprints into their training. It explains the miracle of the Tabata protocol, which does not focus on time of exercise, but focuses on pushing the body as high above VO2 as possible.

The theory also explains why sprints, intervals, and complexes are so useful in building the body and burning fat.

If the theory is true, which I believe it is, I think it has immediate applications. The best type of training combines heavy, compound lifts with some form of interval training. Thought I would post to get some feedback on my idea.

Reading your post reminds me of being in my college exercise physiology class. The theory has valid points.

I just believe in keeping it simple.

  1. Progressive accommodating resistance
  2. Variation
  3. Listen to your body.



There is some legitimacy to what you’re saying, but I believe it is a tad too simplistic.

I think deadlifts, squats, and olympic lifts have they reputation they do because of their influence on the hormones. Hormones are the master regulator of body composition and performance.

I would agree that there is a relationship between anaerobic exercise and hormones, but it is not quite as simple as you make it. I can do low rep/heavy weight bench presses (an anaerobic exercise) and not have the same impact as low rep/heavy weight deadlifts. Both are anaerobic, but the latter have a more significant influence on hormones.

The above example proves that merely using “anaerobic exercise” as your standard is over-inclusive. I think you would be better off looking at the hormonal influence of exercise. This would also allow you to include some consideration of overtraining. You can overtrain on anaerobic exercises and performance and composition will regress because, again, you’ve mucked up your hormones.

Use hormonal influence as your guide. The anaerobic-aerobic distinction gets you moving in the right direction, but only half way.

I dont know all the exact causes for adaptation, but in “science and practice of strength training” there are a bunch of different theories as to why changes happen.

Since none of these scientific theories have been proven, I prefer a more practical theory.

Its much like yours.

The more work you can do in the shortest amount of time will require the most energy. The easiest way to achieve this, is by doing heavier weights, more repetitions and shorter rest periods.

If you currently can Squat 200lbs, and in a workout your able to do 25 reps (5x5) in 20 minutes.

Thats 5000 lbs / 20 minuts = 250lbs / minute

If you improve on any of the three areas while keeping the others constant, you are more fit. But if you improve on all three areas, then your really pushing your fitness.


You then do 250lbs 35 times in 15 minutes.

250x35=8750lbs lifted / 15 = 583 lbs/minute.

As you can see this would clearly require much more energy, and you would be in much better shape.

Its really as simple as that, but theres a few key points.

  1. It doesn’t work if you lower the weight to get more reps, because with less intensity there is less energy requirement per rep. Intensity is very important in this formula, so you must at least keep it the same or raise it.

  2. The three factors; intensity, reps, rest, are all inversely related, so its not as simple as just doing more. This is where every workout plan ever invented comes into play.

  3. Rather than just improving on one of the three factors, you should aim to improve on all of them. But there obviously will be times when you need to lower the intensity and do more reps, or take longer rest breaks because your raising the intensity.

In the end though, if your not improving on the three areas, your not improving your fitness and ability.

I think with as many systems as the body has, searching for one “universal” truth is not only futile, but misguided. I mean, what do you even mean by adapt? Neurological adaptation? If so, what kind? Higher total motor unit recruitment? More efficient synchronization of motor units? Increased rate of contraction? Or do you mean structural adaptation? If so, do you mean hypertrophy of sarcomeres, sarcoplasm, connective tissue? Do you mean bone remodeling? The list goes on and on, and trying to find any one factor which determines exactly what happens, where, and to what extent seems a pretty silly thing to do.