Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Our heart is the most involved muscle in the body and it’s often a limiting factor in our performance. But, for different types of athletes, the heart can be a limiting factor in different ways. The heart doesn’t just pump blood. It has to contract blood forcefully and it has to pump blood for a sustained period of time.
If it was a person it really would be the ultimate athlete, being able to have both strength and endurance. Because of this, we have to train it like the ultimate athlete. Don’t neglect training your heart, or your performance will suffer. And, chances are, even if you are an endurance athlete, you are doing it wrong.
Training Your Heart
Everything we do in our daily lives is somehow involved with our aerobic system.
And the engine of that system is the heart.
Day in and day out, your heart pumps blood through your body, allowing the delivery of every resource your body needs and the removal once they are no longer needed.
If you think about how much work your heart does, it’s astounding. It is the most worked muscle in your entire body and it affects everything you do.
How many times have you gone on a hike with friends and realized they’re a little more exhausted then they should be?
Maybe that was even you.
Or ever had the realization while playing a pickup game about how tired you were?
If you compete, have you ever seen the guys that are next to you walking around after a competition like nothing happened, while you keeled over on the floor, despite the fact that you performed about the same?
This all has to do with your heart.
The people that recover better, huffing and puffing less, and seem to have energy for days, all have a stronger heart muscle then you.
If you want to be able to smoke the competition, feel fresher and perform better, it’s time to start thinking about your heart.
Unfortunately, training our hearts is often an afterthought and even when it is trained, it’s often trained incorrectly.
So, the obvious question, how do you start training your heart?
Understanding The Basics Of Training Your Heart
Before we can determine how we individually need to train our heart, we need to know a few basics.
Our heart is affected drastically different depending on the activity it is forced to sustain.
Because it has a daily task of already pumping blood nonstop, it has already adapted to a high degree of work. This is true regardless of if you are an Olympic Athlete or a couch potato.
But, as we know, our body only greatest extent it needs to. And, we also know that the more we train the more our bodies are resistant to change.
If this wasn’t the case, we would all be world class athletes.
For our hearts, this is even more so.
If just doing more activity made a heart drastically stronger, then we would never have our heart feeling like it was exploding in our chest, we would never be out of breath, and our energy would be limited only by our ability to ingest food.
But, we know none of that is true just by being humans on earth.
The take away is that regardless of what your activity level is, unless you are constantly pushing your heart to new levels, your heart is at the minimum performance level needed to perform your daily activities.
Unless you train it, your heart is a limiting factor in your training and recovery.
If it’s not part of your daily (or a few times a week) activities, it won’t be forced to change.
So when you do an activity weekly or farther apart, it’s not getting better, and it’s never going to be.
Train Your Heart Often
Unlike most muscles in our body, the heart is worked all of the time, just like a workhorse.
It doesn’t get treated like racing horses which get pampered, get rest days and are prepared for the one day of competition.
It has to bring it’s A-game every day.
It’s great, because it will quickly ramp up to the training we apply to it.
It’s not great because it will also quickly detrain if the extra capacity isn’t needed.
This means not only do we have to train our heart, we have to train it hard and often.
Things only get better if they are stressed, used, and practiced. That’s the rule for pretty much everything in life.
This includes how you perform in extended stressed environments.
Lesson #1 for training your heart:
Train your heart hard and train it often.
The Method For Training Your Heart Matters
Our hearts adapt differently to different stressors. If you looked at a powerlifter’s heart, you would notice that the walls of their hearts are actually very thick.
This makes a lot of sense in hindsight.
Your body has to force blood into the muscles because it is rapidly needed, literally 0-100. This along with the fact that as your muscles swell, the veins actually get restricted. All of this leads to the requirement of the heart needing to develop more power.
Literally what happens is the addition of sarcomeres (protein filaments that contract in your muscle).
Just like when you train your arms or legs, the muscle is forced to apply more power and therefore it gets thicker to allow a more forceful contraction and push more blood into the muscle.
If you lift heavy, you know this by feeling light headed or dizzy after a hard deadlift or squat.
This is literally the result of your heart forcing blood into the muscles that need it, which in this case is not your brain.
