The Training Plan to Boost Your VO2 Max

Fit folks live for benchmark numbers⁠—1RM, PRs, body fat percentage. Perhaps the most braggable stat available, though, is your VO2 max.

Technically speaking, this is the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a marker of just how fit you actually are. “You want the biggest VO2 max as humanly possible, since this number defines how intense a workout your body can handle. The higher the number, the harder and longer you can go in a workout,” says San Diego-based trainer Matt Pippin, CSCS, founder of Pippin Performance.

Generally, fit guys will be between 42.5 (good) and 52.5 (superior) in their 20s, 41 to 49.5 in their 30s, and 39 to 48.1 in their 40s.

Now, traditionally, your VO2 max is determined by a treadmill test where you’re hooked up to a ventilator, run at different paces, and a machine measures how much oxygen you consume with each breath, then how much of that oxygen your body uses to fuel your exercise.

But a recent study reports this coveted stat may be right at your fingertips: The Fitbit Charge 2 is able to measure your VO2 max on average within 10 percent of the accuracy of a full-blown treadmill test, says research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

However, the reality is, bragging rights are just about all that number delivers. Because while your VO2 max rates your potential, it’s really the other numbers that come out of a treadmill test you want⁠—namely, at what pace and heart rate you hit both your aerobic threshold (where you burn carbs for fuel) and your anaerobic threshold (where you start burning fat for fuel).

These numbers allow you to craft a hyper-personalized training plan for pretty much whatever goal you have⁠—improving cycling endurance, mobilizing fat stores, but mostly, becoming the fittest and most efficient athlete you’re capable of being.

The Problem With Not Knowing Your Numbers

Most gymgoers train in the “dead zone” of their heart rate⁠—the space above their aerobic threshold but below their anaerobic threshold, Pippin says. A lot of fit folks end up here because it’s moderately difficult, you get a great sweat, and feel like you accomplished something⁠. But it’s kind of like going into the weight room and benching the same weight week after week—you still feel a “pump,” but you’re not really improving anything, he says.

What’s more, it actually creates new problems: “Training in the dead zone will make your aerobic threshold really low (around 100 bpm) and your anaerobic threshold reasonably high (like 155–170 bpm),” Pippin says. “Even if you feel like you’re working hard, getting a great sweat, you’re essentially spinning your wheels when it comes to progress.”

How to Craft a Training Plan Based Off Your VO2 Max Test

Head to a performance center or physical therapy office to get the treadmill test done. It’ll only set you back $100 to $250, but without the personalized numbers, you’re essentially running blind and simply guessing, Pippin says.

When you get a VO2 max test done, look at your aerobic and anaerobic threshold. If there’s more than 30 bpm between the two numbers, your first goal is to close that:

For six to eight weeks, your training regimen should be focused on slow cardiovascular exercise at just below your aerobic threshold, Pippin says. Train at this heart rate for 60 minutes, four to six times a week. Additionally, one day a week, crank your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for a HIIT routine or spin class for 30 to 45 minutes.

After six to eight weeks of the above, or if your numbers are already within 30 bpm of one another, you’re ready to start building a bigger engine with VO2 max–specific training.

Warning: The below is incredibly uncomfortable. But after four to six weeks, Pippin reassures, you’ll be more capable of crushing both long runs and brutal WOD⁠s. Keep it up for 8 to 12 weeks and you should have a 10 percent higher VO2 max stat to brag about.

The VO2 Max Training Plan

Directions: Complete 60 minutes of slow endurance work at your aerobic threshold 3 to 4 times a week. Then, 1 to 2 times a week, do one of the following:

Workout 1:

Perform 3 rounds 20–40 seconds of maximal intensity effort, followed by 1–3 minutes of rest (or when your heart rate falls between 110 and 130 bpm). That’s 1 set. For the first two weeks, stick to 1 set, then progress to 2 sets with 8–10 minutes of rest between the two. Do this on an assault bike, versa climber, or on a track (sprints).

Workout 2:

Perform 3 rounds of 90–120 seconds of maximal intensity effort, followed by 1–2 minutes of rest. That’s 1 set. For the first two weeks, stick to 1 set, then progress to 2 sets with 4–6 minutes of rest between the two. Try this on an assault bike, versa climber, or on a track (sprints).

Workout 3:

Perform 5–6 rounds of 7–10 seconds of maximal intensity effort, followed by 2–5 minutes of rest (or when your heart rate hits below 120 bpm). That’s 1 set. For the first two weeks, stick to 1 set, then progress to 2 sets with 8–12 minutes of rest between the two. Do this on an assault bike, versa climber, or via explosive pushups or jump squats.

Workout 4:

Perform 10–12 rounds of 10–15 seconds of maximal intensity effort, followed by 20–60 seconds of rest. (Each 10–12 round equals 1 set.) For the first two weeks, stick to 1 set, then progress to 2 sets with 8–10 minutes of rest between the two. Try this on an assault bike, versa climber, or via explosive pushups or jump squats.

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