Overtime, that same weight won’t give you that same feeling anymore.
The heart has gotten better at quickly moving blood.
A good example is if you have ever used a bellows before. You can make the air rush out forcefully by rapidly squeezing it with your hands.
A thicker heart is like making your hands squeeze harder.
But, if you made the bellows bigger, or you expanded the hole at which the air came out, you can get the same amount of air to come out, but with a lot less work
Just like with muscles, a stronger heart may allow you to perform things at a higher intensity, but it doesn’t train your body for sustaining that capacity.
In the body, we make the bellows bigger by building a bigger heart.
If you dissected a runner or cyclist’s heart, you’ll find that their hearts are physically bigger, not thicker.
Because they had to train their heart to operate and push blood over a sustained period of time.
This bigger heart allows more blood to be pumped over a sustained period of time, this is also called stroke volume.
Why Does This Matter?
As a power athlete (sprinting, lifting, throwing, etc.) gaining a bigger heart allows faster recovery in between your events, and better recovery in between training events by allowing more a less restricted resources get to your muscles throughout the day.
Also, as a bonus, when your muscles are forced to work longer, our body will actually grow more capillaries to allow the heart to pump more blood to the area, allowing more resources to reach more localized tissue.
If you are an endurance athlete, having the ability to rapidly force blood into an area arises every time you compete and every time you hit a hill.
How often have you been trying to force your way to a finish line while neck in neck with your rival and you feel your legs burning out?
When’s the last time you had to force your way up a hill to find your muscles starting to burn under the tension?
This is a sheer lack of resources and our heart’s ability to get them pumped to when and where needed.
Thicker heart muscles are also stronger heart muscles which makes the pumping of blood easier even in non-power activities.
An easy comparison is between cycling and squatting. If you take a cyclist who has a 100lb squat and it takes 10lbs to press a pedal and then boost his squat up to 200lbs, when he presses that 10lb pedal it’s now only 5% of his capacity as opposed to the 10% it was before.
Training Your Heart To Get Thicker
The best way to do this is to lift heavy weights. It’s almost impossible to simulate the sheer max overload that a heavy deadlift or squat puts on your muscles. But really it’s explosive events that consistently require a rapid need for resources to your muscle groups.
But, any near maximal explosive activities involving large body movements can be done the same as long as there is a way to apply progressive overload.
This can include box jumps, explosive pushups to height, vertical jumps, but preferably, squats, deadlifts, benching, and rapidly applied olympic lifts. All done with near maximal loads and complete recovery to ensure the heart is required to start from a dead stop (relatively).
Any decent lifting program will include these.
Training Your Heart To Be Bigger
This is done by the continued need of the heart to perform at a sustained max level. The more time your heart spends at a given workload the more the heart will expand its size to reflect the required stroke volume.
This is where steady state and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) comes in.
Yes, we can actually get the same affect from both HIIT and hard running. But, keep in mind that just like in lifting, volume is time under tension. So, HIIT if applied in extended sessions can increase your stroke volume, but the results will stagnate if progressive overload isn’t applied.
Crossfit type sports can be great at this if coached and programmed correctly, timed workouts that are consistently done with recorded times can be used to be compare between sessions, allowing you to quantify and find progress.
Alternatively, you can include aerobic training (rowing, swimming, cycling, sled dragging, etc. with increasing your distance and speed over time, forcing your heart to make physical changes.
Regardless of how you do this, the key is consistency.
More time at a higher required stroke volume will always lead to greater stroke volume.
The Wrap Up
If you want to be a better athlete and better functioning human, you have to build all of your abilities, lest they become limiting factors in your training.
We do this through the 80/20 principle. 80% of your effort on your sport and 20% of the activities that support it. This includes for building your heart.
If you are a strength athlete, make 20% of your training towards building that heart and gain all the other benefits that aerobic and HIIT comes with.
If you are an endurance athlete, train for 20% of your time training (more in the off season) lifting or explosive activities, and get your other training during the rest of it. You’ll also reap the rewards of looking better naked, being stronger, and making your runs faster.
Don’t neglect the most important muscle in your body, your health and ability to perform are at stake.